Thursday, March 02, 2017

WHY I WROTE MADNESS OF THE GLYPHS

Madness of the Glyphs unites several themes that have fascinated me as a writer. The Oort Cloud, deep-space habitats, communes, the conflict of religion and reason — these are linked by an obscure, yet absorbing discipline: undeciphered languages. The records of civilizations that have died without passing on knowledge of their systems of writing tantalize us with what has been lost to us. If we could figure out these systems, what might we learn? In particular, the novel asks, "How would humanity, expanding towards the stars, take the discovery of alien inscriptions without a Rosetta Stone?"

Here on the earth today, we have several such sets of inscriptions. The Vinca Script, the Rongorongo script of Easter Island, asemic writing, Incan Quipu — these are just a few among many systems of writing that have baffled linguists. The Voynich Manuscript, which may be a medieval scholar's jeu, or pedantic joke, makes the news now and then as first one aspiring decipherer and then another claims to have interpreted it. So far, no decipherer has — or has one? We may reason from the examples of Mayan or Egyptian hieroglyphics that, if we find enough inscriptions in an unknown language, we can interpret them. We overlook that both sets of hieroglyphics were solved through counterparts to them in known languages. An inscription that exists on its own, with no counterpart in a known language, may forever evade our understanding.

Undecipherable inscriptions embody a concept that troubles many of us — the limits of knowability. We want to believe that, if we stare at something long enough, we will start to understand it. If we can learn enough about that at which we're staring, we will understand it completely. At times, however, information that we seek lies behind impenetrable barriers: quantum uncertainty, a black hole's event horizon, or simply time's passage, erasing what was once clear. A symbol the meaning of which has been lost may forevermore mystify us.

(If you want to know more about the limits of knowability, you can read Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which holds a lifetime's worth of wonders.)

Still, Madness of the Glyph is not a philosophical text, but a story in which human beings live out a conflict. At its heart, on the neo-Platonic haven of Thales Habitat, fifty light-days out from Earth, is Barnabas, a small, but academically brilliant boy who wakes up one night to learn that the long-forbidden activity of war is back. Downsystem, four centuries of peace for humanity are burning in religious fanaticism's fires. A militant priesthood claiming that an alien plaque has taught it a message and a mission adopts aggressive war and human sacrifice. When the priesthood perishes in its own war, the alleged plaque vanishes in the immolation of the priesthood's command ship. Still, an alien plaque's mere existence moves Barnabas to learn a dying discipline, linguistics, in hope that he might someday decipher alien texts.

Even among philosophers, linguistics is singularly useless (who needs other languages when all speak one?) until a second plaque appears nearly on their community's doorstep. Soon, they have other plaques, all bearing inscriptions of beautiful, artfully arranged, but incomprehensible glyphs. Barnabas, like everyone else, rejoices at proof of extraterrestrial intelligence until he learns a bitter truth: without a Rosetta Stone, not even the best linguist can interpret an unknown inscription.

Somehow, he must find a Rosetta Stone. Without a true translation of the glyphs, humanity is foundering in false translations of them. The fanaticism that led humanity back into war's darkness is growing again. Amid cult activity and ritual killings, a properous settlement falls silent in the Dark, and the threat of war rises again. Can Barnabas decipher the glyphs' message before their madness destroys what he holds dear?

Barnabas' quest is a struggle against the Dark. In it most basic sense for him, this is the void of space embracing fragile habitats of life. Too often, these become lost, "gone to Croatoan" as natives of the Oort Cloud say in memory of one of Earth's unsolvable mysteries. In a deeper sense, the Dark is ignorance. Whenever there's a void of knowledge, the imaginative will fill it with rumor, conjecture, and blind faith. Against these, even the light of reason often fails, especially when reason runs up against the limits of knowability. In the Dark, ignorance is death.

In Barnabas' quest for understanding, he runs against the limitations of the society in which he grew up: the limitations of the upbringing that it gave him, and the limitations of opposition with which that society responds to him when he tries to overcome his upbringing. Sometimes, philosophers can be as narrow minded as religious fanatics are. The Dark defends itself by all means available to it.

Barnabas' quest for understanding takes him down the road of relationships: with a robot programmed to be whatever he needs, with a lover who leaves him to pursue a philosophical ideal, with a best friend who knows ancient secrets of Kabbalah, with a new lover who must leave him for a desperate rescue mission, and with an immortal space captain who never loses hold on hope. Each of his companions offers him deep insights into life and even into his quest, but, tragically, one of them is a traitor…

Sometimes, the most unreadable of inscriptions appears on the human heart.

You can follow Barnabas on his journey of discovery and doubt in Madness of the Glyphs. You can read the first two and a half chapters of the book free.

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