Category Archives: Mythology

Includes philosophy, science, religion, physics, metaphysics, and all kinds of speculative wankery.


The 7nth episode of Westworld resurfaced into goodness after two mediocre ones. The plot moved. Superficial complexity reigned in, although there’s still an annoying amount of petty agendas driving the plot, instead of what I care about, scientific potential and mythical depth.

This was Bernard episode. The initial sequence with Bernard dreaming about his son is interesting not because of what’s obvious, but because the recurring question “have you ever questioned the nature of your own reality”, asked by Bernard himself, is superimposed on the same sequence, BEFORE the transition to the new scene. I guess for most that little hint was lost, but the moment I noticed it I knew that the question was referred to Bernard himself. And in fact the episode ends answering that question. That was some perfect opening and perfect closure.

During the week I started to be persuaded of the fan theory of Bernard as a host. I never pick up fan theories until there are elements in the show that offer concrete references, and in this case more evidence was piling up. The problem is that the evidence I got is all stuff that is still not confirmed in the episode: Bernard is supposed to be Arnold, that’s what motivated the concept of Bernard as a host. Also, when this idea of Bernard as a host was tossed around, most doubts revolved around the scene of Bernard going to talk with his wife. So it’s good that this episode clarified that part. It’s all done deliberately to make it more convincing.

Is Bernard Arnold? The reason I was picking up the idea of Bernard being a host, and modeled after Arnold, was because it compresses some more complexity. There’s this dangling thread we’ve lost behind: not only Ford was interfacing with Dolores, but also Bernard was doing that, telling her about the potential of consciousness and the maze. Now with Delos out of the picture (their meddling was just an attempt to steal the code, there doesn’t seem to be more than these petty reasons), we still have three subjects tampering with Dolores and other hosts. There’s Ford’s main code, there’s Arnold in the form of “ghost in the machine”, and then there’s that scene with Bernard and Dolores.

If later will be revealed that the hidden voice Dolores hears, and that she keeps secret from Ford, is Bernard’s own, then we obtain that Arnold is acting as Bernard. So in this case we have a different split. There’s the Arnold that died, that lurks in the hosts’ code, and there’s an Arnold that survives in the artificial form of an host that Ford built in the shape of his colleague. Another good reason to confirm this is that we’ve been explicitly told not even a picture is left of him. So there needs to be a good reason to “hide” what Arnold looks like, and the only good reason is that it would reveal something: that Bernard looks like Arnold.

Problem: if Bernard is an host under Ford’s control then Ford already knows that Arnold is messing with the code. That’s what Elsie revealed to Bernard in the last episode.

So, this episode puts everything back firmly into Ford’s hands, and I’m relieved.

Problem number 2: this episode both confirmed and denied a popular fan theory. The idea that a segment of the show is happening in the past. The Man in Black is present day, whereas William and Dolores are in the past, and William will become the MiB.

The confirmation comes from a quite explicit hint. William this episode says
“This place, this is like I woke up inside one of those stories.
I guess I just wanna find out what it means.

And this is echoes exactly what the MiB has said a couple of episodes back. It’s a direct reference, and this show doesn’t drop hints casually.

But it also seems to me certain aspects are not coherent. Maeve is awakened in the present, and we know she’s been awakened by Dolores (and Dolores by her father). In the scenes with William we do see an awakened Dolores. Once again it seems way too contrived to have this duality where Dolores is awakened both in the present AND the past. It’s too clunky. And yet that hint between MiB and William is too big to be ignored.

The only possibility is that past and present are similar because they are mirroring each other. Dolores awakening in the past, triggered by Arnold, is what ultimately caused the crisis leading to Arnold’s death (and we know the MiB is the one who “stopped” the crisis, maybe William killing Arnold once he knew it was Arnold manipulating Dolores as a love interest). But Dolores has been awakened even in the present time, as if the cycle is now repeating, maybe this time triggered by Ford. But it’s still too messy for me. In episode 5 we’ve seen Dolores fainting in what’s supposed to be the past, to be recalled in the present and have a conversation with Ford. This is either heavy handed misdirection, or a good proof we don’t have these two timelines.

Finally I wanted to point out the most important aspect for me, and that’s some thematic depth. An idea of conflict between Free Will and consciousness. We usually think they are directly causally connected, consciousness means having free will. But this episode suggests a new way to look at the two, and to keep them separated.

“Being free” means exiting the code. Behave in a way that can’t be predicted, and so that violates some rules that define a behavior. Free Will cannot be coded, it inherently implies the possibility of acting otherwise, of stepping outside a code. But instead there’s nothing inherent to “consciousness” that negates the possibility of codification. We know that consciousness is an hard to crack problem, and philosophers say maybe it’s impossible to solve. But that’s the horizon. We don’t know what to make of consciousness. The problem is exactly whether it is merely complex code, or something transcendental. Something about gods and the world outside the world.

During the “demo” of this episode, the scene where the host is shown to violate the rules, all being set up by Delos to put the blame on Bernard, it is explained what “consciousness” is. There’s irony, because what they say in order to frame Ford/Bernard is exactly what Ford is doing. The reveries allow the hosts to tap into previous cycles, and integrating that former information into their present selves allows them to… guess what? Introduce “new information”. Loops that were supposed to be closed, are instead now left open. That means all this still happens within deterministic code, because previous memories being new information alter the loop behavior, but they don’t directly alter the underlying code.

The reveries allow the hosts to reach a form of consciousness, of awareness. They let them *question their own reality*, same as Maeve is doing. Maeve isn’t behaving outside her code. She’s simply behaving in the way a host would behave when exposed to information that wasn’t previously available, or supposed to be available. She understands she’s part of a loop, she suddenly receives information about the reality of her own reality, so information to correct a blindness, anosognosia. But she’s still a slave of her own code. It’s not new code. It’s the same old code that is being fed new data. The new behavior of Maeve is not unpredictable. It’s new behavior because the information was new.

(leading to my suspicion: that the Arnold code Elsie discovered is Ford’s. So Ford has nothing to learn from that revelation. He’s the one who’s introducing Arnold’s code back into the hosts, in the form of those “reveries”)

This self reflection and self awareness is “consciousness”. And now Maeve can alter her own mind, recursively, giving herself new capabilities. But, again, it’s still the same underlying code reacting to new data. It’s still deterministically sent on its course. But this means the hosts (and human beings in general) aren’t really “conscious”. They only have the appearance of it. It’s still code.

The big point here is that it’s all relative to the level of the analysis. The hosts, at the bottom level, are already as free and conscious as possible, being life-like. To an external observer, like Bernard, that freedom is limited, because he sees the code and can predict the hosts’ behavior. They are just robots. “Awakened” hosts are one level further, they are aware of the loops, Maeve becomes aware she’s an automaton in a park, going through cycles, she even gets the possibility to self-correct by reprogramming herself, but again she’s still slave of the code that initiated this. She’s still not free from the point of view of someone higher in the chain like Ford.

The big point is that freedom is inversely proportional to the information available. The more information you have, the more you realize the artificiality of the process. The Maeve before awakening was entirely “free”, exactly because she wasn’t questioning her reality. The experience she had was directly believable. The choices she made, to herself, were perfectly free for the level of awareness and information available to her. No different from the level of awareness and information we ALL possess by living this life. But the more she receives actual information of the Big Picture, the more she should realize that freedom is lost. She sees her own code, her own dialogue trees. No matter how she recursively feeds that information to her own code, that code is inescapable. Self referential loops don’t break the pattern, it’s merely mise en abyme. Information increases in a way that is inversely proportional to freedom.

Which means, Consciousness and Free Will are the qualities of being limited. Of living under a dome.

Even if this is used in the show for a slightly different and plain meaning (he means the hosts are merely free from human pains), Ford’s lines are revelatory in all their power:

I have come to think of so much of consciousness as a burden
The hosts are the ones who are free.
Free here under my control.

That’s exactly how it is in “reality”.

We have Free Will because we are limited. Because we don’t have the information. The more information we get, the less free we become.

I was updating the previous post as I looked up more stuff but decided to yank all that and move it to a separate one because it looks like all pieces of the puzzle already fell into place. We have a fairly plausible ending, at least for Season 1 (hopefully they at least get to this point).

If it turns out I’m right then it means they dropped too many clues, or just didn’t spin this well enough, also because I still think that it ends up a little too dry.

After listening to this, seeing the very obvious reference at the core, and reading straight from Nolan that “We wanted a big story. We wanted the story of the origin of a new species and how that would play out in its complexity.”

So how does Westworld end?

It’s plausible to assume that the show is pointing both the Man in Black and Dolores to the same “Maze”. What we know about this Maze is that it’s where the real endgame is, that it’s “a story with real stakes, real violence”, and that if Dolores finds the center she’ll be set free. It’s easy to connect the dots, the first episode opens with Dolores versus Man in Black, and both seem now to converge at that showdown right in the center of the Maze, maybe as the climax of the season finale. So we can assume the maze is that particular place where guests like the Man in Black aren’t anymore protected by their supernatural status and both guests and hosts play under the same rules, so that the hosts can actually harm the guests.

The showdown at the center of the Maze will likely see Dolores prevail on the Man in Black, since it projects a nice arc and loops back to the first episode where Dolores was instead the victim, and this likely will trigger a full-blown rebellion, lead by Dolores herself. Something close to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” reboot, where in this case the androids seize the simulation itself, not only setting themselves free, but starting a conflict.

(The “bicameral mind”, being the device Bernard uses to normally interface with Dolores, giving her voice commands she ends up receiving without explicit awareness, since she’s normally bound by her fictional perspective, is likely the mean through which Dolores will gain her freedom. Being able to take charge of her own programming. She seals her mind in, becoming immune to external control.)

All this being part of Ford’s master plan. Because it’s obviously Ford who is triggering the whole process, starting to inject some self-awareness into the hosts. All the scenes where Ford mistreats androids as “things” are pure misdirection and ways to directly manipulate Bernard to send him on the opposite path. Ford shows so much cynicism to Bernard that Bernard ends up empathizing as an inverse reaction. But very obviously that too was carefully anticipated by Ford. To Ford his fellow human beings are very simple to understand and control, that why he plays the god’s game: to jumpstart a better species. The overall theme is the creature versus his maker, in order to gain freedom the gods need to be killed. A form of “patricide”. And that’s why there’s also a new planned storyline that seems to play around the theme of “religion”, so that Ford can give the hosts awareness of their cruel “gods”, and to trigger that paradigm shift, the rebellion against the gods themselves in order to seize real freedom.

So Ford’s behavior is ultimately ambiguous, he cares for his androids more than he cares for his fellow human beings, because his ultimate plan is to replace them. In the end he’s only working to complete the job that his partner Arnold started.

I was thinking of highlighting this quote from Scott Bakker, because it’s meaningful, touches on the ‘meta’, and imagines what happens to literature when the world changes. It also links back to this, if you want to look at it from the specular opposite perspective (“the inside”).

“Exactly the same lesson is learned by Captain Kirk and Captain Jean-Luc Picard as they travel the galaxy in the starship Enterprise, by Huckleberry Finn and Jim as they sail down the Mississippi, by Wyatt and Billy as they ride their Harley Davidson’s in Easy Rider, and by countless other characters in myriad other road movies who leave their home town in Pennsylvannia (or perhaps New South Wales), travel in an old convertible (or perhaps a bus), pass through various life-changing experiences, get in touch with themselves, talk about their feelings, and eventually reach San Francisco (or perhaps Alice Springs) as better and wiser individuals.” 241

Not only is experience the new scripture, it is a scripture that is being continually revised and rewritten, a meaning that arises out of the process of lived life (yet somehow always managing to conserve the status quo). In story after story, the protagonist must find some ‘individual’ way to derive their own personal meaning out of an apparently meaningless world. This is a primary philosophical motivation behind The Second Apocalypse, the reason why I think epic fantasy provides such an ideal narrative vehicle for the critique of modernity and meaning. Fantasy worlds are fantastic, especially fictional, because they assert the objectivity of what we now (implicitly or explicitly) acknowledge to be anthropomorphic projections. The idea has always been to invert the modernist paradigm Harari sketches above, to follow a meaningless character through a meaningful world, using Kellhus to recapitulate the very dilemma Harari sees confronting us now:

“What then, will happen once we realize that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design, or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?” 277

(an aside: That last quote is a very unlikely scenario in my opinion, because it describes a fully reductionist strategy to solve a system that is absurdly high in complexity. And you cannot really apply a reductionist strategy to a system where you know less than 10% of its elements. It’s not that the reductionist approach is not possible, it’s that we aren’t even remotely there to make it plausibly work. We are majorly underestimating the scale of the task.)

Then I watched Westworld fourth episode and, amidst delicious fourth wall elegant dancing, the Man in Black delivers a nice connection to the same argument.

– Do you know where you are?
– I’m in a dream.

[…]

The hosts don’t imagine things, you do.

[…]

– If you did consider your choices, you’d be confronted with a truth you could not comprehend… That no choice you ever made was your own.

Locked in your little cycle like a prized poodle after its own tail.

You have always been a prisoner.

[…]

– But this world… I think there may be something wrong with this world.

Something hiding underneath.

– There’s something I’d like you to try. It’s a game. A secret. It’s called… the Maze. It’s a very special kind of game, Dolores. The goal is to find the center of it. If you can do that, then maybe you can be free.

– The hell you hope to find, anyway?

– This whole world is a story.

That last line is a bit of a mix of two different scenes and it connects to the quote above about the “meaningful world”. Story is meaning. The Man in Black is after that story:

– I’ve read every page except the last one. I need to find out how it ends. I want to know what this all means.

And of course the creator of this system legitimizes all that in another scene:

– It’s not a business venture, not a theme park, but an entire world.

We designed every inch of it. Every blade of grass.

In here, we were gods. And you were merely our guests.

This fourth episode seems to point a light at the whole religious undercurrent, so this time I can speculate on what I think is going to be an element of the show: Ford (the “god” of the system) wants to insert the ‘meta’ into the story itself. Making the creators of the park appear within the park as a form of religion.

Why? There can be two ways to interpret this. One is too clever though, the other a bit trite. The trite one is about injecting in the system some metaphysics. In the park there are walking fourth wall “breaches”, the demi-gods who fuck and kill as they please because they play on a different level of rules. They know the world is “fake”, they can’t die, they know it’s all a game. So both demi-gods (the visitors) and gods (the showrunners, so to speak) have active metaphysical intervention inside this system. Literal gods with god-like powers. They can shape and transform, play as the please with a different kind of “game”:

– My father would tell me…
that the steer would find its own way home.
And, often as not, they did.
Never occurred to me that we were bringing them back for the slaughter.

The other way is too complex to be plausible even for this show, though. It’s linked to the quote above where Bernard says “the hosts don’t imagine things, you do”. The metaphoric value of that line is that if you hold a reductionist model of consciousness then there’s no meaning, ever. That sort of first person, high level observer is an illusion. The truth of all human life is that “all things” are imagined, because no one is actually “free”. We are all just machines that behave accordingly to their wiring. Consciousness itself is an illusion.

But what happens *inside* the park is an unprecedented pattern. Some of these machines are starting to “integrate” information they didn’t normally have access to. They break the very substance that makes consciousness “appear”. This happens on two levels. The first is about finding in their memories information about their previous cycles/lives. The second level is the hypothetical one (this religious sidetrack): they receive information from the “gods”. This too is a breach of the fourth wall. Information that comes straight from the outside of the system, and because of its nature (it comes from the outside, so it “opens” the system they are normally locked in) it’s information that can set them free. Or the freedom to understand they aren’t free. They start seeing themselves for what they are (see the last scene of the episode where they realize “none of this matters”).

The paradox is the one at the very foundation: because the system is deterministic and closed, you have free will. Because the system is closed, and so you cannot access the information that tells you that you’re just a robot. So you’re stuck believing in free will.

But in this “park” the system isn’t anymore closed. The world is continuously breached by gods and demi-gods. And if the system is cracked open, these robots will start to question their own reality. The illusion of consciousness is coming down, so that it can be rebuilt in a new form.

From X-Files, LOST, Fringe, Awake and True Detective, it seems that television still has something to offer that tickles wild, creative speculation (I’ve yet to see Mr. Robot, so I don’t know if it fits there too). Now we have Westworld, that exists perfectly in the same fold. That it is so clever and ambitious, and about the very stuff I enjoy the most that I’m surprised it can actually exist, and that I fear won’t even get close to its full potential since they planned something like six seasons and I seriously doubt the larger public is going to stick with a product that is so dense and layered. It’s my own particular quirky, eccentric flavor. It is going to have an hard time trying to please everyone else while retaining its ambition.

So I’m also thankful to read someone like Jeff Jensen, who during LOST, Fringe and True Detective was writing the ‘recaps’ on EW, but they just weren’t simply recaps, they were OPENING the episodes WIDE. They were bursting with interesting ideas and possibilities. Shows like Fringe were always more powerful about what they were suggesting than what they were explicitly doing. Because it’s fun to run with the ideas and see how they might play out in different contexts. To see what they actually mean outside strict plot functionality. The ‘meta’ was more fun than the explicit content.

All this long premise to say I’m going to interpret Westworld in ways that probably no one has attempted or will attempt. I’m pushing the ideas to their limit, instead of sticking to what the authors plausibly drove toward. I’m running with it. But this without disrupting the content of the show. I’m not writing “fan theories”, I’m exploding out the interpretations. The bigger picture. The ‘meta’ itself.

The first thing is the image above that probably everyone else dismissed without a thought. The mise en abyme. Not only this is a symbolic concept written in the show: the effect is what you obtain playing with mirrors, and mirrors have a role in the “consciousness” of the AI, we’ve seen multiple scenes where Dolores looks at herself in a mirror (it’s by seeing herself that she can question her own reality, of course), but at the same time this also symbolically represents the ‘meta’ of the show. There are fictional ‘showrunners’ that write the stories taking place inside the park, as if the park was a surrogate of the TV show itself. A game of mirrors: what is inside reflects what’s outside, recursively. This is purely second-order observation, second-order cybernetics. But it doesn’t stop there, because that image also represents consciousness itself. Hofstadter’s strange loops. Human consciousness is shaped recursively, self-observing in a pattern. It returns on itself, over and over, until everything blurs out of definition. It applies to itself over and over the distinction between system and environment (Spencer Brown Laws of Form as used by Niklas Luhmann). An observing system in order to make an observation operates a distinction. While self-observing the observing system makes a distinction between the self that observes and the self that is observed. Being both subject and object, it obtains a double from a whole. It creates the Cartesian dualism that makes human experience possible, and makes it alienated from reality (reality that has no actual dualistic levels, it all operates on one). The fundamental illusion that is one of the basic premises of consciousness.

The second aspect is the wildest one, and the one I’m pretty sure absolutely no one is going to contemplate. You can read it here, and that’s it. I’d really challenge the writers of the show because I’m sure they didn’t dare go there, or even THINK about seeing it this way.

Here’s a couple of quotes from Alan Moore talking about his book, Jerusalem:
If you read only one Alan Moore Jerusalem interview, make it this one

Deep into our six-hour talk, somewhere around the dessert (three scoops of ice cream for Moore, hold the whipped cream), the Sage of Northampton is explaining how he came to see the world as Doctor Manhattan does. In 1994, he experienced an “absolute, crystalline understanding” during a magical ritual. Since then, Moore has believed, as Einstein supposedly did, that time is a solid in which our lives are embedded; it is only our perception of it which makes it appear linear.

In other words, everything that has ever happened is still happening. Everything which is about to happen has already happened. We never truly die: the lives we are living now are solid and eternal. That’s all major religions out of business, then.

“The thing is,” says Moore, “we don’t have free will, or at least that’s what I believe, and I think most physicists tend to think that as well, that this is a predetermined universe. That’s got to pretty much kill religion because there aren’t any religions that aren’t based on some kind of moral imperative. They’ve all got sin, karma or something a bit like that. In a predetermined universe how can you talk about sin? How can you talk about virtue?”

Four decades later, this year, he was doing a spoken performance in Milton Keynes, in which he riffed on an article in New Scientist which speculated that because we will soon have quantum supercomputers capable of holding more particles than there are in the entire universe, we will then be able to simulate an entire universe, including all the life forms in it, which will not know they are simulated.

“And if we’re going to be able to do this,” says Moore, “the odds of this being the first time this has happened are vanishingly small. It is much more likely that we are in a simulation, of a simulation, of a simulation, and so on.

The programmer of the game, therefore, will be God. And if he is at all like the humans he has created, the article postulated, he will want to put an avatar of himself in the game.

Westworld 2nd episode:

“Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician.”

See what I did, when you use that as a frame of reference for Westworld?

Westworld’s “hosts”, the AIs, exist in the exact same context Alan Moore described.

A simulation, of a simulation, of a simulation, over and over. This equals the hosts storing in their memory archive their previous ‘roles’ and ‘storylines’. At every cycle they are reset and restarted. At the same time an external observer can go sift through those memories and consider them as a kind of “solid”, something that already went through and that can be replayed.

So, the AIs of Westworld represent metaphorically the same structure to the larger system of reality. Trapped into cycles but without means of accessing information of the previous ones. Bound to that occluded horizon, caged in their fictional lives.

This is, once again, a game of mirrors. You artificially fabricate an AI that reflects life as it is experienced. It recursively recreates itself. Consciousness is the status of being trapped inside. And the AI consciousness is not unlike the one of its creators. The same rules apply.

And so the third aspect. How consciousness for these AIs works. This is specifically something that the last third episode provided, in two particular moments.

The first is the mention of the Bicameral Mind theory by Julian Jaynes. Quoted as a first attempt to reproduce and unlock the mystery of human consciousness. They say they eventually abandoned that approach, but it is interesting they referenced it specifically.

Then, Dolores’ first display of something that resembles consciousness is that even in analysis mode she isn’t able to “explain” something she said. Something “unexpected” happens. But the truly important aspect is that she doesn’t know. She’s unable to track her own thought.

This is fundamental because it reproduces Scott Bakker theory of consciousness (Blind Brain Theory). You can read here an absolutely perfect story that explains it intuitively:
https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2016/03/22/the-dime-spared/

It is defined “conscious” a thought process that the mind isn’t able to track. A thought that “appeared” in Dolores’ mind that she doesn’t know how it came to be. That seems to be non-consequential, outside the domain of self-analysis.

The Bicameral Mind can too be interpreted as a form of a similar feature, if much simplified. One “chamber” doesn’t know the existence of the other, so the conscious mind “receives” thoughts that seem external, alien. That come from somewhere else, a god. A memory that one has but cannot recall. Even in this case the basic feature is the occlusion.

Consciousness, in Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory, is “a magic show”. Or more precisely, it’s absence of information.

The magician can make you believe an object magically moved from one hand to the other by hiding the movement itself. It’s information that was withdrawn. Hence that object magically jumped from one hand to the other because you missed the information of the actual movement.

In the same way consciousness is just a magic trick. Since consciousness is structurally blind to its own process, consciousness cannot see how thoughts are actually formed. It doesn’t know their true origin. They just suddenly appear. And what consciousness can do through introspection is to confabulate an explanation. Post hoc.

We don’t know if the AI in Westworld is faithful to this theory. But for now it respected the basic feature of what we recognize as consciousness: the impossibility to track a thought. The trackless space. The invisibility of the mental process to itself.

The ideal of the cosmic cycles of simulated reality, downsized and applied to the single AI system, creates the possibility of a kind of “bicameral mind”. The AI receives inputs from previous cycles. These are experiences that are unhinged from a sense of history that the consciousness is able to track (since the AI consciousness can only normally access memories that are part of the current active cycle). They are alien thoughts, alien voices, interferences that will have to be confabulated back into an explanation.

But again, the basic feature that creates consciousness is not the source of those thoughts, what’s truly crucial is simply the occlusion of the process itself: the fact that the AI can’t track its own process, that it is blind to itself.

Consciousness is not freedom. Consciousness is withdrawal of information. The more limited your access, the more conscious you are. Freedom by darkness.

Are Westworld showrunners even aware of what they’re doing? Or are they stumbling into all this because that’s the natural point where these things ultimately lead, regardless of the path you take?

I’ve been sleeping 3/5 hours a day this week and yesterday I decided to reply on a forum to explain my interpretation of how the magic system in the Malazan world works, especially because it’s one of those aspects where my own frame of mind seems completely different from that of the average reader. And yet I’m not merely speculating because everything I say I see it grounded in those pages. I’ve only dug it out and made it more explicit. And no, making the Malazan magic system explicit doesn’t remove the beauty and mystery as it usually happens when you over analyze these things. It flourishes.

So, two things for me to notice. The first is that somehow the more I’m exhausted the more my brain seems to kick into higher gear. The second is that I wrote this mostly to pin down my own idea for myself and I didn’t expect anyone even to read it, especially on a forum that seems antagonistic to everything I write (my fault), instead I was surprised to see that my enthusiasm for this thing managed to cross over to some other users. Maybe to see the Malazan series in a slightly different light.

I have some comments to write even about the first page(s) of Fall of Light, because it’s another case where what I read in those lines is something that no one seems to have picked up. And yet that one is very obvious…

I would have said the reverse – that Warrens are a clunky DnD type magic system, and that Erikson is too obsessed with the minutiae of how it works to give any meaning to it – worsened by the fact that his explanations are pure gibberish.

The magic system in Malazan is anti-mechanical. It’s strictly the opposite of science. You won’t grasp it if you parse it in a traditional way like a system of fixed rules in a roleplaying game. To explain the core of it I’d have to talk about philosophical concepts like “dualism” and an anthropocentric conception of reality.

The thing is: Malazan “spawns” from Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant (it’s not inspired by it, being completely different, but it’s conceptually hanging from the same branch of the same tree). Thomas Covenant is like a pre-modern version of fantasy, coming from a certain romantic tradition. That means, in the fewest words possible: the fantasy world doesn’t *exist* as external, objective reality as we assume our own world, but it’s just a “projection” of an internal mental or soul state. A mental “landscape” that turns concrete. Tangible objects and creatures you see are not simply tangible objects, but symbols. As it happens within a dream. The fantasy world is essentially like The Matrix, an artificial construction that closes around you. The writer consciously traps himself within this system he himself created, then “seals” the dome with some horizon occlusion.

Malazan moves from there, if you frame it as post-modern. It has a metalinguistic frame, observing the observation. Observing the world as an artificial creation. It’s like Covenant’s world, but moved on, looking at that world not from the inside (as Covenant, trapped within) but from the outside, like a writer, writing, observing himself writing. The main plot is hidden, because it’s a “shadow” of the text. A lot of this is even amusing wordplay, just for “fun” (see Shadowthrone and Pust, or even Lady Envy, or Kruppe a little bit, being conscious of the “meta” and rolling with it, hovering just a tiny bit above rules without completely breaking them). The magic in Malazan doesn’t make sense traditionally because it’s not a traditional mechanic. It’s not “rules of physics with a fantasy bent”. Magic in Malazan is pure meaning. Wherever meaning coalesces, magic becomes real and tangible instead of just an abstraction. Even the sedimentation of a strong emotion of a small community can potentially give birth to a small god (like the Cthulhu thing in book 5). The same as in reality we are driven by powerful symbols and meanings, that give us identity and drive. That construct our lives, creating differentiations as a linguistic system (see constructivism or even some Wittgenstein). Malazan takes this concept and makes it into something tangible instead of purely conceptual.

So, the important aspect to understand magic in Malazan is to observe how it transformed and evolved in the world. You notice how there are “old” gods and new gods. And you notice how the old gods have proprieties that are simply deduced from the societies that produced those gods. Very simple example: if the populations were sedentary or migratory. Essentially: all the gods in Malazan “behave” functionally as real gods in our own world. They are projections of cultural “meaning”. And that’s what you observe in the evolution of society within the Malazan world, the more it becomes “civilized” the more the gods become blurred, more subtle, representing more complex concepts. Gods evolve along the society that gave them birth. That, if you want to stay concrete, means that the relationship between gods and worshipers is circular. Belief shapes gods, gods have influence on believers. They use and are being used (see what Heboric does to Fener). It’s always a system of meaning, and it again comes from a fantasy world that is built as an anthropomorphic creation. A body, that Erikson SHOVES in your face when he tells you magic begins with Krul, who’s a god, who created magic with his own body. Or even with Erikson’s version of “gaia” the earth: Burn. Or the Mhybe, that is the MOST important thing within all Malazan. A woman who becomes a world. It’s only through a body that meaning can be created (witness!). Krul creates differentiations within his body, going from chaos to law. To rules. To systems (or same as the Crippled God has to enter the Deck of Dragons system in order to “play” the game, where “playing the game” is yet another metalinguistic pun, since we’re talking of a card game based on tarots). Exactly like a cultural system, or the evolution of civilization. So, as in Thomas Covenant the “fantasy world” is a body. An anthropomorphic creation. A filter, a lens you use to observe human life, through human life, through the act of writing (and act of reading as a surrogate of it, or, like, parasitic, or like a bird perched on Erikson’s shoulder observing what he’s doing with the hope of understanding some of it).

Like a linguistic system the Malazan magic has a diachronic dimension that is even more important than synchronic aspects: it’s ever-evolving.

That again means this fantasy world is built as human-sized (even when it project human fears or human struggles, that look inhuman, it’s always circular. Same as even the most inhuman species are still kind of human representations anyway). Whereas our own would is (supposedly) built on science. Rules, math. Stuff that is alien to a human dimension, that you can only try to grasp, but that is qualitatively different. (see Heboric flying with the Jade statues in book 4, those statues represent something closer to our world) Something that David Foster Wallace also writes about and defines: “the widening gap between knowledge and experience”.

Or: post-modernity. Trying to come to terms with a world that makes no “sense” anymore.

Bakker writes the same stuff, but from a different angle. So it’s like if it’s complementary and opposite to Malazan.

This is the stuff I like. If you know more of this kind I’d love to hear about it. Sadly I really haven’t found anything that comes close… (well, Evangelion, Donnie Darko, Upstream Color, Battlestar Galactica and LOST, these do certain things on the same line with their mythology, but none do it as well and, MOST OF ALL: *coherently* as Malazan)

Taking advantage of a brief discussion on Twitter to explain an idea here. I’ve still some philosophical things to archive on the blog that are already a few months old. Eventually I’ll haul it all over here.

The thing I wrote on Twitter (the purpose is to squeeze it down to a really simple and intuitive level that can be immediately understood):

(about Free Will and eliminativism)

The contradiction is born of dual path, one inside the other, both true. It’s perspective.
Free Will literally exists or not depending from where you look. Both Points of View are “true”.
Elimination being BOTH logical and impossible creates a contradiction because it juggles two planes.
Reduce perspective to one plane and Free Will EITHER exists OR doesn’t (the contradiction is resolved) – WHO IS ASKING?
“WHO IS ASKING” (or saying) is the ultimate solution to Free Will paradox

What surprises me is that no one seems paying attention to how plain is the paradox born from the contradiction. A contradiction is literally just a statement that is apparently both true and wrong and can’t seem to be solved, or brought down to ONE solution.

The problem of Free Will is exactly the same: a paradox.

These things always work the same. Consider for example the idea of “Nature”. What is the contrary of “natural” in our language? Artificial. And what does artificial means concretely? Man-made. Fabricated.

That is the seed of many contradictions that have significant impact in our lives. For most of everyone human beings have a “soul” and there’s a distinction between them and the rest of creation. The world out there is made FOR us. We are separate from it. Yet, if we believe in actual science, human beings are PART of nature, not distinguished from it. The system of nature closes around us. It INCLUDES us. It is then only consequent that nothing “artificial” can exist. If it’s man-made, and men are part of nature, it’s still as natural as everything else. Nothing can exist in nature that can transcend or violate nature itself.

It is the origin of many ethical problems. Manipulating genes is “not natural”. But if human beings can do it, and human beings are part of nature, then there cannot be anything artificial about it. It was already all part of the “design”, whatever it is. Unless you believe human beings have some special powers that make them distinct.

How is the contradiction born? Of language. But language is only a reference. If you move human beings OUTSIDE nature, and so create a plane, a system of reference that belongs to human being, to oppose to another plane, a system of reference that belongs to the rest of nature, then the consequence is about obtaining statements that are BOTH true and wrong. Because the contradiction originates from the confusion of these two perspectives, and so opposite answers.

That’s the problem of Free Will, being required yet impossible. DO WE HAVE FREE WILL? Has only a true answer:

WHO IS ASKING?

The solution (or the path leading to the solution) is brought by the double-aspect theory:
two aspects of, or perspectives on, the same substance.

The “substance” is one, Nature, Science (the description we make of Nature, the objective eye of God). But the perspectives are two, creating the apparent contradiction.

Human beings exist WITHIN nature, but they create two planes, two levels, that are perceptively separated. First person, third person. Man/nature. Inside/outside. The part of a whole. A slice, a point of view.

Free Will EXISTS within the first person, because of limited access to information. Free Will is concretely a limit applied, a perimeter that delimits a space. An enclosure. This enclosure creates a distinction between inside and outside. And so creates the principles of the two planes that then create a contradiction when you make statements while confusing the plane of reference.

But because Free Will exists within the first person, and the first person is contained in Nature, Free Will also is canceled when the perspective switches to third person. Science (third person) says: Free Will cannot exist. Because science postulates that there’s “one substance”, and so two contradicting truths aren’t possible. The first person/Free Will is “explained away”. Eliminated.

WHO IS ASKING? The question can be answered from two perspectives. First person and third person, yet there’s one substance only, because we can’t forget that human beings aren’t separate from nature, but caught within. So one answer/perspective is included within the other.

“The School of Mensis controls the Unseen Village.

This hexagonal iron cage suggests their strange ways. The cage is a device that restrains the will of the self, allowing one to see the profane world for what it is.

It also serves as an antenna that facilitates contact with the Great Ones of the dream.

But to an observer, the iron cage appears to be precisely what delivered them to their harrowing nightmare.”

“No, we shall not abandon the dream.”
“Ah hah hah ha! Ooh! Majestic! A hunter is a hunter, even in a dream. But, alas, not too fast! The nightmare swirls and churns unending!”
“As you once did for the vacuous Rom, grant us eyes, grant us eyes. Plant eyes on our brains, to cleanse our beastly idiocy.”
“The cosmos, of course!”
“Let us sit about, and speak feverishly. Chatting into the wee hours of…”
“New ideas, of the higher plane!”
“Now I’m waking up, I’ll forget everything…”

This is an item in the Bloodborne game, but more than trying to figure out the game’s mythology I’m more curious about how you can relate the symbolism to the ideas that actually precede Bloodborne and inspired it.

Without speculating, there are a few aspects that are explicit in the game. One is the idea of a dream, being trapped within without an awareness of the real world. So the dream is like a cage that you can’t escape. If you awake you only find yourself in the same dream, in a circular way without escape (false awakenings). At the same time there’s an idea of transcendence linked to the Great Ones, the Lovecraftian gods of Bloodborne. To escape the cage of a dream one has to transcend the limits of human vision. “Grow more eyes” in the mind, and so being able to see an hidden dimension that was already fused with the normal one.

So, this actual cage around the head is an explicit symbol of the dream as a cage, a consciousness that is trapped within a mind. It is hexagonal because that’s a feature that in the game defines the stuff that pertains the gods, and the existence of the dream/cage depends on the gods, on that hidden layer that is made opaque by the dream itself, the courtain. The gods are the hidden something beyond a veil, an unknown to the current level of experience, which is the dream. The description implies that in order to see the “profane world” one has to surrender the will of the self. But the profane world means the common world, the tangible existence that in this context is represented by “this side” of the dream. That means that the “life in a cage” represented by this symbol only reveals the nature of human-like existence: that of being trapped, with no real will.

It’s interesting because this angle is the same of the stuff I write about, even if it’s nothing in common with Bloodborne. Why the link? Because Bloodborne is inspired by certain structures and mythos, that feed on the basic “truths”.

Yet the description doesn’t end here, it also creates a separation. On one side it reveals the horror of existence: “to an observer, the iron cage appears to be precisely what delivered them to their harrowing nightmare.” Yet, it also represents a “door”, a passage to what’s behind the veil: “it facilitates contact with the Great Ones of the dream”. As if the awareness of an existential cage also offers a gift of transcendence.