Thoughts on Barker’s Imajica

I believe I read a Clive Barker novel about fifteen years ago, but I have no idea what it was. A few years ago, I read some of his short stories, and this reinforced the conception I had of Barker as a horror writer, which isn’t really my thing. Still, Imajica came up on my radar for some reason, and I decided to give it a go.

Wow. I’m so glad I did. It’s going to be fairly difficult to describe anything about this book. It’s very weird, but in a wildly inventive and wonderful way. There are some gory images here and there, but I’d most certainly not classify it as horror. It’s more of a surrealist examination of spirituality? So kind of like The Holy Mountain.

I’ll try to set up the premise to give you an idea of the bizarre-ness, though, the whole point of the novel shifts by about 1/10 of the way through it. There’s Five Dominions. Earth, as we humans know it, is the Fifth Dominion. We’ve never seen these other magical places.

There’s a longtime conspiracy of people (I use this term lightly) making up a secret society to keep the Fifth Dominion separate from the other four. There is a way in though.

The novel begins with a man who is so in love with a woman, Judith, that he hires an assassin to kill her after she breaks up with him (obviously so she can’t be with anyone else). He has second thoughts and contacts Judith’s ex, Gentle, to stop the assassin. He succeeds. The assassin, Pie, is a being from one of these other dominions that doesn’t really have a gender. It becomes basically whatever it’s lover wants to see in it.

Pie seduces Gentle by appearing to be Judith. Gentle learns of what it did, and Pie takes Gentle into the other dominions. They gradually fall in love. Also, a billion other things are going on by this point, so don’t think that’s “really” the story. It’s about revelation, separation, unity, isolation, love, sex, power, God, redemption, finding meaning, culture, and on and on.

Don’t panic. It’s not done in a way that tries to be about everything and ends up being about nothing. This novel really tackles the big questions in a focused and metaphorical way. It just so happens that these big questions encompass all those other things.

Here’s some things I think the book does really well. There is a gigantic amount of information hidden to the reader: the conspiracy, how these other dominions run, the cultures there, the background on the conflicts, why the Fifth is separated, and so on.

Barker manages to slip this information to the reader in gradual and subtle doses over 600 pages or more. This means the novel stays story centric and engaging with almost no information dumps. It’s actually kind of brilliant how he does this. Often, you will hear things that make no sense. This causes you to reconcile your view of what’s going on with your existing theory. It’s only after you’ve done this many times that the full picture comes into focus.

Another thing I didn’t expect was how good the prose was. I expected genre horror writing full of stock prose: nothing bad but nothing great either. Instead, I found excellent execution of register shifting (often thought to be the most advanced and subtle techniques of prose style).

Register shifts refer to changing the type of language used to adapt to a situation. For example, if you’re hanging out with some friends, you might say, “‘Sup?” This is an informal register. If you’re at a job interview, you might say, “Hello. How are you doing? It is very good to meet you.” This is a formal register.

The thing that makes this so difficult in prose writing is that the context of scene must determine the proper register. When you first try to do this, it will probably be overdone, and this will change the voice. It must be done with enough subtlety so the voice remains consistent and only the register of the voice changes.

Most people will never notice if a writer has done this well. It is usually obvious when a writer doesn’t do it or overdoes it. We tend to say the writing fell “flat” in an absence of register shifts (a great term because there weren’t any up or down shifts in register).

The register tends to reflect the dominion we’re in. This is because as the dominions get closer to the First, the people get closer to God. The register shifts up to indicate the formality and ritualistic nature of religion. Take an early scene.

Gentle took off his heavy coat and laid it on the chair by the door, knowing when he returned it would be warm and covered with cat hairs. Klein was already in the living room, pouring wine. Always red.

This is quite low. There’s even a sentence fragment. The sentences are simple and to the point. The descriptors are common.

Now take a midway scene in a different dominion.

Like the theater districts of so many great cities across the Imajica, whether in Reconciled Dominions or in the Fifth, the neighborhood in which the Ipse stood had been a place of some notoriety in earlier times, when actors of both sexes had supplemented their wages with the old five-acter—hiring, retiring, seduction, conjunction, and remittance—all played hourly, night and day.

This single sentence is almost double the length of the entire three sentences above. The structure is quite complicated: subordinate clause, appositive, etc. This is an elevated register. The same sentence in a lower register would be “Whores could be found on the streets of the city in which the Ipse stood.” We could lower it even more or raise it to more formal levels than what was written. But it strikes a delicate balance of beautiful description in elevated voice.

I know it’s kind of mind-boggling to think that Barker did all this, but I noticed it early and then paid close attention. It is consistent throughout, which makes me think it is not some accident or coincidence.

Lastly, the symbolism is amazing. It draws on and reinterprets many famous Biblical stories. I can’t get into it, because I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read the book. It is some of the best of this type of writing I’ve seen. It isn’t so direct as to be cringe-worthy, and it is all done in an inventive re-imagining.

It’s kind of sad I didn’t read this during my Year of Giant Novels. It possibly would have been the Number 1 book of the year.


Arguments on Religious Exemptions to Nondiscrimination Law

[This post is a day late. Excuses: I got bogged down looking these laws up. I accidentally had “insert” on, and I deleted large chunks without realizing it.]

It’s been in the news recently that a few states have (re)issued “Religious Freedom Laws.” The most recent being Mississippi’s Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act. I won’t get into the details on this particular act but instead try to present some arguments from both sides of this debate that I think are good and bad.

Like most liberals, I tend to react from my gut and conclude these things are horrible. This is mostly an attempt to take a step back and figure out  the actual arguments. I’ll take a philosophical approach and assume for the sake of argument that the laws are written in a reasonable way to achieve their intended goal rather than pick apart the specific language of any one of them.

This means we’ll assume that there is a (local) law that says public accommodations must serve people regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, etc, and that the newer religious freedom law exempts people from following the nondiscrimination policy based on a “deeply held religious belief.”

Good pro argument: It’s not a big deal for people who are denied service for any reason to go somewhere else. I actually think this is a pretty good argument. When I was planning my wedding, I think back to how I would have felt if someone would have said, “You know, we’re family owned, and we prefer not to do gay weddings for religious reasons. We can put you in contact with several other local bakeries that do them instead if you don’t mind.”

Wedding plans have lots of setbacks. This one would be the least of my worries. I find it hard to care that much. I’d think they were homophobic jerks, but if the laws were written in a way that said: if you deny service for a religious reason, you must provide contact information for a service of equal quality within a reasonable distance, that seems to be a good trade-off. In order to discriminate, they have to advertise for their main competition. If there isn’t competition, they wouldn’t be allowed the exception.

Good anti argument: It’s not a big deal for the provider to just provide the service. Part of being an adult who engages the public is to deal with people you don’t like or who make you uncomfortable.

Let’s take two examples. The first is the clerk who hands the documentation to the gay couple. This should be easy. It’s just a piece of paper. I don’t even think that clerk has to sign it. They literally just hand it to you. That person isn’t condoning anything or celebrating anything or participating in anything. In other words, it’s just not a big deal to provide that service regardless of religious belief.

A slightly trickier example is baking a cake for a wedding that “goes against your religion.” Let’s remove the gay wedding from the example. This becomes a question of whether the person has developed the normal adult cognitive faculty of separating a pure business transaction from their personal life. It’s childish to care so much about how a cake is going to be used.

I’m sure there are Catholic bakers who believe getting remarried without an annulment is a sin. Or heck, they probably believe all marriages should be through the Catholic Church. Yet they manage to provide cakes for all sorts of weddings that aren’t a part of their religion.

My guess is that they have the ability to forget about it once it is baked. If it bothers you so much, stop thinking about it so much. The cake baker is not “participating” in the wedding. They are not “condoning” or “approving” of the wedding. They won’t even be attending. The ego needed to think so highly of their service is staggering.

I maintain that this is true for every scenario the law is intended to cover. Grow up. It’s not a big deal to provide the service. Sometimes, in real life, you have to deal with people you don’t like. That’s just part of running a business. It’s special pleading to get a law to shield you from these people.

Consistent libertarian pro argument: All services should be allowed to discriminate however they want. It’s 2016! The market will weed out the discriminatory services fairly quickly, because everyone will boycott them for discriminating. Then, without any government intervention, we will be in the same situation that the anti side wanted.

I have no idea whether this is empirically true, but I respect the consistency of the argument. This brings up a bad argument on the pro side. Some people say the law is okay because it has “targeted language.” This is a horrible argument. It is an attempt to get around the slippery slope of allowing all people exemptions to all things based on vague “religious beliefs.” But being targeted is admitting that the law is specifically designed to legally discriminate against one targeted group. That is unacceptable. Religious bigotry cannot be written into law. The consistent libertarian pro argument is much better.

Slippery slope anti argument: Allowing religious exemptions will lead to chaos. The language of “deeply held religious belief” is too vague. That could mean anything. Maybe it’s my deeply held religious belief that it’s a sin for Asians to eat pork. Am I allowed to deny them service at my all-pork restaurant based on that?

This gets back to the libertarian argument. I think if the pro side wants to be consistent, they have to say this is allowed. The fact that they won’t go this far is a sign that their argument isn’t very good if made in this way. So ultimately I think I have to come down on the anti side unless there was solid empirical evidence that the libertarian argument would work.


Preliminary Thoughts on Upstream Color

Last night I watched Upstream Color, the new Shane Carruth movie, for the third time. It is a pretty difficult and abstract film. I’m not sure when I’m next going to watch it. I want to record some half-formed ideas I have about it, so I can refresh my memory in the future if I watch it again.

There is the level of analysis of the film of figuring out what is going on. This in and of itself might take more than once through the movie. I won’t talk about that at all. Then there are some pretty easy themes which are just handed to you once you realize what is going on. For this I’m referring to the fact that Kris starts in a job that requires her to play certain roles and lie to people. She was least happy here. Then she moves to a basic entry level job and becomes a little happier.

But it isn’t until she sheds the societal pretense at the end and works in and with nature and animals that she can truly be herself and be happy. Since this is the primary theme of Thoreau’s Walden, and that book plays such a prominent role in the film, I think this was meant to be an easy theme to pick out But there are lots of details that are totally mysterious if we take this to be the main point, so we’ll move on.

Here’s my theory. This is going to sound tautological in this general form. The movie is about having something happen to you which then ties you to something else without your knowledge of even being tied to this other thing. Then you wake up to the fact that you are tied to it and have to cut your ties to this thing in order to become a happy, healthy, independent person.

Let’s use religion and politics as examples even though I don’t think there is enough concrete evidence in the movie to pin it down to one of these two. When you’re young something usually happens to you that determines your religion or politics. It could be your parents, or some other family, or certain groups you fall in with. While these beliefs are being formed you are totally unaware of the process going on.

This is like the guy who drugs Kris. He forces something on her without her knowing about it at all. Just like not being able to tell when or how you formed certain religious or political beliefs, Kris doesn’t know what happened to her. When the worm is removed it permanently ties her to the pig and as a consequence The Sampler.

This detail confused me the first two times through the movie. How do you explain the fact that the person that drugged her is not the one that ultimately gains influence over her? The lack of motivation was weird. But under this analogy it makes sense. After the initial indoctrination of certain ideas, you get turned over to other sources which then are able to exploit their influence over you. In the case of religion, your parents turn you over to clergy or in politics it’s biased magazines, talk radio, pundits, etc. The Sampler is a symbol for any of these.

Something that supports this idea is the fact that it is a drug that initiates all this, and of course we have the famous Marx quote, “Religion is the opium of the people.” There is also the phrase “drinking the kool aid.” This means that you buy into a certain set of ideas which outsiders find strange. But at the beginning we literally have kids drinking the kool aid, and we can watch how the drink causes them to become connected.

We also see how this connection isn’t always bad. It provides support and comfort in times of trouble. I think this is the point of the scene where we see the wife taken to the hospital. The Sampler is interfering here to help the guy in this time of trouble. He has influence and maybe the ability to change the memory of how the previous scene played out to bring the guy comfort.

On the other hand, it seems the influence causes a lot of grief, suffering, and meaningless tedium. Jeff keeps making chains of straw wrappers. There is the painful loss of the piglets. Kris and Jeff experience great pain through this, and they don’t even know why. Of course, the initial transformation was horrifying causing a complete loss of individual identity and being forced into reinventing their selves without their knowledge.

The next step is the awakening. Kris is awakened to the fact that The Sampler has this influence through two means. The first is the pivotal scene in the pool. She has Walden memorized, but the key feature seems to be that she transitions from merely repeating the words to actually thinking about them and understanding them.

Here I think that Walden is just merely a stand-in for any great art, literature, or philosophy. The way we awaken ourselves to the fact that these biased sources are just feeding us lies for their own agenda is through knowledge. We can’t just mindlessly read books and expect to awaken to the truth they contain. We have to contemplate them and think about them seriously as works of art.

This is further supported by the fact that The Sampler’s music is the other piece that causes the awakening. It is again art that allows Kris to see through what is going on. Although, this time it is produced by the person who has the influence over her. So maybe this means that by examining critically what is put out by the sources we were mindlessly following we can break free (e.g. whatever holy book or political propaganda is being used).

Lastly is actually breaking free. Kris kills the sampler. Of course, I think this is a metaphor, and you don’t need to literally kill the people exerting the influence. On the other hand, the extremeness seems warranted because it really takes something that essentially amounts to a death (of the ego, of the community you belong to, etc) to fully break free of the grasp and escape the cycle.

The fact that there is this perpetual cycle: person who draws you in, person who takes over once you’re in, using you once you’re in to continue the cycle, and so on and then the cycle gets broken once the people awaken to the fact that it exists fits perfectly with this interpretation. The parent who has broken free from the cycle of religion will not continue it with their child.

I think another important thing to note is that even though it is a cycle which essentially traps people (i.e. the cycle itself has negative consequences), it seems that none of the members of the cycle even realize they are a part of perpetuating it. They are just doing what they do, which may or may not be good or bad on its own, but if the point is to break free of a damaging cycle, then at least they are not guilty of intentionally perpetuating this.

Biblical Topos in Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy

I recently finished reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Sometimes I wonder what is wrong with me. Why can’t I just read a book and enjoy it for once? Instead, I became obsessed with the religious symbolism of the books and what they meant. My theories got so distracting that part way through the last book I started to get annoyed at the descriptions, story, and anything that wasn’t contributing to me finding out how my theories panned out. I took lots of notes, but didn’t keep track of page numbers for them all, so I won’t be able to quote some things directly.

Most mathematicians have heard of the term topos. Here I’m talking about a literary topos. Roughly speaking a topos is just presenting a standard well-known story in a new setting. Usually the idea is that if the story has some meaning behind it, then you can trace the ways in which the story is changed to understand what the author wants you to take away from it. Of course, Biblical topoi are probably the most common idea in all of Western literature and that will be the focus of today.

Often times it can be annoying to see people read too much into symbols and references that aren’t really there. Since Sanderson is open about being an LDS Christian, and since he did missionary work he is much more familiar with these stories than the average person. I sincerely believe that most of what I’m going to write was intended by the author. I’m going to try to arrange it in order from the most believable to having to stretch a bit (for example, I have no idea how well he knows the history of the early church which will be necessary for some of my analysis).


Already in the first book we have some clear parallels of Kelsier to Jesus (strangely, the topoi related to Jesus stories seems equally spread out between Vin and Kelsier). The first thing that happens in the entire series is that mistborns are killed by the Lord Ruler to weed them out so that none rise up and overthrow him. Kelsier survives. This parallels the first major story in Matthew where King Herod kills the male children to make sure Jesus doesn’t survive, but of course he does in that story as well.

At the end of the first book Kelsier knowingly sacrifices his life for the good of the people. Then he comes back to life (in the form of a kandran). It’s been awhile since I read the first book, and I didn’t note whether or not it was three days, but the parallel is unmistakable. He gives up his life to save the world and comes back from the dead a few days later. Then a religion grows up centered on these events.

Now that the main outline is in place, let’s move on to some subtler points. By book three we already learn that the mythology surrounding Kelsier has changed. First off, the story has Kelsier killing the Lord Ruler rather than correctly stating that Vin did it. Secondly, we see that the followers believe that he went to the Pits of Hathsin a man, but returned a god (I wish I had a page number written next to this note to be able to quote it).

This doesn’t have to do with the Bible per se, but this is an illustration of a general phenomenon where stories get embellished and changed when passed on through oral tradition. The second point does have to do with a Jesus topos depending on Sanderson’s interpretation. Many New Testament scholars think that Mark believed Jesus was purely man up until John the Baptist baptizes Jesus in which case he becomes divine. Interestingly, the timelines work out perfectly because this would say Kelsier became divine in early adulthood (around 30?) and then a few years later died to save the world.

There are some weird things about this theory, though. It draws quite a bit attention to the idea that Kelsier (i.e. the Jesus figure) was merely human. The mythologization and deification were embellishments added later. As omniscient readers, we can know for certain that these stories that found the religion are false embellishments. It is usually the non-Christian that points out how likely this is to be the case about Jesus since the earliest Gospel was written 30 or 40 years after Jesus’ death.

Also, we see things like the resurrection of Kelsier to be merely a trick he uses to get people to believe he has come back. He doesn’t actually resurrect in the book. This is very hard to reconcile with the idea that Sanderson believes in a real resurrection, but through his fiction he demonstrates how easily people could be fooled on such things.

Ignoring the end (which we’ll hopefully get to since this is running long already), there is a case to be made that Vin is constructed from the topoi of “Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy.” Since Vin turns out to not be the Hero of Ages, maybe a better case should be made that the prophecies of the Hero are modeled on the prophecies of Jesus. The most striking comparison has to be:

Who first taught that a Hero would come, one who would be an emperor of all mankind, yet would be rejected by his own people? Who first stated that he would carry the future of the world on his arms, or that he would repair that which had been sundered?

This is about as overt as one can get. “Emperor of all mankind, yet would be rejected by his own people.” Jesus was “king of the Jews” yet it was the Jews that turned against him and cheered for him to be killed in the end. We could go on, but again, it is the differences between what the book tells us is actually true versus what people believe is true that is kind of shocking.

First, Sazed has a bit of a crisis when he realizes that the prophecies keep undergoing subtle changes so that they point to whatever Ruin wants them to. I’m not sure if Sanderson is aware of this, but in Biblical History 101 you would learn that as the Bible was passed along from scribe to scribe subtle changes and errors were constantly introduced. It is literally impossible to recover “the original” if that notion even makes sense. So this idea actually comes from Biblical reality.

Again it is shocking that a believer would draw attention to this. The whole moral of the series (from this point of view, obviously there are much more prominent morals) seems to be that because of our uncertainty of what the prophecies say and the mythologization and possibly blunt changing to make stories fit the prophecies, the person that seems to fit the prophecies actually doesn’t fulfill the prophecies at all. Are we suppose to read this as saying that we are likely wrong about interpreting Jesus as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy? From a Christian?! I just see no way around this being a major theme of the series.

Probably the weakest link (and hence last) is reading Spook as a topos of Paul. Spook uses too much tin and undergoes a transformation. Note this transformation involves seeing a blinding light. After this transformation he starts to receive visions of Kelsier/Jesus. He started a skeptic, but then goes around trying to convert people. This seems to fit the general form of the story of Paul.

I’ll end with some other notes I have jotted down just on religious issues in general. Sanderson raises some interesting issues on the epistemology of belief. In book three we have a conversation that tries to draw this to the fore:

Believers are often willing to attempt the seemingly impossible, then count on providence to see them through. That sort of behavior can be a weakness if the belief is misplaced.

This seems to be almost a variant on Pascal’s wager. Everyone agrees that it would be bad to believe in something false … but just think about how worth that risk it would be if you happen to be right. Another pointer to the Christian symbolism in the book is a very clear description of the concept of the trinity (suitably altered to fit the religions of the series):

I have come to see that each power has three aspects: a physical one, which can be seen in the creations made by Ruin and Preservation; a spiritual one in the unseen energy that permeates all of the world; and a cognitive one in the minds which controlled that energy.

There is more to this. Much more that even I do not yet comprehend.

There are even some LDS specific references. The most obvious one is that the only way to transport truth safely is if you write it on metal plates. This was such an obvious reference to Joseph Smith finding the Book of Mormon on metal plates that I overlooked it for almost the entire series. Another is that the main obligator in book three (I again forgot to write the page down to quote it exactly) says something like, “Why choose to worship a dead God when a living one is right in front of you.” I took this to be a reference to the idea that Mormons believe there are current living prophets, yet other Christians choose to ignore these and listen to the long dead and outdated prophets.

Anyway, there is so, so much more I could go on about as these books were just jam packed full of Biblical topos. The thing I found so odd about the series is that if we take these parallels seriously, then the only way I can see to interpret them is as arguments against Christianity. My blog is “A Mind for Madness” and it has been five years, so maybe I’m finally going crazy but why would an LDS member write something so contrary to what he believes?

A Letter to Sam Harris

If you are unfamiliar with Sam Harris, I highly recommend him. He has ethical concerns for people who consider themselves to be rational human beings, but do not stand up to unreasonable action and thought. I won’t go into the details or else this could turn into a thousands of words post.

Dear Sam,

I am a big fan of yours and align myself pretty completely with your views. I am sure that you get tons of letters everyday from people criticizing your ideas, so it is possible you won’t even read this. Following your lead, I feel that I need to point out a flaw in your argument for upholding spirituality (in the form of isolated meditation). Now I just saw you roll your eyes, since this has probably been your most received letter since your talk at the 2007 AAI Conference.

First off, I said I aligned with you, and this is true on the point of spirituality in that I am a practitioner of Zen forms of meditation. My point is that you cannot use the argument you do to uphold this position. My argument comes from the theory of cognitive dissonance, so if you do not subscribe to this, then my point may be moot.

Your seem to have two main claims. One being that through experiences such as isolation and meditation, we can achieve greater awareness of ourselves and our nature. Or, before you jump on that, at the very least, it is possible for every human to test for themselves whether or not this is a true statement. If you find that it isn’t true, then we can’t totally dismiss it, because as with a great athlete, the training required might be much more than what the individual put in. The second claim being that people that claim to have this higher awareness, are in general happier, selfless, etc making the pursuit a worthy one.

Please keep reading even if the details of the above are not correct, as I feel my argument is not in the details but the general. Suppose someone goes off to live in isolation for a year. He meditates for 15 hours every day. Nothing is happening. Isn’t it possible that some cognitive dissonance is building up? The person is told that they will become enlightened if they put the time and effort in. After months of nothing happening, there is a change. The things that people said will happen are happening: the loss of the sense of self, and more. Isn’t it possible that to resolve the cognitive dissonance that this person has sat alone in isolation for a year with no results, the brain has decided to make the fiction a reality?

If the above is even of slightest, remotest, possibility, then we have a problem. This is quite possibly what goes on in other religions as well. You pray every day of your life, then one day you have a life altering religious experience and “know the truth.” This sounds very similar to the person that meditates and has a life altering experience. According to your own viewpoint, if we condone the “non-religious” spirituality, then we necessarily cannot make an arbitrary distinction and condemn the other (especially if the same cognitive mechanism drives both of them).

What about the outcomes? I believe that it is also your opinion that outcome is irrelevant to justification. Even if it is, there are plenty of Christians (insert religion of choice) that due to their very belief in God do positive things in the world. “It gives meaning to their life.” Can you explain how it is different from when the ascetic gains meaning to their life through meditation?

To end on a more positive note, I still consider myself in alignment with you. But as someone who practices rationality, I feel that I cannot use the reasons you have provided to justify my spirituality. They seem to be too close a variant on the irrational arguments (and possibly the same mechanism) that organized religious people use.


I am going to send this to him, but I would first like to hear if I am missing something major. If you are unfamiliar with Sam Harris, then you probably will have trouble following this post.