I Ching, Who You?

The Oracle first manifested itself in one of Rob Holdstock's great unpublished works.

There it was, halfway through the immense wad of typescript: a pattern like a paralytic gate labelled Ting -- the Cauldron, together with a few vaguely mystical sentences which I did not read just then. "Silly fool," I remember thinking. "Cauldrons don't go ting, they go bonggg."

The text of Rob's story told all: his characters consulted the mystic oracle of the I Ching a lot, and seemed quite prepared to set their courses by Ting or any of the other 63 randomly-determined hexagrams. It certainly beats calling heads or tails. I rushed to buy a second-hand I Ching for myself, and showed my inner worthlessness by asking it for Judgement on Rob's draft story.

Forty yarrow stalks, the recommended apparatus of divination, are hard to come by: I lost interest when someone suggested forty stinging nettles would do as well. Coins are OK as substitutes, but we Civil Servants find them difficult to come by. Eventually I programmed the AWRE computer so it cunningly simulated forty yarrow stalks. Having thus generated the vital hexagrams, I had only to find a few hours for the vital process of interpretation. It was an exciting intellectual challenge, like trying to plumb the true meaning of Alan Dorey's typing....

The oracle duly commented on Rob's work and I dutifully interpreted its comments at the next pretentious writers' meeting: "the foolish youth seeks the advice of an elder" obviously meant that Andrew Stephenson must rewrite the story. And so on.

Possibly I did not approach the I Ching with due solemnity, but I feel there is still a great future in my "Langford Predictor" --

For those who find the I Ching tedious, we offer the Langford Predictor. It comprises four rectangular tablets, say 4" by 3", each lovingly carved from bamboo, ivory or poly-propylene. One side of each is blank: the other bears one of the Four Mystic Judgements:


Attuning one's mind to the Infinite, one pushes the reversed tablets about a smooth jade table-top, alternately sipping Lapsang Souchong and puffing an opium-pipe. When the moment is right, as signalled by a sudden, insightful need for a pee, one concentrates the force of one's mind upon the Query and turns one tile over to read the oracle's Cosmic Judgement....

It seemed reasonable at the time, for these four definite responses offered more clarity than 64 vague ones. I reread the introduction to my copy of the I Ching and was maddened into writing extracts from the 879-page Manual of the Langford Predictor --

My question was, "is this a valid oracle?" The answer I received was NO; not comprehending the elusive significance of this, I questioned once more, and came up with the third tile, DON'T KNOW. This should have warned me, but still I importuned the oracle for a third time. The tile on this occasion read PUSH OFF... This was my first experience with the unique personality of the Langford Predictor.

The first blow to my happy scepticism came on finding a Scientific American article on the I Ching. ("Bloody hell," I murmured reverently.) The second was delivered indirectly by Andrew Stephenson himself. We'd been chatting about Rob's story -- Rob himself had murmured "The wise man spits not into the wind" and deleted the actual hexagrams from what became his novel Earthwind -- and I said of such oracles, "Randomness. Entropy. Statistics. Cobblers."

"I've never bothered with the I Ching myself," said Andrew, obvious prelude to a jolly pour-mockery-on-these-credulous-fools conversation. But he hadn't finished.

"I use the Tarot myself."

Exit a screaming Langford, to read stacks of books on acausal relationships and similar exciting speculations, which is a nice way of saying cobblers.

We scientists (well, us low-grade physicists) are stirred to action by such possibilities. There must, I thought, be a test experiment which would validate (or otherwise) the I Ching. Unfortunately the mystic information-line from the future tends to obscurity -- the wise man hiccups when the wind lies south -- so the true meaning is obvious by hindsight alone. The only unmistakable message is -- no message at all.

Statistics came creeping back in. Ask the I Ching a thousand times about something, and the answers should be biased in the direction of what the oracle "wants to say". If there's no pattern in the replies, then no information is available on the subject of enquiry. Does that make sense? Oh be quiet. Some people have no faith.

The test experiment goes like this. A computer is programmed to consult the oracle thousands of times, the query each time being "What about this particular point in space?" If the results are consistently ambiguous, then NO INFORMATION is the ultimate answer and the point must be located in a place from which no information can be extracted -- i.e., within a black hole. (General relativity forbids information transfer from inside black holes, as Larry Niven will tell you any day unless you run fast.) So the computer repeats the process for point after point in a fine grid covering -- eventually -- the entire galaxy, and via the awful power of the I Ching it produces a Black Hole map, an invaluable aid to shipping in the days to come.

It works, I tell you. The black hole I discovered a few days ago (and modestly named Twll-du ap Langford) is just waiting for mankind to travel 879 lightyears and verify its existence. The sense of wonder is not dead.

More relativity: things travelling away from us at the speed of light, or faster, are also closed off from our mundane universe and beyond our knowledge. (A few more sonorous phrases like that and Asimov can move over.) A zone-of-no-information detected by the I Ching is a black hole if it moves at less than the speed of light, obviously: but otherwise it can only be an alien FTL spacecraft. (Or possibly a time-travelling human one, but I don't want this exposition to become far-fetched.)

Is the world quite ready for this?

Last night I tracked a fleet of c-plus vessels zooming away past Sirius. It took some time, as I didn't have a computer handy and was shuffling forty poxy yarrow stalks -- but in the interests of Science I stayed at my work until nearly closing time. Next morning, pouring milk and sugar over my bowl of crunchy paracetamol, I was struck by a thought....

The sun goes out next Tuesday fortnight, I estimate, but with luck the very fabric of space and time will unravel first. (It's a quicker way to go.) Do not despair, however: the next article in this handy series will be titled "How to Survive the End of the Universe". It all hangs on Ryan's publishing schedule, now.