In Defense of the Unreliable Narrator

As NaNoWriMo speeds along, I thought I’d write a few words about one of the most interesting tools in the fiction writer’s toolbox – the unreliable narrator. My current fictional reading of choice, Twig, features this front and center in the main character and the primary point of view from which the story is told.

Without spoiling too much, the main character, Sylvester, is used as an experiment to test the limits of a powerful mind enhancing drug. The main benefit of the drug is that it allows the user to prioritize cognitive abilities. In the same way that a video game might allow you to customize a character’s abilities (eg. SPECIAL in the Fallout series), this allows the user to ‘adjust’ their abilities in one direction or the other. The drug was invented and used by scientists to further their experiments and related academic cognitive abilities. Sylvester sacrificed much of his long term memory in favor of superior skills in social manipulation and other skills.

With exception of a few interludes, most of the story is told from his perspective. Chapter after chapter, we’re drawn into his point of view and get to know how he thinks. Even the characters that surround him and that he normally interacts with have their own oddities and abilities (to say the least without spoiling anything…), so it is rare that we get a true outside or ‘normal’ perspective. In the comments over on a recent chapter, more than a few people remind us about just exactly how unreliable our narrator is.

Sy was hilarious in this chapter, I do love it when I get to see how strange and scary he is to normal people.

wb protagonists are always awesome when we see what terrifying freaks they really are.

That moment when you mug a very, very dangerous monster, but have great trouble realizing just how monstrous the entire game is.

By spending so much time in the point of view of our charismatic unreliable narrator, the author is able to use the occasional ‘normal’ side character to bring us readers back to reality. Our main character is not a hero. He uses all the means and resources to accomplish his goals and the large wake of collateral damage is often not just inevitable consequence, but also part of the desired result. We’re reminded that as much as we like to cheer for the scrappy underdog fighting the evil and corrupt organizations that control his world, he is not even close to being a ‘lawful good’ aligned character.

Which Skywalker would you be cheering for if the core Star Wars trilogy (E4,E5,E6) was told from the point of view of Anakin rather than Luke?

Illustrated by Evan Dahm

Evan Dahm made an illustrated edition of Moby Dick and is now kickstarting a print edition.

Moby-Dick is the second public-domain book I’ve illustrated and self-published, and it’s one that I am uniquely obsessed with. Even 160 years after its publication, it’s a strange, fascinating, impossible book. It’s nothing like everything you’ve heard about it. It’s an adventure story and an encyclopedia of an enormous, grotesque industry on the threshold of the modern world. It’s a unique and passionate articulation of the self-destructive extremism that has always been a driving force for the United States.

Since early 2015 I’ve made a series of 53 full-page ink illustrations for Moby-Dick. I’ve tried to represent the enormity of the book and its diversity in tone and format—some images are portraits, some are dramatic moments, some are diagrams, and some are icons. I’ve posted all of them online as I’ve finished them.

For this book I’m working with Make That Thing again: they’re coordinating with the printer and they’ll do the order fulfillment when the books are received. These are both things they are very good at and have done many times!

As noted, he’s using Make That Thing, which is part of the Topatoco Empire.

Make That Thing is a production agency for crowdfunded projects. We help artists and creators design, print, store, and ship the things they make — so you can focus on the art. We know that once your crowdfunding campaign is over, the real work has just begun. And we want to help make sure that your backers get what they pledged for in a reliable, professional, and timely manner.

From the Topatoco site:

We also publish books! Some of your favorite internet artists have been approached by publishers who said, “Your work is so amazing that we would like to publish it for you, and pay you pennies on the dollar for the privilege of selling to your existing audience.” The artists, being clever, said “No thanks I’d rather make a living.” TopatoCo Books are just as nice as any book you can find anywhere, except the person who made it — not Amazon, not Barnes & Noble, not Diamond Distributors, not anyone else who did not make the book — actually earns money from the sale. We know! What a concept.

All of the TopatoCo member artists are directly supported by your purchases. As a company, we keep the lowest commissions in the industry, which means that the largest portion possible of your money goes directly to the creators of the products you buy. We’re pleased to report that quite a few of our artists are now able to concentrate full-time on their creative work, thanks to you and us working together to support them.

TopatoCo is exclusively for established, original, independent internet creators with a proven record of solid updates and a considerable existing audience.

Twig: Web Serial

The year is 1921, and a little over a century has passed since a great mind unraveled the underpinnings of life itself. Every week, it seems, the papers announce great advances, solving the riddle of immortality, successfully reviving the dead, the cloning of living beings, or blending of two animals into one. For those on the ground, every week brings new mutterings of work taken by ‘stitched’ men of patchwork flesh that do not need to sleep, or more fearful glances as they have to step off the sidewalks to make room for great laboratory-grown beasts. Often felt but rarely voiced is the notion that events are already spiraling out of the control of the academies that teach these things.

It is only this generation, they say, that the youth and children are able to take the mad changes in stride, accepting it all as a part of day to day life. Of those children, a small group of strange youths from the Lambsbridge Orphanage stand out, taking a more direct hand in events.

Twig is without doubt one of the best speculative fiction stories I’ve ever read. This is the author’s third serially published long-form web fiction, and it shows in the author’s expert mastery of the format. This is a proper page-turner style story that keeps you hooked week after week.

You should read this story if you enjoy fantasy, science fiction, horror, or speculative fiction of any genre.

As of writing, there are 7+ chapters published on a twice weekly schedule (with an extra chapter a few times a month), and the author’s successful consistency of publishing a new update on schedule is to be commended and recommended to all authors everywhere.

I love the world building in Twig. I love characters. I’m addicted to the incredible pace in which the story develops. Reading Twig is one of the highlights to my week. I find myself referencing this story in real life situations. If this was a full book in my hands, I would have read it in one (very long) sitting without stopping for anything.

Even if you don’t normally enjoy any of the aforementioned genres, and you don’t normally give web serials a shot, you should still start reading Twig.

Anathem Revisted

While I wrote about my excitement preceding the release of Anathem, and speak highly of the book, it appears that it has not made it’s way into the Waking Ideas archive.

Below is one of my favorite quotes from the book. It accurately captures the depth of the story:

See, it‘s not just about what is possible — since anything is possible in Hemn space — but what is compossible, meaning all the other things that would have to be true in that universe, to have a block of ice in a star.”

Well, I actually think you could do it,” Emman said. The praxic gears were turning in his head. This was what he did for a living; he‘d been pulled out of his job at a rocket agency to serve as technical advisor to Ignetha Foral. “You could design a rocket—a missile with a warhead made of thick heat-resistant material with a block of ice embedded in it. Make this thing plunge into the star at high velocity. The heat-resistant material would burn away. But just after it did, for a moment, you‘d have a block of ice embedded in a star.

“Okay, that‘s all possible,” I said, “but it‘s a way of answering the question ‘what other things would have to be true about a cosmos that included a block of ice in a star?’ If you were to go to that cosmos and freeze it in that moment of time”

Okay,” he said, “let‘s say the teleporter has a user interface feature that makes it easy to freeze time by looping back to the same point over and over.

“Fine. And if you did that and looked at the region around the ice, you‘d see the heavy nuclei of the melted heat shield swirling around in the star-stuff. You‘d see the trail of rocket exhaust in space, leading all the way back to the scorch marks on the launch pad. That launch pad has to be on a planet capable of supporting life smart enough to build rockets. Around that launch pad you‘d see people who had spent years of their lives designing and building that rocket. Memories of that work, and of the launch, would be encoded in their neurons. Speelies of the launch would be stored in their reticules. And all of those memories and recordings would mostly agree with one another. All of those memories and recordings boil down to positions of atoms in space so—”

So those memories and recordings, you‘re saying, are themselves parts of the configuration encoded by that point in Hemn space,” Emman said, loudly and firmly, as he knew he was getting it. “And that is what you mean about compossibility.”

On my recommendation, my sister read the book and with high praise said, “This is the first book in YEARS I haven’t been able to read all at once, even if I wanted to”.

Two years ago, I described Anathem as such:

Anathem is an epic story, and it takes a little bit to transition into thinking using all alternate vocabulary, but after a while of reading it sinks in and clicks and the rest of the book is very enjoyable.

For bookworms like myself, Anathem is more than an enjoyable story. It serves as the gateway for learning about quantum mechanics, multiple universe theories, the writings of Leibniz, Penrose, Gödel, Plato, and more. This is a thousand page, fictional story that entices people to willingly read tens of thousands of pages of non-fiction.


Neal Stephenson’s newest book, Anathem, is probably already in the hands of many people (who work at book stores) by now . He’s one of my favorite authors because of the depth at which the books are written. Today Tomorrow (9/9/2008) is the official release date for Anathem and I’m very excited to head to the book store and pick up a copy after work as soon as I wake up. Wikipedia gives a nice overview of the plot or at least… the premise of why you’re supposed to even attempt to read a nearly 1000 pages of pure awesomeness:

The novel is set on a planet called Arbre, where the protagonist, Raz, is among a cohort of secluded scientists, philosophers and mathematicians who are called upon to save the world from impending catastrophe. The novel’s description on and a First look from the publisher, explain further that Raz has spent his entire life inside a 3,400-year-old sanctuary. The rest of society — the “sæcular world” — is described as an “endless landscape of casinos and megastores that is plagued by recurring cycles of booms and busts, dark ages and renaissances, world wars and climate change.” Resident scholars, including Raz, are unexpectedly summoned by a frightened “sæcular power” to leave their monastic stronghold in the hope that they may prevent an approaching catastrophe.

As a side note, Stephenson’s previous trilogy, The Baroque Cycle, has been split from its monstrous form since I last read it and has been re-released as 8 separate books, so you don’t have to feel intimidated by the hefty page numbers. Just make sure you start with the thinner version of Quicksilver.

Another side note: recently fired most of their writers of the original online content and are now almost exclusively pulling content from their sister publication Wired Magazine, which ran a beautiful spread and article on Anathem, and it’s re-published over at as well. The article is a great read because it bounces perfectly between describing the author and the book, in a careful balance that doesn’t reveal too much about the book, doesn’t turn into a biography, but keeps you enthralled no matter if you already knew the little facts hidden because the article is a narrative itself:

But before the members split for the night, they detour to the basement to see Stephenson’s workshop, where he has an impressive assortment of metalworking tools to help him on his current DIY project: a scary-looking steel helmet to protect the shiny Stephenson noggin from accidental scalp removal while indulging in his recent passion, Western martial arts. This is the polite term for going medieval with swords and daggers. It’s a hobby the author picked up during research for the Baroque Cycle, his three-volume, 2,688-page tribute to 18th-century science, philosophy, and swordplay.

Only a few months ago, another epic bubbled up from his basement. Anathem, Stephenson’s ninth novel, is set for release on September 9. The Nealosphere, of course, is over the top with anticipation. This time, Stephenson has given himself the broadest stage yet: a world of his own creation, including a new language. Though he’s been consistently ambitious in his work, this latest effort marks a high point in his risk-taking, daring to blend the elements of a barn-burner space opera with heavy dollops of philosophical dialog. It’s got elements of Dune, The Name of the Rose, and Michael Frayn’s quantum-physics talkathon, Copenhagen.

Of course, BoingBoing linked up a preview of the glossary for Anathem about a week ago, and Neal Stephenson shows up in a video on doing a short reading from the book as well. And for a parting thought: a fantastic but failed appeal to have a comment un-disemvoweled showed up in a separate but related BoingBoing post about Anathem.