So, through a series of convoluted circumstances involving Bob Iger, a Darth Maul cosplay gone bad, and an out-of-control ice cream dispenser, I’m going to be representing Outer Places on the October 8th “Science of Star Wars” panel at the NYC 2016 Comic-Con.
This is the third year in a row that I’ve gotten into the NYCC for free due to unforeseen circumstances, and it just goes to show that if you live in New York and make a lot of offerings to the right entities, all your wildest dreams can come true.
I first heard about this book when reading through Philip K. Dick’s biography, I Am Alive and You Are Dead, which took its title from one of the more chilling lines in Ubik. It seemed to have everything I could ever want: existential crises, meditations on eternity, entropy, and the human spirit, and a mind-bending journey through an illusory world created in the dying psyches of twelve people.
But Ubik reads more like a rushed draft and a splatter chart than “One of Time’s 100 Best English-language Novels,” as my edition claims. So many different rules and plot strands are set up (including Pat Conley’s time-reversion ability, Runciter’s manifestations, and the eponymous Ubik) that seem to hint at a single, mind-blowing explanation, but everything that is built up falls apart about 50 pages later. The effect isn’t, as The Guardian claims, a “squishy” novel that defies explanation and evokes the malleability of reality; the result is book that fails to function as a story,or even a comment on stories.
The front cover blurb from Rolling Stone sums up the disconnect, I think, between the people who see Ubik as an avant-garde masterpiece and people like me, who think it’s a goddamn mess: Phillip K. Dick is “The most brilliant SF mind on any planet.” It doesn’t say anything about being a good writer or storyteller. Books like Ubik can get away with being absolutely incoherent by claiming to deal with big ideas. For all its foibles and shortcomings, Ubik can still claim that its telling a sci-fi story that deals with telepathy, eternity, reality, and the nature of life and death, counting on the sheer weight of those ideas to make it worthwhile.
This is a tough claim to assault because a lot of really brilliant experiments in literature and art fail. You can argue hypertext fiction and House of Leaves failed at their attempts at revolutionizing the format of the novel, but their attempt inspired other writers and maybe some readers to reassess what a story can do. The ideas and concepts they brought to the table, like non-linearity, ergodic literature, and multi-media storytelling, have value, just as Ubik has value in exploring the concepts of reality, life, and entropy. Some passages really stuck out to me:
“One invisible puff-puff whisk of economically priced Ubik banishes compulsive obsessive fears that the entire world is turning into clotted milk, worn-out tape recorders and obsolete iron-cage elevators, plus other, further, as-yet-unglimpsed manifestations of decay.
This is the same looming horror at entropy that was embodied in “kipple” in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This passage sums up the apocalyptic, reality-destroying horror that waits for Joe Chip and his friends, evoked in the material decay of everything around them: milk, tape recorders, even elevators.
“But the old theory–didn’t Plato think that something survived the decline, something inner not able to decay? Maybe so, he thought. To be reborn again, as the Tibetan Book of the Dead says…Because in that case, we all can meet again. In, as in Winnie the Pooh, another part of the forest, where a boy and his bear will always be playing…a category, he though, imperishable. Like all of us. We will all wind up with Pooh, in a clearer, more durable new place.”
This reminds me of the poem Heaven by Patrick Phillips. It’s a surprisingly tender image of an afterlife, apart from all decay and the reality we know. It’s transcendental in the deepest sense of the word.
But none of it counterbalances the seemingly haphazard, half-baked, and frustrating plotting in the book. Good ideas might be able to salvage a badly written book in the eyes of critics and literary theorists, but no amount of avant-garde cred can make Ubik a passable read. The best experimental writers, the ones that deserve the highest praise, learn how to violate the rules of narrative and meaning within their stories and create a piece of fiction that has its own logic and its own intuitive way of reading it, like a dream.
Phillip K. Dick doesn’t accomplish this in Ubik. He sets up a world with a number of rules, but discards them one after another, until he discards everything. So there’s nothing to talk about and nothing to read in Ubik except its profound ideas and its profound failures. There’s no “vivid and continuous dream,” as John Gardner called it. So ironically enough, Ubik, a book about being immersed in a dream world that can’t be distinguished from reality,never tricked me into forgetting, even for a moment, that it was anything more than a bunch of words on a page, written by a man named Philip K. Dick.
Two weeks ago, I started writing for Outer Places, a website dedicated to science fiction and science. It’s been tremendously exciting to work with them, and it means I can continue funding my jetskiing, milk-drinking playboy superstar lifestyle here in New York by writing about some of the coolest news and scientific discoveries on the Internet. Why do I do it?
I wanted to share some of the articles I’ve written so far for Outer Places, not because I’m shilling for OP now, but because I’m actually proud of (and excited by) a few of them. Ignore the clickbait-y titles.
Six Sci-Fi Masterpieces That Put Insane Detail Into Things You Didn’t Notice
This one I actually wrote a couple years ago to be a Cracked listicle, before Cracked stopped doing those. It deals with Neon Genesis: Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon, and Menton3’s Monocyte, along with Dune and Asimov’s short story Nightfall.
The Artist Behind the Death Star Talks About His Art & Life
This article came from a Reddit AMA today with Colin Cantwell, the man who designed the Millennium Falcon, Death Star, X-Wing, and a bunch of other starships in Star Wars. He also worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 and Walter Cronkite during the Apollo 11 moon landings.
A New Experiment Just Teleported a Particle and Pioneered the Quantum Internet
This one came from the University of Calgary, which apparently conducted research that may pave the way for long-distance communication using quantum entanglement. I snuck some references to Mass Effect 2 and Half-Life in there.
LIVESTREAM: Elon Musk Says We Need These Four Things to Colonize Mars
This was absolutely incredible. Today, Elon Musk got on a livestream and laid out plans to create a “self-sustaining city” on Mars, along with the four key concepts that need to be implemented to create an Interplanetary Travel System. What really struck me was that, during the question and answer period, Musk said that his two primary goals with the project were to keep human consciousness alive in the face of a planet-wide catastrophe (practical) and to create something to inspire us when we look toward our future (idealistic).
And for those of you who caught the debate last night, you all know who I’m voting for.
This is Vol. 3 of the Occult Reading list, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week.
Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.
Disclaimer: There’s no conspiracy between me and New Retro Wave–I just listen to their songs all the goddamn time. But if they want to talk sponsorship deals, I’m down to sell out and get some of that sweet 80’s merch.
Trevor Something, give me a call. We’ll work something out.
THE Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
This is the Hugo Award-winning sci-fi book by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. It’s garnered some unreal praise, and I finally got around to reading it. So far, I’m 200 pages in and I’m not a fan. Putting aside the difficulties of translation, the plot and pacing are where the book comes up seriously short. So far, the plot has been a very choppy clockwork affair, with the main character essentially shuttling himself from place to place, listening to exposition, then periodically popping in to the VR world of Three Body. Every exposition scene happens almost back-to-back, with Wang Miao acting as a plot-automaton who decides, “hey, let’s give this person a call,” followed immediately by “let’s visit this person,” and then “they told me to visit this person, so let’s go here and speak to this person.” Rather than Jack Bauer in 24, who is propelled from place to place by desperation, gunfire, and a constant stream of new discoveries, the countdown Wang faces doesn’t drive the action, and the only thing Wang needs to do is go to places so people can talk at him. There’s no tension or challenge to ferreting out the information he needs, and the plot comes off as a series of mechanical scenes strung together without much attempt at subtlety or tension. The scene in which Wang discovers the murder of Shen Yufei and listens to the revelations of her husband are the worst perpetrators of this.
On top of the lackluster plotting, the video game world of Three Body ends up being a bizarre, pseudo-metaphorical dream sequence. Unlike Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse in Snow Crash or William Gibson’s Grid in Neuromancer, the rules and logic of the virtual world are opaque and confusing. Characters can randomly speed up the passage of time as it suits them, the logic and mechanics behind player dehydration are completely unexplained (do they go into spectator mode? Log out?), and it’s not even clear if the entities Wang is encountering are NPCs or players. The most baffling question is about advancement: the game revolves around trying to predict the movements of the sun, but a succession of players (if they’re indeed human players) seem to put forth antiquated versions of the solar system. No human player but the protagonist seems to contribute to the game or its advancement but the protagonist, who always arrives at exactly the right time to see the key developments.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but already I’m feeling like The Three Body Problem is going to be a monumental disappointment.
This is a nice survey of how different fantasy series have used language as the basis for magic systems (a topic I’ve written about in relation to both binary and poetry). It deals with the big-name franchises, including LoTR and Harry Potter, but also The Spellwright Trilogy and video games like Skyrim and Treasure of the Rudras.
I still remember opening up a book in Morrowind after clearing out a den of necromancers and reading about the Nords shouting down their enemies’ walls with the magic of their voices, and how the most powerful had to be gagged to keep their voices from destroying everything around them. At the time, I thought “They could never turn that into a real magic system. It’s cool flavor, though.”
So it was an awe-inspiring bash to the head to find out that that little, innocuous passage from the early 2000s was kept in mind across the development of Oblivion and brought to glorious fruition in a fully realized magical language and system in Skyrim. Next, I want to see the snake people from that one hidden continent!
This is a cool little post from V.E. Schwab, author of A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, both of which I own (thanks, publishing friends!). Schwab touches on the difficulty of composing languages for a fantasy world, as well as the promise: she explains how the poetry and sound of language can reveal something about the nature of the world and its speakers, and how it can immerse a reader in the world of the story by forcing them “to learn as they go, just as travelers would, when passing through a foreign land.”
Schwab also touches on the dangers of fantasy languages: “Used poorly, fictional languages can feel like a wall, preventing all but the well-versed from feeling included in a world.” I’ve seen this pretty often, and it comes from the tricky management of a learning curve within the narrative, by which a reader learns about the world, the culture, and the events of the book. Introducing too much foreign information leads to alienation and frustration, like a mother spelling out words so she can speak over the head of a toddler. “Don’t you know what a ba’aleth is, reader? No? It’s very important.”
This is just a couple thoughts from Eric Honour, who has a page on Medium. It’s mostly some criticism on the simplicity and lack of verisimilitude that characterizes language and naming in fantasy. One thing he touches on is how monolithic language and names become when the creator just sits down and pushes two words together like a caveman, like “Iron Walker” or (my personal pet peeve term from Dune) “lasgun”. But one particular insight from Eric struck me:
“This is something that turns me off about a lot of fantasy. It’s also something that I can see is difficult to navigate — having multiple names for things is more realistic, but also can feel like it’s overwhelming the reader. Real-life historical names are full of metonymy and misapplication and the shifting sands of living language, and that’s a level of complexity that might not even be advantageous to a fictional world. But not even making the attempt feels sort of lazy.”
Something that the articles from Tor and V.E. Schwab also touch on is that language shifts and changes to reflect its culture and its world. To create a language, or even naming conventions for armies, you have to think about how words and people use and abuse terminology. A great example is military slang and acronyms like FUBAR, SNAFU, BDU, and MOPP, or the backronyms of gang culture. There’s something more than the denotative meaning of words, a kind of vitality to them, and that’s what a lot of fantasy writers gloss over.
“Just Like You (Hazy Mountains Remix)” by Chromatics
One of my top three favorites from the world of New Retro Wave, Just Like You is one of those haunting love songs that evokes the kind of otherworldly, illusory lover that ELO sang about in Yours Truly, 2095, or even the twisted virtual love in Bad Religion’s I Love My Computer. It’s a song wrapped up in nostalgia and ethereal, lovesick illusions, and the reverb clings to your mind like cobwebs. Most disturbing (or enticing) of all is the idea of a doppleganger, a lover who “looks just like you/he even says the same things/he even wears the same clothes,” who ultimately “loves like you used to.”
“The Glory” by Reapers
The Glory is another of my top three favorites from the good folks over at New Retro Wave (THERE IS NO SPONSORSHIP DEAL), and one of my favorite songs, period. The contrast between the low, dirge-like like chanting and the full-throated, almost plaintive rock-and-roll yelling of the chorus gives the whole song a sense of loss and bitterness. The lyrics, which seem to be an ode to death, end up making it the perfect song for people interested in the dark side of the 80’s.
A group of New York friends have asked me to DM a short Pathfinder session for them, which means the last couple days have been spent rummaging through my notes from the last campaign I ran, which was about four years ago, back in Washington State, with about 7 people. It ended up being a fantastic experience, despite the fact that, over the course of that 8-month campaign, every character tried to kill themselves at least once out of a combination of despair and existential angst.
But this group doesn’t know that.
The Pathfinder session is going to take place in the fantasy world I’ve established in my stories, which means house-ruling a lot of the magic. It also means I end up spending hours on designing extremely complex puzzles for my players.
This particular puzzle stopped being a puzzle at about the 3-hour mark and became an Occult Triangle Lab project. It’s got everything: triangles, some research into magnetism, mathematics, and a practical application in a fantasy setting.
These are my notes for a spell map that will allow one of the mages to enchant a piece of magnetite so that it becomes a strong, permanent magnet. This is meant to be a major plot point in the upcoming session, so I wanted to take some extra time to create something more engaging, rather than just have the players roll a dice and beat a hard DC.
The rabbit hole I fell down was creating a spell map for the enchantment (If you haven’t read my post on spell maps, you can check it out here). After reading up on magnetite, which is the source of naturally occurring magnets called lodestones, I found that it naturally forms octahedrons. Rather than having players working on a 3-D puzzle, I drew out a 2-D version of an octahedron on graph paper and started seeing if I could make a sort of Sudoku puzzle:
The idea was that the spell map would be a miniature octahedron, reflecting the crystalline structure of magnetite, but the sudoku idea didn’t work out so well. Still, the diamond pattern ended up forming some interesting patterns: the octahedrons in magnetite are actually formed by thousands of smaller octahedrons, so it was cool to graph out a spell map that was made up of small versions of itself (huzzah, it’s recursive!).
But I wanted the players to feel like they’re actually learning about magic rather than just doing a stock puzzle, so I started seeing if I I could weave information about magnetite into the puzzle, such as its melting point, durability, metallic qualities, etc.
But that didn’t lend itself to puzzle solving. I took a look at the cool, nested design of the 2-D octahedron and thought maybe it would be fun for the player to use the patterns found in magnetism itself to solve the puzzle. I tried superimposing the lines of magnetic pull on the octahedron pattern:
I found out I could superimpose the patterns in a simple bar magnet on a lattice of octahedrons to create a pretty cool design that might have the material needed for a puzzle: structure, patterns, and a goal. That led to this design:
The idea would be to build a sort of “connect-the-dots” puzzle built on the patterns in both magnetism and the structure of magnetite, with the player following rules to recreate the design formed by the magnetic paths (which are like big loops radiating out from the North and South poles).
Below are some of the important graph points I isolated (along with the qualities of magnetite). At the center are the two poles, with the outer dots forming the boundaries of the magnetic patterns. These are meant to form the guidelines of the puzzle, which will require the player to do some tracing to recreate the drawing in the previous picture.
Eventually, I created a blank grid of numbers, which the player will use to reconstruct the whole design by following a set of instructions (sort of like a human computer program).
Compare the grids and sketches above to the sketches in the last post about spell maps:
What I found was that this layout, made up of numbers arranged on a grid, ended up looking a lot like Pascal’s Triangle, which in turn forms the basis of the Sierpinski Gasket, one of my favorite fractals:
I don’t know if the puzzle will end up being a functional part of the upcoming session, but I thought I’d share it here on the blog. It’s a cool intersection of geology, mathematics, and fantasy, and it ended up being good practice for figuring out how a mage would go about enchanting a rock to become a compass.