Come, walk with me for a while through latent space.
Welcome, Traveler! We’re so glad to have you here! Take a moment to collect yourself by the entrance before we begin the tour. The attendants can take your coat and boots for you if you’re so inclined, or you can keep them with you at your leisure. We have a lot of ground to cover today and we hope to make the most of it.
First off, let’s get you checked in at the front desk. This is the only place in the whole complex that you’ll find a computer. The receptionists complained enough that we loosened the rules a bit, but otherwise in the rest of the library we do without. The world outside does what it does, and it comes and goes, but we believe in books here. Books can be forever, and we try to keep it that way as best we can.
Great. Now, the first stop on our tour is the great hall. It can be disorienting at first so if you find yourself getting vertigo, take a seat on any of the couches nearby. The first question that everyone asks upon seeing the enormity of it all is, “How many books do you have?” and I’ll preempt that and state plainly that this is impossible to answer for reasons that will become clear as our tour continues. Don’t worry if it feels intimidating, you won’t be expected to find your way back on your own.
Now most of the Librarians don’t prefer to do their work out there in the hall, so we have well equipped reading nooks all around the periphery. They’re in high demand, but still we somehow find we always have enough, so feel free to take any seat you like when the time comes.
Many also enjoy the balconies up above that give an inspiring view of the hall. Besides just the pleasure of the view, looking out above everything seems to be conducive to a certain type of thinking. There is a time to be grounded in the details, hacking away at the fine contours of things, for which a narrow secluded space is appropriate, and another time to be casting your thoughts freely about with careless generality, hence why so many of our younger members prefer the balcony.
For those desiring more seclusion, the attic is an attractive option. The sheer volume of steps to reach it helps ensure that it’s only the most dedicated who spend time up here, so even when it ends up as a social gathering, it’s a very select group. They aren’t always the friendliest bunch, but often people find that being unable to fit in anywhere else you can reach with a shorter climb gives them something in common.
While we’re up here, we can take a quick step out on the rooftop to get a view of the forest. We’ll spend a lot more time seeing it later in the tour, but I don’t think there’s any better way to appreciate the scale of it than seeing it from above. We owe our existence to this forest and we try to never forget it.
On our way back down, let’s detour past the Archives. If you find yourself looking for something peculiar that’s somehow beyond what is available in the main halls, then you’re almost certain to find it here. Whatever you take, you must absolutely be sure to return it. The head archivist knows every scrap of paper that enters and leaves this hall and he has never once forgotten a face in all his years.
Now of course reading and writing isn’t all the work we do here. All these books require raw materials, binding, repairing. The forests that surround our library provide ample lumber for our paper mill, which all of the librarians operate in shifts. We have an endless need of paper, and must produce endless quantities of it, but thankfully the trees never stop growing.
From there the paper goes to the presses which also operate continuously through the day.
And then finally the printed pages make their way to the workshop. Our books are all bound by hand, repaired by hand, and the use they get ensures that every book of any note cycles through this room many times. This is a sacred ritual for us, as the care of books is so deeply tied, as we believe, to our own fate.
Before we leave this wing there are a few more common rooms to see. First the hearth. Certainly a welcoming sight to any weary travelers such as yourself, but moreover, fire has been bound up in the reading of books and the telling of stories since both fire and books were invented. No place devoted to books could ever be complete without one.
Ah, now speak softly in this room. This is a holy place, our shrine. Here we worship not the creator, as one might surmise from the iconography, but rather the act of creation itself. The image of the creator is an instantiation of that act, a pure form of it, but it is not an embodied god that we worship. He helps us focus our thoughts on the act, more concretely than an abstraction can, though the more advanced claim to be able to do without any imagery and that this does not lessen their devotion.
And of course, the cafeteria. We’ll be sure you get enough time to take your fill here later on. My apologies that we don’t have time for an extended meal now, there’s so much to see!
Now let’s move into the more private areas. First the bath house. I’m certain you’ll want to take advantage of this sometime in the evening to get off the dust of the road. Come early if you can! It does fill up so. I prefer to take my baths before the crack of dawn for this reason. The stillness of the water helps put my mind in a placid disposition for the whole day.
Now step softly as we walk past this room. This is the meditation room, and we’ve had endless complaints about the noise from the traffic in this hallway. It’s truly unfortunate placement to have put it right between the dormitories and the main hall, but it’s built now and there’s not much we can do about it but to try to keep the noise down, and hope that our footfalls and murmurings can be somewhat as peaceful of a meditation subject as a flowing stream.
Now let us descend into the lower levels. There are cellars and larders as you would expect, but the most impressive chamber is the underground river. Yes, there are books down here too. It has proven quite useful, as, well, you know, given the state of the world today, some kinds of books can’t come in and out of the front door if you take my meaning. This empties right into the canal, and has provided water for the library both of the times it was under siege.
We’re going to be heading out of the building shortly, so let’s quickly stop by the cafeteria for tea time. Grab yourself a snack too, we’ve got a lot of walking to do. We’ll pack a picnic for later to be sure we don’t miss supper while we’re out.
Grab your jacket and boots, we’re going to head outside. This is our courtyard. The blueberry bushes and quince trees provide the kitchens with a bit of home grown variety throughout the year.
The gardens extend for miles within the walls, and you can almost forget you’re still inside of the complex while you’re wandering.
Now we’re goint to head outside the walls for a bit. There are a few choices of where to go from here.
The canal down the road leads into town. You will always find a steady stream of parishioners on the path by it, and if you’re lucky maybe one of the barges bearing books to or from the library.
But lets turn away from the town for now and head into the forest. This forest provides all of the paper necessary for the creation of our books. Fortunately we have a great need for pulp but only a mild need for lumber, so we’re able to take mostly just the young and small trees, and leave the large ones standing.
The next stop is deeper in the forest, we’ll follow the stream to get there.
Look there, ahead in the clearing. The oldest tree in the forest is a pilgrimage site for us. It was here when the library was built and it will be here after it decays into dust. We travel here to thank it for the use of so many of its descendants and ask for its forbearance.
If you feel so inclined, that trail leads up to the hills that overlook these forests, and from the top there you can see the ocean. Many of us find it refreshing after spending so much time pondering the infinities of the inner world, to gaze upon the infinities of the outer world as well.
Now I think it’s time we turned back, evening will be on us before we know it.
A long walk back, but worth it I hope. The halls stay busy late into the evening as everyone returns from their other tasks.
By tradition the kitchen serves a selection of hot chocolate at this time of day, so treat yourself. We’ve reached the end of the day’s tour, but there is still much to discuss.
Now find a cozy spot and make yourself comfortable.
Here at last at the end of the day, I think from the eagerness of your eyes and questions that you may be considering joining our order. That is all very well, the surface features of this lifestyle do appeal to many people’s dispositions. But I have not told you yet why we do what we do, and that first you must understand before you make any decisions.
We believe that every book contains a world. But more than just believe, we know this, because we know that our world is made out of words. The person who created our world thought of words to describe just one of the rooms in our library, then saw it, and was so amazed at its beauty that he described more and more, and saw more and more. First the library itself, then the grounds around it, then the whole multiverse in which it exists. And thus did our world come into being. He told us this, and bequeathed us a calling, and a duty.
We treat every book as if it were as important as our entire world, because in absolute truth, we know that for someone it is. And beyond just the care of the worlds that are, we occupy ourselves with the creation of the worlds that might be. For surely any world snuffed out by carelessness is as much of a tragedy as a world that fails to be born through dullness and sloth.
So now that you know the full of it, will you join us? Are you prepared to be a creator, a discoverer, a collector of worlds?
No need to decide now. Sleep on it. We’ll talk again in the morning.
All of the images in this post were synthesized by a combination of several machine learning models, directed by text that I provided, VQGAN for generation, and CLIP for directing the image to match the text. The text was all very simple, mostly of the form “<room name> in the sacred library by James Gurney.” The code did the rest. The synthesis was done by a discord bot written by BoneAmputee using code similar to this colab.
I found myself experiencing really complex emotions as I was making this. First was simple wonder. I described a place that I thought would be beautiful, painted by an artist that I thought would make it beautiful, and it was. I typed, “Great Hall of the Sacred Library, by James Gurney,” and was absolutely blown away by the image that gradually materialized. I felt compelled to keep exploring it, and creating it. What else was there in this place? In this world? What other wonders could I find just around the next corner? All I had to do was describe it, and it would show me.
On one hand, I wanted to share the work, and to share what I had discovered about adding “by James Gurney” to the prompts. It is an amazing hack. James Gurney literally wrote the book on how to paint Imaginative Realism, and the models seemed to have learned from all the art he has put online throughout the years. When you tell it to create something painted by James Gurney, it knows that nothing less than the best will suffice. But then I knew anything special about my own contribution would be lost by sharing it. I felt possessive about it, but this is an insane emotion to feel. I’m not an artist of any note. I didn’t write the code, or train the models, and James Gurney has millions of fans. Any one of them could have thought, “Hey I’d like to see if the AI can paint like him.” The fact that I’m an especially fervent admirer doesn’t mean anything. Is this what art is going to be now? Simply reduced to fandom?
The last emotion was fear. The output was simply too good, and this bot isn’t even the most impressive output I’ve seen. Subtle details of the optimization process make an enormous difference in the quality of the output, and aside from frequent spatial incoherency and an inability to make faces, the output is often good enough to fool a casual onlooker. You can refine your craft for 20 years and work for days on a piece, to produce something that will just flow by in a stream of AI Generated art nearly indistinguishable. If you doubt me about this, look at some of the examples below, made by a different tool. I didn’t use this for the images above because the “place” it made was substantially different, but the quality of these images was enough that when I first saw them, I felt shock, a sinking feeling in my gut, and couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. My daughter wants to be an artist. What should I tell her? Will this be the last generation of stylists, and we’ll just memorize the names of every great 20th century artist to produce things we like, forever? Maybe all the professionals are photo bashing these days anyways, and so this will just be a more efficient tool, and a copyright launderer, but this seems like another level beyond that. I could never have produced anything close to these images on my own, and these tools and techniques are only going to get better.
The feeling I have is that AI may do for art and music what it has done for playing Chess and Go. We will perform for an audience of other humans, who are tickled to see a human try to do something that’s even a pale imitation of what a pile of linear algebra can do.