Thursday, November 16, 2017 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm
214 Denney Hall
Complex Plots: An Update for the Systems Novel
“Emergent complexity” is one of the most awe-inspiring notions in science today. Large-scale phenomena as diverse as insect colonies, global markets, the neurology of consciousness, and the evolution of species, all produce complex behavior from underlying, simple rules, without the guidance of a plan or pacemaker. Recent narratology has shown that emergence does not accommodate to narrative form (Abbott 2003, 2008; Walsh 2011, 2016). In this talk, I discuss a number of ways in which novelists do try to assimilate the rhetoric of complexity in their work. I first consider a cluster of central notions in the study of complexity, then turn to a discussion of Pfitz (1995), a short historical novel by Scottish writer and theoretical physicist Andrew Crumey. In the process, I dig up Tom LeClair’s definition of “the systems novel” (1987, 1989), a term LeClair used for the work of science-minded novelists such as Thomas Pynchon and Ursula Le Guin. I argue that LeClair’s work remains helpful today, with one caveat: Whereas complexity theory was still nascent when the novelists in LeClair’s corpus started writing, it has become a full-blown part of the intellectual horizons of the writers who have followed in their footsteps.