Category Archives: Mythology

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

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:


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.

Despite loving Malazan and thinking it has no challengers for what it does within its genre, I also do think it’s weak on certain aspects.

I tried to explain as a mix of aesthetic joined with depth and meaningfulness. The same as you’d get when looking at densely decorated architecture, but where each single decoration isn’t meant to be merely beautiful to stare at, but also with a dense symbolism and meaning.

Games, books, movies or whatever else, if there’s support for deep mythology and where no detail is left to chance. This myth comes from Tolkien. It’s not just in service of “realism”, and so immersion, but also as a way to reward digging and discovering what’s hidden in that depth. It means engaging with the medium, being part of it, enjoying revelations and epiphanies in those rare occasions when everything locks perfectly together, or perfectly realigns to show a new perspective.

Looking for hints, have your mind making the connections, slowly getting closer to find a solution, or a compelling interpretation. This is all about complexity and detail worth having. A medium that matures and takes itself seriously.

A lot of what I tried to describe in abstraction is already possible in the Malazan we have. It part of what makes it really good. And it is also what Malazan has in common with the approach to the lore and storytelling in the “Souls” game, including and in particular with the latest: Bloodborne.

Bloodborne is that aspect of Malazan turned into game. That aspect of active entertainment. Where the medium demands and requires that you engage actively. The problem is: Bloodborne does it even better.

If you know very little or nothing about Bloodborne then here’s an article that will tell you about story and mythology:

I couldn’t avoid thinking that the whole of Bloodborne not only would fit perfectly in Malazan, but it would be exactly what “Night of Knives” could have been if it was pushed to its full potential. Night of Knives is that same story, only missing that particular “heft” that is instead fully realized within Bloodborne.

The basic structure of the town turned into hunting grounds and dream dimensions bleeding into reality during a special night (and the moon), is not only the common link between the book and the game, but also the manga “Berserk” by Kentaro Miura, that we know for sure has been a major source of inspiration for Hidetaka Miyazaki, the designer of Bloodborne. These three, Berserk, Bloodborne and Malazan go hand in hand (and of course heavily influencing all three is Lovecraft). The only difference is that Malazan swallows them in a much bigger picture. Yet the other two seize aesthetic and mythology, that smaller slice, and realize them even better.

Not to say Night of Knives is a bad book, but it falls shorts (very short) of that potential that was there. And I’m thinking of a potential that not even Erikson could realize.

So this is what I’m trying to point out: some of the ingredients that make Malazan great are ingredients that went into Bloodborne. Those aspects that come out even more clearly in Bloodborne. And what Malazan lacks when compared not to similar works, but when compared to its own ideal potential, is what instead a game like Bloodborne fully delivers.

What if Truth and Subjectivity are separated? Usually one would think that Truth includes Subjectivity, and so that Subjectivity is just a slice that goes to merge into a Big Picture we call Truth.

This was part of a number of comments I wrote over at Bakker blog to explore the idea of lesser, relative truths. Like a kind of dualism of Ontology. But trying to explain that without resorting to abstraction or philosophy.

Let’s say I put you to sleep. In a definitive way. So you’re like a coma patient on a bed, forever, with no possibility of waking up again. You know nothing of this new condition because you lost all memory of what happened or of your previous history.

Then you start dreaming.

Without any perception of the outside, this new dream reality, Thomas Covenant-like, is all that exists for you. A Reality. A fantasy world you’re trapped in, as detailed and complex as the real one.

This is the error. Your partial information and Subjectivity, a perspectival closure.

But instead *for me*, since I’m out and looking at you, you are effectively in error because I know the truth of your condition. I know you are dreaming, that your Reality is imagined.

Now let’s say we have a way of communicating (BBT). So I can tell you some of the truths. I can demonstrate and persuade you that you are indeed just in a coma, and dreaming. That what you perceive, see and live is just an illusion.

Yet, this knowledge doesn’t awaken you. You’re still trapped in subjectivity and the fantasy world. That world is still your Reality. Your truth. That is your ultimate truth as long it’s true that you can’t awake anymore. As soon you understand you cannot return, the Reality becomes absolute.

Saving messages from over there to here. Context not needed? This is still about Free Will and a follow up to the previous post.

It literally bogs down to this:

We live in a world of absolute illusion, but the illusion is recognized as illusory only when you are able cross the boundary and look back. Same as when you wake from a dream and declare you had a dream, but couldn’t tell it was so while dreaming. If the boundary cannot be crossed, then the illusion becomes truth.

This because a truth is relative to a context, and we have an Absolute Truth only as a theoretical, metaphysical abstraction.

Pulling the ladder up after ye. How do you know you’re dealing with an illusion then, if the only way to see such is to cross the boundary and look back? Especially when it’s an absolute illusion, as you say?

…There is such a thing as agnosticism?

I postulated the illusion to show you it makes no difference. But we cannot know if it’s an illusion or not. YOU DON’T KNOW.

It both IS an illusion, but don’t question it because you can’t question it because you can only see an illusion from the outside.

Not it’s NOT an illusion. It MIGHT be one, but you don’t know. Alright?

You can question it, but you cannot have an answer (for the link: scroll to point 36).

And so the result is one of relative truth. A truth that is true as long its context is valid. And being THIS context permanent, I say, the relative truth is all we have, since we cannot achieve a deeper one, EVEN if it MIGHT exist.

So, this MIGHT all be illusory, but since we’ll never know, for us the relative truth becomes an absolute one.

For some god-like entity that has crossed the boundary and looks back to us, we would look like zombies living an illusory life, but as long you don’t believe we GET TO BECOME god-like then this higher existence is only an abstract possibility, not something that is part of our life, and so part of our relative truth.

Whoa, look at that title. The concept I wanted to describe is fairly simple, though. Here we go.

This spawns from a discussion over at Bakker’s blog. I wrote there a lot and about many different things, but the bottom line is that it’s about different facets that belong to the same cluster. Specifically about what I wanted to write here, it seems to me that from whatever angle you look at this you’ll always end in the same place/conclusion. The yarn untangles pretty easily just as long you keep pulling.

The discussion was mostly about ontology, epistemology and Truth. All essentially the same thing, since they imply a way to judge things objectively, and how we can reach an agreement about what can or cannot be known.

Postmodern Maximalism is essentially a writing style, the wikipedia entry about it doesn’t help since it underlines “excess” and “redundancy”, where both of these are completely wrong at describing why Maximalism offers an interesting perspective. Maximalism is a method that makes things appear as if they slow down until they are frozen in time. The observing eye goes through everything on the scene, leaving out nothing. It’s an utopian attempt at seizing a moment for what it is, stop time and analyze everything. It basically defines the failure at observing everything and it also reveals that in order to seize the moment, you need pages and pages and pages. More time, endlessly. A single moment whose description requires a dilatation of time much, much greater.

The epistemological uncertainty is a solid point, arguing what is authentic and what isn’t, is not. Maximalist description is a desire for a truer form. It tests the boundary of what can be done, it underlines the limit. But it’s not a way to include everything because you can’t decide what’s important. What’s inauthentic is the idea that certain things are not needed, that they do not play a role. (The ideal of) Maximalism doesn’t dull the world with excess and redundancy, but it ENRICHES it, makes it flourish and bloom with meaning, flowing in all directions. Every word is important and has purpose.

The important point is to understand that the purpose of Maximalism is to defy a boundary and FAIL. Showing what is not possible to achieve. That you cannot fully grasp a single moment. And that to possibly do it you’d always need more time, exponentially. Formally it means that to analyze information you always use a greater amount of it. In a similar way Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory explains consciousness as founded on a series of heuristics whose purpose is to remove the majority of information. If consciousness had a full access to the activity of the brain then it would be COMPLETELY PARALYZED. Analysis paralysis, that for example David Foster Wallace often binds with Maximalism. They are the same thing. Time frozen because you are lost in the process. Every single instant exploding out in a myriad of states, all fundamental, all unavoidable.

We started from ontology and truth. I use a scheme because it is powerful and reveals the real contradiction that we live in. The dichotomy is BEING / KNOWING. If you are on one side you cannot achieve the other. Mutually exclusive. With the theme of ontology we always fall back in the contradiction where to state something you need to rely on some bigger picture. If you say that everything one can say is just a cartoon, than to say it you rely on another cartoon. Recursively. And we observe this similar recursion and paradox everywhere. Why is it so? Because it’s a reproduction of the observation itself. We merely see echoes, infinite reflections, mise en abyme, of the same original state. This original state is self-observation, as I write often. In order to observe yourself you need to exit yourself and see yourself as if from the outside, object of observation. This is the original split, the first separation between observing system and observed system. It creates a double, and so the original dichotomy that we can then shape in the various ways, like body/soul, or being/knowing I used above. A threshold, a boundary. Ontology reproduces a similar problem because it can never unify a truth. You are always separated from a concept and its unity, from a middle state and a pure, ontological truer one. Which means you cannot cross from a state of knowing to a state of being, because knowing builds up the barrier.

(The Blind Brain Theory says consciousness doesn’t have any idea of the actual processes in the brain, since it can only access a very small amount of information. In the same way we know the writer’s mind, so this consciousness, creates a story by removing all detail. Creating meaning, linearity and purpose where there’s actually none. A place of the mind, not of the world. Writing is always a process of FALSIFICATION of reality. That’s why maximalism is instead an inversion. It isn’t about excess of superfluousness but an attempt to reach a more fundamental truth and escape from the falsehood that otherwise binds all. Though, it is granted, you can’t expect literary critics to be smart enough to understand this…)

If you are really radical about epistemology and ontology, then you reach a point where you cannot say anything. It’s as if knowing you cannot know, and so a deeply nihilistic stance. You know the impossibility of things. But I see this as a profoundly IMMORAL, UNHOLY position to take. Because it’s extremely partial and not at all radical as it wants to be. In order to define nihilism you need to rely on absolutes. Like having endless time. Like the hypothesis of true knowledge that lies always deeper. But the point is that in order to enable nihilism as a legitimate stance, you have to rely on cartoons that are far more abstract compared to everything else. Nihilism doesn’t rely on crude realism, but on idealism. The idea of unachievable perfect dimension, and so sorrow because you can’t go there. It’s a failure to reach and to be, but justified by this distance from truth. Truth being the most abstract and most stupid cartoon. As if the will to avoid speculation just threw you toward the wildest speculation possible. In order to know you have no Free Will, you imagine a place where Free Will truly is. And so a lack.

Nihilism relies on a idealistic and false idea of reality. It relies on cartoon abstractions that it wanted proved wrong in the first place. How do you come out of all this? You come out because the world doesn’t give you a choice. Free Will is a possibility because you are negated a choice, if you accept the paradox. Do we know how the world really works? No, science will lead us there. How long will it take? We don’t know. But then we realistically and pragmatically know that “many” of us will be dead by then. Timelessness is not a thing that belongs to life. We are bound in time. Life imposes on us choices now. You don’t have unlimited amount of borrowed time. You can’t delay a choice until you have all the elements to make a wiser one. In the same way you cannot wait forever so you know better what kind of true role you have in this world. Time is limited. And, in the same way, the brain works with heuristic because full access to information would paralyze all activity.

The same as epistemology, there’s the hypothesis of an ultimate truth that will invalidate the one we have now. The same as in science a new theory replaces an old one. On the horizon there’s always an ideal elsewhere that is more true and more complete. But are we there? No. Will we be there? No, because we’ll be dead. Time binds us again. It’s a boundary that is imposed on. A limit that creates a partiality. A slice.

I say this limit creates Free Will, and limited knowledge creates choice. Same as a character in a book cannot stop on his tracks and think he’s a character in a book. Any less we can do that too. It’s part of a different reality we don’t belong to. It’s knowledge that is possible only if a boundary is crossed, but we don’t get to cross it, and we won’t later on. As single individuals, as well as a species, we are limited by time (and knowledge). Idealistic absolutes like a “science” that explains all, or the ultimate “Truth”, these are the real false gods. The real cartoons in this picture. They speak to us from the other side of a reality that binds us.

And so this is why I say this creates the possibility of relative truth compared to an ultimate one. Or Relative Free Will. A point of view that is bound by time. That becomes true because we don’t have the choice of reaching out and defy the limit of time. This is honest and moral because it makes us equal and empowers us. It makes us human instead of super-human, or compared to super-humans as nihilism or other forms of false realism would pretend.