Cellular Automata and Fiction

Cellular Automata – they sound nasty. You think of robot cells made of tiny pieces of sheet steel riveted together and leaking steam.

Worse, you think of complex mathematical relationships that only men with large bald heads, scribbling obtuse formulae on blackboards, can understand.

In reality you have the game of “Life”. Not the Parker Brothers board game, but the computer driven graphics invented by John Horton Conway. I first heard about in the back pages of Scientific America in the early 70’s. I remember filling notebooks with graph paper and contemplated patterns for hours, coming up with new and interesting ideas.

Here’s a real simple example of Conway’s Life in JavaScript:


What you do is make rules for cells. In Conway’s game, cells stay the same if they have two neighbors, they grow if they have three neighbors and they die if they have one or zero neighbors or more than three neighbors. They are supposed to behave like bacteria, which can thrive with a few neighbors, but die out when the population gets too high.

You can make interesting groups. There are gliders, which zoom across the grid. There are cannons that shoot out a stream of gliders. There are “Puffer Trains”, which chug along leaving a trail of stable patterns. It’s cool stuff for a few minutes or even hours. It can keep you interested for weeks if you are a geeky kid in the days before computers.

What has this to do with Fiction or us? The answer is that Cellular Automata are building blocks. They describe nano-robots and computer circuits. They describe rats in a maze, viruses in a network, and passengers on a generational star ship. Cellular Automata are the programmed essence of any reality that repeats itself and interacts with itself. They are the mathematical representation of the swarm, the herd, and the city. They are the part of the individual that you plug into a program to determine the behavior of the mob.

Writing fiction is similar to Conway’s Game of Life. You create a grid where characters can wander about, create some rules of interaction, and set up an initial configuration where the outcome is inevitable.

They are similar with one exception! One of the little bundles of rules on your grid is the protagonist and he is a special case of Cellular Automata. This little guy or gal has free will and a decision to make. The protagonist has to break out of the grid and become something else.

I read too many stories where the author has created a grid and peopled it with Cellular Automata. The story setup is interesting, the characters seem real, and we are interested in their actions. But, nothing important seems to happen except the inevitable. Sometimes the author hides the inevitable from us and then reveals it in a “surprise ending”, but what is lacking is the one piece of a story that breaks it out of the flat two dimensional grid of the game board.

A story is not interesting unless the protagonist transcends the grid. At some point in your story, the protagonist must make a decision that lets him escape from the inevitable and take charge of events. A protagonist moves events. Events do not move the protagonist.

In our lives, we are forced to go to work. We wind up trapped in relationships. We are stuck in the rat race. In short, we are Cellular Automata. How many of us can break out?

If you are a writer, my guess is that you are trying to jump off the game board and escape from the humdrum. By creating something totally new, you are breaking the rules that confine us to the ordinary and predictable. Let your stories reflect your own quest. The best way to do this is the let your protagonist jump off of his game board. When the end is inevitable, that’s the time your protagonist must make the unexpected leap.

I am a computer programmer. I spend eight or more hours a day writing computer code. The code is absolutely and totally deterministic. The computer blindly obeys my commands. Every once and a while I’ll spend a few hours writing a short story. My biggest challenge (other than spelling and grammar) is not to write a computer program. Stories are not algorithms. Writing a story is recording the transfiguration of character from the bondage of the inevitable to the freedom of self-determination.

I would hope that all of the wonderful writers, who submit to this magazine and to others, will never again write a story where things happen to a character. Instead, I hope that they will only write stories where the character happens to the world.