Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Floornight is a novel by nostalgebraist, published free online. In my ongoing effort to read more broadly across various sources and media, I stumbled across it a few times: lots of rationalist, LessWrong, effective altruism sites/commenters link to it. So it is popular in a particular corner of the internet, where my wanderings have brought me recently.

The novel's setting is a near-present-day future, where some branch of physics discovers laws that delimit the soul: what it is, how to measure it, what it can do. This is immediately made top-secret by the governments of the world. The story focuses on a team of scientists/mathematicians/spies/technicians/bureaucrats, most of them identifiably human people. (Plus one sentient (?) AI, and some other... souls.) All human characters are apparently in the 20-30 range, but bequeathed with such genius for their particular subspecialty that the world governments have given them free rein to bootstrap themselves (via research) to godlike powers. These all live and work in a giant spherical building/compound on the ocean floor, where most radiation does not reach but where there is a lot of soul energy/radiation happening.

What will happen? The division/recombination of souls serves as a potential source of unlimited clean energy, but what are the ethical ramifications? Why does the setting and collection of characters emotionally read like a college dormitory? How will this rag-tag group of non-neurotypicals combine their intellectual and interpersonal powers to save the universe? I write this tongue-in-cheek, fully aware that it is a snarky summary, but nevertheless: accurate.

The book is uneven, and I write that in full knowledge that comparing it to copy-edited novels out of major publishing houses is completely unreasonable. It is full of very cool ideas, and they are introduced in intriguing ways. Some parts of the book --- in particular, each character's introduction --- read like unnecessarily prolix introductions to the idea of non-neurotypical-ness. As the story progressed, I grew increasingly convinced that it would not be able to fulfill the promise of the early chapters, in terms of character development and plot, making sense, and emotional payoff. The ending managed to surprise, and was satisfactory in a certain way (spoilers displaced below the break).

Certain moments and phrases shone with a thrilling verbal iridescence.

One character speaks in rabidly purple prose. This scratches a mental itch for me and is quite satisfying:
  • "I can sense already a new texture to this exchange, a thing like exorbitantly expensive velvet felt by touch alone, a luxury ever-so-slightly beyond the bounds of convention, whispering in synechdoche's coy tones, to the perceptive observer..." (p. 119)
  • What a simpler character would render as "falling asleep" instead comes out as "wending their swift way toward that inimitable conjunction of pure repose and outrageous hallucination", which is a great way to describe it. (p. 119)
  • "... the thousand natural shocks that matter is heir to." (p. 182) I don't know what to contrast this with --- is the immaterial soul not subject to natural shocks? --- but the words flow beautifully. And ending such a pretentious sentence with a preposition puts the nail in the coffin for me.
  • "you and I are, as they say, royally fucked: fucked like no royal has been since Henry VIII, and with consequences of similar religious significance." (p. 50) A cute joke, spanning the lowbrow and highbrow in successive clauses.

Some other interesting prose arises when describing particular characters and their particular outlook on life. "Martin's life, as he presents it, is a sequence of occasions for joy." (p. 87) This seems a nice way of introducing an unreliable, but pleasant, character. Elsewhere, a quite reliable character yields: "his vision of a good like consists of an endless sequence of tasks, executed without complaint." (p. 116)

This description of enjoyment of pop music resonated nicely: "the crystalline quality of certain pop songs, of the unrepentant jubilance of a synthesized melodic line" (p. 163).

This post's theme word is plangent, "loud and resonant, with a mournful tone." "... and he suddenly hears a plangent minor chord in his head, the purest and saddest chord in the wide world of music theory, ..." (p 61)

Spoilery, a little bit.

The author included several winks to the reader, breaking the fourth wall, acknowledging the unpolished writing-craft. These came across as appropriately tongue-in-cheek. One character in particular voices these winks, saying first "Somewhere, we took a wrong turn, and we stepped into a painting, into a story, and we've been there all along..." (p. 212), then "We are not real figures. We are flat things in a two-dimensional cartoon narrative. I have known it all along." (p. 229), and finally in a sublime episode of fourth-wall-breaking, "God. This isn't even well-written." (p. 231).


nostalgebraist said...

Thank you for writing this. It is very flattering and I'm glad the ending worked for you at least to some extent.

Do you mind if I link this on my tumblr? (I keep trying to get people who have only read my later and more popular story, The Northern Caves, to read Floornight.)

Lila is a complex system. said...

It's great that (1) you found this, and (2) you liked it. I always think of my internet-posted writing as just being chucked into a void, never read by any other human. (Bots only.)

So yes, you may link to it. Thanks for asking, and thanks for an interesting read!