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Noticing sources from Information Theory in Le Guin's "soft" fantasy

Ursula K. Le Guin was my favourite SciFi & Fantasy writer. Her passing earlier in the year was a great loss.

I'm reading her scifi-fantasy book Always Coming Home (1985), a compilation of "in-universe" codices and oral traditions as seen by an anthropologist. Her works were usually put in the "soft scifi" bin, as opposed to the "harder" genre. What caught my attention was a passage from the book, as appeared in an oral narrative (p. 161):

There are records of the red brick people in the Memory of the Exchange, of course, but I don't think many people have ever looked at them. They would be hard to make sense of. The City mind [a vast autonomous network of computers] thinks that sense has been made if a writing is read, if a message is transmitted, but we don't think that way.

Here we're called to notice the information vs. meaning distinction, for which a lot has been said and will be said. It was striking to me how the definition of "sense" according to the "City mind" closely paralleled the concept of information in Claude E. Shannon's seminal paper, A Mathematical Theory of Communication (PDF link). There, "information" simply meant what was transmitted between a sender and a receiver. It gave rise to a consistent definition of the amount of information based on the Shannon entropy.

However, we implicitly feel that this concept of information isn't encompassing enough to include meaning -- a vague term, but one we feel to be important. It seems that meaning enters information only as we (or someone) interpret it. In the words of computer scientist Melanie A. Mitchell, "meaning" seems to have an evolutionary value (Complexity: a Guided Tour, 2009). I feel that we could as well say, meaning may be bonded to the bodily and messy reality where flesh and blood living is at stake.

Returning to the passage in the novel, for me it was read as a rare spark of "hard" science in Le Guin's scifi works. Was it possible that she actually read into the information theory for inspiration? I don't know. But it appears to have captured the tension in the "ever-thorny issue" of meaning vs. information. For the computers, "sense" follows the information-theory concept of information; but for the human people in the story, it "would be hard to make sense of" the information in that way.

Do you have similar "aha" moments, where you find a insightful moment of grasping an important "hard-science" idea while immersed in a "soft" scifi/fantasy work?

Or, we can talk about anything vaguely connected to this post :) Let me know.

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    1. zoec
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      Hmm, interesting! It wasn't that the book was labelled as "soft". I was mainly thinking of Le Guin's style in other scifi stories, especially her Hainish novels. In those writings, science and...

      Hmm, interesting!

      It wasn't that the book was labelled as "soft". I was mainly thinking of Le Guin's style in other scifi stories, especially her Hainish novels. In those writings, science and technology were mostly plot-devices that weren't developed in detail as science/tech. An example would be the Ansible, a scientific wonder, but the wonderful aspect wasn't its (fictive) science. Almost all her works could be read as anthropology, where science wasn't focused on with microscopic vision, but drawn as sketches or pained with broad strokes as a substrate of society (which was an important point in Always Coming Home, so far as I've read). Definitely not "completely mushy" :)

      So I got an "aha" moment when it jumped to me that there was this fairly accurate, detailed observation about a concept from science, expressed in passing by a narrator, which somehow seemed to hint paradoxically at its own stylistic novelty. I didn't feel it was typical of her usual style -- or just earlier style.

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