Science Fiction Studies

#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991

David Porush

Prigogine, Chaos, and Contemporary Science Fiction

SF often registers and extrapolates the consequences of new scientific knowledge even before science does. This relationship between science and SF has become especially intriguing in the case of the new science of deterministic chaos. This new paradigm—which explains how complex, apparently chaotic systems leap into new orders of complexity—has implications not only for the technology of the future, but for our understanding of the cosmic role of intelligence and of the narratives it spins.

In this essay I briefly sketch the shape of the new paradigm of deterministic chaos and self-organizing systems as it has been developed by Ilya Prigogine. I will trace its emergence as a theme in SF, particularly in works by A.A. Attanasio, Lewis Shiner, Bruce Sterling, and William Gibson. Along the way I show how Chaos Theory illuminates the potential for narrative, and particularly SF, as epistemologically potent.

An Overview of Chaos Theory. Prigogine's chaos theory arises from his success in finding a mathematical model that reconciles three deeply problematic contradictions or paradoxes in 20th-century scientific cosmology: the different descriptions of growth in physcial systems given by entropy vs. evolution, the different roles of time portrayed by microscopic physics vs. macroscopic biology, and the problem of physics' drive for simplicity in the face of an obviously complex world portrayed by biology.

Entropy vs. Evolution. Evolution and entropy seem to contradict each other not only in the cosmological moods they invite us to hold, but in the irreconcilable versions they present of how the universal machine actually operates. If Rudolf Clausius and Clerk Maxwell were right, then any machine will grind to a halt inexorably when left to its own devices. The combination of ever-present forces—like friction—will degrade mechanical operation as part wears against part, leaking valuable energy and organization out into the universal soup where it joins the larger tide towards randomness and absolute cold. Furthermore, once molecules have vibrated themselves into an effete state of equilibrium—analogous to hot and cold water mixing into one lukewarm volume—no natural force can retrieve that leaked heat or lost differentiation. The process of degradation towards entropy is irreversible: nature will not reheat the water again.

But if Darwin's version of nature was correct, then somehow the biosphere drives itself to evolve ever more complex and organized structures, biological organisms, and systems (autopoeisis). One-celled critters gave rise to multicellular organisms, which diverged, differentiated, grew more complex, more organized, and more needy of energy and information to sustain them (phylogenesis). Even individual organisms rehearse this flagrant disobedience of the Second Law. Trees begin as unicellular seeds to sprout into cascades of complex interactions and branching growths, spreading their organized system for the transfer of matter and energy through the soil and sky (ontogenesis). The biosphere and each part of the biosphere individually are islands in the entropic stream, or better, a raft swimming autonomously, inexplicably upstream, gathering flotsam and organizing it into its flotilla, against the intractable laws of physics. Finally, the biosphere has evolved intelligence.

In the postmodern era, Darwin's views have been supplemented by new sciences of information, which have given us cybernetic technologies. These give intelligence the capacity to artificially nurture its own evolution (anagenesis), especially through cyborg technologies—artificial intelligence, neurophysiology, cognitive science, and genetic manipulation—in a complex feedback loop. In short, we know how to make ourselves—as individuals and as species—smarter. Knowledge of the laws which govern autopoetic evolution—the new science of chaos—will aid intelligence in its anagenetic project. We will encounter these terms—autopoeisis, phylogenesis, ontogenesis, anagenesis—again when they emerge as explicit themes in Bruce Sterling's fiction.

Microscopic vs. Macroscopic. For Prigogine the central problem in scientific cosmology is one of reconciling the two contradictory descriptions of how nature is organized from the microscopic view and the macroscopic view; that is, contradictions between two levels of description. Well into this century, many physicists still viewed the microcosm as an idealized space where simple particles interact in well-behaved ways according to the laws of dynamics. Even while the discoveries of quantum physics and the proliferation of sub-atomic particles throughout our century challenged the classical view of dynamics as deterministic and predictable, many physicists still clung to a view of interactions as essentially reversible, much as Newton did. In the Newtonian view, interactions between moving bodies are time-neutral: they could go forward or backward equally. According to classical dynamics, large particles split into smaller particles and under the proper circumstances those smaller particles should re-unite into larger ones. As Prigogine notes in his exposition of his theories (in From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences), classical mechanics assumes that strict determinism and reversibility hold throughout, while probabilism and irreversibility are forbidden; consciously adopting the terminology of existential phenomenology, Prigogine calls this "naive realism" and files it under the header of "the science of being" (20).

The macroscopic world, by contrast, seems decidedly unruly and intractable to a classical dynamicist.

First, macroscopic interactions are more vulnerable to entropy. Objects move at slower speeds and in massive arrays that put them into contact with other things, creating frictions which make their trajectories less than ideal.

Second, entropy is irreversible: it moves things along in one direction only. Once you're on the entropic road, you can't go home again. Clearly, all biological entities carry in them what Prigogine calls "the arrow of time." The heart ticks toward the moment it will eventually stop. We grow old and die. Interactions follow trajectories that are rarely simple, and when they are, remain irreversible.

Third, the macrocosm is complex. The problem of two bodies interacting in pure Euclidean space follows strict Newtonian laws. But the problem of solving the trajectories of three bodies interacting becomes extraordinarily difficult, and of four strictly impossible. Yet our world is constituted by large numbers of bodies and forces interacting all at once.

Finally, conditions evolve and do so through feedback processes: a system can alter itself as it grows and grows. While individual phenomena remain relatively coherent (my son remains recognizably himself, even though he changes minute to minute, year to year), they are also dynamic, grow in sudden spurts, alter the environment which alters them. The macroscopic world is always in process. Any study of this world, Prigogine asserts, requires a science of becoming.

Far from being a mere problem of mechanics, this poses a set of philosophical problems as well: for instance, how can we reconcile the idealized version of the human mind (which investigates nature only through reasoning based on classical dynamical assumptions about logic, conservation, and reversibility) with the biological basis for that mind (which carries with it the "arrow of time" and, as we have seen, an implicitly metaphorical style of functioning)? We need not even introduce mind freighted with its humanistic baggage in order to see the problem. We can view mind, as many physicists do, free from its cultural trappings and symbolic associations as a perceptual instrument of knowing, an elaborate measuring/observing device.1

Quantum mechanics was introduced as an attempt to reconcile certain odd behaviors of sub-atomic particles like the electron with classical logic. But in fact, in Prigogine's construction of the history of physics in this century, quantum mechanics introduced an even odder fundamental challenge to science's reign: How do you measure sub-atomic events which supposedly obey laws of classical dynamics (and are thus free from time's arrow) with macroscopic interventions that are subject to irreversible processes? All the puzzles of modern physics, which have in turn spawned many competing metaphysical explanations (Herbert 240-45), stem from this irreconcilable and paradoxical relationship that arises at the interface between the microscopic and macroscopic realms (From Being to Becoming 48). Prigogine's work elucidates formulas that describe how systems organize themselves, whether they are microscopic or macroscopic. By giving weight to complexity, his theory reconciles this conflict between the two realms.

Simplicity vs. Complexity. Western science has always had a strong compulsion to proceed from large assumptions to finite conclusions which subsequently are granted the force of law.

Yet this compulsion to induce simplicity stands in direct contrast with the evidence of how reality proceeds in the macroscopic world. Newton's universe is a simple and tidy place, a comforting but imaginary realm which idealizes relationships between matter and energy and makes the laws of nature seem tractable and predictable.

In contrast, most phenomena in the world around us, our senses tell us, are extremely complicated, seething with multiplying forms and interactions, edges, microstructures within macrostructures. Reality is bumpy, grainy, noisy, unpredictable. Furthermore, we have trouble describing this reality in the strictly simple and and logical way scientific discourse demands. Gordon Pask, the cyberneticist, after reading similar remarks by Henri Poincaré, Ernst Mach, and Pierre Duhem, formulated it in the following fashion: "All empirical phenomena are underdetermined by data and therefore permit the construction of an indefinite number of theories" (36). It would be nice to reduce everything to a few simple universal rules, just as our eyes habitually abstract a simple pure line from the chaotic tangle of color and edges and motion around us or as our mind abstracts a pattern of events, a plot, out of a welter of events, but these are idealizations as well as compulsions. Undoubtedly, we couldn't function without the ability to abstract, to formulate heuristics, to leap to conclusions, to induce hypotheses and predictions, to devise schemas, to tell ourselves unifying stories. But to design an entire epistemology on this habit of simplifying and unifying—to insist that nature must be fundamentally simple—brings us into conflict with the obvious nature of things around us.

Prigogine's Reconciliation: Dissipative Structures. These quite apparent contradictions between Entropy and Evolution, between the two versions of time in the microscopic and macroscopic levels, and between the impulses to simplicity and complexity in science's descriptions—these contradictions offered no clear resolutions. Then in the 1960s and '70s, Belgian thermodynamicist Ilya Prigogine developed a mathematical model that would explain, under very specialized circumstances, how order could arise spontaneously from apparent chaos. In his model—called dissipative structures—Prigogine described mathematically how an open system under certain physical conditions (far from equilibrium and fluctuating non-linearly: that is, highly unstable and unpredictable in its changes) will spontaneously organize itself at a higher level of complexity, leaping across a statistical bifurcation from apparent chaos into order. He calls these systems "dissipative structures" because they survive in an open exchange of energy with the generally entropic universe in order to dissipate or work off the products of their instabilities. While dissipative structures are bound to take this leap into self-organization (the description of these systems and their changes is deterministic), no one can tell what shape that change will take after the leap (it is unpredictable).

Prigogine's work was quickly recognized as having profound consequences for the way we view the cosmos, and in 1977 he received the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Prigogine's achievement was to reconcile the impulse to simplicity (which leads us down the road to what he calls "naive realism in physics") with the seething complexity and dynamic instability of the world presented to our senses (partly described by non-linear mathematics but more completely reflected in literary descriptions). His model proves how order can arise out of chaos and how that order in turn presents a world of ever-growing complexity and change to our human (macroscopic) senses. He proved that while the universe may move towards entropy, open systems of order arise spontaneously and not only resist entropy but grow ever more structured.

The Consequences for Literature. In Order Out of Chaos, a popularization of his ideas, Prigogine and co-author Isabelle Stengers explain that discourses which capture or recapitulate the complexity and time-bound qualities of our experience in the macroscopic world are in many senses more epistemologically potent—do a better job of describing reality—than the simple discourses of classical physics. Indeed, one of Prigogine's original inspirations came from the work of Henri Bergson, the French philosopher who in his turn had drawn on deep literary resources. Bergson first noted the obvious contradiction between the reality implied by the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the reality of our human experience of a world growing ever more complex. Consequently, Prigogine's work directly suggests that science requires a discourse more complex that simplifying formalisms; the naive realism to which the mere logic of classical scientific discourse is confined no longer serves. Prigogine suggests that "the simplicity of...physics and chemistry was due to the fact that attention was paid mainly to some very simplified situations, to heaps of bricks in contrast with the cathedral...." (11). Literature, in contrast, has access to tools that reflect how the cathredral actually grows and looks and feels.

Priogine's intention is not necessarily to privilege literature, but to move scientific understanding into the same realm to which literature has long held the bragging rights. Order Out of Chaos was originally published in France as La Nouvelle Alliance. In their English version the authors state that the intent of their French title was to show that Prigogine's theories, by erasing the scientific assumptions which were the source of irreconcilable differences, point to a resolution of the two-cultures problem.2 Prigogine's theory reconciles the austerity and time-idealizations of Newtonian mechanics with the indeterminacy and chaotic growth of the macroscopic world. It also puts science back in the realm of human language and the frame of human time, which abide by macroscopic (social or biological), not microscopic (mechanical) rules. "The natural sciences have thus rid themselves of a conception of objective reality that implied that novelty and diversity had to be denied in the name of immutable universal laws" (306).

In return, literature, unburdened by the prime directives of simplicity, transparency, and absolute authority, can now lay some claim to do a better job of describing some kinds of reality. Literature in its hyper-evolved discourse can capture and describe the time-bound, fluctuant, unstable growth of organic life and of human activity in the macroscopia. As Prigogine and Stengers note, creativity "breaks the temporal symmetry of the object" so that out of "the noise in which we live arises music" (311).3 In short, the new science of chaos demonstrates that narrative discourse has epistemological potency.

A group of SF authors have responded to this new empowerment of the narrative form with postmodern SF that uses Prigogine's theories not only as an explicit theme and subject, but also as empowerments of a more complex, dynamic discourse that raises the standards of SF as an art form— and our appreciation of its power.

The Line of Influence. Though Prigogine won the Nobel Prize in 1977, his own work wasn't published in English in any popular form until the translation of Order Out of Chaos from the French in 1987. James Gleick published his best-selling popularization of a parallel strain of chaos, Chaos: The Making of a New Science, in 1986. Although Prigogine's work is never mentioned in the text of this book, the territory explored by Gleick is virtually the same as that explored by Prigogine, so much so that one could safely say that the same "facts" are being explained by the two books. They are reconstituted, however, from the perspective of different versions of science's role, so that the two explanations come to strikingly different conclusions and portray very different applications.4

Therefore it is a tribute to the general intuition of SF, and in particular to the long-distance imaginative radar shown by A.A. Attanasio, that in his extravagant and lavishly-imagined tour de force, Radix, Prigogine's theories make a crucial, if cameo, appearance. Attanasio must have seized very quickly upon Prigogine's work soon after it appeared in the American press in order to have abstracted some of its essential implications, although they appear only in trace form, in a novel that was published as early as 1981.

Briefly put, Radix is a fantastic Bildungsroman that eventuates in the apotheosis of Sumner Kagan, a human of the 33rd century. Sumner's story begins with his depiction as a fat, bored, late adolescent who gets cheap thrills from playing tricks on gangs of punks and eluding the police. Eventually he is caught, sent off-planet as a slave, and selected for training by a warrior race that recognizes his genetic superiority. He undergoes a transformation into a hard, muscular, clearly superior being who now is approaching his destiny. He is stalked by a cyborg that has been programmed to kill him, for reasons that remain mysterious. As the novel nears its climax, it is clear that Sumner is the repository or avatar or puppet of "the Delph," a god-mind from another world who is controlling his destiny. It is also clear that his nemesis is Rubeus, an artifical super-intelligence originally created by the Delph to monitor the weather. Now, as the Delph grows old and (according to Rubeus) senile, Rubeus has visions of power that are literally driving him crazy. Able to incarnate himself in different forms, called "orts," Rubeus is tightening the circle around Sumner, who can eavesdrop, through dreams, on the supercomputer's thoughts [represented in brackets in the original text]:

Rubeus was mad....The voice inside his head glowed with Voice: [Only dissipation creates.] The insides of a thousand orts around Reynii radiated with the same psynergistic presence. Tree lizards, wolf, panther, cats, birds, bristled in a wakefulness more than their own. The placeless darkness behind their eyes turned on itself relentlessly: [Al wil passe].

....Rubeus was strongest in this ort, and he leaned his dark ogival face into the warmth of the sunlight with a deep gratification. He was indeed mad [Dissipative], and that joyed him so thoroughly an oblique smile creased his cheeks. [Madness is the supreme strategy.] To free himself from the Delph's programming—to be free—Rubeus had to break out of his mind. His mental fluctuations generated a Prigogine effect: they increased the number of interactions among his psychic systems and brought them into contact with each other in new and sometimes creative ways. Given enough time, Rubeus thought that his insanity would create a higher-order equilibrium: a new Mind, bigger and more aware— capable of outhinking Creation. [Life is a pattern.] He thought that. (372)

Attanasio's intuition here concerns the play between determinism and the freedom and unpredictability of organic growth in complex, unstable systems. Prigogine's theory suggests that far-from-equilibrium systems that fluctuate non-linearly can "leap" across statistical bifurcations into new orders of complexity by themselves. Attanasio, in his depiction of Rubeus as mad, portrays a machine, a complex deterministic system, that rivals (indeed, surpasses) organic systems, and now seeks to evolve itself into a higher level of complexity, a new order of being.

One of the intriguing implications in Attanasio's vision here is that the difference between artificial and natural is effaced when we view complex phenomena as dissipative structures.5 It hardly matters that Rubeus began his "life" as a machine, since he has achieved a level of complexity that now is capable of evolution on its own. It is hard not to speculate to what extent current theories of artificial intelligence might be enriched by adopting Prigogine's models based on non-linear mathematics as opposed to strictly formal models based on classical mechanics and logic.

But beyond that, it seems clear that Attanasio has consciously applied the consequences of Prigogine's theory to empowering his own work. In the passages describing Rubeus's discourse in particular, the style becomes fluctuant, unstable, grammatically complicated and hyperbolic. Attanasio has thus figured the drama (Rubeus is trying to leap into a higher order of organization by becoming a god-mind and defeating the Delph) in the syntax. The message is clear: both Rubeus and Attanasio's prose are dissipative structures, chaos machines.

The UT Connection: Shiner and Sterling. Prigogine's thinking has promoted highly original, interdisciplinary work in biology, ecology, traffic studies, astrophysics, thermodynamics, neurology, biophysics, chemistry, particle physics, and even the social sciences, economics, and management. The Ilya Prigogine Center for the Study of Statistical Thermodynamics has become a powerful force on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin (UT), where colleagues from many disciplines have collaborated on applying the dissipative-structure model to a wide variety of specific phenomena, such as population fluctuations of certain species in ponds, traffic flow in urban centers, etc.

Two SF writers closely associated with Austin and UT have obviously come under the sway of Prigogine's theories and the influence of his vision: Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling. In his fine mixture of social history, political critique, anthropology, and mystical SF, Deserted Cities of the Heart (1988), Shiner activates this intimate knowledge of Prigogine's work.

The hero of Deserted Cities is Thomas, a professor of anthropology on leave from "UT" and attached to an interdisciplinary project in Mexico City that has been "nationalized." Thomas's project is "the application of Ilya Prigogine's dissipative structures to the Mayan collapse, circa 900 a.d." His work involves a lot of computer time, and we get glimpses of the nature of his project, from which we can infer that he was studying the statistical mechanics of social fluctuations—based on features like the shifting trends in Mayan settlement locations leading to the sudden collapse of the Mayan empire (24).

Thomas believes, apparently, that his work on the collapse of Mayan civilization will help him illuminate the growing contemporary world crisis; and indeed, the novel is set in a growingly-apocalyptic near-future Mexico where US-sponsored goverment soldiers and the rebels are equally violent and equally indifferent to the fate of the disappearing native culture.

Thomas finds himself allied with the revolutionaries and with Lindsay, his brother's wife, with whom he teams up to find his long-lost brother Eddie. (Eddie drifted into the jungle in search of the Mayans.) They find Eddie and a small band of virtually the last living Mayans. The entire group ends up hiding out among the ruins of an ancient lost temple of the Mayans.

Prigogine's view of evolutionary self-organization provides numerous images and factual counterpoints throughout the book. At one point, Thomas tries to explain to Lindsay, who has become his lover, the complexity of his relationship with his former wife. "When she was with that other guy I was at UT and there were a lot of women around. Prigogine was there too. He'd won the Nobel in '77 and there was a lot of heat generated just from working with him, even though we weren't in the same department or anything. And suddenly there were women interested in me..." (125). Later, as Thomas throws pebbles into a pond, we watch the construction of a literary image by a chaotician's mind:

The turbulence made them dance, two steps to the right, up for a second, then spinning off sideways and down. Waterfalls were very big in Chaos Theory, of which Prigogine's work and Thomas' own work were just a part. According to classical physics the patterns should be predictable, because everything that went into them was quantifiable. Volume of water, depth of steambed, angle of gradient, everything. But the patterns were like living organisms, influenced by their own history and their reactions to each other, and they could never be nailed down.

What does this tell us, he thought? (146-47)

The unanswered question is left hanging as he is interrupted by the discovery of the body of a soldier. But the rest of the book is in some senses an answer to that question, an answer that is decidedly postmodern in its radical skepticism.

Since chaotic systems are deterministic but unpredictable, they virtually demand that the observer adopt a postmodern posture. Readers of postmodernism will recognize this posture—that the world appears bound by laws of nature but the results are unruly and unpredictable. The novels and stories of Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, John Barth, and Italo Calvino are virtually founded on the principle: the system invites you to attempt to map it by holding out the promise of determinism but then through the force of a law of nature, it denies you any answers. Until now we haven't had a scientific language to describe what postmodern fiction seemed to understand implicitly: Nature's the ultimate tease; you never know which way it's going to leap across the bifurcation.

The ripples-in-the-pond episode is the epistemological and thematic turning point in Shiner's novel. From this moment forward, Thomas finds all his remaining certitudes stripped away. For instance, he quickly loses faith in the "brujo" Ch'an Maxx, who is the guide through the time trip Eddie takes and the sociological/intellectual trip Thomas takes. A few pages later, Thomas finds himself totally disoriented: "everything that had happened in the last two weeks—all seemed to line up, like an arrow pointing at something he couldn't quite make out. Each new twist had pumped him higher, and now he was nearly manic" (151).

Similarly, Eddie gets drawn deeper and more radically into his dream-time encounters with the lost Mayan culture. He does so in a pattern of ever-more unstable loops through his tripping time-dislocation, a sort of positive feedback: "each new twist had pumped him higher," which is typical of dissipative structures. (Later in this essay, we will encounter this aspect of Chaos Theory, known technically as "period-doubling routes to chaos," in a remark by one of the heroes of the Gibson-Sterling book The Difference Engine: "Things get twice as bad twice as quickly.")

In parallel fashion, the unstable island of order that Thomas, Eddie, Lindsay, the rebels, and the aging remnants of the Mayan civilization have formed atop the Temple mount begins to fall apart: Eddie has sex with Lindsay, in a sense betraying Thomas, who had begun an affair with her even though she was Eddie's wife. Resentments of the Americans begin to seethe beneath the surface among the revolutionaries. The dead soldier Thomas found implies that the US-led attack on the revolutionary movement has located them and penetrated the perimeter of their defenses.

The remainder of the novel works out this gyring pattern of destabilization as the local events in "real" time begin to converge both with the collapse of the Mayan civilization in 900 AD to which Eddie has been time-tripping and with the "Great Cycle" of the Mayan calendar, which predicts "the end of the earth."

Shiner has crafted a fine postmodern SF text, carefully programming a secret structure within the larger pattern of his plot, challenging the reader to discover the message behind the tale with tantalizing clues about Prigogine's theory. Just before things really begin to fall apart, as Thomas is about to eat the magic mushroom that will transport him back to the Mayan time to rescue his brother from his immersion in that collapsing civilization, Lindsay is annoyed with him: "You're just like your brother...all you really want is to find the secret of life" (228). Thomas's reply challenges the reader: "[What I am seeking is] like when you're stoned sometimes and everything seems to make sense. That kind of answer. Seeing the pattern. That's what Prigogine's stuff is all about. Order out of chaos. Finding the pattern. That's what's important" (229).

Of course, Thomas is wrong, and in his eagerness to appease Lindsay and be off on his strange journey through time, has grabbed at a convenient excuse. But he has forgotten the answer he learned by looking at the pebble in the pond: there is no possible answer, no solution. There is a pattern in the apparent chaos, but we don't know where it will lead.

In good postmodern fashion, the key to Shiner's challenge is the treasure, or the treasure is the key, or the answer is the puzzle, pose it as you will: what the pebbles in the pond tell us is that the more complex the clues in the system, the less likely you are to be able to predict where it will go.

The Prigogenic Cosmos According to Sterling. Bruce Sterling is a friend of Lewis Shiner. Together with William Gibson (and others) they became associated with the cyberpunk movement, appearing together in the Mirrorshades anthology that Sterling edited in order to consolidate (he might say, put to rest) the cyberpunk movement in SF. Sterling and Shiner co-authored one story in the volume, "Mozart in Mirrorshades," also a time-travel fantasy which makes satiric points about the nature of the contemporary social order.

Sterling's use of Prigogine's (he would say "Prigoginic") theory is widespread throughout his oeuvre, which includes The Artificial Kid (1987), Schismatrix (1985), a collection of short stories, Crystal Express (1989), Islands in the Net (1989), and his collaboration with William Gibson, The Difference Engine (1991).6 Indeed, even the titles—Crystal Express, Islands in the Net, Schismatrix—allude to images of moving, growing lattices of organization that survive in a universal tide towards entropy and that leap across schisms to new orders of complex integration. Space will not permit me here to untangle all the many images and speculations about the future influence of Prigogine's theories that Sterling offers us throughout his fiction. Instead, I will concentrate on the far-future world he depicts in Schismatrix (S) and in a long short story in Crystal Express, "The Cicada Queen" (CQ).

This future world is a complex, many-sided game, including future humans who have divided themselves into seriously competitive factions. The two major philosophies are those of the "Mechanists" and the "Shapers." The former have plotted their own future evolution through the hypertrophic cultivation of various technologies, including the prosthetic, mechanical, and especially cybernetic ones. The Shapers rely on molecular biology, biochemistry, and especially genetic technologies to "shape" themselves and their own futures, primarily by extending life, sexual potency, and certain biological talents. In addition, there's an influential alien race of capitalist-like traders, known only as "the Investors," who have strongly bent human history to their profit. From back here in their past, we can perceive a certain irony (out of which Sterling makes some nice satiric hay): the two human factions are twinned, increasingly posthuman, artificially constructed beings who rely merely on different arrangements of cyborg techniques for their identities. The Shapers pride themselves on their eugenically-selected intelligence and despise the artificial computer implants and enhancements of their Mechanist doppelgangers, although as one of their spokesmen notes, the Shapers "might properly be defined as industrial artifacts" (CQ 49). The Mechanists rely on software implants and direct linking to computers to enhance their faculties, and they abhor the messy fecundity and (what they view as) the corruption of Shaper life. The factions have politics that match their technologies.

In this complexly-rendered future history, Sterling is drawn to the galaxial civilization in its decadence: apocalyptic, dangerously close to achieving the sort of critical mass or catastrophic fluctuations that will force it to leap to a new order of complexity, the Posthuman. So the speech of many characters is littered with references to this yearned-for future, and they chide each other with gibes like "Oh, show a little Posthuman fluidity" (CQ 59).

Through these complexities, it is clear that Sterling has invented a future history and world that is almost entirely propped up on Prigogine's theories of evolution applied to progress in social, biological, and technical organization. The Prigoginic view is this culture's reigning paradigm, a cosmology that the characters in these future worlds take for granted much as we do our Darwinian one. In Sterling's view, Prigogine is "the ancient terran philosopher" of the "posthuman" (CQ 50). This "Prigoginic" world-view has so suffused the culture that it is taught in schools much as evolution or atomic theory is today. Indeed, it is a young student who summarizes succinctly Sterling's project:

[Gomez] pulled a notebook from inside his willow-printed coat. He read loudly, desperately. 'A dissipative self-organizing system evolves along a coherent sequence of space-time structures. We may distinguish between four differnt dimensional frameworks: autopoeisis, ontogeny, phylogeny, anagenesis.' [See my explanation of these terms above.] 'And this is from my poetry class!' (S 244)

According to Sterling's projection of Prigogine, the universe evolves along one scale or Prigoginic level until it reaches its "event horizon" within that level. Then the system moves toward a catastrophe or statistical bifurcation familiar to chaoticians, often accreted around a single node or "catalyst" (which readers of the Gleick brand of chaos will recognize as a "strange attractor"). At crisis, the system prepares itself to take "the Prigoginic leap" (CQ 50) into a new order of being, one discontinuous—and in some senses incommunicado—with the previous one. As one character explains it, "Every level of complexity floats freely from the last" (CQ 60).

So though the four levels of Prigoginic Complexity are after all not so strange as a picture of evolution, the process by which they arise is decidedly "chaotic."

The raw, unstable, elemental, chaotic stuff that preceded space-time is the first level of Prioginic Complexity.

Out of a crisis in this pre-universe came space and time as we know them, as well as things, accretions of matter and energy, the planets, galaxies, elements, etc.: "Space-time, the Second Level of Complexity, expressed its noumenon in the whine of stars, the rumble of planets, the transcendent crackle and gush of the uncoiling sun" (CQ 81).

Under certain conditions of far-from-equilibrium, wildly fluctuating elemental systems bring forth arrangements of matter, energy, and information that regenerate spontaneously, reproduce, transmit information from one generation to the next, process: elementary fungi,, the Third Level.

The Third Level shudders to give birth to intelligent beings, the Fourth Level.

The Fourth Level yearns to force-evolve itself into the crisis that will bring on its ascendency to the Fifth Level, the Posthuman. Sterling's hero in "Cicada Queen" can trace the shape of the posthuman in the hyper-evolved nature of the "Lobsters," humans who have almost completely gone over to the other side and shucked their humanity like a caul, combining some Shaper technologies with those of the Mechanists to encase themselves in complete cyberneticized shells after undergoing biological transformations:

The Lobsters hooked into fluidic computers or sheltered themselves from solar storms and ring-system electrofluxes.

They never ate. They never drank. Sex involved a clever cyber-stimulation through cranial plugs. Every five years or so they 'molted' and had their skins scraped clean of the stinking accumulation of mutated bacteria that scummed them over in the stagnant warmth [of their suits].

They knew no fear....They were self-contained and anarchical. Their greatest pleasure was to sit along a girder and open their amplified senses to the depths of space, watching stars past the limits of ultraviolet and infrared....

There was nothing evil about them, but they were not human. As distant and icy as comets, they were creatures of the vacuum, bored with the outmoded paradigms of blood and bone. I saw within them the first stirrings of the Fifth Prigoginic far beyond intelligence as intelligence is from amoebic life or life from inert matter. (77)

I find this description of one of humanity's possible futures compelling, not so much because it is attractive (which it is in some zoned-out fashion) but because it seems plausible.

By now it should seem clear that Prigogine's theories of self-organization out of chaos and the cybernetic project to grow artificial-intelligence devices are intimately connected at some level I haven't completely elucidated. Attanasio's Rubeus and Sterling's cyborged Lobsters are products of autopoetic anagenesis: intelligence bootstraps through some crisis into a new level of complexity, a higher level of organization. And this is accomplished through a combination of cybernetic ("Mechanist") and genetic ("Shaper") tech.

In The Difference Engine, Sterling and Gibson perform the historical legwork and the intellectual/imaginative labor required to get to the root of this intimate connection between Chaos Theory and technologies of the mind.

The Difference Engine: Sterling and Gibson. In 1812 the cranky inventor Charles Babbage, while laboring over a particularly intractable calculation, exploded: "By God—I wish these calculations had been executed by steam" (Ritchie 60).

According to some accounts, in that moment Babbage conceived his idea for the "difference engine," a machine that would perform calculations as complex as logarithms—a scenario much more in keeping with the romantic rhetoric of the day, where halluciations, drugs, and dreams, not your collaborators, were the norm for sources of insight. And looking back, it does have the strange and gleaming appeal of an hallucination. Powered by steam, it would have been an analytical engine or "mill," and a "store" where certain routine operations for manipulating calculations would be kept and to which answers would be sent. It would use technology already available: the system of punch-cards Joseph Jacquard used to reproduce complex patterns in his looms, brass and wrought-iron fittings, the steam-powered engine ultimately powered by coal. In short, it was a perfect and influential precursor of the modern computer.

Imagine now that Babbage, instead of foiling his own project at every turn with arguments, fitful starts, grandiosity, and nervous breakdowns, succeeded in building his engine circa 1829, two years after the Royal Society and the British government renewed his grant for research.

That essentially is the premise of The Difference Engine, a brilliant collaboration between William Gibson (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) and Bruce Sterling, authors with luxurious and robust imaginations.

Together, these progenitors of cyberpunk project the state of English culture two or three decades after Babbage's success, roughly about the time it took for our computer revolution to completely alter the shape of our contemporary history and thought. They've outfitted the period with the rigorously remembered/resurrected argot of 1855 and an intensely imagined "verisimilitude" (the word is laden with irony) of the now-transformed streets of London. They've also redrawn the map of the world based upon the power delivered into the hands of the British Empire. Difference engines guide the artillery bristling from every English warship. Amazing new powers of information gathering and thus strategic planning and statistical prediction are controlled by British empire builders and politicos. As a result, Britain keeps the New World, especially the territories that would have been the United States in fractious infancy, torn apart by the interests of Mexicans, native Americans, French colonists, abolitionists, and slavers.

The story is a convoluted thriller, filled with the sort of plotted and conceptual twists that could only have been executed in a postmodern era. Indeed, these narrative devices secretly become the point, as I will show.

It's 1855. Babbage's own daughter, Lady Ada Babbage, a mathematical prodigy, has developed a viral, recursive computer program that is so powerfully paradoxical that it effectively sabotages any difference engine which tries to run it. This is another Gibson-Sterling insider's joke: Ada's program is what 20th-century members of our own parallel reality might recognize as Kurt Gödel's mathematical proof of his Incompleteness Theorem (a fact we discover only in the epigraph to the novel). It also slyly fulfills William Burroughs's dictum for any intellectual guerrilla-neo-Luddite-anarchist-pomo-cyberpunker-hacker who wishes to sabotage the Ellul-technique of Culture: program the machine with the simple positive feedback message, Dismantle Thyself. Lady Ada, however, in a stroke of brilliant characterization, is also a gambling addict. No doubt her neurosis is coeval with her mathematical genius. As in most compulsive neuroses which come from rehearsing the drama of some unacceptably paradoxical trauma over and over as if repeating the script will make it right, Lady Ada's gambling brings her smack up against the profound randomness of the universe. As Gibson and Sterling know, it was this very concept—that the universe is best represented in the throw of the dice—that made Einstein so snappish about Heisenberg's Uncertainty theorem.

Lady Ada's peccadilloes in gambling and other vices lead her secret program, incarnated in a box of plastic punch cards, to become the object of neo-Luddite anarchist criminals. This same band almost succeeds in seizing London during an apocalyptic collapse of the local environment, a foul atmospheric inversion at the height of summer that is made lethal by the technology Gibson and Sterling have unleashed on 19th-century London. But the box of program cards carried by Lady Ada at a racetrack falls into the hands of Edward Mallory, apparently quite by accident (was it chaotically random or part of a hidden plot?). Mallory is the discoverer of the fossil of the Land Leviathan in the wilds of America and the hero of the Royal Society. Lady Ada, the secret program, and eventually London itself are saved from the neo-Luddites by this strong-jawed athletic paleontologist-Darwinian-catastrophist (Victorian scholars take note), a hybrid of Sherlock Holmes, if you can imagine Holmes having imbibed more Ilya Prigogine than a seven percent solution, and Flashman, George Macdonald Frazer's Victorian hero.

Through Mallory's point of view, The Difference Engine synthesizes Chaos Theory and cybernetics. As Mallory wanders the streets of increasingly cataclysmic London, he echoes (or presciently anticipates) familiar principles from the chaotician's lexicon: the drunkard's walk, strange attractors, Prigogine's version of dissipative structures, and period-doubling routes to chaos: "London is a complex system out of equilibrium. It's like—it's like a drunken man, blind drunk, in a room with whiskey bottles....Things will get twice as bad twice as rapidly" (223)

Later, we overhear Mallory considering evolution itself—aided by catastrophe—leaping across the bifurcation. The prose here describes a complexity that, I believe, derives from Sterling and Gibson's conscious answer to Prigogine's call for a new order of discourse:

By the twilight blur of the fully-risen sun, he reckoned it near eight o'clock. Dawn had come, yet brought no day. The Land Leviathans had seen this very sky, he knew, after the earth-shaking shock of the Great Comet. For the scaly herds, ceaselessly progressing through the teeming jungles, driven always by a mighty hunger in their great fermenting bellies, this had been the sky of Armageddon. Storms of Cataclysm lashed the Cretaceous earth, vast fires raged, and cometary grit sifted through the roiling atmosphere, to blight and kill the wilting foliage, till the mighty Dinosauria, adapted to a world now shattered, fell in massed extinction, and the leaping machineries of Evolution were loosed in chaos, to re-populate the stricken Earth with strange new orders of being. (237-38).

The Butterfly Effect and Postmodern Narrative. Another concept of Chaos Theory applied in the novels of Attanasio, Shiner, Sterling, and Gibson is the Butterfly Effect. According to this aspect of Chaos Theory, very small changes have enormous consequences. A butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo can cause a tornado in Toledo.

This principle, however, is so deeply woven into the very nature of fictional narrative itself that one need not look very far to find it lurking in The Difference Engine. The very premise of the book is that this one small, highly plausible change in history—Babbage's success in completing his difference-engine project in 1829—has system-shattering historical consequences, and thus belongs to the alternate-history subgenre of SF. What makes this narrative program so interesting is that such a view of time and causality is the very stuff of the traditional novel, of the narrative, of the human point of view, of macroscopic realism. Yet by virtue of the new paradigmatics of Chaos Theory, this appreciation for human-bound (and one might say, subject-bound) discourse has now insinuated itself into the belly of science's grand Weltanschauung. Physics has caught up with Fielding, Dickens, Austen, Trollope, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and every other novelist for whom small accidents send the hearts of mortals and their fates wheeling out of their appointed Newtonian orbits into grand twists of fate and destiny. For instance, take this passage from Fielding's 1749 novel, Tom Jones (the muff in question is one which Tom had once covered with kisses, as Sophia had been told by her maid, so that she considered it, as Tom had been told by the maid, a token of the love he had not dared to express openly):

Sophia looked this evening with more than usual beauty, and we may believe that it was no small addition to her charms, in the eye of Mr. Jones, that she now happened to have on her right arm this very muff.

She was playing one of her father's favourite tunes, and he was leaning on her chair when the muff fell over her fingers and put her out. This so disconcerted the squire that he snatched the muff from her, and with a hearty curse, threw it into the fire. Sophia instantly started up and with the utmost eagerness, recovered it from the flames.

Though the incident will probably appear of little consequence to many of our readers, yet trifling as it was, it had so violent an effect on poor Jones that we thought it our duty to relate it. In reality, there are many little circumstances too often omitted by injudicious historians from which the events of the utmost importance arise. The world may indeed be considered a vast machine, in which the great wheels are originally set in motion by those which are very minute, and almost imperceptible to any but the strongest eyes. (§5.5:172-73)

As a result of Sophia's impulsive action in snatching the muff from the fire, Tom now knows to be true what he had hardly dared to believe from the maid's gossip: that Sophia returns his love. The poignance and even the plot of the subsequent events in the novel hinge in very large measure upon the recognition that flows from this event, for much of what follows chronicles Tom's attempts—often unsuccessful—to hold, in face of all the temptations he encounters, to his chivalric code of chastity and thus be worthy of Sophia's love. The world of Fielding's novel is indeed a "vast machine in which the great wheels are originally set in motion by those which are very minute, and almost imperceptible to any but the strongest eyes."

Indeed, without a recognition of the powerful role the Butterfly Effect plays in human destiny, virtually every great novelist and dramatist, including Shakespeare, would have been out of business. But before Chaos Theory, such a view of human experience was alien to science, dismissed as pertinent only to the realm of accident, coincidence, kismet, and messy human affairs. Though Newtonian time and causality were strictly idealized (symmetrical, formal, operating best at the microscopic level where non-linear effects like friction might be discounted), the paradigm was—and still is—mistaken for "common sense," while the common and sensible events of everyday life and in the biosphere were and are beyond the ken of classical dynamics. To me, by contrast with the recognizable sensibility of the world described by chaos, Newton's world—where reactions could be reversed and all interactions reduced to very simple laws—seems like a sort of weird SF space, a minimalist abstraction belonging to some imaginative experiment. Chaos unfolds to our view a nature that seems to be speaking the same language as great mimetic artists.

In short, maybe the humanist-ritual culture has had it right all along, and we had merely to suffer through this long aberrant age, Newton's sleep, waiting for a new ruling paradigm in order to wake up. But so what if Chaos Theory lends new epistemological heft and credence to the novelist's point of view? Is it more than a fashionable scientific paradigm?

Sterling and Gibson (and Attanasio before them) seem to think so. They seize upon chaos as a persuasive view of being-and-becoming itself, one that might explain how a machine could spring into its own autonomous life in a far-from-equiblibrium open arrangement.

For there is the little hidden jest at the heart of the novel, or rather, in its first and last pages. There we find evidence that The Difference Engine is another example of that postmodern genre I've elsewhere dubbed "cybernetic fiction": it's a story told by an intelligent machine. Thus it joins John Barth's Giles Goat Boy, John McElroy's PLUS, and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, not to mention works by Calvino, Pynchon, Barthelme, Beckett, Burroughs, Delillo....7 This time it is a narrating computer who (or which) in 1990, now having been given a century-and-a-half headstart on evolution, shudders and yearns for its own feedback growth into...what? True self-actuating intelligence? Transcendence (shades of Gibson's Wintermute-Neuromancer)? Organic life? In so doing it also seeks the roots of its own origins, which it discovers in this story of the legacy of Babbage's success back in 1855.

Or maybe it made the whole thing up—fantasized its own autobiography (cf. Barth's "Autobiography" in Lost in the Funhouse), thus making the title its story, its author, and its subject paranomasically congruent: I am the Engine which creates Differences, thank you.

Call the Turing police, somebody, please.

Let me end with a scholarly note that underscores the intellectual feat and power of The Difference Engine. Our cybernetics—the cybernetics of Wiener, Turing, Shannon, Weaver, and von Neumann—was born in reaction to the devastation of the positivist project by Gödel's Theorem and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Wiener, von Neumann, and (to a certain extent) Turing were attempting to rescue rationality itself from powerful attacks on its foundations. The goal, and the route to it, was to build a brain on mechanical principles that could think with strict and formal rationality. Such a brain, they assumed, would "think" anything that could be thought, thus conquering the twinned demons of incompleteness and uncertainty. Yet as the AI theorist Herbert Simon has said, "All systems of reasoning are grand tautologies, but only God can make use of that fact" (15).

The point is that cybernetics was essentially a technical response to a philosophical challenge, an incipient—if reactionary—half of what has emerged as the postmodern dialectic: the battle between humanity and its mechanical systems of description. Gibson and Sterling have contributed to this postmodern drama or dialogue by imagining it all backwards. Their cybernetics is birthed by a machine, which incubates its culture with a nascent postmodern philosophy—including the paradigm of chaos—to match. Their cybernetics begins with an overgrown slide rule, a technical innovation, and ends with Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. It begins in determinism and predictability and ends in groping intuitions about feedback loops and autopoetic self-organization and the anagenetic sentience of machines—in short, in postmodern concerns. In the end, Sterling and Gibson intimate (in the 1990 of this alternate history), you need chaos dynamics and the sensibility of Gödel's insufficiency of formalism in order to grow a fully intelligent brain from mere brass and steam—or any other mechanics, for that matter.

To take a phrase from Norbert Wiener, The Difference Engine "banishes to the limbo of badly posed questions the mechanism-vitalism duality" (44). The novel leaves me with no doubt that the proper models for artificial intelligence in our time line cannot rely on formal logic alone. The part of our brain that controls and grows in locked looping with our tools and the part that makes connections among everything to formulate grandiose world-building hallucinations of philosophy and fiction and science are at least isomorphisms of the mysterious and chaotic activity of our complex biological evolution itself, which relies on chaos. There it is, the human brain, that great difference engine, frothing and sputtering away like a mass of leaky coaxial cable drowning in a synaptic bath.

Gibson and Sterling have written a novel told by an artificial intelligence elucidating a moment in its own past when a small event—Mallory's rescue of the box containing the engine-destroying program of Lady Ada's Incompleteness Theorem—enables its own future evolution into an intelligence that can tell its own story, beyond the strictures of formal logic and mechanism. As a result, the mechanics of chaos, the narrator of the novel, the novel itself, and its subject all collide and collaborate to become the same sort of thing: they are all engines of difference, dissipative structures, generators of complex and complicating discourses.

As Prigogine suggests, the two opposed urges (let's call them that for now)—the urge to write simplified formal descriptions of mechanism vs. the urge to embrace complex chaos, the urge to map vs. the urge to lie, the urge to build suggestive machines vs. the urge to ensure they dismantle themselves by trying to tell complete and consistent stories—are in fact one and the same. As Gibson and Sterling suggest by looking backwards to look forwards, and as Attanasio and Shiner imagine, the future obeys a simple law: it's going to get twice as complex twice as quickly.


1. If we wander down the pathway pointed to by Prigogine's theories we might define mind as one of the most fertile dissipative structures, itself a product of the dissipative structuration of biological evolution and in turn a great progenitor of other dissipative structures, like technology and literature which extend its power and promulgate information. Indeed, this essay relies on just such a definition. For an interesting parallel exploration of the second-order cybernetic view of the evolution of the mind, see Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela, The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Boston & London, 1987).

2. The primary obstacle was the clinging of physics to the notion of time as an independent, reversible operator at the microscopic level and consequently to the tacit position that natural truth flowed from the microscopic level. By showing the ineluctable connection between microscopic and macroscopic, Prigogines's theory forces an alliance between philosophy, history, and language, on the one hand, and time-independent physics on the other.

3. For a longer exploration of Prigogine's theories for the epistemological potency of narrative, see my essays: "Literature as Dissipative Structure: Prigogine's Theory and Postmodernism's Roadshow," in Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, ed. N. Katherine Hayles (Chicago, 1991), 54-84, and "Eudoxical Discourse: A post-modern model for the relations between science and literature," Modern Language Studies 20.4 (Fall 1990): 40-64.

4. For an exposition of these contrasting versions of chaos science, see my essay "Making Chaos: Two Views of a New Science," The New England Review and Breadloaf Quarterly 21.4 (Summer 1990): 427-42.

The only time Prigogine's name occurs in Gleick's book is in an oblique reference buried in a footnote to one of the last pages of the book. There Gleick talks about "thoughtful physicists" who have reconsidered the role of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics in cosmology. The note to this comment reveals that Gleick is not even thinking about Prigogine directly, but about P.W. Atkins, whose 1984 book, The Second Law, Gleick greatly admires for its discussion of "the creative power of dissipation in chaotic systems." Then, and only then, Gleick also mentions Prigogine in terms that, were science popularization a cocktail party, would seem like a snub: "A highly individual, philosophical view of the relationship between thermodynamics and dynamical systems is Ilya Prigogine's Order out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature" (339). This citation is peculiar on several counts. First, despite the obvious relation of the title to the concerns of Gleick's book, there is, in the one-clause gloss of the book, no hint that Prigogine's work also explores the revolutionary role of non-linear models for explaining how order arises out of complexity. Furthermore, there's no hint of the impact Prigogine's work has had on chaos studies in ways that would fulfill even Gleick's Kuhnian requirements for a revolution.

5. For a more extensive discussion of this implication of Prigogine's work, see my "Literature as Dissipative Structure," mentioned in note 3 above.

6. Sterling's earlier Involution Ocean shows a concern with the complexity of life and with evolution, but it seems to antedate his involvement with Prigogine and his theories.

7. For an explanation of the genre of postmodern fiction in which the narrative is spun by an artificial intelligence, see my book The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (London, 1985).


Attanasio, A.A. Radix. NY: Bantam, 1985.

Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones. NY: Modern Library, n.d.

Gibson, William, & Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. NY: Bantam, 1991.

Gleick, James. Chaos: The Making of a New Science. NY, 1987.

Herbert, Nick. Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics. NY, 1985.

Pask, Gordon. "The Meaning of Cybernetics in the Behavioral Sciences." Progress in Cybernetics, Vol 14. Ed. J. Rose. NY, 1969. 15-44.

Prigogine, Ilya. From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences. San Francisco, 1980.

————— & Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature. NY, 1984.

Ritchie, David. The Binary Brain: Artificial Intelligence in the Age of Electronics. Boston, 1984.

Shiner, Lewis. Deserted Cities of the Heart. NY: Doubleday, 1988.

Simon, Herbert. The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA, 1969.

Sterling, Bruce. "Cicada Queen." Crystal Express. By Sterling. NY: Ace, 1990.

—————. Schismatrix. NY: Ace, 1986.

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA, 1948.

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