The Garden of Forking Paths
|"The Garden of Forking Paths"|
Collection first edition
|Author||Jorge Luis Borges|
|Original title||"El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan"|
|Genre(s)||Spy fiction, war fiction|
|Published in||El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941)|
|Published in English||1948|
"The Garden of Forking Paths" (original Spanish title: "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan") is a 1941 short story by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. It is the title story in the collection El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941), which was republished in its entirety in Ficciones (Fictions) in 1944. It was the first of Borges's works to be translated into English by Anthony Boucher when it appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in August 1948.
The story's theme has been said to foreshadow the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. It may have been inspired by work of the philosopher and science fiction author Olaf Stapledon.
Borges's vision of "forking paths" has been cited as inspiration by numerous new media scholars, in particular within the field of hypertext fiction. Other stories by Borges that express the idea of infinite texts include "The Library of Babel" and "The Book of Sand".
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The story takes the form of a signed statement by a Chinese professor of English named Doctor Yu Tsun who is living in the United Kingdom during World War I. Tsun is a spy for Abteilung IIIb, the military intelligence service of Imperial Germany.
As the story begins, Doctor Tsun has realized that an MI5 agent called Captain Richard Madden is pursuing him, has entered the apartment of his handler Viktor Runeberg, and has either captured or killed him. Doctor Tsun is certain that his own arrest is next. He has just discovered the location of a new British artillery park and wishes to convey that knowledge to Berlin before he is captured. He at last hits upon a plan to achieve this.
Doctor Tsun explains that his spying has never been for the sake of the Kaiser's Germany, which he considers "a barbarous country". Rather, he says, he knows that Germany's intelligence chief, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Nicolai, believes the Chinese people to be racially inferior. Doctor Tsun is therefore determined to be more intelligent than any White spy and to obtain the information Lt.-Col. Nicolai needs to save the lives of German soldiers. Doctor Tsun suspects that Captain Madden, an Irish Catholic in the employ of the British Empire, is similarly motivated.
Taking his few possessions, Tsun boards a train to the village of Ashgrove. Narrowly avoiding the pursuing Captain Madden at the railway station, he goes to the house of Doctor Stephen Albert, an eminent Sinologist. As he walks up the road to Doctor Albert's house, Tsun reflects on his great ancestor, Ts'ui Pên, a learned and famous civil servant who renounced his post as governor of Yunnan Province in order to undertake two tasks: to write a vast and intricate novel, and to construct an equally vast and intricate labyrinth, one "in which all men would lose their way". Ts'ui Pên was murdered before completing his novel, however, and what he did write was a "contradictory jumble of irresolute drafts" that made no sense to subsequent readers; nor was the labyrinth ever found.
Doctor Tsun arrives at the house of Doctor Albert, who is deeply excited to meet a descendant of Ts'ui Pên. Doctor Albert reveals that he has himself been engaged in a longtime study and an English translation of Ts'ui Pên's novel. Albert explains excitedly that at one stroke he has solved both mysteries—the chaotic and jumbled nature of Ts'ui Pên's unfinished book and the mystery of his lost labyrinth. Albert's solution is that they are one and the same: the novel is the labyrinth.
Basing his work on the strange legend that Ts'ui Pên had intended to construct an infinite labyrinth, as well as a cryptic letter from Ts'ui Pên himself stating, "I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths", Doctor Albert realized that the "garden of forking paths" was the novel, and that the forking takes place in time and rather than in space. In most fictions, a character chooses one alternative at each decision point and eliminates all others. In Ts'ui Pên's novel, however, all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously, each one itself leading to further proliferations of possibilities. Albert further explains that these constantly diverging paths do sometimes converge again, though as the result of a different chain of causes. For example, Doctor Albert says, in one possible time-line Doctor Tsun has come to his house as an enemy, in another as a friend.
Though trembling with gratitude at Doctor Albert's revelation and at his ancestor's genius, Doctor Tsun glances up the path to see Captain Madden rushing towards the door. Knowing that time is short, Doctor Tsun asks to see Ts'ui Pên's letter again. As Doctor Albert turns to retrieve it, Doctor Tsun draws a revolver and murders him in cold blood.
Completing his manuscript as he awaits death by hanging, Doctor Yu Tsun explains that he has been arrested, convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to death. However, he has "most abhorrently triumphed" by revealing to Lt.-Col. Nicolai the location of the artillery park. Indeed, the park was bombed by the Imperial German Air Service during Doctor Tsun's trial. The location of the artillery park was in Albert, near the battlefield of the Somme. Doctor Tsun had known that the only way to convey the information to Berlin was to murder a person with the same name, so that news of the murder would appear in British newspapers connected with the name of his victim.
In modern culture
- In 1987, Stuart Moulthrop created a hypertextual version of "The Garden of Forking Paths". This title was given to relate the Gulf War setting of his novel and Borges' Victory Garden. The work has been published as a hypertext by Eastgate and has been discussed in academic literature.
- In homage to the story, the TV series FlashForward made an episode entitled "The Garden of Forking Paths". In the episode, the character Dyson Frost refers to a map of the possible futures as his "Garden of Forking Paths".
- Parallels have been drawn between the concepts in the story and the many-worlds interpretation in physics by Bryce DeWitt in his preface to "The Many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics".
- Andrew Gelman references "The Garden of Forking Paths" to describe how scientists can make false discoveries when they do not pre-specify a data analysis plan and instead choose "one analysis for the particular data they saw." The "Garden of Forking Paths" refers to the near-infinite number of choices facing researchers in cleaning and analyzing data, and emphasizes the need for pre-analysis planning and independent replication, an especially relevant consideration in social psychology's recent replication crisis.
- In a Science Friday podcast, repeated on Friday, June 4, 2019, Ira Flatow interviewed Dr. Murray Gell-Mann who referenced this short story.
- In 2016, the episode 6 of the Netflix show The OA aired under the title "Chapter 6: Forking Paths". The main antagonist, Hap, has a conversation in a morgue with Leon who's conducting experiments to prove the existence of afterlife. Hap shares his hypothesis, opposed to Leon's, about multiple dimensions citing “a garden of forking paths” used by his subjects.
- The story inspired a series of installation (2010–2017) by Singapore-based art collective vertical submarine.
- Alternate history
- Choose Your Own Adventure
- Gilles Deleuze's use of this story to illustrate the Leibnizian concept of several impossible worlds simultaneously existing and the problem of future contingents.
- Ayssar Arida's linking of "The Garden of Forking Paths" and quantum theory's sum over histories concept for an event-driven urbanism project.
- Coherence, a 2013 film about people who must deal with reality-bending events following a comet sighting.
- Many-minds interpretation
- Many-worlds interpretation
- Moran, Dominic (2012). "Borges and the Multiverse: Some Further Thoughts". Bulletin of Spanish Studies. 89 (6): 925–942. doi:10.1080/14753820.2012.712326. ISSN 1475-3820.
- The Many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, N. Graham and B. DeWitt eds., Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1973. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-08-25. Retrieved 2013-08-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
- Bolter, Jay David; Joyce, Michael (1987). "Hypertext and Creative Writing". Hypertext '87 Papers. ACM. pp. 41–50.
- Moulthrop, Stuart (1991). "Reading From the Map: Metonymy and Metaphor in the Fiction of 'Forking Paths'". In Delany, Paul; Landow, George P. (eds.). Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press.
- "Eastgate: Victory Garden". www.eastgate.com.
- Biographical Sketch of Hugh Everett, III, Eugene Shikhovtsev http://space.mit.edu/home/tegmark/everett/everett.html
- The garden of forking paths: Why multiple comparisons can be a problem, even when there is no “fishing expedition” or “p-hacking” and the research hypothesis was posited ahead of time, Andrew Gelman and Eric Loken http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/research/unpublished/p_hacking.pdf
- "The Garden Of Forking Paths | Campaigns | Vertical Submarine". verticalsubmarine.org. Retrieved 23 August 2019.