I want to talk a little about Metempsychosis. If you haven’t read it, you can go read it here, for free:
Some spoilers in the following discussion, so if you were too lazy to click the link, or you’re waiting for the Ticonderoga collection (pre-orderable here), you might want to hold off. Consider yourselves warned.
Spoilers, I say.
Metempsychosis is a fairly traditional horror story. A scholar finds an old manuscript and it leads to the awakening of an ancient evil and/or madness. This is a trope employed most famously by Robert Chambers, HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Henry Kuttner and Robert E Howard, but here are no shortage of others. The only thing I haven’t done to match the trope is to give the manuscript a cool-sounding name.
The story was directly inspired by the song “Return to Nod”, written by the mighty stoner-doom band High on Fire for their album DEATH IS THIS COMMUNION*. It contains the following lyric:
Speaking the words of the sorcerer’s tongue
No one can stop what’s already begun
Follow the footsteps and unlock the door
The giant you face has awakened
Yeah, I know. Doesn’t even rhyme. But the line about the sorcerer’s tongue got me thinking about magic, language and cognition.
Magic is often referred to as supernatural–as something beyond nature. A way for symbols to transcend the material objects they denote. A path to a place of enhanced meaning. Magic is metaphor.
But in our world, most demonstrable magic works by sleight-of-hand: by confusing us, by taking advantage of glitches in our cognitive processes. If magic is metaphor, it is something that is literally impossible. Magic breaks the laws of nature–but does that mean it has transcended them, or that it is something much baser?
What if the capacity for sorcery is something that exists beneath our ability to reason, rather than above it?
I’m not a scientist, but my degree is in cognitive science and cognition remains an abiding interest of mine. At university I took a gamut of related subjects: the expected psychology subjects, but also philosophy of language, epistemology, logic and artificial intelligence. After three years learning to build expert systems and rules engines my neural network computing was a bit mindblowing.
Computer science is built on the basis of formal logic–higher reasoning–but neural networks are designed to mimic biological brains. A neural network is not just programmed with a set of logical axioms in the same was as a production system: a neural network must be trained to reason. A neural network is a sub-logical engine for calculation that can be taught to make inferences which are difficult to model with Boolean logic or statistics–but which may also be unable to make simple calculations that a digital system would.
This is the kind of magic that Laine, protagonist of the story, has foisted upon him. The language of magic is difficult to learn because it is without meaning or music. The act of studying it causes him neurological damage… but that doesn’t mean he’s not able to absorb it. As a result, Laine starts trying to appease a pantheon of gods he knows nothing about. He looks for them in the sun and the moon… but here’s the thing with the Celtic gods: they live below the earth or beneath the waves. In Metempsychosis the gods are not manifestations of the Super-Ego–they’re 100% Id.
Why the Celtic gods? Why druids? Well, because the Druids forbade any of their lore to be written down. It is thought, they maintained their learning with mnemonic techniques. Through memory tricks and cognitive feats, which fits nicely with the ideas discussed. Also, there’s very little record of the druids or their practices, so I was able to make up a lot of stuff.
Now let me talk about Laine, the protagonist.
My intention was to write the sort of character you’d find in a William Gibson character: a bohemian type who owns few material possessions and is in many ways adrift in society. These are characters that I personally find it very easy to identify with. One of the things I like best about the Blue Ant trilogy is that I feel like I myself could be a minor character in those stories. Say, Hollis Henry suddenly finds herself in need of a software engineer who can write comics and who knows his way around Ueno Station in Tokyo. Hey presto! Here’s Jason!
So Laine’s a darker and more abject version of a Gibson character: a guy with a peculiar skillset but not the initiative or motivation to really make anything of it. He needs to be directed by someone like Hubertus Bigend, or Professor Trimby, or Eddy the Druid.
Or, you know, me. Hey, somebody has to write the damn story.