“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
I tell you, ergodic is the future of fiction
The novel’s great strength is also its great weakness. A novel is (with very few exceptions) the work of one author. That can give it a depth, coherence and unity that is rare in our modern world. But it is also a challenge to our modern way of being. We’re creatures obsessed with social interaction. And we live in an age when every conversation is two way. If we expect to be able to answer back to film stars, governments and corporate brands on twitter, why would we sit still for a twenty hour lecture from a novelist?
The literary answer to this is: voice. Shamelessly populate the novel with the words, perspectives and opinions of the author. The commercial answer is: story. Strip mine the history of narrative for compelling story arcs, and put them down on the page in transparent prose that deletes any sense that it was created by a human imagination. But there is a third option, currently under-explored, that I believe will play a very major part in the next few decades of literature.
Ergodic literature is defined as requiring non-trivial effort to navigate. If a traditional novel requires trivial effort to navigate – simply reading the words in the order written – then an ergodic text is handled in ways that demand greater effort from the reader. The term comes from the Greek words ergon, meaning work, and hodos, meaning path. Ergodic fiction is the path that requires work.
The most famous and accomplished novel recognised as ergodic is House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. Multiple narratives are presented to the reader as unordered fragments of text taking various formats. The story is there to find, but the reader has to work to construct it. The reader must be active in the creation of the story, which then becomes interactive.
But it is not interactive in the common sense of that word. The reader is not interacting through the trivial device of selecting a path through a branching storyline. This is not a Choose Your Own Adventure game-book, or an action video game with cut sequences. Books already demand a far deeper form of interaction from the reader than trivial plot dynamics. Novels require the reader’s imagination to bloom into existence as stories. And ergodic literature works with, not against, the extant interactivity of all novels.
An ergodic text kinks the reading experience in a way that can re-engage readers who are disenchanted with a 20 hour lecture from a novelist. All readers are already deeply engaged with ergodic texts. On today’s internet we move through a webwork of blog posts, news articles, social media statuses, annotated memes, video clips, podcasts, forum posts and comment threads. The challenge of constructing a personally meaningful narrative from this effectively random barrage of information is compelling to us. Our minds and imaginations are now wired for that deep interaction with out texts. And it’s such behaviour that ergodic fiction can use to re-engage the reader.
I’m sorry I can’t point you to more effective examples of the ergodic fiction in action. Many have tried, most have failed. But then, that’s exciting, right? It means the challenge is there for the taking. Go to it.
Published by Damien Walter
Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide. View more posts
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