Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone. Saga Press, 2019
To be sensitive to signs, to consider the world as an object to be deciphered, is doubtless a gift. But this gift risks remaining buried in us if we do not make the necessary encounters, and these encounters would remain ineffective if we failed to overcome certain stock notions. The first of these is to attribute to the object the signs it bears.
- Gilles Deleuze - Proust and Signs, p. 26-27
Disregard the 'story' elements of the story. A tale of two lovers and their apprenticeship of signs. That old trope of learning to see the world new again, applied to the dilemma of being so high above time,above the battlefield, that everything becomes levelled and mundane. A reflection of our current tech-malaise, and a humble suggestion forgetting back on track - read more and write more letters...
To begin, the ending of this story doesn’t matter. It follows a common trope in stories about time - a character turns out to be a double, ortriple, of themselves and all these versions have been playing the story out with one another the whole time, but you only realise this at the end. Of course, this motif can be done so well, as in films like Timecrimes (2007) or Primer (2004), but here any satisfaction gained from the ending is short-lived. A simple reversal of the title’s premise, a validation that, yes, they can trust one another and, yes,they are smarter that everyone else after all. But, was that what thestory was really about?
The story starts in a more interesting way, by creating a null point where a beginning is supposed to go, but where there is now onlyparadox: “Burn before reading”. The lack of beginning will likely frustrate many readers. There is no context, no explanation for what is actually happening in the story, for who these people are (are they even ‘people’?).
As the story progresses, we do get a sense of a central opposition; between Garden and Agency, between ‘organic’ and ‘artificial’ modes of life, an old opposition that underpins so many visions of the future. But these oppositions and histories still do not fill in much ofthe context of the story. All we know is that there is a war, and there are two personalities - red and blue.
This isn’t a story about beginnings or endings. It’s a story about being in the middle of things. In the middle of a war, the middle of a correspondence and in the middle of a negotiation disguised as a seduction.
A letter is always in the middle. It is always ambivalent. The two time-agents are seduced by the letter in the same way that we would probably be today. At the outset of the text, they exist outside oftime. They are exiles of time. This is what allows them to manipulate and wield history so easily. We, too, in an age of ICTs, of instant messaging, instant updates, and so on, are exiles of time. History is constantly being made around us, while we stand apart, as observers. Atmost, like the time agents, we do our best to weave together various strands - a murder at a protest in Wisconsin, a blocking of an acquisition in China, a slump in the middle-east oil market. We compile these events together with ‘threads’; newsfeeds, aggregated content, searchable databases, a summary of the news headlines at the hour, tuneout after the A-block, no time for context. We weave these strands together (or, some AI weaves them together for us), and to what end? To win a war. Red versus blue. Left and right. Political signs that are laughable in their inter changeability, blue for left here, red for left there. We build our bubbles, the red side and the blue, and we war with one another.
If, by chance, an old friend sends us a postcard, or a letter, we feel its warmth. We are thrilled. We have once again been placed ‘in-time’,within a process that extends beyond us and extends us. This is what happens to the agents in the book. The are re-situated in time after a lifetime of exile. They become slaves to the time of the letter. The become apprentices of the signs of the other. The book is about watching this process unfold. The process is a correspondence-process, bound to the time of the letter and all the modes of encoding that it entails.
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze can help understand what it means to bean apprentice of signs. In his little book Proust and Signs , he discusses how signs are exchanged between lovers.
A sign can be many things. Our reality is filled with signs (and, indeed, in terms of process philosophy, our reality is made through signs - via signals exchanged between processes, be they organic or techno-logical). We are adept at reading signs. After all, our lives and livelihoods depend on it. Weather it be the various protocols that govern traffic networks or the subtle body language of a sales agent toward a potential customer, we constantly operate in a milieu of shared meanings and modes of exchanging these meanings. We are all ’worldly’in this sense, we are all experts at understanding, decoding, recodingthe signs of our various milieus. Words, too, are signs; “Words areabstraction, break off from the green; words are patterns in the wayfences and trenches are. Words hurt.”
This all changes when the lover enters. All of a sudden, we are presented with a radically new set of protocols. A set of signs which is totally alien to us, and therefore demands our full attention, admiration, suspicion. What was he thinking about when he looked away from me just now? Why does her voice sound so unique? It totally disorients me! How is it possible for someone to be so beautiful?
In contrast to the signs which construct and shape the majority of our reality and are public and recognisable as such, the signs exchanged between lovers are private ; they are secret, encrypted, special. This is also what explains the phenomenon of jealousy. Jealousy is just the suspicion that the encryption protocols of this private network, this walled garden of pleasure, have been breached. Secrets have been shared with the enemy. Jealousy is looking at the other, watching how she smiles at you in that special way, and wondering: “Has she smiled like that for someone else too?”
In spite of the suspicions and jealousy (and maybe because of it), the signs of the other whom we love are utterly compelling. We become an apprentice of this new private network of meaning. As the clichés go, we begin to see this person everywhere, we hear them subtly coded into generic love-songs.
For Deleuze, jealousy - or simply ‘suspicion’ in this story - is what initiates the lover into an apprenticeship of signs. Whereas the everyday exchange of signs operates under the regime of ‘truth’ or objectivity, where the sign only serves as an indication for an ‘objective’ truth, the jealous lover seeks in signs the lie. In this book too, the signs are being sent from the ‘enemy’ side. Each side doesn’t seek objective understanding of the other from the letters, but only the signs that would indicate their safety, betrayal or hope.
Love’s signs are not like the signs of worldliness; they are not empty signs, standing for thought and action. They are deceptive signs that can be addressed to us only by concealing what they express: the origin of unknown worlds, of unknown actions and thoughts that give them a meaning. They do not excite a superficial, nervous exaltation, but the suffering of a deeper exploration. The beloved’s lies are the hieroglyphics of love. The interpreter of love’s signs is necessarily the interpreter of lies. His fate is expressed in the motto To love without being loved.
- Proust and Signs, p. 9
The book shows this apprenticeship so well. This is also why the ‘story’ element of the story does not really matter. What we are concerned with, via the protagonists, is not the ‘truth’ of what is going on (what kind of world is this?), but with the signs of the world themselves . We, along with the protagonists, are caught up in the affair: the suspicion, the danger, the love. We, like the protagonists, begin to notice the traces of blue and red in objects around us. Through the book, we, even for a moment, learn to re-code and re-read signs. This, after all, is what all good literature encourages us to do. This is what the letters do for the protagonists. It is no coincidence that the letters contain so many sprinklings of literary references.
Literature, according to Wolfgang Iser, is parasitic on everyday language and meaning protocols. It is like a virus that recodes our environments by introducing different interpretive strategies into our consciousness. The characters in the book, also, fall victim to this effect. They abandon their loyalties, their families, their selves, all for the sake of a stranger who appears only through coded, private messages.
Of course, all of this is not new. Indeed, the story’s literary references makes sure you know that this isn’t supposed to be a ‘new’ story (Romeo and Juliet, Heloise and Abelard, all ‘forbidden’ romances). Nor is it supposed to be a ‘bricolage’ or postmodern exercise in recompiling old threads (after all, this is the boring ‘dayjob’ that the characters are trying to escape from). Instead, it is an echo. It’s an abstraction of previous forbidden love stories. It deliberately obscures context, histories, names, so that what we are left with are two things - letters and processes. The letters are the catalyst - “read by bubbling” - and the processes are the transformations of self provoked by letters. In this way, it is no longer a story about the psychology of characters, nor the social or historical conditions (as may be the case in other stories about forbidden love). Instead, it is a story about letters and their effect. Their effect is global. The world is transformed through a correspondence, a negotiation, a seduction, and through many, many missed encounters. It is not a coincidence that the book is peppered, almost solely, by letters and missed encounters. A letter only works in the absence of encounter.
The process the book describes - falling in love through letters - is a delicate one. Even more delicate than the task of ‘rewriting history’, which comes so easy to the protagonists. The real challenge remains seducing the other, trusting the other. An other that is only everpresent through their traces. The process involves the delicate writing of words into nature, and allowing nature to grow around these words as they form (in the trunk of a tree, the belly of a seal) and, most importantly, having the patience ( endurance ) to withstand these changes.
Finally, as mentioned above, what are we to make of the fact that the two never meet (aside from one ‘meeting’ which only really occurs for Red)? Again, this reinforces the idea that this story is not really about beginnings, endings, character arcs, and so on. All the characters have are the letters of the other, and that’s enough. It should be enough for us too. In absence of encounter, the other is reduced (or,rather, expanded) to their ‘colour’, and these colours span and fill each of their private worlds. After all, a colour is not an object - as with the ‘sign’ - it is the reflection of the relational state of beings. The lover is not an ‘object’, it is a relation, a series of thrilling close encounters. In the book, the lover is never present, but they are never far either. They shadow and hunt, they announce themselves in a multitude of ways, without ever fully revealing themselves.
Perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening…
—Rilke -You Who Never Arrived (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)
 Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, 57.