Category Archives: Books


“Is that a decent reason?
Just ’cause others think you’re true?
You need to have good reason
to believe the things you do.”

“Should one take ideas on faith?
Or turn them on their head?
Look at them from all angles?
Think the opposite, instead?”

“Our gang has this idea.
Are you with them, or us?
Truth’s contingent on my tribe?
Belong, don’t make a fuss?”

From “XX”, by Rian Hughes.

One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen (and held). Look it up. It’s a novel, graphic. To not be confused with a graphic novel.

(the binding could be better, and the paper too, but it’s still a pretty good price for what it offers)

A “first contact” novel as if written by an hybrid of Danielewski and Grant Morrison. And it doesn’t seem to trade words for just artsy white space. It seems to strike a good balance.

I’ve just witnessed the shitstorm on twitter. Most of it goes over my head and I don’t have the desire nor the capacity to measure and understand it. Internet culture these days demands too much to be parsed, and it’s definitely not worth the time required to do so.

The fundamental problem is that the best possible action is: do not participate. And the reason for that is also simple: when an argument is set up in the worst possible way, then no amount of arguing is ever going to “solve” the conundrum. The problem is not people’s opinions and their “factions”, the problem is that the argument itself is set to be inflammatory. It is a “meme”, of a structure BUILT to bring permanent conflict. The purpose is to perpetuate itself, to self feed and grow over time. The key to understand these processes is to stay out of them. Avoid feeding them, because they are “alien”, parasitic.

If we really wanted to have a discussion (instead of finding reasons for conflict), we’d need setting up the context and the theme. The better the set up, the more likely the solution. In fact these days of opinions on the internet, the opinions themselves are worth shit. ALL OF THEM. It would be important instead to set up the field, objectively gathering the data and describing each point of view, how they relate to each other. Only then it’s possible to begin discussing something. The rest is only noise, all of it. Surface noise meant only to reinforce identity of this faction versus that one, and self-congratulate.

One of the best hints is when opinions voiced are non sequiturs. The problem is not WHAT people think, but that people don’t know how to think anymore.

And you can see this everywhere. From anti-vax to those who believe the Earth is flat, to politics, viruses and everything else. I’ve been saying this for a long while because it’s pervasive. We’re witnessing an epistemological collapse, and in each of these cases it is not what people think, but how people think. The argument IS NEVER the important part. It’s not important whether the earth is flat or a geoid or whatever else, what’s important is WHY you believe so. How you got there. If people still knew HOW to think, then we wouldn’t be worried about the content of those thoughts. And now we are too busy trying to correct what people think and believe, without understanding that this is just the beginning of a collapse. You cannot even expect to slow it down. It’s just “memetic”, a thing set on its course that no one can control anymore.

So I bring one example that I just read. It’s not meaningful, it’s not a starting point. It’s just an isolated case that, from my point of view, indicates how the discussion is completely hopeless. It leads nowhere because its only purpose is self feeding indefinitely to fuel some conflict.

I only quote it anonymously, since it’s not important.

[…] this really makes me aware how my early love of SFF was shaped by the stories I stumbled on: queer stories, POC stories, women-focused. My SFF is not The History of SFF.

My SFF is *also the history of the genre*.

And that’s absolutely 100% fine.

Who made me love SFF? Juliet Marillier, Lynn Flewelling, Marjorie Liu, Nalini Singh, NK Jemisin, Jacqueline Carey, Kate Elliott

That’s fine too.

But also: dubbed anime on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, manga, paranormal YA books, fanfiction, Disney; even the Mahabharata on Zee TV.

Still fine.

You can bang on about Campbell; it still won’t make him relevant to the way I approach the genre, or the way the genre is going to be.

And here is the problem.

In the same phrase, she goes from “won’t make him relevant to the way *I* approach” to “the way the genre is going to be.”

Who fucking cares that Campbell isn’t relevant to you? Campbell isn’t relevant to me, like, AT ALL. But I don’t go out of my way to attack SOMEONE ELSE because his views do not conform to mine. Why should the way you approach the genre be MORE relevant?

You, whoever you are, don’t get to decide what the genre is or what is going to be. Your choices and preferences are PERSONAL. You don’t get to APPROPRIATE what isn’t yours.

This is what is incredibly silly with the whole debate. It’s very obvious that The Hugos are used as a sort of ramming ship in a cultural fight. That’s fine too, if you want to give more visibility to certain writers, or shift the field in a way you think is preferable, that’s all fine and part of the exact same process that goes on about everything and everyone. It’s how cultures move. I don’t believe in progress, so for me all the cultural movement is generically a thing that happens, like the wind. It can bring positive change as well as catastrophic.

Yet, no matter how you believe yourself important, or even fundamental, you’re still just a small part of a process that functions even without you. Yes “your” SFF is also the history of SFF. An history that will always be greater and larger than you. And that you don’t get to define or contain.

People have this absolutely ridiculous and impossible desire to impose their own views on something so large and intrinsically alien that exists on a completely different layer of reality. The Hugos, like every other prize or cultural association in existence, don’t define anything, ever. The Nobel or the Pulitzer don’t define “literature.” They are only marketing, and trends, and inner currents, stories of personal successes and failures. It’s all about perception, and nothing is real.

That’s why when George RR Martin is invited at the Hugo, he’s going to talk about *HIS* SFF. Because it’s utterly ridiculous to expect anything else. His view on the Hugos as someone who’s been there for a lot of time, so part of the history of this particular thing.

This is the complete fuck up. People want the Hugos to be THEIRS. Martin instead spoke and celebrated his own cultural background, that brought a generational conflict with the newer audience and the implicit cultural flow that defines the “current” Hugo.

That’s fine too. You want to fight for the identity of this cultural movement, symbolically represented by the Hugo. Okay. It’s like a political party, you can fight for the governance to steer it the way you want, it is part of democracy and the movement of culture generically described above. You could even set up a blog or a youtube channel and give yearly prizes to your very own favorite writers. Totally fine.

By why the fuck you cannot have an ounce of respect, or even acknowledgement, that SFF is not YOURS, and that different people will have their own experience with it? Why cannot you just respect Martin’s experience in SFF? Why should you have the right to overwrite someone else’s view with yours?

I perfectly understand that people realized that Martin wasn’t the best choice for what the Hugos are right now, but that’s a kind of discussion that generally happens before, not afterwards. You don’t care about what Martin spoke about, you were bored, that’s fine. But you have to respect it as his views. If you invite Martin, then it’s only logical that Martin will speak about HIS SFF. If you want a more modern take, then you wouldn’t invite Martin. Would you like him to read a script you wrote so you can put your words into his mouth?

So, you can legitimately decide the cultural angle you want to give a cultural association. You can decide who to invite, to better symbolize the movement you’re dealing with. But you don’t get to go AGAINST someone else because he somehow defiled your cultural purity.

The Hugo might be yours, and yours to define. But the Hugo do not represents SFF, and SFF isn’t yours.

If your “prize” is all about advertisement, self celebration, and reinforcing in-group identity, that’s fine. Hollywood has always worked the same way, all about people reinforcing and celebrating each other to feel better than everyone else. But you’re always going to be parochial. And the more you believe how important, fundamental you are, the sillier you appear.

By the same definition, Martin is going to speak about his SFF. And because it’s “his” that it is generally interesting. Because it isn’t yours, or mine. So you’ll have a different, new point of view. It’s valuable because it doesn’t overlap with yours, so it gives light to a new area. You might not be interested, and that’s totally fine. You aren’t hostage to Martin’s views, you don’t have to read or listen to him. But you still respect it for what it is and you don’t get to cancel it because your cultural agenda has different priorities. You don’t overwrite other people experiences with yours. You won’t call for diversity while hating it, because even Martin’s age and aged views on the SFF genre are a valuable form of diversity. Especially if this diversity helps preserve something that would otherwise be forgotten. Canceled by time.

That’s what is wrong. The arrogance of the absolutism. The war for the hegemony. Imposing your own views, to others. Your moral compass, your sense of superiority. You are the mirror of what you’re supposed to fight.

…Instead for something far more obvious and without even a slight trace of nuance, there are these two twitter messages highlighted just below Martin’s:

That’s almost too perfect. It gets the whole range, from ridiculous false accusations, to threats, and then this arrogant idiot self proclaiming as the spokesperson for “the modern SFF writing community.”

Including the admission that the mob already decided on the truth, no matter what anyone has to say. Even funnier because the cute avatar makes it all the more hypocritical.

Pronouns seem to be a big deal these days. I propose to eliminate “we” and “us.”

Annette said, “I suppose Louis Manfreti will represent the Skitz clan again this year. I always enjoy him; he has such interesting things to tell, the visions he sees of primordial things. Beasts from the earth and the sky, monsters that battle under the ground…” She sucked on a piece of hard candy thoughtfully. “Do you think the visions that Skitzes see are real, Gabe?”

“No,” Baines said, truthfully.

“Why do they ponder and talk about them all the time, then? They’re real to them, anyhow.”

“Mysticism,” Baines said scornfully.

(tired now, will revise tomorrow)

The structure of the Exegesis is a bit of a mess and, from what I know, done posthumously (the division in folders) without any discernible logical sense. So there’s no straightforward way to go in. Since I don’t have any better alternative I’ll stick with the published book, that supposedly rearranges the folders in chronological order. So my current plan is to follow the published sequence and integrate the original material where there are parts that are cut.

It starts with folder 4, at some point during 1974, and my source also starts from the same point. So I’ll go with the book.

This project is supposed to be ongoing without any planned regular frequency. I expect it to continue very, very slowly, but hopefully without huge delays. It’s just one side activity. Even if I only end up reading 1% of the whole thing, that’s fine. I only want to avoid being stuck at some point for a long time.

At the beginning I expect to spend a lot of time commenting details. As things become established and more redundant I’ll probably read a lot more and write a lot less. But for now it will be maximalist commentary.

So here we go.

—–
Ubik takes the stage and without any sort of premise Dick plunges in the deep end. We’re already into metaphysics and abstract interpretation from the first line.

He says (in Ubik) time stops but “changes” are produced. We’ll get back to this apparent contradiction. The idea is that once time, as a force, becomes weaker and stops, something happens: “the bare bones, so to speak, of the world, our world, are revealed.” And: “The press of time on everything, having been abolished, reveals many elements underlying our phenomena.”

Since I’ve read further than this, I already know that what Dick is doing here isn’t giving a metaphysical/fictional context to Ubik, but equating what happened in Ubik to his own mystical experience, that is at the core of the whole Exegesis. So everything he affirms about Ubik generally applies to what he experienced. Lets say it is being “retconned.” Ubik is used as a translator of that experience, transforming a “feeling” into rational knowledge, an understanding. That’s our context here.

One idea here is of a layer of reality. Something happens, and the curtain drops, you get a glimpse of a beyond. But Dick is sure this beyond isn’t another curtain, or at least not yet. There’s a certain philosophical foundationalism, the idea of seeing a more foundational reality. Not just another one, but one that is truer.

If time stops, this is what takes place, these changes.

Emphasis mine. Time stops, but change happens. This appears as a contradiction, since usually time is required for change to appear. Dick is only highlighting this.

Not frozen-ness, but revelation.

If we imagine the illusion of reality as a movie, then the time stopping is like a projector, the medium that builds the illusion. This still requires to step outside, otherwise you still wouldn’t notice (as Dick confirms later).

In the introduction to the other post, if you look at the top of that first image, you can see Dick presenting an idea where consciousness exists in a sort of multiverse, where it is plunged at a great speed through different lives. Memories are only built through cues, as if they are inferences. So it’s as if it is time that makes it possible to build a world as we know it. The moment time stops it’s like all the paintings (meaning) we hanged on that framework fall apart. The “bare bones”.

We can then extrapolate through what he says that “time” is a positive force. He says other things related to entropy I can’t quite get. Things cool, forms regress. How? In what way? Action, obviously related to time, is tied to “a form of heat.” Of course it isn’t possible if time stops.

He continues describing the “Logos” and the “Holy Spirit”. The Logos is essentially the fabric of the world (the world beyond the world). The wider foundation. So the Logos is also outside time, since time is only one force within reality. The Holy Spirit is a kind of force too, so it is contained, somewhat internal to the Logos. The Holy Spirit is the “last station” of time. The omega point in the direction of time, the final point of that trajectory. In Dick’s scheme, then, the Holy Spirit stands at the far right, intending that the arrow of time intuitively goes from left to right, along its conventional progress.

Due to its nature also as a kind of force, the Holy Spirit doesn’t quite wait there at the end, but “overcomes the time field and flows back against it.” So it moves in a trajectory opposite to that of time. It’s coming our way. “It is the anti-time.”

Then he makes a few distinctions. The Logos comes right from the outside (above), the Holy Spirit is instead within, also within time and “is moving: retrograde.” The “real universe” is eternity. Logically since we already established fundamental reality comes in the form of the Logos, and the Logos is placed outside time itself. Outside time is eternity. The Holy Spirit, then, behaves like tachyons, as if we are in Watchmen. In the comics it is what allowed Dr. Manhattan experience time in a weird way. Dick subscribes to this possibility of tachyons.

Up to this point everything seems to follow, somewhat. But then he says a form of equilibrium is achieved because the Logos operates in three vectors: from behind, from above, and from ahead. This also seems to follow, the force from behind is time (causal), from left to right, the force coming from ahead is the Holy Spirit, as described, and the force from above is the Logos. Well yes, it’s a bit abstract. Why above and not below? Why a direction? The Logos is supposed to be the “Atman, everywhere.” It is pervasive, the fabric itself.

*NOW* equilibrium is being lost because as time weakens there’s an increasing “retrograde teleology.” The Holy Spirit, I guess. It is inversely causal. But why the norm should be “equilibrium” if the normality is the flowing of time? It should mean that in general the force of time is at least stronger than the retrograde force of the Holy Spirit. Or time would be completely stalling, not moving forward not backwards. Here I began to think there was something missing in all this description, a kind of secret sauce. Dick is precisely describing metaphysics but it looks like hand waving if there isn’t a description of what these forces do, why they behave they way they do. Actors set up on the stage, but not causal. This is doing this, but how, why?

We get a handy example. He says it’s like some space travel from a planet to another. So you can make a distinction between three phases. The first is when you are under the force of the gravity of the planet of origin, a second phase when the gravity pull between the two is equal, and a final phase when you move into the gravitational force of the destination planet. Seen subjectively from the spaceship that is doing this journey.

Through this, the Holy Spirit, as the destination (and force with its own purpose), “corrects” and “completes.” I cannot avoid interpreting this other than Kabbalistic terms. These are spiritual terms. But it’s not simple to conform these with a more technical example (nothing has been described as incomplete or incorrect).

He then explains that when he wrote Ubik he built a world with just one difference from ours, a world without the forward moving force of time. But in the first line he actually wrote that “time ceased”, not that it was absent. In any case he points this out to make a distinction. When he wrote Ubik he simply came up with this concept of a fictional world, “now” he is instead persuaded that time has ACTUALLY “begun to weaken.” If before he thought of time as subjective perception, now he externalizes it, and makes the weakening of time an universal event. And since this is now “true”, and not a fictional conceit, then it can be experienced.

I have indeed had that experience, or a measure thereof.

In another letter, Dick writes (the part scribbled by hand):

What scares me most, Claudia, is that I can often recall the future.

As a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, the theme of Ubik eventually came to be. As if Ubik itself was informed from the future.

Flipping forward a page, taken from a letter to someone else, Dick explains he really bought into this concept of tachyons “flying in a reverse time direction.” Therefore “carrying information from the future into our present.”

“In the light of these developments, we can no longer exclude on a priori grounds the theoretical possibility of precognitive phenomena.” so forth (Harper’s, July 1974).

…He’s quoting a magazine. Bad science has always been bad science.

So, jumping back to where we left, Dick expects that “material (information) from the future leaking or bleeding back to us.” I really like this materialistic slant. Information is somewhat solid (even metaphysically), that’s actually good. And then he also describes another effect that is very Dick-ian, I like this too: “abrupt lurches back on our part to recent prior time periods, like a needle on a record being anti-skated back to a prior groove.”

The latter we would not be consciously aware of.

And that’s the part Dick does best, and conforms to my dear Blind Brain Theory. Perception is a trick, it needs information on the absence of information to know that something is missing. If we don’t have memories, then we don’t perceive change. We could wake up every day in a completely different reality and not notice anything weird. Our inferences are contextual, as he properly defined in that excerpt I mentioned above.

My doubts above were due to the fact that stepping from one boundary of reality (like a curtain) to the next requires perception. We aren’t in the objective perspective of the Logos “from above.” We are subjectively caged. So not only Dick hypothesizes that time might stop, but that somehow subjective consciousness (experience) moves on independently from time (not bound by it). As a sort of Wile E. Coyote that continues to run even if the ground is not there anymore. Isn’t time a necessary vehicle for perception? Somehow Dick believes they are on independent tracks. The absence of time doesn’t freeze perception as one would intuitively believe (see above “not frozen-ness”, it only warps it.

Yet he’s not completely outside what I’m saying, as right here he describes how he also conceives perception in the exact same way: those other “lurches through time” are not perceived, simply because we have no knowledge of them.

Highlighting that the other event, of material from the future showing up, would be instead visible. Because that material “is not by us but to us.” It’s existing information we cannot account for, but that is there. A scientific proof (in the pure sense of its existence outside subjectivity).

If you cannot experience the time skips, instead, you cannot prove them either. They simply don’t exist, that’s all. Metaphysically (but also materialistically), one is generally bound to the layer of reality he belongs to. You cannot simply shuffle the soul back and forth. Unless you use the magical sauce.

He concludes this section by explaining that the event he experienced wasn’t an “intellectual inference”, it wasn’t specifically rational. It was a perception, a sort of feeling that he tried to pinpoint and rationalize after the fact. He labeled it. He “felt” it was both “alive” and “holy.” But in the way of sensations, not concepts. As if he’s trying to logically rebuild a platonic ideal abstraction into a logical recreation, as faithfully as possible. He also didn’t experience that phenomenon as appearing to him, but being it. Being the Logos. He was subjectively perceiving the Logos as the Logos would perceive itself if it had subjectivity.

More accurately, not the Logos itself, but the Holy Spirit, since he specifies it came from the future. Dick argues this, ultimately settling on the fact that the Logos and the Holy Spirit are semantic distinctions. And yet he highlights that he’s certain it came from the future. That part not being semantic, but faithful to the feeling itself. I can only wonder “how”, but that’s what Dick says.

I like how he concludes, in a sort of self-observing loop:

From within me, as part of me, it looked out and saw itself.

He both “saw and became” (the philosophical sense of being). So both in and out. Both subject and object. System and environment.

I’ll add myself: also, he either was informed from the future when writing Ubik, too, or he was able to win the Magical Belief Lottery. How probable can be that a fictional concept you imagine not only becomes somewhat plausible, but also manifests right TO YOU. Of course this is also logically possible, within a certain metaphysical frame. As long Dick was precisely chosen. That information from the future just couldn’t be framed as a spontaneous natural phenomenon… precisely happening to you. Unless you also add some form of retrocausal teleology, that we see is also part of all this.

The bottom line is that Dick describes this as a self-sustaining, let’s say self sufficient, explanation. I instead think it needs a lot of other stuff if it wants to hold up, logically. Too many missing pieces. Too vague.

I’ll conclude tying up the gap to the letter that follow and that I already mentioned, when he explains about the tachyons and the possibility of “precognitive phenomena.”

He continues saying that for several months he’s been experimenting. Because of something else he read while researching “A Scanner Darkly.” Something about the possibility that the brain can “transduce external fields” under certain special conditions. One of which was “vitamins in megadosages.”

…Of course Dick being the fool that he is put this right into practice.

I began attempting, on the basis of what I knew, to bring on both the hemispheres of my own brain using the recipe for megadoses of the water soluble vitamins

Well, thankfully they were only water soluble ones.

Water IN-soluble vitamins are those that get absorbed and then stored in the body, so taking large doses with a certain frequency can become a real health risk, exactly because they get accumulated and become toxic. It’s a very bad idea.

On the other hand water soluble ones, as the term says, simply end up being pissed away when the body absorbs too much, before they can do damage.

I guess Dick ended up going to the bathroom more frequently, with this ill informed “experiment.”

I had this project (of sort) for a very long time so I simply decided that I needed to start or it would be one of those things endlessly delayed.

One good reason for NOT doing it is that my knowledge of Philip K. Dick is rather poor, and the Exegesis is filled with interpretations of Dick’s own body of work. It’s a “meta” self-analysis of his life and everything he wrote. So the Exegesis should come AFTER you read and understood everything else, and are ready for Dick own further insight. It’s the last station. But reading all of his production, or even a meaningful portion, would be already a giant project that would be almost without end by itself (with my current realistic pacing, of course). So the Exegesis was just this long term goal that only kept moving further and further away.

The choice was simply to go straight to the deep end. A long time ago I read a number of short stories, some of which I still remember quite well. I also read Ubik but remember almost nothing about it. More recently I read “The Man in the High Castle”, and I thought it was especially good. It had a somewhat “literary” flavor, not pulpy at all, it might have been maybe a weird bias because I read it on a pristine copy of the Library of America collection.

My attention when reading the book was all on the language. I felt as if there was this other layer, separate from the story, where the lines of text had a more abstract and general meaning. Not quite there. By the end of the book it was like I was on a very private journey, as if I wasn’t sure that what I was reading was really what was expected. Now I just don’t know how accurate my experience of this book was. I was somewhat distracted, looking at other things, highlighting parts of the book and taking them out of context, to run off with concepts, away from the story and characters.

I probably understood very little of that book, in a “traditional” way.

This will inform my experience of the Exegesis. I’ve got a plan, I know what to do and how. You can take the Exegesis like the convoluted speculations of someone caught in a loop of mental illness, and that’s probably the most accurate conclusion. I don’t expect to find any sort of “revelation” in a transcendental sense, actually I’m absolutely certain of this. I’m not chasing after mystical influences. I’m not a believer and there’s zero chances of me becoming one, unless I end up losing my mind as well. I guess.

But at the same time I’m going to take the Exegesis SERIOUSLY. Because I take everything seriously. I’m not here to judge. I’m not here to “diagnose” Dick, I’m not a doctor, I know almost nothing of mental illness, so I’m not going to look for an “explanation” for what he was feeling and writing. I will treat this as a sort of mythology, and I’ll follow James Hillman’s idea of “sticking with the image” (speaking of dreams and interpretations). Taken straight form the wikipedia:

the moment you’ve defined the snake, interpreted it, you’ve lost the snake, you’ve stopped it and the person leaves the hour with a concept about my repressed sexuality or my cold black passions … and you’ve lost the snake. The task of analysis is to keep the snake there, the black snake…see, the black snake’s no longer necessary the moment it’s been interpreted, and you don’t need your dreams any more because they’ve been interpreted.

What I’ll try to do with the Exegesis is… dig deeper. I want to look for deeper patterns. The deep end of the madness, the potential. The symbols, the myths. It should be a journey, not a judgement. (and yet I’ll also have to understand, how I understand)

At the same time, how can I pretend of being able to dig deeper, with what knowledge? From what privileged position? Well, that’s why this is a deliberate “eisegesis”, meaning that, as I was doing for The Man in the High Castle, this is a personal journey where I will dig in the direction I choose. Eisegesis means I’ll read into the Exegesis whatever I want to find, whatever I think I see, but without any pretense of being faithful to Dick himself, without an objective goal or insight.

Then again, I CAN read the Exegesis. Because I’m not floatsam. My own philosophical and scientific concepts of the world, and metaphysics in general, are now very well grounded, very well structured. I come to this project with a well organized mind, with a solid framework that generally helps me a lot. A kind of reliable compass that I can use to orient myself in the most alien of terrains. And I am rational and sometimes cynical, so on one side I’m certainly not putting myself on a pedestal, but I won’t do this with Dick either.

I’m not coming to the Exegesis thinking it will be an extraordinary and revelatory work of a mad genius. But I expect it being food for the mind. The life of the mind.

I was forgetting the important part:
I’ve bought, years ago now, the hardcover edition of the published portion of the Exegesis but my project doesn’t stop there. I’ve also scoured the internet for all the material I could find, including the original scans and a good total amount of stuff that isn’t part of the published book. I made a rough count of all I got and it’s a grand total of 6500 pages. According to various estimates the original whole thing should be 8000+ pages, so it certainly isn’t complete. I’ve read estimates all over the place, like the published book being only 1/10 of the total. This doesn’t seem true. A page scribbled by Dick usually just takes half a page or so, of the published book. I know the published total is about 360k words. The book itself goes from page 1 to 900, so maybe it’s closer to 1/5 or 1/6 of the total. And then I have the rest of the material. So, maybe, closer to 3/4 of the total.

The quality of the material available is all over the place. It goes from typed pages:

To somewhat readable handwriting:

To badly scanned and sketchy mess like this (and not the worst example):

Some of these have already been transcribed, but a lot of the material done overlaps with the book. I’m going to use everything, the book, the online transcriptions, and then even doing my best to extricate meaning from the handwritten pages, with variable levels of success, I guess. But I’ll try.

I received today the hardback of Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. It came out just a few days ago. It’s exactly 620 pages with some large line spacing, and it also looks like a very slim book just because they’ve used very high quality but thin paper. Otherwise it’s a 220k words, and so around 550 pages on a standard format, including a few maps drawn by the writer himself, or at least through some softer because they don’t look hand-drawn. It’s the first in a trilogy titled “The Dark Star”, but this is only written on Amazon because there’s no mention at all on the physical book itself.

My prediction is that is going to win the next Hugo. Or the next after this one since I think this year are only eligible the books that came out in 2018, but I might be wrong.

Jemisin won best novel the last three years. We all know the political mess around the Hugo. What has happened in the last three years can objectively be described as an anomaly. Maybe not so much because the novel prize went to a black woman, but because a fantasy book won, three times, year after year, and in the form of a series.

Now, I do believe that Jemisin happened in the right place at the right time, because I think it’s not too outrageous to say that the book might not have won otherwise (the Hugo isn’t too keen on epic fantasy), and even more unlikely three times in a row. But again I have nothing against that. I bought the book (and the previous trilogy by the same author) long before it got popular because I read excellent reviews and very interesting ideas. It sounded absolutely amazing. It’s still part of a big to-read pile ready for my next life so I cannot give first-hand opinions, but I’m certain it’s an great book that deserves the praise it got, and I see this whole scenario as a general case of “killing two birds with one stone”: sending a political message by promoting and celebrating diversity while giving the spotlight to an excellent book that deserve it.

In the end these “prizes” don’t really reward the “best” book, because that’s impossible. They are simply marketing tools. And at least we end up with a very good service if to be promoted is the diversity itself. Because the diversity, or change, in culture will also reflect in the writing. It broadens the view.

But if it was the perfect opportunity for Jemisin, this time it looks like the perfect storm. Marlon James is a black, gay man (from what I’ve read), who won the Booker prize a few years ago, so coming from the high tower of literature, raining down on the ignoble and lowborn fantasy genre, waiting for a new messiah to bring the light. The reviews are filled with superlatives, so I don’t know how this could go wrong. We’ve got all the ingredients once again, they seem even better aligned than with Jemisin.

Is there any problem with that? None at all. The book seems indeed excellent, I’m absolutely optimistic, and being set in Africa it kind of drags along that quality of diversity. It might seem as an artificial recipe (take Game of Throne and set it… in Africa), but in a way or another it forces a novelty, and the author seems to have totally embraced it and without holding back any punches. If anything I expect a snowball effect. (well, Amazon reviews right now don’t look great, but the motives they use don’t seem very convincing anyway, it seems they don’t like that the book is mean and brutal)

But the reason of this post is another, and it’s about the marketing that surrounds the book that TRIES SO DAMN HARD that it can feel quite ridiculous and even irritating. First because you can see how this was “air dropped” from those high walls of literature and those who have been co-optioned. What do I mean? Who are those genre writers that these day celebrate the genre by the virtue of being outside of it? Well, Neil Gaiman and China Mieville, for example, and they are of course those who were carefully chosen to provide cover blurbs for this book, projecting it right into that very dandy and exclusive club that is LITERARY sci-fi & fantasy. “Open the gates! He’s with us!” (but of course he won that pass on his own, by winning the Man Booker prize, Mieville and Gaiman appeared BECAUSE of that, chaperoning him in)

So we have a typical parade of now high-brow “celebrities” to help elevating this book to the ranks of literature, and okay, but what’s even more ridiculous is how they all speak about it.

Let’s see. By the way, this escalation is exactly all I saw when I started getting curious about the book. These weren’t handpicked, they all appeared right away in quick succession.


src: The New Yorker

IT BEGINS!

We have African Game of Thrones. Alright. This is also mostly acceptable since it’s Marlon James himself to explain his intent. The article is noteworthy for other reasons, but lets not get sidetracked…

Yay! Gaiman namedrops Tolkien! It’s super-effective!

(well, well, to be entirely correct he isn’t comparing this book to Tolkien, but to a Tolkien-like specific feature, that of a well realized and solid worldbuilding.)

That’s a classic, but do you think it stops there?


src: The New York Time

Umm… WTF?!

This is the New York Times, now it’s literary equivalent of the Marvel Universe, just one step away from Middle-Earth.

So, what’s next?


src: The Washington Post

Beowulf, REALLY?!

…What is wrong with people?

Well, alright, this one is the same that goes with Marvel Comics.

Of course it wasn’t enough, better add some more names. I cannot even blame that title, it’s designed to be outrageous for a reason.

But finally we come full circle back to Gaiman, because on the back of the actual book there’s a more complete blurb, and of course he didn’t stop at namedropping the obligatory Tolkien…

I couldn’t find a picture of the backcover and I cannot take it myself right now, but the quote is all over the place.

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the kind of novel I never realized I was missing until I read it. A dangerous, hallucinatory, ancient Africa, which becomes a fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made, with language as powerful as Angela Carter‘s. It’s as deep and crafty as Gene Wolfe, bloodier than Robert E. Howard, and all Marlon James. It’s something very new that feels old, in the best way. I cannot wait for the next installment.”
—Neil Gaiman

That’s what the original quote read like. A list of names. (and “the kind of novel I never realized I was missing” has such a rhetorical, phoney feel that it only does a disservice to the book)

This is the list of what the book has been associated with:

– Tolkien
– Game of Thrones
– Marvel Universe
– Beowulf
– Hieronymus Bosch
– Garcia Marquez
– Angela Carter
– Gene Wolfe
– Robert E. Howard

I assume this isn’t remotely a complete list. This is what I’ve seen immediately right on the Amazon page of the book. I’m sure that if I made a more careful search that list would grow longer and longer.

Comparisons are fine. I look for them, I use them. They have their use and they represent an effective heuristic to gather information quickly about something like a book. They are a tool to quickly orient your curiosity. The problem here is that this list of names doesn’t really help.

It’s as if I claimed: this book is the perfect mix of Joyce’s Ulysses and Fifty Shades of Gray, with the intrigue of Dan Brown and the wit of Pynchon.

Wtf does that mean? How it can even be useful? How do you go from Robert E. Howard to Gene Wolfe and then the Marvel Universe?!

Taxonomy goes to the slaughterhouse.

The first is Erikson, the last Bakker. They aren’t together because I think they are really related, but I read them the same day.

“Traditions die. And those who hold fast to them, cursing and filled with hate as their precious ways of living are torn from their hands, they dwell in a world of dreams where nothing changes.”

“Tradition was not a thing to be worshipped. Tradition was the last bastion of fools. Did the fisherfolk see their final fate? Did they comprehend their doom?

And oh, how they all grew fat and lazy in the weeks that followed, their bellies soft and bulging. There are fish in the lake, the elders said. There have always been fish in the lake. There always will be fish in the lake.

The elders stopped telling their stories. They sat silent, their bellies hollowing out, the bones of their wizened faces growing sharp and jutting. They spat out useless teeth. They bled at their fingertips, and made foul stench over the shit-pits. They grew ever weaker, and then slept, rushing into the distant dreams of the old days, from which they never returned.

The layering of memories built tradition’s high walls, until the place made by those walls became a prison.”

“There were two pasts; he understood that now. There was the past that men remembered, and there was the past that determined, and rarely if ever were they the same. All men stood in thrall of the latter.”

I plan to focus more on being concise than complete but I’m still spread across too many things to make any decent use of this place, going forward.

I was about to start saying “a few weeks ago”, but now I notice the news came out in the middle of October. Time is ACCelerating.

I wanted to write down a few scattered and confused thoughts about the announce of the delay of the final book in the Kharkanas Trilogy, in favor of the planned trilogy that instead comes after the main Malazan sequence. Right now I’m 50 pages into the second book (Fall of Light) and slowly acclimatizing myself again to that story. Forge of Darkness remains for me the very best by far in the whole overall cycle, and every time I pick up the book to check something and re-read a page here and there I reconfirm that idea.

I was of course disappointed by this choice, though not surprised at all reading that this prequel trilogy sold badly. But I’ll put this discussion to the side, there are many reasons why the prequel trilogy didn’t get a lot of attention. It’s 2018 (now), I’m still at the beginning of Fall of Light, and I even have the last four books still to read in the main series, plus pretty much all of Esslemont. So it’s not like I need a book right now. A Walk in Shadow, the final book in this prequel trilogy, is not “canceled”, just delayed. Maybe to be written after this other trilogy is finished, or maybe to be written just right after the first new book. It’s up to Erikson.

My worry isn’t about an urge to have the book as soon as possible, my worry is that time affects and transforms things. It isn’t about having the book out in five years from now instead of next year, it’s that the delay will make it a different book. Maybe it’s already even too late for A Walk in Shadow, I would have hoped Erikson already deep into it in order to carry exactly the style and momentum and sharp, almost visionary focus that I admired in Forge of Darkness. My belief is that this time will transform the book, necessarily. Will Erikson be able to dive back in and make as if no time went by? Will it be the same book as if it was written now? So I worry that now this trilogy, that is the best Malazan especially for that style, tone and mythical vision, that specific mindset, is doomed to become somewhat “lopsided”, even in the case it will be completed later on. As with what I wrote about Sanderson, the risk isn’t about not completing the thing, but about being in that relevant mind-space (and one has to be honest, Sanderson is better, and has significant help, at keeping track of all his stuff).

I certainly won’t complain. I still hold Fall of Light, and Malazan has already delivered way, way more than one might ask. Even if the final book will never be finished, Forge of Darkness by itself makes a complete and satisfying statement.

But I also worry about this new “toblakai” trilogy. I’ve seen people in the forums being relatively excited and my opinion is pretty much irrelevant since I’ve yet to read the remaining books and I have no idea in what kind of place Karsa ends up, or what are the premises this trilogy is built on. I’m very skeptical about it, but I was also very skeptical about the prequel trilogy as well, and that turned out amazing.

I just wonder how it might work, and if it really could be more successful commercially. The prequel trilogy was a distillation of the very best Erikson, but “best” doesn’t mean “popular”. The idea of a sequel is always more alluring than a prequel, as it’s still a continuation of a well known story compared to the curiosity about flashing out details of a remote past. A prequel trilogy requires more dedicated commitment to go diving into those details. A sequel instead is perceived more as a mandatory read, for those who went that far. So there’s the potential for it to see better sales overall… But.

I’m uncertain about it being “Karsa’s trilogy”. I enjoy the character a lot, I enjoyed the beginning of House of Chains and I enjoyed the parts in The Bonehunters. I’m just not sure how far you can stretch that character and how you can make it the backbone of the whole thing. I do think Karsa works best in small doses, same as Icarium. Those are characters that bounce the ball back in a specific way. The backbone that truly sustained Malazan, I think, is about the Bridgeburners and the Bonehunters. That diversity. Everything else creates the tapestry, gives scope. But it works because it stays grounded, and what grounds it are the soldiers.

The beginning of House of Chains worked because it was a rediscovery of everything. It had layers upon layers of revelation and deceit (wheels within wheels within wheels). That arc was interesting for many reasons and Karsa grew as a character in that compressed sequence that tied back with book 2 brilliantly. But in a certain way these characters have a tendency to evolve when under the looking glass, to then fall back into their natural role. That’s fine. As I said I still liked Karsa a lot in The Bonehunters, but from my point of view he has become a more static character simply because he had to preserve his function. That’s a risk. You have these characters that are well done but fall in a certain “type”, built to embody a certain function in the fabric of the novel, so, when you have these large, sprawling stories, these characters work as cogs in a larger machine, in order to explore certain aspects of that story. The result is that they work as long they maintain that function, that role and that type, and the consequence is that they have to remain relatively static, or give the illusion of movement, or moving only to still fall back in a similar place. I think the same happened to Karsa. You can see the whole dramatic trajectory, and that’s stays meaningful, but in order to function Karsa ends up not so far from where he started: it’s the same war writ larger. So I wonder: is it enough to carry a sequel? Doesn’t emphasis risk being twisted into parody? Karsa and Icarium are strongly typified characters that function in a certain way and that are quite hard to “ground”. I just wonder if this can work in a series built all around that.

It is a problematic sequel because of all that came before. The main series was built on a pre-existing background, this time everything has to be built as if new. It’s a huge unknown, bigger than the prequel trilogy itself. Ideally a sequel demands the stakes to be raised, could Malazan even sustain that? Or will Erikson be satisfied writing a simpler side-story with a smaller scope that will serve as an epilogue? It might work, or might not. My preference would always be for daring and experimenting more, rather than being conservative, but I think even Erikson himself is persuaded than he can’t top the main series, and so, even commercially, the best choice might be to write something relatively more accessible to give that epilogue that some readers might enjoy. I don’t know. But wouldn’t that choice strip away the qualities that define and set apart Malazan from everything else?

I’m very glad I’m not the one making these choices.