So I swung by the Spoonbill & Sugartown Bookstore in Brooklyn today while running errands and some cool books. The bookstore itself was fascinating and had a lot of cool, eclectic titles, including the Atlas Obscura and the new Non-Stop Metropolitan. There was a surprising amount of stuff on magic and mysticism, which caught my eye. In the end, though, I picked out these two to help me with my Buddhist-inspired fantasy worldbuilding.
Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, and Philosophers
“An updated version of the seminal 1994 classic volume on the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”
Wabi-sabi is something I’ve always wanted to read more about, but all I could ever find was the Wikipedia page. I’m really interested in its connection to Zen Buddhism.
Wabi-sabi, as I understand it right now, is an aesthetic and life philosophy that centers on incompleteness, flaws, and authenticity. It has a lot in common with Daoism and Buddhism, and can be extrapolated to everything from dishware to clothing and architecture. I’ve always thought it was cool how people found ways to turn living into an art, especially when the that ‘art’ is tied up with the inevitability of death and decay.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
“A newly revised and updated edition of the internationally bestselling spiritual classic, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, written by Sogyal Rinpoche, is the ultimate introduction to Tibetan Buddhist wisdom. An enlightening, inspiring, and comforting manual for life and death that the New York Times calls, “The Tibetan equivalent of The Divine Comedy.”
I’m kind of wary of bestselling books written by self-identified Buddhist monks (especially the Dalai Lama), but I thought this would be a good reference point for creating a philosophy about life and death for my world. One of the things I’ve realized is that I don’t have much in mind for burial procedures or rituals, let along day-to-day philosophy.
Tibetan Buddhism also produced the Bardo Thodol, which I still haven’t read, but want to.
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.
I have a bad habit of reading, listening, and watching too many things at once, and at the end of every week I end up with a new list of fascinating things to check out. I thought it would be fun to share some of the stuff I’ve read and listened to in the past week, including some of the books and articles I’ve come across. I’ve also included the songs that have been on repeat in my head.
Reading this list is guaranteed to make you fun at parties.
NON-FICTION: Zen Buddhism, Selected Writing of D.T. Suzuki, Edited by William Barrett
An interesting look at Zen Buddhism by one of the foremost writers and translators on the topic. So far, the introduction has drawn connections between Zen and Kierkegaard’s Knight of Infinite Resignation, which is really interesting. It’s also got some fun stories about Bodidharma, the founder of Chinese Buddhism, and his shenanigans. I spoke a bit about Bodidharma before, in my post about Terry Pratchett’s Rule One.
NON-FICTION: A Burglar’s Guide to The City, by Geoff Manaugh
This book started out with an interesting premise: burglars, by their nature, have an arcane knowledge and a unique mastery of their surroundings. With this knowledge, they can pull off seemingly impossible, or even supernatural, feats. Liminality is a key idea in this book, which mirrors a lot of studies in magic and the occult. However, like a lot of non-fiction topics written by academics, it ends up losing track of its thesis and instead indulges in whatever the author finds kind of neat. DNF
FICTION: Clarkesworld Year Six Anthology, Clarkesworld Magazine
Clarkesworld Magazine, one of my top three favorite short fiction markets. These are the same folks that published both my essays on fantasy (you can read them here and here). I just started reading their Year Six anthology, and I’m excited to see what kind of insane stuff they’ve got in store. I also sponsor these guys on Patreon, along with Menton3. JOIN THE CULT.
MANGA: Opus, Satoshi Kon
Despite the most disappointing ending of all time, I highly recommend OPUS by Satoshi Kon. It’s the INCEPTION of manga, with a manga artist, Chikara, getting pulled into his own manga, called Resonance. He meets his own main character, Satoko, and ends up breaking the news that her whole life is a manga, and he’s essentially God. At the heart of the meta-story is the quest to resolve the ending of the manga, which is yet unwritten. It’s a great piece of metafiction, and it pulled at my goddamn heartstrings more than I expected.
Articles and webpages:
The heart of the I-Ching, the same book of Chinese divination that fascinated Phillip K. Dick, is the bagua, or trigram. There are eight trigrams: earth, water, fire, water, thunder, mountain, lake, sky. Combined into 64 pairs, the I-Ching uses them to supposedly provide a map to all creation. In fact, Leibniz, the famous mathematician, thought the I-Ching’s use of binaries in the trigrams (each bagua is made of three broken or unbroken lines) could provide a way to express everything. And he was right: binary became the basis of all computing, with 1’s and 0’s expressing things as insanely complicated as weather patterns or the show Neon Genesis Evangelion. You can read my article about using binary in magic systems here.
I’m trying to figure out the basis of a system of magic that would use movement, rather than written symbols or spoken words, as its main component. Sort of like interpretive dance, or the bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The Five Animals is what I’m turning to for inspiration, as well as the Shaolin Luohan martial arts.
This is just really fucking cool: a martial arts discipline given by the aforementioned Zen founder, Bodidharma, to the legendary Shaolin monks. The Luohan forms would become the basis for all Shaolin martial arts, and have strong connections to Buddhism and enlightenment–the 18 skills are called the “arhat skills,” with “arhat” being the name for an enlightened person.
Every Time We Say Goodbye by Annie Lennox
This is a beautiful, melancholy song. I came across it when I was reading V FOR VENDETTA: during one of the last chapters, when V is giving Evey a final tour of the Shadow Gallery just before his death, Evey plays a couple notes on the piano in the piano room, saying”‘How strange the change…from ma-jor to mi-nor’….no, I still can’t get that part right.” I finally googled those lyrics and found that they came from this song, which is fitting since the whole sequence in the book is essentially an extended goodbye from V.
Ticket to the Moon by ELO
This is another melancholy song. I came across it after listening for “Yours Truly, 2097”, also by ELO. I had an especially weird moment of synchronicity while walking to work one day–I was listening to this song when I came across a piece of graffiti on the sidewalk, saying “TO THE MOON.” This guy is a graffiti artist who tags in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I’d see the tag before, but it was surreal to hear the song and see the marker pointing down the sidewalk. Even more surreal is that the phrase may be a reference to a famous Zen teaching, expressed below pretty succinctly in the picture below (right).
What is Real by Trevor Something
I love Trevor Something. I have two of his albums, including TREVOR SOMETHING DOES NOT EXIST, which has this song as its last track. The song opens with a piece of dialogue from the 1974 comic sci-fi film, DARK STAR: a scientist is speaking to a sentient bomb about the question of “what is real,” which culminates in the problem of the intellect and Cartesian doubt. Sprinkled in are quotes from The Matrix (“What is real? How do you define real?” etc.), which is actually just a verbatim quote of Alan Watts, the lecturer on Zen Buddhism, and haunting last piece of dialogue from the bomb in which it quotes Genesis. All of this is sandwiched in some really amazing 80’s synths.