Strange Looping

I write & publish fiction for hackers and geeks. I’ve written a novel and two novellas and I have another novel in the works. The baseline genre is cyberpunk/biopunk thriller, although I approach the subject matter in a kind of David Foster Wallace/Pynchonian way. So I’m actually kind of a postmodern metafictiony cyberpunky technothriller novelist. All my books concern hacking of both silicon-based and carbon-based systems.

As I discussed in Adventures in Self-Publishing, there’s no reasonable way for me to get my books into bookstores (all the tech bookstores that used to carry me have gone under). Therefor I use other ways to get my books in front of readers. Sometimes I go to places where hackers and geeks and congregate & there set up a table whereupon I put out copies of my books & glowing reviews from geekoid websites & start carnival barking like Billy Mays, selling my books for cash.

I’ve done this for more than ten years. (Here’s an account (from which the two preceding paragraphs were lifted), of my adventure selling books at the giant hacker convention Defcon.)

Next month I’ll be at the StrangeLoop convention in St. Louis, pimping my warez and also taking in as many sessions as I can. This prospect has me psyched. I don’t know if I’ll sell enough books to cover my expenses, but if you were to ask me “who’s the ideal audience for your books?” I would say something like “people who care about literature, are fans of Douglas Hofstadter, and are comfortable with high-geek computer & science stuff”. I expect that everybody at Strangeloop will meet at least a few of those criteria; some may meet them all.

On its website, StrangeLoop describes itself thus:

Strange Loop is a multi-disciplinary conference that aims to bring together the developers and thinkers building tomorrow’s technology in fields such as emerging languages, alternative databases, concurrency, distributed systems, mobile development, and the web.

In other words, it sounds like any number of similar geeky computer conferences I’ve been to; USENIX comes to mind, and the late, lamented O’Reilly “Emerging Technology” conferences. I’ve done well selling & promoting my books at such venues, even if I haven’t exactly set the world on fire.

Two things, however, make me think that StrangeLoop might be a little different from other conferences: the program and the metaprogram.

When you look at the StrangeLoop program, you find lots of talks about rather arcane programming languages. You find things like Erlang and Clojure and functional programming more than you find prosaic languages like Java, Javascript, PHP, etc that you find at typical conferences. It’s not just that  Strangeloop’s topics are esoteric, it’s that they’re Lispy. StrangeLoop appears designed to appeal not just a language-geeky crowd, but to a Lisp-language geeky crowd.

My novels tend to the philosophical side (one reviewer said “philosophical to the point of being mystical“).Maybe I’m projecting here, but I think StrageLoop will attract a more philosophical group than you might find at, for example, Defcon.

One of the more popular Strange Loop presenters is Hilary Mason, who offers a workshop in machine learning. One of my books (Cheap Complex Devices) is about machine learning and is full of programming-language-geek and AI geek jokes. Of course, I realize that a large segment of people who go to programming conferences never read fiction at all. But even if none of these geeks will be going to St. Louis with the intention of buying a novel(la), there’s a pretty good chance that if I explain what my books are about they’ll at least understand me. That in itself will be welcome.

But the thing about StrangeLoop that’s more important than the program is the metaprogram, which I’m kind of inferring from the name of the conference itself, StrangeLoop. “Strange Loop” is a clear allusion to the work of Douglas Hofstadter, the cognitive scientist, computer scientist, philosopher and author of the essential volume Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (commonly GEB) (in which the concept of the strange loop was introduced and elaborated) and the followup book I Am a Strange Loop.

The Wikipedia page for Strange Loop says,

“A strange loop is a hierarchy of levels, each of which is linked to at least one other by some type of relationship. A strange loop hierarchy, however, is “tangled” (Hofstadter refers to this as a “heterarchy”), in that there is no well defined highest or lowest level; moving through the levels one eventually returns to the starting point, i.e., the original level. Examples of strange loops that Hofstadter offers include: many of the works of M. C. Escher, the information flow network between DNA and enzymes through protein synthesis and DNA replication, and self-referential Gödelian statements in formal systems.”

There is a very strong Hofstadterterian influence in all my books. The set of my books taken as a whole has the structure of a strange loop. For example, each of the books purports to be written by a different John Sundman (each author has a different middle name), and each book implicitly or explicitly asserts that the other two books are untrue and that the other John Sundmans are frauds.

Not only that, but Cheap Complex Devices purports to be about the “Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative,” (a prize that I invented as a kind of homage to D.H.), and The Pains deals with jumping between different levels of abstraction. Finally, although Hofstadter and I are not especially close friends, we are, indeed, friends. So to the extent that the conference attracts people with an interest in Hofstadter’s ideas, I’ll feel at home.

Here’s my twitter @jsundmanus profile:

writer/publisher of cyber- & biopunk novels; [nat | prog] language geek; Hofstadter fan; family guy; mover of heavy objects; RPCV; volunteer firefighter.

So at the very least, I think I’ll be among kindred spirits in St Louis. (If there are any firefighters or former Peace Corps Volunteers there, I’ll really feel at home.)

[By the way, although I describe myself as a language geek, I confess that I’m not much of a programmer. I’ve never made a living as a code monkey; I’m just not very good at it. The longest program I ever wrote was an 800-line shell script that was kind of a rudimentary documentation management system. I’ve never mastered Lisp; I kind of oscillate between “getting it” and just getting lost in it. But I have written a UNIX device driver (for an array processor) in C, mastered half a dozen very different languages well enough to write useful programming manuals about them — everything from assembler to FORTRAN to Curl — and I find the discussions about the design of programming languages fascinating, even though a good bit of such discussion goes over my head.]

Anyway, back to Hofstadter’s strange loop. In the preface to the 20th anniversary edition of GEB, Hofstadter tried to explain the significance of the strange loop, which he felt had been missed by many readers of the book:

“GEB is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?”

This is why I’m a Hofstadter fan: because his questions are similar to the central preoccupations of my novelistic efforts, viz, What is a self? Where does consciousness come from? What is the relationship between consciousness and moral agency? Are there different kinds of moralities for different kinds of selves? How are we supposed to find out what is true, and how are we to make our way in the world? Moreover, Hofstadter’s answers to these kinds of questions make sense to me. I think I am a strange loop. And I think you’re one too.

That’s what all the metafictiony stuff in my books is about, at bottom. It may look like I’m playing college-sophomore literary games with self-reference, unreliable narrators, jumping between levels of abstraction, etc, and maybe I am. But I really am trying to get at the same deep questions that Hofstadter is. Whether I’ve succeeded or not is not for me to judge. Who knows? You may find my books not even up to college sophomore standards. I like ’em, but then I would, wouldn’t I? The point is that my intent is for real. When I write a book I’m not just farting around and trying to write something that will amuse me and you and maybe make me some money. I’m trying to figure out shit that’s important to figure out. Like I said, maybe I’m just chasing my tail. But at the StrangeLoop conference in St. Louis I’m hoping to meet at least a few people who will think the effort worthwhile.

So if you see me there pimping my books, please stop & say hello. I won’t pressure you to buy anything, I promise.

And by the way, if you attend the conference, be sure to go to Sarah Allen‘s talk. She’s smart, and she’s a peach.

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