The Occult Triangle Lab Review: Ubik by Phillip K. Dick

ubik occult triangle lab chris mahonI 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.

The Occult Triangle Lab Review: Ubik by Phillip K. Dick

Hypnotica: New Short Story and Sketches from Joel Clapp

9 months after its inception, my new short story, Hypnotica, is out for submission to fantasy magazines!

If you want to learn more about the inspiration behind it and how I fleshed out the magic system in the story, you should check out the posts DREAMWAVE: FANTASY WRITING, QUANTUM THEORY, AND DAFT PUNK and NARCOMANCY: MORPHINE, LUCID DREAMING, AND BINAURAL BEATS.

If you want a taste of the story, I’ve included a short excerpt below, along with sketches from my friend Joel Clapp. Hypnotica is the story of dreamwrights, mages who use music to shape dreams into surreal raves, and the Yoshiwara, a ghost-city that exists at the boundaries of waking and sleeping. The sketches depict the setting of the story, a ruined city carved into the side of the mountain, named Ibiza. In the story, the protagonists, two narcomancers named GRIN and NO-FOOT, travel between Ibiza and its mirror reflection in the dream world, the Yoshiwara.

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“The Yoshiwara is a dream city, and there are breeds of magicians here that only exist between sunset and sunrise. The most famous ones, the ones only the Yoshiwara can make, are the dreamwrights, who play their music for the ghosts and the dreamers, carrying their songs in their bones.

Each night, the flesh-and-blood bodies of dreamwrights fill the coma houses in Ibiza like stacks of wood, and their sleep-selves find their way to the other Ibiza, the one that exists in dreams. That mirror-city is the Yoshiwara, whose streets and buildings match the waking Ibiza only loosely. The Yoshiwara is where they make names for themselves.

            These days in Ibiza, shrines and cults spring up around the celebrities, the dancers and the artists, and for a while their autographs are exchanged like gold for anything and everything. Invitations from the courts of the drug lords and architects flood in, and gold flows as freely as the liquor when they go out.

            But standing over all the petty celebrities, towering like the ruined buildings of Ibiza, are the dreamwrights and their names. DEKAY. OZO. ENAF. Their fans paint buildings with their names in the middle of the night, writing love notes in twenty-foot-tall letters. Their fans carve their names onto tables, wooden joists, scaffolding, tattoo them across the skin, weave them into robes and scrawl them onto the margins of menus in tea houses. The popularity of dreamwrights is measured by the ubiquity of their name. But for every one that makes a name, a hundred wither away into addiction, and no one remembers them.”

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Hypnotica: New Short Story and Sketches from Joel Clapp

ERGODICA, Part 2: Interdimensional Necromantic Blues

Be sure to read Part 1 of ERGODICA here.

Last post, I brought up the idea of a “corpse book,” a piece of ergodic literature that uses the human body as the blueprint for its narrative structure. Before I start unpacking the insanity behind this idea and the ensuing project (which will involve philosophy, mathematics, occultism, and the nature of reality) it’s helpful to know what the hell “ergodic” means. According to the internet, “ergodic” means:

“relating to or denoting systems or processes with the property that, given sufficient time, they include or impinge on all points in a given space and can be represented statistically by a reasonably large selection of points”

Ergodic literature, however, is defined as the following:

“In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.”

The corpse book, as I imagine it, makes sense in both of these definitons–mathematical and literary. So sit back and open your mind here–we’re going to take a journey into the wondrous world of imagination, starting with the oh-so-fun topic of death and Kierkegaard.

There is a famous work written by Soren Kierkegaard, under the name Anti-Climacus, titled “The Sickness Unto Death.” The title comes from the Bible, in the Gospel of John–in that Gospel, Jesus comes across a dying man named Lazarus, and utters the words “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God.” ‘This sickness’ refers to his dying condition, and the meaning of Jesus’ statement can be read as “This man’s death isn’t for nothing–it is part of God’s plan.”

Death is the focus of a lot of different philosophies, but especially existentialism and Zen Buddhism: death represents the annihilation of the self, including our memories, our personalities, and everything that forms our identity. Death, in a lot of ways, is the crux of all philosophy, which led Albert Camus (who I hate) to say that the only true philosophical question worth pondering is suicide.

For Kierkegaard, the truly frightening thing is the sickness unto death, the death that is for nothing and no one, the death that means nothing. Kierkegaard imagines the human soul as trapped between the infinite and finite, always being pulled in both directions at once: on the one hand, we are divine creatures with immortal souls, but on the other we are bound to our bodies, senses, and everything that entails. The pursuit to reconcile these two is the heart of Kierkegaard’s existentialism, and offers a meaning to life. But to reject that quest, to say IMG_0955“fuck the infinite and the finite!”, is to choose despair. To choose despair, and to keep living, is to choose the sickness unto death.

In my stories and my world, the question of the sickness unto death is the chief philosophical concern. Death comes about from one thing: decay. So necromancy has risen up to deal with the practical concerns: how to keep the body intact and repaired ad infinitum, how to move a soul out of a decaying flesh body into a vessel like a phylactery or an artificial body, etc. Some kinds of necromancy, even more complicated and rare, aim to alter the body’s place in time, allowing people to slice minutes or seconds as thin as hairs, stretching out the moments. In all of these cases, the body is the central concern. Without a body, you have no tie to earthly existence, to the finite. So the body is the chief concern of necromancers.

This is the central feature of the “corpse book” I’m imagining: to tell a story about a necromancer, the story itself would have to take on the form of a body…or a corpse.

Part 2: Kabbalah, Evangelion, and the Oneness of Things

In Kabbalah, the Sephiroth is a map of all god’s creation, laid out symbolically. It’s made of twelve different parts, called sephira, each one representing a different aspect of the universe, God, and a step on the path to ultimate enlightenment. As you climb up the Tree, from the lower to the higher 6271sephira, more is revealed by the different interconnections between them: the relationships between the sephira mean as much as the sephira themselves, creating layers and nets of meaning.

One of the many ways to understand the relation of the different sephira is to see them as parts of a giant body, with the feet (malkuth, the lowest sephira, representing the material world) touching earthly existence and the head (Kether, the highest sephira, representing God’s consciousness) touching the heavens. With this symbolism, the human body itself becomes a map of the universe and the path to enlightenment.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons Evangelion pisses me off so much, making me say “God DAMN it, that’s clever.”

The Tree of Sephiroth shows up as a consistent motif across the Evangelion series, all the way to End of Evangelion, where the Mass Production EVAs enact a ritual that lifts the crucified EVA-01 into the sky, rising in a formation with an overlaid Sephiroth pattern, each EVA representing a different sephira. Below, from the clouds, rises a giant white body, which is the unity of Lilith (the female aspect of creation) and Adam (the male aspect of creation). The giant Lilith-Adam becomes the catalyst for Instrumentality, tumblr_inline_o091y7adxv1tryobx_540subsuming Shinji and all human souls into itself in order to either destroy humanity or cause its rebirth. So what we’re given here is a literal reenactment of the Sephiroth, the map to the totality of God’s creation, as a giant human body initiating the destruction and creation of the world. The giant has its feet on the surface of the Earth, and it’s head is in fucking space, staring at Shinji so he can have a liaison with Kether by being literally sucked into Rei’s forehead.

So there you have it: a narrative, visual synthesis of Kabbalah, a protagonist’s literal apotheosis, and the culmination of a story about understanding the human condition through one person’s journey into themselves. It’s perfect. Damn it.

The relationship of the Sephiroth to the human body speaks to an interesting phenomenon in mysticism and philosophy: the multiple meanings of things, and the conflation of different meanings. The Tree of Sephiroth can represent the human body just as it represents the map of creation, just as it represents a map of the path to enlightenment, just as it represents God. Thus, the body is the universe is God is enlightenment. This is why mystics keep talking about the “oneness” of things, that we are all “one.” To their eyes, the eyes of the enlightened, everything is everything else. The smallest insect is an expression of the ultimate truth of being, just as the rhizomantic nature of a flock of birds points to the order within the seeming chaos of being. The world is filled with hidden symmetries and patterns that all form the tip of a single iceberg.

It all sounds like some real mystical bullshit until you become aware of the existence of fractals.

Part 3: Fractals, Infinity, and Triangular Gaskets

So the human body, the vessel of the soul and the central feature of necromancy in my world, has a lot of meaning attached to it. Most of these meanings transcend the flesh and blood of human anatomy, but some are very literally embedded in it. Fractals are “a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale.” Fractals have a metapattern that nests within itself, with the smallest complete part of the pattern being a miniature reflection of the whole pattern.
Fractals show up in snowflakes, wave patterns in the ocean, crystl-systemresults2als, and plants, among other places. When electricity is injected into certain mediums, the resulting branching pattern has fractal qualities. But the most immediate example is human veins, which resemble patterns called L-Systems. L-systems are also found in tree limbs and wheat stalks, and appears in mathematical models of population growth for simple kinds of life, like algae. In pure mathematics they show up in Pascal’s Triangle and infinite recursion, among dozens of other places. In each of these cases, the fractals form patterns that nest inside themselves and expand outside of themselves forever–in their purest forms, fractal patterns are infinite.

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So let’s break this down. There is a type of pattern that is found in both nature and in pure mathematics that affirms the idea that no matter how large or complicated the pattern, the smallest piece of something can reflect its whole. This pattern has within its very nature the potential to be infinite, but is also found in finite forms: veins within human bodies, branches on trees, etc. Fractals seem to be, in a lot of really fascinating ways, a bridge to understanding the way to reconcile the impossible poles of the finite and infinite, the micro-scale and the macro-scale. Contained within fractal patterns, then, is potentially an expression of the path to enlightenment.

But then there’s the Hausdorff dimension.

I am not a mathematician. I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again. But the relationship between fractals and their Hausdorff dimension, to me, is one that seems to evoke sheer madness.

When you measure the sides of a square, you get a solid number. 10 centimeters. 18.465 centimeters. But when you try to measure a fractal shapes’ dimensions, the answer depends on how big your magnifying glass is. Since true fractals repeat in smaller and smaller iterations forever, measuring a true fractal would be impossible, since every time you tried to measure a part of it, you would discover an even smaller part contained within it which needed measuring, and an even smaller part within that one. Think of cutting the corners off of a table, turning a square into an octagon. Then cut the corners off the octagon. So on. This is something akin to the famous Zeno’s Paradox, mentioned in my previous post about Mr. Powell.

The Hausdorff dimension tries to measure the dimension of objects, whether one dimensional or three dimensional. Usually the Hausdorff dimension can be expressed as a whole integer, like 2 or 3. But fractals, which tinker with infinity, have bizarre Hausdorff dimensions, ones that defy logic or reality. They’re anomalous, impossible, but like the arrow in Zeno’s Paradox, it’s hard to draw the line between being mathematically impossible and physically impossible–especially when fractals seem to form some of the underlying patterns across nature and math.

My favorite is still the previously mentioned Pascal’s Triangle, which was part of the inspiration for “Chris Mahon’s Occult Triangle Lab.” The patterns within the triangle, when drawn out, create a well-known fractal pattern, the Sierpinski Gasket.

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Part 4: Fractal Immortality, Interdimensional Necromancy, and You

I mentioned a couple ways that necromancy deals with staving off death from the physical body. I mentioned the alteration of the body through repair or the use of a vessel, like a phylactery. I also mentioned the manipulation of time.

Imagine you’re a particularly clever necromancer, one who explores the soul’s connection between the infinite and the finite, those two binary positions. If the finite is expressed as 1, then the infinite could be expressed as 0. These are mathematical limits, and the human soul exists between them somewhere. But what if you explored mathematics in addition to necromancy? Things like Zeno’s Paradox and the nature of fractals. You would find that between two limits, even 0 and 1, there is an infinity of points curling in on themselves, nested upon one another to eternity. If the human Hausdorff dimension exists somewhere between 0 and 1, is there a bizarre decimal value, a little valley where you could live inside the limits but outside of existence? Is it possible for mathematics to come across a piece of math that takes it outside of anything math can explain?

It’s absolutely possible. In fact, it’s impossible to prove it’s not.

There’s a theory called Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. From Wikipedia:

“The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an “effective procedure” (i.e., any sort of algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the relations of the natural numbers (arithmetic). For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that such a system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.”

What this boils down to is that there is no way to definitively prove that any given system, like mathematics, is consistent when you use that system to test itself. So imagine you want to escape the finite and the infinite from within that system of 0 and 1. It’s not impossible. In fact, there are already things within that boundary that show that there’s whole worlds within the bounds of 0 and 1, where everything breaks down and the rules become meaningless: fractals.

IMG_0855Imagine escaping three dimensions for 1.38 dimensions. Death has no meaning there. Your body has no meaning there. It’s a kind of infinity, just a smaller type, a stranger type within a bigger infinity. Your soul, your self, that’s infinite, too. You could live forever. But it’s the crossing over that would be difficult–transcending or descending from this dimension.

And this is where everything goes wrong for our necromantic protagonist.

He doesn’t make it from this dimension into the fractal dimension. He makes a mistake, somewhere deep in his arcane mathematics. And now his soul, his self, is trapped between the finite, the infinite, and another, fractal infinity. As you can probably imagine, this non-Euclidean, neo-Lovecraftian experience can drive a person insane.

The effect of this cross-dimensional interpollation, in my conception, would be the decay of the soul instead of the body: instead of hanging in stasis between finite and infinite, the closed system would become unstable, with the soul getting ripped apart and slowly sucked into the fractal dimension like water going down a drain. This would be a gradual annihilation of the soul over a period of time that couldn’t be measured in reality, but rather by its own, internal clock.

This would be the plot of the corpse book.

Part 5: Ergodic Literature, Ciphers, and Counting Down to Annihilation

Fractals form the heart of the structure and narrative of this book, linking together time, death, immortality, the decay of the body, the infinite, finite, and wide-eyed madness, and the way to read about it all necessitates a special way to navigate the story.
The story told in this corpse book is one told across several limbs, or tertiary books, all of which are interconnected in the same manner of the Tree of Sephiroth. All of the books combined represent the symbolic body of the protagonist, divided into respective facets of his self.

In my current plan, each of these limb books are to contain approximately 10,500 words. This is because the average person reads at roughly 175 words per minute. With five limb books (head, feet, arms) and a central “torso” book of 63,00 words, that adds up to roughly 12 hours of reading time. This is the “internal clock” I was talking about: as you’re reading each word, minutes pass in both your world and the world of the narrative, meaning that the protagonist’s soul is gradually dissolving in real time.

These are the last 12 hours of his life, and the individual pieces of his self are disappearing one by one, infinity eating him alive. The name of the book would be OROBORO.

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Imagine trying to navigate a mind like that. Instead of a clean, perfectly symmetrical path across his Sephiroth, the path would be jumbled, fragmented, insane. This would be more like piecing together a falling building than reading the linear chronology of an adventure. So I imagine that each limb book would be fragmented, asking you to return to the central torso book a couple times to help unravel its individual story, with the narrative crossing the boundaries between the books and the reader decoding the path forward as they go along.

My initial idea is to have a word or a name become a cipher, something with significance. Using a process similar to my last post about encoding true names into hexadecimal or binary, certain phrases would be ciphers to figure out the path of the narrative, whether that was a page number, a certain passage, or one of the other limb books though I’d probably keep the torso book as the main “reference” book for each limb book to keep things simpler. The torso book would be like a dictionary or an astrology chart peppered with hidden pieces of the story, unintelligible until you saw the rest of the puzzle.

Tied into this idea of moving between a cipher guiding a reader’s path through the torso book and the constant decay of the protagonist’s soul in real time, I thought it would be appropriate to use a system that involved modular arithmetic, the same system that clocks use.

410129712_origThe modulo would begin at twelve, the number of hours until the final dissolution of the protagonist’s soul, and with each passing limb book (which take 2 hours to read), the modulo would decrease by 2. The advantage is that the modulo system is a relatively easy kind of mental arithmetic, something readers could do in their heads or on the back of a Post-It. Another possibility would be to use a Sierpinski gasket as the main mechanic, using the numbers and patterns contained in it as an easy cipher.

If everything is done right, the process of figuring out the cipher will force the reader to inhabit the same mindset as the protagonist himself, immersing them in the same world of arcane mathematics and hidden patterns that brought him to where he is now. This is a world of fantasy, after all: a world of wizards and necromancers who bury themselves in old, dusty, esoteric tomes to find forbidden knowledge that takes them deep into an unseen world.

It reminds me of H.P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness, in some ways. Once the heroes penetrate the city of the Old Ones and begin exploring its depths, they begin to find walls of pictograms that show their history, from their arrival on earth to the rebellion of the Shoggoths. There’s dozens of pages recounting this history as the protagonist unravels it, and instead of feeling like it’s an information dump, it begins to illuminate everything else about the city.

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The way I see it, the whole cipher-puzzle system asks readers to learn something new as they read, picking up the skills and mindset naturally as they follow the narrative, until they find themselves applying it to advance the story. The story would ask you not just to absorb it, but navigate it, and that navigation would bring you closer to understanding the central character and the esoteric, frightening, and entrancing arts of interdimensional immortality, and what drove him to seek it out.

Part 6: V FOR VENDETTA, Ideas, and the Outro

So what we have is Kierkegaard’s existentialism, Buddhism, immortality, Kabbalah, fractals, and Godel’s Incompleteness theorem woven into a piece of experimental literature about an interdimensional necromancer trapped between two infinities. That’s the basic layout of this project I’m working on, the elevator pitch. It’s fun to weave all these ideas together, to play around with them and find weird, interesting parallels and symmetries. When I read V FOR VENDETTA, one of the things I wondered was if Alan Moore and his co-writer started getting freaked out when they put together all of the striking connections between Guy Fawkes, the letter V, and the number 5, the symbol for anarchy, quotes from Faust, and the story they were weaving. It seemed like it all fit together too well, as if these patterns were all there from the beginning, waiting to be discovered. Of course, when you’re a writer you try to force everything to fit together into a perfect thematic pattern, but maybe there comes a point, like in Foucault’s Pendulum, when yov-for-vendettau begin to feel like you are part of the pattern, not the one creating it. Terrifyingly enough, that sentiment, too, is part of V FOR VENDETTA:

“I had to see it. There wasn’t much left. But when I was there it was strange. I suddenly had this feeling that everything was connected. It’s like I could see the whole thing, one long chain of events that stretched all the way back before Larkhill. I felt like I could see everything that happened, and everything that is going to happen. It was like a perfect pattern, laid out in front of me. And I realised we’re all part of it, and all trapped by it.”

There’s a lot more to writing a story that piecing together a lot of really cool ideas. I said that before about Neal Stephenson. But a famous writer once said that writers end up writing the kind of thing that they want to read. This is the kind of thing I want to read, because it’s exciting, bizarre, and fascinating. I bet if I looked, I could find other people who think the same thing. It’s inspiring to test the bounds of imagination and creativity and storytelling. I think that’s one of the things that makes writing fiction so unique.

occult triangle lab sketches

ERGODICA, Part 2: Interdimensional Necromantic Blues

The Occult Triangle Lab Review: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

wot01_theeyeoftheworldLet me put something in perspective.

If you read Neuromancer, you remember the surreal paradise of Straylight, the space station Case and the crew travel to. You remember McCoy Pauley, the “Flatline,” his accent, and his bizarre dead man’s laugh. You remember the sequence when Case jacks into the matrix to take on the T.A. AI. And if you’re like me, you remember the last line, “He never saw Molly again.”

The entire story of Neuromancer took place in 270 pages. All of its minutely detailed worldbuilding, its revelations about Riviera and Wintermute, and Case’s struggles to get over Linda Lee are encapsulated in those 270 pages.

Page 270 is where I stopped reading The Eye of the World from sheer disinterest. There were no characters I cared about, no aspects of the world that captured my imagination, and nothing in the plot that made me keep turning pages. In the space of 270 pages, the same length that entire masterpieces of fantasy/sci-fi have been written, nothing of substance had even appeared to give me a reason to finish the book.

Let’s go deeper here.

Wizard of Earthsea. If you read the first book in the Earthsea series, you know Ged becomes Ogion’s apprentice, travels to Roke, stays a year in Kurremkarmerruk’s tower learning runes, builds a rivalry with Jasper, unleashes a gebbeth on the world, fights a clan of dragons to a stand-still, finds the Ring of Erreth Akbe on an abandoned sandbar, and travels to the end of the world to confront his own death in 183 pages.

The Fellowship of the Ring. By page 200 in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and his friends have already made it through the Old Forest, the Barrow-Downs, and the encounter with the Ringwraith on the road. They’ve encountered Elves on their travels, watched Bilbo disappear, and Frodo has learned about the diabolical nature of the Ring and the stakes of destroying it.

In 270 pages or less, each of these stories accomplished what Eye of the World did not: present an engaging cast of characters, the beginnings of an interesting, well-paced plot, and  a reason to care about any of it. You could say everyone’s tastes are different, and that if I didn’t like it, that has everything to do with me and little to do with the story. As a writer, I disagree.

To borrow from Harry Plinkett’s Star Wars prequel reviews, a litmus test that every character in fiction should be able to pass is to have someone describe them without explaining their appearance, their job, or role in the plot of the story. What’s their personality, their character? What do they want, and what drives them as a person? Taking a step beyond that, are the character’s desires or goals driving the story and their actions in it? What will they get at the end of it all, what’s their “payoff”? All of these are roundabout ways of saying “Why should I care about this story and what happens in it?”

I couldn’t answer any of these questions about the characters or the plot of The Eye of the World because, as in most D&D campaigns, the story lurches forward because The Plot requires it to. This isn’t a story about people struggling for something, this is a puppet show. Set on a pair of rails, the characters have to play along with no agency and no motivation beyond staying alive, nothing personal at stake.

I’ll make a note here about Egwene, who develops the desire to become an Aes Sedai after Moraine reveals her ability to channel. Egwene has a personal stake in getting to Tar Valon: she wants to become special and learn the extent of her abilities. But Egwene’s presence on the journey to Tar Valon is so incidental, so badly rationalized as “a part of the Pattern,” that it renders her whole role in the plot moot.

But what frustrates me almost as much as the characters and plot is the insistence on the part of fans that The Eye of the World represents good, even great worldbuilding. As I’ve said before, good worldbuilding has very little to do with depth or complexity and everything to do with how it immerses readers in the story at hand. Looking at H.P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness, the overwhelming detail of the expedition’s gear and supplies ends up grounding you a scientific mindset that makes everything afterward, from the frozen city to the ice to the shoggoths, all the more credulous and frightening. Instead, The Eye of the World alternates between spending page after page describing mind-numbing, mundane  medieval farming life and reeling off long expositions about this world’s history and lore, the most egregious example being Moraine’s recounting of the heritage of Edmond’s Field. There is nothing immediate and applicable about these details, like Neuromancer’s complex descriptions of the technology Case is using, and nothing vivid and interesting that reminds me I’m in a fantasy world, like Case’s wanderings through Night City.

Someone might argue that Jordan’s writing, the prose of the book, is what makes everything hang together. I read 1100 pages of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon almost on the strength of the writing alone. If anyone sits down and compares the writing in Eye of the World to a random chapter in Cryptonomicon (even the one with the Captain Crunch), the difference in sheer vividness will be immediately clear.

So, to sum it all up: I don’t think The Eye of the World is a good fantasy book.  I don’t think it represents what fantasy should be, or what a book should do. If it can’t give me one good reason to keep reading it in the span of pages that other books have told entire stories, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not a good book overall.

[Stands up, pushes chair back]

I’m going to go back to my triangles now. Let me know what you think below in the comments.

The Occult Triangle Lab Review: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Narcomancy: Morphine, Lucid Dreaming, and Binaural Beats

READ PART 1 HERE

If Captain Jack has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you’ve got to dream a little dream. He doesn’t have much advice about how to build a magic system around dreams, though. N.K. Jemisin already uses the term ‘narcomancy,’ meaning dream magic, in her Dreamblood series, but after sketching out the magic system for the new story I’m working on, I found my narcomancy resembled William Gibson’s Neuromancer more than Killing Moon.

In a similar way to Case in Neuromancer, the narcomancers in my story operate by immersing themselves in an alternate reality and working from the inside. The reality in this case isn’t a Matrix, but a dreamscape that stretches across the world, with dreams and dreamers showing up as brainwave patterns, tuned to certain frequencies like bands of radio stations, each frequency representing a different stage of sleep—alpha, theta, delta, or REM.

I got the idea of imaging brainwaves as radio bands from Kevin Mitnick’s memoir, Ghost in the Wires, which explains (sometimes tediously) how he and many other hackers started out as ham radio operators. There was one repeater frequency, 147.435, that they called “the animal house,” a channel that was open for anyone to scream into, spread rumors, or meet random people. I liked the idea of tuning a radio into a certain frequency and hearing people’s dreams from all over the world, sort of like John Cheever’s The Enormous Radio. The idea for a worldwide dreamscape also came partly from Serial Experiments Lain, which touched on the Schumann resonance as a means to create a worldwide consciousness using the Earth’s magnetic field, then merge reality and the Wired into one. These ideas are really interesting to me, partly because they straddle the line between real scientific phenomena and fantasy.

The dreamscape, as I’m imagining it, can be visualized as having several different bands, or layers, each one corresponding to a different sleep stage:

dreamscape diagram

Part of the job of the narcomancers in the story is to find “bands” of dreamers in delta sleep and begin trying to trigger them into moving into REM sleep, where they can start manipulating their dreams. REM stage sleep is also known as paradoxical sleep, because it closely resembles the waking state of brain activity. It’s strongly associated with vivid dreaming, and it’s usually in this stage that you have real trouble distinguishing reality from dreaming.

REM stage sleep is also when a sleeper’s eyes begin to move rapidly behind their lids, hence the name: Rapid Eye Movement (REM). Imagining someone’s eyes moving hyper-fast, as if trying to keep up with thousands of flashing images, made me think of the mentats in Dune, who have a similar association with eyes. Their blue-tinted mélange-addicted eyes signaled their superhuman ability to think and process facts like computers, and in a similar way, I imagined  a sleeping narcomancer attaining an almost superhuman level of consciousness during REM, allowing them to deal with huge amounts of sensory input and making them able to pull off a performances.

REM stage sleep, like every kind of sleep, comes in cycles, with the brain diving and rising through the different stages several times over the course of one night. As the night goes on, REM stages become more frequent:

sleep-cycles

This brought me to another idea: sort of like a bank heist, what if narcomancers could only operate during their REM sleep, in 40-50 minute periods? It would almost be like a high that would wear off in time, forcing them to operate quickly, get in, play their music, and get out before their REM abilities wore off.

But there would have to be another hurdle for narcomancers to help distinguish them from regular dreamers: lucid dreaming. When I dream, it usually feels like I’m in a trance, like I’m watching myself doing things from somewhere slightly removed from my body with no real conscious control (Fun fact: sleep paralysis, a possible side effect of being woken up from REM sleep, often causes this same feeling, called bodily dissociation, also known as ‘having an out-of-body experience’). How could narcomancers, and musician narcomancers, hope to operate something akin to a mental DJ set when their mind isn’t working at top capacity? The only way to attain that kind of conscious acuity would have to be through lucid dreaming, where one would be able to recognize that they’re dreaming, then think and act as if they were awake.

To answer the question of how to attain lucid dreaming, I turned to 1980’s drug culture. Since the story was originally inspired by the rave-like EDM concerts of bands like Daft Punk, I turned to one aspect of rave culture: party drugs. So I invented a liquid, opium-derived product with a lot of similarities to morphine, which is apropos since morphine derives its name from Morpheus, the god of dreams. It’s also the kick-ass main character of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but that’s another story entirely. Sezumi, this fictional drug, would have one new feature apart from morphine: it would allow lucid dreaming once it put someone to sleep.

But another aspect of narcomancy, one of the key elements of manipulating dreams, comes from a unique phenomenon that’s also connected to lucid dreaming: binaural tones. Caused by playing two high-frequency notes with slight difference in their frequencies, binaural tones are sine waves that cause the brainwaves of the listeners to begin to synch with the binaural frequencies, meaning that you can ‘tune’ your brainwaves to certain patterns, such as theta or delta rhythms. This would be tremendously useful for a narcomancer who has to move between different stages of sleep, but there’s another use for it that makes it the central skill of narcomancy when paired with lucid dreaming: synching your brain waves with the brain waves of dreamers, then manipulating them.

Consider it a very primitive form of hacking, to use the Neuromancer analogy again. While lucid and on your REM high (with a 40-minute window) you find a frequency band with many dreamers’ brain waves operating on that wavelength, then start using binaural beats to manipulate them into attaining REM stage, then fine-tune your brainwaves to match theirs. Once you’re on the same frequency, you’re the only lucid person around, while everyone else is operating on the subconscious level. From there, you can begin manipulate and shape the dreams into something like reality-bending art, using music as your tool.

 

Narcomancy: Morphine, Lucid Dreaming, and Binaural Beats

POETRY IN MOTION Part 1: Magic as Poetry

Before I talk to you about magic, I challenge you to write something in iambic pentameter. Better yet, write a sonnet. Learning the pattern of stressed, unstressed syllables makes you pay attention to the rhythm and emphasis in your voice and sentences, and the stitching and unstitching of lines to fit the syllable count makes you think of the most efficient, concise way to convey your point—what words are the best ones to express the sound of the sea? The challenge of creating rhymes also makes you stretch yourself and plan ahead—what word do you want to end the poem with?

Writing a poem forces you to think in a certain mode, one that pays attention to the micro scale of things: syllables, rhymes, words, sentences. But when the poem is finally written according to the form, you have to step back and see if all the technical tweaks and revisions add up to something that evokes a certain effect. This is the deus ex machina of poetry. All the syllables, words, lines, and rhymes add up to more than the sum of their parts: they tell a story, evoke a feeling, or paint a vivid picture in people’s minds just by being read. A great example is Dylan Thomas’ famous poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This is a villanelle, a poetic form that forces writers to repeat two lines in a refrain. In this case, the two lines are “Do not go gentle into that good night” and  “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. The villanelle is associated with obsession because of the repetition inherent in it, as if the author is repeating those two lines to themselves, over and over in different configurations, with all the rhymes based around those refrains.

I think that’s fascinating—that a specific pattern of lines, syllables, and rhymes can be especially suited to evoke obsession. It makes me think of the yoik tradition of the Sami, the native people of northern Sweden and Norway. A yoik is a song, sometimes spontaneous, that uses a combination of words and notes to evoke a person, place, or thing. It’s not about something or someone, it’s their essence summoned to a given time or place for the duration of the yoik.

What if magic could be poetry? Not just in the spoken sense, but in the mathematical, metaphysical sense? What if its structure evoked its subject, like the villanelle or a yoik? What if art imitated life? What if there was no difference between art, magic, and living?

MATRIX POETRY

Building off my last post about the conversion of magical ‘true names’ to binary, magical ASCII format, and eventually spoken/written syllables, there’s another dimension of magical notation to explore: how magicians write their spells.

Magic, to me, would look like computer code when written out in symbols: each spell would have parameters, a specific range of targets, and “commands,” with universe acting as the computer. The actual language of this code would take…years to develop, like a new programming language. But I’ve come up with some groundwork for it, and that’s the important element.

For my magic system, I imagine having 40 discrete magical syllables that make up all words, including true names and the accompanying magical programming terms that would form the scaffolding for spells. Magicians would have to learn this language and how to write in it, similar to computer coding, but there are added dimensions to it, ones that turn magic from UNIX into a kind of metaphysical poetry.

Supposedly, when a sculptor begins chiseling a work out a marble block, the sculpture is already inside the block—they just need to ‘free’ it. When you write a poem, you can think of the same metaphor: you have a set number of syllables, lines, and rhymes, and your poem exists somewhere within those constraints—you just need to find the right words to free it. A contrast would be computer coding, where you start with a blank slate and have to build your own sets of rules in order to realize your goal. If the constraints of a poetic form creates one perfect path to the goal, computer coding is free-verse, with a thousand possible solutions, all with varying degrees of efficiency.

If magic was essentially computer code, you would start from scratch and run dozens of trial-and-error tests until you struck upon something that worked. You would have no clue as to what the final spell would look like, how it would be structured, or how it would work. Instead, I envision magic with tens of thousands of built-in patterns, which can be learned like the rules of a poem and solved like Sudoku puzzles, with perfect solutions that can be derived in a similar way someone goes about writing a sonnet. Instead of magicians trying to impose order on a blank slate of a world, they need to learn the patterns that are woven into every aspect of it.

To be continued in Part 2.

POETRY IN MOTION Part 1: Magic as Poetry

High Resolution: Worldbuilding and the Small Details

I have a fascination with the metal buttons on pay phones, the pixels on old Zenith televisions, the writing on IV drip bags, and the lettering on manhole covers. I walk around New York with my hands running over metal railings and my eyes sweeping over the small details. Every stairway in the New York subway system has a letter and number designation written on a small plaque below one of the steps. Every restaurant in the city has a health rating in the window. And at the intersection of Madison and 30th Street is a Toynbee Tile.

Sometimes I sit on the wooden benches in the subway and imagine being the last man on Earth, confined to the island of Manhattan. I imagine crawling over every inch of it, studying a single patch of street asphalt with the same intensity as the Mona Lisa. There’s that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Cameron is looking at A Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte, and he keeps looking closer and closer at the little girl, and the camera keeps zooming in on her face until it’s nothing but a bunch of colored dots.

Art has low resolution. Life, on the other hand, has infinite resolution.

There is a school of writing that says your job as a writer, first and foremost, is to notice things. This is what I was taught. It’s the same school of thought that stresses concrete details in every line of your writing, so that every dimension of your story is vivid, tactile, textured, and beautifully, truthfully rendered. All those candy wrappers and weeds poking through the sidewalk are your material as a writer, because they evoke the realness of everyday life. And that’s your job as a writer: to render life as realistically as possible. And you learn to do that by noticing the small details.

If you read American Psycho, 30% of the book is taken up in a meticulous catalogue of the colors, cuts, and brands of every character’s suit, tie, shoe, dress, cuff links and handkerchief. In fact, much of Patrick Bateman’s life seems to be taken up in the pursuit of an encyclopedic knowledge of style, fashion, and taste. This isn’t just because Patrick is a psychopath. It’s because all that matters in his social circles is the minutiae: the length of your coat sleeves, what you order at restaurants, and what kind of stereo you have. As you read, you begin to learn the language of affluence as if it’s a foreign culture, with Patrick as your guide. You get immersed in his world, his mindset, through the small details. So when the murders begin, they feel that much more surreal.

This kind of writing is based around the ideal of ‘verisimilitude,’ which is the appearance or quality of being real and believable. It’s what allows us to become immersed in a story, and, for a while, believe that it’s real. Many writers today do it by mining everyday life for those small, concrete details: smells, sights, textures. Those details immerse the reader in the story, and allow the illusion of fiction to happen.

So imagine you’re telling a story in a time, place, and universe that doesn’t exist. Imagine you’re writing second-world fantasy.

Maybe now you can understand how fucked you are. You don’t get to immediately pull from a shared pool of experiences. You don’t get to see your world laid out in front of you every waking minute, in all its minute detail. No, instead you have to steal, jury-rig, and cut from whole cloth the sights, sounds, and textures that will immerse your readers.

Watch a weather forecast, look at a street map of your town, or pick up an English-to-French Dictionary, and you’ll realize how hard it is to make up a world from scratch, down to the smallest details. But the real world is a good jumping off point. Learn about Zoroaster, the Zen poet Basho, and the economic collapse of Detroit. Then begin to work your way down to the feeling of varnished wood on your fingertips as you run your hand over the ribs of a suit of samurai armor, which is called the do. Find out what the little recycling number is on your box of cereal, and what that means about its composition. Stay up all night and watch the sunrise alone, and remember how it felt.

I think to make a good secondary world you have to be a whole universe boiled into one person, but if you do it right, you’ll never stop learning. About the stars, about music, about human history—fantasy is about bringing back stories from the bounds of imagination, and writing it is your excuse to explore it. What you’ll find, I think, is that you will begin noticing the small details around you, the pay phones and manhole covers, and admiring them as works of art, just as much as Beowulf is. There’s beauty in the small details.

And I think the advice given to writers, oftentimes, is the same advice given to those who want to make the most out of their life. Kafka wasn’t very upbeat, but he was always telling people to chase the sublime, to dive into what they feared the most in order to uncover what they needed to live. And there’s a quote by someone, maybe Picasso, that every piece of art is a self-portrait. I think that makes sense for writing fantasy, because if you’re going to write it well, it’s going to be ingrained in the way you live and the way you look at things.

Still, people will ask why you spend so much time building worlds, cultures, and metaphysics for worlds that don’t exist. What’s the use of these stories, or fantasy at all? There’s a scene in Wizard of Earthsea, when Ged picks up a plant called fourfoil, and asks the mage Ogion what its use is. Ogion replies,

“When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed then you may learn its true name, knowing its being; which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use of you? Or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open Sea?”

I imagine kneeling down on a sidewalk in New York and picking up a sprig of fourfoil growing out of the seam between the cement and a building. There is no use for fourfoil, but in that moment, with fifty-story buildings looming all around me and planes flying overhead and dozens of people walking by me to get to a bar or Grand Central, I see a spark of another time, another place in its tiny leaves.

If I can immerse people in a story, what is the use of reality?

High Resolution: Worldbuilding and the Small Details