After reading works such as Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Yamashita and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler, I was reminded that it is important for readers to understand the source of supernatural events. In the former, these elements are explainable by the science of the fictional universe in which the novel is set; in the latter, though, no clear explanation is given for the source of Doro or Anyanwu’s special abilities. (It is implied that both beings are mutants, somewhat like X-Men, especially since their traits can, to some degree, be passed on genetically. The rest of The Patternist series may offer some explanation for these events in regard to Wild Seed, but I haven’t read them yet.)
While science fiction and fantasy require a certain suspension of disbelief, that does not mean that authors are excused from offering some explanation for the events they portray. A more common example of this would be the Harry Potter series, which offers no explanation for why magic exists or what its foundational rules may be. (There are a few mentions of some, like Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration and Golpalott’s Third Law, but these are specific to certain use cases and not to the existence of magic as a whole.) In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky, the most prolific (and not super creepy) form Harry Potter fan fiction, the author creates these laws because, well, they’re rational. (In case you’re wondering, it involves Atlantis somehow, which is not remotely canonical but is still better than nothing.)
I mention all of this because, at this point, there aren’t any explanations for the events of The Familiar. It may take decades for MZD to explain the Orb, NarCons, the cat, the various pieces of front matter, etc. Judging from what others have said about his works thus far, there’s no guarantee that he WILL answer these questions satisfactorily. I think that detracts from the reading experience, especially if you are involved in a complicated narrative like that of The Familiar that requires more engagement than, say, Harry Potter.
Do you believe that the author has a responsibility to explain his/her worlds to the reader? Would it detract from the message of some books to have more answers?
This post may contain spoilers up through the end of the book.
In class yesterday we briefly touched on the idea that the “reality” we experience in The Familiar is not “real” because it’s synthesized by the narcons. I thought that this was an interesting concept to explore. Does the fact that the story is constructed twice-over (at least)—by Danielewski and then by the narrative constructs (and possibly a third time by the creator of the narcons)—lessen the stakes of the narrative or the emotional connection that the reader feels?
We go into a story knowing that it is not “real” but we still allow ourselves to suspend our disbelief, becoming emotionally involved with the characters. Reading The Familiar, however, several people have mentioned the feeling of being manipulated by the book. This made me wonder whether or not it was a deliberate move on the part of the author, or an unintended side effect of the complicated form of the story. As much as it seems like a strange thing to do (potentially alienating readers during the first of 27 volumes), I thought that the sense of manipulation added something to my perception of the story.
The Familiar is a very non-traditional novel while also being very conscious of its status as a book (such as the rain pages, its status as a codex, and the formatting of the text on the page). This immediately throws the reader for a loop, as the text can be read and interpreted in different ways. There are also references to things the reader may be unfamiliar with and a variety of languages that are not always translated. This is not the way readers expect to consume a book and by asking the reader to search for outside information in order to inform their interpretation of the text, the reader becomes involved in the text in a way that is almost like being another level of the narrative.
After establishing this, The Familiar goes even further, bringing in the idea that the characters we’ve become invested in are all faux-humans created by these “narrative constructs” (565) and aren’t actually real, even within the universe of the story. This makes the reader feel cheated, perhaps like they have wasted their time on these characters that now have no emotional value. This is an interesting feeling considering the reader started the story knowing that the characters weren’t real.
I speculate that this effect is because the reader emotionally inserts themselves at the narrative level of the characters (Xanther, Astair, Anwar, etc.) and by revealing that the characters are unreal twice-over, the author puts the reader in the position of feeling like their experience is unreal. Instead of being a detriment, I feel that this actually improved my own experience with the book. Not only did it add an unexpected twist and futility to their plights, but it helped me to empathize with the characters.
What are your thoughts on the manipulative properties of the text? Do you feel that this cheapened the experience of the book, or added something to it?
Blade Runner (and by extension, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
*Possible Spoilers for those works below. You’ve been warned.
All of these works are heavily referenced in Xanther’s narrative. But to what end? The clearest solution is the common theme between them- the dubiousness of agency. In Battlestar, it’s the non-self aware Cylons that become critical of both themselves and of each other. In The Matrix, it is Neo and all the others who want to be awakened. In Blade runner, both Rachel and Deckard, the first of whom finds out that she is not human, and the latter of whom (in some film versions) begins to doubt his own humanity, experience this.
Religion also plays widely into these works, including TF. With Battlestar, we have the Lords of Kobol, and the call names of many of the characters themselves, references to our own Greek deities. With Blade Runner, we have to look a little further, into the original literature. In Androids, the characters participate in a type of transcendent, collective experience called “Mercerism.” I’ll spare you the details, but it becomes an analogue for Deckard’s whole story. In The Matrix, the idea of religion is much less prominent, but just as important. Savior complexes and resurrection imagery and all that. In TF, especially Xanther’s story, we almost simultaneously have a healing of the sick and a resurrection (Xanther’s wounds from collecting the cat, and the cat itself.)
This primes us to readily think of the Narcons as gods, or at least the players in some unknown chess game.
But we can’t really assume this from TF-Narcon∧9, by its own words. On pg 572 (unmarked,) it tells the reader “I have neither form nor control.” and “I have no agency.” First, if it has no agency, how can it pause? Second, what, does it do?
The discussions I have seen are discussing the Narcons as god-like beings or as AI’s. TF-Narcon∧9 even tells us that the “con” is for Construct. But we can also see, from the comments of the other Narcons, that 9 is not a reliable narrator. We know it lied to the reader about how many parameters there are, and that there likely are MetaNarcons, so how can we know the truth of any one of those parameters?
What this brings me to is this question:
What if we’re looking at the story inside-out? What if the Narcons don’t exist outside of the characters, but inside? What if all of the Narcons are inside Xanther’s head, with all of their subsets and supersets, just as a coping mechanism for her? Every other scene that plays out in other chapters is just her, fitting together the answers from the Question Game into narratives of her own construction. She is the MetaNarcon.
Obviously, as we have all seen by now, this book is tough to fit into any type of “box” or label. Although I know it is experimental fiction, I have been trying to at least connect it to one type of genre in order to comprehend its meaning, but so far I have not been able to narrow it down to just one. I originally thought each sub-story could at least be labeled as a certain genre: i.e., Xanther’s as a fairly classic narrative, The Orb as some sort of science fiction, Narcon as something similarly scientific/computer-based…but now I am doubting myself once again. Xanther’s section seems to have taken a turn for the supernatural, fantastical genre. Are we supposed to believe that the big rainstorm, involving Xanther getting lost in the flood and returning to the car, actually happened that way? Or was it more a dream-like state, made of the imagination? Then, the next chapter to follow is the infamous Narcon chapter…something I have honestly never seen anything like in any other type of novel. Presumably the book itself is talking – Danielewski? Some far-off, alien creature? A computer? – this section struck me more as sci-fi, with its computer language and coding. What frustrates me the most right now is that I have come this far along in this captivating novel (if it can even be called a novel) and have yet to come up with a way to organize it within the context of other texts. It is frustrating how much of a range there is in its content. Maybe once the connections between story lines start becoming more clarified this will change…in the meantime, I guess I should just keep reading to find out!
Interactive fiction that incorporates computer coding language adds a fun and challenging new dimension to writing prose and poetry.
For instance, Trevor Byington noted a “syntax error code” on page 89, and discussed how syntax errors could be analyzed as a commentaries on character speech, or some other aspect of communication in the novel.
In this way, computer coding language can create new, inspiring challenges for the writer, though it’s easy for a reader who is uninitiated in programming jargon to become lost. There must be a balance between accessible narrative and what is hidden, or implied, within coding language.
In an interview recorded at Skylight Books during their Author Reading Series, Mark Z. Danielesky mentioned that he never underestimates his readers, and that he’s been rewarded for not ‘writing-down.’ I believe that without knowing the coding language as it appears throughout the novel, the reader can still walk a way with a fairly complete understanding of the plot. The use of code and computer language is like an Easter egg (one of many) that Danielesky litters throughout the novel, inviting us to revisit the novel from different perspectives, see what new ways it can surprise us.
One aspect of computer coding language that is constant, however, is that the rules of computer language dictate that the form the prose take must provide a mechanism for measuring success. If the piece “executes” without “error,” then it is a “success,” essentially (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).
Computer coding language also provides a unique form. The reader (if he is tech-savvy) develops expectation as to where the narrative is going based on his level of familiarization with the coding being employed by the author.
In addition, the double-entendre can be achieved by blending traditional and coded narrative. See: Kernel (as in, computer kernel) vs. colonel, or Sin() vs. sin, as in the sin of man.
How can an understanding of c++, Java, etc. inform our reading of chapters that feature coded language.
There is an interesting article by Sharon Hopkins titled “Camels and Needles: Computer Poetry Meets the Perl Programming Language,” which I used to study this topic further.
Finally, a solid form is presented that unifies all the collective stories of The Familiar. TF-Narcon^9 enters the story with a casual introduction. The reader can only take TF-Narcon^9’s word on what it is.
TF-Narcon^9 is a program designed to database the existence of all the main characters from the book into 9 subsets. This program also drops a few hints that it was built with human influence. First, all of the languages it uses, whether translated or not, are human and origin. TF-Narcon^9 states that the machine language used in its construction is Binary, or “Zeros and ones.” (565). It would be a lot to presume that an alien life form would use the same Arabic based numerals to control the signals in its computing devices. It also references “the spinning rainbow wheel of ________.”(566). The word missing is “death.” This references the loading icon that appears on Macintosh devices. However, even if the Narcon software is based on computer made by man, that does not mean it has to be from the current time frame. This program states that it uses the “VEM rules of access and compression.” (566). I assume the VEM that dictated those rules are the same as the beings from the “VEM5 Alpha System” that speak on pages 14-17. Those individuals that live at the edge of time. This program they designed has a peculiar quark that makes it a little different then our preconceptions of computers. This program lies.
TF-Narcon^9 makes a few lies about its Parameters by stating that there is a “Last one” before Parameter 4. Then it states that was wrong and there was an additional 5th parameter. This is a seemingly innocent lie, however it brings into question the validity of its statements. The Narcon’s reliability is put to the test with its own parameters. Parameter 2 and 3 explicitly state that Narcons are not allowed to interact with Narcons and Non-Narcons “And Vice-Versa. No Matter What.” This seems to be a logical fallacy when TF-Narcon^9s actions are taken into account. The program specifically states that it is outputting. Input and output are the 2 forms of interaction a program is capable of through whatever interface. It also states that it will take on animal forms. To what purpose would a program take on an animal form if not to have some form of interaction. This interaction may be minute, but it clearly does not agree with the “No Matter What” of Parameter 3.
This program is also struggling with other algorithms that dictate the amount of awareness it may achieve. When TF-Narcon^9 begins to equate its existence as a subset to “servitude”, the train of thought is removed. This is replaced with an emptiness in the program that leaves it “breathless”, if a program could feel such a way. The supersets, TF-Narcon^3 or TF-Narcon^27, have censored TF-Narcon^9 before it achieved a higher level of awareness. This further goes to show that 9 can not be trusted to stay within its parameters. Other protocols must be used to keep it in check.
TF-Narcon^9 does not elaborate a great deal on its purpose for compiling all this data on these 9 individuals. However, this untrustworthy database is the most revealing connection for all the characters. Hopefully their purpose will be reveled before the end.
It seems like almost any world-building narrative has a sequence of setting up the rules, followed by the breaking of the rules. The Matrix–a perfect system, except for The One who will break the system. Inception–inception is impossible, so let’s go do it. Harry Potter–there’s a spell that kills you, except this one kid who survived it. Here’s the system; here’s the flaw in the system. This is arguably necessary to the genre, so that we have…you know…a story. This might be why spec fiction and meta/experimental fiction seem to go hand in hand, at least in terms of their rise in popularity. Metafiction does the same thing, but to the entire medium of fiction. Here are the rules we created over time, and here’s how I’m going to break them.
The intrusion of a supposedly extradiegetic narrative presence into the story is a pretty frequent metafictional device, (for ex. Alasdair Gray’s Lanark). It could often be criticized as a gimmick, but I think good authors work this from a “gimmick” to a valuable element of the story/theme, taking it beyond, “Hello, I’m the author, nice to meet ya” to something that challenges our ideas of storytelling or knowledge. Mainly, I think this complication is accomplished by a process parallel to the one I describe in the first paragraph. It’s not just that the narrator enters to give some deep answer to the text; rather, the narrator gives supposed answers that are then immediately troubled in their own way. When Narcon9 enters the story, we get a clear set of rigid parameters about Narcon behavior, which are unsettled a page later when we observe that 9 might be hearing 3 and 27, and that Xanther might see Narcons. This narrative intrusion, then, isn’t for its own sake, but rather parallels the question of knowing a creation. Can a Narcon “know” the personalities it portrays? Can it really be following a set of rules/parameters if the combinations it creates are infinite? Can we “program” an AI if true AI is that which makes its own choices? Can an author know his/her characters? On a human (and perhaps tritely expressed here) level, can we know ourselves, or do we all have an animalistic “familiar,” something part of us but ultimately unknowable?
Just like the Question Song, this moment that acts as if it gives us answers is more important for the new questions it creates.
The Familiar opens with a few pages filled by the thoughts of a people that live at the end times in the expanding universe. Their description of the fading stars takes the theory discovered by Edwin Hubble in 1929 to a possible conclusion in which mater has spread wide and stars can no longer be sustained. However, this entity turns its attention away from the impending demise, and instead focuses on identifying with mankind in this time frame by speaking to “you”.
The being cryptically states, “You are all we once were but vastness of our strangeness exceeds all light-years between our times.” (15). This and the surrounding text implies that the people of the VEM5 Alpha System are the final evolution of man. They are what we are to become right before the universe can no longer sustain us. Our present, their past. The message they chose to hand down is that two things will remain our commonality across the time that divides us. Death and War will be present from here until the end times.
These four pages are at great odds with many of the pages that follow, yet this is how the book opens. There seems to be no mention of them for at least 200 pages. The people of the VEM5 Alpha System say nothing after declaring a dreary future, or do they? Are they always watching as the text rolls on through the pages? Do they make corrections, comments, or even sensor information from the reader? ⠮Does he know?⠝ ⠮No, this is speculation. He has not read far enough yet.⠝ The text appears to promise the reader that there will be more encounters with the future dwellers since this introduction is Encryption 1/5.
If these beings are connected with the other stories from the book then that fact would only begin to raise more questions. However, questions seem to be The Familiar’s biggest export thus far.