As a child, I loved the Tower of Babel stories, especially because I kept coming across Babel stories with different endings. There was the time God didn’t want anyone building the tower high enough to reach heaven, so God changed everyone’s speech so they “babbled” at each other and couldn’t understand each other and thus ceased work on the famous tower—and this was an explanation of why different peoples speak different languages. There is the ending where people reach the roof of the sky, and there is a trap door that they can choose to open—and actually I don’t remember what happens next in that one. There is the one that ends with the moral that a person simply can never understand what is happening in another person’s mind. Many different interpretations of the story, many different thought experiments, and all of them fascinating. As an aside, it is thought that the word “Babel” was derived from the word “balal,” which can mean mixed, confused, or confounded. There’s a reason the words Babel and babble are homonyms. Or hmm … maybe they aren’t?
The thing with all the Tower of Babel stories is that they are about communication and at the same time are about the control of communication. With the corollary that if you could understand how communication and language worked, that you could control it, or at least it would no longer control you. If you could control communication, perhaps you could create a communication method that everyone could understand. Or perhaps the moral of the story is simply that the people are looking for something, and they won’t know it until they see it. Again, it’s all about communication. If you’re unable to get the message across, who’s to say the people on the receiving end won’t interpret it however they damn please?
Let’s take this a step further. What if you came up with a universal language, but no one understood it? How would you go about teaching it to them? How would you ensure it was interpreted correctly? Can you get the right answers even if you have no idea what the questions are?
I’ve just asked you a ton of deliciously chewy questions, haven’t I? Eric Schwitzgebel’s “THE TURING MACHINES OF BABEL” is a story that invites the reader into a conversation that is full of questions, and I invite you to ask your own. This is a wonderfully weird story—a mysterious environment, books full of nonsense, rabbits do something, and an answer of sorts for those who are willing to reach the top level of the world.
At the beginning of the story, the characters are rather non-curious about the world around them. They take things for granted and allow that which they don’t understand to pass them by. This is a world filled with books, sacred books at that, yet much of the populace doesn’t care to attempt to read or understand them. They live simple lives, and await the sacred rabbits that randomly change letters in the books. The characters revere the books and the rabbits, yet at the same time are confounded by the gibberish in the books, and the behavior of the rabbits.
If you wanted to hear every piece of music that was ever written, one method is to play all eighty-eight keys of a piano simultaneously, forever. In theory, all compositions that could ever be written are included in the cacophonous chaos of that all encompassing sound. Similar to the books found in “The Turing Machines of Babel,” the books may be filled with “nonsense,” but there may be every iteration of anything that could ever be written. It’s not nonsense, it’s iterations. And language? Language is about getting somewhere. If only the residents of the Tower of Babel knew about coding in binary or some other kind of communication that could transcend written or verbal language.
I’ve asked you enough questions, it’s high time I ask this incredible author some questions! Eric Schwitzgebel is a Professor of Philosophy at U.C. Berkeley. His academic essays will keep you busy for quite some time, but I highly recommend checking out his philosophical science fiction, which has been published in Clarkesworld, Unlikely Story, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Weird Tales, and Starship Sofa, among others. Schwitgebel literally writes what he knows—his fiction takes readers on paths of questions and answers in the realms of how and why we think the things we think, philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, and more. He was kind enough to answer my questions about everything from the origins of this story to the philosophical value of science fiction.
If you enjoy this interview and the conversations that come out of his short story in this month’s issue of Apex Magazine, I recommend checking out his blog, The Splintered Mind. For even further reading, a listing of his academic papers and essays and links to other interviews can be found at https://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/.
APEX MAGAZINE: There are so many purposefully interlocking pieces to this story—the sacred books, the care of the rabbits, the weirdness that is seen as completely normal, the general lack of curiosity, etc. What inspired this story, and why were you drawn to tell it in this particular manner?
ERIC SCHWITZGEBEL: One of my all-time favorite speculative fiction stories is Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel.” Borges’s story is set in a huge library full of books filled with seemingly random strings of alphanumeric characters, with every possible arrangement of characters occurring somewhere in the library. That’s pretty cool! Every possible book will be there somewhere—if only you could find it among the vastly many more books full of meaningless nonsense. Searching for meaning drives the characters mad.
I wanted to bring Borges’s library alive by turning the books into strips of Turing tape. Alan Turing famously showed that you could implement any finitely computable function on a strip of tape containing alphanumeric characters, given a read-write head that implements simple rules for writing and erasing characters and moving itself back and forth along the tape. (To have full power, the tape needs to be infinitely long in at least one direction.) This is one version of a “Turing Machine.” Instead of the Library of Babel containing every possible random arrangement of characters, then, we could have the Turing Machines of Babel, executing every possible random computational function, with the “tape” being alphanumeric characters laid out sequentially in books. Furthermore, some philosophers and psychologists think that human mentality itself is nothing but computation. If that’s correct, then every possible set of human mental states would be implemented infinitely often in this infinite set of randomly constituted Turing Machines. Once I thought of using rabbits as the read-write heads, all I needed was a protagonist to follow one of the rabbits and slowly figure his universe out.
As for the lack of curiosity—don’t most people accept, without much curiosity, the world as they happen to find it? I don’t think Borges’s characters would have been driven as mad as he suggests. They’d just see their world as boringly normal. Of course they would.
AM: It is unfortunately true that yes, many people accept the world as it is presented to them with not a whit of curiosity about anything. Boring is easy on the brain, isn’t it?
I have a good guess as to the significance of the number 63, but can you give us a hint as to the significance of 402 pages, 49 lines, and 28 characters?
ES: Uf(.aILk2-FlqrOf) .f;zWO,(3-4aqpr.P
AM: Something I love about this story is the very, very slow reveal. Along the way to the reveal, I got so invested in the protagonist’s life—his world, his journey, and then what he does later in life. He doesn’t even know what he’s seeing. What was your writing process like for writing and refining this story?
ES: I typically write quickly (“quickly” being about 500-1000 words an hour) and then re-draft beginning to end about ten times, often with several months between re-drafts, plus lots of minor revisions and tweaks. I have 112 versions of this story saved on my computer. My first pass at this story was in May 2014.
The early drafts had more technical detail about how the machines worked and less about Hamete’s life. I worked hard to trim the technical stuff down to the essentials and to more fully imagine Hamete’s choices and passions.
AM: What is the significance of the return/second iteration of Dulcinea?
ES: It’s merely chance. Why shouldn’t two characters happen to have the same name, in an infinite universe? Do you see significance in it? 😉
AM: You study, teach, and have written extensively about the study of consciousness, epistemology, and the philosophy of psychology. When and how did your academic interests affect your fiction writing?
ES: Philosophers have often used thought experiments in their work. I have a popular philosophy blog, The Splintered Mind. In 2011, I started writing some of my blog posts as flash fiction thought experiments, and in 2013 the prominent writer R. Scott Bakker wrote an alternative ending to one of my flash fiction blog posts. We put it through several revisions and managed to publish it in the science journal Nature. My friends and family were very impressed! This encouraged me to pursue fiction writing more seriously.
I hope to bring some of my sensibility and background knowledge as a philosopher to my fiction writing. I am not alone in loving how speculative fiction can explore philosophical issues like the nature of mentality, the metaphysics of the self, radically skeptical possibilities, and moral quandaries. The academic philosophical literature has some terrific resources for a fiction writer who wants to engage these issues in depth. “The Turing Machines of Babel” draws on work on the computational theory of mind and functionalist theories of meaning.
AM: As a follow up question—have your interactions in the speculative fiction writing and publishing community had any effect on your academic areas of interest? (For example, are you publishing papers on topics or discussing ideas that you hadn’t thought about before you were a writer?)
ES: I doubt I would have written my academic paper “A Defense of the Rights of Artificial Intelligences” (with Mara Garza) if I hadn’t been thinking about the portrayal of AI in science fiction. My recent paper “If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious” also draws heavily on science fictional portrayals of group consciousness, which I plan to explore further, both in my fiction writing and in my academic work. I’m also working on a new paper about simulated worlds called “Kant Meets Cyberpunk.” I can only hope the body of that paper lives up to its title!
AM: Please let me know when your new paper is completed, as that is a fascinating topic! On that note, what is the philosophical value of science fiction?
ES: Today’s special: three answers for the price of one!
First, science fiction helps us stretch our minds. In some areas of philosophy and cosmology, common sense fails. Some things that seem preposterously contrary to common sense must be true. Science fiction helps us learn to think about the seemingly preposterous.
Second, the human mind is not good at purely abstract thinking. It’s easy to casually endorse a plausible-seeming abstract maxim such as “Do the greatest good for the greatest number.” Until you start thinking about examples, though, you can’t really evaluate a claim like that. For example, would you kill one person by pushing her in front of a runaway boxcar, if that’s the only way to save five innocent people further down the tracks? Fiction engages the human mind where it is strongest—in social thinking, imagination, and emotion. It would be a mistake to reach philosophical conclusions based purely on our reactions to abstract propositions without also thinking about them in these other ways too.
Third, science fiction can prepare us for the future. For example, we might someday create genuinely conscious AI–AI that arguably deserves being given some sort of independent moral status. It’s time to start seriously imagining the possible consequences of this.
AM: Who are your literary influences? Who are your favorite speculative fiction writers?
ES: This story draws on three of my favorite writers: Borges, Cervantes, and (insofar as Hemete begins by following a rabbit down into the unknown) Carroll. Some other writers whose philosophical speculative fiction I enjoy are Olaf Stapledon, Philip K. Dick, Stanisław Lem, Ursula K. Le Guin, Greg Egan, and Ted Chiang.
Readers interested in philosophical SF might want to check out my growing list of philosophers’ SF recommendations. So far, 48 professional philosophers have each contributed a list of ten personal favorite works of science fiction or speculative fiction, along with brief “pitches” pointing toward the selected works’ philosophical interest. URL:
AM: Thanks, Dr. Schwitzgebel!