Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Graffiti in the Library of Babel" by David Langford (Part 1 of 2)

To continue my celebration -- and promotion -- of Is Anybody Out There? (Daw Books, June 1), my co-edited anthology with Nick Gevers, another story from the book follows.

But first...

The second review of IAOT? has appeared -- from John Ottinger (@johnottinger) on his
Grasping for the Wind blog. Typically a review of an anthology will specifically mention maybe 5 or 6 stories and/or authors at most, along with a critique of the anthology as a whole. But John's review contains details on all 15 stories, as well as the introduction, providing readers with a comprehensive look at the entire anthology. John writes: "In Gevers and Halpern’s collection of fifteen original stories, [the Fermi] paradox gets the fictional treatment, explored and examined as only speculators can do....the anthology is an enjoyable read, one that is fairly entertaining with flashes of storytelling flair. Recommended if you have ever asked yourself the very question which provides the title."

And if you decide to click on over to John's review, please do make your way back here for David Langford's story, "Graffiti in the Library of Babel," the third story to be posted in its entirety from Is Anybody Out There?

I've never met
David Langford, but I've been a long-time fan of his sardonic fiction, and I've been reading his zine Ansible1 for what seems like decades. (Wait! It has been decades!) In 2002, Claude Lalumière and I selected David's story "Encounter of Another Kind" (Interzone, December 1991) for inclusion in our co-edited anthology Witpunk (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003) -- a collection of sardonic fiction, with about half the stories original to the collection and the other half reprints. So, it was only natural for me to invite David to contribute to this anthology as well, and I'm so glad that I did.2

To quote from David's
Wikipedia entry: "As of 2008 he has received, in total, 28 Hugo Awards, his 19-year winning streak coming to an end in 2008. A 31-year streak of nominations (1979-2009) for Best Fan Writer came to an end in 2010." Now that's a lot of Hugo Awards -- and nominations!

About his story "Graffiti in the Library of Babel" David writes: "Too many nonfiction commitments, not enough stories written. 'Graffiti in the Library of Babel' is my only fiction of 2009, inspired by our editors' kindly invitation, my inability to resist a Borges allusion, and some random thoughts about unperceived signals. Suppose the aliens out there made the traditional study of our Earthly communications, analysed the most popular forms of email, and offered us the boundless wealth of Contact in terms which we automatically filter out owing to the strong Nigerian accent? No, no, Charlie Stross must already have written that one.
3 Some further supposing eventually led to 'Graffiti.'"

Graffiti in the Library of Babel

by David Langford

"There seems to be no difference at all between the message of maximum content (or maximum ambiguity) and the message of zero content (noise)."

-- John Sladek, "The Communicants"

As it turned out, they had no sense of drama. They failed to descend in shiny flying discs, or even to fill some little-used frequency with a tantalizing stutter of sequenced primes. No: they came with spray cans and spirit pens, scrawling their grubby little tags across our heritage.

Or as an apologetic TotLib intern first broke the news: "Sir, someone's done something nasty all over Jane Austen."

# # #

The Total Library project is named in homage to Kurd Lasswitz's thought experiment "Die Universal Bibliothek," which inspired a famous story by Jorge Luis Borges. Another influence is the "World Brain" concept proposed by H. G. Wells. Assembling the totality of world literature and knowledge should allow a rich degree of cross-referencing and interdisciplinary…

Ceri Evans looked up from the brochure. Even in this white office that smelt of top management, she could never resist a straight line: "Why, congratulations, Professor. I think you may have invented the Internet!"

"Doctor, not Professor, and I do not use the title," said Ngombi with well-simulated patience. "Call me Joseph. The essential point of TotLib is that we are isolated from the net. No trolls, no hackers, none of what that Manson book called sleazo inputs. Controlled rather than chaotic cross-referencing."

"But still you seem to have these taggers?"

"Congratulations, Doctor Evans! I think you may have just deduced the contents of my original email to you."

"All right. All square." Ceri held up one thin hand in mock surrender. "We'll leave the posh titles for the medics. Now tell me: Why is this a problem in what I do, which is a far-out region of information theory, rather than plain data security?"

"Believe me, data security we know about. Hackers and student pranksters have been rather exhaustively ruled out. As it has been said, 'Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.'"

"'Holmes, this is marvellous,'" said Ceri dutifully.

"'Meretricious,' said he." Joseph grinned. "We are a literary team here."

Ceri felt a sudden contrarian urge not to be literary. "Maybe we should cut to the chase. There's only one logical reason to call me in. You suspect the Library is under attack through the kind of acausal channel I've discussed in my more speculative papers? A concept, I should remind you, that got me an IgNobel Prize and a long denunciation in The Skeptic because everyone knows it's utter lunacy. Every Einstein-worshipping physicist, at least."

A shrug. "'Once you eliminate the impossible…' And I'm not a physicist. Come and see." He was so very large and very black. Ceri found herself wondering whether his white-on-white decor was deliberate contrast.

# # #

The taggers had spattered their marks across the digital texts of TotLib: short bursts of characters that made no particular sense but clearly belonged to the same family, like some ideogram repeated with slight variations along the shopping mall, through the car park and across the sides of subway carriages. Along Jane Austen, through Shakespeare and underground to deface Jack Kerouac and the Beats. After half an hour of on-screen examples Ceri felt the familiar eye glaze of overdosing on conceptual art.

"The tags," she said cautiously, "never appear within words?" This is a test. Do not be afraid of the obvious.

"We decided all by ourselves to call them tags." The faint smile indicated that Joseph was still in a mood for point-scoring.

"Okay. I see." She didn't, but in a moment it came. "Not just graffiti but mark-up, like HTML or XML tags. Emphasis marks. You think they're not so much defacing the texts as going through them with a highlighter. Boldface on, It is a truth universally acknowledged, boldface off."

"Congratulations! It took our people several days to reach that point."

Ceri drummed her fingers irritably against the TotLib workstation. "The point seems to be that it's already been reached. So why me?"

"I saw a need for someone who can deal with the implications. If this tagging is coming in through your acausal channels -- and we truly cannot trace any conventional route -- and if that New Scientist piece on you was not too impossibly dumbed down…"

"Oh Duw oh God. It was, but never mind."

"…the origin of the transmission would necessarily be something in the close vicinity of a supermassive black hole?"

"Well. That assumes the channel source is in our universe in the first place. The IgNobel presenter was very funny about Dimension X and the Phantom Zone." Another memory that clung and stuck, a mental itch she couldn't stop scratching.

"So many times it has been said, 'They laughed at Galileo.'"

"And sometimes it's also been said that they laughed at nitrous oxide."

Again Joseph smiled hugely. "Would you care for lunch?"

"Let me have another look first. Let me plod my slow way to some other plateau your staff reached last week. Boldface on, instruments of darkness, boldface off. Did that make you think of my black hole? Masters of the universe. God's quarantine regulations. These things need to be grouped or sequenced -- no, both."

The TotLib interface was easy enough to use. Ceri backtracked, paused, went forward again through lexical chaos. "The structure of those tags…there's a flavour of inversion symmetry…suppose ON has a group identifier wrapped around a sequence number, and OFF is sequence around group? Or the other way around, of course. That would sort your grab bag of quotes into chunks and give the chunks an internal order. Oh bugger, I'm biting my nails again. Sorry. Have we caught up with your clever staff yet?" She hadn't meant to get hooked on the dizzy rush of problem-solving. But, she thought, be glad it still comes.

The big man seemed perceptibly less smug. "My clever staff will catch up with you…maybe next week. Ceri -- if I may -- I am impressed. It is most definitely time for lunch."

# # #

The meal was inoffensive and the wine better, if only by about ten per cent, than you'd expect from an institution in a secure vault under a dour Swiss alp. As her host explained: "The Scientologists are working to preserve their founder's teachings for all eternity, and our sponsors feel there should be an alternative view."

At first Ceri had felt obscurely prickly about Dr Joseph Ngombi, and she tried now to be a little friendlier: mustn't let him think a good Welsh girl like herself had a streak of racism. Part of her mind was elsewhere, though (structured tags, that kaleidoscope of quoted fragments), and her vague attempts at friendly signals led to some carefully placed mentions of his dear wife and children. Earlier that day she'd thought she was looking good, with a new dark-red hair rinse; now she wondered whether Joseph saw her as a dyed and predatory hag. What were the chances of making sense of graffiti from some distant, supermassive black hole when communications went astray across the width of a restaurant table?

"No thanks," she said, protecting her wineglass from the waiter's menacing pass. "I'll need a clear head." Or maybe just an empty one. The trouble with an open mind, the saying went, is that people come along and put things in it.

# # #

[Continued in Part 2]

1 Speaking of Ansible, as an editor I particularly enjoy the entries in Thog's Masterclass. I have been known to reference Thog, and even use quoted text from this fine fellow, on panels and in workshops, and even in my own writing.2 David Langford isn't the only Witpunk author included in IAOT? -- Michael Arsenault, Pat Cadigan, Paul Di Filippo, Yves Meynard (one-half of Laurent McAllister), James Morrow, Ray Vukcevich, and Leslie What have contributed short stories to both of these anthologies. As an editor, I know good writing when I read it!

3 The Charles Stross writing to which David refers is short-short story "MAXO Signals" from Nature, August 25, 2005, and available online for your reading pleasure, courtesy of Nature.

David Langford has published over thirty books, about eighty short stories, and many hundreds of magazine columns since his fiction debut in 1975. His awards include the Skylark, the European SF Award (shared with co-authors Peter Nicholls and Brian Stableford), and twenty-eight Hugos -- some of the latter awarded for his SF newsletter Ansible, launched in 1979 and currently appearing monthly. Langford’s most popular novel is the nuclear farce The Leaky Establishment (1984), based on his years as a weapons physicist. His straight stories are collected as Different Kinds of Darkness (2004), and his notorious parodies and pastiches as He Do the Time Police in Different Voices (2003); his most recent collection, of columns, essays, reviews, and a few short-short stories, is Starcombing (Cosmos Books, 2009). His large Victorian house in Reading, England, contains numerous computers and far too many books.

Two stories have already been posted in their entirety from Is Anybody Out There? -- Pat Cadigan's
"The Taste of Night" and Jay Lake's "Permanent Fatal Errors."

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