Hello, good morning, and welcome to another edition of my weekly blog post. It’s hard to know what to write that I haven’t already written—much of it repeatedly—in previous blog posts, though the details no doubt change from week to week. But, then again, that’s always an issue with writing, as with storytelling in general, and so on. Is it ever possible really to write (or otherwise create) anything new?
Well, the “Latin” alphabet alone (adding in the “Arabic” digits from zero to nine) iterated out in any reasonable length produces a trans-astronomical number of possibilities. Even if we leave out punctuation and spaces and other “special characters”, the number of different things that can be written in just ten spaces is 36 to the tenth power, which is a little more than 3.6 times ten to the fifteenth power*. To get some sense of the scale of that number, consider that the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy is on the order of ten to the eleventh power, so the number above is a good ten thousand times larger. The number of cells in a typical human body is on the order of ten to the thirteenth power, still only a hundredth as large as the number I mentioned.
Mind you, the vast majority of those combinations of characters are going to comprise a real tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. But, of course, ten spaces is next to nothing. So far in this blog post I’ve already used more than 1500 spaces or characters. Still not counting punctuation et al, taking thirty-six to the 1500th power gives us a truly staggering number: 2.8 times ten to the 2334th power. To get a scintilla of the idea of the scale of that number, consider that the estimated combined number of protons, neutrons, electrons, and neutrinos in the “visible” universe is only on the order of ten to the 80th or so. Of course, if you throw photons and gravitons and gluons and W and Z bosons, and whatever comprises “dark matter” and “dark energy” into the mix, that number will surely go up by quite a bit, but not by anything close to two thousand orders of magnitude. Remember, ten to the 2334th is a one followed by 2334 zeroes (in base ten). You’d have to multiply ten to the 80th by itself about twenty-nine times (i.e., take it to the 29th power) to reach 10 to the 2334th.
Of course, the vast majority of such combinations will produce nothing even close to coherent writing—or even to the quality of writing I’ve produced here so far (which as of this point has over 2300 characters). But so what? It’s a bit like considering all the possibilities of DNA. Even though the vast majority of possible DNA sequences would not be transcribable into anything like a viable living organism if injected into a typical cell, the subset of potential viable organisms is still staggeringly larger than the number that have ever lived.
Thinking along similar lines, consider the Library of Babel, a notion introduced in a story by Jorge Luis Borges, (and instantiated, more or less, in a brilliant website). It contains all possible books of, I think, 400-ish pages, using certain layout characteristics, and thus would contain, in principle, everything anyone has ever written or could write (of that size or smaller). The possibilities are so large as to seem infinite.
“And yet, oh and yet, we all of us spend all our days saying to each other the same things time after weary time: ‘I love you,’ ‘don’t go in there,’ ‘get out,’ ‘you have no right to say that,’ ‘stop it,’ ‘why should I?’ ‘that hurt,’ ‘help,’ ‘Marjorie is dead.’”**
It’s been said by some that all stories (of relevance to humans) have already been told. I don’t think that’s quite true, for as we learn and explore and develop new understandings of the universe and new technologies, new stories will become possible that never would have been before. Nevertheless, most types of stories that would be of interest to humans have probably already been written (or otherwise told) in various forms by numerous authors. And yet we*** still enjoy both creating and partaking of them. Indeed, the reading of a new story of a given type—of which one may have read dozens or hundreds of others—can still be one of the greatest pleasures in life (though I’m having a hard time with that lately, to my significant distress, as I’ve mentioned previously). It’s a bit like all those possible humans, I guess. They all are much more alike than unalike, as Maya Angelou said, but we can nevertheless tell each one from nearly all the others, usually at a glance, and certainly within a moment.
So it is with stories. Even within the genre of heroic fantasy, it’s trivial to differentiate Harry Potter from The Lord of the Rings from The Belgariad from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I love them each and all, and I wouldn’t willingly have any of them expunged from reality or memory. It is, no doubt, likewise with horror, with science fiction, with thrillers, with mysteries, with romantic comedies, and every other genre of story. Though all have similarities, they are nevertheless distinct, and the possibilities are so immense that they give a better impression of infinity than actual infinity does, though they are, probably, not literally infinite****.
With that in mind, I’ll keep working on The Vagabond, as I have this week, as usual. I’m about halfway through the last edit; then comes layout and cover design and all that jazz, and then publication. And thence, on to whatever comes next, such as Dr. Elessar’s Cabinet of Curiosities, which will include House Guest and many other stories. The possibilities are not easily limited, and so this idiot, at least, will for now keep telling his tales.
*If, as the fictional (often mad) scientists always say, my calculations are correct.
**This long quote is taken from ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’, I think it was the very first episode, but I’m not sure. You can go and watch it here.
***Humans, for want of a better term.
****During the writing and editing of Unanimity I might have disagreed with this last point. And, by the way, I took the notion—that the immense-but-finite can give a better impression of infinity than the truly infinite does—from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.