A decade or more ago, I read a book from our local public library (which, BTW, had an extensive mystery collection) that I have never forgotten. Oh, I managed to forget both the author's name and the title of the book, but the gist of it struck a chord. I held on to only one word: fractals.
|Benoit Mandelbrot 1924-2010|
Uh-huh. The last math course I took was a summer school class in calculus, at a moldy high school somewhere in San Francisco around 1984, in preparation for applying to an MBA program. I understand about half the terms in that definition, including "is greater than."
So why did the memory of this book stay with me? I'm not sure why I pulled it off the library shelf, much less finished reading it, but I did. The single concept that struck me was the idea of self-similarity. To put it simply, as you zoom in on an image, from far to near, you will see the same pattern over and over, no matter what the scale. A view of a coastline seen from a satellite will have striking similarities to the distribution of sand grains on a beach in the photo, under a microscope.
This is a phenomenon found in a wide range of natural sources: sounds, blood vessels, trees (where the form of a branch is a replica of the whole).
How does that relate to writing? Because for "pattern" you can substitute "style" or "voice." If you are familiar with a particular writer's style, at what level can you identify the writer? By a word, a sentence, a chapter? The whole book, the genre? That writer is unique, and his or her pattern should be too—and yet it fits into a broader universe of fiction writing. Think of contemporary computer programs that can analyze a document and, looking at the frequency of word use or the structure of sentences, can tell you if a manuscript was written by William Shakespeare. Can that be called a "fractal" application?
Or take it to the next step: if you wanted to forge a Shakespeare play, could you reverse the computer program and alter the structure of a play you had written to match his? With enough time and analysis, will we be able to reduce what we now label as "genius" to an algorithm? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?