Tessellations for the End of History

I have long been fascinated by tessellations as metaphors for ways of knowing about and being in the world. A set of prototiles that can cover a world in an exhaustive and mutually exclusive way constitutes something like a theory of that world. The rules of the tiling are the rules of the world. The set of prototiles is the ontology underlying the theory. The size of that set is a measure of the efficiency of your understanding. Recognitions of repeating patterns in the emergent tiling are understandings of specific aspects of the phenomenology of the world. Actually creating a specific tiling by placing tiles on a smooth surface, to create navigable striations, is the praxis of the way of knowing.

To state it in terms of my new favorite frame, tessellations are something like metaphors for protocols of knowing and being. Given the right set of tiles, you can know the world and be in it, in a powerful way. Perhaps this is one way to understand the story of Robert Moses, architect of New York. He tessellated his world with tiles of his choosing.

Ideally, you want the richest, most complex tiling possible to cover a “blank” world, such as the 2d Euclidean plane, to maximally reveal the possibilities latent within it. Yes, you can cover the Euclidean plane with a boring regular grid of square tiles, but you can also cover it with strange aperiodic tilings, and in some ways, the latter constitute a truer “theory of the plane.” The intuitively appealing principle that you should look for the richest possible tessellation is a kind of dual to Occam’s razor. Instead of choosing the simplest explanation that covers a given world of facts, you choose the covering that produces the most complex world of facts. Ideally, the maximally complex set of facts. Instead of solving for explanatory parsimony, you solve for generative profligacy.

One proxy for such maximality is Turing-completeness, and at least some (all?) aperiodic tilings, like Wang tilings, are known to be Turing complete. Jed Yang published a PhD thesis in 2013 about the computational aspects of tessellations, and also connected tiling-based computation to Turing-complete cellular automata, such as Wolfram’s Rule 110. Googling around, I also found this fascinating presentation by Kathleen Lindsay about playing Conway’s Game of Life on an aperiodic tiling. It seems like tilings and cellular automata are equivalent ways of understanding universal computation, and at least to me, these spatial processes seem more intuitively appealing than infinite tape machines or the lambda calculus. And of the two, I think I prefer tessellations over automata, since the computational process is embedded in the texture of the space itself, as opposed to a 0/1 switching process playing out on it.

As you may have guessed, aperiodic tessellations have been on my mind lately because last week the first aperiodic monotile, the “hat” (an “Einstein” tile, named for the German ein stein, or one stone, rather than the physicist) was discovered. It is not quite a monotile since you have to use it along with its mirror image to aperiodically tile the plane (the blue vs. yellow instances in the picture below), but still, this is a fascinating leap. The last best attempt, the class of two-tile solutions known as Penrose tiles, seemed like the End of History of Tessellations to me, but apparently we had a chapter left. I suspect this is the end though. I somehow doubt we’ll get it down to a single kind of tile without the mirroring cheat (I wonder if anyone has proved that a single tile, without mirroring, cannot tile the plane aperiodically).

Aperiodic tiling with the hat, credit: Gringer, Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0

Recreational mathematicians are going a bit nuts with this discovery, and I’m 3d-printing a set to play with (I’m using this model) as we speak.

I’m especially intrigued by the idea of painted kites. The hat can be decomposed into 8 kite shapes that can be “decorated” in a way that the resulting hat tilings create strange aperiodic maps. These feel exciting in the same way the original pictures of the Mandelbrot set felt exciting in the 1980s. Unfortunately, my 3d printer is single-nozzle, so I can’t print these easily.

Credit: Galaxy Map account on Twitter.

While I’m nerdsniped by these tilings and painted tilings, I’m not enough of a mathematician to truly explore them in any technically deep way. But I suspect that after the late J. G. Ballard, whose complete short stories I just finished, I’m quite possibly the person who has spent the most time thinking about tessellations as world-narrative metaphors, so let me talk about that instead.

The goal: get to post-Ballardian ways of thinking about our End of History condition, via aperiodic tessellations (plus noise).

Tetris as Life

Let’s start with a relatively simple and obvious tessellation metaphor. In my book Tempo, I used Tetris (a tiling game that can range from trivially solvable to impossible depending on the mix of tiles you get) as a metaphor for life itself.

The beauty of Tetris is that it turns one of the two dimensions of tiling problems into a scrolling time dimension. Tetris is NP-complete, so the fact that the game screen scrolls at a steady pace with an unpredictable mix of tiles (called tetronimoes) streaming at you makes it frustrating in a way that feels uncannily life-like. If you play Tetris for long enough, you’ll dream of falling blocks. I’m not the only who thinks this — apparently the makers of the upcoming Tetris biopic think so too (the protagonist calls it the “perfect game” and also mentions dreaming in Tetris).

Tetris is not just NP-complete, it is what I think of as human-complete in a toy way. When life gives you only squares and sticks, it feels boring. When it gives you L’s and T’s as well, it feels more interesting but unchallenging. If it gives you S’s and Z’s it starts to get challenging. If it gives you too many S’s and Z’s, it starts to feel increasingly impossible. Aging feels like more and more pieces being S’s and Z’s.

Tetris prototiles are not an aperiodic set as far as I know (a set is aperiodic only if it only allows aperiodic tilings), but they make for a pretty nice warm-up metaphor for Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Tessellations and Classical Narratives

Tetris is a narrative you play out in real-time, and invariably ends with your death. As a story, it corresponds to what I called the Freytag staircase in Tempo. You can usefully think of the y-axis here as the height of the Tetris stack over a game.

The story climbs to higher entropy steadily. As some of the Tetris rows fill up and vanish, you get temporary entropy reversals, but eventually the S’s and Z’s get you. You hit the ceiling of maximum entropy and die a personal heat death.

The individual chapters of the story between birth (empty plane) and death (fully tiled plane) have their own interesting structure though. I named the one I developed for Tempo the double Freytag, shown in the inset gray box. It is derived from a classic simpler model, perhaps the simplest known narrative template: The Freytag triangle. Let’s work with that one. It’s a good minimalist visualization of familiar templates like Campbell’s Hero’s Journey monomyth.

How can you think of the Freytag triangle in terms of tessellations?

In 2015, I did a talk at Refactor Camp on narrative structure (slides here, I don’t think we recorded it) exploring the idea of stories as journeys to and form differently tessellated realities, via portals. Among all the talks I’ve ever given, it is probably my favorite. Or at least in the top 3.

Here is a slide from the talk, showing the Freytag triangle of the Lord of the Rings, viewed as a journey from Square Land to Triangle Land and back.

A portal in this view is a liminal passage where the logics of two otherwise parallel tessellations collide. In the case of the Lord of the Rings, we cross over the first time Frodo puts on the ring and experiences the logic of the Sauron Ascendant world. We return when the ring is destroyed. Most fantasy stories have very clear portal elements. More literary stories have them too, in subtler forms.

What do I mean by the logic of a tessellation? I mean roughly the rules of the world induced by the tiling. How you move on a tiling is a good example of world-logic rules.

Let’s say you want to journey from red dot to green dot in the two tilings. In square world, upwards and rightwards are “right” ways to move, backwards and leftwards are “wrong,” and trying to move in directions other than the cardinal ones is not-even-wrong. The triangles world has similar rules.

Here’s the important point: if you’re moving around in square world, your behavior will look not-even-wrong when observed in triangle world, and vice-versa.

You can connect this to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of smooth vs. striated (roughly, rule-free vs. rule-following) spaces and behaviors. Movement along the striations of an invisible world will look smooth in the context of a visible one. If the former is sufficiently richer, it will look magically smooth, exploiting cryptic laws you can’t comprehend by analogy to the simpler laws you live within.

This micro-level mental model gives us a way to understand the macro-structure of a classical Freytag triangle narrative: you move from a tessellation defining the everyday world (generally simpler) to one defining the adventure world (generally more complex), and then you return. To complete your journey you must master two tessellations as a hero, and choose one (typically the one you departed from and return to) as the sacred one, the other being profane. In my schematic, square world is sacred, triangle world is profane. In general, reactionary stories treat the simpler world as more sacred, while progressive ones treat the more complicated world as more sacred.

Aperiodicity With Randomness Is All You Need

The big idea to take away from the discussion of Freytag staircases and triangles is that the rules of the world can change. Classical narratives have a pair of rule changes that cancel out (or more precisely, almost cancel out) over the course of a story. A cradle-to-grave narrative like the Freytag staircase has a creeping accumulation of rule changes (best understood as a drift in the inbound tile distribution of a Tetris game) that eventually kills you. But equally, you could tell a story about elevation, sublimation and transcendence with such a template (Bruce Lee’s Game of Death is a somewhat overwrought example).

In the talk I linked to, I was exploring divergent and convergent narrative structures, which I mapped to serendipitous (generative) and zemblanitous (doomed) monotonic trajectories.

In the Freytag staircase, “up” means “more entropic and information dense” but otherwise there is no particular valence to the monotonicity. Back in 2015, I couldn’t see an easy way to connect the valence (serendipity/zemblanity) to the entropic monotonicity. I had this macro-structure diagram (a “top view” of the Freytag staircase) of a serendipitous story in the deck, but I didn’t have a proper micro-structure:

But it feels like there should be something more fundamental going on. I had this speculative slide (somewhat inspired by Escher’s etching Liberation, featuring a triangle tessellation turning into a flock of escaping doves), groping and gesturing at aperiodicity through the lens of my 2015 post, The Design of Escaped Realities (which is probably the most obscure post in my personal favorites top 5 list):

The rough idea here is that serendipitous stories are marked by a progressive increase in complexity, variety and aperiodicity, but perhaps aperiodicity is all you need, and the complexity and variety follow? Perhaps the single hat tile is rich enough to describe what I’m gesturing at here?

Certainly it is a better way to model shifting world-rules than the rather crude idea behind the Freytag staircase: as a series of chapter-like stories featuring paired rule changes.

Or perhaps not. There is an element missing: true randomness. Generative accumulation I suspect can only get you to pseudo-entropy via pseudo-randomness. True randomness must be injected into the tessellation somehow. In the context of cellular automata, Von Neumann showed that open-ended evolution in his (Turing-complete) Universal Constructor world required the injection of randomness. Natural evolution requires random mutations to drive it too.

Maybe all you need to constitute a minimum-viable way of knowing the 2d world is something like the hat tile, and a source of randomness. The world will evolve as a tiling with gaps and cracks created by randomness.

Maybe aperiodicity plus randomness is all you need to tell stories about any arbitrary world?

Tessellations as Infrafictions

Let’s connect this line of thinking to J. G. Ballard’s fiction.

Ballard didn’t really write fiction so much as what you might think of as infrafiction. If you think about the relation between fiction and the currently fashionable mode of metafiction, infrafiction is sort of the opposite of that.

Instead of trying to rise above a story via contrivances like multiverses, broken fourth walls, and self-aware commentary, infrafiction attempts to sink below it to the bedrock of narrative worlds and rules. It attempts to draw out the fundamental grammar of an interesting backdrop. If you’ve every watched a movie featuring a simulation premise, you’ve seen those scenes where the illusion of reality dissolves to reveal a regular compute grid underneath (The Thirteenth Floor is a good example, as are several Rick and Morty episodes, and in an indirect way, the symbol-stream version in The Matrix). Infrafiction is stories about those grids or symbol streams. You dispense with the cosmetic layers altogether.

Though he did some very effective world-building, it is better to think of Ballard’s fiction as being focused on world engines, in the sense of game engines. Ballard’s world engines produce procedurally generated worlds. When he succeeds, the result is what seem eerily like powerful tessellations of uncanny realities right next door to familiar ones.

In some ways, I’m very glad I only got around to reading Ballard this year, at the ripe old age 48. If I’d read him in my 20s I’d probably have given up on writing altogether. The thematic resonances are strong to the point of uncanny, and I’ve never read anyone with a stylistic disposition so close to mine (though my skill is unfortunately not quite in the same class). I’ve always thought of myself as immune to what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence, but reading Ballard, I definitely felt that anxiety acutely. This guy was writing the way I most naturally want to write, about the things I most like writing about, a decade before I was born. He was doing refactored perception and constructions in magical thinking with fiction long before I started doing it with nonfiction. My best attempts at fiction, like The Map and The Retiree, now read like Ballard pastiches to me. Like Ballard, I basically neglect characters to the point of eliminating them altogether where possible, and try to take some sort of mechanistic conceit to an extreme in a procedural-generation mode. I just don’t do it as imaginatively or boldly.

In his preface to the complete short stories, Martin Amis describes Ballard as “if Borges and Saki had a child in the 1930s Shanghai.” While that’s certainly an evocative and accurate description, I have an alternative parentage theory that I think sheds more useful light for the topic at hand: if M. C. Escher and Salvador Dali had a child with an extraordinarily visual imagination, but a strong affinity for text, you’d get Ballard.

The connection to Dali is explicit. Ballard himself mentions Dali in his stories several times, and many of them are quite obviously attempts to explore Dali’s notions of space, time, and material distortions through the medium of literary invention. The fictional city of Vermillion Sands, (modeled on Palm Springs) where many of Ballard’s stories are set, is basically a literary ode to the spatialities, temporalities, and materialities depicted in Dali’s art.

The Escher connection, as far as I can tell, is not as explicit or acknowledged, but equally obvious. A good chunk of the stories are explicitly and self-consciously constructed as literal tessellation narratives. There are stories set in worlds that are infinite urban grids. There are stories about vast spaces shrinking, and small spaces expanding. There are stories about time getting chopped up or distorted in various ways. There are cellular-automaton-like design fictions in various stories, which explode in complexity. Most interesting for me, perhaps because I’ve explored the theme so little myself, is the trail of stories that explore materiality. These are stories where the environment gets mineralized or crystalized, or where time turns into material like in a Duchamp painting (think Nude Descending a Staircase as a short story and you get the idea).

There is a third aspect: like the worlds of Escher and Dali, but not so much those of Borges and Saki, Ballardian infrafictions seem deliberately and self-consciously depopulated. I think there was exactly one story dealing with overpopulation (the premise is a world where due to changing regulations, apartments keep getting smaller in terms of square footage, tiling the world ever more finely, and packing people ever more closely).

The vast majority of the stories feature weirdly depopulated worlds and settings. Empty hotels and resort towns, abandoned spaceports, and even completely depopulated worlds. Amis notes that Ballard was weak at character development and uninterested in it, but I think it goes deeper: he was anti-interested in human presence, and actively interested in human absence. This does not mean he was uninterested in humanity. He merely liked to explore the nature of presence through absence. I think I share this tendency. Making up characters bores me. A story idea is most fun for me to work out if I can eliminate all the characters. The Map has no characters. The Retiree has one character who is basically off-stage the whole time.

What is the point of such stories? They make for terrible fiction, but they make for great infrafiction. If you want to reveal the nature of a world and its rules, take away the people (or reduce them to automatic, aggregate psychohistorical processes) and see what it wants to do on its own, on autopilot. I think this was Ballard’s basic literary mission: To take away the people, and reveal the natural tessellation logic of various worlds through reductio ad absurdum infrafictions.

This is an excellent literary mission, but one that needs some updating for our times.

Post-Ballardian Infrafictions

Where I think I part ways with Ballard is via my interest in aperiodicity and randomness and how those elements get injected into more regular tessellations and infrafictions. Where Ballard’s infrafictions are basically textual doomsday devices, winding down to zemblanitous heat-deaths, I am most interested in textual serendipity engines, winding up to ever-greater complexity, generativity, and unpredictability. There’s a bit of that in some of Ballard’s stories, but fundamentally he’s a cartographer of zemblanitous infrafictions and dead or dying tessellated realities.

One result of this inclination is that Ballard’s stories seem curiously and deliberately flattened. To abuse a very nerdy math metaphor, Ballard’s infrafictions are tangent spaces of contemporary reality, exploring (almost) unchanging (almost) linear spaces tangentially attached to more dynamic nonlinear manifolds at interesting attachment points. As a result, the rules of Ballardian infrafictions don’t generally change through the story. What you get feels like explorations of periodic tessellations, crafted as degenerate states of more complex and lively realities.

I think this was because he was a product of his times, not because he lacked the imagination to go beyond. In a way, Ballard lived a few decades too early (1930-2009). Sadly, there are no explicit references to, or explorations of, Turing machines, cellular automata, fractals, computability theory, or aperiodic tessellation theory (at least in the short stories… I haven’t read the novels). These notions only began to suffuse the zeitgeist in the 90s, when computers turned into convenient tools for exploring them.

And in a way it’s a good thing that he limited himself to surrealist gesturing within static, linearized infrafictions of late industrial modernity. Thanks to that restraint, he was able to better explore things like the moods and vibes of things like cookie-cutter resort towns, at particular instants in time. Even his most temporally extended stories, unfolding over centuries, somehow feel like detailed natural histories of single historical moments (paradoxical as that sounds).

But perhaps the most important way in which Ballard was born before his time is that he was trying to write about the end of history, in the Fukuyama sense, before it had actually happened.

But can we go beyond Ballard, now that history has ended, and we do have both powerful computers and a rich conceptual vocabulary for thinking about computation?

Here’s the challenge: how do you write post-End-of-History Ballardian stories that take as their point of tangential departure from reality a universal computational process rather than a particular spatial, temporal, or material condition like urban grids?

While Ballard had some examples of computational processes, he was largely concerned with more static snapshot conditions. He lived a few decades too early to react to the procedurally-generated realities of the sort that’s increasingly like water for us.

Aperiodic Ballardian Canvases

Stated in pseudo-mathematical terms: How do you write a story about an infinite aperiodic hat tiling with occasional injections of noise, rather than about an Ballardian infinite regular grid evolving noiselessly? How do you write about a substrate that morphs endlessly in a Turing-complete way rather than crystalizing or mineralizing into a frozen isentropic state?

I think about this as the challenge of producing Aperiodic Ballardian Canvases or ABCs.

The thing about ABCs is that the local “rules” change in an unsettling, unpredictable and continuous way as you move. Every step is a portal to another micro-world.

If you’re on a square or triangle grid, at some point, things get so predictable that you can be on autopilot. The shortest-path algorithm for movement on a Manhattan grid (regular rectangular grid) for example, is simply to always move towards the goal without overshooting. If the destination is roughly northeast, any mix of north and east moves will do, so long as you don’t overshoot the destinations coordinates.

But on an aperiodic tiling, you cannot shut your brain off because the texture of the space itself changes slowly. And it does so neither deterministically, nor randomly. There are weird fractal resonances across scales that are potentially exploitable for computational efficiency, but they are too messy to be dealt with on autopilot. You have to think. If you don’t, your actions will not just go from right to wrong. They’ll go from right to wrong to not even wrong.

Life on an ABC is a computational process that competes with the computational process that is the world itself. You’re either racing ahead of the world-process, or falling behind. Either racing too far ahead or falling too far behind leads to anomie. Life is meaningful when you can just about barely keep up. Your OODA loop is entangled with the OODA loop of the world.

In Tetris, this is crudely captured by the shifting tile distribution. Squares and sticks are “dumb” tiles and it’s boring to live in a stream of those. You have to be really careless to create gaps and holes if you’re only getting those. But put enough S’s and Z’s in the stream, and no matter how smart you are, the game will defeat you eventually.

But the Tetris tesselation metaphor is not rich enough for talking about the present human conditions, with its end-of-history permaweirdness.

A regular Ballardian sensibility, based on linearized and periodic infrafictions, will not work either.

Peramweird Infrafictions

Elsewhere, in a newsletter essay titled Disturbed Realities, I argued that the Ballardian mode follows the Lovecraftian and Labatutian (named for Benjamin Labatut’s fascinating recent book, When We Cease to Understand the World) modes of responding to a historical era.

My essential argument was that there is a technology-driven cyclic quality to how we tell stories about the world. Early on, when we first encounter fundamentally new aspects of the universe (calling for new tessellations, so to speak), there is just plain unfactored horror. That is the Labatutian world; a world seen in an essentially smooth, unconstructed way.

Then we shift to the Lovecraftian phase, when we start to notice patterns in the unfactored chaos, but are not yet able to construct appropriate new tessellations to cover them. The result is raw prefigurations of future infrafictions. A world of Cthulhuesque cosmic horrors that nevertheless have some structure to them.

Finally, we shift to the Ballardian phase, where we invent successful infrafictions with which to tessellate our new realities, covering up Lovecraftian horrors with Ballardian banalities.

You can read the details of this theory in the linked essay, but there’s a part I missed there. Overlaid on this cyclic process of developing new ways of knowing the world, there is also a secular process of the world itself changing in monotonic ways, towards more complex, higher information/entropy states. Every new cycle has to deal with a fundamentally more complex reality.

This secular increase in difficulty is why, I think, we are at a point of narrative crisis in 2023. I’ve labeled this condition the Permaweird, which sort of assumes we will not be able to exit the crisis. Quite possibly the world has terminally broken our ability to tell stories about it. But maybe not.

It certainly seems like we are unable to tell compelling new stories about the human condition. To the point that a certain class of theorists is gleefully trotting out its favorite line: that there have been no new stories since Homer. I happen to think this line is bullshit. Storytelling is one of those human behaviors that, like technology, has seen steady and monotonic evolution (which you can call progress if you like) over millennia. Dan Harmon, despite favoring a version of the Hero’s Journey, is fundamentally a more advanced storyteller than Homer was. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is in some ways more complex than the Mahabharata.

But there is no denying that even if storytelling technology evolved steadily over the last few millennia, it appears to have plateaued for the moment. One symptom of this is that our storytelling industries are desperately clinging to reboots and extensions of known stories.

When we do try to innovate, we end up trapped within unsatisfying metafictional conceits that quickly reveal themselves to be so embarrassingly vacuous, we’re forced to beat an undignified retreat to reality. The evolution of Rick and Morty is a fine example of this dynamic. The zombie Simpsons show (no relation to the original good Simpsons show that ended around 2000) is something like a story in a Ballardian coma that’s been going on for twenty years at this point.

There are two popular but almost-right theories about this condition.

The first almost-right theory has to do with the idea that we’re in the midst of a meaning crisis where we are suffering from deep anomie, unable to distinguish worthwhile things from worthless things, and therefore unable to tell stories, because stories, it is implied, are about values. A sub-genre of this kind of wrong theory has to do with blaming some sort of ideology for the degeneration of the human narrative instinct. In Three Uses of a Knife, David Mamet blames the commercial instinct to produce “issue” or “problem” stories. Mamet offers, as an alternative, telling stories that move timeless themes forward without resolving them, stewarding a kind of cognitive literacy around timeless human value conflicts by airing them in a disciplined way through narrative, without attempting to “solve” them. You might subvert simplistic fixed values, but you don’t offer final answers.

The problem with this theory is that the most effective storytelling seems somewhat orthogonal to values altogether, with any reinforcement or subversion being almost accidental. Good stories gently tug your attention one way or another, suggesting you look more closely at this or that. And occasionally, there are values implied by the suggested choices. But fundamentally, I suspect values are downstream of narrative. We have a meaning crisis because we are failing to tell good stories, not the other way around.

The second almost-right theory has to do with a naive reading of the permaweirdness of the End of History condition as a given. Fact is so much stranger than fiction, the theory goes, that it’s impossible to tell stories. It’s not about any particular thing, like climate change, AI, or culture-warring. It’s about the world-computation process simply getting too rich and fast-paced for our narrative imagination to compete with. I almost buy this story, and offered a version myself in Narrative Wet-Bulb Temperature.

Again the problem with this theory is that it gets causality backwards. The world seems relentlessly weird because we are failing to tell powerful stories about it. We are not failing to tell powerful stories about it because it seems relentlessly weird.

Both these theories fail to get it entirely right because they seem to assume that storytelling is a timeless ahistorical behavior that evolves in sophistication, but not in relation to a changing world and historical condition. I think this is incorrect. Storytelling evolves, indeed it must evolve, because the world evolves. And the nature of that evolution is exactly of the sort that is required to accommodate changes in the world itself. It’s a cousin of Ashby’s law of requisite variety: only increasingly varied stories can accommodate increasingly varied realities.

But if the world itself has stopped changing in some end-of-history sense, it is reasonable to speculate that storytelling must stop evolving too, in a corresponding sense. This does not mean there are no new stories, any more than the end of history theory implies that there are no new events. But it might mean there are no more new types of stories. Ballardian infrafictions are perhaps the end of the narrative road.

I don’t think this is true. We are on the threshold of a world defined by computational processes, procedurally generated realities, and yes, procedurally generated text and image streams as a base layer coating. As Drew Austin argues in Goodbye Horses, we are entering a world where the infrafictions themselves comprise informational wallpaper. Lorem Ipsum texts leveled up in coherence to be indistinguishable from our own more primitive fictions. But the amount of raw information (or noise) being injected into reality is not significantly higher.

We can narrate this. The question is, how?

The temptation is to respond to this condition by going meta. If classical fiction is turning into AI-generated wallpaper tiling reality, then surely we must retreat upmarket to metafiction?

I think this is the wrong response. The right response is to look for new infrafictions. Post-Ballardian ones that explore temporality, spatiality, and materiality through a fundamentally computational lens. Space, time, and matter are now compute substrates, and classical stories are now compile targets.

To live in this world, we must first find the right set of aperiodic tiles to work with, and the right sources of noise with which to prise apart the closed tessellations they generate. We need new protocols of knowing and being.

How do we do this? I don’t know yet. But I did finish printing my first set of hat tiles, so I’m going to start by playing with them.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Perhaps narrate by connecting compute substrates and compile targets? Narration as irrational-angle projection.

  2. “We need new protocols of knowing and being.” … “How do we do this? I don’t know yet.”

    I do.

    Mark this in your diary, and wait for a call from Elon & I. Early to mid 2024

  3. David Stevens says

    (Tangentially)… have you read the Kefahuchi Tract series (Light, Nova Swing, Empty Space) by M John Harrison? I wonder if they are perhaps an example of post-Ballardian narrative?

  4. What stories would you start with for Ballard?

    The concept of presence through absence is one that permeates the Vaporwave genre and Liminal Space phenomena, I imagine there is a fair bit of influence and/or inspiration from Ballard in this regard from the way you describe his work. There is something about the lack of other humans being in a frame that increases the awareness of absurdities, although I have also noticed that there can be a strange calm that comes from artistic portrayals of emptiness. Might just be something like “I’m not worried about others’ judgements so of course I feel calmer, but at the same time its odd there’s no one else around,” but the effect is an interesting one.

  5. Evariste says

    “I somehow doubt we’ll get it down to a single kind of tile without the mirroring cheat” – it seems your expectations were surpassed! https://cs.uwaterloo.ca/~csk/spectre/