There’s something about writers writing about writing. It’s ‘write what you know’ carried to its extreme. It can be excitingly meta, or it can be an excuse for the most boring kind of autobiographical navel-gazing the punters are willing to pay for.
It can also be, quite literally, magical. Magical writing is an old trope in fantasy stories (and games) of all kinds, and has been employed in many different ways. As ‘magic systems’ go, it’s intuitive and easy to understand.
And I’m a fan. As readers of my 2009 Dutch novel De scrypturist know, I’m willing to write a book on the premise that applying the right symbols to the right surface can bend reality to the will of the author. What I haven’t seen done very often (which gave me the impetus for writing that novel) is casting the system as a form of writing code, or programming. Which I think is vaguely surprising, because as we all know, any sufficiently obsessed-over system of magic is indistinguishable from technology.
So when I read a blog post about a novel containing a system of writing symbols as commands to change reality, using lexicons as libraries of subroutines, employed by hacker-like ‘scrivers’ in the service of powerful polities, I was at first shocked. Then angry, then amused, and finally intrigued.
I knew Robert Jackson Bennett from his excellent City of Stairs, so I had no reason to doubt that Foundryside would be a good read. I was not disappointed, though I had to force myself at times to ignore the similarities to De scrypturist in order to keep enjoying it. Although my ‘scryptuurkamers’ are more like guilds than merchant houses, the laws they enforce are as rigid, and their politics influence the lives of all protagonists. Although Bennett’s Tevanne is, at least naming-wise, quite Italianate, while my Weltryck is vaguely based on an early 19th-century Dutch republic (with added mountains), they both retain a somewhat archaic, European feel. And although Foundryside’s scrappers are fewer in number and much less empowered than Revantijn’s ‘vrije scrypturisten’, their modus vivendi is basically the same.
I could point out even more striking parallels (scrived people, horseless carriages, hierophants, oh my!) but that would be spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it, or De scrypturist for that matter. What kept it interesting for me were the differences, especially those in the details of the systems used.
At the risk of being too geeky for a moment: Tevanne’s ‘scriving’ technology seems to be based on a solidly imperative programming paradigm: tell the stuff what to do, in the way you want it done. Weltryck’s ‘scryptuur’ on the other hand is more of a declarative nature, independent of the stuff itself. Tevanne’s strings always influence the object they’re attached to, while Weltryck’s glyphs influence all of reality up to a few inches from the surface on which they’re rendered. (Watch your fingers.) Bennett mostly employs general AI as a single, monolithic entity, while in De scrypturist, the ‘scryptofacten’ are more akin to artificial life, evolved over many generations. Moreover, a concept like the `Schering`, the consensual reality existing between scryptuur glyphs, which has led some reviewers to calling the book ‘cyberpunk without cyber’ (a step up, I presume, from the earlier ‘steampunk without steam’), is absent in Foundryside, although it does seem to hint at a ‘deeper reality’, a machinery that runs the world, which we only get the occasional glimpse of.
But gizmos and trickery aside, a book is only as strong as its story. It’s probably more interesting to note that, thematically at least, Bennett’s concern in this book appears to be the political, the struggle of the oppressed against the hegemony, while De scrypturist perhaps can be said to emphasise the cultural: the implications of having a technology that eclipses another one; where in the end the hegemony and the oppressed both are caught up in things they can’t control.
The story, then, is a strong one. Bennett does use a lot more exposition than I think is necessary, really bringing the narrative to a halt sometimes — but then, he does have a lot to explain. And to be fair, I may have had a head start here. (Also, I know what it’s like to be in love with your magic system.)
But Foundryside spins a good yarn, and Bennett knows how to captivate his audience. Although I’m not sure yet if I personally like this one as much as City of Stairs, it is certainly worth anyone’s reading time.
De scrypturist and its sequel De vloedvormer, even though published by a respectable Dutch publishing house, never made it across the language barrier of course, as fantasy novels from the Netherlands rarely do — so I’m spared the embarrassment of having to promote my own book here. Unless you read Dutch, in which case: go for it!