Reaction: Lovecraft Omnibus 3 (part 2)

“The Dunwich Horror” is another long short story often considered to be one of the core tales of the Cthulhu Mythos; I disagree. In terms of concrete Mythos connexions, it has only the name “Yog-Sothoth”, the ubiquitous “Necronomicon”, and the idea of “Old Ones”. Yet these “Old Ones” can’t easily be assimilated to either obvious category: the “Great Old Ones” of “the Call of Cthulhu” and elsewhere, or the “Elder Things” of “At the Mountains of Madness”. They are said here to be kin to Cthulhu, but they are greatly unlike him, and even Cthulhu is said not to be able to see them. On the other hand, they seem distinctly more powerful and alien than the Elder Things. It is possible, given that they are mentioned has having placed their seal both upon the R’lyeh and on the Elder city of Antarctica (an impressive reference to Mountains, as the latter was written several years later), that the Elder Thing / Great Old One distinction had not been fully made at this time. Alternatively, the city mentioned could be a reference to the ‘second city’ of Mountains.

In any case, Dunwich feels different in tone both from the earlier Lovecraft and from the later, more science-based tales. It is clear that it owes much of its legacy to the dark fairy tale, and in particular it is considered heavily influenced by Arthur Machen – it has been called anything from an ‘homage’ to a ‘retelling’ of Machen’s The Great God Pan, a story which is explicitly referenced in the text itself. In that light, I think Dunwich can be seen as an experiment, telling Cthulhu stories in the tone of Machen; some parts of that experiment were expanded upon later, while others have become less relevant. I don’t think it wise to spend too much time trying to find a way to fit Dunwich into a single coherent mythology with the other stories.

The story itself continues the racist themes of “The Call of Cthulhu”; indeed, race is the entire issue here. Out in the “degenerate” and “inbred” rural parts of New England, a child is born with strange qualities, including precocious intelligence and unnatural growth – a child who may in fact be the very opposite of “inbred”. Yes, it’s another story about miscegenation, the greatest horror Lovecraft could imagine. However, this is less of an obstacle than in “The Call of Cthulhu”, because here the problem is not literal miscegenation between races, but a metaphorical miscegenation, which the squeemish reader may attempt to read without inquiring into its symbolic purpose – although there remain distasteful comments on the ‘decayed’ families of the area, they feel more the work of a patronising urbanite than of a committed white supremacist.

In terms of its positive qualities: I think the prose was fairly firm throughout, although obviously still overly purple. Some passages were actually quite well written. Although the main horror is too obvious, there is a bit of a red herring along the way, and if you’re a patient reader the slow build-up could be seen as tense. The whippoorwills are… really rather creepy. The later sequences are impressively, chillingly, callous, and the monster revealed near the end is actually quite disgusting/horrifying (the description strongly suggests a shoggoth in its appearance, although the context makes this impossible – another experiment, I think). Unfortunately, while the ‘chase’ scenes do have a degree of tension and ickiness, the hyperbolic writing and the laughably wooden hero bring too much of a “hunting of the snark” feel to proceedings, and make clear why Lovecraft has been such a temptation for parody and comic retellings. There are times when the story feels like a parody itself – which is a pity, as it does have some effective elements, which bode well for the later stories.

In particular, the monsters are a lot more horrible than Cthulhu, and the threat they pose feels more immediate, even though, for most of the story, they are rather less described than their more famous cousin. Indeed, although the description of the villain at the end works well, the general tendency to explain things, while theoretically making the threat greater, in fact makes everything less frightening.

One final note: it is often thought that Yog-Sothoth is the father of a character in this story, but that wasn’t the impression I got. When a character calls out both “Father!” and “Yog-Sothoth!”, I don’t see that the two must be addressing the same person, given that the characters has reasons to shout out to both their father AND to Yog-Sothoth. That, however, may be my preconceptions about the Mythos talking.

Next up: “The Whisperer in Darkness”, one of the three stories in this collection for which I have high hopes. Unfortunately, I know the ending…


“Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end” – I can’t tell you what a relief these opening words to “The Whisperer in Darkness” were. They promised a tale more toned-down, more subtle, less prone to mad hysteria, than Lovecraft’s usual fare – and the promise was indeed borne out.

The Whisperer in Darkness was written in 1930 – shortly after his “Fungi from Yuggoth” poem-cycle, to which it makes considerable reference. Like “The Dunwich Horror”, the story is in debt to Arthur Machen, this time his The Novel of the Black Seal – but unlike  “The Dunwich Horror”, this time Lovecraft truly makes the story his own. Gone are all the remnants of the “Little People” of Machen (referenced explicitly in the text); gone are the dark fairy-tale sensibilities; the cabals of miscegenated cultists are replaced by a variety of human ‘allies’, which include even urbane Bostonians. The patronising attitude toward the rural population remains, but now it has become more of a ‘noble savage’ attitude, with the older and less educated farmers being more accepting of the terrible theories of Akeley than the intellectuals are. What we have, in short, is a definite movement away from the old and the occult toward the new and scientific: “The Whisperer in Darkness” is a genuine science fiction horror story.

It feels as though Lovecraft was aware of this shift in direction; there is an atmosphere of challenge and change throughout the book. The protagonists – the narrator, Albert Wilmarth, and his correspondant, Henry Akeley – are not the naive and uninformed inhabitants of Lovecraft’s usual stories – both, in their way, are experts in folklore, who take for granted knowledge of the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos: Akeley even says to Wilmarth, and by extension to the reader, “I suppose you know all about the fearful myths antedating the coming of man to the earth – the Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu cycles – which are hinted at in the Necronomicon.” It is plain that these are not the sort of men who go mad simply by reading that horrible book – indeed, both protagonists display a commendable degree of sanity and levelheadedness throughout, barring a few moments of hysterical vocabulary, and the prose, while rich and ornate, is decidely more spartan than in many of his tales – some parts (particularly a long car-ride that seems autobiographical in its sincerity) actually rise to the level of admirable writing. Moreover, just as this overt and nonchalent mention of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth seems to be a promise to the reader, “oh, it’s not just more of that stuff”, so too Lovecraft doesn’t hide the Mythos elements away until the end. Normally, the Mythos elements ARE the horror, revealed gradually and then in a moment of revelation that is meant to disturb and sicken the reader; here, Lovecraft throws the mythos at us from the firing gun, neutered in the dispassionate summaries of Wilmarth, as if proving that he can write a story that doesn’t rely on such things for its effect.

The key difference is that Whisperer is not a horror story simply because of its mythos – it is a horror story that just happens to use the mythos as its background. By not loading too much expectation on the mythos elements, the story frees them to act as a disturbing atmospheric note – in which function they are far more effective. Instead, Lovecraft builds up a chilling story in two acts – the first act tense and exciting, the second skin-crawling. Maybe it hits a sore note with me, but I found the final two ideas (the cylinders and the final scene) both itchingly repellent, in a good way.

That said, the story has flaws. Biggest of these is the slow start, with far too much folklore thrust at us with too little passion. The prose, while good in places and generally adequate, is still prone to painful lapses like a man startling at a car backfire – Wilmarth cannot say, for instance, that two things are simply “one and the same” without making it “one and the same order of incarnated nightmare”. There are too many adjectives, and too many of them (usually things like ‘horrible’, ‘hellish’ and the like) have no apparent purpose or motivation. The structure of the story, which is full of foreshadowing, which ends on a flashback, and which has a total shift in tone halfway through just as the excitement is reaching its climax, is ingenious, but may disrupt the flow for some and cause disengagement. There are several points where characters in a modern horror story would have acted differently, and as a result a few more plot twists would be required – but this perhaps we can put down to the naivity of Lovecraft, who did not have the same advantage of learning from a century of horror films as modern readers. As a result, some elements may be predictable to those familiar with the genre – in particular, some foreshadowings are probably more obvious now than they were at the time. I choose to consider that these flaws, both in foreshadowing and in the believability of the actions of the characters, are fairly superficial and could easily be rectified.

Overall, “The Whisperer in Darkness” was a very effective story – at least for a reader not well-versed in horror. From this, one can see why Lovecraft has had such influence over horror writers since. By itself, it probably doesn’t make this book worthwhile… but it certainly helps.

Adrenaline: 3/4. Dunwich is reasonably effective in grabbing the attention, particular toward the end; Whisperer is positively exciting, at least in parts – I could feel my pulse and I read into the night to finish it, despite having intended read only the first half.

Emotion: 2/3. Both stories provoke a certain visceral reaction; the more sober Whisperer, with its smaller and more personal scale, more empathetic and convincing characters, and lesser degree of silliness, is more affecting. Neither, however, are all that emotional, as the characters are all somewhat cold and distant; the prevailing emotion is a horrified revulsion, although Whisperer also succeeded in provoking a small degree of concern for one of the characters.

Thought: 2/2. Both are rather too didactic concerning their mythos to actually provoke much thought, although both are good enough stories to have one thinking ahead throughout. Whisperer is the better of the two, as its innovative conceit (the cylinders) is actually quite interesting – but not really explored.

Beauty: 2/4. Dunwich is dragged down by moments of excessive prose and by silliness, but does have some really effective imagery (in particular, the fireflies and the whippoorwills). Whisperer may be given the benefit of the doubt here – I do like purple prose, and I think that this story shows how Lovecraft was often only a few notches beyond beauty. Dialled down, he hits the mark here – but not consistently. The images are also, while often horrible, nonetheless elegant and memorable.

Craft: 3/3. Both stories are constructed well and innovatively. Both have better prose than “The Call of Cthulhu”. Both are not so silly. Whisperer in particular is more sturdy in construction – but still, he’s not quite there. At times, the restraint of the prose slips, and at times there are small plot holes (well, maybe not holes, exactly – but distinct weak points that could develop into holes), and at times the control of tone and tension is lacking.

Endearingness: 2/3. Neither is entirely hateful. Whisperer is more appealing, but still – is it appealling enough, given its length? I will continue to think well of it, but I don’t think it’ll be near the top of the pile for casual rereading, as it’s too slow and heavy for what it delivers.

Originality: 2/4. Dunwich is not entirely quotidian, as it takes the story in unexpected directions, even if the core is fairly familiar. Whisperer, on the other hand, is actively unusual, in its plot structure, its antagonists, its conclusion, and the conceit of the cylinders. Unlike Dunwich, it feels like the beginning of a genre, not the end of one.

“The Dunwich Horror” Overall: Bad but with redeeming features

“The Whisperer in Darkness” Overall: Good!

Reaction: The Prestige, Christopher Priest

I have now read the first two sections of The Prestige. I am experiencing the unusual sensation of desparately wanting to read on, and being able to, and being yet unable to, not because, as sometimes occurs, the wave of my wish for the book not to end has built itself into a tangible barrier to further progress, but because I have read a full meal, and feel too sated to attempt another course.

It is remarkable to me that I am only one third of the way through this book. It feels like I have finished reading something entire. The second section of the book could easily have stood as a novella in its own right – a mysterious novella, it is true, and one that leaves much unexplained, but all unexplained in a perfectly suitable manner, all symbolically, thematically, concluded.

The first section is capable. It is slow, and mildly intriguing; the protagonist is sketched out sparsely but adequately. It is only a set-up; it needs be no better than that. The second section is superb. Priest is masterful in his efficiency; despite the dry, clean, Victorian writing, my pulse was racing at points; in particular, the way he described the magic tricks was surprisingly exciting, given that it was a verbal description of an essentially non-verbal, and essentially inactive, spectacle; Priest manages to supply the exact attentive eye that we would cast onto the scene, yet never sounds detached, and never loses his grip on the distinctive voice of the narrator. That narrator, we are supplied hardly any data regarding, yet by the end I felt him to be solidly real, solidly believable, and, while not being predictably ‘likeable’ as many fictionable people are, I found him… respectable. More, he evoked empathy – I want him to do well, not because I like him, or because I see myself in him, or project myself into his position, but just because he’s a decent human being. Except, of course, that he is a fiction, and lives only in a novel. It is rare, but not unusual, for an author to so display humanity as to provoke genuine empathy for his characters; it is extremely rare to be able to do so in so short a span, with so little in the way of biographical anecdote or telling detail.

If I have two concerns, they are that the voices of the first and second sections are too similar, and that the later book will fail to live up to the promises made by this section – not in quality, but in content. It is hard to see how the book can progress without devaluing, undermining, even mocking, existentially, this section, toward which I now feel curiously protective.

I do not know whether I can continue to read tonight; or, rather, I know that I cannot continue, but I am unsure as to whether I must. Although there is time for more reading, I do not think that there is time to tackle the entire next section before I must sleep; I think I would have to do that to find any peace at all, and even then, would I not have to read on until the end? I certainly cannot do that tonight. But… I do not feel able, either, to simply stop where I am.

I must read more of Priest’s work. Even though I have not yet encountered much of the machinery that lies underneath the plot of this book, for which contrivances Priest is generally acclaimed, the prose alone is of high enough quality to make me want to read more of it.


I read the third section last night. I thought it was not long, and it wasn’t, although when I had finished I looked back with surprise at how much I had read. This morning, I read through to the end, and again I am amazed by how much that was; the second section, I think, is simply heavier than the later ones, and so feels more like half a book than the less-than-a-third that it truly is.


The Prestige is not a particularly long novel – under 400 pages, it feels both longer and shorter. Longer, because of the span of time involved and the degree of detail; shorter, because it is so easy to read, and so dramatic. It addresses – my first thought here was to say ‘chronicles’, but that would be misleading in its intimations of direction and completion – a feud between two Victorian stage magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier; central to the story is a pair of similar, perhaps identical, illusions that they perform. Their story is told through two accounts, one from each magician, and is framed by a story of a meeting between two of their descendents.

There can be no doubt that the novel is immensely good. I can muster only four real complaints against it:

–          The framing story is decidely less powerful than the period tale itself. It feels as though there could be much to explore here, but it is not given enough time or attention; furthermore, elements of the framing story would appear to have consequences for the events of the period tale that are not addressed. The back cover drives the ‘effects of their rivalry have affected even the current generation’ angle – but as these are not the children of Borden and Angier, nor even their grandchildren, but their children’s grandchildren, and as there is only the slightest sketch of any events of the intervening century, this impact, which might be thought central to the novel, is greatly watered down, and the events of the ‘present day’ feel more like a coincidence than a consequence; a coincidence that splashes us in the face with modernity as we attempt to immerse ourselves in an alien time.

–          Relatedly, the ending is a disappointment. It was not, by itself, bad; in a lesser book, it would have been brilliant; but it did not live up to the expectations raised either by other readers or by the rest of the novel. It did not so much leave loose ends as leave entirely new and loose beginnings and middles; I don’t understand the point of it in the novel, although as a scene in its own right it was executed superbly. The whole of the book felt like a built-up to some shattering revelation (not of the mere magical kind, but of something dramatic or philosophical), and I felt that there was none, leaving me with a strange, heightened but deflated sensation. Just as Borden’s account by itself could have stood as a novella (and was, I think, the best part of the book, although that is hard to judge), so too this book could, and perhaps should,  have been (or, who knows, might yet be, though it seems unlikely) only the first part of a trilogy.

–          The entry of unmistakable speculative elements is left too late in the novel, and is too sudden, and consequently feels unearned and unfair to the reader. John Campbell once said that it was impossible to write a science fiction mystery novel (which is what this is, at heart, though it is also more than that), because the author would be free to pull out explanations that could not be known to the reader in advance, negating the pact under which a mystery is considered (Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel to disprove this point) – in this case, his concerns are borne out. That the speculative elements – which toy with the appearance of possibility for a moment before leaping into the unsupportable – do not wholly sink the novel, and in the end appear justified, is a credit to the author, but it is also a handicap that the novel has to work to overcome. As a reader used to overwhelmingly fantastical fair, I forgave the author his foibles – but I do fear that many readers used to realism, not given any warning by the cover or by reviews, and lulled into false understanding by the realism of the early parts of the book, may throw down the book in disgust when they realise what is going on.

–          Finally, the book is full of contrivances and concepts that are eye-catching and ultimately unexplored. Fascinating ideas that could have been the basis for a book – some of them ideas that maybe should have been the basis for THIS book – are given no more than a superficial paragraph or two of musing, or even less. Half a dozen books could be written from the bones of this one.

None of these complaints, in the end, stop this from being a truly enjoyable and impressive work of literature. None of them, in that sense, are genuine problems. Rather, they frustrate me, because they serve as hints of what could have been an even better book. I hope that Priest, clearly an enourmously talented writer, is able (or perhaps has been able) to write a book that lives up to the whole of the promise of this one.


Adrenaline: 5/5. A perfect score does not mean a perfect novel. It means only that I could not ask for more. So, there are probably more thrilling novels than this one – but it is impossible to hold that as a flaw in any way. Repeatedly, my heart was racing, even at things objectively, or in the hands of poorer writers, not that thrilling, and despite a prose style that would never seem, at first glance, to be rousing or fast-paced. Indeed, the writing appears slow, ponderous, old-fashioned. Yet I was gripped; I put it down once, to eat, and once again, to sleep, and not for a third time, save in obedience to nature. I wish I knew how that excitement was accomplished. If I had one complaint on this score, it would be that perhaps the beginning might be a little slow for some readers, but that is a minor issue.

Emotion: 3/5. I was disappointed, in that I had been expecting something more affecting at the end; but I would recommend the book as regards the affective experience. The central characters all feel extremely real, and their pain is empathised with even when they are not entirely sympathetic. It lacks perhaps a knock-out punch, but was continually affecting throughout.

Thought: 5/5. It is true that some ideas are not fully explored; but there are so many ideas! I was puzzling my way through this from the start – not only the simple mystery of how the magic tricks might be performed, but the dramatic mystery surrounding every character (the limited viewpoints cast the motivations and even actions of the other protagonists in shadow, and no viewpoint is entirely candid from the first about their own situation), and the literary mystery regarding the status of the text itself (the accounts of Borden and Angier are texts-within-a-texts, of dubious reliability, and part of the framing story is told in the first person; what’s more, at the heart of affairs lie – or perhaps do NOT lie – some simple secrets that have implications for every other word of the novel). I don’t get the feeling that I’m going to be thinking about this for weeks to come, but my brain was thoroughly taxed as I was reading it.

Beauty: 4/5. The prose is superb, if you care for its style; I do. It is old, and it is sometimes long-winded, but it is never flamboyant, never unclear, never affected. The magic tricks – both those performed by Borden and by Angier, and those performed by Priest – are stunning, and there are many highly cinematic scenes. I score the book down because of the slight disjointedness of its construction, because of the superb but incongruous ending, and because the flight to speculation felt inelegant and unearned.

Craft: 5/5. Again, not perfect – I think the modern scenes could have been improved, and the end more fully integrated – but I could not ask for more. In particular, the whole novel was a magic show – not just with the obvious literary deceptions, but with the continual misdirection, redirection, and reconsideration. Everything is plotted superbly. The prose and the characterisation were likewie exceptional, and even the dialogue was unobjectionable, once allowances are made for time period. In fact, some lines of dialogue in the Angier section do appear quite off – but I felt that this was intentional, as they appeared very much as dialogue will appear when it is written down after the fact by a man with no ear and an eye only for the content. There are few things that are as sure signs of skill as the ability to succesfully replicate artlessness. Also of particular note: at one point, near the end, I laughed out loud in stunned disbelief when the author revealed something that was obvious in hindsight but that I had unaccountably neglected to think of at the time. Not only was it obvious, it was exactly the sort of thing I should have been on guard for, and thought I WAS on guard for, but it still slipped by me.

Endearingness: 4/5. The ‘flaws’ I note above mean that I do not adore this book. In addition, it might be added that although there is much excitement, there is little progress, and although I empathise with all the characters and vaguely like some of them, I never felt the sort of bond that inspires love. I remain, to a degree, detached. That said, it is impossible not to hold it in some high but decorous degree of affection.

Originality: 5/5. I am unable to think of any serious elements in which this was derivative, predictable, or overly familiar. Where I may have predicted events at times, this seemed an intentional characteristic to enhance drama – and even when something seemed familiar or understood, the presence of so many misdirections meant that no safe surety could be felt in any conclusion, even those that proved to be correct.

Echo: 1/2. I confess, I expected more of an impact on reaching the end, but as I have said, it felt more like the first act of something than a stunning-to-the-knees conclusion.

Overall: 7/7. Brilliant. Oh, I know, it could have been better. It’s not the best novel I’ve ever read. I’m not shaken to the core. I’m not going to instantly go out and read all his other books. But… 7/7 does not mean ‘perfect’. This is, I think, at the lower end of brilliance – but it is more than ‘very good’.  Even if I look with a more critical eye at the scores I gave above, and try to mark it down, it is still ‘very good’ at the very least. And as I have not been so critical with the other books I have given my reaction to, it would be unfair to do so here. It’s not the best novel I’ve read, but it’s the best novel I’ve read in the last year. It is a rare thing – a book that is entirely literary (the most snobbish postmodernist could not deny its merit), and yet entirely readable. If you don’t mind the prose (which is old-fashioned, but far more accessible than genuinely Victorian novels), and you don’t mind being confused a little (not by what is going on, for it is entirely clear, but by its significance), I can’t imagine you not liking this book.


[Incidentally, a strange and heretical thought occurs to me: if I had to compare Priest’s writing to that of anybody else, it would be Isaac Asimov. Bear with me – I know that sounds strange. Asimov’s prose is not usually acclaimed, and it is nothing like Priest’s – in realisation. But where Priest does mirror Asimov (albeit while being a far better writer) is in the aim, the essence, of his prose – clear, sharp, precise, determined not to distract, and functional. It’s a quality much acclaimed in a populist novelist, but Priest is able to use it for more literary purposes. Also like Asimov, Priest’s ‘action’ scenes are not sensationalist, but functional – they advance the plot, and perhaps raise the pulse along the way, but are never allowed to take over. Also like Asimov, the characters are never truly explored – they are sketched out effectively and efficiently through telling details, without really giving much away about what goes on inside them. The result is that we feel we know them, even though we know little about them. And, again like Asimov, Priest centres his novel on intellectual concepts – The Prestige is not an action book, though it is exciting, nor a character study, though it has strong character, nor even really a mystery, though it is mysterious – everything, as in Asimov, has its function in addressing us to The Ideas (not in the sense of, say, Leibowitz, where the aim is thinking itself; Asimov’s, and Priest’s, Ideas are like fireworks or canapes – the aim is more to enthrall and inspire us than to teach us, I think). Priest happens to do every part of this better than Asimov, and he does more around the sides as well; the book is brilliant not because of any overwhelming quality but because it does everything well and most things very well. It may also be that this is not the case with every novel of his – I have so far only read the one! – and it is likely that the parallel comes to mind because I have just read The Caves of Steel. And I certainly admit that it is a counterintuitive connexion. I think it’s an interesting thought, though.

Reaction: H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 3 (part 1)

The H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 3: The Haunter of the Dark and Other Tales is frankly misnamed. It’s true that it does contain that story… but as it also contains “The Rats in the Walls”, “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, “The Colour out of Space”, “The Dunwich Horror”, “The Whisperer in Darkness”, and “The Shadow out of Time”, amongst others, that’s rather selling the collection short. In fact, almost all of Lovecraft’s most famous work is here – the only major omissions being “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (both in the first volume of the omnibus, along with the novel, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”), and “Herbert West – Re-animator” (to be found in the second). As such, this collection virtually is Lovecraft.

My intention is to read all the stories and review them; but, as I’m not used to reading short story collections, and as there is a particular tone to Lovecraft that I fear would make them repetitive if read in one sitting, I’m going to be reading them in bits and pieces, as counterpoint to some other books I want to get through.

The first in the collection is a short piece, The Outsider, written many years before most of his classic tales, which over the years has become the most re-printed of all his stories, and the one to lend its name to his first published collection.

That it is early is evident from the content, which does not touch on the later ‘Mythos’ at all, and feels like an older ‘macabre’ tale that could easily have been written by somebody else – except, of course, for the fact that it uses the word ‘infinity’ three times in the first three pages, followed fast by the phrase ‘I cannot even hint what it was like’. Oh, and it includes this uniquely Lovecraftian pair of clauses:

“…a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause – I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity…”

Yes, Lovecraft’s flaws are all on full display in this story about a man who lives alone in strange castle in the woods: the curious juxtaposition of verbosity and speechlessness, the unstoppable tide of adjectives, the obvious plot twists and an ending sign-posted so far in advance and so blatently that I was confused by the thought that the realisation of the final line had not occurred before – so unsubtle was the hinting that I had assumed the reader was expected to have leapt to the conclusion already.

That said, it is not without some merit. The first half of the tale – the mysterious, confusing half – is unremarkable but engaging, and it is not until the revelatory second half that both plot and prose descend into the wearisome. An attentive reader will begin to see why Lovecraft has been so popular and influential from this story; but it is not the best introduction to him in either quality or style. If it was once among the most successful of his works, it is no doubt because it is more accessible, more familiar, more universal than his later work.

The third story (I’m skipping the second because I read it more recently) is Pickman’s Model, in which one man recounts to another his experiences regarding a third man, the eponymous Pickman, a painter of ‘weird art’ in Boston. Unusually, the story is told not only in the first person (including a long second-hand monologue from Pickman), but by an impassioned and colloquial narrator. This doe not really work. Although the Pickman monologue is well-written, the surrounding narration by ‘Thurber’ feels too personal to fade into the background, yet too unrealistic to accept close scrutiny. Thurber’s language feels alienating and cliche to this reader, though perhaps it was accurate at the time, while his behaviour is, despite his repeated and transparant “I’m a reliable narrator, and I’m a sensible man” appeals, hysterical and exaggerated. The horrific details of the story are too distanced from the reader – one man’s vague account of the artwork of another man – and one wishes that Lovecraft could have gone into more detail, to hammer the point home, though most likely the sensibilities of his day would have prohibited publication if he had done so. In any case, the content does not seem as horrific as some artwork freely accessible these days on the internet…

The prose, meanwhile, still has the hyperbolic, laughable excess of Outsider; and yet it is not without quality. What Lovecraft captures in his writing style is an elementary, poetic beauty of rhythm and weight, that would have made him once upon a time a wonderful bard or epic poet: it is hard not to declaim his prose. Unfortunately, that dramatic rhythm, so near to the instinctive mode of a child’s recitation, brings him close to self-parody, close to the shores of disbelief; his eclectic lexicon and hysterical tone push him over that brink. Nonetheless, the writing is eminently easy on the tongue, and the tone is more measured here than in that earlier story.

What Pickman has that Outsider does not is a genuine Lovecraftian chord; indeed, in the monologues by Thurber and Pickman regarding the history that lies forgotten underneath the quaint American life, we have one of the most explicit expositions of what I think is the essential invention of Lovecraft: the bringing of psychology into cosmology. Lovecraftian minds are thin raft of sanity on the surface of a sea of madness and brutality; but, more than that, the world they inhabit has exactly that duality. The hidden, the forgotten, the subterranean; the ancient, the ancestral; these things are a source of fear and incomprehensibility – and though our science may attempt to exclude them from our lives, they still remain, and our ignorance cannot remain forever.

The same themes are addressed – more explicitly but less, in my view, persuasively – in the title story of Lovecraft’s career: “The Call of Cthulhu”. Longer than the previous stories, and more complex, Call is a story told in three distinct account: the narrator’s great-uncle’s notes regarding a bizarre sculpture created by a local artist, and that artist’s ensuing mental health issues (in this the story suffers by being placed next to Pickman, in that much of the same ground is covered, albeit in a different direction); the same uncle’s notes regarding the account by a police inspector of a raid on a cult meeting in Louisiana, and regarding the archaeology convention at which that account was given; and the account of a Norwegian sailor of his experiences in the South Pacific. The three accounts are pieced together by a single, unobtrusive narrator, who, in Lovecraftian style, has been forever damaged by what he has discovered.

Call is a story of mixed success. On the one hand, the writing here is better than in either of the two previous stories; it retains its portentous and dramatic roll, but it is more muted, more syncopated, and more natural in feel, while the verbosity is somewhat toned down. Unfortunately, Lovecraft is at times reminiscent of a man with an underlying phobia – perfectly calm and coherent at one moment, but the next, confronted with the object of his fear, reduced to a gibbering hysteria. (This is one reason why so many writers have been tempted to portray Lovecraft as a character in his own mythology). Thus, while the opening sections are well-written, the prose gradually deteriorates into parody as we come closer to the underlying horror. That said, as the story is longer, the tolerable parts are more extensive; it should also be said that there is considerably more mystery about the direction of the tale than there is in either Pickman or Outsider – or there would be, if we didn’t already know about Cthulhu.

Cthulhu himself, meanwhile, is a major flaw. The closer he comes to being portrayed, the less frightening he becomes, and at the end he seems more pathetic than terrifying. The decision to give him such a baroque and over-complicated, over-specified, appearance (tentacles, wings, paws) moves him from an interstellar terror-god into the villain of some Japanese B-movie – oh no, not another weird sea giant smashing its way through Tokyo! The saturation of Cthulhu in our culture, meanwhile, makes it impossible for me to imagine the statuettes depicting him without thinking of the thousands of comic or ironic depictions of him (Ursula Vernon’s, for instance; or the Plush Cthulhu; or the Hello Cthulhu webcomic that I’ve only just remembered about; insert your own false idol here), which rather detracts from the horror. It might be thought unfair to criticise Lovecraft for the damage done by a century of imitation – but underlyingly it IS his problem. It is the fact that Cthulhu is so implausibly, comprehensibly, manipulably ordinary that makes him susceptible to this sort of subversion. The human mind is very resilient; if it draws breath for a moment, it can rationalise and address any physical enemy, however objectively dangerous; it is only the unknown that can produce lingering fear. Cthulhu has none of the unknown about him: we know his name, we know his character, we know where he lives (exact co-ordinates are given); we know what he looks like; we know that there’s no way he can creep up on us; the only thing we don’t know is why exactly, beyond being quite large and weird-looking, he’s meant to be dangerous. It is unusual for Lovecraft to be TOO explicit about the nature of nameless horrors, but here is severely harms the drama of the ending. Instead, the horror must be described, not imbued – and so we face the sad arrangement of Lovecraftian tropes – the indescribable, the horrific, the terrible, the things undeniably older than the stars – all acting as excuses for his inability to make us feel. He knows that what he describes will not convince a rational man, so he has his narrators say ‘I’m a rational man and I was totally, but inexplicably convinced!’ all the time.

This is a shame, because he is not without talent, and his central idea is one that crawls its way into the spine and itches there; but so often he has to resort to cheap and predictable gimmickry.

The worst thing about this story, however, is the appalling racism. The ‘enemy’ are comprised entirely of ‘negroes’, ‘mulattos’, ‘mestizos’, ‘mongrels’, ‘mixed-bloods’, all inevitably mentally subnormal; a team of policemen completely overlook the pedestrian problem of some corpses while they scream and shudder with the horror of seeing these ‘mixed-bloods’ (who are given no obvious mental or physical defects other than evilness and inferior blood), while a noble Nordic character feels that ‘destroying’ them is a duty. At one point, the fact that somebody dies is considered suspicious merely because it occured in an area where there were known to be ‘negroes’; at another, the mixed-race villains of Louisiana are referred to simply as ‘creatures’. I try to overlook these things as artifacts of their time – but here it goes beyond casual racism into the heart of the plot. It almost seems as though Cthulhu’s coterie of half-castes is meant to be the real horror here, more disturbing to several characters than the whole interstellar dragon-cephalopod business – unsurprisingly, given Lovecraft’s own phobia for ‘degraded’ races (he reportedly was once physically overcome by the horrifying thought that a black man’s skin had touched his plate in a restaurant; regarding Jews, his wife said that he ‘almost seemed to lose his mind’ around them, and he himself admitted to thinking that he ‘could easily a slaughter a score or two’ of them). The racism is therefore both despicable and frankly amusingly ridiculous.



Adrenaline: 2/2/3. The first two tales are both fairly dull – the first lightened by some early suspense, the second by some late action. “The Call of Cthulhu” is rather better, which effective, if rather slow, suspense and some actual action-scenes later on.

Emotion: 1/2/1. Outsider has no emotive impact on me at all. Cthulhu might have done if the most appealing character, the Norwegian, hadn’t been relegated to the end, and overshadowed both by Cthulhu and by the decaying prose. Pickman managed to evince a degree of… horror, I suppose, from me. Not fear – but a sort of crawling horror that Cthulhu hints at but did not, to me, deliver. That said, even in Pickman it is minimal, being too constrained by space and by predictability.

Thought: 2/2/2. All three do engage a little – the first as a simple mystery tale, the second through the grimly appealing imagery, and the third through a combination of the two, let down by the stupidity of the racism.

Beauty: 2/3/2. The first two, to my mind, had a degree of beauty in their imagery, and the second two in their prose. Pickman is the more aesthetically pleasing of the three – the prose not quite so good on average as in Cthulhu, but helped by simpler, more striking images.

Craft: 2/2/3. All three are flawed, and all three have redeeming features. Cthulhu is the strongest, however – the prose is better, despite some later slips, the plot is less predictable, and there is a more interesting and sophisticated narrative structure.

Endearingness: 1/3/2. Can’t see any reason to re-read “The Outsider”. “The Call of Cthulhu” is a little more endearing – you can’t help but love the Mythos a little – but badly damaged by racism and latent sillyness. “Pickman’s Model” is not immune to the last, but is the more appealing of the three to me.

Originality: 2/2/4. The first two do have elements of originality – if nothing else, they’re abnormally weird. I might be over-selling Cthulhu here, but I think that due to the large-scale exposition of (a part of) the Mythos, combined with the strange narrative structure and an ending that is just weird, in a weirdly-less-wierd-than-expected way, if you can understand that, it can fairly be considered notable on this measure.

“The Outsider” Overall: 2/7. Just Plain Bad.

“Pickman’s Model” Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features

“The Call of Cthulhu” Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features

Reaction: The Caves of Steel

Go, and sin no more!

Today, Isaac Asimov is probably best known for his short stories (most famously Nightfall) and for his Foundation trilogy, itself composed of connected short stories. His attempts at novels have received rather less praise, and certainly less attention. The Caves of Steel, together with its sequel, stand as the most lauded of his longer works, yet still are overshadowed by his more famous stories.

The Caves of Steel is a science-fiction detective novel. On a future earth, with an impossibly high population of eight billion people (the book was written in the early fifties, when world population was crawling past two and a half billion), Elijah Baley is a police detective (rating C-5) tasked by his superior with solving the murder of a visitor from an alien planet. In doing this he must co-operate completely with his alien counterpart – a perfectly humanoid robot – yet it is also paramount that Baley solve the mystery before the robot does.

Baley’s world is a grim future of immense, sealed arcologies, universal agoraphobia, a diet of a thousand different types of yeast, and a rigid ‘ratings’ system that apportions every detail of luxury, from the number of children to the allocation of a personal washbasin, from the right to eat in one’s own room to the right to sit on the expressway, according to seniority, parentage and utility to the state. Into this world has come a colony of ‘Spacers’, descendants of early interstellar colonists – contemptuous, beautiful, and terrified of disease. The goal of the Spacers, from their open-air colony beside the immense closed City that New York has become, is to introduce robots into the economic system of Earth, for reasons they conceal; so far, they have succeeding only in introducing very primitive models into the Cities (though the open space beyond them is now entirely work by robots), and even they have provoked increasing discontent among the natives whose jobs have been taken from them by the new machines – only the immense military superiority of the Spacers has allowed them to push their project so far, and resistance is growing daily. Now, one Spacer, a man who has been developing a new type of robot, indistinguishable from humans in appearance, has been murdered, in Spacetown, where no murderer could have reached him (Spacers themselves being, of course, constitutionally incapable of anything so vile), and from where no weapon could have been removed without discovery. Baley’s partner in his investigations is the very robot that the dead man has designed, R. Daneel Olivaw, shaped in his maker’s image – stronger, smarter and more dependable than any human detective, and one day perhaps the perfect replacement for Elijah Baley.

Asimov is often criticised for the weakness of his plots, which often are sacrificed to the demands of exposition – but that is hardly evident here. Unlike many of his other works, here the ‘ideas’ are not the purpose of the story – the science fiction is a flavour for the detective story, and everything revolves around the plot. Who killed Dr. Sarton – assuming he was killed at all? Both Baley and the reader are bombarded with misinformation and with misdirection, with red herrings and with distractions; at one point Asimov relates to us a common game on Earth, in which young boys chase each other along a dangerous series of moving strips, the ‘leader’ endeavouring to shake off his pursuers with dexterity and clever side-steps; it feels as though Asimov has taken this as the model for his novel. In hindsight, the route he takes is not that complicated, but to follow him in the heat of the moment is difficult; all the clues we need to unravel the book are made clear, most of them quite early on, but like Baley we are unable to piece them together and sort the meaning from the static. What appears a casual detail becomes later integral to the plot; what appears important is seen to be nothing more than a diversion – or else the important is hidden in plain sight, where we are sure it must be a misdirection.

This is not to say that there are not ideas in this novel. Most importantly, Caves is one of, if not the, formative example of the concept of arcologies, although the word is not used in the novel. The era of ‘Civism’ (it inhabitants return to our own time as the Middle Ages) is gently adumbrated; with a more forceful author, this society would be presented as a dystopia, but Asimov avoids this through the viewpoint character of Baley – a grumpy, dissatisfied man, privately fascinated by ancient history, and yet no revolutionary, with a strong nostalgic conservativism and a tough shell of pragmatism – who is not blind to the problems of his world, and yet fundamentally still relishes its virtues. The same attitude is seen throughout the City; although there is talk of ‘Medievalists’, a pseudo-terrorist agitator movement that calls for a ‘return to the soil’, Baley observes that every citizen is a Medievalist in their own way – his own superior, for instance, wears anachronistic spectacles in place of contact lenses, and has even had “windows” installed in his office (a merging of nostalgia and pride – an ancient concept that allows him to experience the modern City in a new way); everybody yearns to return to something more simple, and yet hardly anybody is willing to make the changes necessary to do so. The ultimate irony of the Medievalist movement is that their “return to the soil” is rendered impossible by their own terror of the outdoors.

The depiction of Earth’s culture is also kept from dystopia by the opposing possibility, the culture of the Outer Worlds. Where Earth is crowded like a zoo, the Outer Worlds are free and open – each family has their own living structure, affording them perfect privacy. Earth is reduced to eating yeast and highly-processed foods (Baley is familiar with fruit only in the form of condensed sauces); the Outer Worlds live on the fresh produce of their verdant worlds. Earthmen live in a seething hive of filth and sweat; in the Outer Worlds, all disease has been eradicated. Earthmen must work for their privileges, the unemployed “declassified” and relegated to a subsistance life in communal ‘barracks’; the Spacers live lives of luxury, idleness and intellect, their needs catered to by armies of obedient robots. Without disease or hardship, Spacers may live for centuries, and as a result place very great value on their own lives; they have become extremely risk-averse; naturally, it is not efficient to spend resources where they will go to waste, and so deficient or disabled children are euthanised. Where Earth is religious, and structured by the ritual politeness that enables such densities of living to be maintained, the Outer Worlds are atheist, rational, and entirely efficient. Neither Spacer nor Earthman is given a utopia in this book, but neither is either denied their virtues; the implicit dilemma between the two cultures is a genuine one.

The second major topic is, of course, robotics. As the novel begins, Baley seems to think of himself in fairly progressive terms, but he is also highly antipathetic toward the robots gradually supplanting his colleagues, and far from please to be forced to work with R. Daneel. Surely, we think, we are dealing with a heart-warming tale about a man’s realisation that robots are as human as the rest of us? Well, no. It’s true that Baley comes to respect him, and it’s true that questions about where the difference between them lies are raised, but this is not another “we’re all the same” story – it is clear that, however much Daneel may look like a man, he is entirely inhuman. Unusually, the ‘theme’ of the nature of robots is not tacked on to the tale, but integral to it – it is possible to see the question of how Baley’s attitudes toward Daneel change as one of the central driving mechanics of the plot (and it is a genuine change of quality, between different conceptions, not merely an invetiable progression toward a more compassionate quantity). Above all, Daneel, made in the image of a human, acts as a mirror to humanity – not only to the human characters, but to the human reader, who is never certain how to interpret him. At one time, we might imbue him with human qualities – is he sarcastic? does he know more than he lets on? At other times, we might see him as nothing more than a calculator, naive and linear. It is not clear which is true – or even whether there is any truth to the matter. Any construction we place on him relies on human concepts, none of which can be applied to an alien like Daneel , not even in negation. Instead, Daneel, residing squarely in the ‘uncanny valley’ of near-humanity, can only be a passive mirror for our own preconceptions; Daneel mirrors humanity, and that changing mirroring is mirrored by the plot.

If Asimov’s plots are sometimes looked down upon, his characters are widely lambasted and ridiculed. Asimov, it is said, simply does not do characters. Well, that may be true of much of his work, but it is not true here (and there are many other character-focused exceptions to be found among his stories – The Ugly Little Boy, C-Chute, Hostess, and of course The Mule all spring to mind). Asimov has a firm grasp of psychology and, when he tries, a knack for telling details: Baley is in essence a stock detective character with little in the way of original features, but by the end he feels fully, for want of a better word, ‘lived-in’ and believable and sharp-focus; his wife, Jezebel, may not be particularly deep or unique, but she is adumbrated deftly, giving us an character considerably more complex than we might expect from her limited screentime; his superior, Enderby, is, it’s true, rather flat and cliché, but it is a bold high-contrast flatness that is achieved with very little effort; Daneel, meanwhile, impressively combines inscrutability with complete transparency in a way that seems simple at first but which treads a very fine line (as a host of Daneel-imitations throughout the decades since have shown.

Nor can too much criticism be applied to Asimov’s prose. He himself admitted that his aim was clarity and not poetry, but clarity need not mean boredom or inaptness; throughout the novel, the prose is clear, simple, varied, natural – unobtrusive. It does not get in the way or call attention to itself, either through flamboyance or through ugliness. Furthermore, on the few occasions when the author permits himself a wholly descriptive passage with no pressure of plot placed upon it, his prose can ascend to a crystal elegance that may not be sublime but that is not without it’s own beauty. This line, for instance, describes sleep falling on the City, in accordance with ancient habit, even though, segregated from the sky and lit by artificial lights, nobody knows that it is night:

“The expressways empty, the noise of life sinks, the moving mob among the colossal alleys melts away; New York City lies in Earth’s unnoticed shadow, and its population sleeps.”

Though that be said, it must be admitted that Asimov’s writing is not without flaws: his dialogue is often wholly unbelievable. Most of the dialogue is either composed of short, functional exchanges that move the plot along, or else of long lecturing speeches. In a few places, these are appropriate, an almost inevitable for the genre, but at other times they feel forced and fraudulent; the worst offenders are the recollected passages between Elijah and Jessie regarding Biblical details, which struck me as ridiculous for a private conversation between a married couple. The dialogue of their son, Bentley, is even more grating (though fortunately minimal), but this may be understandable in light of the era – perhaps it should be no surprise to hear him speak like a stereotypical American teenager from the fifties (his favourite word is “Gosh!”) when the novel was, after all, written in America in the fifties. And although the dialogue is clunky, it is usually so functional that it does not get in the way of the story.

The dialogue of Bentley dates the book, and it’s not the only thing to do so. Like much historical science fiction, Caves is strange amalgam of the visionary and the of-its-time; though much of its culture is futuristic, it still reads like a Fifties society with changes added. On the technical side, Asimov failed to predict the extent of the impact of computers (though not as badly here as elsewhere), and the extent of population growth (it has us at eight billion thousands of years into the future, rather than now), and its impact (our eight billion feels nothing like as crowded as theirs!); in general, he fails to predict the speed of advance, which makes his timelines seem peculiarly elongated.

This details, however, are quibbles, and the assiduous reader can mentally edit most of them away (so what if he says eight billion? Maybe he meant eighty…). The biggest problem most will have with the book, if they can aclimatise to the old-fashioned and stilted dialogue, is a lack of emotional engagement; although there are real-feeling characters, I never really cared about them all that much, and too many of the secondary characters are stock footage or plot devices. That said, this is a detective story, a genre not known for its realism and emotion, so readers should not be too disappointed. My biggest concern would really be that the book has no particular purpose – it’s not the best mystery story out there, it’s not a character tale, and it doesn’t focus fully on the SF elements. But then, it’s only a brief read.

The Caves of Steel is one of Asimov’s best books, and it is also a more approachable book than the better-known Foundation series, making it, along with some of his short stories, an ideal entrance point for those not familiar with the author. Importantly, it is also a very short book (my copy is only 200 pages, although they are densely printed) – this may be either an advantage, as it takes little time to read and is therefore little risk, or a problem, depending on where you buy it (my copy has a RRP of £5.99 on the back, as much as an 800-page tome at the time, which is clearly a ridiculous price for its length). If you’re paying full price for this, don’t bother – it’s good, but not THAT good. If, however, price isn’t a concern, it’s worth a go.

Adrenaline: 4/5. It’s short, it’s fast-paced, and its plot is devious, while the writing is functional and doesn’t slow the reader down. It has a number of tense moments, and even a chase scene. It is, it’s true, never actually thrilling (it’s too dry for that, and has too little space to build up affectual import), but it’s mechanically compelling. I was up late into the morning finishing it.

Emotion: 2/5. Almost a 1, but saved by the effective, though minimal, characterisation. Asimov is very rarely a writer of elation or weeping, and the most I can say is that I did vaguely care what happened to the characters.

Thought: 4/5. There are too elements to this: the ideas, and the mystery elements of the plot. Neither, by itself, is exceptional: I am not a reader of mysteries, and this one was intriguing and page-turning, but even I can recognise that it was not at the top of that genre, and jaded readers can probably work out what’s going on far too early (for myself, I guessed who was responsible for what early on, and was mostly right, but could not work out the whys or the hows). The ideas, meanwhile, are thought-provoking and not entirely resolved, but are not given enough screentime, or viewpoints, to really grab hold. The combination of the two, however – thought-provoking plot in a  thought-provoking setting – was note-worthy, with each helping to deflect attention from the other to maintain a state of confusion longer than one might expect.

Beauty: 2/5. Not an attractive book; the odd beautiful image does not redeem the functionality of the writing, the clunkiness of the speech, or the skilfull but shambling plot.

Craft: 4/5. Only the dialogue and a few overly jerky, somewhat contrived plot-developments let this down. The prose may not be spectacular, but there is nothing wrong with it, the plot may not be elegant but it is engaging, and Asimov shows great dexterity in juggling foreground and background, presenting his facts openly but only drawing attention to them when required, like a magician performing a trick. It is also worth noting that although space does not allow a full depiction of the setting, the glimpses we are given are innovative and convincing; for a book that must create not one but two alien cultures, while pursuing a police inquiry, making world-affecting choices, debating the nature of humanity, and deliberating on the proper course of human progress, all in only 200 pages, it depicts a world far more believable and solid than it has any right to.

Endearingness: 3/5. I respect the book, but I don’t love it – the mystery elements make re-reading less rewarding, the characters are likeable but too distant to feel like friends, and the setting, dirty and depressing, is not somewhere I particularly want to revisit, however memorable it is.

Originality: 3/5. Let’s be clear: this book was stunningly original. It was the first major science fiction mystery novel, it was the first work in the now commonplace genre of arcology futures, it was a pioneer in robot stories (Bladerunner and the character of Data in Star Trek are among those obviously greatly in debt to it), it turns its ingenuity to almost every element, however small, of its setting (the moving strips, for instance, are simple but startlingly original), and it’s even an important progenitor of modern mismatched-buddy-cop stories. It’s also innovative in seemingly following the path of a dystopia without making that the focus of the story. Unfortunately, what matters here is originality to the reader, and the very importance of the novel in the history of science fiction means that most of its elements have been re-used so often that the reader will be familiar with them. Asimov does, however, use this tropes with their original freshness, and many elements turn out to be rather less familiar than they may appear from a description of them.

Echo: 0/2.

Overall: 5/7. Good. A modern reader may have some problems getting into this book; it is dated, it is in places contrived, and due to the many emulators it will often feel familiar, at least on the surface. Get beyond that, however, and it’s an extremely clever novel that attempts, and mostly achieves, several different things at once – it has a rare combination of intellectual interest and excitement, which here do not conflict, but actually co-operate. While it may have a cardboardy feel around the edges, this can be blamed as much on its narrow scope and short length as on the author, and the plot is pacey enough to carry the reader past such concerns, once it has grabbed hold. If you’ve never read Asimov, it’s a good starting point – if you can’t read this, you probably can’t read much of his work (a few of the better and more unusual short stories excepted), since his weak points here remain weak, and while it is not perhaps the best of his novels, it is probably one of the most accessible.

A Religion of the Future (Sketch)


– This is a thing I wrote up a while ago now, when I was last working on religions; as you can see, it springs from reading about analyses of different types of New Religious Movement, which I wanted to incorporate into my primary conworld; but many of the most interesting features seemed to be most applicable to a modern or futuristic setting.

– As it happened, at the time I was playing with a SF world, and this religion seemed ideal for it. It’s a strange setting for me, as it’s neither the minimalist SF setting I normally play with nor the sort of rich, multi-species universe that would normally act as the opposing temptation. Instead, this setting is a human-only world that has faster-than-light travel and communication, which has become divided into many competing factions. The “Free Colonies” spoken of below are one of the larger factions in the setting.

– Although it’s atypical for me, I’ve recently been thinking about this setting again, and I might be putting up some more details in the future, so I thought it a good time to throw up this taster.


Pure Body System (PBS) has two chief sources: the Physical Semantics movement, and the Primitivism movement. PBS combines these strands into a powerful psychological, physical and social doctrine, which has become the dominant ideology of Free Colonial culture, accounting for a significant fraction of the human race.

The Physical Semantics (PS) movement probably had its roots in the 20th century, but it was not until the late 21st century that it reached its zenith. During the 22nd century, around the time of the early colonies, PS was a component of a large percentage of the dominant ethoi; since that time, it has dwindled in significance, with its followers crystalising into a handful of ethoi, of which PBS is the most significant. The origins of PS lie in studies of so-called ‘body language’ – the observation that much information is transmitted by non-verbal, and often non-conscious, physical means, such as posture, gesticulation, and facial expression. The fact that this communication was not always conscious was key: was it not true, asked the PS pioneers, that a thinking human being was always communicating in this way? Studies showed that even a subject told to be expressionless nonetheless made many motions, which could sometimes be correlated to reported thoughts. When these result were combined with a ruthless materialism, the conclusion was obvious: rather than these motions accompanying mystical ‘mental’ entities, was it not more reasonable to think that what we took as mental, our thoughts, were in fact physical – that our thoughts WERE our ‘communication’ of them? These insights could provide important help to humans – after all, the problem of communication was responsible for so many of the world’s ills. Now, the ‘meaning’ to be communicated was not something hidden away in somebody’s head, but graven on their every move and expression – it was only a matter of picking it up, in which modern science could undoubtedly assist.

Pure Body System, with its primitivist tendency, sees the human body as innately interpreting body language, but only imperfectly. The margin of perfection, however, has been distorted by deviance from our evolutionary form – if people have ‘distorted’ (genetically or cybernetically modified) or ‘degenerate’ (unhealthy) bodies, their natural body language becomes, as it were, garbled or mumbled, making communication more difficult. Accordingly, physical fitness and purity are among the greatest virtues, and rarely knowingly compromised – even superficial ‘body modifications’, like painted nails or unusual haircuts, are deprecated, as their deviance from pure body appearance causes distraction from the conveyance of meaning.

‘Communication’ is, of course, of immense practical benefit to the individual, but there is also a wider importance, seen in the PBS interpretation of compassion, empathy and love. Compassion is the condition of feeling another’s emotions as one’s own – this is held to be the result of perfect communication of that emotion. Compassion is therefore hindered by poor communication. Empathy is a characteristic of some individuals that allows them to ‘receive’ communication more accurately than most individuals – this is why empathic people are more compassionate. Just as we may, over time, tune into a radio signal, so to communicate we tune into the signal we receive from others – empaths are quicker and more talented at finding the signal, but more important is to transmit more clearly and strongly. Love, in turn, is a state of perfect compassion, which only occurs when there is good communication – which usually requires the receiver to finely-tune to the transmission. This is why love is said to grow between people who live together for a long time – they slowly learn the body language of the other. Likewise, parents and children, and also siblings. Romantic love is said to occur when an attraction (physical or semantic) causes the attention to be turned on a person intently and with great concentration. The knowledge and practice of PBS allows the same effects to occur more quickly and with less effort – hence, PBS promotes a universal love and harmony.

There are eight stated goals of Pure Body System:
1. To achieve a healthy and natural body
2. To become charismatic and empathic, resulting in social success
3. To eliminate the anxiety that follows from uncertainty of understanding
4. To enable personal psychological difficulties to be directly perceived and treated by experts
5. To enable the easier detection of hatred and deceit
6. To more closely bond families and communities, creating environments of warmth, nurturing and security
7. To eliminate social inefficiencies and counterproductivities arising from mistaken communication
8. To institute universal love and abolish all war and conflict


PBS is a religion of initiation, with multiple levels, known as ‘waypoints’. These are divided into three ‘courses’. The first course has three waypoints:

Alpha Point: those interested in the science pay for elementary instruction about the nature of PBS. This includes some advice on body language, persuasion and fitness, and some therapy.

Beta Point: those who wish to know more must first begin to reform their bodies to a point where they can communicate naturally – this means attaining health and fitness, and reversing or compensating for body modifications. PBS experts will provide assistance and encouragement in exchange for a low fee. At this point, followers are usually placed in like-minded groups of students.

Gamma Point: the interested may now, in exchange for money, receive further training and advice. This tends to move away from advice in the social/employment sphere, and toward first family matters and then more deeply into psychological issues. More socialising is done with both experts and fellow-travellers.

This first course is explicitly designed to show outsiders the benefits that PBS can bring even to people who do not enter into it fully. By the time Gamma Point is completed, many will have seen how empty their lives are, and wish to enter into community with other improved-communicators. For them, there is now the second course:

Womb Point/Delta Point: on reaching Delta Point, now called Womb Point, followers undergo a number of periods of disconnection from human contact, lasting usually around a week, designed to challenge the assumption of normalcy that followers have until now placed on wider society – by giving them time alone, they are shown how alien and unnatural much of society really is. On each occasion (known as a ‘gestation’, or more colloquially as a ‘holiday’), followers are guided out of solitude by experts.

Birth Point: after many holidays, the follower undergoes one final period of seclusion, known as ‘birthing’, which may last one or more months.

Baby Point: after the birthing, the follower enters into a society of experts. While there, he undergoes intensive ‘deprogramming’, to break the bad old habits of the outside world. This involves a combination of role-playing exercises and sensory displays designed to show and instinctualise the true semantic relations between different behaviours.

Pupil Point: the new initiate now enters into a wider society of initiates, as a junior member. With expert guidance, he learns the nuances of natural communication by engaging in it.

Student Point: the initiate has learned enough to live a contented and peaceful life. They engage in periodic ‘reconfigurations’ – mass calisthenic practices that reinforce particular physical/semantic relations while maintaining physical fitness and health and fostering communal spirit.

The second course aims to introduce people into a better and more select society. Most Free Colonies are now predominately inhabited by Students. Where initiate society is large, it often contains more-initiated sub-societies, where particular companies have given an iteration of the Second Course. Sometimes, these sub-societies may themselves contain elite sub-sub-societies. All of these, however, are fundamentally considered to be at the level of the Second Course.

The Third Course has a new objective: to institute the First and Second Courses. It too has multiple waypoints:

Guider Point: one who is sound and secure in his semantics learns how to teach and guide other Students.

Teacher Point: Guiders who excel go on to teach the First Course, and assist at Womb Point and Birth Point.

Expert Point: Experts oversee the First Course, oversee Womb Point and Birth Point, and guide through the Second Course. Experts oversee most Reconfiguration.

Deprogrammer Point: Deprogrammers are responsible for deprogramming; they are also overseers to ensure the orthodoxy of Experts, Teachers, and Guides.

Beyond this point is the Fourth, and highest, Course – its students are the highest authorities.

Wisdom Point: the Wise are the ultimate controllers of the first three Courses, and guide advancement to this point. They are students of Configuration Science.

Serenity Point: the Serene are responsible for ‘aligning’ PBS societies, so that their semantic systems do not diverge. Their knowledge of Configuration Science is considerable.

Scientist Point: Scientists are those who have mastered Configuration Science, which attempts not only to instil semantic systems but also to find the most optimal. Scientists may make sweeping social changes; they may even maintain certain societies as experiments for their research.

Preliminary Sketch toward a Grammar: The Syntax of Equations in Rawàng Ata

Please note that this is only the first part of such a section, detailing different forms; the second part will deal with when various constructions are used in preference to others. Other sections on nouns, verbs, deixis, pronouns and so forth will also be required. Nonetheless, hopefully this sketch will adumbrate for the interested reader some of the dimensions in which I intend to fill out the language.


1. Definition

An “equation” is a core utterance class in Rawàng Ata, typically associated with the communication of factual information. A single utterance may include multiple instances of equations, or of other utterance classes, but a single instance is sufficient for the utterance to be considered grammatically ‘complete’ and sufficient. Equations offer multiple descriptions of the same thing; these descriptions are divided into ‘new’ and ‘old’ descriptions; ‘old’ descriptions need not have been used verbatim earlier in the conversation, but stand for information that is both known (or potentially known) and known to be relevant.

2. Constitution

Equations are chiefly constructed out of large sub-units, ‘terms’, each of which offers a description. Terms are divided into the principle and the subordinate; ‘simple’ equations have only one principle term, while ‘complex’ and ‘serial’ equations may have multiple principle terms. Equations may also include ‘epiterms’, which are not terms themselves, and which cannot stand in their own right.

2.1 Types of Terms

There are three types of terms: deictic, rhemic, and phemic. Deictic terms describe the thing through ostension or other demonstration; rhemic terms, through a quality of the thing; phemic terms, through a factual relationship with other things. Deictic terms are clearly distinguished from rhemic and phemic terms, but the distinction between the latter two is pliable: many rhemes and phemes convey exactly the same factual information, but the former portray that information as an aspect of the thing itself, while the latter portray it as a contingent relation.

2.1.1 Structure of Deictic Terms

Deictic terms must always include some form of deictic phrase – either a deictic proform by itself, or a noun or verb modified by a deictic modifier. Deictic modifiers always follow immediately the noun or verb – they even come before a motif.

2.1.2 Structure of Rhemic Terms

Rhemic terms have one of two forms: an appositive phrase, or a nominal verb phrase. Appositions may in turn incorporate any rhemic term, and nominal verbs may have complements, which may in turn be any rhemic term. Apposition

An apposition is a placing of a noun or noun phrase placed subsequent to the rhemic noun. The apposite is placed into another case: generally, the ergative, although the locative and benefactive cases are also possible; where the rhemic noun is a prepositional pronoun, the apposite may be in an appropriate ‘controlled’ case:

dalè tipayu-yòn

the point of the peninsula

dalè ajunta-ya

the point of the dagger

oa fāma-ya

the thing on the surface of the great wave

ajunta oa-ya

the dagger on the surface of it

ajunta oa(ya) fāma-ya

the dagger on the surface of the great wave

dalè ajuntaya oa(ya) fāmaya tipayuyòn aban(ya) kosulauya

the point of the dagger that is floating on the great wave near the cape across the bay

It can be seen in the last two examples that although prepositions take the ergative when they are final apposites, this marking is often dropped when they are themselves followed by another apposite – this marking can return for purposes of emphasis.

One special case of apposition is that of an infinitive with its agent – the agent follows the infinitive and is in the locative case. Apposites in the ergative with infinitives indicate a less precise connexion, often an instrumental or an adverb of manner:


a holding


a seeing

tulàng komayon

seeing the girl

notàng komayon

a holding by the girl

notàng ajuntaya

a holding with a dagger Nominal Verbs

Nominal verb phrases have three componants – agent, object and verb. Of these three, only the agent is optional. The object is always unmarked, and the agent is always marked with the ergative case. The verb agrees with the object. The typical word order is AVO, but may be altered. It should be noted that the subject of a motive verb is considered its object for these purposes.

kòmaya ranotanga ajunta

the dagger (is) held by the girl / the holding of the dagger by the girl / the girl holding the dagger

ajuntaya tula kòma

the dagger (is) seen by the girl / the sight of the dagger by the girl / the girl seeing the dagger

tassida kòma

the travelling of the girl by river

In all these cases, a noun phrase that is placed first in the term may itself be a rhemic term:

kòmaya abanya wūya ata ranotanga ajunta

the holding of the dagger by the girl across the street

2.1.3 The structure of phemic terms Basic structure

Phemic terms have a more complicated structure – in part because the noun componants may be rhemic terms in their own right. A phemic term usually has three core componants: a agent, a verb, and an object. The subject and object may be rhemic terms, or simple noun phrases. Word order is free, but the default is SVO. The verb (or verbal phrase) may be in any of four voices: active, passive, active-reciprocal or active-reflexive; these are marked in varied manner. Active verbs agree with the subject through prefixes; passive verbs agree with the object through suffixes; active-reciprocals agree with both subject and object through prefixes, while active-reflexives agree with the subject with one prefix and are further marked by a suffix:

imàwa ra-solung-a kèlakī-ma

the sheep eats the grass

imàwa-ya solung-as-a kèlakī-ma

the grass is eaten by the sheep

imàwa-ya ra-sa-solung-a kèlakī-ma

The grass and the sheep eat each other

imàwa-ya ra-solung-ut-a

the sheep eats itself

As seen, the object, regardless of voice, is always placed in the accusative case (-ma, or –na when the previous consonant is a labial). The case of the subject depends upon a further property, known as transitivity: the agents of transitive verbs are unmarked, while the agents of intransitive verbs are placed in the ergative (-ya). Only verbs in the active or active-reflexive may be transitive. Structural complications of intransitives

Phemic terms with intransitive verbs may differ from this basic structure in either, or both, of two ways: they may lack an object, or they may have an agent.

Any intransitive verb may lack an explicit object. Where this object is clear from deictic or textual context, this may be considered anaphora, but where there is no clear object, this is no objection to the grammaticality of the expression; nor are such contextual deductions considered as fully binding as formal anaphora.

imàwaya rasolunga

the sheep is grazing (on sth.)

Alternatively, or in addition, the verb may possess an explicit agent, in addition to the existing subject. The relation of agent to verb is non-defined, but is often causative.

kòma imàwaya rasolunguta

the girl has the sheep eat itself Structual complications of motive verbs

The syntax of motive verbs differs to a degree from that of non-motives. Motive verbs are always transitive, and never passive, reciprocal or active-reflexive; they always lack an object. However, they may be transformed into non-motive verbs through the use of a suffix; these new verbs may be placed into alternative voices, or be given an additional subject; they also require an object, which is marked unusually:

kòma tassida

the girl travels by river

kòma imàwaya ra-tassid-ung-a leyà-sa

the girl has the sheep travel by river to the sea Lexical and syntactic variations in object-marking

Although it has been said that objects of phemic verbs are marked with the accusative, this is not universally the case. There are four exceptions: for syntactic reasons, to be discussed in a later section, an object may be placed in the lative or ergative cases; for lexical reasons, an object may be placed in the lative, prolative or ergative cases; in the case of de-motive verbs, the object is always in a non-accusative case; and certain verbs of ditransitive import may choose either their dative or their accusative object.

Demotive verbs place their objects in a variety of cases depending upon semantics. The lative case is used to indicate destination; the dative, direction toward; the avertive, direction away from; and the locative, motion within, through, around, or generally associated with. These objects may not be clarified with prepositions.

Non-motive verbs may lexically demand unusual object cases; these can be divided into bigoverning verbs (where the choice of case reflects a determinate change in verbal meaning) and fully unusual verbs (where only the unusual object case is permitted). These verbs must simply be learnt, but typically are verbs involving physical contact. The most prominent of these is the verb for touching, which demands the lative:

kòma kubumya imàwa-sa

the girl touches the sheep

A related example of a bivogerning verb:

kòma kudanujma imàwa-ku

the girl strokes the sheep

kòma kudanujma yolùti-ma

the girl stirs [in this context, froths or whips, or by extension curdles] the milk/cream

The semantic difference indicated by the choice of case can sometimes be quite dramatic:

kòma kurokanyàta imàwa-ku

the girl rubs the skin of the sheep

kòma kurokanyàta imàwa-ma

the girl prepares the meat of the sheep for cooking

The use of the accusative for the object of a bigoverning verb also has the effect of placing the object into the ‘substantial’ class of nouns. This also occurs when objects are in the ergative, and demands counters for marking plurality or possession of the object:

kòma kurokanyàta imimàwangakku

the girl rubs the skin of her several sheep

kòma kurokanyàta kutotora imàwama

the girl prepares the meat of her several sheep for cooking

The ergative mostly occurs with fully idiomatic meaning, with a fixed object:

kòma kuduana lòyang-am

the girl holds the pot

kòma kuduana lòyang-ya

the girl defecates

Meanwhile, the case-marking of semantically ditransitive verbs is noteworthy, because the verb retains the same meaning regardless of object marking: object marking merely shows which of the two possible classes of object is being expressed (no verb may have two simultaneous objects; however, see the later section on topical constructions). The dative is associated with recipients; the accusative, with themes:

kòma kutawīta ajunta-ma

the girl hands over the dagger

kòma kutawīta kōba-bi

the girl hands over to the lord

However, unlike in some languages, ‘ditransitive’ verbs are a small closed category in Rawàng Ata, containing only ten verbs: tawīt-, manèt-, ān-, ìlal-, kosul-, far-, dyani-, lafam-, wilàl-, and owa-; respectively, ‘to hand over (ACC) to (DAT)’, ‘to give ownership of (ACC) to (DAT)’, ‘to give responsibility for (ACC) to (DAT)’, ‘to give (ACC) as a gift to (DAT)’, ‘to hide (ACC) from (DAT)’, ‘to point to (ACC) for (DAT)’, ‘to uncover (ACC) in front of (DAT)’, ‘to turn (ACC) to point at (DAT)’, ‘to steal (ACC) from (DAT)’, and ‘to pay (ACC) to (DAT)’. Directive syntax

When an utterance contains a 1st or 2nd person deictic pronoun, “directive syntax” is triggered. The most immediate effect of this is to demand that both subject and object are marked on the verb (subject through preffix, object through suffix) – for ditransitive, this means that both objects must be marked, even if only one is explicitly stated (direct comes before indirect):

bā o-tawīt-ar-abalòy-a ajuntama

I handed the dagger over to a man who is socially superior to both of us.

In the case of motive verbs, this means that the de-motive suffix must be applied; the object suffix must then be given the appropriate case suffix as well (inverted through metathesis), while the optional independent object is placed in the accusative:

bā o-tassid-as-as-a leyà-ma

1st_person_masculine 1st-VERB-3rd_inanimate-lative-ition sea-ACC

I travelled by river to the sea

2.2 The combination of terms

Deictic, rhemic and phemic terms may be combined into larger structures in any of five distinct ways: parataxis, anaphor, subject-linking, topic-linking, or declension.

2.2.1 Parataxis

Paratactic connexion occurs when two terms are simply placed side-by-side. The meaning may be copulative (where one term is rhemic or deictic), or may merely indicate two related actions (where both are phemic):

wà, ajunta sanotanga kòmaya

this thing I am handing to you – it is the dagger the girl held

kòma kunotanga ajuntama, kòma kutawīta ajuntama

the girl held the dagger – the girl handed the dagger over

2.2.2 Anaphor

Anaphor takes the same structure as parataxis, except that one term is dependent upon the other due to the inclusion of anaphoric pronouns. There are nine anaphora: subject, object and oblique, each with animate, inanimate and feminine sub-types. As the names suggest, the subject and object anaphora respectively refer to the subject and object of the preceding term; the oblique anaphora refer more vaguely to a peripheral item, which may not even have been explicitly mentioned previously.

kòma kunotanga ajuntama, kusa kutawīta nà

the girl held the dagger; she handed it over.

2.2.3 Subject-linking

Phemic terms in which either both subject and object are shared, or the subject is shared and one verb is motive, can be combined quite simply into a more complex phemic term through concatenation of the verbs:

kòma kunotanga kutawīta ajuntama

the girl held and handed over the dagger

kòma tassida kutawīta ajuntama

the girl travelled by river and handed over the dagger

Both verbs must be in the active voice. These serial constructions may have idiomatic meaning.

2.2.4 Topic-linking

The ‘topic’ of an equation is broadly ‘what the equation is about’; it is generally the first noun or verb phrase in the equation. This establishes a semantic linkage between different terms in the equation, but in some cases this linkage may also be syntactic. This occurs when a verb (nominal or non-nominal, or even infinitive) lacks its primary argument (the argument with which the verb agrees), and the topic is ‘imported’ to fill the gap:

imàwa rabumya kòmaya, rasolunga kèlakīma

the sheep that the girl touched ate the grass

imàwa rasolunga kèlakīma, kòmaya bumyara

the sheep ate the grass, and the girl touched it [the sheep]

imàwama kòma sottùna, rayabōka

as for the sheep, the girl kicked it, and it ran away

imàwa ai, rasolunga kèlakīma

this sheep, it ate the grass

A special case of topic-linking is vocation. Here, the topic is placed in the vocative form, and imported into the second clause in the conventional manner, except that it the topic is treated as second-person for considerations of transitivity (but does NOT trigger directive syntax):

à imàwa, rasolunga kèlakīma

ah, sheep, you eat the grass

2.2.5 Declension

Rhemic and deictic terms may be subordinated by marking an element of them for case, to show their relation to another term:

kòma kusolunga imàwa, kōba-jnà

the girl ate the sheep, out of fear of the noble

ajunta-ya ò tul-a kòma, bè-bi sainangata

dagger-ERG NOT see-ITION girl, ALONG-DAT room

the girl did not see the dagger [nominal verb], because it [determined by topic] was on the far side of the room

Where the term to be declined is a nominal verb, the case ending is attached to the declensive particle, which is placed first in the term, followed by the item of import:

ilyasa kōba, uya-bi ajuntaya ò tula

the noble smiled, because he did not see the dagger

2.3 Epiterms

2.3.1 Types of epiterm

Epiterms can be divided into five kinds: expressives, interjections, tags, qualifiers, and frames. Expressives

Expressives are a confusing group of words, virtually limitless in meaning, which do not abide by the standard phonological demands of the language (some even require body gestures for their meaning). It is useless to attempt to describe all their uses, but they are placed at the beginning or end of a equation, and most typically express the mood of the speaker, the mood of something described, the atmosphere both climatic and emotional, or any distinctive motion or sound related to the equation. “Properly”, they precede the equation, but they may also be placed at the end for dramatic effect or clarification. Many are onomatopoeic, and many are reduplicative, or nearly so.

djindjixn, kòma tassida

in a fine but dense rainfall, the girl travelled by river

joanjuxan, kòma tassida

in a heavy, full-bodied rainfall, the girl travelled by river

!’ka, kòma tassida

oh dear! the naughty foolish girl travels by river!

!’kuku, kòma tassida

the girl travels by river – this can’t end well!

wàkwāk, kòma tassida

the girl travelled by river, surrounded by noise and gossip

mbwoshxwān, kòma tassida

in a vengeful fury, the girl travelled downriver

mbwoshxwān, kòma tassida – !’kuku !’ka!

in a vengeful fury the girl travels downriver – this can’t end well, the foolish evil girl!

lālwā{, kòma tassida [the brace standing for a hand gesture]

I think that what basically happened is that the girl travelled by river, or something like that Tags

Many terms may be followed by a small particle known as a tag. Strictly, these may be considered an open class, filled with any number of contemplative or suggestive noises. However, only a small number are codified in the language (other sounds are either ignored in writing and quotation, or else converted into the appropriate ‘correct’ tag). Tags are always strictly equation-final.

ilyasa kōba, uyabi ajuntaya ò tula, ū?

the noble smiled, because he did not see the dagger – or would you disagree?

ilyasa kōba, uyabi ajuntaya ò tula, shuko

the noble smiled, because he did not see the girl holding the dagger – or so I’ve heard

Tags may be modified by the contrastive deictic particles:

ilyasa kōba, ia ū?

the noble smiled – or would you disagree with this?

ilyasa kōba, awì ū?

the noble smiled – or would you disagree with that?

The latter indicates that ‘the noble smiled’ is not the first claim discussed – it may be a response to another claim, or it may suggest that earlier claims have already been rejected by the interlocutor.

The deictics may themselves be used as tags, with broadly emphatic and responsive/deliberative  semantics:

ilyasa, ia

I’m telling you, he smiled

worta, awì

And I’m telling you that he frowned!

worta kòma, awì

Yes, but on the other hand, she frowned Interjections

An interjection is a particle that is inserted anywhere into an equation. Interjections express the emotions of the speaker, and they are limited in semantic extent: they generally express surprise, realisation, anger or disbelief. They have a tendency to precede a word with which they are particularly associated, and they have a tendency to place themselves in a position of natural stress – in the case of monosyllables, this is done by masquerading as a part of a preceding word, if necessary through infixion, but in the case of polysyllables (including reduplicated interjections) they often place themselves as the initial syllables of the word in question.

worta’fang kòma!

that evil little girl frowned!

ilya’fan’da kòma!

that evil little girl smiled!

ilyasa fāfang’kòma!

that monstrously evil despicable little girl smiled! Qualifiers

Qualifiers are particles that are placed at the periphery of terms. They have two classes of usage: singular and connective. The latter occurs when two terms of equal rank (two rhemic terms, two deictic terms, or two phemic terms) are placed next to each other, and the latter is given a qualifier. They are a small closed set:

Ang and ira are enumerative. They suggest selection from a range of possibilities – ang suggests a free selection, while ira suggests a guided or particular suggestion. In connective use, they serve to indicate conjunction – ang tends to indicate incomplete conjunction while ira indicates completion, but this is a distinction of nuance, not grammar.

ang ilyasa kòma, kunotanga ajuntama

a smiling girl – she’s one of the ones who held a dagger

ira worta’fang kòma, kunotanga ajuntama

that evil little girl who smiled – she’s the one who held a dagger

ang ilyasa datta, ang worta kōba, arunotanga ajuntama

the smiling sailor and the frowning noble both held daggers

ira ilyasa datta, ira worta kōba, arunotanga ajuntama

it was the smiling sailor and the frowning noble who held daggers

The first instance of the qualifier may be dropped in the connective usage.

Dòy indicates iteration. Usually this implies repetition in time, but in some cases it may simply indicate addition, with the connotation of excess or extent. It is used only connectively.

ang ilyasa datta, ang worta kōba, arunotanga ajuntama

the smiling sailor and the frowning noble both held daggers

dòy ilyasa datta, dòy worta kōba, arunotanga ajuntama

the smiling sailor held a dagger, and again the frowning noble also

Dòy is always used in place of ira or ang for the third of three connected terms. It may be used for the second of two terms where the first is introduced with ira.

Ù serves to restrict, with the sense of ‘only’, or ‘just’ or ‘precisely’.

ù ilyasa datta

only the smiling sailor

ù arunotanga ajuntama

they just held the daggers

ù uyabi ajuntaya ò tula

just because he could not see the dagger

Narà is used to introduce a second depiction of the same thing.

ilyasa datta, narà ilyasa kōba

the smiling sailor – that is, the smiling noble

kòma kurokanyàta imàwama, narà widamàtta

the girl prepared the mutton for cooking, which is to say that she did her chores

Kuso indicates pluraction: that two actions are separate, but are performed simultaneously, or in close proximity to one another.

kòma kurokanyàta imàwama, kuso widamàtta

the girl prepared the mutton for cooking, and she also did her chores as well

kuso kòma kurokanyàta imàwama

one of the things the girl did was prepare the mutton for cooking


dā ilyasa datta

it is not the case that the sailor smiled

kòma widamàtta, dā ilyasa datta

the girl did her chores, but the sailor did not smile Frames

Frames are simple deictics that establish the place, time, or overarching topic of the discussion. They occur only at the beginning of equations, and continuity of frame is implied until a new frame is introduced. Ordinary nouns being used as names are suffixed with –ka. Frames are drawn from their own class of deictics, or are nouns with the frame suffix; the exception is in direct speech, where the frame is preceded by the preposition so.

Reaction: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (by Michael Chabon) is a hard book to classify. Its speculative elements, while important, are so small that a non-genre reviewer could easily be baffled by those who consider it a genre work; its details are precisely realistic, but its tone is ironic, and its arcs are fantastic in extent and form. It attempts to argue for the compatibility of two different modes of literature (and life), and exemplifies their co-existence in its own nature: it is, on the one hand, a hyperbolic, implausible, accessible, rollercoaster popular adventure novel; and yet it is also a meditative, incisive, psychologically and socially critical literary realist novel. It does not, in my opinion, quite succeed at being either, but even the attempt at synthesis, and the extent of its success, are noteworthy.

Amazing is the tale of two Jewish teenagers in New York: wise-cracking semi-cripple native, Sam Clay, comic-book devotee and aspiring novelist, and his melancholy, introspective immigrant cousin, Joe Kavalier, whose passions have been directed into stage magic, escape artistry, amateur radio, and finally the fine arts. Together, the two of them concoct a superhero, “the Escapist” and seek to have him published; the novel spans about twenty years, from the mid thirties to the mid fifties, but mostly takes place during the Second World War, charting the highs and lows of the two men, their partnership, their careers, love-lives and families, and, as the title suggests, their amazing (if never quite impossible) adventures.

This was my second reading of the novel, and as it followed no more than a couple of years after the first, it was perhaps a little dulled by familiarity. The review quote on the front page, for instance, (just above the ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize’ sign) promises that the reviewer knows of no book that has made him cry more than this one – and yet on a second reading I didn’t cry at all, though my eyes became damp at one point.

Because this is, in many ways, a brilliant novel, it may be best to talk just about where it goes wrong. To begin with, the pacing of the initial section of the book is deeply flawed. It is not giving much away to summarise the initial chapters: we see Clay being introduced to Kavalier, the new arrival, before flashing back for the story of his escape from occupied Prague, moving on then to some brief back-story for Clay, and then the endeavour to create a superhero character.

None of these parts are, by themselves, flawed. Indeed, the Prague sections – a complex adventure which gives the feeling of Joe’s escape not only from Prague itself but also from out of the labyrinth of nested flashbacks itself, the pace slowly gathering from the imprisoned beginning to the tense, breathless conclusion – rather overshadows the subsequent, New York, events, and it is not until the second half that the writing rises to the same quality. Put together, the impression is of troubled engine trying to start: it coughs, it splutters, it roars into life in Prague, it dies, it builds again, it drops out, it struggles to find a gear… and it takes too long to get going again. I’ve recommended this book to many friends, and several have given up at some point in the first half; and, although this is an error on their part, it is an error for which the uneven pacing of the novel provides too many opportunities.

Related to this is the authorial voice – ironic, whimsical, apparently callous. It is brilliantly judged in its tone – in the darker and more serious sections, when the characters are older and the stakes are higher, where the light, detached touch provides a perfect counterpoint to both the tempestuous events (which might otherwise be painfully melodramatic) and the painful introspection (which might otherwise be leaden, didactic, mawkish or depressing). In these places, the whole assumes a Mozartian quality – a synthesis of playful delicacy and deep, enduring suffering; and yet Chabon is either unwilling or unable to vary his voice to match the words, and when, as in the earlier sections, the subject-matter is mostly light, ephemeral or joyous, the ironic prose often struck me as pompous and affected. This unnecessary thickness of tone adds considerably to the initial slowness. It does, however, come into its own in creating the distinctive mood of the middle portion of the book, which is one of hope and pleasure mingled with foreboding – although the hope and pleasure could have done with a softer touch, the foreboding is well-served by the ironic cautiousness, sprinkled with well-judged premonitions and foreshadowings. Unfortunately, as I knew what was being foreshadowed already this time, I was able to brace myself, which made both the ramp and the fall less affecting.

A more controversial complaint I have is with characterisation. By this, I do not mean that the characters are unbelievable, or that they are shallow, or that they lack the life-spark of authenticity; they do seem to have depth and reality, but we are not shown enough of it. Both the central characters are isolated and habitually private – they are not prone to showing their innermost feeling through their action; this, indeed, is in large part the point of the novel; but it makes it difficult for us to live their lives with them – instead of being shown how they feel, we must all too often simply be told what they think. This is a problem that Chabon does not have the talent to consistently overcome; in the later stages, he breaks through by so layering his prose with parallels and symbolism and metaphor that the whole world around the characters is infused by their inner conflicts, and we cannot help but live experience them; but in the earlier parts, his justified desire to keep things light (in the sense not of levity but of simplicity and of not weighing on the stomach) closes this avenue to him, and the characters’ moods and actions can seem opaque or detached. This is particularly a problem with Joe, who is in any case the more alien and the more dramatic figure, and although his mental state is developed superbly in the second half of the novel, the initial ‘setting up’ of that state seems too forced, too required by the plot, and too detached from the reader; Sam’s experience is closer to that of the readers, and as a result more familiar and inhabitable – and yet, appropriately but damagingly, Sam’s story feels continually overshadowed by that of his more charismatic, more flamboyant, more melodramatic and romantic cousin; it is as though, partway through the novel, the author has fallen so in love with Joe that Sam has been relegated to the shadows and the intermissions. Combined with the distance between the reader and Joe, this creates something of a… well, not perhaps a void, but at least a rarefaction of the emotional content.

This low density is not filled by the supporting cast, perhaps because there barely is any. The third character of the novel grows and strengthens as the book goes on – it is her entry that really marks the beginning of the story – but she never gets full billing with the star pair, and she retains throughout a degree of inscrutability and aloofness – an aloofness not above the other characters, but above the plot and themes of the book itself (those themes could well have been applied to her as well, but here, surprisingly, the parallels are left unstated and the themes quiescent, but for the barest of suggestions here and there). Aside from her, there are no real adult characters available for us to empathise with – and this lack is not at all forced on us by the exigencies of the plot. Sheldon Anapol could have been a protagonist – but he is too stock, too little vivified and made unique; Jack Ashkenazy is barely a plot device. George Deasey at times plays with assuming his proper role as a central protagonist, but he remains – appropriately but frustratingly – almost entirely outside the limelight, while other characters – Longman Harkoo, Tracey Bacon, James Love, and Shannenhouse to give a few examples to those who have read the book – are either too little seen or too little explored to fully display their considerable dramatic and emotional potential. All these characters could have enriched the book by being given more screentime, yet the author insists myopically on focusing tightly on the central pair, with a little room for the third character now and then.

The overall result is that the characters are not poor in themselves, but are inadequately presented, as though they are all real people trapped behind a thick, distorting glass that makes everything appear blurry. This is exaggerated by the ongoing difficulties with dialogue. Although bountifully supplied in other areas, Chabon has not been given the gift of an ear for dialect and region, and in a novel so eclectically populated as this, that hurts – what should be a riot of speech is instead rather flat. This flatness is made more noticeable by the style of the book, in which large, often flamboyant and portentous, periods of prose are bullet-marked by flashes of dialogue – in which, unfortunately, the density of prose tends to put more weight and expectation on the dialogue than it can fully bear. This is particularly the case with Joe, whose adequate but intentionally stilted and unnuanced immigrant English is occassionally funny, sometimes even poignant, but too often is a shackle on the surrounding prose. It feels like a play where one actor always comes in late – however good his lines, the little extra wait for them makes us place on them too much scrutiny. A similar problem occurs with the child characters in the novel, who lack the sophistication of adult speech without ever really capturing the feeling of childhood, often talking in a way more adult and more polished than their actual thoughts as we are given them.

Adrenaline: 4/5. Despite the pacing problems noted above, by and large the book is gripping and high-velocity, with really unexpected twists alongside inevitable, foreshadowed, developments.

Emotion: 4/5. Although above I have complained about emotional distance from the characters, this is nit-picking. At first read, this would have been 5/5; however, the very fact that the impact does rely to a degree on the shock value of certain events, and will thus be reduced on re-readings, fairly detracts from the score here.

Thought: 3/5. Nobody could accuse this of being a braindead read, as the author effectively ties the adventure story into deeper themes with real significance; but I never felt either that the themes were strikingly novel or that I was being compelled to think about them in any depth. There’s enough content here to make my brain feel that it’s had a nourishing meal, but not enough to wake it up and let it distract attention from the more visceral level of enjoyment.

Beauty: 4/5. The prose is often peculiar in its word-choice and in its prosody, but that doesn’t prevent it from being elegant, polished and nuanced. The imagery is extremely striking, from the level of metaphors to the level of plot events.

Craft: 4/5. There are some flaws, but they are only scratches on the face of what is truly a professional work. Prose, plot, imagery, foreshadowing and theme are all solidly under control throughout, and particular mention must be made of the extensive research put in by the author (there is a two-page list of reference works acknowledged) which make the setting immersive and thoroughly convincing – a verisimilitude which produces a large part of the overall experience of the book.

Endearingness: 4/5. Here, the slight disconnect I experienced with the characters (which is not entirely the fault of the author) hurts the book, as otherwise this would have been perfectly adorable. Even with that half-inch of separation, this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading and would recommend to all.

Originality:  4/5. There are no completely original elements: the characters, the episodes, the themes, are all things we’ve seen before. However, as a whole, the novel is unpredictable, individual and possessed of a unique character.

Echo: 1/2.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. For those keeping track, this is tied with Leibowitz as the best book I’ve reviewed (though not the best I’ve read), and I think that for first-time readers it is likely to be even better.