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“The Orb” vs. Yamashita’s “The Ball”

In reading the novel Through the Arc of the Rainforest By Karen Tei Yamashita, I was struck by the similarities between the omniscient alien narrator known as “The Ball” all powerful “Orb” of The Familiar. Besides both being spherical objects, both serve as key functions of the narrative. In Yamshita’s novel, The Ball is an alien object attached to the head of the protagonist, Japanese rail worker Kazumasa. The orb narrates the entire novel from inside Kazumasa’s head, often providing commentary on the events that unfold in the plot. The Orb, on the other hand, seems to serve a similar function but works from the background of the narrative, threading through all the stories and seemingly providing the viewer with images from the past, present and future.

It is interesting to consider how both of these “characters” function in the narrative and what they mean in context of themes of assimilation of new technology into society. Yamashita’s novel criticizes industrial expansion and global exploitation of natural resources, and the ball functions somewhat as an intermediary between the natural and artificial worlds. The ball’s semi-omniscience serves to tie the narratives together into one coherent story. In the same way, The Orb functions somewhat as a bridge between the separate narratives of the novel. By allowing the viewer to virtually travel through time and space, it becomes the physical manifestation of omniscience. In both novels, these spherical omniscient objects function as magical-realist elements that elevate the narrative beyond the conventional human consciousness.

binary translator

I don’t know much about computers, programming, or coding, but I had a little bit of fun with this binary to text translator:

In particular, I used it with the picture of the orb that’s completely made out of binary code on page 640. I know the broader idea that the orb is composed of binary is much more important than analyzing what the specific binary says, but I thought it would be interesting to plug in some of the streams of alternating zeros and ones to see if there’s any meaning to them. It looks like most of the lines are simply a long string of ‘U’s follow by a ‘P,’ so ultimately it’s the word ‘up’ repeating many times. I’m not sure if there’s any significance to that, though–I just found it interesting…

The End of the Supremacy of Man: A Look at the Inversion of Biblical Imagery

Biblical imagery and allusions are abundant in The Familiar, and I’ve been struggling to integrate this into a more holistic vision of the text (and might get a little speculative and convoluted in the process, but bear with me). We have Luther as a fallen Christ figure, evidenced by the bullet hole through his palm and when he “show[s] off a whole different kind of cross, then steps forward and walks on water” (608). On the other side of the coin, we have Mefisto whose name alone sets off red flags. Mefisto, significantly, seems to be the (only?) link connecting Anwar’s narrative to Cas’s if we can make the leap that he is, in fact, Sorcerer. I anticipate (and I believe I saw a post from someone else on here exploring similar ideas) that Mefisto will likely somehow integrate Anwar’s AI code with the orb, giving birth to what are displayed to us as narcons. This could explain their ability to perceive almost all attributes of their subjects in much the same way Cas is able to observe the past through her Orb, as well as their distinctive personalities thanks to the AI.

Were this to be the case, I feel we would also be presented with a very poignant image of the devil (Mefisto[feles]) with an apple in hand (the Orb as the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), perhaps setting up a sort of parallel to the Genesis tale. I also picked up on a few other potentially Biblical hints surrounding the Orb; when Cas receives news of her conspirators via Parcel Thoughts, nine names are listed with strong mythological and religious connotations (646). Yet as we also know, nine never really equals nine. If we add Cas (Wizard), Deakin (Merlin), and Mefisto (Sorcerer?) to the list, we get 12 names; the twelve apostles of the Orb? Perhaps even Mefisto as a Judas character?

I’m not so quick to write Mefisto off as a villain though. Rather, I think Danielewski is more likely crafting an inversion of the Biblical tale, which could also help account for Luther as a malicious Jesus figure and the failure of Astair’s thesis, “Hope’s Nest: On the Necessity of God.” Moreover, in a lecture given by Danielewski called Parable No. 9 which seems to be largely interwoven with The Familiar (and which I’ve linked and written more on here), he makes the bold assertion that cats are “Christianity’s mortal enemy.” This would place Xanther particularly in opposition to the notion of Biblical morality, but we all know that Xanther is the furthest character from any sort of evil or sin. Instead, I foresee MZD inverting this Derridean dichotomy born of Christian ethics as a means to challenge the assumption of the supremacy of man— to reveal the strife engendered by granting to man the “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” in Genesis 1:26. Xanther’s relationship with all life suggests that she has already transcended this hierarchy of man over animal and is poised to challenge some very foundational aspects of the Western world.

I’d love some more thoughts on how the other narratives could be better integrated into this theory, particularly Luther and Jingjing.

The Orb is the “answer”….

In the end of the book, Anwar is left with a question of how to make a program that predicts the movements of his game’s prey while the prey is making the decision. Basically how to predict the near future/present. He then mentions how Mefisto would know how to code for that in his sleep.

We also see in the Orb section the mention of a Sorcerer that knows Anwar and Xanther. In class some of us hypothesized that the reason the Sorcerer knew Anwar and Xanther was because he was Mefisto. I took that hypothesis one step further in my head.

I think that Mefisto knows so much about coding because he built the Orb and the Orb is some kind of device that can allow someone to see the past, present, and future. Anwar needs a code that can predict the present and/or the near future in his game for the predator to be able to catch his prey. Mefisto has the ability to do this because of the Orb.

The reason we have to met Mefisto is because he is on the run from VEM. Which in itself is a predator and prey sort of game. Just like the “answer” is escaping Anwar, Mefisto is escaping VEM. They cannot predict where he is going or when he will appear, much like Anwar’s gaming problem.

I think someone posted on here about how the entire novel is a cat and mouse game so to speak. That there is an overall theme of predator and prey. I started thinking more on this and began to realize that it was. That post helped me come up with the hypothesis on what the Orb is and the power it could hold. VEM does not want anyone to know everything but them, so that is why they are hunting the Orb holders. The Orb’s coding is the answer to Anwar’s dilemma, but as of now he does not know about the Orb or at least we do not know if he does. The Orb is the only power over VEM that the characters of this story have. VEM controls them but with the Orb they would have the same power that VEM does.

It all comes back to the Orb. It is the key to power, and my theory is that Xanther has some special connection to it all because she is special and as the series unfolds we will figure out just how special she really is.

Orb Clips

As we can see on page 630-634 and page 655, the orb’s offerings consist of 6 ‘clips’ or ‘visions’.

The first two shown are important historical landmarks in the real world:

(1) The landing of Viking 1 on Mars on July 20, 1976.

(2) Seminary Ridge and Cemetary Ridge at the time just around the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War.


(3) The story referenced earlier in the text with the two cave-children who die.

(4) Clip #I: A girl named Audra Toland drowns (Cas searches for and finds the body later)

(5) A baby named Alvin Alex Anderson lies in his crib in Wichita, Kansas.

(6) Clip #6: Xanther running (possibly to rescue the cat, but probably not, because in the orb, she is smiling.)

As Cas mentions on pg. 636 The first orb visions were “historically cross-referenced”, which suggests to me that the orb orders appear in the book the same order that they appear to the characters. So why name the girl’s drowning Clip I? Because it was the first vision they could definitively prove?

The Visualization of the Orb

I see the illustration of the Orb found on page 640 as being a series of IOIOIO repeating rather than 101010. To clarify, I mean that I recognize the characters as both the Greek letters I (iota) and O (omicron) and and their corresponding relatives in the modern alphabet.

Here are some thoughts about this interpretation (with information pulled directly from Wikipedia):

  • I/O as input/output – “the communication between an information processing system (such as a computer) and the outside world, possibly a human or another information processing system.”
  • The letter iota represents:
    • “the index generator function in APL (in the form ⍳)”
      • APL “is a programming language developed in the 1960s by Kenneth E. Iverson. Its central datatype is the multidimensional array. It uses a large range of special graphic symbols to represent most operators, giving very concise code. It has been an important influence on the development of concept modeling, spreadsheets, functional programming, and computer math packages.”
    • “the orbital inclination with respect to the line of sight, used when describing gravitational wave sources.”
  • The letter omicron is not used in math/science/engineering because it too closely resembles the letter O.
  • “In mathematics, big O notation describes the limiting behavior of a function when the argument tends towards a particular value or infinity, usually in terms of simpler functions.”
  • You could also look at Io one of Zeus’ lovers, Zeus as the nephew of Oceanus, Oceanus as the father of Xanthe, and make up some crazy theory about Xanther being “related” to the orb, but I don’t see that going very far.

We know that the Orb is a man-made computer(-like device), so I think all of this information could be helpful in interpreting the Orb (at least as much as is possible at this point).

Personally, I think it’s helpful to view the orb as an input/output device, as it allows the user (Catherine, in the narrative) to communicate with the world/universe in a unique way. Similarly, I like the potential correlation with APL, as it uses special characters to represent things, as the author does throughout the text.

Because the pages of the book are not very high quality, I include below an enhanced version of illustration alongside a more artistic interpretation in which I overlaid the image of the Orb over the moon Io. (I don’t think it has anything to do with the moon besides the name, but it looks nice.)



Cas and Apollo

In Ancient Greece, the Greek God Apollo was the God of the Sun, healing, music and prophecy. In “The Familiar” Mark Z. Danielewski uses font in a purposeful way to display hidden character traits and character meanings. One character he does this with is Cas. Cas’s font is Apolline, a french name originating from the Greek masculine name Apollo, meaning the sun or God of the sun.

The fact that Cas’s font is referencing Apollo and the sun are siginificant for two reasons. One, the sun is a spherical, orb-like, planetary object that is the center of the our galaxy. It gives life and light to all living beings in our galaxy. Cas’s narrative references an orb that she can see into and gain information from. She and Bobby also get into many situations where there are fires involved because of the technology being used. This fire destroys rather than gives life, like the sun does. The sun could be a reference to both the spherical shape of the orb and the heat and light that these fires cause. Second, Cas is receiving information from the orb  and therefore could have special, mythical medium powers. The God Apollo was the God of prophecy because he would gift certain human women with the gift of sight and they would become his oracles. In a sense, Cas has become one of Apollo’s oracles.

In Cas’s chapters there is also reference to other ancient Greek characters like Circe and Artemis, who happens to be Apollo’s sister. I wonder how Cas is connected to Circe, Artemis, Treebeard, Merlin and the other characters. Are they involved in this project as well?  Cas’s name is also “The Wizard.” Why do you think it is significant that she be called “The Wizard” instead of something like “Apollo” or “The Oracle”?

The Thread Between the Stories

I know that the Orb has been addressed a number of times already, and I went back and examined some of the threads that were already made not only concerning the patterns of orbs throughout the text but what the meaning of the central Orbs in this story might be. Coming to the close of the book I felt like a separate post concerning the ending section of the book would be beneficial, and I felt that some of the information was just significant and different enough that it warranted a separate post rather than just a comment.

Looking back for a moment, the most striking thing to me about the sections concerning the Orbs was the fact that whatever is happening with the Orbs in Texas is happening at the same time as the rest of the narrative. Some of the introductory descriptions we get during the first Orb section include: “Eons slip by. The canyon rises. Her mesa falls then rises then falls again until eventually it flattens into a storm-polished plain. The temple, though, remains unchanged” (pg. 137). This kind of description originally led me to believe that I was reading about a civilization far in the past or the future, considering I wasn’t initially used to the formatting of the novel or paying attention to the dog eared pages.

Upon re-reading such a section, I realized that the Orb was giving the viewer, assumedly Cas, the ability to see into both the past and the future. I also noticed the time stamp on the dog ear indicating that this narrative was going on at the same time as everything else. This observation really put the events that were occurring in those sections a bit more in perspective, as well as increased my speculation that the technology that the Orb has is both very advanced and very experimental.

The section involving the revelation of the Narcon (pg. 563-578), short for “narrative construct” (pg. 565), put even more in perspective for me in terms of the main point of view from which all these stories are branching and how all of these stories might actually start to thread together and form a coherent and complex picture. One of the threads already mentioned running through all the stories is the presence of the striking wail which shows up at least once in all of the running narratives in this novel. Another thread involves the direct awareness of the other narratives by each other by the end of the novel.

This recognition occurs on the last page of the final Orb section, when on page 655 The Sorcerer states that he was a good friend of Xanther’s father, and knows both of him and his daughter, whose name he blatantly states. This is, as far as I can recall, the first instance of someone in a separate place and story within the narrative stating that they are aware of another story that’s occurring simultaneously along these many jumbled narratives. Unfortunately not much more of this direct connection is made since it isn’t brought up again in any following sections for the rest of the novel.

A number of questions arise in the face of this revelation. Are the Orbs connected to the Narcons in some way? Why were they developed and why are Bobby, Cas, and the others in their narrative the only ones aware of them or able to use them? Will this lead to a greater convergence of the narratives in the later volumes, a very distinctive thread that connects the narratives from a direct point rather than just someone in each of the narratives hearing a random noise? This evidence really only makes it clear that there is a definitive tie between the Ibrahim’s narrative and Bobby and Cas narrative—I can honestly say I am very much looking forward to see where the connection is taken and possibly expanded in later novels.

Side Note: One other possible instance of the narratives merging occurs on pages 434-435 when it appears Hopi’s name occurs in one of Xanther’s social networking chats, although I don’t consider this direct evidence considering I’ve read some other threads that discuss the possibility that this isn’t Xanther and Hopi’s narratives actually merging.

*Edit* — In class today it was brought to my attention that the one who says he knows Xanther and Anwar is actually The Sorcerer, and not Bobby. We theorized that perhaps Mefisto is actually the unnamed Sorcerer, and that this could be a very interesting and solid link between these two stories. If the Sorcerer really is Mefisto, how does that impact the plot of these two separate story lines? Why do you think Danielewski chose to merge them specifically? The more I think about it the more complex and intriguing it gets.

The Orb as Interface for Transcendence

The Orb, as we know it, resides in an Airstream trailer, near a highway in Texas, adjacent to a man eating a sandwich. It is an incomplete image, this orb. We do not get a good look at the thing “only Cas knows how to look at.” Cas places her palms together in what is almost an act of supplication before the orb that seems to be the human interface for some type of technology which transcends the unenhanced human experience. This section which has a typographic hole carved out of text condenses into some dense subjects which are provided by what appears to be all three Narcons. In quick succession we see “beginnings [pulsing] within reach… where the ontology of thought lives,” and in a few lines arrive at the “origins of eschatological limits.”  On the way we pass the myth of nunc dimmitis and the place where “the epistemology of living incarnates judgement.”

Carefully, and by defining these terms, orientation occurs following the philosophical adrenaline rush experienced in this short paragraph. First we can examine nunc dimmitis, otherwise known as the Song of Simeon or the Canticle of Simeon.

According to Wikipedia, the entire canticle as translated by Douay-Rheims in 1582 is as follows:
Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord,according to Thy word in peace;
Because my eyes have seen Thy salvation,
Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples:
A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.

In the bible, Luke 2:29-32 is the story of Simeon, a devout Jew who was assured by the Holy Spirit that he would live to see the coming of the Messiah, or the deliverer of the Jewish nation. Of course, in the context of the bible, the ‘salvation’ is Jesus Christ. However, the context which Danielewsi places this is right after the sentence, “More than beginnings. Nunc Dimmitis.” Referencing the Orb in this way places the orb as an interface, as the Messiah and Cas as Simeon who is beholding if not the salvation of man, then at least the threshold of some immense alteration of human perception. It is especially interesting to see this concept juxtaposed along with the other concepts interjected by the Narcons.

Ontology is, in metaphysics, the exploration of the nature of being.

Epistemology refers to the theory of knowledge, specifically the methods which regard its scope. For example it explores the differences between justified belief and opinion.

Eschatology is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell’.”

When viewed through the lens of the above concepts Danielewski is placing quite a lot of emphasis on the importance of this orb, this interface which allows human beings, Cas at least, access to the concepts so often grappled with throughout human existence. Though this type of rhetoric seems somewhat heavy when compared to the other sections of the book, it provides something of a thread of continuity for the seemingly disparate narratives. In this respect, the connections running through the rest of the narrative are revealed to be primal, driven by the innate human desire to define our own existence and future beyond death.

Cas and Bobby speak in this section of their contacts and the fear they have for their safety. Cas has a pang of paranoia when a police cruiser drives by. The impending storm approaches and the Orb provides either the interface for the transcendence of mankind or, perhaps, the embodiment of hubris that may eventually consume its future.

The Orb

What is the meaning of the Orb, how does its meaning unfold as the novel proceeds, and what does its recurrence in the text mean? How might the Orb bring together time and space, temporality and planetarity, nonphysical and physical being, noumenal and phenomenal being? How might it signal “planetarity,” one of the 5 keywords in the front matter (but perhaps also the other keywords–rain, violence, etc.)?

Circles and orbs about in the text:

  • the 5 orbs/planets in the front matter (Rain, Signiconic, Violence, Planetarity, Custody), themselves semi-surrounding an AT&T-like planetary symbol
  • Raindrops throughout book
  • The orb sections themselves (especially “Tiny Storms,” 622ff)
  • the “orbs of time” that are the minutes of Xanther’s seizure, which lasted 5:32 (pp.242 ff).
  • The orbs at the chapter title pages for “Is Everything Ok?” (48), “Big Surprise” (114), “Dr. Potts” (179), “The Horrorsphere” (326), “Cinnamon” (437), “Litter” (455), “Tiny Storms” (622), “If Anything” (787)
  • the circles/orbs of speech on 444-445
  • the fact that this novel is “A circle round a stone production” (end matter)
  • Particularly puzzling: the “orbs” on Xanther’s phone, which include sayings by Hopi. Since this is on “Solosphere,” it is private: how is Hopi on her phone, in these text bubbles?  Is the phone another “channel” to other-worldly communication, like familiars and wizards?

Certainly this seems related even early in the text to the mystical and to famiiars, to the pre-Hispanic cultures of Central America, and to the horrorsphere broadly defined.


We find out, of course, at the end of this volume that the orb is a computer of sorts, that Bobby had a hand in its creation, that Mefisto might be involved. But this doesn’t seem to exhaust the orb’s possibilities or its resonances, or resolve its relation to the Narcons and to other orbs in the text.