Thought Strings in "Beggars in Spain" • Trellick

Thought Strings in "Beggars in Spain"

June 2021

For future reference, here are some excerpts from Nancy Kress's novel Beggars in Spain. (The parts in question are in Books 3 and 4 of the novel, rather than in the original novella.)

These sections discuss the struggles of a group of genetically engineered superhumans to try to organize their thoughts and communicate efficiently with each other. Kress introduces a way of thinking of networks of ideas as thought strings, and the characters eventually develop software to render these into multidimensional string globes and create mappings between different people's thought networks to convey ideas more deeply than through the limitations of linear language.

To me, this is an interesting lens when considering how to represent connected ideas in Tools for Thought.

(Note: in the excerpts below, I've edited the text to remove a stylistic stammer that Kress gives the "Supers" to emphasize their foreignness to more traditional humans, and their difficulty using linear speech. While that makes sense in context, it does make it particularly hard to read.)

Introduction of Strings

Here's the first introduction of thought strings, seemingly intended to underscore that the "Supers" are operating on a more "galaxy brain" level, presumably with a larger mental stage than the 7 ± 2 entities that baseline humans can represent. In this excerpt, the character Miri is trying to explain her thought process to her tutor:

“It’s four little strings down, Ms. Patterson. See, a ‘doll’ is a ‘toy’—the first string goes from doll to toy. A toy is for ‘pretend,’ and one thing we pretend is that a shooting star is a real star, so you can put ‘shooting star’ next in the first string. To make the pattern work.” So many words was hard work; Miri wished she didn’t have to explain so hard. “Then a shooting star is really a meteor, and you have to make the string go real now because before you made it pretend, so the end of the first string, four little strings down, is ‘meteor.’”

Ms. Patterson was staring at her. “Go on, Miri.”

“Then for ‘plastic,’” Miri said, a little desperately, “the first string leads to ‘invented.’ It has to, you see, because ‘toy’ led to ‘pretend.’” She tried to think of a way to explain that the fact that the little strings were one place off from each other was part of the whole design, echoed in the inversion she was going to make of the same words between substrings two and three, but that was too hard to explain. She stuck to the strings themselves, not the overall design, which troubled her because the overall design was just as important. It just took too long to explain in her stammering speech. “‘Invented’ goes to ‘people,’ of course, because people invent things. The people string leads to ‘community,’ a lot of people, and that string has to go to ‘orbital,’ because then the two strings lined up next to each other make the problem say ‘meteor: orbital.’”

Ms. Patterson said in a funny voice, “And that’s a reasonable analogy. Meteor does bear a definable relationship to orbital: one natural and inhuman, one constructed and human.”

Miri wasn’t sure what all Ms. Patterson’s words meant. This wasn’t going right. Ms. Patterson looked a little scary, and Joan looked lost. She plunged ahead anyway. “Then for ‘baby,’ the first string leads to ‘small.’ That leads to ‘protect,’ like I do Tony, because he’s smaller than me and might get hurt if he climbs too high. Then the little string goes to ‘community’ because the community protects people, and the fourth little string has to go to ‘people’ because a community is people, and because it was that way upside down under ‘plastic,’ and a lot of our orbital is made of plastic.”

Ms. Patterson still had her funny voice. “So at the end of three sets of four strings—Joan, don’t change the terminal screen just yet—at the end of these strings of yours, the problem reads ‘meteor is to orbital as people is to blank.’ And you typed in ‘God.’”

“Yes,” Miri said, more happily now—Ms. Patterson did understand!—“because an orbital is an invented community, while a meteor is just bare rock, and God is a planned community of minds, while people alone are just one by one bare.”

Ms. Patterson took her to Grandma. Miri had to explain the whole thing all over again, but this time it was easier because Grandma drew the design while Miri talked. Miri wondered why she hadn’t thought of this herself. The drawing let her put in all the cross-connections and it was much clearer that way, even if some of the lines she drew were wobbly because the light pen in her fist wouldn’t go as straight as the picture in her mind.

When she was done, the drawing looked very simple to her. But, then, it was simple, just a little set of strings to practice reading:

Afterward, Grandma was quiet a long time.

“Miri, do you always think this way? In strings that make designs?”

“Yes,” Miri said, astonished. “Don’t you?”

Visualization of Strings

This next excerpt introduces Tony's project to visualize thought strings:

That was his current project: mapping how the Supers thought. He had started with one sentence: “No adult has an automatic claim on the production of another; weakness does not constitute a moral claim on strength.” Tony had spent weeks eliciting from twelve Supers every string and cross-string this sentence evoked, entering each into a program he had written himself.

It had been slow work. Jonathan Markowitz and Ludie Calvin, the youngest Supers in the experiment, had lost patience with the opaque, stammering slowness of spoken words and had twice flounced out of Tony’s dogged sessions. Mark Meyer’s strings had been so bizarre that the program refused to recognize them as valid until Tony rewrote sections of the code. Nikos Demetrios had clear strings and cooperated eagerly, but in the middle of his interrogation he caught cold, was quarantined for three days, and came back with such different strings for the same phrases that Tony threw out all his data for contamination by artistic rearrangement.

But he had persisted, sitting at the holoterminal across from Miri’s even longer hours than she did, twitching and muttering. Now he smiled at her. “Come see!” …

It was a model of her strings for Tony’s research sentence, each concept represented by a small graphic for concretes, by words for abstracts. Glowing lines in various colors mapped first-, second-, and third-level cross-references. She had never seen such a complete representation of what went on in her mind. “It’s beautiful!”

“Yours are,” Tony said. “Compact. Elegant.”

“I know that shape!” Miri turned to the library screen. Terminal on. Open Library. Earth bank. Chartres Cathedral, France, Rose Window. Graphic display.”

The screen glowed with the intricate stained-glass design from the thirteenth century. Tony studied it with the critical eye of a mathematician. “Noo…not really the same.”

“In feel it is,” Miri said, and the old frustration teased her, making limp spiraling strings in her mind: There was some essential connection between the Rose Window and Tony’s computer model that wasn’t obvious but was there, somehow, and of tremendous unseen importance. But her thinking couldn’t express it. Something was missing in her thought strings, had always been missing.

Tony said, “Look at Jonathan.” Miri’s thought model vanished and Jonathan’s appeared. Miri gasped again. “How can he think like that!”

Unlike Miri’s, Jonathan’s model wasn’t a symmetrical shape but an untidy amoeba, with strings shooting off in all directions, petering out, suddenly shooting back for weird connections Miri didn’t immediately understand. How did the Battle of Gettysburg connect to the Hubble constant? Presumably Jonathan knew.

Tony said, “Those are the only two I’ve done so far. Mine is next. Then the program will superimpose them and look for communication principles. Someday, Miri, besides furthering communications science, we could use terminals to talk to each other without this fucking one-dimensional speech!”

Communicating with String Diagrams

In this scene the Supers have a nuanced discussion by exchanging and mapping string diagrams:

Nikos jerked over to Miri’s terminal and called up the program Tony had designed to construct strings according to Nikos’s thought patterns, and the conversion program to Miri’s patterns. He typed in the key words, studied the result, altered key points, studied and altered again. ... Nikos pressed the key to convert his string edifice to Miri’s. She studied it. …

The medical evidence … didn’t stand alone on Miri’s hologrid. It was knotted into strings and cross-strings of concepts about community, about the social dynamics of prolonged organizational isolation, of xenophobia, of incidents that Miri recognized between the Supers and the Norms in school, in the labs, in the playground. Mathematical equations on social dynamics and on psychological defenses against feelings of inferiority were tied to Earthside historical patterns: Assimilation. Religious zeal against heretics. Class warfare. Serfdom and slavery. Karl Marx, John Knox, Lord Acton.

It was the most complex string Miri had ever seen. She knew without being told that it had taken Nikos the entire day since Tony’s autopsy to think through, that it represented the thoughts and contributions of the other Supers, and that it was the most important string she had ever studied—thought or felt—in her life.

And that something—still, always—was missing from it. …

Allen said, “W-we c-c-c-c-c-c-” He jerked his shoulders in frustration. Speech had always been harder for Allen than even for the rest of them; sometimes he didn’t talk for days. He pushed Miri from the console, called up his own string program, keyed rapidly, and converted the result to Miri’s program. When he was done she saw, in beautifully ordered and composed strings, that if the Supers made blanket assumptions about Norms, they would be as ethically wrong as the Sanctuary Council. … The moral factors glinted and dragged throughout Allen’s strings; they were unquestioned assumptions in Nikos’s.


Finally, here the Supers use a "string-globe" as a concise representation of an argument (without apparent attempt at adaptation for the reader):

She disappeared and a sudden three-dimensional graphic appeared on the screen, a complex globe made of strings of words looped and crossed and balanced, each word or phrase an idea that connected to the next, the whole thing color-coded in ways that emphasized the stresses and balances and trade-offs in meaning from concepts that opposed or reinforced or modified each other. The globe lingered, rotating slowly.

“What on earth is that?” Stella said.

Leisha got up and walked around the globe slightly faster than it rotated, studying it. Her knees felt shaky. “I think…I think it’s a philosophical argument.” …

Leisha looked at the globe. Her eye snagged on a phrase in green in an outer layer: a house divided: Lincoln.