An 18th century German composer who wrote the theme for a king, with a principle melody that ascends yet remains trapped in tonal space. A 19th century Dutch artist who created maddening and hallucinatory artwork, defying intuition about perspective and reality. A 20th century German mathematician who described the limitations of a formal system addressing itself.
According to this book, Godel, Escher, and Bach were three blind men touching the same elephant: the Strange Loop.
“The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through levels of some hierarchial system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.”
You get on an elevator on floor 1, go up nine floors, emerge on floor 10, and then take the stairs back down. This is a loop. But imagine taking the elevator from floor 1 to floor 10, and the door slides open to reveal…floor 1. This is a strange loop.
“But things like that don’t exist.” They might not in architecture, but they do in the things that give rise to architecture: math, language, and human consciousness. Statements like “this sentence is a lie” and “I am nobody” are linguistic paradoxes. They’re like MC Escher’s Drawing Hands: destroying and recreating themselves over and over. Idioms like “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” are loopy. “This is not a pipe” is loopy. Barbershop poles are loopy.
One of the eye-opening parts of this book is how you start noticing strange loops all around you. The website you’re reading is powered by PHP, which stands for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor”. This isn’t a mistake: the language’s name is an acronym containing its own acronym inside it! Like spiders, strange loops always exist closer to your body than you think.
But there’s more to strange loops than weird art and logic puzzles. Hofstadter seems to be poking towards a theory of consciousness itself.
In 1996, David Chalmers explicated the two main problems of consciousness. 1) How does a collection of atoms develop a consciousness (meaning a subjective experience, an internal monologue, or whatever). 2) Why does this happen? Why don’t we experience the world the way a robot might?
Hofstadter’s sense (never forcefully argued) is that strange loops are responsible for the consciousness we experience. Just as the three letters “PHP” contains an infinite number of “PHPs” inside them, our three-pound brains are able to “unfold” into something more than the sum of its parts, via iterations of very complicated loops. This doesn’t address the second of Chalmers’ questions, although in a later book Hofstadter compares the soul to a “swarm of colored butterflies fluttering in an orchard” – something attracted by the fruit, but not a part of the fruit. The loops don’t require conscious experience, the conscious experience emerges as a kind of froth when all of these loops combine.
This implies that an algorithm would be capable of introspecting about its own existence. A string of math on a very large blackboard would perceive the color red, and feel pain. It’s a provocative idea, but don’t expect to find this formulated with a QED at the end. As the constant artistic motifs suggest, GEB isn’t a hard science book. This is probably why people actually read it.
GEB is filled with illustrations, games, puzzles, and – most notoriously – dialogues inspired by Lewis Carroll. Some of these are astonishingly creative. The passage about the crab canon made me stop reading, because I wanted to take a moment to enjoy the thing I’d just put into my brain. It was mind expanding. Nearly mind-exploding.
Although GEB contains a primer on the basics of computer language, intellectual rigor isn’t the book’s goal. One of Hofstadter’s many interests is Zen Buddhism, which is our culture’s most potent form of anti-logic and as such is of great interest to the student of the strange loop.
When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail / Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break / Until at last the bottom fell out. / No more water in the pail! / No more moon in the water!
Zen never makes lessons easy for the student: you’re the one who has to do the work, and become cosmic. But GEB makes the road far more fun than it has to be. What stands out about Hofstadter’s prose is how readable it is. Hofstadter isn’t a wordsmith, he’s a word alchemist, making dull things sparkle. The prelude to my edition contains a digression in the difficulties he had typesetting the book, which sounds as gripping as Hannibal crossing the Alps. (There’s also a somewhat cringeworthy part self-flagellating about the how the original printing of the book uses the default male voice.)
So is “loopiness” the way a collection of atoms can collectively seem to think, reason, and experience? The book leaves me unsure, as I think it was meant to. It’s the world’s longest Zen koan, fragments of information that never coalesce into a hard idea, but seem to get me closer to enlightmentment than I was before.
Important aside: Godel, Escher, and Bach are three wise men (initials GEB), also the three wise men of the Nativity tale are Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (initials GMB), also M is E rotated 90 degrees, also they brought gift of gold, frankencense, and myrrh (initials GFM), also F is the letter after E in the Roman alphabet, also “Godel” is nearly an anagram of “gold”, also I lied when I said this part was important.
I heard the band Motorhead described as a perfect mix of 1/3 punk rock, 1/3 heavy metal, and 1/3 rock and roll, with no element outweighing the other.
This book is a mix of 1/3 fantasy, 1/3 alternate history, and 1/3 science fiction. It hooked me at age 12 because of its violence: if you want detailed descriptions of billhooks crushing skulls, this has them. Descriptions, I mean. But Ash: A Secret History is ambitious: the plot unfolds like Lemarchand’s box, becoming increasingly complex and intriguing.
It’s a book within a book within a book. The framing device is that a 20th century linguist is attempting to publish a biography of the female medieval mercenary captain, Ash, who lived in the 14th century and who is shrouded by myth and legend. She had a reputation for tactical brilliance. She also heard voices in her head, telling her the future. Or so the tales say.
The book soon starts getting weird. There are big hints that the world of Ash (and the biographer) is not our own. Christ wasn’t crucified on a cross, he was hung from a tree. The Visigoths didn’t disappear from history in the 8th century, they rebuilt the city of Carthage and established an empire on the northern coast of Africa. Certain world events went differently.
By the time quantum physics start getting involved the book, you’re heavily invested in its tale of bloodshed and war. Ash ends up defending 14th century Burgundy against an army of invading Visigoths – a bizarre war that’s found nowhere in history. Is it all a hoax? Are we are hoax? Are the true hoaxes the friends we made along the way?
The way the plot resolves is clever, but at every level the book is interesting: you feel sorry for the historian who wrote down Ash’s adventures and paid a terrible price for it, and for the modern-day linguist who keeps having the rug yanked out from under his feet by inconvenient historical discoveries (one wonders if Gentle isn’t writing about her own experiences in academia).
It’s not flawless – a lot of dialog scenes serve no purpose except to gargle and masticate information the reader already knows, and every conversation seems to run about thirty percent too long. But on the whole, it’s a superior work, unlike any story I can recall reading.
As I’ve alluded, Gentle is a heavily-credentialed midlist author with degrees in Seventeenth Century Studies and War Studies. She seems to be one of those writers who turns converts masters degrees into novels. Ash can a brutal book, revelling in blood, sordidness, and bathroom activities, and the fact that it’s also thoroughly researched and informative makes it seem downright . It’s also thoroughly researched and informative. Like George MacDonald Fraser before her, Gentle realises that the audience will tolerate a lot of depravity if you present it as an educational experience.
“I don’t remember giving a moment’s thought to the fact that we had just sketched out a plan to kill millions of people.”
Ken Alibek – born Kanatzhan “Kanat” Alibekov – was a Soviet microbiologist. Prior to his defection to the United States in 1992, Alibek was First Deputy Director of Biopreparat, the USSR’s secret biowarfare project.
In other news, I might be dying right now. Something might be in my body, invisibly small, eluding my T-cells and my MHC and murdering me. Like a citizen in Kabul being targeted by a reaper drone, I’ll never see my killer’s face. My loved ones won’t be able to curse it or shake their hands at it. My body will go into a plague bag and then into a cremation oven, perhaps after infecting others.
Disease is everywhere. “You Want It, You Got It,” sang the Detroit Emeralds in the 70s. Disease is You Don’t Want It, You Got It. I live in a first world country with plumbing and sewage, yet I’ve had the flu, chicken-pox, and at least forty colds. It’s inescapable. Having a phobia of viruses would be like having a phobia of air – and to an approximation, air is viruses. 800 million viruses drift to earth every day per square meter, a steady rain, as deadly as a storm of steel. These viruses clash and recombine, peeling off strips of recombinant DNA and RNA like Formula One cars swapping paint, sometimes making themselves stronger in the process. The end result might be a deadly new superplague entering my lungs with the breath I just took. This is unlikely to happen to me, but that’s cold comfort. Someone else is going to be the first.
And these are only natural plagues. Engineered ones are far worse. Nature can create shapes that float on water, such as curved leaves, but they’ll never be as strong and buoyant as a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Unconstrained by evolutionary pressure, a laboratory can theoretically create a disease far worse than any seen in nature. The biohazards Alibek worked on were synthetic tularemia, anthrax, glanders, haemorraghic fever, and anthrax. But the true biohazard was Abelikov himself. He was a sorcerer of the spirochete, driving nature far beyond its natural constraints and then straight over a cliff.
“We saw ourselves as custodians of a mystery that no one else understood, warriors or high priests of a secret cult whose rituals could not be revealed.”
The thing about viruses is that they can’t be too deadly, or they’ll kill their carrier organisms before they get a chance to reproduce. A man-made plague distributed from airborne canisters is under no such obligations to play nice. Alibek wasn’t the first to see the potential for disease as a weapon: it’s been used in this way since antiquity. It’s impersonal, creating a layer of obfuscation between the attacker and victim. And it’s easy for a state actor to work on bioweapon projects, telling outside inspectors that they’re merely conducting defensive research.
But diseases have one big problem: they can’t tell friend from foe. Alibek has many close calls while working at Biopreparat, such as a terrifying incident in 1983 where a faulty safety valve causes a liquified super-strain of tularemia to flow upwards through an air vent.
“I opened the door and took a few steps inside. It was pitch black. I reached back, groping in the darkness for the light switch. When I finally hit the switch and looked down, I found I was standing in a puddle of liquid tularemia. It was milky brown–the highest possible concentration. The puddle at my feet was only a few centimeters deep, but there was enough tularemia on the floor to infect the entire population of the Soviet Union.”
Alibek frantically washes himself with hydrogen peroxide. It isn’t enough. One day later, he begins to sicken.
Toward the end of Klyucherov’s visit, my body started to shake. Chills, and a sudden wave of nausea, overcame me so quickly I wanted to bury my head in my arms. It’s a cold, I thought. I’ve been working too hard.
But it felt worse than any cold I’d ever had. I could feel my face burning with fever.
“What’s happened to you?” Klyucherov asked in a tone that was now much friendlier. “You look like you’re about to die.”
I smiled weakly. “It’s just a cold,” I said. “I had a long night. I could do with some tea.”
Alibek isn’t just afraid of the disease, he’s afraid of discovery: people disappear because of these sorts of fuck-ups. Luckily, he’s able to antidote himself with black market tetracycline, and his superiors never suspect he had anything except a cold.
This was one of the most fascinating parts of the book: the discussion of Soviet culture and how one interacts with it.
Russia had several Chernobyl-like events. On March 1979, a technician at a chemical drying plant in Sverdlovsk removed a clogged filter and didn’t replace it. Soon, aerosolized spores were pouring from the plant’s exhaust pipes, where the wind blew them into Sverdlovsk’s factory district. What kind of spores? Bacillus anthracis, better known as anthrax.
With workers dying by the score, several contradictory coverup stories went into effect at once. The KGB informed locals that the deaths were caused by a truckload of contaminated meat. Innocent meat vendors were arrested, and the victims’ families received visits from “doctors” armed with falsified death certificates. Meanwhile, members of the local Communist Party were put to work scrubbing “hazardous material” from roads and rooftiles.
…which caused a second wave of deaths, when brooms and brushes swept anthrax spores back into the air, spreading them a second time throughout the city. Multiple layers of incompetence, executed with maximal efficiency.
I don’t think any kid dreams of working at a place like Biopreparat. Alibek originally wanted to become a military psychiatrist, but he was drawn sideways into studying epidemiology and biology. He had an obvious flair for such work, but he also possessed a single large weakness: he noticed things he wasn’t supposed to. His professor, a retired colonel called Aksyonenko, assigned him the task of writing about the outbreak of tularemia that crippled a German offensive in 1942. After a few nights studying the case, Alibek came to conclusions that might have landed him in big trouble.
When I walked into my professor’s office with a draft of my paper, I thought I had solved the puzzle. He was concentrating on the latest edition of Krasnaya Zvezda, the official army newspaper.
“So, what have you discovered?” Aksyonenko asked, smiling up at me before returning to his paper.
“I’ve studied the records, Colonel,” I said cautiously. “The pattern of the disease doesn’t suggest a natural outbreak.”
He looked up sharply. “What does it suggest?”
“It suggests that this epidemic was caused intentionally.”
He cut me off before I could continue.
“Please,” he said softly. “I want you to do me a favor and forget you ever said what you just did.”
It’s impossible silence and secrecy.
Whether or not you think Reagan was correct in describing the USSR as an “evil empire” (I think he was), it was certainly an unsafe empire. When disasters like Chernobyl (or Sverdlovsk) occur, they need to occur in a spiritual daylight, so that the correct action can be taken with expediency. Not beneath the shade of coverups and lies. Most importantly, you need to give your inferiors permission to make mistakes – otherwise you’ll never know when they do.
Obviously, Biopreparat’s work killed a good number of Russians. Was it ever used on non-Russians?
Not in war, as far as I can tell. That’s the dark irony: biowarfare tends to get used in ways that specifically aren’t sanctioned warfare; such as against civilians and political opponents. Alibek had numerous encounters with KGB operatives, who praised him, threatened him, and attempted to recruit him as an informant. He believes that his work was used to commit assassinations on behalf of an even more secret entity known as Project Flute.
In the spring of 1990, Butuzov walked into my office and sank into the big armchair across from my desk. He stared for a while at the
portraits of scientists hanging on the wall.
“I need your advice on something, Kan,” he said casually.
“Sure,” I said. “Professional or personal?”
I waited until he spoke again.
“I’m looking for something that will work with a gadget I’ve designed. It’s a small battery, the kind you use for watches, connected to a vibrating plate and an electric element.”
“Go on,” I said. He spoke in the same casual tone in which we discussed a soccer match. I was fascinated.
“Well, when you charge this element up, the plate will start vibrating
at a high frequency, right?”
“So, if you had a speck of dried powder on that plate, it will start to form an aerosol when it vibrates.”
He looked at me for encouragement, and I motioned for him to continue.
“Let’s say we put this assembly into a tiny box, maybe an empty pack of Marlboro cigarettes, and then find a way to put the pack under someone’s desk, or in his trash basket. If we were then to set it in motion, the aerosol would do the job right away, wouldn’t it?”
“It depends on the agent,” I said.”Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. What’s the best agent to use in such a situation if the objective is death?”
I’m not sure why I went along with him, but I did.
“You could use minimal amounts of tularemia,” I said, “but it wouldn’t necessarily kill.”
“I know,” said Butuzov. “We were thinking of something like Ebola.”
“That would work. But you’d have a high probability of killing not just this person, but everyone around him.”
“That wouldn’t matter.”
Alibek continues probing, and learns that Flute’s target is Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the newly elected president of Georgia. The “flamboyantly mustachio’d” Gamsakhurdia had been an enemy of Moscow ever since leading a campaign against the Soviet army in 1989, and it was suddenly very attractive that he no longer remain in power.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia died in 1993, under circumstances that remain unclear. Maybe it was a suicide. Or maybe a small, vibrating battery was involved.
How did Alibek morally rationalise his work? Using the standard line: Biopreparat was only doing the same thing the Americans were doing. It was the USSR’s version of the missile gap: if we don’t develop bioweapons, they will first.
Was this ever true? Maybe at one stage. Research efforts between the US and the USSR dovetail perfectly between 1945 and 1969: the same agents, the same aerosols, and the same processes were used on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This likely wasn’t an accident. Classified US research papers on bacteriological weapons had a curious way of ending up in Moscow.
But by 1969, the US was losing interest in the field. Public discontent with the Vietnam war soon expanded to encompass chemical and biological warfare, and facilities throughout the country were picketed. Nixon was soon convinced by his advisors that disease-based weapons lacked tactical value, and later that year, he appointed a panel that killed America’s biowarfare program.
…The Soviets, of course, regarded all of this as theater.
“We didn’t believe a word of Nixon’s announcement. Even though the massive U.S. biological munitions stockpile was ordered to be destroyed, and some twenty-two hundred researchers and technicians lost their jobs, we thought the Americans were only wrapping a thicker cloak around their activities.”
But in 1991, as the old regime ended, Alibek was chosen to be part of a group of Soviet scientists to tour biological research facilities in the United States. He was shocked at what he didn’t find: Biopreparat had two thousand specialists in anthrax. The Americans had two. The research papers he saw were all decades old. Supposedly top-secret installations like Fort Detrick seemed to be either defunct or converted to hum-drum civilian medical research. He turned over every stone he could, but there was nothing incriminating to be seen.
But his superiors weren’t interested in hearing that America had abandoned biowarfare, and didn’t like the implication that they themselves might soon be out of a job. Obvious parallels to the Iraq war come to mind. From Bush’s perspective, Iraq had to be guilty of something. After all, he’d already gone to the trouble of invading them.
The one-sidedness of Russia’s research projects became another thing Alibek wasn’t supposed to talk about. It’s around this point that thoughts of defection entered his head. Spurring him on was the new wave of racial tension that followed the collapse of the USSR – another thing that interested me. Alibek is ethnically a Kazakh, and although his face doesn’t exactly look Asiatic, it looks just as Asiatic as it does Caucasian. Until this point, he’d been a citizen of the Soviet Union. Now, he was a foreigner with strange features. This was interesting to me: maybe the union of satellite states across Russia effectively erased a number of racial barriers? Either way, Alibek couldn’t rely on Soviet national unity to protect himself any longer. So he fled.
Alibek escaped his former country, but he can’t escape his place in history: one that’s already pockmarked with smallpox scars, lacerated with varicella-zoster rashes. If a few metaphorical butterfly wingflaps had occurred, a massive breakthrough might have occurred at Biopreparat that greatly altered the balance of power between the USSR and the USA. Or perhaps the breakthrough would have insured that the balance of power became irrelevant, welding mankind into one: carriers for a deadly superplague.
Archimedes spoke about how a perfectly positioned lever could move the world. Disease is a perfectly positioned lever that could end the world. Alibek’s work might have value, if it helps us understand and prepare against the next time Pandora’s box is opened. That’s the only certainty: there will be a next time.
Here’s a question: how many people live in Australia? About twenty-five million?
That’s right, but also wrong. Twenty-five million people don’t live in Australia; they live in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Darwin, Adelaide, and Perth.
Leave the coastal enclaves and Australia quickly becomes indistinguishable from Mordor: arid bush, thinly grassed plains, and wastelands of sand and dirt. We have ten deserts in total – two hundred years after white settlers made landfall they were still discovering new ones – and they’re every colour you can name. The Simpson Desert is blood-red. The Tanami Desert is orange. The Painted Desert (which contains mica) is white streaked through brown. I am comforted by the fact that although Australians might run out of water, oil, coal, and food, we will never run out of deserts.
Only fourteen percent of Australians live in remote areas…but these remote areas are virtually the entire country. This has engendered a decades-long cultural dialog about who’s the “real” Australians – the masses packed into coastal sanctuaries engineered to look like their European countries of origin, or the minority who actually live in Australia.
Wake in Fright is a particularly nightmarish depiction of life in the Australian outback. The main character is a schoolteacher, posted out to some flyspeck town, who has just received his Christmas pay packet. He obviously intends to return to Sydney, citydwellers view the outback like astronauts view the vacuum of space – fun to visit, but you don’t stay past the airlock a second longer than you have to.
En-route, he stops by the slightly larger flyspeck town of Bundanyabba (modelled after the real town of Broken Hill). Everyone – police, bartenders, miners – is superficially friendly in a way that’s scary, as though they’re all wearing masks. The town has secrets hidden in plain sight: moral depravity, suicide, and sexual corruption. Past nightfall the schoolteacher decides to go gambling, and loses all of his money. He is now dependent on the town’s generosity to survive…and the masks start to slip.
Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright it was written in the 1960s, and achieved international fame through a movie. There the similarities stop. Picnic was oneiric and hallucinatory, Wake is blunt and stark. Hanging thrusts you maddeningly far away from itself, In draws you close. Rock is dainty and ladylike, Fright is like watching a blood and shit covered tapeworm being drawn from a cat’s asshole.
It’s a really vile book. There’s a scene in the middle as unpleasant as anything I can recall reading, and unlike something like American Psycho it achieves this feat while remaining believable. Even descriptions of harmless events seem coated in filth and poison. Riding a train and eating breakfast at a hotel are seen through an authorial lens that captures the dust-cauled sunlight and focuses it on filth, dirt, and unpleasantness. There’s exactly one moment where Kenneth Cook blurs the camera and stops us from seeing the action on the page (perhaps out of fear of censorship). But even here, he leaves enough clues that the motivated reader understands what’s going on.
Alcohol is the grease of the story, allowing the action to move. Everyone drinks all the time in Bundanyabba, and refusing to drink is an insult. Several times the protagonist tries to plead off the beers forced on him, and the nice bloke offering them turns into a spitting viper. You have to be an alcoholic in the ‘Yabba. To be otherwise is to violate a sacred pact.
This “get drunk or else” attitude is an authentic one. My father used to listen to Australian country musician Slim Dusty, who wrote dozens if not hundreds of songs about drinking, such as “You’ve Gotta Drink the Froth to Get the Beer”, “Love to Have a Beer With Duncan”, “My Pal Alcohol,” and (most famously) “A Pub With No Beer”. “The maid’s gone all cranky, and the cook’s acting queer / What a terrible place, is a pub with no beer.” Karl Marx famously described religion as “the opiate of the masses”. In rural Australia, the opiate of the masses is an actual opiate.
The outback doesn’t come off looking very good in Wake in Fright. It would be considered racist if the characters were brown or black people (see Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, and Billy Hayes’ Midnight Express). To what extent it’s modeled on reality isn’t for me to say – I’m not sure that Broken Hill was ever the antipodean Gomorrah that Bundanyabba is. But there’s romantic depictions of outback life (“Waltzing Matilda”) that seem equally alien to me, based on my brief exposure to outback towns. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. And it may be my privilege as a citydweller that I never have to learn it.
A doorstop-sized work of historical fiction from 14th century China. At eight hundred pages, nearly a million words, and a thousand named characters, it has broken hardier men than you. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of those Mount Everest type books – can you possibly finish it?
It’s also the world’s first videogame. Explanation incoming.
Sometimes art has content that suggests it belongs to a different medium. For example, the first film directors had a background in theater, and the movies they produced are often stunningly derivative of stage plays.
Watch a film from the 1920s and you’ll see lengthy static shots, minimalist editing, flat and declamatory acting, etc. Only in the middle period of Hollywood’s golden age did the techniques and approaches of film qua film emerge. Early films didn’t leave the vaudeville behind: they’re well made, but…they’re not exactly movies.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is like that, but instead of being a play disguised as a movie, it’s a videogame disguised as a book.
More specifically, a strategy game. It reminds me of a six hour Age of Empires II game fought between skilled and stubborn adversaries amidst a mounting pile of energy drink cans. Battles without end. Thousands of men thrown into a woodchipper, often gaining nothing, or winning a victory that gets reversed minutes later. Numberless acts of heroism, which you see from God’s perspective and soon don’t even notice.
It’s about the fall of the Han dynasty and the three kingdoms (Wu, Wei and Shu) that ascended in the aftermath, trying to fill the power vacuum. They do this through a complex and Machiavellian mix of marriage, wizardry, and battles so bloody that it seems the population of medieval China gets slaughtered three times over.
The famous opening line “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been” was not written by Luo Guanzhong, but was added centuries later. Nonetheless, it sums up his text: cyclical periods of destruction and renewal. Events are either meaningless or all-meaningful, depending on your perspective. There’s nods to “empty boat” style Taoist philosophy at times. The soil drinks blood. The soil then produces trees. The trees are used to make axes. The axes…
It’s hard to describe Romance without making it sound like the dullest book ever. It’s not. Nor is it the second dullest book. It’s actually interesting, once you crack the “code”.
The worst way to read it is like a traditional novel. Forget rising and falling action, dramatic climaxes, etc. Romance of the Three Kingdom’s intense moments come out of nowhere like monsoons, blow the lives of characters to pieces, and then end. Also, large parts are based on history, which is under no obligation to be satisfying to anyone. A better way is to view it like a growing plant: continually evolving in a way that’s no more and no less sensible than real history or the life of the reader.
And it’s thrilling. Despite the nihilism of the whole, you’ll still feel tense when Cao Cao fails in his plot to assassinate Dong Zhuo, and cheer at cunning method Zhou Yu uses to overcome an enemy fleet. Certain moments (such as the Battle at the Red Cliff) are as cinematic as Game of Thrones. And there are passages that would fascinate anyone with an interest in cultural anthropology and medical history. For example, the great hero Liu Bei’s reaction when he sees weapons inside his bridal apartment.
The bridegroom turned pale. Bridal apartments lined with weapons of war and waiting maids armed! But the housekeeper of the lady said, “Do not be frightened, O Honorable One! My lady has always had a taste for warlike things, and her maids have all been taught fencing as a pastime. That is all it is.”
“Not the sort of thing a wife should ever look at,” said Liu Bei. “It makes me feel cold, and you may have them removed for a time.”
Lady Sun laughed, saying, “Afraid of a few weapons after half a life time spent in slaughter!”
One wonders at what Luo Guanzhong is trying to depict here. Is Liu Bei suffering from what we today call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The biggest challenging to climbing Mt Romance is the colossal cast of characters. To reach the end, you need to develop a sixth sense as to which characters are important to the plot and which ones will never be seen again. A lot of the characters have similar names. It can be hard to separate Zhang Fei from Zhang He. Maybe I’m a racist colonial paleface who thinks all Chinese names sound the same. But maybe not – Luo Guanzhong seems to be winking to the reader at times, such as in this (humorous?) scene where a woman vows to only marry a man with the same name as hers:
“Why did you trouble your sister-in-law to present wine to me, brother?” asked Zhao Yun.
“There is a reason,” said the host smiling. “I pray you let me tell you. My brother died three years ago and left her a widow. But this cannot be regarded as the end of the story. I have often advised her to marry again, but she said she would only do so if three conditions were satisfied in one man’s person. The suitor must be famous for literary grace and warlike exploits, secondly, handsome and highly esteemed and, thirdly, of the same name as our own. Now where in all the world was such a combination likely to be found? Yet here are you, brother, dignified, handsome, and prepossessing, a man whose name is known all over the wide world and of the desired name. You exactly fulfill my sister’s ambitions. If you do not find her too plain, I should like her to marry you and I will provide a dowry. What think you of such an alliance, such a bond of relationship?”
Romance of the Three Kingdoms might also be an early example of the Draco in Leather Pants phenomenon. The antagonist of the tale is clearly meant to be Cao Cao of the Wei kingdom, but he’s probably the strongest and most interesting character in the story, and a lot of people seem to view him in a positive light. Tumblr, of course, has an active community of Cao Cao stans.
But Romance isn’t a character study, it’s a videogame. The market seems to back this idea up. Usually classic works of literature attract a slew of movie adaptations, and maybe a single throwaway text adventure game made in 1984 by Infocom. But according to Wikipedia, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been adapted to film eight times, to television twenty-four times, and as a game fifty seven (!) times. The book keeps rejecting its paper and clothing itself in binary. There might be three kingdoms, but ROTTK truly belongs in the realm of ones and zeros.
“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere,” – Albert Camus
Western horror relies on convention – Bram Stoker’s vampires, Shirley Jackson’s haunted houses, and Romero’s zombies. By contrast, Japanese horror more often relies on free-standing symbols and images – Kôji Suzuki’s rings of light, Junji Ito’s spirals, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s metal sculptures.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Art rooted in convention is easier to understand: the audience automatically comprehends Slasher Movie #23532 in light of Slasher Movie #23531 (or the last one they remember). But it’s boring, and makes you a slave to the past: modern horror film is consequently a cesspool of spooky dolls and cars that won’t start and ghosts in mirrors and clanging ADR. By contrast, Japanese horror (at its best) achieves a monolithic starkness: I gave up looking for things like Suehiro Maruo’s Paranoia Star because I couldn’t find any.
The Woman in the Dunes is an eerie psychological novel about…sand.
An amateur entomologist is seeking a new kind of insect in rural Japan. He ends up trapped in a deep pit of sand. He has food and water and even female companionship (although she seems odd), but no way of escaping. This is not an accident. Someone just out of sight has planned this fate for him. He has a little shack that he spends hours each day sweeping clear of sand (uselessly; the wind blows it straight back in). He can’t contact anyone from the outside world. They’ll declare him dead and maybe they’ll be right to. His horizons are made of sand.
The Woman in the Dunes might not be a horror novel, as I don’t think Kobo Abe was trying to frighten. Kafka’s a better comparison. Nonetheless, I’m now aware of “ammophobia” – fear of sand. More specifically: fear of sinking into sand, swallowing sand, having sand grains between your toes, and so on. Just as Uzumaki left me uncomfortably aware of spiral shapes, I put this book down and was plagued by thoughts of sand.
It’s creepy stuff. Silken, fluid, deadly. Viewed under a microscope, sand is beautiful, but it’s inhospitable to human life, and defiant of mankind’s attempts to control it. You can sculpt a castle of sand on the beach, but the next day, it will be gone. But won’t the house you live in be gone someday, too? All of mankind’s buildings, on a long enough timescale, will become sand.
This is sort of how Kobo Abe’s protagonist rationalises his fate. The outside world is just temporarily rearranged sand and dust, so there’s no reason to want to go back. Being trapped in a hole is probably a privilege; he gets to see the truth. Ozymandias’s kingdom wasn’t overtaken by sand, it was sand.
There’s a livestreamer called Dellor who plays Fortnite and other videogames. He has a PO box, and if you mail him a package he’ll open it on stream. Occasionally, he receives sand. I’m not sure if a single person is behind this, or if it’s a shared joke among his fans. He’ll rip open an envelope, and sand will spray across his apartment. He gets keyboards with sand packed in between the letters. Once someone sent him an airsoft pistol with sand stuffed into the barrel. This annoys him, because (as the narrator of The Woman in the Dunes could confirm) sand is extremely hard to remove. No matter how much you vaccuum a carpet, in six months you’ll walk over it barefoot and feel the bite of a silica tooth: a reminder of our fundamental lack of control.
Western horror can be likened to a vine, which can be followed back to its root no matter where it goes, and J-horror to a series of mushrooms, which sprout out of the ground with no visible connection to each other. Or perhaps particles of sand. The Woman in the Dunes exemplifies the J-horror approach, even if it might not be J-horror. It has one idea. One single idea. It could have been written even if no other book had ever been published. It does not want to be the first book in the series, or to answer questions raised by another book, or to get adapted into a movie.
The Woman in the Dunes doesn’t even want to be entertaining (and frequently, it isn’t). It exists to exist. No matter what momentary order we impose on sand, in the end, it has no purpose other than to be sand.
The supposed eighteenth chapter to Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, revealing what happened to the three missing women.
“Supposed” because the internet is rife with conspiracy theories that Joan Lindsay didn’t write it, that it’s a hoax, et cetera.
I’m not convinced. The number of parties necessary to orchestrate such a fraud (Lindsay’s estate, editor, publisher, and so on) would be huge, and the prose definitely reads like Lindsay’s (note, for example, the frequent usage of “little” in its diminutive/feminine sense.)
Until someone presents evidence otherwise, I take Secret at face value: as the unpublished work of Joan Lindsay.
It’s understandable that people want to decanonize The Secret of Hanging Rock. Everyone who reads it reacts the same way: with disappointment. I don’t know of a single person who thinks it improves the book. It’s a few pages long, and much of its text was retrofitted into chapter 3 of Hanging Rock. In short, the girls disappeared into a rift in time. There are some allusions to quantum cosmology, as well as Aboriginal “dreamtime” and therianism. That’s it.
It’s a stupid ending. Maybe any ending would be stupid. Hanging Rock was like a crossword puzzle in a newspaper: fun until you solve it: then it becomes a fish-wrapper.
Secret was so threadbare and underwhelming that I started pondering other things: such as the ethics of publishing a dead writer’s unfinished work. Nirvana fans are familiar with this game: every few years someone finds a shoebox of tapes and we’re subjected to yet another posthumous Kurt Cobain “album” of unfinished material that he definitely wouldn’t have wanted the public to hear.
Is it right to do this? Release all of a famous artist’s outtakes once they’re too dead to complain?
I can see the opposite argument; authors don’t have unlimited fiat to declare that nobody read their work, particularly for something of public and literary importance (like Picnic at Hanging Rock). If someone wrote the cure for cancer on a piece of paper and commanded the world to never read it, we probably shouldn’t honor that request, either.
At the end, Hanging Rock was about time, and how time blurs reality. Reading the book is a maddening experience: you know that whatever happened to the girls, it’s knowledge out of your reach. Knowing what happens yanks the story back down to earth, and destroys its appeal. Hanging Rock left you like Aesop’s fox, snapping at grapes that are just out of reach. Secret cuts down the tree and lets you gorge on grapes until you’re become violently sick. Enjoy your stomach-ache.
One of the final books in Gemmell’s Drenai setting, White Wolf introduces a new hero called Skilgannon the Damned.
It’s all here: the fast pace, the brutal fight scenes (Gemmell knows sixty adjectives for an axe splitting a skull), the terse and efficient characterization, the unabashed heroism, and the tension between ideals of good and evil and the complexities of reality. I truly believe that nobody ever did it better.
But “it’s all here” doesn’t feel like an unalloyed compliment, not after twenty five books of mostly the same stuff. Gemmell was an excellent but limited author, and here he paints within the lines, offering up mostly familiar pleasures. The result is a book that, while fun, doesn’t particularly need to exist.
All the usual baddies make an appearance – the Nadir, werebeast “Joinings”, assassins, shamans – as do the typical Gemmell action setpieces (here we get three fights in a tavern as opposed to the usual one or two). Once again, a character renounces their violent ways and tries to become a monk, with predictably disastrous results. And the final encounter, while exciting, couldn’t be more of a videogame boss battle if “One Winged Angel” was playing in the background.
The protagonist Skilgannon poses a particular problem: he’s just a jumble of traits from past Gemmell heroes and never emerges as a compelling and unique character. He has Waylander’s dark past, Druss’s demon-possessed weapon (the actual Druss appears in this novel, muddling things still further), Jon Shannow’s sense of having outlived his time, Tenaka’s sense of being ill-used by someone he trusted, etc. He’s supposed to be an antihero, but he only commits evil acts because of a pair of mind-controlling swords, a bit of thematic oddness that Gemmell never addresses.
Gemmell doesn’t do anything new here, but he does turn up the emotional intensity in a few places. The scenes depicting Skilgannon’s youth were fascinating, linking past Gemmell figures such as Gorben and Michanek and adding a host of new ones. Druss the Legend steals the show every time he appears, to the point where I wished the entire book was about him. And the title’s full meaning is actually pretty interesting, particularly in light of the sequel, The Swords of Night and Day.
I enjoyed White Wolf, both when I read it here and when I read its various bits and pieces in earlier books like Waylander et al. It was probably for the best that Gemmell spent his final years writing quasi-historical fiction (re-telling the Iliad). It forced him outside of his comfort zone. Gemmell incapable of writing anything but a Gemmell novel, but many of his best stories happened when he at least tried.
Did you buy this book expecting to learn about the Roman Empire? If so, I have good news – there’s stuff in here that not even historians know.
For example, that Caligula’s sister died at age twenty three due to a “surfeit of buggery” with her brother and “seven outrageously well-endowed studs” (p34). And how when Caligula travelled he “amused himself by taking potshots at the dull-witted peasants in the roadside fields, wielding a sort of projectile-shooting bazooka” (p38). Or how, in the arenas, skilled gladiators could decapitate a man and then direct the pumping jets of blood to spell “Caligula” on the sand, with the falling head forming the dot on the letter i. (p74).
But it wasn’t all fun and games. The most prized animal in the arenas was the “Libyan lion…eleven feet in length, with enormous paws armed with razorsharp (sic) claws of sabre-size dimensions, even their engorged testicles were as large as a man’s head”. Scary. The only way the Romans could subdue the Libyan lion and its engorged testicles was for a “particularly handsome slave to present his shapely, exposed anus to the lion’s mighty sexual apparatus; then, once the act of copulation (which invariably proved terminal for the unfortunate slave, due to unsustainable blood loss) reached its critical point and the lion was momentarily distracted, a gang of a hundred or more whooping slaves would wrestle the lion to the ground and throw a net over it”. (p83)
Divine Carnage is hilarious; one of the funniest books I’ve read in recent memory. I’m fighting (and losing) a battle just to fill this review with my favorite parts. Nearly every page of this book has entertainment value: which is good, because it’s a bit light on history. And literacy.
What’s this book supposed to be? A hoax? A work of surrealist metafiction? A parody of the “edgy history” trend? One of Creation Books’ typical scams?
The back cover has the words “ORGY OF DEATH GLADIATOR KILL”, with all capitals and no punctuation. The copyediting was done by someone stabbing a keyboard with a gladius; there are typically several spelling and grammar errors on every page. The phrase “plebian scum” is used so often it becomes a tic.
Also, the book was written by time travellers: James Havoc’s foreword is copyrighted 1999, but it mentions the “recent” Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, which came out in 2000.
Much of Divine Carnage was clearly composed while drunk – you can see the author’s mind wander down an alley and start free-associating while staring at an empty glass. For example, we’re told about the Imperial “thumbs up for life, thumbs down for death” custom, with an aside that the emperor’s thumb was actually penetrating a slave’s rectum. (But…er…then you can’t see which way the thumb’s pointing…)
Who are the authors of this masterpiece?
Jeremy Reed is a “Jersey-born poet, novelist, biographer and literary critic”. Stephen Barber is a longtime Creation Books hack-for-hire who has written a dozen titles along the lines of “transformative future sex death semiotics in the films of Uwe Boll”. Neither is a historian, but they attack the project with gusto. At the end, Jeremy Reed heroically cites four books as “…an invaluable sources of reference (sic)”, though his final sentence is candid: “There is no definitive life of Heliogabalus, and I have attempted to resassemble (sic) aspects of his character most likely to resonate in the current times.” Stephen Barber cites no books at all, just the “newly-excavated” Butrinte Caligula, which must be newly excavated indeed, considering that Google offers no evidence of its existence.
Divine Carnage is the first in the Blood History series that marked Creation Books’s twilight years as an actual publisher. The second book was Flesh Inferno by Simon Whitechapel, and the third was The Bloody Countess, which is a reprint of a 1960s title by surrealist poet Valentine Penrose (whether Creation Books obtained the necessary rights from Penrose’s estate is an open question). The fourth book, sadly, exists only in our imaginations.
It’s likely that Divine Carnage was meant as a continuation of Tinto Brass’s Caligula, which shares its extemporized take on history and lack of good taste (James Havoc mentions this film in the foreword). Surely there’s a kid somewhere who relied on Divine Carnage as research materials for his O-levels. Hopefully that kid did alright.
I’d be remiss not to quote my favorite line from the book, on p96. “Commodus was certainly the first post-modern Roman emperor”. When I read that, it made my entire day. Creation Books ripped off a lot of people, but they did not rip off me. Not here.
Terry Goodkind doesn’t seem particularly good or kind, although he’s definitely a Terry, so one out of three isn’t bad.
He is also not a fantasy author. It’s very important that you know this. Despite where he’s shelved in bookstores, despite what mythical creatures appear on his covers, he is not a fantasy author. Sample from this non-fantasy novel: “Magic!” the dragon gasped in mock fright. It put a claw to its breast. “Oh, please, brave man, don’t slay me with your magic sword!” It made a smoky rumble that Richard took for laughter.
In an infamous 2003 interview with USA Today, Goodkind responded to a question about Robert Jordan with “If you notice a similarity, then you probably aren’t old enough to read my books”. Jordan’s wizards, magic, and dragons are expressions of juvenilia, while Goodkind’s are an exploration of human truth, or something. Massachusetts-based grindcore band AxCx wrote a song called “Face it, You’re a Metal Band”. I wrote the previous sentence for no reason.
Goodkind is inseparable from early 90s fantasy, and a time when the genre was never more tedious, bloated, or unnecessary. Terry Brooks, Raymond E Feist, David Eddings were producing retreads of their past series, and Robert Jordan had begun work the massive monument to dead trees known as the Wheel of Time. So many huge fantasy books were released that bookstore shelves probably remember the era the way Cambodians remember the Khmer Rouge – a time of great suffering, where only the strong survived. In this market, Goodkind’s 900-page doorstoppers immediately found readers.
But what about the book?
The plot establishes a typical monomyth: young Richard Cypher is appointed as “Seeker” and must save a woman from the villainous Darken Rahl, who may need to work on his branding.
When I read it at age twelve, I was soon bored. The story wasn’t moving, and Goodkind has an astonishing ability to create confusion: a wizard character infodumps for thousands of words about what, exactly, a Seeker does, and I left the passage more perplexed than ever.
But then the pace picks up, and Wizard’s First Rule shows its colors as a violent, gritty human interest story of the kind that bloggers ten years later would call “grimdark”. It lacks the impact and power of George RR Martin’s books (in particularly, it’s not believable that the comically evil villain gets so many people on his side), but it’s still well beyond Jordan.
In particular, Goodkind seems to like rape. I don’t believe there’s a single female character in the book, if not the entire series, who isn’t raped or threatened with rape at some point. Two thirds of the way through, the plot takes an excessive but audacious turn into outright Gor territory, with Richard enslaved to a leather-clad dominatrix. This is probably the moment where Goodkind finally lives up to his “mature Jordan” claim. I’m conflicted on this part: it strangely works, giving Richard some of the most severe but effective character moments I’ve yet read in a fantasy book. But it also reads like a Gor book.
Even at its best, Goodkind’s work are foothills to GRRM’s mountains. His worldbuilding makes no sense: it’s established that fire is forbidden in Darken Rahl’s kingdom, but they seem to have no problems forging weapons, making pottery, cooking food, and so on. Writer’s convenience abounds: the typical way you escape danger in Goodkind’s books is to use or discover some new piece of magic that was never mentioned before.
I don’t recommend the books after three or four, which delve ever deeper into mumblecore obscurantism and Goodkind’s political opinions (he likes Ayn Rand). But the early ones do, in fact, have entertainment value, although I appreciate them as spectacle more than literature. Terry Goodkind might not be a fantasy author, but he’s not an entirely bad one, either.