I tell you, ergodic is the future of fiction

The novel’s great strength is also its great weakness. A novel is (with a few rare exceptions) the work of one author. That can give it a depth, coherence and unity that is rare in our modern world. But it is also a challenge to our modern way of being. We’re creatures obsessed with social interaction. And we live in age when every conversation is now two way. If we expect to be able to answer back to film stars, governments and corporate brands on twitter, why would we sit still for a twenty hour lecture from a novelist?

The literary answer to this is voice. Shamelessly populate the novel with the words, perspectives and opinions of the author. The commercial answer is story. Strip mine the history of narrative for compelling story arcs, and put them down on the page in transparent prose that deletes any sense it was created by a human imagination. But there is a third option, currently under-explored, that I believe will play a very major part in the next few decades of literature.

Ergodic literature is defined as requiring non-trivial effort to navigate. If a traditional novel requires trivial effort to navigate – simply reading the words in the order written – then an ergodic text is handled in ways that demand greater effort from the reader. The term comes from the Greek words ergon meaning work and hodos meaning path. Ergodic fiction is the path that requires work.

The most famous and accomplished novel recognised as ergodic is House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. Multiple narratives are presented to the reader as unordered fragments of text taking various formats. The story is there to find, but the reader has to work to construct it. The reader must be active in the creation of the story, which then becomes interactive.

But it is not interactive in the common sense of that word. The reader is not interacting through the trivial device of selecting a path through a branching storyline. This is not a Choose Your Own Adventure game-book, or an action video game with cut sequences. Books already demand a far deeper form of interaction from the reader than trivial plot dynamics. Novels require the reader’s imagination to bloom in to existence as stories. And ergodic literature works with, not against, the extant interactivity of all novels.

But an ergodic text kinks the reading experience in a way that can reengage readers disenchanted with a 20 hour lecture from a novelist. All readers are already deeply engaged with ergodic texts. On today’s internet we move through a webwork of blog posts, news articles, social media statuses, annotated memes, video clips, podcasts, forum posts and comment threads. The challenge of constructing a personally meaningful narrative from this effectively random barrage of information is compelling to us. Our minds and imaginations are now wired for that deep interaction with out texts. And it’s that behaviour ergodic fiction can use to re-engage the reader.

I’m sorry I can’t point you to more effective examples of the ergodic fiction in action. Many have tried, most have failed. But then, that’s exciting right? It means the challenge is there for the taking. Go to it.

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

17 thoughts on “I tell you, ergodic is the future of fiction

  1. Very interesting. I hadn’t heard of this precise term, but I wonder if Cloud Atlas could perhaps qualify as such a work. I wouldn’t strictly consider it a novel, in that the threads are presented chronologically in a sort of pyramid. The connections between them–way overplayed in the movie–must be made by the reader and are legion as well as hidden/referential.


    1. That’s very interesting. I hadn’t considered it, but yes Cloud Atlas is definitely ergoic across the different narratives. And the same is true of Ghostwritten, his debut (which I think is a stronger novel).


  2. DHALGREN would count. THE DICTIONARY OF THE KHAZARS, PALE FIRE, there’s a ton of this, I’d say, though my memory’s too rubbish to throw out more names off the top of my head.

    I’d argue there’s actually a tradition of multiple-dimension narrative that requires a degree of “construction” by the reader, via footnotes, etc., a mode maybe rooted in linear but nested narratives–which are not quite as complex but requiring at very least the the conceptual “suspension” of a frame narrative while reading the story within a story. (Cloud Atlas extending that.) Goes back to GILGAMESH itself. It’s the reason my non-fic book is titled RHAPSODY–from the rhapsodes… literally means “stitching of songs” and refers to something akin to the Milesian Tale.

    I’d love to think it’s the future of the novel, but I’d see it, in some ways, as a renaissance of pre-realist approaches to literature. And popular ones at that. Such “difficult” texts seem to be treated with a terribly conservative “OMG, that’s so avant-gardist” attitude in written fiction (of all places) when we don’t even blink at non-linearity in Pulp Fiction or split screen in 24. I suspect there’s many who’d dismiss the notion of ergodic literature taking off on the basis of that reactionary perception of “difficulty” (cue blather about “elitism” blah blah blah yawn,) but I could see that preconception being demolished with a bit of work. Fingers crossed.


    1. It’s as a companion to fantastika I’m really interested in ergodic narrative, so that’s fascinating Hal. I think the appetite for challenging literature is a lot greater than anti-alitism crowd realise. People have access to vast information resources now. We’re getting smarter, and hungrier for material to cut our teeth on. That’s my belief.


  3. I have to admit that I find ergodic prose interesting, but I am not someone who necessarily has the intellectual tools yet to fully enjoy formalism of this sort. It basically requires that I make a special effort and approach works of this type when I am rested and fresh and not, as has become the norm, as interstitial activity. That’s not to say won’t engage, but simply that I won’t engage as often as I might do with more straightforward prose.

    On a more prosaic note, could it be argued that the truly great novels with a mystery element are somewhat ergodic? Giving information out which is leading or misleading, ambiguous or simply out of context, they invite the creation and retention of curious meta-stories that exist around the linear narrative. The end of the novel often collapses the range of these meta-narratives , but in the very best cases these optional histories persist to the last moment, the big reveal and sometimes even past it.

    I appreciate that I may have reached the wrong end of the stick and grasped it firmly, but am I on the right track?


    1. Interesting idea James. True Detective springs to mind. There are to competing narratives, one in which the murders are supernaturally influenced, the other in which the murderers (and detective) share a delusion of supernatural influence. Neither is resolved within the text, but fans have spent hours sifting to construct the version they prefer.


  4. I came across the term during a more-or-less capricious Wikipedia trip a couple of years ago. Their page on ergodic literature gives a brief list of examples. The first part of this list of “experimental” novels consists mainly of ergodic pieces: http://www.themodernnovel.com/lists/mine/experiment.htm

    Being myself an Argentinian writer, I cannot leave unmentioned that House of leaves is very, very Borgesian in nature (it even includes a photo of Borges in one of the collages) and I must also say that one of the most well-known novels by an Argentinian author, Rayuela by Julio Cortázar, is at least half-ergodic (because you can read in the natural order, stopping at the end near the middle of the volume, or follow a path designed by the author, which traverses the same material and also many more chapters included after them).

    One last comment: When I was a young, flimsy reader, I was kind of attracted by a certain strangeness present in some works, of science fiction generally, that invited to a nonlinear reading, but I also remember, with a mixture of pleasure and guilt, that I read a non-ergodic, perfectly linear novel as if it was something else. It was Way station by Clifford Simak, a book that I found mysterious and that I would open at a random point and start reading. I think I’ve never read the entire book in its natural order. I loved it as I read it, it was magic.


  5. Would you put some of the more literary video games in this category? At the risk of dating myself, Myst comes to mind. As the player, I am responsible fore putting the story together, quite literally in first person POV, and, as such, impose my own biases (at the very least my own limited awareness) onto the story I find there.

    There are a number of more recent video games that might qualify. The Stanley Parable, Undertaker… I haven’t played them, and students (I’m a HS AP Lit teacher) have brought them up in discussion.

    I keep telling my students that it is a matter of brief time before they are likely to be taking classes in Interactive Literature that features some of these games. I know it is happening at the university level already. Might it be that such practice may be the salvation of virtual gaming?


  6. Twin Peaks Season 3 surely fits the bill. It confounds, encodes, defers, cuts off and circles back to meaning constantly, which is probably why the fan community is so obsessed with coming up with explanatory frameworks, or “theories”. I fact I’d go as far as to say that theorising, in the way the term is used by fans, is a necessary part of engaging with the text.


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