Posts tagged ‘Douglas Adams’

May 31, 2012

It’s a Fractal World

– for Helen

These patterns quickly learned to copy themselves (this was part of what was so extraordinary about the patterns) and went on to cause massive trouble on every planet they drifted on to. That was how life began in the Universe.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 

I’ll try and keep this short since I’m writing on something I know nothing about. (Not that this has stopped me before.) I’ve only read the first of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books (as I’m not big on science fiction, I’d never read it before) and what I’m about to compare the book to is something I really know nothing about.

The structure of the book is fractal. From what I gather, two things are important for fractals: near identical repetition and scale shift. (A coast line viewed from a satellite looks straight, but when viewed close up could conceivably have as man ridges as a seemingly perfectly round grain of sand magnified.) We get both of this at the beginning of the book. Arthur Dent’s house is being demolished to make way for a throughway; the only reason this matters not one iota is that the Earth itself will soon be destroyed to make way for an inter-stellar highway. The same bureaucratic reasons are given and the same disregard for those living in the relevant spots is shown.

This idea of repetition carries the book. The characters’ several near-death escapes carry us through the plot of the book, and what makes them fractal in addition to their similarity with each other, is the reader’s familiarity with the way they play out. The improbable escapes are different from, say, those of Indiana Jones only in the details. Of course, in fractals as in everything else, the Devil’s in the details. Hence the near in near-identical repetition.

Not that any of this is any consolation to Arthur Dent, whose home was doubly destroyed, and whose mind is stuck in this specific world and this specific time. Near-identical is still different enough, I’m afraid. “No, thank you,” said Arthur [when offered a walk on the surface of New Earth] “it wouldn’t be quite the same.”

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