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The Fantastic Digital

november 1, 2013

This autumn has been highly demanding in terms of work, hence the absence of blog posts. These past two days offered a welcome reprieve, in a way. I have attended a great course in digital humanities with Susan Schreibman of Trinity College Dublin and Jenny Bergenmar of Gothenburg University. Although two days are too short a time to do more than offer an introduction to the discipline (or is it a sub-discipline?), that introduction was very inspirational.

As some of you may know, I’m a great fan of close-readings. The closer, the better, in fact. But I also see the value of quantitative research. Nor am I a stranger to discussing the traits of an entire genre – the fantasy genre, to be practise. Over the past two days, I have come to realise how what could conceivably be termed ‘distance reading’ can bridge these three approaches. Using text analysis tools to look for patterns and clusters, it is possible to explore texts – in particular large texts or many texts – and find new ways into them. Even in cases when the text is fairly short, some patterns can surprise.

I explored Ted Chiang‘s wonderful short story ‘Exhalation’ with some of the tools. In my opinion, this story captures the very essence of science fiction, as it illustrates how the scientific process and scientific inquiry leads to a greater understanding of the world. It features a scientist for its protagonist and entropy as its central scientific concept. When I used Wordle to see which words figured prominently in the story, I ended up with this (click to watch at the Wordle website):


In this ‘word cloud’, the only relevant variable is the relative size of the words. Colour and position have only aesthetic value. Even so, a few words stand out in this cloud. It is obvious that this is a story about air, pressure, the universe, and thoughts, for instance. Given the title of the story and what I just told you about it, this is not surprising. What possibly surprised me was how clear the connection was between the story and its most prominent words. And I was intruiged by what I found when I used another tool, Voyant Tools , to dig a little deeper. The four graphs below show where in the text the prominent words appear (I have left out ‘one’, which should probably have been excluded as a ‘stop-word’, words that are very common but tell us litte about the content of a text):





What strikes me in all these graphs are how late in the story the bulk of the prominent words show up. ‘Pressure’ and ‘universe’ enter the text some 60% of the way into the story (the X-axis are tenths of the total word count, each tenth corresponding to about 650 words). ‘Air’ is more wideley dispersed, but there is a clear hump around 60-70%. ‘Thought/s’ is even more spread out, but still have a clear accumulation towards the end. To the extent that these words capture a central theme in Chiang’s story – and I believe they do – they also show how that theme only really gets going well into the second half of the story.

So what? Well, I don’t really know, yet. But now I can return to the text and try to find out. What does it mean to the plot that the most prominent words only really show up in the latter half? I can guess, but I had never thought about it. (And I have linked to the story, so feel free to find out for yourselves.)

These digital tools seem to offer new ways into texts that I thought I new, and my next step will probably be to apply some of them on my urban fantasy project. But more about that at a later date.

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