The Augmented World

The Augmented World – The Ritual of Sight

The thick, soft velvet of the Officers’ Court is like an island unto itself in the thick, musky dust of the Spice Markets. The orange particles of who-knows-what which swim in the crowded alleys bow to its fabric like so many courtiers, innately recognizing the authority which stems from military might blended with nobility. The hands which call the broad sleeves home, infrequently shaded by their cloth and then cast into light by the afternoon sun, flicker adeptly over the materials on display in the Markets: spices yes, but also rarer cloth than even the officer’s coat, delicate foods and flesh. They are strong and skilled, somehow warm in their prehensile strength, the hands of one who is both a warrior and an orator, who uses hands to cut the life from bodies but who also uses them to undercut the rhythm of one’s words. The hands lead upwards to muscular arms, broad shoulders and a gait which broadcasts, effortlessly, complete ownership and command of the situation and the people within the situation.

The hidden/seen contours of the arms, buried as they are underneath all that cloth but also so powerful as to defy obscurity, lead the eye up to the collar where three golden chevrons lie, dotted with silver stars. These tell a story which takes place far from the Spice Markets and the City which houses them. The chevron’s fine, definitive lines speak of a career spent in exile, training for a goal which the trainers feared. They speak, in their golden punctuation marks and sure, firm weave, of one who had identified the silent beat of such a life from the first day. Eyes coldly surveying the fateful scene replayed across a dozen dozen bases, camps and drafting points, that one’s mind had instantly deciphered it all, the discrete relationships of power and oppression which made the body called “military” run. It rightfully discerned the threat in the veteran’s gaze,  and it swiftly broke apart the fears, motivations and emotions of one’s fellow draftees and cataloged them for future use.

It did all this without even noticing it, the forward parts of it which understood things awash in the terror of separation and change. Of all of this and much more sang the golden chevrons, expanding their tune to encompass not only that one but also countless others who had worked alongside them. Their melody extolled ranks, platoons, units, regiments, divisions, whole systems of knowledge and reality designed to make things the same, to erase differences and make sure that unity and the military ontalogy prevailed. They sang of other necks, other shoulders, other strong, impossibly thick arms which led to hands so gentle as to almost make you forget their danger as they sorted through dried fruit at the Spice Markets, with the afternoon sun making particles of the air and the streets ringing with the shouts of the hawkers. They made sure, the chevrons did, that you did not forget that the one which stood before you now, back slightly turned to your gaze as if always on defense, even from spectators, that one was not unique. They were privileged but not singular; many others bore their chevrons, their careers, their memories, their understandings. Their catalogs. And all those mental catalogs were slightly different but quite the same, said the chevrons.

The silver stars sang a bittersweet counterpoint to all of this. They, more scarce in their existence, told discrete stories for the onlooker who spoke their language, the language of heraldry, communal memory and the intricate relationships which existed between them. To such a savvy onlooker, they told of personal sacrifices, missions undertaken and goals achieved which were personal and non-obvious, each one placed on one’s shoulders willingly, without command. They spoke of the City’s Walls, blue-green usually in their metallic somnolence, deep red with the blood of invaders who had crashed upon their ligaments, flesh made from men and women like the one who stands before you. The silver stars chant of the mechanic ease with which those same arms which brought you to gaze upon such astral decoys then rose and fell upon the building blocks of a new bridge, one which would connect the City and a far away, long lost settlement. They whisper, mumble and babble about all such things to the onlooker with the language to listen.

The eyes which do such skillful gazing are, however, beginning to show some hesitation, a slight flicker to their so-far hungry exploration. They know that now, with the deep channels of the arms explored, the broad plains of the shoulders excavated, the towering monument of the neck explained, only one destination remains for their hunger to feast upon. In that realization, that selfsame hunger collapses on itself, avidly attempting to battle the ocular momentum it had, just before, fed constantly with the need for knowledge, trapped forever in the ritual of sight. It knows, this hunger and the onlooker which serves as merely the host to its base intentions, that the only place left to go is the face and it is afraid of what it would find there. Far beyond the songs of chevrons, well past the storytelling of embroidered stars, it knows it will find pain, fear, defeat, horror and resignation, as it has found every time in the faces of the City’s “citizens”, if that moniker even fits any of them anymore.

This shock of disappointment, this death of hope is what it had come here originally to avoid, why it had drifted so avidly to this one, this seemingly unbreakable bastion of the City, made flesh by years of order, years of obeying order (and orders). It hoped, and its host hopes, convincing itself that it and not the hunger was the progenitor of this observance, to finally find conviction in this broken place and now it fears that disappointment awaits it once again. And so it does, but not in the sense which it had imagined, not in the sense which, born from failure as it was, it could ever have imagined. The eyes finally have their way, as they always will, momentum cresting over the moment and a slight wind turning the officer’s cheek ever so slightly in their direction, the afternoon light flinging golden unmasking on the face’s features. And in it blazes that same conviction which the hunger had convinced itself that it sought, that it had chased, through the onlooker, for so many years, bright and mighty and self absorbed. Through their eyes, the officer speaks all there is to know about the songs of chevrons, the chasms of secure arms, the mesas of bulwark shoulders. Their cry glory and honor and the faultless assurance that all is right and so long as the City stands nothing can really be wrong.

And the hunger screams and shrivels and burns in the light of such conviction, consumed by victory.

The Augmented World

The Augmented World – Starnamer

In the city, there’s a woman. She’s quite young but not so young that your adult mind could catalog her into the rubric of a child. She has her own stature and poise, her own vector through the crowds; she has places to go.During the day, with the warm, warm wind subtly holding her cheeks in a supple embrace, she runs from stall to stall. She has the day’s goals tied to her shoulders, containers that hold all that must still be done. Be it for her own, humble aspirations or for those of men and women of longer mustaches and larger ambitions, she pours her sweat into the cobblestones. Anointed with her spring step, with the fluid embodiment of her time and effort, the stones disappear under foot as she hops from place to place in the Orange Markets (so named, of course, for the distinct hue which makes up the walls and the air and the people).

Afternoon. There is a hint of respite, both from the heat and from the sharp gazes of those that hire her, as the sun begins to fade. There are plenty more hours of light remaining but, soon, as the harsh yellows of noon fade into the soft embers of early evening, lemon water will wait on a windowsill. She lives, our woman, a few blocks away from the market. Somehow, contrary to what you might imagine (I’m on to you, you sneaky imaginer), she doesn’t live in a hovel. Her house is spacious and embracing, existent without flaring into grandeur. Most of all, it is cool; shadows dominate its interiors, providing an imperfect mirror to those casts by stall coverings in the Markets, tarpaulins which suffocate the air rather than free it from the heat. Here, in her home, close to the Markets, there are soft edges and softer people, murmurings of water and whispers of shade. It is a good place.

The house is called Matner. It means “flowing dark” but in what language, only one person knows and others wonder. You see, it is well into evening now and our woman is, like the moon which now celebrates a triumph through the Rome of the sky, celebratory in her other skills. After the day’s hopping is done, after a scorching return across anointed cobblestones, after the lemon water has been drunk and the shade sojourned in, our heroine names. In her own, soft language, syllables woven from intentions and intuition, she names everything around her. The stories are street corners and treetops, shadow and light splayed between the streets that run underneath her veins. Walking them with a sure, calm stride, she lets her eye roam. Naming, to the chagrin of the learned Stolae in their University Towers, is a skill more akin to art than to science (not that such a divide means anything, whether in scorching noon or cool evening). So, her eyes roams free and whatever it lands on, whatever her heart calls out, whatever her supple, weary hands come to rest on, she names.

The denizens of the city, often bejeweled merchants or stocky up-and-comers that live like squires around the knighthood of the Orange Markets, react according to their own temperament. Those whose eyes are still wet, whose blood still runs fast and free through the capillary caverns in the underworld of their bodies, they lean slightly forward. Like the poor clutching at carpet-ends after a king’s coronation, they slightly bend towards the sacred moment, knowing that it doesn’t exist by sheer probability but hoping that, perhaps this time, a name shall be bestowed on them or their things or their loved ones or their places. Those who already stand bowed, their shoulders hunched over with something quite different to the fever that possesses the aforementioned semi-believers, they move slightly back. Their calcified fingernails and manicured bones move before the ripples of the naming, the ontological premonitions that herald the coming of verbal genesis. Like a sleeper who wakes too slowly or your skin when it transitions from extreme heat to cold, this initial bestirring hurts them. Muscle memory long repressed suddenly comes back and that which was once dead (or, at least, storied to be dead) now jolts back to life with a painful pinch.

For names are, in this broken world, the closest there is to magic and our heroine is, in this broken world, the closest there is to a magus. “Matsel” she whispered once at the opening to her house, where light flowed in (which explains the name) and mixed with the dark within and so it was, the light dancing ever so slightly faster, almost giggling underneath the touch of the syllables undulating from her tongue. She smiled then and went to her favorite cafe, where upon she consumed oily vine leaves, her favorite dish. Naming left her ravenous, as if something rode back on the vibrations of her craft and knocked at the doors of her cellular structure and demanded a balancing of the price. This evening, which could be any evening, really, her stomach is yet full; no flagpole or tree or window has yet caught the sparkling hook of her eye. She’s not frustrated exactly, our heroine, but perhaps her step is a bit quicker, as the sun begins its slow descent into the ocean. Perhaps her teeth are slightly set, soft pressure permeating her cheekbones as words and names dip and dive behind their white, calcium-constructed bars. Perhaps her poise is somewhat missing, muscle-awareness and balance lost in a growing desire that sweeps before it the pretensions of the self at control.

All that is meaningless for she turns a corner and suddenly, she knows where is she is going for she has already arrived. The corners of her lips, far from delicate after years of working in the orange dust, crack slightly as the faintest smile pushes them upwards. She is in a square she knows well, not far from Matner, her home. In fact, she can see its cool windows or one of their corners, at the very least, just up the street. Above the square though, her eyes now returned to survey the scene for a place to rest, lies a very different house than her abode but perhaps one which is also somehow the same? Regardless, she knows it well; everyone knows it, and its blue-wearing denizen well. Perhaps she even spies his face on one of the balconies, moving one of the silken drapes quickly across to avoid her gaze. Yes, this is definitely where she had been heading. For, you must by now understand, nearly nothing of the square and even less of the house and surely nothing of the blue-clad man had been named. Not exactly a fear but an apprehension, an instinct written deep into her cells, had up until now guided her away from this place. Even though it was so close to where she lived (or perhaps exactly because of that, sensing some domicile danger) she had only once or twice entered this square and let her eye snag and her heart leap and her tongue speak.

But now that biological tug was gone and with the ease of olfactory oils she slid across the square and closer towards the small garden in front of the house, naming left and right. Her eye snagged and her heart leaped and her tongue spook, all imagery of bursting dams irrelevant in the face of the flood of song and language that flowed from her. “Sinbak” (Little Friend) she spoke to the curve which made the square a square. “Selnir” (Light Shadow) she told the flicker of shade that hugged the lamp as the sun fled the coming night. “Baket” (Friend Maker) she sang to the gate that opened into the little garden. “Filop” (Sister Stone) she intoned to the first step, one of three, that led to the door of the house, the door that opened only once or twice a year. “Elhar” she whispered to the man in blue as he opened the door from within, tears carving deep tunnels into his cheek as years of isolation came crashing down in front of her shoulders, in front of her callouses, in front of the practical, human, living, breathed, lived in beauty that was her body, in front of the radiating vitality she exuded, the Orange Market smeared on her knees, the musk of spices that she carried lilting on her long, dexterous fingers.  “Elhar” she breathed to the main in blue as he offered her his hand, his eye snagging and his heart leaping and his tongue craving the contours of her neck. “Elhar” she murmured into his shoulder as she gathered herself to him, tension breaking between them, the city humming inside them, the names flooding before them, the drapes snapping above them, the house resplendent around them.

“Elhar” he recited, finally breaking his age old silence, as the door closes behind them, finally naming her, finally giving her back what she had given so freely to everyone, merchants and urchins and citizens and strangers and crooks and priests all, simply taking and taking more. “Elhar” he assures her, his voice muffled as they stand in his flowing, deep hall, giving reality to her name, anchoring it to her body, to her self, to her dreams, to his hand on her shoulder and her calcified fingernails coming to life as they brush his tears from his eyes, as they eat at his sorrow with their soft hunger, as they trace the valleys of each and every line on his cheeks.

Elhar. Starnamer he names her and in doing so she dies and he dies and the lights die and the night comes and the stars live and they smile.

The Augmented World

The Augmented World – And He Weeps

There’s a house. It faintly glows with a warm, golden light, the bright stones that make up its walls storing the translucent light of day and amping it through the air. Like a monitor for phosphorescence. It’s large and opulent but somehow humble, cleverly built to blend in with the other buildings which surround it. It has a small yard, no more than a stone’s throw in size, where a wizened tree bends around air. It has a sturdy door, almost never open, a fixture that somehow invites while being forbearing at the same time. It has porches and silken curtains covering wide windows, wooden shutters fending off winds and rain when the mild winter comes, a fence covered with vegetation and a gate. Not the stuff of myths of castles, a wide gate made of sturdy oak with a menacing moat, but a fair affair which radiates the feeling that it doesn’t want to be opened. That it wants to be left alone.

And yet, despite the fair amount of coldness and rejection that might be gleaned from its external nooks and crannies, it seems inviting. Perhaps in an old way? Like a man who, no matter how rough and ragged looking, has stood at the crossroads for so long that you have grown as used to him as the posts which mark the meaning of the roads, the non-terminal destination to which they lead, just nodes which in turn branch off into more crossroads? Perhaps like that. Regardless, the house stands on the outskirts of a square named after a forgotten king who had visited the city years ago, softly humming with the early morning wind as it stirs the leaves of the massive trees which dominate the square. Other buildings face it, some grand and some not so much, but they are all slightly less than that house. Perhaps it is because they are inhabited; more of a function, of a protocol, these buildings serve transient purposes. But the house, the blended house, is filled with presence. Even though the curtains stay drawn and the shutters shut, and the door closed and the gate barred, everyone knows that someone lives here.

In fact, it would be impossible to imagine the house without imagining its denizen. When he exits the house, once or twice a year for festivals or crucial supplies (crucial only to him, vague and seemingly unrelated items purchased at the local market for outrageous prices), he always wears blue. Funnily enough, or perhaps not, the blue faintly radiates warmth, just like the house. It is not a blue of somber skies, or of stormy horizons or even of clear, crisp, cold-day skies, though it hints subtly that it might have been one of those or all of those at some point in the past. No, it is a blue of a bright morning, before the sun has quite established itself, when the color of the day is deep, primary, initial. It is the blue of a soft breeze blowing across the back of your neck as you walk between buildings, bringing sorrow tinged with wonder, bringing stories to your fingers. The man often smiles; his smile reaches his eyes, engulfing them with momentary mirth. His fingers are dexterous as they are lanky, efficient, long wires that are attached to a supple yet thin arm. The man is old but the weight of his memories seems to be borne not lightly, but perhaps with a resignation, an acceptance which lends their wearer strength, like a good cloak. When the people see him and he is gone, what is left behind is a hint of laughter, a faint touch of those gentle fingers and the smell of a field under bright skies. They sigh then, the people of that city, thinking of places they had been, places they now miss, thinking of that house and its balconies, and its silken curtains and its fullness. Not knowing why or how it is full and why they feel so empty but somehow refreshed, empty in the sense of readiness to be filled, empty in the sense of a sweet goodbye, of a faintly morose embrace, of a greeting that falls slightly short from expressing exactly how happy you are to see your friend.

The nights are warm. They are not so much filled with stars as they are at peace with stars, complacent towards the place starlight plays in the shadow-act that creates and un-creates the supposedly, and foolishly, fixed locations that are called “streets”. The house is still bright but in an unassuming way, almost as if it doesn’t want to draw attention itself but still would like to light its surroundings, perhaps in order to better accentuate the fair qualities of the buildings around it and, through them, to draw attention to its own beauty and grace. Silently, with a fluid hint of light the house says with fingers made of minarets, “have you seen how pretty the leaves on the trees are today? Have you lingered a while in their shade and looked at the way the spaces between them cast cross-stitches on the buildings besides them? Have you stopped and thought to yourself in your heart today ‘oh god, I live in the absolute nexus between what was and what shall be and the beauty is constantly beating upon me and my heart is a strained muscle and the blood is soaring within it until suddenly I must rupture and what better place to rupture than here?’? Because if you haven’t, there really is no place better to rupture than here as evidenced by the million million tears that have made up the spaces of the cobblestones in the square”.

As the light says all that and a heart softly beats in the square below, decoding the message the building is broadcasting, the man in blue gazes behind the silken curtains. The people of the city do not know what he thinks or how the world looks to his eyes but they believe, in that quiet place where believing emerges, that through the faint trails he leaves with his fingers in the spice stalls in the market, and through the leaves and the way they hiss softly in the wind, and by marking the paths that he takes through the fluid streets, shying away from this corner or that, that they can decipher what the world must be to him. And each one imagines something slightly different, a story that differs by a word or maybe two, variations on a theme that nonetheless manage to sync up in some fashion, creating the man in blue, casting him over and over again into the communal tableau, tenderly hammering his place in their stories into shape, make him communal, making him mean something to them. Even though, and perhaps especially because, he rarely leaves the house. Through all their stories, the different landscape renditions of what must mean a man’s mind and gestalt and tale, runs a single thin thread, a single idea etched over and over again like love upon encountering the new day. The man must be sad. Something inside must have broken, something unleashed an inky vial of fluid that has washed over his heart and blotched all his margins, something that makes him bleed a bit too much, makes him cry a bit too often, makes him shun the world and its ways almost every day of the year, makes him be gentle and curious and crucial and deft, adept, dextrous, present but gone, a faint efficiency, a slight beacon in a shifting world, a strangely anchored presence, chained to the places he knows and nothing more.

And they are right. To an extent. The man in the house is sad but the vial hasn’t broken. No margins are blotched at the center of his Heart, no words have been crossed out with red lines, no phrases forgotten, breaking the rhythm, no notes misplaced, breaking the key. On the contrary, his cup overfloweth and in overflowing it blazons, it bedazzles, it brings into sharp contrast the edges around him and the edges in himself and the trees in the square and the way the shade plays in the leaves and the wind softly dictates a verse on the lore of sitting. He cuts himself. He cuts himself on the ever changing streets, he cuts himself on the love he feels for the impossible infinity of places that a city can be, on the never-ending song that strangers can sing, he cuts himself on the life he feels when they look at him, on the notes he hears on the sweet wind when the morning is bright, he cuts himself on the moments before the sun has quite established itself, when the color of the day is deep, primary, initial. He is lacerated by the blue of a soft breeze blowing across the back of his neck as he walks between buildings, bringing sorrow tinged with wonder, bringing stories to his fingers, stories which ultimately bring him back to the surging start, the tidal wave of beginnings, the floodplains of love.

But, most of all, he cuts himself on the stars. He walks the halls of that house, peering between the silken curtains, across the wooden shutters. He runs his hand across that door and hums a song to make it humble. He fixes the gate when it needs the fixing, deploying the art that is never quite forgotten, of mending and making until the thing is itself. And he looks at the stars. Wherever he is, whether on the threshold of his home and the square, whether on the threshold of the window and the night air, whether on the threshold of himself and the world, he looks at the stars. He smiles at the leaves that softly beckon to sleep, as he names the ever changing streets, he looks to the stars. And he weeps.

Ex Nihilo, Short Stories, The Augmented World

Ex Nihilo – Through And By The Words

There is a faint wind blowing through the bright orange square. It might be the trees that faintly sway with or the sound of the nearby water source, but it feels to Bright like home. Which is funny and weird and fitting since he is, indeed, home. As home as one can be in the Heart, as home as one can be in a place where Language flows and there is only power. Perhaps it is the rhythms of the wind that make it so, the familiar ways in which it curls around the soft buildings, echoes in the empty-yet-comforting corridors. After all, this is where he has lived most of his life and when he hadn’t, he had lived near. This was his, like our footfall is ours, like our shadows is ours. Which is to say, far less than we would like to believe.

Speaking of footfall, the sound of it began to fill the square, softly inter-playing with half-words, silken grunts and other voices coming from the students. His students, to an extent, but Bright knew that, like all of them, they were only leased to him, temporary droplets struck from flowing source that was the Heart itself. He smiled, to himself and to whoever was watching, and slowly rose from his perch. He wasn’t an old man, not in the ways which mattered here, in this seat of unbridled yet constantly restrained power, but he still enjoyed the luxury of rest. He had been in motion for such a long portion of his life that now, when he has briefly (relatively) stopped here, he enjoys doing nothing. Alas, the time for action has come since the student is like the arrow. “Please stop” he says quietly, his voice nonetheless seeming to bind his students as it of course actually does. Hand still raised in a two-fingered gesture, he walks closer.

The eyes of the students are not those of the hare in the shadow of an eagle but rather of the cub as he observes the elder hunting. Hunger; they hunger for his power. In this place of never-ending conduits, channels, ferry-women, passageways, openings, wellsprings. junctures, nodes, nadirs, whirlpools, openings onto the direct, swift flow of bright light, he is an offshoot, a branch, a sapling and they are a mouth hungry for the water which flows from him. He smiles. Finally completing his adhesive-slow approach, he gently points towards the nearby student. “Look up” he commands but pointedly leaves the words absent of Language, absent of true intent. But the student still complies, a much stronger force than Language compelling her, the desire which takes root in our hearts and turns us into the most subservient pupils possible. The force of curiosity, the force of hope for more. So she looks up and in doing so is disappointed, seeing nothing but the bright blue canopy which covers this place.

Like many before her however, she of course cannot follow a Speaker’s mind but soon, she will be instructed. Now, in fact: “You look around you and you see death. You see a sharp dichotomy: you and your compatriots, who are alive, and the world around you which is dead. You are, of course, correct. But your veracity is boring; you are simply relying on instincts, knowledges that your own body has forced on you”. He draws closer now, standing at the shoulder of the student, his back turned to the rest of the class. Somehow, however, his voice reaches them from every direction, crystal clear and perfect as if he was standing at their shoulder instead. “There is a much more interesting divide between you and it. You speak. It listens. You think. It reacts. You intend. It…well, it is intended. Intended to lie there, in the case of the rock, intended to blow in the case of the wind”. He smiles now, again, more deeply, more ferociously  and turns to face the class once again. “Who intended it to is the pointless question you are all now asking in your heads. Who cares? The question you should be asking is…”.

He pauses, savoring their frames and their sudden forward momentum. “The question you should be asking is ‘how did they communicate their intention?'”. If you’d like, picture some sort of god, an omnipotent, shining, golden being who made everything spin. How did they make it spin? Through what medium does it spin? How does it know where to spin? These are the questions you have been brought here to answer; no one can teach you to answer them yourselves”. Bright turns again, this time walking away from his class. It is over. Only one lesson remains and it is one they will have to learn for themselves, over many lifetimes. “The answer is not simple and yet I can tell it you now. It won’t spoil your classes; you won’t be able to grasp it anyway”. The wind blows again, or still, coaxing Bright’s hair from out of his collar. He savors the moment by looking up, through the canopy, through the distance, through the light years and seconds, through the diffused light of a billion stars, through the ether, through space itself, to a planet where black winds blow, where spires reach for the sky, where one man kills his wife and then himself, where the unraveling of beings, has begun, is coming closer, where finally Bright will rest.

“The answer is you. It used you to make those stars spin. The medium through which they spin is, once again, you. They know where to spin because you tell them. And you can change your mind: you can stop telling them and start saying them. When you do that, we’ll give you your ships. You’ll be your ships. Until then, there is only death for you and for most of you, there will only be death. Unless you say it otherwise; unless you convince me with your story that you live”. Sensing that he is done, the footfalls return to the square, as do the soft grunts. But now, at least in one, Bright can detect an edge; a stony, ice-cold fever that burns through and by the words.



we no longer wear swords(elegant fingers that send imaginable pain)but the spaces between us
still resound with
the chilling clattering of steel.

what birth begot this gestalt of noisesmilesleisurepain,
what chain(forged from the melted gold of antecedent dreams)snakes from the inky dark
of faint time to bind us to this argent course?

we no longer wear swords
since we imagine ourselves free(given the range of possibilities before us)in our impossible pride.
But, ask Icarus(that ever child of all)how sweet
the rushingdownwind.

Articles, Ex Nihilo, The Augmented World

Ex Nihilo – Influences

This is a short list of texts that have influenced, directly or indirectly, what Ex Nihilo is slowly becoming. It’s by no means extensive but serves as a good starting point to where I drew a lot of the images, ideas and characters. Titles in bold are central to understanding the piece. If I’m being honest, the first book is all you need to read. Enjoy.

The Instrumentality of Man – Cordwainer Smith

The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison

Gateway – Frederik Pohl

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

City of Illusion – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Telling – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Hyperion Cantos – Dan Simmons

Illium & Olympus – Dan Simmons

Worlds Enough and Time – Dan Simmons

Grass – Sherri S. Tepper

City – Clifford Simak

The Book of the New Earth – Gene Woolfe

Eon – Greg Bear

Dune – Frank Herbert




Deconstructing the Light – The Work and Expertise of M. John Harrison

I’m starting to get exactly what M. John Harrison is trying to do with his books. He basically picks a genre, or even a sub-genre, and then proceeds to deconstruct not the entirety of it but a certain assumption or set of assumptions. Unlike most deconstructions, he doesn’t have hubris; he doesn’t attempt to deconstruct the whole genre or setting but just an interesting, or especially irritating, aspect of it.

This has two consequences: one, his narrative gets very repetitive. Since he is a wordsmith of the highest degree this isn’t that bad, though it can be tiring at times. Word choices are varied but the overall theme and feel of a story is often iterated upon without any real need. Most of all, thematic motifs are constantly utilized, sometimes with the exact same wording. A turn of phrase, an aesthetic detail or even a dialogue can appear numerous times, without any respite.  By focusing on a specific set of features, he grinds away at their descriptors and place within the bigger picture. That can get very tiring, especially across several books.

The other consequence however is well worth his sometimes repetitiveness: by focusing on just one set of aspects, he gains a potency which is often lacking in deconstructions. That is, he goes beyond simple dismantling and into a complete assault on the epistemological presuppositions needed for the genre to work, for that integral set of attributes to exist.

Take for example his Nova Swing. It takes place within his space opera universe but targets noir cop/criminal/detective stories. It has a sweaty city on the shore, murder mystery, smuggling, bars, 20’s culture and all the rest of the tropes of noir. However, this is a deconstruction: we expect a chipping away at these elements and we are, initially, served what we expected. The tone is exaggerated, giving us an exact idea of how seriously, or not seriously at all, the author takes the genre and its pretense.

However, instead of attacking the tropes themselves, by placing a different character as the detective let’s say or omitting an integral character all together, Harrison attacks the supposition at the base of all such plots: that the data is given to the detective, that it is possible to know the facts pertaining to the case. It’s simply a matter of digging them out and then applying the detective’s extraordinary/quirky intelligence to them. It’s a puzzle, but all the pieces are on the board and they follow the physical sense you’d expect them to.

Harrison attacks this by denying his police the ability to actually know what is happening. Their surveillance equipment always fails when they need it. Their suspects are intransient in reality (still sci-fi, remember). The very physics of the city they operate in changes. They themselves are broken, not simply corrupt or weak or morally reprehensible as is the habit in the genre. They are unable to know: they are too focused, not focused enough, insane, psychotic or ostracized. Their basic tools for figuring out their problems do not function.

This leads to a completely different challenge for his characters and thus, to a wholly different narrative structure. Instead of a search for knowledge, a careful unearthing of data and the piecing of those data together, his characters are gripped in the search for a way to know. Knowledge itself is almost useless to them; they don’t have the tools to understand it themselves and even if they do, they don’t have the ability to articulate it to others or to themselves.

This, understandably, leads to introspection. This is indicative of much of Harrison’s writing, which is a good thing; his powers of insight and inner articulation are well suited to the task. In an interesting loop, this focus on introspection is very much in keeping with the general attack on noir. The introspection usually featured in the genre can be very superficial: the hero struggles with his dark side and his past. The criminal/victim rails against society. The innocent tries to understand what has befallen him (usually her). But, much like the rest of his work, Harrison’s introspection is completely different: it is an introspection whose goal is to understand a fundamental part of life and an attempt to cope with the ruin one finds there instead of the order one might have expected.

And ruin it is. Wherever you go in Harrison’s worlds, whatever attempt at an episteme we or his characters try to cling to, no order is forthcoming. Indeed, order seems to be anathema in his worlds; when it is encountered it is quickly defaced.  In Viriconium, his sci-fantasy series, he does it to space. The maps of his world are nothing like Tolkien‘s or Jordan‘s: well lit, well formed spaces where you always know where you’re going. Evil is that way, good is that way and in between is the shadow lands where we must fight. In this sense, perhaps Harrison draws on Zelazny‘s Amber with its complete assault on that pattern. Heh, see what I did there? His maps shift the more you look at them; they don’t fit at the edges and where they do, those edges change. Nothing is clear and everything and everywhere is not just confusing, it’s confused. As a result, his characters themselves are confusing and confused: they refuse to stay put, they exchange roles constantly, often in the same story arc. Outside the arc, chaos rules and the space of the literary work itself is ill defined and perhaps non existent. Chronology, linear narrative space and the maps to a character’s personality, all fade away.

In Light, his space opera, he does it with motivation, free will and space travel. His characters aren’t even pawns pushed against their will; they’re not even on the same board where the real game is being played. They have no way of navigating the events which take place around them, buoyed along in a universe that shouldn’t even exist. Their tools to fight these events don’t exist themselves; imagined lives, physical principles that contradict each other and ships created by precursor races operating on the cosmic scale. All that’s left to these characters are the lies they tell themselves, the cheap, OCD-like tricks that they us to try and make the universe make some sense. These tools of course, as in real life, completely fail and only lead the characters quicker to their doom.

In Nova Swing, as we’ve said, he does it with knowing. The gaze he turns to these subcategories of his worlds (in a literal sense, the categories beneath his worlds) is acrid: it corrodes and erodes these sub-categories and depicts the characters that have to live with such an erosion. The characters are of course, if you will allow me the cliche, us. To tie the knot on this short article, Nova Swing perhaps gives us the strongest use of this technique, the strongest look into what happens if and when our categories for operating are taken away. It also displays to us several examples of how to cope: the detective-poet and his mind games, the self destructive criminal and his day to day insanity, the blind has-been with her dreams of escape. All of these are models of futility, are ways in which we ourselves try and be in our daily lives. They are models of how we cope with the collapse of knowledge in our own lives. Ways in which we fail to do so.

By doing this, by painting these stark models, Harrison exercises the power of all deconstruction: to shine a light on the construction and make us consider it. The genius of his work becomes apparent then: his deconstruction calls us to look not at the structures of the literature but at the structures that enable those structures. That term should tell you sharp eyed Foucault students out there something. While the subversive aspects of his work have yet to reveal themselves to me, I feel that they are there. Perhaps the gaze turned towards the underlying structures of our lives is subversive in itself, but I’d like to think there’s a more positive message that lies somewhere in his work ((in the sense of a call to action, not any uplifting morals). I’ll keep searching and hope that, unlike his characters, some possibility of response and reaction is still available to me.