the fractal nature of story

•30 June 2019 • Leave a Comment

Where do fractals come from, and what do they have to do with stories?  Mathematicians have developed a formal definition of fractal in terms of quantities such as Hausdorff dimension, and while this is a fine and well-tested definition, it doesn’t provide much of an origin story for a fractal.

Fractals often arise through infinite processes, either involving an iterative process (this built from a process with an input and an output, and continuing to use the output of each run as the input for the next run of the process, seeing what happens as we do this without end) or a branching process.  And it’s the branching processes I want to think about today.

The reason for this is that it ties both into the sorts of things I spend time thinking about anyway (as one of my main areas of mathematical interest involves fractals and the processes that produce them) and into something that I wrote about some time ago.

Because I see stories as branching processes.  As I go through the process of getting a story on paper, I find myself caught up in this branching of possibilities.  At each point in a story, my characters generally have the option of doing one of several, or one of many, things, and yes, sometimes things I’m not expecting them to do (even I’ve given them the choice) or occasionally even the completely unexpected.

So the writing of a story begins to look like a tree, with the narrative and the action starting from an origin point and moving in one of several possible directions, and branching at seemingly almost random points along the way.  Each trip through the tree, starting from the origin point and taking one branch here, another branch there, then gives a different story.

I don’t want to speculate at this point on alternative universe versions of writers choosing paths through some shared story tree and so producing different stories, though this would be something worth exploring at some point.

Or whether we can organize Borges’ library into a tree along these lines, so that instead of patrons roaming the shelves, looking for our life stories, we might become ants crawling along the bark of this one massive tree, wondering whether the branch we’ve taken is the branch we should have taken.

And so I go back to my own story tree, the one I started exploring some time ago, and see how far along the thinning branches I can climb and what story I will have at the end.






beware, there be spoilers: the stories of Kurt Vonnegut

•26 May 2019 • Leave a Comment

And so, some many months beyond my original time line, I am at last coming to the end of my 2018 reading project.  Earlier today, I finished the stories of Kurt Vonnegut, though I do still have his essays and non-fiction remaining on my bedside table.

I didn’t read the stories in their original published volumes, but rather I read Kurt Vonnegut Collected Stories, collected by Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield, which has the advantages of including unpublished stories and of grouping them into rough thematic categories.

Vonnegut wrote a large number of stories, 98 by my count.  There are groups of stories that share settings and characters with each other and on occasion with his novels.  Some I’d read before, as Welcome to the Monkey House was a collection I remember reading several times.

One thing I did find very interesting is that even have read some of these stories before, and even though some of them were stories that resonated within me, I had forgotten it was Vonnegut who’d written them.  This applies to Harrison Bergeron in particular.  I suppose this is part of the power of literature, to capture an idea, and it is something that I think every author tries to do to some extent.  If you’ve read and remember the story, then you may see what I mean here, and if you haven’t or you don’t, then let me say it’s a story worth reading.

I will admit that as interesting as they are as character studies, I am less a fan of his mundane fiction, for lack of a better term, than I am of his speculative fiction.  But this I think just reflects my personal reading bias.

Vonnegut had a good feel for the sorts of questions that science will confront us with and he always had something interesting to say about them, such as his speculation in And On Your Left of the care and feeding of industrial research laboratories.

And there are some characters I will miss, like George Helmholtz, the band director, who carried with him echoes from my own past.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons so many of Vonnegut’s stories resonated, that they were ultimately connected with people we all might know or have known, and we can see a bit of ourselves captured in their stories.


beware, there be spoilers: Hocus Pocus

•10 May 2019 • Leave a Comment

Well, I have now finished the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. I had planned on reading them in chronological order, and it was only with the last two (Hocus Pocus and Timequake) that I inadvertently messed with the order of things. Alas.

Some of what I have to say about Hocus Pocus is what I’ve said about other novels. It’s good to see Kilgore Trout still inhabiting the Vonnegut-verse, even if only as the author of a story for which the narrator doesn’t know the author’s name; the way that Vonnegut weaves real people into his stories, to the extent that the curious needs to make much use of Google to sift the fictional from the real but not famous.

But mainly, what I want to say is that Vonnegut tells a lovely story. Hocus Pocus is told in the first person, with the author having written his memoir on scraps of people while imprisoned in a library, awaiting trial for rebellion.

Stories within stories, and I find it particularly interesting to be reading him while thinking about writing. I’ve had the blessed fortune this week to be able to immerse myself in writing: doing some writing myself, talking to other writers who are on this retreat as well, and generally thinking about the structure of the stories we tell each other, and the sorts of stories I want to tell.

As I’ve said on more than one occasion since the beginning of 2018, it’s interesting read through the novels of an entire author. As linked as the novels are to one another, though their characters, I don’t know whether it’s a fair thing to say that Vonnegut has been telling us one long story, but there are some strong recurring themes throughout.

Why, for instance, do we find it so difficult to be nice to one another. In the world of today, I think this is one of the fundamental questions we have to ask. Why indeed do we find it so difficult. And not only ask, but find an answer to. And that’s an answer I haven’t yet found.

One last thing: it is also amusing to share an idiosyncrasy with one of Vonnegut’s characters, as noted in the Editor’s Notes. I have let mine slip and perhaps that’s another horse to get back on.

beware, there be spoilers: Timequake

•7 May 2019 • 1 Comment

Timequake strikes me as a more directly autobiographical work than some of Vonnegut’s other novels, but he does make fairly extensive direct use of his experience in much of what he writes, at least amongst the novels. (Less so for the stories, or at least the ones I’ve read so far.)

Timequake is best described as partially autobiographical, in that the narrator seems to be largely Vonnegut himself, set by himself in the fictional context of the novel. The other main character is the oft-seen Kilgore Trout. And reading Timequake makes me realize that I might be great difficulty getting to know any one of my characters as well as Vonnegut knows Kilgore Trout.

I would also like to read the (alas non-existent) collected writings of Kilgore Trout, as he has some spectacularly wacky ideas, summarised in this and other novels,

Timequake, like Slaughterhouse Five, is a time travel novel of sorts, though like Slaughterhouse Five, it is somewhat non-traditional in how it makes use of time travel. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim moves backs and forwards in time, but only to other parts of his life. (Or so he tells the reader.)

In Timequake, everyone and everything (presumably throughout the universe, but this is never explored) jumps back in time by almost exactly 10 years, from February 2001 to February 1991, and then lives the exact same 10 years ago, without any chance of deviation from what they’d done before.

But they are aware of this, which is fine for the 10 years but becomes a key aspect of the novel, and the main stage for the heroism of Kilgore Trout, when we move past the jump point and 10 years of complacency and autopiloting become part of the catastrophe of the reestablishment of free will and agency. Things do get a bit messy for a while.

I’d like to finish here with an observation, but I’m not sure that I have something sufficiently pithy to say. Timequake is a good read but it will never be among my Vonnegut favorites; I have too much fondness for ice-nine and boko maru. But it does feel like a summary of sorts, or a summation. I have one more novel remaining, Hocus Pocus, and I’m curious to know how I’ll feel then.

beware, there be spoilers: Bluebeard

•6 May 2019 • Leave a Comment

I wrote a few weeks ago about the myth of getting even. And though I had set my 2018 reading project as the complete Vonnegut, I am behind. But I’ve given myself an extension until the end of June and I think I might make it.

Bluebeard is a book about modern art and an enjoyable read. Looking back, and I still have two novels to go, along with the short stories and the non-fiction writings, hence the extension until the end of June, looking back, one of the things I most enjoy about Vonnegut are his characters.

Rabo Karabekian, the narrator of Bluebeard, is a case in point. I found him to be a beautifully drawn character, Vonnegut make use again of some of his World War II experiences in setting the character. The delightfully named Circe Berman, perhaps more than Rabo himself, is someone I could very enjoyably spend an evening talking with.

This is not intended as a formal critique of Vonnegut and his writing, but I do find it interesting the extent to which he uses parts of his own experience. It shines forth in a way that I find illuminating, a lamp on a dark night. I haven’t explored the critical literature on Vonnegut, and so I don’t know what the current view is of Vonnegut as writer, but I am still finding him very entertaining.

I think one reason, though, that I hit the pause button earlier this year, though the pause was more of an emergent process amidst everything else, was that however entertaining a writer, I found it difficult to keep reading the one author.

Vonnegut has a clear style, and I will admit that over time and through reading, I found that style a bit swaddling, if that makes any sense. But having taken the break, I’m back to the last few novels and I’m also working my way through the short stories.

I’ll write more about them later, but I find among the short stories that I’m encountering some old friends, stories I remember more or less, but that I’d forgotten were Vonnegut’s. The Report on the Barnhouse Effect is a particular favorite of mine, and I hadn’t realized until a few minutes ago that it was his first published story.

And then the mind wanders into speculation. I don’t know the influences that one story, read early in one’s life, has on the other stories one wants to tell. I can see, as I sit down and plan or sit down and write, echoes of stories I’ve read wanting to be a part of what I’m writing, as though the ideas themselves feel they still have more to give.

Ultimately, I suspect, this all gets back to the discussion of where ideas come from, and beyond this, how many variations on a theme are possible. Infinitely many, I suspect, or at least a number large enough to be virtually infinite.

a meditation of spaces

•5 May 2019 • 1 Comment

On my drive today, I spent some thinking about the spaces in which I do things. There are some spaces, like the aikido dojo at the university (the martial arts room that we share with other clubs), with both a very strong sense of space and a change of attitude upon entering the space.

Green and red mats on the floor, with red mats on the wall and some of the most delightful bamboo wallpaper on the upper parts of the walls, the dojo is clearly intended for its single purpose. I suspect the other clubs who use the space are similar in this, but we have a clear ritual when we enter the room.

We bow at the door, and then once down the half dozen stairs, we perform a kneeling bow before walking on to the mat. On the one hand, I accept this as the accepted practice not only of the local club but also of the national and international groups of which we are a part.

But much more than that, this ritual helps me put myself in the right frame of mind. For many of the classes, I’m coming into the dojo after a full day in the office, and my mind is then full of the office, which is not helpful to the practice of aikido. So over time, I’ve used this initial short ritual of entering to help me set aside the office day and get myself in the right frame of mind for practice.

The drive today was to get me to Trigonos, where the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference is holding a writing retreat. Milford (for short) has been holding its September critique workshops at Trigonos for a number of years now, while the writing retreats are more recent.

I’ve attended several of the workshops and I’ve developed a similar sympathy with Trigonos as I have for the dojo. For me, this has become a space for writing in its different aspects: talking to other writers, writing, reading and commenting on pieces written by others.

Outwardly, I didn’t bow as I came through the door, but I did get hit by the waves of comfortable familiarity driving down the road, around the lake and into Nantlle. So this week, I am here to do some writing, in this place of writing.

Interestingly, my office at the university doesn’t have the same feeling. I suspect it’s because there are too many different things that I do in my work office, and so it’s difficult to have it as a space dedicated to one thing. Perhaps more on that later.

the myth of getting even

•15 April 2019 • 1 Comment

This is not a tale of revenge, nor it is the tale of a quest for number and arithmetic. Rather, it is an explication of the obvious. 

There will never be enough time. 

Getting even, catching up, these are but myths, stories we tell ourselves. I think I’ve written before about the danger inherent in going through all of the lists and making the one Great List That Lists Them All, and then becoming paralyzed by the volume of things to be done.

Nonetheless, I do it from time to time, and I’ll admit that it’s possible to form the habit of making and remaking lists, and lose sight of the fact that the lists are not an end in themselves. The lists are but a tool for doing, but making the list and checking it again and again is sometimes easier than the doing, as much as it can feel like doing.

So how to fight this project volume paralysis. I could go find a book and read it, either a book related to the topic at hand or not, and I do both quite a lot too. But as much as I enjoy and value reading, I do have to admit that reading in itself doesn’t take projects forward.

The tasks I set myself, the tasks others set for me with or without my explicit consent, the tasks that arise from the day job and hobbies, there will never be enough time to do them all. To finish the list. And I’m glad about that.

Yes, there are things that have been on the list for too long and that require some immediate attention. Yes, there are things that perhaps should be taken off the list, set on the side of the road and walked away from, though I do find that very difficult to do.

But I like the unavoidable fact that there will always be something more to work on. Ideas beget ideas, but it also takes time and effort to go from idea to finished product, be it a story idea or a math idea, or even the idea for a blog post. And yes, work lists have a different flavor to them, subject as they are to other people’s time constraints.

The quest for immortality is a common trope in science fiction, going back to the Fountain of Youth and before. But immortality wouldn’t help here. I suspect that if there are immortals out there in the wider universe, their lists will be long long long indeed, and this is a conversation they would also have had more than once.

And so now, I go boldly forth into the day, seeing what I can do on the list, advancing if not finishing, and I wish you all the best with your list as well.