Antigravity

Tagged: Theme

The idea of somehow counteracting Gravity is one of the great sf dreams: it is gravity that kept us earthbound for so long, and even now the energy expenditure required to escape the gravity well of Earth or any other massive celestial body is the main factor that makes spaceflight so difficult and expensive. The theme of antigravity appeared early in sf, the first known example being the Spaceship coated in antigravity metal in Joseph Atterley's A Voyage to the Moon (1827); another early though obscure treatment is J L Riddell's Orrin Lindsay's Plan of Aerial Navigation ... (1847 chap). A related nineteenth-century coinage is "apergy", the antigravity principle used to propel a spacecraft from Earth to Mars in Percy Greg's Across the Zodiac (1880) and borrowed for the same purpose by John Jacob Astor in A Journey in Other Worlds (1894). Yet another early antigravity story is Frank R Stockton's "A Tale of Negative Gravity" (November 1884 The Century). C C Dail's Willmoth the Wanderer, or The Man from Saturn (1890) features a convenient antigravity ointment to smear on the wanderer's space vehicle. More famously, in The First Men in the Moon (1901) H G Wells used movable shutters made of "Cavorite", a metal that shields against gravity, to navigate a spacecraft to the Moon. Other writers have homaged or imitated Cavorite with assorted gravity-defying Elements (which see), including the "Nth metal" of DC Comics continuity (see Flying) and the cheekily named Unobtainium. Similar though non-elemental substances include the red stone which is central to Nicholas Fisk's Antigrav (1978).

Other unexplained antigravity devices remained popular for a long time, especially in naive or juvenile sf, as in the flight pack used in E E Smith's The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946; rev with cuts 1958) and shown in Frank R Paul's cover painting for the August 1928 Amazing, or the antigravitic "flubber", flying rubber, in the film The Absent Minded Professor (1961). A E van Vogt's The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; vt The World of Null-A 1953 dos; rev with intro 1970) features the enigmatic "ingravity parachute", a wearable harness that allows one to fall safely from great heights without recourse to mere aerodynamics. In two notable short stories of the 1950s about the discovery of antigravity, however – "Noise Level" (December 1952 Astounding) by Raymond F Jones and "Mother of Invention" (December 1953 Astounding) by Tom Godwin – there are (not very convincing) attempts to give it a scientific rationale. Much more famous (and more convincing – although still wrong) is James Blish's explanation of the antigravity effect used by his Spindizzies, the devices that enable whole cities to cross the galaxy in the series of stories and novels collected as Cities in Flight (omni 1970): in the early episode "Bridge" (February 1952 Astounding), he invokes physicists Paul Dirac (1902-1984) and P M S Blackett (1987-1974) in several pages of formulae purporting to show that "both magnetism and gravity are phenomena of rotation". This rotational theme for gravity control is echoed in Poul Anderson's Tales of the Flying Mountains (April 1963-September 1965 Analog as by Winston P Sanders; fixup 1970), with its Imaginary Science of gyrogravitics (geegee for short). Arthur Sellings's The Quy Effect (1966) begins with research into an organic superconductor which – distantly echoing the magnetic "levitation" properties of superconductors – behaves like Cavorite when carrying a high electric current. More typically, though, antigravity is simply accepted as a given of future Space Flight: in Eric Frank Russell's Wasp (1957; exp 1958), for example, a covert landing makes use of the ship's "antigravs" to avoid scorching vegetation or leaving a depression in the soil.

The term "antigravity" is scorned by physicists. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity sees a gravitational field as equivalent to a curving of spacetime. Thus an antigravity device could work only by locally rebuilding the basic framework of the universe itself; antigravity would require negative mass, a concept conceivable only in a universe of "negative space" which could not co-exist with our own. Such considerations did not deter E E Smith from introducing negative mass in Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951): here the Antimatter-like "negasphere" Weapon accelerates towards targets which attempt to push it away with Pressor Beams, but can be repelled by the "pull" of a Tractor Beam. Charles Eric Maine confronted Einstein head-on when, in Count-Down (1959; vt Fire Past the Future 1959), he proposed that, if gravity were curved space, all that was necessary to permit antigravity – he made it sound easy – was to "simply bend space the other way".

The proliferation in the later twentieth century of bestselling books popularizing modern physics may have something to do with the fact that antigravity, for so long a popular theme, is now seldom used by serious sf writers (although less obvious forms of Gravity control persist, if only as indicators of highly advanced Technology). A late example is Bob Shaw's Vertigo (1978; exp vt Terminal Velocity 1991), in which antigravity harnesses confer the power of individual flight and thus transform society (see Flying). [PN/TSu/DRL]

see also: Force Field; Power Sources.

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