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Information Theory

Entry updated 2 April 2015. Tagged: Theme.

Claude E Shannon (1916-2001), American mathematician and computer scientist, published work on encoding Communications and articulated fundamental theoretical principles from Mathematics in his paper "A mathematical theory of communication" (July-October 1948 Bell System Technical Journal; in The Mathematical Theory of Communication 1949). The paper defines various key terms including, most interestingly, noise and redundancy.

Writers responded promptly. Raymond F Jones cites Shannon in "Discontinuity" (October 1950 Astounding), where restructuring the human brain for informational efficiency produces intellectual giants (see Superman) who are regarded as aphasic since their new "zero-entropy" thought processes are incompatible with the inherent redundancy of normal speech (see Linguistics). James Blish, whose science-fictional use of Biological science is widely known, integrates tropes and ideas derived from information theory and quantum Physics in the first version of A Case of Conscience (September 1953 If; exp 1958) and in The Quincunx of Time (February 1954 Galaxy as "Beep"; exp 1973). William S Burroughs derived the cut-up method with visual artist Brion Gysin and applied it to literature: consider the stylistic leap from Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953 dos) as by William Lee to The Naked Lunch (1959). What Burroughs made manifest is Shannon's notion of redundancy: just how much of the information can be left out of the message while retaining image and meaning. The Third Mind (1978) by Burroughs and Gysin is a later explication of the method.

Stanisław Lem repeatedly addresses the difficulties and – characteristically – the likely failures of information theory, most notably with multiple contradictory decodings of a seeming Alien broadcast in Glos pana (1968 Poland; trans as His Master's Voice 1983). John Sladek's long Satire "The Communicants" (in The New SF, anth 1969, ed Langdon Jones) is set in a vast communications company fraught with communications problems, and states the information-theoretic Paradox which is also the key to James Blish's above-cited The Quincunx of Time: "There seems to be no difference at all between the message of maximum content (or maximum ambiguity) and the message of zero content (noise)." This recalls Jorge Luis Borges's Thought Experiment "The Library of Babel" (in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, coll 1942), which contains all possible information but is useless because factual gems are literally impossible to locate amid the far greater vastness of misinformation and gibberish. The paradox is reformulated as "A perfectly efficient signal looks like noise – until you know the rules" in Charles Sheffield's Proteus Unbound (1989), where the light of information theory reveals intelligent signals from within microscopic Black Holes. Information theory is explicitly at the core of Paul Di Filippo's modernist Thomas Pynchonesque novel Ciphers: A Post-Shannon Rock'n'Roll Mystery. Composed Partially by Sampling, Splicing, Channeling and Reverse Transcription (1997). [HW/DRL]

see also: Greg Bear; Cybernetics; Infodump.

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