Review of Hummingbird Salamander: the vastness of everything

Hummingbird Salamander is a 2021 science fiction / ecological thriller written by Jeff VanderMeer. In the course of this review I will be talking about elements of the plot including its conclusion. As this is a brand new book, if you have not had an opportunity to read it yet and feel like surprise is integral to your enjoyment of fiction I’ll put up front that it is an excellent book which I would strongly recommend reading.

VanderMeer’s prose is lyrical and carefully crafted and his use of a carefully developed palette of related metaphors demonstrates a singular artist. VanderMeer is principally known as a weird fiction author. I wrote about his work previously in my discussion of the New Weird, a term he was instrumental in coining. However this book is not a weird fiction book per say. Rather than being a book about a presence that should not be this is what Mark Fisher would describe as a book about the eerie. It’s a haunted book, one in which the question of agency looms large and where the agent is most generally marked by their absence.

This is a book that tries to engage with difficult questions regarding the impact of humanity on the global environment and how humanity is impacted by anthropogenic climate change. It is a book narrated by a deeply unreliable narrator and one that confronts hauntological questions both at the level of eerie agency and also at the level of how a person can be haunted by their personal history. It is, in fact, a book that attempts to collapse the distinction between the personal and the grand by demonstrating how both the little moments in a little life and world-shattering epochal changes are both equally haunted to the point where the question of agency between the two becomes indistinct.

If you read this review further please consider yourself forewarned that I will be discussing plot details throughout.

Hyperwhat?

There are two concepts from philosophical theory that are absolutely critical to an understanding of Hummingbird Salamander: Hauntology and hyperobjects. Of the two, the more conceptually difficult one is the hyperobject. The speculative realist Timothy Morton first presented the concept of the hyperobject in his 2010 book The Ecological Thought. This is a category of objects (in the philosophical sense of the word) that Morton believes to be distinct from other objects on the basis of several criteria. The central criterion is that hyperobjects must be, “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” The category describes things with scopes so vast that they become hard to sense. We live in the thick of them and their scope is far greater than fits comfortably into a human mind.

One of the central characters in Hummingbird Salamander is Silvina, the daughter of an Argentinian billionaire. He runs his (ostensibly family) business as an empire so vast and distributed that Silvina is able to steal substantial resources from him over an extended period of time without him ever noticing. His empire is too vast in scope for even he, the emperor, to fully grasp. Silvina carves her plan out of the crannies that he doesn’t see. Silvina is presented as somebody who doesn’t have the normal limits on perception. Lights are too bright, sounds too intense. She sees everything and it terrifies her. She flees into the wilderness to escape that intensity, becomes nomadic. Jane follows her on this path and she too becomes nomadic, flees the intensity of the thriller to hike in the back-country while the world falls apart in the background. There’s a sense that this nomadic retreat is a response to seeing too much – that the mind cannot tolerate being shown undifferentiated extremity.

In Sartre’s Nausea, Roquentin remarks, “I must not put in strangeness where there is none. I think that is the big danger in keeping a diary: you exaggerate everything.” Diaries and memoirs are central to Hummingbird Salamander. Jane pursues Silvina through her diary, which she later learns is only a fragment, a sanitized version of a much vaster thing curated for the consumption of an audience with a particular viewpoint. But Jane’s recollection, too, is a diary. There’s a chance we could interpret these accounts as exaggerations. Certainly we cannot trust Jane nor can we ever fully trust Silvina. But this exaggeration permeates everything. Everything becomes too big to take in all at once. Jane is as occluded from a relationship with her daughter as she is from the plot of taxidermied animals and bioterrorism she finds herself entangled in, as she is from the green-gray haze that is filling the sky. It is all too big. The memoir, written at the end of it all, also has an effect of making the times expand and contract in strange ways. A day might get a hyper-detailed recounting. Five years roll by in a haze as if the times were too big to perceive properly. Here we begin to see what appears a critique of Morton in VanderMeer’s book. Yes, some objects are too vast to comprehend. All of them in fact. So what makes something a hyperobject? Are we not just describing an object?

Morton continues describing hyperobjects in the book, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and ecology after the end of the world, saying, “They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any ‘local manifestation’ of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality: they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity. Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time. And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge: it’s hyper relative to worms, lemons, and ultraviolet rays, as well as humans.”

There are legitimate questions that can be raised to the extent to which any one of these categories is distinct from a more typical conception of the object. In particular, a use of the conception from Being and Nothingness of an object as comprising an infinite series of appearances makes any given object non-local. The appearance of the absence of the object is as much part of the object’s existence as any other given appearance of it. “Nothingness can be nihilated only on the foundation of being; if nothingness can be given, it is neither before nor after being, nor in a general way outside of being. Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being-like a worm,” as Sartre says. If we can consider an absence of an object to be part of the being of the object then all objects are non-local. This-rock-here isn’t the complete object of the rock. I pick up the rock and throw it out of sight and it’s still the rock even though it is no longer this-rock-here. This-rock-here and that-rock-thrown-out-of-sight are both the same rock. Morton seems to be seeking an essence behind the existence of the hyperobject for its nonlocal appearances to be separated from it but I don’t think he ever really gets there.

As I said previously, Hummingbird Salamander is a haunted book. We are tortured by the thought of all the paths we didn’t walk and the choices we didn’t make. Power always exists off the edge of the page. As such everything is non-local. We have touchstones, the bag (Shovel-Pig) that Jane drags around, the eponymous hummingbird and salamander taxidermies, the ghost of Jane’s brother and her grandfather. But at the same time that she carries these everywhere they’re mostly marked by their absence. She hides the hummingbird in her gym locker then worries it’ll be missing. It is. And the absence of the object becomes as obsessive as looking at it ever was to her. The hummingbird is present in its absence, its nothingness is a component of its being.

Viscosity turns up a lot in Hummingbird Salamander. Jane finds ideas stick to her. She can’t escape her obsession with the mystery of the hummingbird and Silvina’s journal. She carries the death of her brother and her murder of her grandfather, who she wrongly blamed for the death, everywhere she goes. Jane sticks to her husband and even after she abandons him, he pursues her if only to get some closure, to understand why he became a ghost to her while the ghost of Silvina was so real. All of this takes the character of compulsion. It’s not that Jane wants to be reliving the dissolution of her first family as her second family too dissolves. It doesn’t ever seem that she really consciously desires the mystery of Silvina. “I am not a spy. Not a detective. Not caught and lost in some tangle or maze. Not lying against the mud and leaves watching over my brother’s body,” Jane says. But she can’t say what she is. And despite protesting that she isn’t a spy or a detective, despite protesting that she is not caught, she is precisely that. Caught in the tangle of Silvina’s life, her brother’s life, work and family and the family that was.

Ultimately we are left with two significant quality of a hyperobject that is not reducible to merely a subset of regular objects: its spatio-temporal vastness and that it its ontologically indifferent. Morton proposes that a hyperobject contains the qualities that make it different from ordinary-order objects regardless of the subject.At this point it might be valuable to address the nature of the hyperobject that is under examination in Hummingbird Salamander in the form of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change was one of Morton’s initial targets when he coined the concept and as much as he might be seen to have attempted to demonstrate a category of objects, a charitable interpretation of Morton’s works is that he was attempting to create a framework through which to understand why climate change is so hard to grasp and why that matters.

Hummingbird Salamander starts five minutes in the future. Pandemics happen, people wear masks, life goes on. The protagonist, Jane, carries on her life flying to conferences, failing to communicate with her family and avoiding work with only the slightest hint of anxiety projected over the narrative. As I mentioned earlier, this story is revealed to be something of a memoir or a confession Jane is producing at the end of it all and it’s unclear throughout the narrative how much of the anxiety in the early scenes of the book, when society is still sound and the wheels still turn with just marginally more grit, how much of her anxiety is what she felt in the narrated moment and how much is projected back from the moment of narration. “Somewhere along the way, for reasons I misremember, I bought a go-bag,” she tells us. She speculates what might have been the reason she got this thing before landing on her family, “I think I just wanted to protect them – from the thought, the impetus, the raging landscapes of the nightly news. Protect them from the idea I believed such a future might come to pass.”

Of course, by the time Jane says this to us, this future has come to pass. She has not adequately protected her family, has, in fact, abandoned them. Even her post-hoc speculation as to why she might have bought the go-bag contains a hint of delusion. She cannot even see herself clearly, how can she possibly see the problems facing her world. Jane is a terribly unreliable narrator. She tells us she changes details in her recounting. “You’ll never get their names,” she tells us early on. She says, “The moment I type their names, they’ll be lost to me, belong to you.” Every character in this book has an alias assigned them. We don’t see them clearly either. There’s an immediate sense in Hummingbird Salamander that everything is too big to see all at once. A secret hidden in the eye of the smallest taxidermied hummingbird contains a clue as vast as a mountain. People cannot be grasped in their contradiction or complexity. Is Silvina a billionaire’s heir playing games of power? A revolutionary? A terrorist? A sick woman working through her illness? Is she just a ghost? Perhaps she is all of these things. Jane spends chapters and chapters chasing across the country on a quest that turns out to be nothing but an apology letter from a stranger: a neighbour whose family drama impacted Jane’s life in ways far too circuitous to possibly predict. And yet in the end it is all just a single room – a missed detail – that contains the key to everything. The quest was superfluous in that Jane could have solved the mystery without it. But the reality is that she couldn’t have solved the mystery because she didn’t have the eyes to see it.

Hauntology

Hauntology is a concept that originally derives from the work of Jacques Derrida although much of the significant academic work on the topic was undertaken by people who followed after him such as Fisher. To be haunted is to be aware of the objects that are absent, the spaces left for unfulfilled potential, the choices unmade. This sense of haunting is deeply tied into the literary mode of the eerie, that Fisher describes as art that asks, “what happened to produce these ruins? This disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such an eerie cry?” In Nausea, a pregnant woman remarks, “There… There… The seagulls.” Roquentin tells us that there are, in fact, no seagulls. The cry may just be something creaking. This is where the discomfort of the eerie lives, and it lives, too, in every facet of Hummingbird Salamander.

Throughout the story there is a deferral of revelation of agency. Silvina haunts Jane. Jane pursues her despite all the evidence suggesting she is dead, that her mystery is absurd and goes nowhere. Silvina’s father, as an antagonist, is always off-stage. He erases digital tracks, he hides behind goons who are mostly nameless. He appears once, via webcam, and later Jane is told that the man she saw was an actor, not the agent at all. And yet there is agency. People are run over by cars. People are shot. Warehouses are burned down. Evidence is stolen and witnesses are silenced. In his absence, Silvina’s father is everywhere. And so is she.

Jane is also haunted by her past. She had an abusive grandfather and an ineffectual father. They had a farm and she says it was struggling and yet Jane goes to university. She fumbled her way into a criminology degree, failed upward into a cybersecurity job. She lives in the suburbs and has a nice house in an expensive city. She flys first class but she always tells us that she grew up feeling poor. Jane had a brother who she loved and he died. They said it was drowning. She tells us her grandfather used to drown livestock and so she believed her grandfather had murdered her brother. She murdered her grandfather.

And Jane is haunted by the words she doesn’t say. She has a daughter she professes to love but cannot talk to. She has a husband she professes to love, but she cheats on him at conferences. Has cheated before, will again given the chance. Much of the text isn’t occupied by the things Jane has done so much as her reflection on the things she didn’t do, the conversations she didn’t have: ships passing in the night.

The climax of the book makes clear this idea of agency obscured. Jane returns to the place the mystery started, believing she will be able to find resolution there. There are two men who have been involved in the various twists of the plot previous who both also arrive in this place: the (likely former) government agent she only knows as Jack and a sometimes revolutionary, sometimes dealer in contraband animal products Langer. Jane previously nearly killed Langer and she previously nearly slept with Jack but in this moment neither are her friends. She is ascending the mountain in a fog. Langer approaches her and they have a gunfight where neither can see the other. “Then a furious fire from my right, through the fog, bullets snapping into the roots, into the trunk, as I slid to the ground, unhurt.”

Jane is eventually shot but she finds Langer in the fog. She attacks him and says, “it was brief and brutal,” of the encounter, claiming that Langer had no experience fighting close and she overwhelmed him. But as she recounts the story of the fight it becomes clear it was a close thing. Both of them are injured. Langer just a fraction more-so. And Jane doesn’t kill him. Instead a bullet out of the fog does Langer in and Jack captures the injured and fatigued protagonist. They find nothing on the mountain. He lets her go and disappears from her life.

Jane disappears too, abandoning the narrative to wander the wilderness and ignore the world. It’s all too much. She abandons the quest and any attempt to make sense of it all. Eventually the increasing dissolution of the US interferes with her retreat into primitivity and she decides to go home but roadblocks and disasters prevent her from getting home. She ends up instead back at the storage “palace” where she first found the hummingbird. The lights are out in the building but one light remains on and this is when Jane discovers that the solution to the puzzle had been there, in the room, the whole time. She just hadn’t had eyes to see it.

She finds Silvina dead in a hidden bunker along with Ronnie, another person who had been tied into the conspiracy, and realizes that the ghost she’d been chasing had been alive when she was questing but is not now.

The terrible thought. The unthinkable.
That as Hellmouth Jack and I searched and searched and searched for this place atop the mountain... that Silvina had been down here, watchin us. Observing us through the pebbles at our feet.
That she had still been in the world the. That if only I had been smarter, more savvy, more observant, I would have come up those steps into her secret place to find her alive.

It appears Silvina and Ronnie both died from an injection. Silvina’s grand project wasn’t a bio-weapon but rather an attempt to engender a new and trasformative relationship between people and the world.

In front of her like an altar, that odd medical station, which had three tubes for syringes held within a clear polymer container, radiated the cool hum of climate control. Two were missing. One of the two lay cracked on the floor beneath Silvina's dangling hand. It took no imagination to guess that Ronnie had taken the second.
Whatever it was, Silvina had thought it would change the world. Each was a different "approach," according to the documentation. Each promised radical transformation. Each promised contamination until you would see the world so differently. And as you walked out into t he world what had captured you would capture others and they, too, would be transformed. "We must change to see the world change."

An antidote to indifference

In the Denma Translation of the Sunzi, Kimmer Smith and James Gimian talk about the significance of perspective to understanding the ancient text. They start by describing how the Sunzi details complexity, how it demands the impossible, “because all things are interconnected, you must know each one, and how each one affects each and every other.” They describe a world where, “everything is in touch with everything else, always in movement.” They believe this dynamic and interrelated view of reality was the metaphysical basis of classical Chinese thought but they posit that different schools addressed it in different ways. Confucians focused on ordering the chaos. Taoists with riding its flows and breaks like a surfer. But Sunzi was mostly interested in an ontological response to complexity. “We must measure it from where we ourselves are standing. Here is a seemingly trivial example from a recent Chinese children’s book, in which a squirrel is trying to figure out whether it is safe to cross a stream. To him, it is a raging current, and he will drown there. But the stream is only up to the fetlocks of a horse.”

This perspective treats ontology as being positional; much like our relativistic idea of time, what is revealed and what is occluded depends on point of view. Jane returns to the mountain in a fog and finds nothing. She returns again in a blackout and finds the key to the secret. Silvina prepares three drugs to change perception. One produces a sense of ecstasy and then death. The second produces a sense of “completion” and then death. The third might transform the world. Or it might not. And it might depend on Silvina’s ark to repopulate the world. It’s left ambiguous. We cannot know because Jane’s memoir, her confession, ends there. We cannot know because we don’t have the point of view to see that end.

In the end there’s no such thing as a hyperobject. Everything that makes a hyperobject unique falls away, one by one, until you’re merely left with the infinity lurking behind every single object and the sense of ontological indifference – that rarefied nihilism enjoyed by the speculative realists that posits that every perspective, that of the person that of the stone and that of the air through which the thrown-stone flies, is essentially equivalent.

Except this isn’t true at all. As Hummingbird Salamander tells us again and again, perspective is highly contingent and our ability to grasp an object, the parts of an object that can be revealed to us, are intrinsically dependent on a form of subjectivity, and specifically one that can change. As Sartre discusses in Being and Nothingness, a person would only be aware that a friend was not in a restaurant if they first knew to look for the friend there. That absence is an appearance of the being of the friend that is revealed by a consciousness directed to the task of seeking out the face of the friend. All consciousness is consciousness of something which means that it will, by necessity exclude other things. However we can direct consciousness to be of one thing or another. If we are observing an army we can read its grain manifests, its marching orders and the faces of its soldiers or we can stand back on a hill and see that army all as one thing. We may occupy a position where climate change seems too big, where we can’t see it for its vastness. We might be a frog in a slowly heating pan of water unaware of the temperature change. We might be haunted by the decisions we didn’t make. “We must change to see the world change,” but of course the world changes all the time. As Jane abandons her co-workers, her family, the ghosts of the family she abandoned before, her ties to conspiracies, even her quest, she changes and in her transformation things become clear. Her grandfather never killed her brother. He was an awful man but he was ultimately just a fading old shell murdered for nothing. Her brother wasn’t a martyred saint. He was a poacher who died because he saw crimes he shouldn’t have. Silvina was never a bioterrorist; she might have doodled bombs in the margins of her journal but her ultimate plan was to give people the tools to see the change in the world.

Everything is too big when you really look at it. We are bound in subjectivity and as such we will always miss things. We will gloss over things, change names, allow things to go out of sight. We’ll decide problems are too big and refuse to look at them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can move to a different position. We can look with different eyes. The fixity of ontological indifference is a mistake: a surrender to inevitability and apologia for inaction. We must change how we see. We must change to see.

Revisiting the Invisibles

I wrote about The Invisibles in 2016 in an article that was something of a test-balloon for the style that I’ve more recently adopted in this space. At the time I focused mostly on King Mob and argued for a Hegelian read of the character as a unification of opposites and a movement toward unity.

King Mob is attractive in that manner. King Mob as a character basically exists to depict permutations of a dialectical search for recognition from within the self. The images King Mob presents exist as a nested series of negations. The lynch pin to this series of self-negations comes in a flash-back in Volume 2. This incident relates back to a time when King Mob and Jolly Roger – another Invisibles cell leader – had studied together in a monastery.

Their instructors had trained them:

 6: "Have we yet come even close to a full description of it?
Did we even mention that several hundred years ago it wasn't a chair but a tree? Where is it now, here? Or in memory?"
E:"We cannot even fully describe a chair and yet we say, 'I am.' 'I am...'
Understand there is no, 'I am.'
Nothing, 'is.'"
"Try to describe all that you are"
"Simultaneously discern the logical flaw in what I've just said."
"Now!"
"Feel the White Flame"

This meditation becomes a method of resisting mind-control within the text of the story as it is a lesson in escaping the bounds of self that mind control is posited as manipulating but while this describes a dissolution of self it does so in a specifically unifying way. The identity of the chair is negated in the identity of the tree – the difference is negated in the temporal unity between tree and chair. There is no self because all things unify in the sufficiently idealistic white flame – a generative moment of pure intensity that cannot possess a self because it is all things at once.

King Mob elaborates on this later when he describes reality as being the holographic interaction of two overlapping meta-universes – these he describes in totalizing terms – “healthy,” and, “terminally sick, deranged.” This hologrammatic metaphor is something Morrison sustains for so long that an inattentive reader might actually believe this is what their story was saying. But this is the ultimate unifying metaphor – all that exists does so because the many were subsumed into unity. This collision of the healthy and the deranged meta-universes is the collision of two carefully defined objects in such a manner that they blur into each other and become, in the devastation, one.

But of course King Mob isn’t the protagonist of this story. And the Invisibles, for all it might wink at the idea of being in service of transcendent unity, cannot sustain this illusion. In the end, one of the principal targets of The Invisibles wrath is Thelema. Sir Miles, the primary antagonist of the story, is repeatedly referred to as a highly initiated Thelemite and the idea of the, ‘Satanistic Tory,’ “an existentialist who just wants to feel guilt,” is baked into the climax of the story – with the perverse coronation of the Moon Child. And, if you wanted to propose a totalizing and unifying read of the Invisibles then this deployment of Thelema as the antagonistic ideology proves problematic. Thelema divides history into epochal aeons built around a set of opposing ideological values. These transformations are imbued with a sort of historical determinism that might almost echo Marx albeit absent the materialism that undergirds dialectical materialism. Thelema is almost entirely a species of idealist belief – as above so below – and Crowley’s aeons have a kind of Fichtean dialectical character to them – each aeon arising in response to the problems presented by the one before – and this sort of idealistic grounding makes for a strange basis for the antagonists of the story – should we really read The Invisibles as an internecine dispute among the German Idealists?

And the actual protagonist of The Invisibles laughs straight in the face of this absurd proposition. He laughs and boasts that he’d be a great messiah – would give kids a day off school. Dane McGowan identifies the trap in the unity of the white flame as early as his confrontation with the King of All Tears in the House of Fun. He stays with the Invisibles and constantly acts like a counter-weight to King Mob during dialog scenes. It sometimes becomes easy to forget, with King Mob’s bluster, his tragic relationship with Ragged Robin, and his use as a vessel of authorial insertion, that the story is actually about Dane. He’s the one we meet on page one of the first volume and he’s the one who pronounces, “our sentence is up.” on the last page of the last volume. King Mob’s holographic universes are a fake-out. Robin’s all-now comes closer but is ultimately one final trap. There is something lurking around the edges of the Invisibles story – a thing that is dismissed when Sir Miles asks about it – but it is the central concern of the story. And that thing is the universe attempting to be born and its placenta.

The magic mirror of The Invisibles is a perfect example of a Body Without Organs in art.

Where King Mob and the other dialectical characters of The Invisibles are correct is that this story is about getting past the barriers of self. But the holographic metaphor which unifies two meta-universes into a transcendent whole acctually miss the mark about what’s happening here. Instead we have to look past the climax of the story, wherein Dane McGowan eats a god and then travels with the Blind Chessman to the AllNow, and into the 2012 coda. Here we see that Invisibles, under Dane’s leadership, have moved away from these unifying dialectical understandings of self toward the Memeplex – a fragmentary and disjointed understanding of being as a series of becomings. Much like Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the Scizo in Anti-Oedipus – the being composed of machines each interrupting the last and each breaking down, being taken out of its series or socketed into some new series in turn – the Memeplex denies a totalizing identity for any given self. If a self dissolves not into the white flame of unity but rather into the writhing and worm-laden flows of the Body Without Organs, and from there into the disjunctive froth of the machinic, of pure affirmative difference, then this rather takes away from the idea of two meta-universes pressing close and forming the illusion of the universe as the holographic boundary between them.

But this brings in the thread of The Invisibles characterized by De Sade and his little utopia of the pornographer, and the references to Wilhelm Reich and Stanislav Grof that are brought along with it. And what do these three very disparate figures share in common?

Sex.

Sade

Of course there is the Marquis de Sade. I want to start by situating the Marquis and sadism within the context of the use of his thought in dialectics. Here, Deleuze becomes handy. In Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, Deleuze says:

Sade and Masoch are not merely cases among others; they both have something essential to teach us, the one about masochism and the other about sadism. The second reason why Masoch's fate is unjust is that in clinical terms he is considered complementary to Sade. This may indeed be the reason why people who are interested in Sade show no particular interest in Masoch. It is too readily assumed that the symptoms only have to be transposed and the instincts reversed for Masoch to be turned into Sade, according to the principle of the unity of opposites. The theme of the unity of sadism and masochism and the concept of a sadomasochistic entity have done great harm to Masoch. He has suffered not only from unjust neglect but also from an unfair assumption of complementarity and dialectical unity with Sade. 

Despite sadomasochism being one of the most widely discussed dialectics within sex, Sade and Masoch strain against each other. While each had his lessons, they were not easily situated into a dialectic. The contradictions between their views of reality are intrinsically irreconcilable. Deleuze reads Bataille’s interpretations of Sade to suggest that Sade’s work is, “paradoxical,” that the description of torture can only arise from the victim and that, as such, the victim-subject of Sade’s work is the viewpoint to understanding Sade’s cruel libertines.

For his part, Bataille imagined a revolutionary Sade. In The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades), Bataille attributes a sequence of values to Sade. His argues that Sade is attempting to tell the audience that:

 It is high time that human nature cease being subjected to the autocrat's vile repression and to the morality that authorizes exploitation. Since it is true that one of a man's attributes is the derivation of pleasure from the suffering of others, and that erotic pleasure is not only the negation of an agony that takes place at the same instant, but also a lubricious participation in that agony, it is time to choose between the conduct of cowards afraid of their own joyful excesses, and the conduct of those who judge that any given man need not cower like a hunted animal, but instead can see all the moralistic buffoons as so many dogs.

This cautionary reading of Sade – this idea that Sade is speaking from the position of the victim in order to demonstrate how morality provides the framework for the exploitation of the libertine takes on a very clear representation in the film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom which situates the libertine excesses of Sade’s text during the final days of Italian fascism.

This film treats Sade’s work in much the same way that Bataille does – not as an apologia for the lust of the torturer but rather as a warning and a call to revolution. Sade grabs you by the face and demands you don’t look away from the consequences of the moral system we have normalized within our culture. The libertines of Sade’s books expound at length on their beliefs but, Deleuze says, in contrast to the characters of Masoch’s writing, they teach nothing. There is no instruction for the tortured.

It is worth noting that, when the Invisibles retrieve the tulpa of Sade from the past in the first volume of text, they must bring him through 120 Days of Sodom specifically. As the narration of the bleak story of abjection reaches its climax, Morrison’s Sade says, “The revolution came and I saw the weak become strong and do in their turn what the strong have always done to the weak. I was sickened.” King Mob rolls his eyes and suggests that the only thing they can do is “try to see the funny side.” After all, the libertines of Sade’s stories have nothing to teach in their pages and pages of exposition. They are, for Morrison as for Deleuze and Bataille, a critique of the cruelty of men in power to exploit that power.

As such, Sade makes a fitting character for the ideological wing of a rebel group but still an odd fit for a group with an explicitly dialectical objective of the dissolution of the self into oneness. After all, Sade doesn’t unify cleanly with Sacher-Masoch. His libertines are not fully unifiable with the cold and cruel teachers of Sacher-Masoch. While the libertines blab on and on about their beliefs, they teach nothing, they have no desire to teach anything to their victims. And we, for our part, are given the perspective of the victims within Sade’s work. If we cannot even unify sadism into oneness with masochism, why would we use him to move toward unity?

Furthermore, Morrison does not deploy Sade in this manner. Instead, Morrison, who is openly non-binary now though they were not out at the time, uses Sade to create a third gender in the non.

At the time The Invisibles was written, terms denying a gender binary were in their infancy. The term non-binary, in relation to gender, had been in use for four years in explicitly queer spaces, but it would not achieve widespread understanding until it was popularized by the internet sometime after the publication of The Invisibles. And yet here we are, observing Morrison miraculating, “a new gender; cruel and poised, beautiful and self-contained,” denying one of the most fundamental binaries. However we cannot consider the non a unification of male and female – Thierro says they desire sexlessness, not to be both sexes. The non is, rather, a third term introduced into the interactions of gender. There remain men and women. There are also non. Now Morrison presets Sade as obviously arrogant and willing to take credit for many absurd things. We don’t need to believe Sade is the architect of the non. But when he recruits Thierro at the end of the first volume we get narrative from Thierro’s perspective:

He tells me I have left the houses of the dead and entered the land of the truly living. I am to be no particular age, no particular sex. I am to be fluid, mercurial. He tells me I must slogh my name and my past as a snake sheds its skin. 
He pins a blank white badge to he collar of my jacket. I sit in my seat, nameless, invisible, untouchable, breathing blue smoke. I ask him what I should call him. 
The engine starts up. 
I settle back in the leather seat, becoming weightless and transparent. There is no more time. I close my eyes.
And in y mind I see the sun rise on a new and better world.

While Thierro seems quite happy to have shed their past gender in favour of this brave new future, we see the fingerprints of Sade’s instruction in the narrative. But of course Sade isn’t a teacher. Sade’s works deny the idea of instruction as anything more significant than the powerful talking for themselves. So what are we to make of Morrison’s Sade, teaching strangers against his own inclinations, introducing disruptions into supposedly harmonious systems, creating chaos? Sade creates a utopia of sex and while this utopia does try to decouple reproduction from desire the reality is that Edith’s tour of Sadeland shows very clearly that an outcome of sex, even in Sade’s utopia is children. However mostly what Sade does in his little utopia is play around. And as such Edith’s visit to his compound serves as foreplay to the climax of the story.

And children are the definition of the introduction of a disruptive third term into a dualistic system. One last note before we leave Sade: while in Sadeland, Edith is shown a giant Orgone accumulator. It appears to be having an impact over the weather and she predicts that Sadeland will be nearly at the point of achieving something when time begins to warp around Sadeland.

And this might seem strange. Time and weather being shaped by sex acts. But there are few 20th century psychologists stranger than Wilhelm Reich – and as we depart Sadeland the next step to understanding the anti-dialectical character of The Invisibles is Organon.

Reich

Wilhelm Reich was an early Freudo-Marxian psychoanalyst. He was educated by Sigmund Freud in Vienna, becoming a doctor in 1922, and had a… storied… career which included several affairs with his patients, a search for a material basis for consciousness that provided much of the prefiguring groundwork for the career of Felix Guattari, he became one of the earliest proponents of preventative reproductive health, attempted to bring mental health to the masses, coined the term “sexual revolution,” wrote one of the earliest texts discussing why people would support their own subjugation (The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933)), developed a psychiatric practice that involved massaging naked patients, fled the Nazis to the United States, attempted to make weather-control machines, got in trouble with the FDA for advocating miracle boxes, began chasing UFOs, had even more affairs with even more patients, was imprisoned for fraud for continuing to advocate for miracle boxes against FDA orders, and died in prison. The FDA burned many of his books during this period which led to a posthumous history of conspiracy theories, accusations of pseudoscience and Kate Bush music videos.

It should be obvious from this description that Reich was rather pre-occupied with sex. Rather specifically he was preoccupied with orgasm. Orgiastic potency was one of Reich’s earliest ideas. He saw this not only in the vulgar sense of being able to achieve sexual release, but in the more general terms of being able to “achieve full resolution of existing sexual need-tension,” which, considering the Freudian bent of his work, in turn underpinned many elements of sexual health.

However it must be stressed that Reich was very much unlike his near-contemporary Carl Jung in that he was an arch-materialist. It may be that Reich’s materialism that led him to first consider a Marx-Freud synthesis. Regardless, he had become something of a communist, if a strange one, by 1927. Reich continued his work on attempting to find a material cause of consciousness, first looking at phenomena such muscular tension as possible sources. However in 1937 he changed the direction of his enquiry becoming, for the time, one of the leading figures in light microscopy with work on cancer cells leading him to believe he’d identified a substance called a bion which he believed to be a bridge between living and non-living materials. Experimentation with these materials allowed him to provoke the production of tumors in tissue cultures and led to his devising of the idea that he’d discovered…

I mean I don’t know how else to say this.

Reich thought he’d found midi-chlorians. Reich conceived of an energy force which he called orgone and which he believed permeated existence. He believed this to have several material effects, including the facilitation of consciousness, the maintenance of cellular health and even the colour of the Northern Lights. He thought these bions were the receptors that allowed the collection and use of orgone by living systems. In all of this, Reich was attempting to undertake a serious scientific inquiry into fundamental, still unresolved, questions. That he came up with an answer that has the totalizing trappings of pseudoscience – one weird trick that explains everything -shouldn’t be held too strongly against him. (This isn’t an attempt to downplay his obviously compromised ethical compass, but rather to situate that, strange as Reich was, he wasn’t entirely off his rocker.) Reich tied this cosmic energy to the Freudian concept of Libido. A more refined variant of a simmilar attempt to understand consciousness can be found in the work of fellow-Freudian Melanie Klein in her work on partial objects and in Deleuze and Guattari, who devote some considerable effort to a kind critique of Reich and Klein in Anti-Oedipus with the formation of the idea of desiring-production. This concept, unlike Klein’s partial objects but (to a certain extent) like Reich’s bions and orgone had far-reaching metaphysical implications.

Regardless, following his flight from Europe in 1939, as Europe was increasingly a bad place for a left-wing intellectual with strange ideas about sexual liberation at the time, Reich settled in the United States where he devoted the remainder of his career to studying, and theorizing on, orgone. He eventually founded a rural retreat and observatory which he dubbed Orgonon. (This is the place the narrator of Cloudbusting still dreams of.) Derived from his prior experiments with tumors in Oslo, Reich became convinced that orgone would allow for the curing of cancer in patients. He persisted in tying orgone to the moment of orgasm and to libido in general. He furthermore became convinced he’d developed a methodology for creating orgone-rich environments. These took the forms of enclosed boxes called orgone accumulators. And Reich could not shut up about orgone accumulators with all their sexual innuendo fully on display. It didn’t take long for Reich to discover that the United States in the 1940s was as hostile to a sex-obsessed Marxist academic as Europe had been. By 1954 the FDA obtained an injunction prohibiting Reich from transporting orgone accumultors or writings about orgone and orgonomics (the study of orgone) across state lines.

Reich disregarded this injunction, and was charged and convicted for contempt in 1956 to a two-year prison sentence. While he was imprisoned, the FDA destroyed as much of his writing on orgonomics as they could get their hands on. He died of heart failure shortly before he would have been eligible for parole.

In the Invisibles, Sade is a perfect figure for foreplay before sex. Our opposites come together, come so closely together their boundaries blur, and then all kinds of scandalous things occur. With contradictory, cruel, revolutionary, cynical Sade we can represent the whole possible breadth of such liberating scandal and also situate the critique of it.

Reich then comes after – he comes, again not to put too fine a point on it – at the moment of orgasm. The awkward and spasmodic life of Reich is not text in the Invisibles. He’s only present in the extent of the regard Sade serves him in Sadeland, and in how Edith hints he is the path forward from Sade. It’s a brief moment – a few pages, a side adventure in the last volume before the fun of god-eating and knight-hanging gets underway – but it forms a bridge between the foreplay of Sade and the resolution of the story. The invocation of Reich just before the climax of the story drives home what is being done when the Invisibles kidnap Sir Miles and then subject him to a torture which is textually juxtaposed against an Invisible initiation ceremony (the Jack Flint initiation) that is structurally almost identical. By juxtaposing Sir Miles facing ego-death while dosed on Key-23 to Jack Flint also experiencing ego-death while dosed on, yes, Key-23 administered by the exact same people the text is all but shouting at us that what Sir Miles is undergoing isn’t torture. It isn’t revenge. It certainly isn’t an interrogation. What they’re doing is an initiation. In the kidnap of Sir Miles, the Invisibles are taking a parcel of thought, of energy, and they are firing it into the body of the opposite. This moment certainly seems dialectical when taken alone but it isn’t the final resolution. Rather it is the fulcrum between coming together and coming apart again. This isn’t a collapse into unity, it’s the piston-movement of a sex act.

In the end, this is what the principal text of The Invisibles is. I mean King Mob, acting as authorial insert, gives this away in the final pages when he says the story is, “a thriller, it’s a romance, it’s a tragedy, it’s a porno, it’s neo-modernist kitchen sink science fiction that you catch, like a cold.” It’s a porno. It’s right there – the Invisibles describes a highly abstracted metaphysical sex act. If the two meta-universes have collided it isn’t in the manner of the titanic and the iceberg but in the manner of lovers coupling. And if you are going to introduce such a clear metaphor for sex into a narrative about the fundamental nature of reality can you really be surprised to find a Freudian waving back at you from the subtext?

But ultimately Reich is insufficient. “He denounced, in the final resignation of Freudianism, a fear of life, a resurgence of the ascetic ideal, a cultural broth of bad consciousness. Better to depart in search of the Orgone, he said to himself, in search of the vital and cosmic element of desire,” Deleuze and Guattari say of him (emphasis mine). Morrison, too, is seeking a cosmic element of desire in the Invisibles but while Reich can get us to the orgasm, he can’t get us to the finish line, he can’t get us away from a dialectical collapse into oneness. For that we need to turn to an even stranger figure of psychoanalysis in Stanislav Grof.

Grof

To get to Grof, and how he plays a role in the Invisibles we should first situate where Grof is in comparison to other figures we’ve discussed. Stanislav Grof is a leading figure in the field known as transpersonal psychology, a branch of psychology interested in movement away from self both in forms of healthy ego-transcendence via mystical experience and in forms of unhealthy breaks from the ego via mental illness. Transpersonal psychology largely focused on the idea that consciousness was not something that operated only in a specific state. Focusing on subjects including the use of drugs, meditation, shamanic activities, mystical practices and near-death experiences, transpersonal psychologists sought to map a psyche that was broader and more complex than the self.

As such, they do draw back to many of the same origins as Guattari and Reich – principally via Freud and Bataille. On the topic of Bataille’s relationship to the development of transpersonal studies, Harry Hunt says, “part of the importance of Bataille today may be in his extreme and pointed articulation of these genuine ambiguities that remain largely implicit within a ‘human sciences’ transpersonalism or a contemporary ‘science of consciousness.'” Grof came out of a Freudian education before pivoting toward an interest in birth and death experiences. In 1974 he joined the Esalen Institute – known largely for the participation of Aldous Huxley, Abraham Masow, and for the formation of Gestalt Practice. Much of this led to attempts to incorporate Buddhism into western psychotherapy and ontology, though these efforts have been criticized within Buddhist circles.

Grof is unique among the subjects brought to bear by Morrison within the Invisibles of being alive in 2021, and his current work remains concentrated on psychic exploration facilitated by breathing practices and the use of entheogenic agents. However most of Morrison’s interest has to do with Grof’s concept of perinatal matrices. Grof believes that physical, chemical or emotional trauma at various points in the development of a fetus between the moment of conception and that of birth lead to various patterns of psychological manifestation that leave a mark despite being repressed. (Note the essentially Freudian notions of symbolic exchange and repression. We still haven’t escaped Freud here.) These matrices are referred to by a system of numbering thus: Basic Perinatal Matrix I (BPM I) associates with trauma experienced in-utero prior to the beginning of labour. BPM II corresponds to trauma that occurs between the onset of labour and entry to the birth canal. BPM III corresponds to trauma that occurs during movement through the birth canal and BPM IV corresponds to the trauma of the moment of delivery.

We can see, in some of Grof’s detailing of BPM I experiences a movement toward Melanie Klein’s idea of partial objects – albeit one that extrapolates from this concept in a significantly more mystical manner to the biomes of Reich or the desiring-production of Deleuze and Guattari. Nobody could make the mistake of calling Grof a materialist. Grof is cited repeatedly and explicitly within the concluding volume of The Invisibles, his presence in the text is far more substantial than that of Reich, but there’s a specific page I’d like to focus on:

This page comes not from the climax of the story (which properly belongs to Reich with his Bions and his UFO hunting) but from the denouement. “‘The King-of-All-Tears withdraws in a rain of colored cubes,’ goes the story — the ‘Archons’ are clearly BPM 3 Grof condensations — inevitable signs that universal larval development is proceeding towards self-awareness and birth.” In this fiction, the King-of-All-Tears is one of five Archons of the Outer Church, the most active one at that as it is the one who tempts Dane at the House of Fun and who attempts to disrupt Ragged Robin’s time travel experiment. Renn Butler, a disciple of Grof, says abut the BPM 3 matrix that it, “is based around the dynamic stage of labor, with the corresponding activation of powerful biological energies. The cervix is now open and the infant is slowly forced down the birth canal by uterine contractions that range between between fifty and one hundred pounds of force, a struggle for delivery that pits the mother and fetus in a synergistic effort to end the often excruciating suffering inflicted on each other.” From the perspective of the structural view of what this story is trying to do in this moment it is thus clear that the sex-act metaphor of the climax has been followed by a time-jump of some significant gestational period and has thus led to the moment of birth. There is additional metaphorical material to be mined from Morrison’s invocation of Grof – returning to Butler, “The transpersonal side of the experience includes sequences of temptation, sacrifice, purgatory, and Judgment. Individuals also confront or identify with deities such as Shiva, Kali, or Hercules performing his Labors, or with dying-reviving figures such as Persephone, Christ, Osiris, or Dionysus. The experiences in this matrix culminate in a type of intense driving arousal that transcends pain and pleasure, which Grof referred to as volcanic or Dionysian type of ecstasy.”

Of course Grof was hardly the first person to speak of Dionysus in such ecstatic terms and as you can draw a thread back through time from Grof to Bataille, so too do you eventually encounter Nietzsche who framed the Dionysian such in the Birth of Tragedy:

...all this, as also the unconditional will of Christianity to recognise only moral values, has always appeared to me as the most dangerous and ominous of all possible forms of a "will to perish"; at the least, as the symptom of a most fatal disease, of profoundest weariness, despondency, exhaustion, impoverishment of life,—for before the tribunal of morality (especially Christian, that is, unconditional morality) life must constantly and inevitably be the loser, because life is something essentially unmoral,—indeed, oppressed with the weight of contempt and the everlasting No, life must finally be regarded as unworthy of desire, as in itself unworthy. Morality itself what?—may not morality be a "will to disown life," a secret instinct for annihilation, a principle of decay, of depreciation, of slander, a beginning of the end? And, consequently, the danger of dangers?... It was against morality, therefore, that my instinct, as an intercessory-instinct for life, turned in this questionable book, inventing for itself a fundamental counter—dogma and counter-valuation of life, purely artistic, purely anti-Christian. What should I call it? As a philologist and man of words I baptised it, not without some liberty—for who could be sure of the proper name of the Antichrist?—with the name of a Greek god: I called it Dionysian.

Dionysus – an Antichrist, an intercessory-instinct for life. And it would seem as if we’ve reached another dialectical impasse in establishing the King-of-All-Tears as an antichrist to the Christ-figure of Dane Mcgowan. Except that Dane rejects such notions. People variously try to frame Dane as Christ, as Maitreya, as an avatar of the Aeon of Horus, and he rejects every label. Dane, getting well beyond the idea of such singular identities, tells an old mate who he comforts at the end of the world, “Remember it’s all just a mirror we made to see ourselves in. And when the archons come and it all turns inside out with scary miracles. It’s only all the things you left outside when you were building your little house called, ‘me,’ ey.”

Dane does want to collapse the boundaries of self – but look at the tense shift: it’s a mirror WE made. It’s the things YOU left. The monsters come from the singular – the magic mirror, which we’ve previously examined as being a representation of the Body Without Organs comes from US. From the many.

Minkowski space and the eternal

Hermann Minkowski was an instructor of Albert Einstein and the person responsible for the General Relativity conception of four-dimensional space-time. His work posits a perception of time that allows every moment to have always already happened. The work of Einstein and Minkowski overturned the “Presentist” view of time – that past and future don’t exist but instead an ever-moving moment of now – and instead posited time more as a direction or a dimension with a relationship to other dimensions such that it is only really useful to measure relationships between objects. We exist not as individuals moving through a river of time but as the worm-trail of change across the surface of some impossible substrate. In typical fashion, The Invisibles characterizes this substrate as being a cosmic crystal however the specifics of the substrate are less significant than the consequences: that every act has always already happened in full – that the universe is ultimately an object in which our subjective experience of change is one of positionality alone.

This is certainly something we see textually when Dane goes behind the walls of the world with the Blind Chessman and sees his own worm-trail through life. The same visual motif occurs during the denouement when Ragged Robin returns from her journey through time now transformed into an avatar of the AllNow. Within our universe, that holographic projection of two meta-universes, time is a block. There is no need to worry about causality beyond the loop of narrative causality that winds through The Invisibles because everything that ever has or will happen exists simultaneously within the substrate of being.

Before I inferred that Ragged Robin got closer to the truth than King Mob – with all his transpersonal dialectics. Robin’s block time contains all of difference inscribed upon its surface. It is an ever-complexifying topography of difference. But it is, despite this, still reducible to a single thing in the form of the Infinite. And so we make a final turn, now to Sartre.

The infinity of being

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre argues for a very specific understanding of what being is – specifically he denies the idea of an essence beneath the appearances of being. Instead Sartre posits that being exists of an infinite series of appearances each of which is representative of the object. The object is the infinite totality of those appearances.

Returning to the White Flame Meditation, Mr. Six says, ” Have we yet come even close to a full description of it? Did we even mention that several hundred years ago it wasn’t a chair but a tree?” This infinite series of appearances – the tree, the chair, the shattered ruins of the chair after Elfayed destroys it with a hammer, these are all appearances of being – where Sartre differs from Six and Elfayed is in saying that there is no white flame behind all of them. There is nothing. “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm,” Sartre says. And Sartre’s conception of being becomes thus worm-like – an ever expanding sequence of appearances stretching off into past and future alike. From this Sartre first collapses every binary – every possible approach to the dialectic – down to just this: the binary of the finite and the infinite.

But this is problematic. “If the series of appearances were finite, that would mean that the first appearances do not have the possibility of reappearing. which is absurd, or that they can be all given at once, which is still more absurd,” Sartre says. If the universe of The Invisibles is to be seen as having a unitary being then it is, in fact, constituted of an infinite series of all its own appearances. All these figures, Jack Frost and King Mob, Ragged Robin and Mr. Six, the Marquis De Sade and Edith are rescued from unification in a white flame by dint of each being part of that infinite sequence. Each becomes the site of a little pool of nothingness at the heart of being. Each achieves at least being-in-itself in the process of being an appearance of the universe that you can point to and say, “there is a thing.”

Sartre attacks the Kantian basis of Hegel’s idealism, by arguing for the visceral being of the appearance, “If the essence of the appearance is an ‘appearing’ which is no longer opposed to any being, there arises a legitimate problem concerning the being of this appearing.” There’s no need for noumen lurking behind. This led to Deleuze praising Sartre above all others in “He Was My Teacher,” and championing him as taking the first tenuous steps toward a philosophy affirming difference. The nothingness curled in the heart of Sartean being lies just the other side of the membrane of the Body Without Organs.

And here we finally can begin to talk about how Morrison, too, despite their protestations to the contrary does the same.

We have discussed at some length how The Invisibles uses the metaphor of the sex-act to demonstrate the true-movements of the meta-universes at its core. With the Marquis de Sade we see the coupling. All sorts of scandalous things transpire, many of which are cruel and shocking. Others are hauntingly beautiful. This reaches its crescendo in an act of coitus that initiates the aeon-dominated idealist monster Sir Miles into the truth of freedom and that climaxes in a grail full of tears and the promise of resurrection. There is a disjunction in time and we see the results of this: the arising of the Memeplex, the dissolution of self not into Grof’s transpersonal unity but rather into the disjunction of the machinic. The birth of the universe.

A birth is ultimately a process where one thing becomes two things. There is a mother. There is an organ growing within her – it starts off merely a few cells but over time it begins to change. By the time it reaches the stages of Grof’s Perinatal Matrices, it has begun to divide and then there are two beings. A child cannot be dialectically reduced back to their parents. Take away everything that was the father and everything that was the mother and you will still have something, some unique element of being, remaining and that being multiplies to infinity. Every being becomes a universe in itself.

In No Exit, Garcin remarks that, “Hell is other people.” Sartre, however, was the ultimate champion of freedom. He recognized the infinite potential of a person to be and to be different than they were before. In the Memeplex we see a conception of that freedom. We see echoes of this in King Mob’s dialectical quest for self-recognition and in Lord Fanny’s careful and magic-infused play of gender and identity. And by reminding us that we construct an Other from those things we choose are not US, Dane sees this freedom too. In the last page of The Invisibles, Dane recounts one last lesson from Elfayed (who is one of the two instructors of the White Flame Meditation), “‘We made gods and jailers because we felt small and ashamed and alone,’ he said. ‘We let them try us and judge us and, like sheep to slaughter, we allowed ourselves to be… sentenced. ‘See! Now! Our sentence is up.”

This is the central renunciation of the dialectic. Ultimately there is a ‘us’ a multitude who can no longer be made to endure hell in other people. The universes multiply and the new, the self-aware new arises in a multitudinous “us” away from unity and toward an affirmative difference, toward some great and unknowable future which isn’t a block of predestination. The fixity of Minkowski space-time end at the edge of the universe being born and whatever exists beyond that is something new, something different. The multitudinous many froths out of potential wherever the one is. Each appearance of a being has a being-in-itself in turn, each being is an infinite series of appearances. We can try to dialectically collapse the many into the one all day but ultimately the recursive infinity of difference wins through. If the Invisibles ended in oneness it would be bleak. The final victory of the Outer Church that hates difference, that wants a universe unchanging forever. This is not the ending we achieve. Instead it is far stranger – a recognition of the infinite in every being hiding behind the semblance of idealist unity – but what else but strangeness should we expect for the conclusion of this strange book?

(Not exactly) Kid’s Stuff: A Wizard of Earthsea and the question of being

Alone among authors in the 20th century, only Ursula Le Guin could have possibly written a book like A Wizard of Earthsea. Technically it’s a children’s book.

And I mean, on the surface, there’s certain qualities that A Wizard of Earthsea shares with children’s lit that make the categorization almost fit. It’s a short novel, barely 56,500 words long, and the edition I read (with the cover featured as my image) features large, clearly printed type to aid in ease of reading.

It’s a novel that focuses on a single subject and with a very minimal cast of characters. Le Guin is, excepting one notable adventure, very parsimonious with her deployment of characters, and very few figures of note arise in the first half of the book who don’t play a role in the second. While told in third person, the narration is very centered on Ged and we understand the story almost entirely from his singular point of view.

And, of course, it is a coming of age story. Although here we see Le Guin’s restlessness with convention as she pushes against the Campbellian structure of the coming of age story, featuring a protagonist who never refuses a call and who returns home half-way through his quest only to leave again.

However, despite these hallmarks of children’s fictions, this is a book with a density of theme and topic that could prove challenging for an undergraduate university student to fully disentangle. While I have positive things to say about some of the very inventive structural and pedagogical things done in modern children’s lit, for instance, Elizabetta Dami‘s use of modified type to emphasize key words is a very interesting artistic choice, and one with an obvious pedagogical benefit, I don’t think there’s a single voice in children’s literature in the 21st century who would tackle the very abstract topics like the ones that are at the center of Le Guin’s book. Because instead of taking readers on an exciting adventure, of creating a mystified simulacrum of a child’s social milieu, Le Guin digs into central ontological questions: What is the significance of a name? How do we address the being of death? What, ultimately, is it to be?

Perhaps we can say that Le Guin has more trust in children to grapple with problems that are difficult to hold. Or perhaps Le Guin, aware as she was of her singular intellect and talent, was arrogant enough to say that a Le Guin Children’s book shouldn’t deal with small, concrete, things but should rather aim in the same direction that any work of powerful literature does: toward the ineffable. Perhaps these things are inseparable, and Le Guin’s certainty in the ability of kids to keep up comes directly from her own intelligence, and the pride and will that come with it. Regardless, we can say, with certainty, that A Wizard of Earthsea presents a powerful standard against which much of children’s literature cannot compete.

The question of being

Since no thing can have two true names, inien can mean only "all the sea except the Inmost Sea". And of course it does not mean even that, for there are seas and bays and straits beyond counting that bear names of their own.

Le Guin comes to the question of being via the name. This is integrated into the story at a fundamental level. Names are important to people. They have a name they are given in childhood. This name is then discarded in a ritual during which a figure of ritual significance (in the case of Ged it’s his master Ogion the silent) will give a person a true name which is known only to them, their namer, and anyone they choose to tell. Such a disclosure is considered one of the greatest signs of trust a person can confer to another, as a person’s true name allows a magic user to do some pretty frightening things to a person. For general use, characters will have use-names: effectively nicknames that don’t carry the metaphysical tie to being that a true name has.

All this matters because a true name is a fundamentally unique thing and it is through the inhabiting of this unique address that a being is differentiated from all other beings. This largely derives from the thread of Taoist metaphysics that runs through the book. And this helps inform some of the limits of magic. A wizard can use the true name of a category of animal to transform themselves into that animal. This being is seen as false, or at least as not true, as it is a form of being assumed, the placement of a mask upon the unmediated being of the wizard. But this falsehood is in tension because wizards work their spells in the Old Tongue with which men can only speak truth. If a person says truthfully, “I am a hawk,” to become one his true being and the assumed being of the hawk are in tension. This leads to the risk that one could become lost in the transformed form. A wizard who transforms too often into a dolphin might end up becoming one in truth and not just in seeming. Of course this raises the question: if “I am a hawk” is a true statement but if it is also not true being, what differentiates the character of true being from that of assumed being? The text provides an answer, suggesting that true being lies in the continuous flow of identity, the process of a life lived taken whole. Or, as Ogion says:

At the spring of the River Ar I named you, a stream that falls from the mountain to the sea. A man would know the end he goes to but he cannot know it if he does not turn, and return to his beginning, and hold that beginning in his being. If he would not be a stick whirled and whelmed in the stream, he must be the stream itself, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.

And so we get this idea that being is an enunciation of difference, signified in a name, but that this isn’t all of being. Rather this is the shape of being. But what gives it thickness or truth is that it is a whole thing. Of course this is tricky because the nature of what constitutes a whole thing is vague. When Ged takes the form of a hawk he doesn’t become, in truth, this or that individual hawk. He becomes Ged, the hawk. The being he shares in when transformed is the category of being a hawk. But the category of hawk is not an individual category. It can be split into species of hawks. Families of hawks. Individual hawks. The wing of a hawk. the feather of a wing. Just as the name of an entire ocean must consider the name of every bay within it, so too is being fractal unless it’s given a final shape. It must have limits. One limit is when a thing begins, and the text is very clear about where things begin. “Years and distance, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together.” Every true name is, to Ged, a syllable of the great word and as such is spoken in turn. But just as the syllable of a word has a definitive start, so too must it have an end. And, of course, that means that death is a definitive cutting off of being. To know one’s self is to understand every moment of a life between being named and the extinction of that name in death.

But names persist in memory, and so a thread of being exists even in death. This dialectically introduced ambiguity, which refuses to fully deny being to the dead in the same stroke that it refuses to fully define the being of the living, creates the central tension of the book. Because Ged is much like Le Guin: sharply intelligent, deep in lore, powerful and arrogant.

Death

In Human All-Too-Human, Nietzsche provides a genealogy of revenge. He categorizes two principal forms of revenge one can commit. The first is an act of self-preservation in which the only thought is to escape from a source of harm. The second form of revenge, rather, is a premeditated one in which the person seeking vengeance doesn’t care even if they are harmed so long as they are able to do harm to their target. Nietzsche describes it thus:

This is a case of readjustment, whereas the first act of revenge only serves the purpose of self-preservation. It may be that through our adversary we have lost property, rank, friends, children—these losses are not recovered by revenge, the readjustment only concerns a subsidiary loss which is added to all the other losses. The revenge of readjustment does not preserve one from further injury, it does not make good the injury already suffered—except in one case. If our honour has suffered through our adversary, revenge can restore it. But in any case honour has suffered an injury if intentional harm has been done us, because our adversary proved thereby that he was not afraid of us. By revenge we prove that we are not afraid of him either, and herein lies the settlement, the readjustment. (The intention of showing their complete lack of fear goes so far in some people that the dangers of revenge—loss of health or life or other losses—are in their eyes an indispensable condition of every vengeful act. Hence they practise the duel, although the law also offers them aid in obtaining satisfaction for what they have suffered. They are not satisfied with a safe means of recovering their honour, because this would not prove their fearlessness.)

While Ged is at school he has a bully. This bully isn’t as clever or as talented as Ged and both of them know it. But the bully is older than Ged and has access to higher level instruction. The bully is also from a wealthy family, while Ged is quite proudly a rural goatherder. Ged resents the bully for his unkind barbs and provocations and things come to a head one night when Ged tells the bully quite straightforwardly that he is a superior magic user to the bully. Ged and the bully (Jasper – a precious stone, but not too precious) agree to a duel of magic power and Ged asks Jasper to set a task for him. “Summon up a spirit from the dead, for all I care!” Jasper tells Ged, and Ged replies, “I will.” As Ged and Jasper proceed to the place where Ged will summon a ghost, the text tells us, “Jasper was far beneath him, had been sent perhaps only to bring him here tonight, no rival but a mere servant of Ged’s destiny.”

What Jasper offends is Ged’s honour. His presence, his ability to, on the basis of wealth and age, lord anything over Ged is an affront to Ged’s dignity. And so he takes his revenge and he does so in a way that is deeply harmful to himself. Ged, in this act, unleashes the gebbeth, and suffers terrible wounds that take the better part of a year to recover from physically. The spiritual injury of this moment represents the principal conflict of the book. Ged is telling Jasper, by taking up any challenge Jasper can propose to him, that he has no fear of Jasper, and he is restoring his honour in this self-destructive act of revenge.

Ged succeeds in calling forth a ghost – that unifying thread that dialectically ties death to living and that gives the dead just enough being to still be differentiated from all the other things that can be named is enough for him to grasp on and bring forth the being that is named. But in the process something else comes through. The nature of this other thing then becomes something of a central concern of the book. The Archmage speaks to Ged after his recovery and says, “Evil, it wills to work evil through you. The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?”

And of course, the Archmage is correct and gives Ged good council here, but Ged hasn’t the understanding of himself to see the answer there. So later when a dragon and when Ogion both insist that the shadow has a name, Ged treats this information as at odds to his teacher’s instruction. But here’s the thing. In Nietzsche’s genealogy of revenge, he ultimately concludes that the two modes of revenge cannot be disentangled from each other. In the judicial act of punishment, a public desire of social self-preservation is combined with a private desire to see honour restored. Sometimes these competing modes of a thing get bound up with each other, entangled in complicated ways. The archmage tells Ged that the shadow wants to inhabit Ged and do evil so he runs from it and in running he gives the shadow power. Eventually Ogion tells Ged that his flight gives the shadow power so he hunts it and in hunting he weakens it. Ged is tied up with the object created by his revenge in such a way that he cannot be disentangled from it. But how he knows it and what he knows of it help to define it. It is gebbeth – nameless – a shadow – his shadow – named – him.

But we get ahead of ourselves. There are two incidents that come before the flight and the hunt. In the first, Ged fails to save a child from death by sickness. In the second he kills five dragons and mortally wounds a sixth. Le Guin handles this juxtaposition easily. Ged is able to bring an ending to the stories of these wyrms simply. He binds their wings and pulls them from the sky. He transforms to a dragon himself and burns them to cinders. He binds the eldest dragon with its true name and commands it not to threaten the settlement under his protection. The whole encounter has an uneasy sense of ease about it. It is narrated in a way that makes it seem easy. But to outsiders this looks hard. The smallest dragons are the length of a forty-oar boat.

Before he kills the dragons he fails to save the child. The kid is the son of a fisherman who Ged befriends. Ged works together with the fisherman, his neighbour, regularly. He casts spells of protection on the fisherman’s boat and in return the fisherman teaches him how to sail without magic – a talent that will serve Ged well later. The child falls ill with a fever and Ged tries to save him but he’s too far gone before Ged arrives – his spirit is slipping into death. Ged is so concerned for the wellbeing of his friend’s son that he follows the child’s spirit into death and barely escapes himself. The shadow is waiting at the wall between living and death and finds Ged there. This is the incident that sets in motion Ged’s need to flee it.

Ged flees and the shadow becomes powerful. He is manipulated, in the fear of his flight, into a perilous adventure and barely escapes, having to flee again, pursued again. He returns home, and there learns from Ogion what he needs to know. That he never should have run from it.

Completeness in being

Ged chases the shadow and it weakens.

He catches up to it and it tricks him into a shipwreck. He rebuilds his ship and continues his chase and he catches it – it has begun to look more like him. He tries to grab hold of it but it’s a shadow and there’s nothing to hold. “The body of a gebbeth has been drained of true substance and is something like a shell or a vapour in the form of a man,” we are told, and like vapour the shadow slips through Ged’s fingers. Later he encounters rumours that he passed by before. People he meets see him as an uncanny doubling – they’re troubled by this man who fled across their lands and who afterward chased himself.

Ged chases the shadow until it runs out of world to be chased through. He finds himself in an abstracted plain where the sea has turned to sand but which is also still the open sea. There he finally catches up with the spirit.

Aloud and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow's name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: 'Ged.' And the two voices were one voice.

Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self  that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined and were one.

The archmage was right that the gebbeth is the shadow he casts. Later in Human All-Too-Human, there is a dialog between the Wanderer and his shadow. In it, the Wanderer says, ” Now I see for the first time how rude I am to you, my beloved shadow. I have not said a word of my supreme delight in hearing and not merely seeing you. You must know that I love shadows even as I love light. For the existence of beauty of face, clearness of speech, kindliness and firmness of character, the shadow is as necessary as the light. They are not opponents—rather do they hold each other’s hands like good friends; and when the light vanishes, the shadow glides after it.”

Ged is the arrogant young man who seeks revenge when his honour is slighted by a man he sees as inferior. Ged is the man who wades into death to save a child and fails. Ged is the man who drags dragons from the sky and who gives a well with clean water to two mute exiles on an abandoned sandbar far from home. Ged is the light and the darkness and the only thing that gives his shadow power over him, the only thing that allows his shadow to harm him, is his unwillingness to face it. In the world of A Wizard of Earthsea every thing that is is that which can be announced to be different from all other things. The gebbeth lacks a name because that cannot be announced – it is merely a part of Ged as surely as the feather on the wing of the hawk – and it waits for Ged patiently at the boundary between life and death because one of the aspects of the shadow is death.

Ged is the wellspring of power that rises out of the primordial origin of all things. He is the doer, the agent of action in the story. The gebbeth is the un-doer, the reactive, the end of things. Ged, to come into an understanding of himself, must see his end as clearly as his beginning. He must be as aware of the ways in which he un-does as the ways he does. Unexamined, Ged’s shadow-self seeks revenge against Jasper and it is let loose, it rampages. It kills. It hounds Ged from crisis to crisis. But when faced, when Ged points to his own darkness and calls it with his name, it comes; it becomes; it comes into being. But by coming into being it is done away with because it becomes nothing but the awareness Ged has of his own potential toward death. There is no other here. There isn’t a wanderer and his shadow – there is a river, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.

History and lineage in A Hero Born – Book 1 of the Holmwood translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes

One of the unexpected impacts of the Coronavirus crisis of 2020-21 has been the delay of certain expected book releases. Originally I’d intended to read all four volumes of the recent translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes back to back and then to write an essay after completing that effort. Then I discovered that the fourth volume had been pushed back from a March release date to an August one… on the day I went to the store to buy it. Needless to say I put it under pre-order. However I did decide I’d space out my reading of the volumes to allow me to better keep up with my theory reading and to allow me to read a few other books that I have planned essays about (look for essays about A Wizard of Earthsea and a return to The Invisibles in the intermediate future – I want to make some revisions from my too-surface Hegelian read of the latter work.)

I have previously read Legend of the Condor Heroes via fan translations. In fact, while it’s quite rough around the edges, my essay about Hong Qigong was a test balloon for much of what I’ve been trying to do in this space recently.

Writing about Jin Yong was also my original introduction to literary criticism and represents my earliest attempt to work in the field. I frequently refer to Jin Yong as my favourite author, and this isn’t empty hyperbole. Legend of the Condor Heroes is one of the greatest works of fantasy literature written, and the sprawling text provides vast opportunities for engagement and assessment. I want to start by providing the most basic information: A Hero Born is the first of four volumes within this translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes – this volume was translated by Anna Holmwood and she was either the translator or the editor for each subsequent volume. There are other translators involved in the project, but I will be referring to this edition of the overall work as the Holmwood translation throughout as a matter of expedience. I will make sure to name other credited translators when I review future volumes of course.

This volume covers the Condor Heroes story from its start to the escape of Yang Tiexin and Bao Xiruo from the palace of Wanyan Honglie. This also means that this book does the heavy lifting of introducing the principals (Guo Jing, Huang Rong, Yang Kang, Mu Nianci, Wanyan Honglie, Ouyang Ke) but aside from allusions and the repeated appearance of Huang Yaoshi’s student, Mei Chaofeng, the Five Greats are absent from the story. The ending-point feels well-chosen. There was never going to be a spot in the first quarter of this novel that wouldn’t have seemed abrupt, but the conclusion of the action at the palace is a strong choice for where to leave off.

Holmwood proves an excellent translator; she has a sharp eye for prose and, most importantly when translating Jin Yong, seems to understand the purpose that underlies some of his odder structural choices. Many adaptations of Jin Yong’s work (such as the 2017 TV adaptation of Legend of the Condor Heroes) will gloss over Jin Yong’s frequent asides, and re-order events in order to bring characters into the story more quickly. We want to see Huang Rong and Guo Jing interacting faster, so we put those scenes before the failed attempt of Ouyang Ke’s retainers to steal his horse: that sort of thing. Happily Holmwood does not do this. The end result is a text that might prove a challenge to people who are accustomed to either linear structures or the in-media-res – flashback – climax structure preferred in English and American fantasy but, if you can get past the structural alienness of the text, there is an incredibly rewarding book on the other side.

Holmwood’s translation is a welcome upgrade from the era of fan translations; but comes with a welcome call-back in the form of illustrations from a past Chinese edition of the book. If you are a reader either of fantasy fiction or a fan of Dumas, Scott, and other 19th century romance-adventure authors (to whom Jin Yong owes a deep debt) then I would heartily recommend this book. But I suppose there’s not much point in me trying to hype a new translation of the best-selling fiction book of all time. So let’s, instead, turn our attention to the question of how Jin Yong’s book creates a sense of the self in opposition to Descarte’s Cogito.

What is the self anyway

The Guo family must have descendants.

Let’s start with the super-nutshell version. Descartes was pretty much the OG skeptic. And he systematically tried to demonstrate that anything was beyond the possibility of doubt. In the end Decartes could find only one thing that he could not doubt. That there was a self who doubted. This idea, that the ability of a subject to be conscious, became the ground upon which most modern liberal conceptions of self are based. We like to think of ourselves as being singular, atomic, individual.

You might have noticed that I regularly state, “we are dividual” and various other formations of the same throughout my prior writing. This is not some strangely pervasive spelling error but is rather one of the two approaches of attack to the idea of the cartesian cogito. You can attack whether the cogito is, in fact, one thing or many things. If we imagine the subject that doubts not as a solid kernel of identity but rather as a frothing process of force, potential and change then we problematize Descartes. This helps to restore the validity of self-doubt, which became a topic of significant focus for early existentialists like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but also raises the specter of nihilism since, if we cannot even be certain that the cogito that thinks is an accurate approximation of our self, what can we be certain of?

So that’s one way to attack the cogito – to question whether the self could be divided into multiple components – but there is another thing you can do to the self to break the hold of the cogito and that is to situate identity as being part of a process that is larger than the single person. In this case, the boundaries of the self dissolve into that of the community. As John Mbiti put it, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” While this viewpoint is most often expressed through the ideas of Ubuntu philosophy, this also is the form of self that Jin Yong presents in this text.

An example.

In the first chapter of the book, Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin have encountered the Taoist priest Qiu Chuji who has just completed a mission to murder and ritually mutilate a government official who sold out the Song to Jin invaders. As you’d expect from a person currently carrying a man’s head, heart and liver in a sack, Qiu is feeling a bit paranoid and so when Guo and Yang invite him to come and have a drink with them (they’ve noticed his kung fu and think he seems cool) he assumes an ambush and picks a fight.

Now the book has informed us already that Guo and Yang are patriots and the descendants of heroes. Yang, in particular, is descended from a retainer of Yue Fei, so when he starts fighting with Qiu, the Taoist recognizes the way he fights as being his family’s famous spear technique. As Qiu comes to this realization, the action shifts from the fight (literally mid-movement) into an extended description of Yang’s famous ancestor, including his achievements in battle and his heroic death:

He gave his life for his country on that battlefield. When the Jin army burned his body, over two jin1 of molten metal flowed into the mud beneath him. After that battle the Yang family spear became famous across China's great planes.

The recognition Qiu is able to give to Yang is not because of his own merits. Or at least it’s not entirely because of his own merits. Qiu recognizes Yang is a good spearman. He is appreciative of Yang’s ability, but what tells Qiu that Yang is probably not an agent of the Jin come to ambush him isn’t the quality of his spearmanship but its lineage. Yang isn’t Yang Tiexin the man; he is Yang Tiexin the descendant of a heroic soldier, and the father of Yang Kang who is not yet born. His identity is a node in the ongoing flow of history. It may have its singularity in the moment, but its significance as an identity is superseded by the collective identity of the Yang family and the Yang spear pedagogical lineage.

Obligation and history

This pattern continues to repeat throughout the story. Whenever a new person is introduced, especially when that person’s physicality is introduced, it will be coupled with the history of their family or of their school. When Guo Jing’s eventual teachers, the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, are introduced, Jin Yong provides the following introduction to one of them:

In ancient times, the two southern kingdoms of Yue and Wu were long at war. The King of Yue, Gou Qian, kept himself ready for combat at all times bysleeping on a bed of straw and drinking from a gall bladder. But the Wu army was universally acknowledged to be superior, mainly due to General Wu Zixu's strategic prowess, learned under the master tactician Sun Tzu. One day, however, a beautiful young woman, accomplished in the art of the sword, arrived in Jiaxing, then located just inside the Yue border. One of the kingdom's highest-ranking ministers, Fan Li, asked if she would teach them her skills so they might defeat the Wu. So it happened that Jiaxing came to be the home of this particular sword technique, passed from master to disciple, generation to generation. 

Just as in the first example, this aside, which is actually a synopsis of Jin Yong’s Sword of the Yue Maiden happens mid-way through a physical movement which is intended to tell us about what the character (Han Xiaoying) but diverts temporally from the narrative to tell us, in brief, why her lineage matters. This is how she is introduced because she is the product of that lineage and the one upon whom it rests to pass that lineage on into the future. This is how we can understand who she is.

And this gets at the specific relationship that a subject in the present of this story has toward the past and that is continuity. When Guo Xiaotian is killed during Wanyan Honglie’s kidnapping of Bao Xiruo, Qiu’s first (and honestly only) thought is that the Guo family must continue. He is so obsessed with preserving the life of Guo’s widow, and more importantly the unborn child she carries, that he bursts into a Buddhist monastery, wrecks up the place and then picks a fight with the heroic Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, all just to ensure that Li Ping delivers her baby in safety. And when he realizes she’s gone missing he proposes the famous bet with the Seven Freaks that holds within it the very same relationship of obligation to history and to the future that positions identity.

Specifically he proposes that he pursue Bao Xiruo (and the unborn Yang Kang) and the Seven Freaks will pursue Li Ping (and Guo Jing). Should either he or the Seven Freaks find their child alive, they will train the child in their martial arts. Upon their eighteenth birthday, they will each bring their pupil to the same place to have a martial arts match (the Seven Freaks and Qiu are evenly matched and uncertain who is the stronger martial artist) after which, if both children are boys they’ll be sworn together as oath brothers and if one is a boy and the other a girl they will be married, thus ensuring the continuation of the Guo family, the Yang family, the teachings of the Seven Freaks and the teachings of Qiu Chuji, regardless of the outcome.

To Jin Yong, history is not a thing that happened in a past. Rather history is a fluid process that every subject is enmeshed within. We all move within history, molded by the situation of our times, becoming the people we are as a result of decisions made long before we were born. The decision of a general in the Spring and Autumn period to ask for the help of the Yue Maiden in his dynastic conflict gives rise to Guo Jing as much as the murder of his father mere weeks before he was born in the heart of a Mongolian snowstorm. Yang Kang’s eventual refusal of the lineage of his dead heroic ancestor, his willingly assuming of the position of Xiao Wangye (little prince – the son of a prince to be specific) within the Jin, isn’t immoral because there is anything fundamentally evil about the Jin. Jin Yong problematizes that quite well in the sequel which inverts the alliance patterns between Jin, Han and Mongol. It’s immoral because it is a severing off of Yang Kang from that flow of lineage. He is not part of the history of the Jin. His insertion of himself into that history, escaping from the history of heroic last stands of the Song dynasty Han in the process, is a selfish betrayal as sharp as any of the cruelties he visits upon Mu Nianci in time.

The Materialism of Jin Yong

History intrudes upon the narrative of A Hero Born constantly. And this history informs the people of the story, their places in the world and the decisions that they make. The central section of A Hero Born details Guo Jing’s childhood on the steppes of Mongolia and his eventual growth from a stubborn, honest and generous child into the youngest general of Ghengis Khan and the heroic himbo that we all know and love.

This episode of the story is one of the parts that interfaces most directly with a sort of historical fiction and it demonstrates the other very important relationship which Jin Yong has to history. History might be a present force which a subject is obligated to but it isn’t mystical. Jin Yong’s conception of history is classically materialist; it is the product of the social structures, the alliances and economies, that underpin it. Throughout the Mongolian chapters, the Jin are a constant threat. They are anxious about the boisterous, mobile and war-like Mongolians and are particularly anxious about Temujin, a modernizer who has been attempting to unite the rival clans of Mongolia. The Jin dispatch Wanyan Honglie (because of course it’s him again) and another prince of the dynasty to give Temujin a formal rank within the Jin empire and effectively to reinforce the empire-client relationship between the Jin and the two clans that Temujin has the greatest pull over.

However, the Mongols prove resistant to flattery, proud and scornful of bribes and honeyed words, and it becomes clear that Temujin is building up a force of capable generals and so instead the Jin decide to sow dissent between Temujin and his closest allies.

This plot comes to fruition with an attempted wedding party massacre, only the future Ghengis Khan proves a bit harder to catch than certain Starks we might remember, and Temujin, his closest retainers and Guo Jing end up encircled upon a hilltop. During the siege, a parlay occurs and we get the following exchange:

Jamuka rose to his feet. "you surrendered in the past when you were weaker than you are now. You give the spoils of war to your soldiers, telling them it belongs to them, not to the whole tribe. In this, again the clan leaders say you do wrong. It's against our traditions."
"But it pleases my young fighters! The clan leaders claim they cannot keep it because they want it for themselves. Such traditions make the fighters angry. Who do we need more? Brave soldiers or greedy, stupid clan leaders?"
"Brother you have always acted alone, as if you didn't need the help or advice of the other clan leaders. You have also been sending messengers to persuade my soldiers to surrender and join you, promising them riches, that the livestock won't be shared among all the people of the tribe. Do you think I was blind to what you have been doing?"

Jamuka is Temujin’s oath brother, and he’s speaking to his brother from the position of historical tradition, which Temujin will disrupt with his, strategically effective, economic revisions. But think for a second of the ridiculousness of a pause in a battle in Tolkien so that the rival generals can get together and have an argument over the distribution of horses and sheep. History is a force that subsumes the individual and it is a force that is driven by the material conditions of life. The fracture that the Jin exploit to drive a wedge between Temujin and Jamuka is economic. The dispute between these two historical figures is one over the distribution of soldiers, their place in society and the obligations those soldiers have to society. History is this vast material thing that binds us all together, it is the fabric out of which people are formed.

Guo Jing is a bundle of obligations that predate his birth. He is obliged to his family, to continue it and to carry forward its traditions. He is obliged to his teachers, the Seven Freaks of Jiangnan, to be a good person, a strong fighter, an exemplar of their teachings. He is obliged to Yang Kang to marry them if they’re a girl or to become their brother if they’re a boy. He is obliged to Ghengis Khan for taking in his family. After the failure of the marriage alliance between Temujin and Jamuka, Temujin betroths his daughter Huazheng to Guo Jing and this becomes yet another obligation. Guo Jing is all of these competing strands of history, bound into a knot of perspective, coincidence and desire, and sent out into the world. Then he meets the daughter of Old Heretic Huang who demonstrates how these various obligations create antinomies and how the discovery of how to reconcile these contradictions leads on the path to heroism.


1: A jin is a Chinese measure of weight approximately equivalent to a half-kilogram. Please treat distinctly from the Jin (the Jin dynasty) or Jin Yong (the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung, which roughly translates to “golden trifle”). Isn’t Chinese a fun language?

Desiring to be monstrous in Clive Barker’s Cabal

Cabal is a book about sex.

Every character in the book thinks about sex. A lot. Lori is concerned about her sex life with Boone. Boone worries he can’t please Lori. Eigerman is comforted by cartoons of sodomy on the toilet wall and comforted that they stay safely cartoons on a wall. Ashbery is terrified that people will find out about his paraphilia for women’s underwear. Decker gets hard when he murders. At the climax of the book, Boone, well, the text can speak for itself here:

"Baphomet's head. It turned to him, vast and white, its symmetry fabulous. His entire body rose to it: gaze, spittle, and prick. His congealed blood liquefied like a saint's relic and began to run. His testicles tightened; sperm ran up his cock. He ejaculated into the flame, pearls of semen carried up past his eyes to touch the Baptizer's face."

So yeah, the climax of the book involves one of our protagonists ejaculating into the face of a god. Cabal is a book about sex. Everybody, at least everybody with a remotely human viewpoint, is thinking about sex all the time, and honestly nobody is very happy about it. Lori and Boone are a good couple but can’t make it work in the bedroom. He usually ends up crying over his inadequacy. Eigerman wants his sodomy carefully abstracted. Ashbery is terrified of his secret being found out, and keeping his secret from being found out is Decker’s whole motivation. Decker’s twin desires for the little death to be reflected in an orgy of vast, grand death, but not to be seen to be a sexual being drives the entire plot of the story.

But Cabal isn’t about sex. Not entirely. Not if you plumb its depths. In 1988, the same year Cabal was published, Clive Barker said, “What I like to write is ‘iceberg’ literature. Most of it is below the surface, and you produce things that don’t explain everything.” And Cabal is, in some ways like an iceberg. I read Cabal when I was in my early twenties. At the time I was still deeply closeted about my bisexuality, and the wild, kaleidoscopic world of Midian was a thrilling and illicit fantasy. I read it then as a book about sex and was satisfied to see it that way.

When I picked up Cabal now, two decades later, I said to a friend of mine that I thought I’d grasped Cabal the first time but what I’d really done was just make a fist in the ocean. This book has depths. But this book is a map. This book wants you to explore its depths, much in the same way Lori explores Midian, a layer at a time, each time being seduced deeper. Each time making the choice to be seduced.

Cabal is a book about infection

I mean it’s not like it’s the first time a horror author wrote about infection. That risk, that the Other could get inside you and make you not who you were is central to horror at least as far back as Lovecraft. And 1988 was right in the heart of the first wave of the AIDS crisis. Back then, heterosexual transmission of HIV was still uncommon in the UK, but gay people had been dying of AIDS for a few years and it was on a few minds.

Cabal is an openly queer book with sex on its mind and particularly with the idea of sex as a source of shame on its mind; it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea of infection was bubbling in Cabal. The Nightbreed pass their dark gifts with a bite – the balm. If you are bitten by one of the Nightbreed, you can survive the experience. I mean you may not – the Nightbreed are monsters and, in their hunger, can be terribly savage, but Boone does. He takes a bite and he flees and he lives. Until he’s shot and dies. And upon death the balm awakens the infant monster to their true life. The book is never clear if this is the only way one can become a Nightbreed. We might shudder to consider Rachel and Babette. Rachel, the gentle, vampire-like monster who shows Lori kindness could be somebody who was given the balm, but what do we make of Babette? Was Rachel’s daughter killed with her? Or was she born to her? The book never tells us.

But the balm is not the only way infection is referenced in the book. Because there’s another thing that seems to be catching.

Cabal is a book about madness

Boone is schizophrenic. He hallucinates. He has intrusive thoughts. He suffers shame and guilt about his illness, depression tagging along with his schizophrenia. Boone’ psychologist, Decker, is also somebody with some deep psychological pathologies. Decker is a serial killer, a sociopath and a social chameleon. He’s not actually a doctor; he just stole a name and an expensive suit. He told lies that opened doors and let him exploit vulnerable people. Decker, who cuts out the eyes of his victims because he cannot bear the thought of being seen devoid of his masks (the mask he wears when about the murder is in fact his real face) sees in Boone a valuable victim of a different sort from his usual. And so he plies Boone with drugs, hypnotherapy and shocking images, and persuades the vulnerable, ill, man that he is a killer. That he has psychically blocked his own crimes out of an inability to face his monstrosity. This is, of course, transference. Decker is the one who is uncomfortable being put in the position of his own monstrosity. He is the one who hides behind masks behind masks behind masks in order to stay pure. Boone, in counterpoint, wears his heart on his sleeve. He thinks he’s too broken to be a good boyfriend for Lori.

Boone’s need to be emotionally sincere doesn’t extend just to his presentation; he is awash in very human pain and it leads to his failed suicide attempt. And you know, it’s interesting because at times Cabal tells us Nightbreed are made by infection, by the balm. But Boone throws himself in front of a truck and gets up afterward. He then hitch-hikes and walks from Calgary to the middle of nowhere. (Midian is described as being “North of Athabasca, east of Peace River, near Shere Neck and north of Dwyer.” While some of these places are invented, others are real locations in Alberta and they situate Midian as being somewhere perhaps in the vicinity of the Wabasca lakes, seven hours north and deep in the bush. There are few places in the world more remote.) So perhaps being Nightbreed is more than being bitten.

This fits with the descriptions of Midian provided when Boone first meets Narcisse. And when Narcisse cuts his own face off, Boone thinks he sees the flesh underneath transform. He’s a deeply unreliable perspective so we can’t be sure, but we never see one of the Nightbreed give Narcisse the balm, yet there he is in Midian when the action kicks off.

Perhaps being Nightbreed depends on a certain kind of mimetic infection. Cabal describes Midian first as a talisman of the mad, saying, “some belonged to the collective mind. they were words he would hear more than once: nonsense rhymes whose rhythms kept the pain at bay, names of gods.

Among them Midian.”

Early in the story, Decker describes Boone’s hypnotherapy sessions and says that Boone is confessing to, “something so abhorrent to you even in a trance you couldn’t bring yourself to say it.” It’s easy to treat this as a lie. Decker lies. Decker is a deeply unreliable character in this book, but then no character is reliable. Cabal shows us every one of its perspective characters facing moments where their senses clearly fail them and we, as readers, know that their perceptions cannot be trusted.

So if all our characters are unreliable, is it not possible that the germ of the Nightbreed lies in insanity?

This would certainly fit for Lori’s arc. Lori, the beautiful. Lori, the empathetic. Lori, the unwell.

Lori can’t look at herself in a mirror. Barker deploys an excellent bit of prose to describe her:

Her neck was too thick, her face too thin, her eyes too large, her nose too small. In essence she was one excess upon another and any attempt on her part to undo the damage merely exacerbated it. Her hair, which she grew long to cover the sins of her neck, was so luxuriant and so dark her face looked sickly in its frame. Her mouth, which was her mother's mouth to the last flute, was naturally, even indecently red, but taming its color with a pale lipstick merely made her eyes look vaster and more vulnerable than ever. 

It wasn't that the sum of her features was unattractive. She'd had more than her share of men at her feet. No, the trouble was she didn't look the way that she felt. It was a sweet face. And she wasn't sweet, didn't want to be sweet, or thought of as sweet.

So here we have our lovers, beautiful, Byronic Boone who suffers his demons, his voices and codes, driving him toward Midian. And we have Lori. Boone promises her, “I’ll never leave you,” but he knows he’ll break that promise, and he does. He is, after all a haunted man. He is aware that there is something monstrous within him, something that wants to come out and that tortures him.

And Lori, for her part, is uncomfortable in her own body. She has a sweet face but she doesn’t think she’s sweet. She loves a vulnerable madman, and almost restores him to health before the exploitative void that is Decker sends him crashing down again. And when Boone leaves her, when he vanishes to Midian, she goes chasing after him. This is an irrational choice. She is putting off work to go traipsing into the bush of northern Alberta. It’s almost codependent – Boone was wracked with guilt, and one of the things that he felt guilt about was how dependent he was on Lori; she was the entirety of his fragile support system. He never noticed how dependent she was on him. Lori feels deeply alienated from the world. She needs Boone’s otherness.

When she learns that Boone has been killed in a ghost town, that he’s believed to be a serial killer who terrorized Alberta, murdered people indiscriminately, cutting them to ribbons and ripping out their eyes in their own homes, she goes to the graveyard adjacent where he died and mourns. But she brings a companion who isn’t comfortable in this eerie situation, and leaves, reluctantly. She gets a motel room so she can stay nearby while she decides her next moves, and her friend leaves her alone.

The people in the room next to her are having a party (later Decker will murder them all) and Lori becomes excited at the thinness of the wall, the idea that she is almost in public as she walks around her motel room naked out of the shower. She masturbates and falls asleep, having a sort of semi-prophetic dream.

"In sleep she was at Midian's Necropolis, the wind coming to meet her down its avenues from all directions at once - north, south, east and west - chilling her as it whipped her hair above her head and ran up inside her blouse.

The wind was not invisible. It had a texture as though it carried a weight of dust, the motes steadily gumming up her eyes and sealing her nose, finding its way into her underwear and up into her body by those routes too. 

It was only as the dust blinded her completely that she realized what it was - the remains of the dead, the ancient dead, blown on contrary winds from pyramids and mausoleums, from vaults and dolmen, charnel houses and crematoria. Coffin dust and human ash and bone pounded to bits, all blown to Midian and catching at the crossroads.

She felt the dead inside her. Behind her lids, in her throat, carried up toward her womb. And despite the chill and the fury of the four storms, she had no fear of them, nor desire to expel them. They sought her warmth and her womanliness. She would not reject them."

The dream proceeds on as she demands Boone of the dead, and they refuse to surrender him. The dream becomes a nightmare. Sheryl wakes her. And despite this nightmare, this idea that Midian will bring the dead into her, that it will deny her Boone even so, she does the irrational thing and returns to Midian.

Lori doesn’t appear sane. When she later reappears with Boone, she puts herself in the position of the willing lover of a cannibal and a monster. Over and over again, she returns to sites of mortal peril. She seems driven by an unquenchable death wish.

This madness seems contagious. Decker drives Boone into relapse and Boone’s madness infects Lori. When Decker, Boone and Lori bring the insanity of their situation to Shere Neck, Eigerman rapidly goes off the deep end, emptying out his police precinct, mustering an irregular posse, threatening the local priest along, anything to purge the Nightbreed. It’s insane: tunnel vision taken to an extreme. Eigerman is irrational. The chief symptom seems to be an excited death drive. Boone attempts suicide. Narcisse can’t wait for his afterlife to begin. Decker and Eigerman desire slaughter. And Lori wants to be with the dead.

Death fascinates Lori. Or it does for a while. Because while she may seem to be possessed by a mad death drive, Cabal isn’t precisely a book about madness. It doesn’t matter that people are uncomfortable being sexual, that they lust for what they should not, that their lust bring them shame. And it doesn’t matter that Boone’s bite, after he is transformed, is infectious, nor does it matter that Boone is himself transformed by infection. We don’t know for certain every person who becomes a Nightbreed is bitten by another but one thing we know for certain is that every person who becomes a Nightbreed is compelled to go to Midian for one reason or another. Narcisse is so desperate to go to Midian that he mutilates himself to reveal to the Nightbreed that he is already one of them. Narcisse wants to go to Midian so that he can belong. Boone mostly seemed to crave Midian as a refuge, somewhere to be left alone by a world that was cruel to him. But he still craved Midian and went there. And when he arrived, “he found himself a bed out of sight between two graves and lay his head down. The spring growth of grass smelled sweet.” Lori, too, is drawn to Midian, if only to take Boone away from it. This compulsion is irrational, but it isn’t madness. It’s desire.

Cabal is a book about desiring to be other

Desire exists in so many forms throughout Cabal. Boone desires solace. Lori desires Boone. Decker wants to kill. Eigerman wants notoriety. Narcisse craves community. The Nightbreed want peace. It isn’t unusual for a story to center around a protagonist who announces a desire and pursues it. What separates Nightbreed is the ubiquity with which the omniscient narrator makes it clear that every person in the story moves toward the thing they want. Even in flight, Boone is reaching out for what he desires. Even when she knows it’s self-destructive, Lori seeks out what she desires with single-minded intensity. And Decker has to kill. But for Lori, Boone and Narcisse, the deepest desire is to reconcile the otherness they feel, the sense they have of alienation from the world of people, the cravings and urges that seem unusual with a sense of who they really are.

They need to transform. And the Nightbreed are transformation. Lori falls out of love with death. She barely escapes Decker at a burned out restaurant, and he murders her traveling companion, Sheryl. She goes back. She has some idea that she can find evidence to prove Decker is the murderer. Instead what she finds is a host of flies feasting on the corpse of her friend.

"Both mind and body failed. The cloud of flies came at her, their numbers now so large they were a darkness unto themselves. Dimly she realized that such a multiplicity was impossible and that her mind in its confusion was creating this terror. But the thought was too far from her to keep the madness at bay; her reason reached for it, and reached, but the cloud was upon her now. She felt their feet on her arms and face, leaving trails of whatever they'd been dabbling in: Sheryl's blood, Sheryl's bile, Sheryl's sweat and tears. There were so many of them they could not all find flesh to occupy, so they began to force their way between her lips and crawl up her nostrils and across her eyes.

Once, in a dream of Midian, hadn't the dead come as dust, from all four corners of the world? And hadn't she stood in the middle of the storm - caressed, eroded, and been happy to know that the dead were on the wind? Now came the companion dream: horror to the splendor of the first. A world of flies to match the world of dust, a world of incomprehension and blindness, of the dead without burial, and without a wind to carry them away. Only flies to feast on them, to lie in them and make more flies."

Lori has already encountered the Nightbreed a few times before this; but this moment gives her the desire not just to live at peace with the existence of monsters in the world, but to collaborate with them. Lori is pushed far beyond the limits of her sensation and returns with newfound purpose. It’s a religious experience.

The Nightbreed fascinate Lori. She sees in them an alternative to, “the stench of creeping decay, the inevitability of it all.” She thought she was possessed by a drive to be occupied by the dead, and she is, in fact, occupied by the dead when Babette forms a psychic bond that lets them telepathically communicate across distances, that lets them see through each other’s eyes. Babette is the dead wind within her, filling her up, but Babette isn’t a wind; she’s a child, a young, vital child.

That vitality is what Lori sees in the Nightbreed: “the monsters of Midian – transforming, rearranging, ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh and reminders of yesterday’s – seemed full of possibility.” This is enticing to Lori, who isn’t comfortable in her own skin. At one point, she is taken into Midian and allowed to explore it while Boone seeks the blessing of Baphomet, the god of the Nightbreed. She sees the Nightbreed in all their monstrousness, their horror and beauty. She sees a painter with the head of a dog and a bloated man covered in glowing maggots. She sees creatures with metal parts, and chimera. And what Lori sees in the Nightbreed is something she never before realized how much she wanted.

All that she coveted or envied in others of her species now seemed valueless. Dreams of the perfected anatomy - the soap opera face, the centerfold body - had distracted her with promises of true happiness. Empty promises. Flesh could not keep its glamour, or eyes their sheen. They would go to nothing soon.

But the monsters were forever. Part of her forbidden self. Her dark, transforming midnight self. She longed to be numbered among them.

Lori doesn’t crave extinction; she craves monstrousness. The Nightbreed aren’t sweet. Some of them are beautiful, but it’s the beauty of the angels in the Old Testament, a fury of sensation that overwhelms with its beauty. Most are hideous, deformed, bestial and sometimes broken. When the perspective, shortly thereafter, moves to Boone, this is reinforced, “they were what the species he’d once belonged to could not bear to be.”

Barker wrote Cabal to be a book open to multiple interpretations. In some sense it’s a book about transformation, but it’s a book about desiring transformation specifically. Lori achieves her desire in the end. She pushes herself to the brink of death and an inch beyond to achieve her desire and to repeat Boone’s promise, “I’ll never leave you,” back to him. That Boone has transformed completely is nothing even remotely touching a deal-breaker because Lori, too wants to transform.

But to understand this desire, we also have to understand the manner in which the Nightbreed transform. In the course of the story we witness several sequences of transformation; and what is peculiar is that these moments of transformation are described much more clearly than the way the Nightbreed look in their transformed state.

At one point, we finally get something approaching a clear example of Boone’s transformed state:

"Part the beast he'd inherited from Peloquin, part a shade warrior, like Lylesburg, part Boone the lunatic, content with his visions at last."

This description is nothing approaching an appearance. You can’t paint a picture of Boone. He looks like a beast perhaps, or like a shadow, or like himself only comfortable, at last, in his monstrous skin. And the descriptions of other Nightbreed are, with a few exceptions, either perfunctory, “a painter with the head of a dog” or are vague and impressionistic.

But the moments in which a Nightbreed changes from a human form to something else, when it reveals its nature as one of these, “ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh,” the vision becomes clear, detailed, lovingly crafted and entirely alien.

One of the best examples of this moment of clear and vivid transformation comes during Lori’s first encounter with the Nightbreed. She has come to the cemetery at Midian to feel closer to Boone and she finds an animal in a thicket. It seems sick, dying. There is a woman standing in a tomb who begs Lori to bring her the creature. This woman is described like a vampire, and when her hand touches the sun, it begins to dissolve into dust, much like the dead in Lori’s prophetic dream. Lori, being Lori, helps the woman and the small creature. The creature digs its claw into Lori’s breast, like an anxious kitten, but when she passes the threshold of the tomb and goes to return the creature to the vampiric woman:

The animal was changing before her eyes. In the luxury of slough and spasm it was losing its bestiality, but not by reordering its anatomy, but by liquefying its whole self - through to the bone - until what had been solid was a tumble of matter. Here was the origin of the bittersweet scent she'd met before the tree: the stuff of the beast's dissolution. In the moment it lost coherence, the matter was ready to be out of her grasp, but somehow the essence of the thing - it's will, perhaps, perhaps it's soul - drew it back from the business of remaking. The last part of the beast to melt was its claw, its disintegration sending a throb of pleasure through Lori's body.

This fluid plasticity is the hallmark of the transformation of the Nightbreed. In the moment of their transformations, they dissolve into droplets and liquid flows. They become disorganized, undifferentiated matter. Boone’s substance, when he transforms, is fluid. The Nightbreed, to Lori, seemed full of possibilities.

In 1947, Antonin Artaud put on a radio play called, To Have Done with the Judgment of God. Few figures loom larger in assessment of Barker’s early theatrical work than Artaud through his concept of the Theatre of Cruelty, which sought to use overwhelming sound and light to stun the audience, as well as creating a situation where the mise-en-scène was put before the script. This is iceberg theatre – it’s theatre that deliberately invites multiple interpretations. It is also very much in keeping with the ideas of another avant-garde artist and philosopher widely regarded as influential upon Barker in Georges Bataille. And we can see stark parallels between Lori’s experience, her death-drive in Cabal and Bataille’s description of ecstasy in Inner Experience:

"What is thereby found in deep obscurity is a keen desire to see when, in the face of this desire,
 everything slips away.

 But the desire for existence thus dissipated into night turns to an object of ecstasy. The desired spectacle, the object, in the expectation of which passion goes beyond itself, is the reason why "I could die for not  dying". This object grows dim and night is there: anguish binds me, it sears me, but this night which is  substituted for the object and now alone responds to my anticipation? Suddenly I know, I discover it in a  cry: it is not an object, it is IT I was waiting for."

Barker, like Bataille and Artaud, wants to shock the senses, to inspire ecstasy and to describe for his audience, people in the throes of this ecstasy. And it is via Artaud and Bataille that we must interpret how Barker describes the transformation of the Nightbreed.

In To Have Done with the Judgment of God, Artaud says:

When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.

And in their moment of transformation, the Nightbreed become a body without organs. What then is it? Artaud is unclear except to say that a body without organs represents a true freedom. This idea of the body without organs was elaborated upon by two other authors who were deeply influenced by Artaud. In their 1972 treatise, Anti-Oedipus Gilles Deuleuze and Félix Guattari elaborate upon the body without organs in depth, where they position it as the “third term in the linear series.”

A Deuleuzian metaphysics is one defined by difference. Being is composed of a series of machines, “The breast is a machine that produces milk and the mouth a machine coupled to it.” These machines represent flows and breaks. But as these produce, including producing production, including producing the desire to produce, they also tend toward decay. But these philosophers reject that this system of being can ever lead fully to nothingness. Nothing is ever gone completely and the dead become dust in the wind, become flies or even become monsters.

So our body without organs becomes that undifferentiated point which is the barrier at which the breakdown of the old and the arising of the new meet. It could be seen as an ambassador of tomorrow’s flesh and a reminder of yesterday’s. But it is neither. It is an undifferentiated fluid surface. “The desiring-machines attempt to break into the body without organs, and the body without organs repels them.” The body without organs constitutes, “a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed.” But as the body without organs gives rise to the mitochondrial machinery that make something an organic thing, a differentiated thing, it seems in its repulsion of desire as if it miraculates them. The universe becomes this push and pull between being, and desiring to be and ending, desiring to end.

In Cabal, this is the root desire of Lori and of Boone and of all the other misfits whose lives fall into the constantly dying and being reborn cosmology of Midian. This desire to fall back to the undifferentiated and to arise again, phoenix-like in some new form. To blossom and then to fall. As Bataille poetically put it,

 "Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.

 The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form." 

Boone and Lori destroy Midian. This isn’t their intention, Boone wants to be left alone. Lori wants Boone. But Boone and Lori attract the attention of Decker, and Decker, in turn, attracts the attention of Eigerman, who, for his part, cannot tolerate the presence of those who are everything his species could not bear to be. As a consequence of his destruction, Boone is granted the power to restore Midian and the obligation to do so.

There’s a thread running through Deuleuze and Bataille back to Nietzsche, that situates the origin of morality in debt. Deleuze and Guattari describe this as the force that transforms the socius (which we can treat as a special form of the body without organs). They describe it as being the origin of many things, but one of those is, “the pain of the initiations.”

Initiation is like a seduction through the layers of a necropolis. It brings you within by degrees. And it brings with it agony and the limit of the senses. But like seduction, and like becoming a Nightbreed, initiation is something we desire. We move toward our initiations and their agonies, knowing that they will bring us pain and desiring that pain. Boone and Lori seek out their debts. They become indebted to Midian because they desire it. They desire that constant breaking-down to the point of unmaking and reconstitution that is transformation, and in their transformation we see a template for understanding how a person might transform.

Transformation is like a seduction, like and initiation, it is the ecstasy of sensation that pushes us out of the rational and allows us to come back with knowledge, conviction and purpose. In Cabal, sex, death, shame, lust, revulsion, longing, fear and joy all tangle together like a mass of worms beneath the skin of the world or the mycelia of a colony of mushrooms. In order to be transformed we must first be unmade. Cabal teaches us this lesson well as first Narcisse, then Boone, then Lori are unmade and reconstituted transformed. They each, in their way, pursue those desiring machines within them along the path to breakdown, to the undifferentiated matter from which all new growth blooms, and then they arise again different, terrible, monstrous and alien.

The Nightbreed dance along the edge of the indescribable because they are everything that we can not bear to be. Much as Bataille’s ecstasy is like night falling, is a sensation akin to death, so to are the Nightbreed and therein lies their seductive appeal.

Review: The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

23168817Translated by Joel Martinsen

Liu Cixin is one of my favourite authors today for quite a few reasons, and so I was particularly excited when he was awarded the Hugo for best novel for The Three Body Problem.

I’d pre-ordered the Dark Forest from my local genre book store but then, due to a store closure for a few weeks in August ended up not being able to start it until Sunday the 30th.

As a result this review is somewhat later than I would have hoped. But it was a book worth waiting for.

I’ll follow the same pattern I did for my review of the Three Body Problem, providing a spoiler free review at the top with a section dealing with any spoilery material that I feel warrants discussion below a sizable gap.

Thesis Fiction

Liu Cixin writes thesis fiction. By this I means, he starts his stories by quite clearly and overtly stating some concept or idea which the novel will elaborate on and attempt to provide evidence for. What follows will then be very thematically controlled in order to support that proposition as specifically as possible. Everything in the book is subordinate to that purpose.

In The Three Body Problem this thesis shouted back to one of the earliest novels, a work which was also thesis fiction, by suggesting an inevitable cycle of chaos and order within civilization, and, like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, showing us a civilization in the dying days of one of those times of order and prosperity, just before a collapse into a period of chaos.

The Dark Forest begins with a prologue before the events of The Three Body Problem in which a somewhat dissolute scholar Luo Ji meets with Ye Wenjie, a key antagonist of the first book, and is given a puzzle. This puzzle, a brief parable of an ant and a spider, and the contents of a conversation in the first chapter create the overall thematic structure of the book: an exploration of the boundaries between communication and miscommunication, specifically positing that as the distance between agents grows, whether that distance is one of culture, time or space, the possibility of meaningful communication diminishes, and where communication fails, mistrust flourishes.

The Wallfacers

Exploring this problem with communication, Cixin returns to the first book’s most bizarre technological conceit: the sophon. These sub-atomic AIs watch everything, reporting on the progress and plans of every human of note to their Trisolarian masters. They can access any computer, break any encryption. There is only one place safe from the Sophon’s baleful gaze: the mind. And so four people are officially tasked with creating devious and mazelike strategies to overcome the Trisolarian threat. A fifth takes it upon himself to do so.

The four chosen: an American diplomat, a Venezuelan president (proposed as the successor to Hugo Chavez), a British neurologist, and Luo Ji – still dissolute and a bit of a failure as a scholar.

The fifth is a Chinese political officer in the newly created space force.

It is worth noting at this point that one of the small problems I had with The Dark Forest was the lack of a Ye Wenjie character in this story. This occurs on two levels: first in that the women in this book are all not much more than sketches, the book is dominated by men in a way the previous was not. Second, the book lacks a cohesive singular antagonist. The Wallfacers (excepting Luo Ji) each have a Wallbreaker, an ETO member assigned to reveal their ultimate plans, but none of these characters have any real depth, and most only ever appear in three scenes of the book.

The Wallfacers are tasked with an almost impossible problem: they are kept at a distance from society, denied the ability to meaningfully communicate, while simultaneously being given the power to do basically whatever they want.

The relationship between these men and the world occupies the first half of the book.

The second half deals mostly with Luo Ji and the Chinese political cadre. Each has become thorougly isolated in almost every meaningful way, and yet each believes he might know the answer to saving humanity. The book then does a dance, allowing us to see their actions, and to hear what they say they believe while never allowing us access to their secret hearts.

We’re then asked to trust that these two deeply flawed men might save the species.

The Dark Forest is a bit messier than The Three Body Problem. This comes from two issues: the first is that the story takes place over a much longer timeline than the first. There are massive global changes happening throughout and keeping up with the world building alone can sometimes prove a struggle, especially as Liu constantly tosses more and more scientific weirdness at us.

The second issue is that while Martinsen is a talented translator, and his book, if anything, captures the cadence and structural feel of Chinese writing more than Ken Liu’s polished lines, he’s just ultimately not quite as strong as Liu.

Had Martinsen been translating from the beginning and did every book this probably wouldn’t have come up. He’s still a good translator. But Liu is such an exceptional translator that anybody, even someone as talented as Martinsen, seems weaker by comparison.

Despite this messiness, it still manages to be a strong work of thesis fiction. Cixin wears some of his influences on his sleeve (Asimov, the original king of thesis SF is very much an influence, and the way Liu handles broad sweeping societal change is strongly reminiscent of the original Foundation trilogy, while references to Luo Guanzhong, who was so central to the themes of the first book, remain evident).

I also suspect Liu has read Gao Xingjiang as a large section of Luo Ji’s early story seems very reminiscent in style and tone to Soul Mountain (translated by Mabel Lee).

The story ends very abruptly. To the point where I almost felt a need to flip back a few chapters and see whether I missed something somewhere. However the nature of the ending is appropriate and satisfying. Liu manages to walk the fine line between inevitability and surprise.

It’s hard for a second book in a trilogy to live up to the first. To a certain extent it has to tread some water, move the story from point A to point B with as little disruption as possible. Liu throws this model out the window; and never seems to be hovering in place or filling time.

Ultimately this book isn’t as strong as The Three Body Problem, but it remains a perfectly good sequel to an amazing novel, and I am still excited to see how it all ends.

Spoiler Review

Much like The Three Body Problem, this is another book which is hard to review without spoilers. But for a different reason. In the first book it was because the technology was so integral to the story. In this one it’s because of the Wallfacers schemes.

Each Wallfacer, separated from Humanity, faces an existential crisis and each is broken in his own way by it. The American diplomat, focusing on the fleets of the human forces, decides that the human belief in the sanctity of life will be the ultimate undoing of all. He plans a remote-controlled fleet of nuclear kamikaze pilots and prepares to turn them against the human fleet itself as a form of psychological warfare. When his lack of trust in humanity is revealed he commits suicide.

The Venezuelan president hides his own plans behind a carefully cultivated mask of crudeness. Meanwhile he plots to build a nuclear arsenal capable of throwing Mercury into the sun, an action which would slowly but inexorably destroy the whole solar system, with the intended aim of blackmailing the Trisolarians into a surrender.

He’s so globally reviled for this, due to the lack of trust anybody has at the idea of one person having the power to destroy the entire solar system, that he’s stoned to death by his own people, who he previously led through a successful war against the United States.

The neuropsychologist originally claims he wants to enhance human intelligence, but secretly he’s working on mind control. He succeeds in creating a system, and then uses it to create a hidden clique in the military who believe human defeat is inevitable, escape the only option.

But nobody on Earth will countenance an escape that doesn’t have room for anybody. At various times escape plans are treated as crimes against humanity. Other times mobs shoot down any ship they believe is being prepared to escape. And the Battle in Darkness proves they’re probably right.

The Battle in Darkness

The political officer has been secretly preparing to send a seed of Humanity into the cosmos since the beginning of the crisis. He realizes early on that nobody will ever agree to this and so he prepares the circumstances in secret, assassinating and manipulating in order to get a situation where he is momentarily in control of a spacecraft capable of interstellar flight.

A single Trisolarian probe destroys nearly all of the Human fleet in battle, and he uses the opportunity to convince the remnants to flee.

But they realize that resources are low, not all of the ships will survive the trip.

Human ships promptly turn on each other, until only two remain, travelling in opposite directions. Their occupants severed forever from humanity.

And then there is Luo Ji.

He uses his power to acquire an isolated mansion, to find a wife who is like a character he once wrote in a book. He tries to live a care-free life and does… nothing.

Except he might be playing the longest game of all. Because he’s slowly solving the puzzle Ye Wenjie put before him – the puzzle of “Cosmic Sociology.”

The Axioms of Cosmic Sociology

  1. The principle requirement of any civilization is survival.
  2. Life always expands while the amount of matter in the universe is finite.

Chains of Suspicion

Coming out of these two axioms are the chains of suspicion. A civilization can never be aware if another civilization is benign or malicious without revealing their location.

If they do so and the civilization is benign all is well but if they do so and it’s malicious, they have signed their doom.

A civilization that does not know of the location of another may come to in time. Even if a civilization is far ahead in technology, they may not remain so since technological progress is not a slow steady process but rather an explosion of exponential growth. To leave another civilization uncontacted is to court death.

But any contact is also to court death.

And so the universe is a dark forest, each civilization a lone hunter pushing back branches, always prepared to ambush any other hunter who reveals his position.

Luo Ji realizes this, and with this knowledge curses another star, some 50 light years away, transmitting a map of its precise location to the universe. After an interregnum of 150 years the star is destroyed. But nobody notices for a long time because:

Communication is attenuated by time

The Trisolarians might have near instantaneous communication across interstellar distance, but for the humans any attempt at communication is affected by the passage of time. While this is true in the relativistic sense, it’s also true for the protagonists who are put into hibernation, awakening 200 years into the future.

They arrive in a false utopia of underground cities, flying cars, compassionate humanist government and confidence in an assured victory over the Trisolarians. All their concerns and plans from the past are ignored or brushed off. Oh, well that was so long ago, their descendants say, and all the best laid plans are ignored.

So of course, when it all comes crashing down due to the havoc caused by the Trisolarian probe and the Battle in Darkness which follows, the characters must scramble to try and drag together support for their plans or at least somebody to listen.

And then Luo Ji finally figures out how to win.

In extremis communication is the only thing that can work

He presents an image of a person in despair, throwing himself into a fantasy. The probe has prevented using the sun as an antenna for interstellar communication and nine more are coming to crush humanity. Luo Ji digs into work creating dust clouds throughout the solar system to locate the probes, an early warning system.

He uses the dead-man switch designs of another dead wallfacer and carefully positions the clouds so that when they’re deployed they will, through the flickering of the sun they cause, communicate a simple message: here we are.

The Trisolarians can’t return home, but if Luo Ji dies the solar system will fall just as quickly as the star he previously cursed. He demands to speak to them, finally turning the ever-present sophons to human advantage (it only took two whole books for someone to think of that) and he forces a complete capitulation from the Trisolarians. The invasion is averted, the sophon block on technology lifted. The Trisolarians share their technologies with the humans and redirect their ships so that they will need human help to reach the solar system and some hope of survival.

All through talking.

Without a shot fired.

The war is won.

Humanity and Trisolaris are both aware that they are children in the Dark Forest of the solar system. Luo Ji, like his predecessor who was stoned to death, held the survival of both species in his hand, and said, if one dies, so do we all. He stripped away the barriers of deception that surrounded the Wallfacer project, and revealed in a single moment his only sincere wish: survival for all.

And so he overcomes the Trisolarians.

Of course, there are some loose ends.

The Trisolarian fleet passed through several dust clouds travelling between Alpha Centauri and Sol. Their passage may have been remarked. The sun was used as an antenna to transmit into the galaxy not once but twice. Somebody else may be paying attention for signs of another hunter stalking the bushes.

And of course, though the humans and the Trisolarians are now locked together in bonds of mutually assured destruction stronger than the chains of suspicion that govern cosmic sociology, there’s no guarantee that this will be a stable alliance. In fact, previous exeperience (previous volumes in the series) predict it cannot be.

The Dark Forest is not a perfect book. It suffers from a lack of women. It suffers from a lack of a compelling villain, since the main conflict in this is simply between protagonists and their ability to meaningfully communicate. It struggles with a good translator who remains just not quite as good as the one who came before him.

But it is a very good book. It takes the question: can trust exist without communication, and picks it apart, examines it from a dozen angles and answers, ultimately, no.

Then it says, and here’s all kinds of reasons we fail to communicate. And this makes the universe a terrifying place where we are vulnerable children.

And it works.

Ken Liu returns to translate Death’s End, which comes out in January 2016. I’m excited to see how this whole thing comes to a close and I’m curious to see what Liu Cixin’s ultimate thesis will be. I wonder if he’ll combine the proposals of the first two into a synthesis or whether the third book will be some other grand pronouncement.

Recommendation: Read this book if you like:

  • Political SF
  • Chinese modernist fiction
  • Books that will try to blow your mind
  • Cosmic horror