Friday, November 18, 2005

Story-telling Machines, the Self-Begotten

- a drawing of Mymosh? by Daniel Mroz

The idea of stories within stories is a common enough literary device. Hamlet contains a play within a play whose themes echo the larger one. Scheherezade's stories of love and danger are told within the larger story of a woman soothing a King.

What I call a self-aware story is a story within a story that is also aware of its story-nature. So far I have only found two examples:

1. Douglas Hofstadter, in his book Godel, Escher Bach, introduces the characters of Achilles and the Tortoise, taken from the more famous characters used by Lewis Carroll (who in turn was inspired by Zeno of Elea) They engage in a series of dialogs so as to illustrate and argue points for Hofstadter. In one dialog in particular, Achilles and the Tortoise tell each other stories that involve themselves as the characters. Within the story, they both are aware they are in a story and may decide to tell a further story - spawning a new world for them to inhabit.

The extra device they use is the notion of Push and Pop. In Alice and Wonderland, Alice uses food and drink to make herself grow big or small (Is Alice in Wonderland an example of a self-aware story since she is the Red King's dream?). In the tale of Achilles and Tortoise, they similarly can also Push themselves down into a story or Pop themselves up to become the narrator of the story they are in.

Most stories of this nature, stories within stories, end with stories ending and the story "ending" at the same level that the story started. I believe in Achilles and the Tortoise they end a couple stories in, running from some Beast that the storyteller above them had invented.

2. One of the most interesting stories in Stanislaw Lem's collection The Cyberiad is "The Storytelling Machines of King Genius". The King in this story asks an inventor, our hero Trurl, to construct storytelling machines that will satisfy him. Trurl constructs three machines, each of which tell different types of stories. The King, in the story, listens to each machine tell a story in turn. The stories themselves often involve Trurl and so Trurl appears as a character within the storytelling machine's stories. The last machine tells a story that involves three dreaming machines; We get to also hear the dreams of the dreaming machines as told within a story by the last storytelling machine. For a story, the Frame Structure can get complex.

As an aside one of my favorite storytelling machine stories is the short tale of Mymosh the Self-Begotten. The principle behind the story of Mymosh is that if you wait for enough time - the age of the universe if necessary - even junk will coincidentally form itself into a conscious being. And so this is how Mymosh is born - a poor sentient being, an accident of nature, who forms out of a trash heap. Mymosh has a short life: because of his fragile nature he only lives long enough to ponder his own existence and then falls back into the void:

"Truly, I am beautiful, nay, perfect, which clearly implies the Perfection of All Created Things!! Ah, and how good must be the One Who fashioned me!'...
'Apparently, I am! ....Yes I am! And there's no apparently about it! Yet the question remains, who is it who says that I am?.... If only there was something else besides me, any sort of something at all, with which I might juxtapose and compare myself - that would be half the battle. But alas, there's not a thing, for I can plainly see that I see nothing whatsoever! Therefore there's only I that am, and I am everything that is and may be, for I can think in any way I like, but am I then - an empty space for thought, and nothing more?' [his senses had rusted out]...

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