What journalists the world over love to do is to bring two vaguely related things together to review or discuss, as if by doing so they identify an incipient trend or fashion. Once pointed out, of course, this trick reeks of self-indulgent modern tossery: but in the scientific interest of exploring different ways of writing about unsolved historical ciphers, I thought it might at least be a little interesting to try on this dropped shoe, to see for myself whether it’s fur or glass.

So here goes.

Jess Feldman’s “Call It a Premonition”

Jess Feldman’s slim book of poetry “Call It a Premonition” eerily subtitles itself “Translations from the Voynich Manuscript”.

When I tweeted Jess to ask how her set of poems related to the Voynich Manuscript, she replied:

I didn’t base the poems on any specific pages. Just created the poems by looking at the manuscript holistically and imagining it as the diary of a 13 year old girl. Even though it’s a different time period, I was influenced by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Is it any good? Well, if you want you can read the 18-page PDF here and decide for yourself (and let’s face it, it’s not going to take long). For me, though, there are some obvious highlights: and with my unsolved historical cipher hat on, I certainly couldn’t read the line in “Another Dead Fellow”…

Look:
I’ve a shiny new hairpiece. See, cuz: a mermaid

…without thinking of the curious fish/mermaid hybrid that appears on f79v in Quire 13:

Similarly, the line in “I Dreamed Of”…

a leashed hart young doe collared in soft pink bouclé
the king’s own grazing animals

…brought to my mind the strangely red-painted animal on the same page (note where the heavy painter has smooshed green paint all over the lines, so that we can’t easily discern the outlines that were originally drawn here):

Finally, “The Summer of 1438” will surely ring true for some long-suffering Cipher Mysteries readers:

I’m learning
Sometimes
Unsolved mysteries
It’s better not to ask

My favourite single poem from the set, however, is her eponymous “Call It a Premonition”, which is last but certainly not least:

In a distant future
I look like a boy only
still a girl but in slacks okay
I am moving my lacquered
fingers so text materializes
across a framed fluid tapestry
without seams Without origin
unmarried far from dead
childless and leather-booted
I say words like Co-workers,
I hate this fucking job and
I mean it but I am happy
enough I think
comparatively speaking
nonetheless

To me, this kicks an angry skateboard shoe at our foolish modernity’s ankle in a way that stings both kicker and kickee. I enjoyed it, and hope for more good Feldmany stuff in the future, slacks or otherwise. 😉

The poetry of “Supercomputer CARMEL”

In many ways, all that ackshwall poetterie couldn’t really sit further from our second contender in the ring tonight. Championed by CompSci historical cipher buff Professor Kevin Knight, CARMEL is a supercomputer running AI pattern-recognition software (according to, wait, the History Channel press release is round here somewhere) that he filled with all manner of documents and items to do with the Zodiac Killer Cipher, as part of the Hunt For The Zodiac TV documentary series that started a few days ago.

Well… that’s basically what the History Channel (and the programme makers at Karga Seven) would like us to think. However, despite all the nicely-lit close-ups of charcoal grey racks studded with the obligatory array of blinking LEDs, CARMEL isn’t a “supercomputer” at all, it’s a laboratory teaching support code toolkit developed (in C++ with a bit of Boost) and extensively tweaked over the last twenty years at the Information Sciences Institute at USC where Knight is a professor. Strictly speaking, it’s a “finite-state transducer package written by Jonathan Graehl”, that basically lets you set up a whole load of linked and/or nested finite state machines and then do all manner of clever things with them, such as train them (i.e. condition the transition weights) just by passing data into them, via either “EM (expectation-maximization) training” or “Bayesian Chinese Restaurant Process training”.

In fact, ISI students (and doubtless many others) have wheeled out the CARMEL toolkit over that period to write all manner of experimental NLP (natural language processing) software, from cipher solvers – though if you have to repeat anything “trillions of times” to get a result, something’s probably going horribly wrong with your choice of algorithm – to accelerated knowledge acquisition to (yes, you guessed it) synthetic poetry generation.

The wonderfully creepy thing is that by seeding the (CARMEL toolkit assisted) poetry generator specifically with the corpus of letters written by the Zodiac Killer, you can – with a smidgeon of justification – say that you’re generating Zodiac Killer (-seeded) poetry. It’s by no means a simulated look into his head, sure, but rather a rhyming sampling plucked from the linguistic soup apparently (on the evidence of the contents of his letters, anyway) swilling around there. Sort of.

But is this artificial poetry any good? Well, (with the caveat that I don’t know the settings or the precise keywords used to seed the particular runs) I can do no better than quote some examples given on the web and let you decide for yourself.

Existence enters your entire nation.
A twisted mind reveals becoming manic,
An endless modern ending medication,
Another rotten soul becomes dynamic.

Or under pressure on genetic tests.
Surrounded by controlling my depression,
And only human torture never rests,
Or maybe you expect an easy lesson…

Handily, you can also generate your own here. I tried out a few for myself (the title of each is the keyword I chose), each took no more than a couple of seconds to pop up:

BRUTAL

Another day without a life abused.
Confused or blinded by the nitty gritty,
Afraid of being openly accused,
You and me against the world severely.

Or this:

PARADISE

Something like an angel on the vine!
An endless dream about eternal youth,
A power full of blood and sugar pine,
A sigh of love and see the naked truth.

OK, it’s not hard to see that these are simply terrible poems, mashing up pukable birthday card rhymes with a madman’s self-loathing and anger. But perhaps some entrepreneur will now use this to corner the market in psychopathic greetings cards (though perhaps even modern society has a little way further to descend before that really hits the zeitgeisty spot).

Hegelian synthesis?

This is of course the point where journalists, happy to have simulated catching a trend (or created a simulacrum of catching a trend, depending on how picky you are), press [Send], kick off their loafers, and inject some ridiculous Class A drug (or whatever journos prefer these days). “It’s a wrap!” as I once shouted angrily (having actually ordered a sandwich).

But having thought about it for a few days, I think that a common thread subtly links the two sets of poetry. In the case of Jess Feldman, she imagined herself into the inner mental world of “a 13 year old girl” living in a brutal historical period: while the Zodiac Killer text corpus also transports us (via the CompSci magic of trained finite-state transducers) into the stage of his broken psychodrama. Yet for me, the challenging link between the two is not the brutality of the two worlds (by which I mean the girl’s outer world and the Zodiac’s inner world) but the two sets’ shared performative aspect.

Why? Well: in my opinion, Jess Feldman’s poetry is – I think, but feel free to have your own opinion – written as performance pieces: the poems are not hurty / shouty / broken / combat wordplay, but stuff that could comfortably be performed: their language is consistently wry and agile, half-spoken thoughts in the grey area between what we say and what we think.

Similarly, even though the Zodiac Killer synthetic poetry is essentially an experimental linguistic simulation, it is necessarily anchored within the inherently narcissistic and manipulative language he employed for effect in his letters: and whether you like it or not, I think it is the raw language that constrains the computer’s output far more than the rhyme scheme.

Without any real doubt, the Zodiac Killer’s letters (and indeed his ciphertexts) were constructed solely for the practical needs of his hateful theatre and his need to control by terror, not for communication. The notion that we might ever actually learn something so banal as his name from any of his ciphertexts (even the Z13) seems to me ridiculous and pathetically needy: what he wrote was never a diary, but a performance that’s both as fake as Reality TV and as psychotic as Charles Manson.

My left arm, disembodied, slowly rejoins the mothership
Searching for adverbs, unsuccessful as ever
Distant aches filed for future reference
Blur, wash, smudged light chinks overpainting
Eyes that shouldn’t be open quickly close
And re-enter that censored dream again, the one with the
And the
And the two naked women standing oddly, reading telegrams
“ABACTOR ABLATIVE” says one. The other:

The room fills with water and light and shouts from the trapped
I look down at my ticket: Third Class, yet again.

And I realise that I am awake.

The notion that Jorge Luis Borges’ “Labyrinths” – a collection of idiosyncratic short stories, essays, and even parables by the much-acclaimed Argentinian writer, wrangled into English with no little hair-pulling – somehow parallels Voynich research is one that has been floated and repeated for decades.

But is it true now, here in the Fake News world of 2017? Is Borges a harbinger of what we see, or are we all post-Borges?

Describing The Indescribable

What Borges does in his short stories is to gleefully plunder history, not for mere colour (as so many writers now do) but to subvert it and channel it into a secret paradoxical alt.history, which typically forms the conceptual spine of each story’s skeleton.

The twisted steps backwards he takes to go forward again are equal parts erudite and imaginary. These all lead to a creative pyre whose flames are fed by philosophy, religion, esotericism, literature, self-referentiality, dreams, chess, labyrinths, and the numberless ways to cheat (or at least sidestep) the infinities of time, space, and mathematics.

Yet despite the range of references, the setting is predominantly a high-register, sexless, atheistic domain, ruled by stern, darkly logical planets. As a reader, you often feel as though the author is trying to conjure up a paradoxical exit visa from one dark oppressive reality into another.

Borges’ Three Tells

It’s not hard to tell his writing apart from just about anybody else’s.

His first writing trademark is embellished and over-decorated footnotes and references to books and articles which may or may not exist, embedding (if not actually entangling) his narratives in an imaginary textual web. This corresponds to the “falsifying and magnifying” tendency he derides himself (at a remove) for.

His second trademark is inserting himself into his stories, often as an unreliable narrator (not such a modern conceit as some may think).

His third trademark is that his stories almost always reveal themselves to be less than the sum of their parts – the denouement is often little more than a peek behind Oz’s curtain, collapsing the conceit preceding it.

Is Borges Worth Reading?

This is a tough question. Many of the things that are good about his writing would also likely make him completely unreadable to many modern readers. If you are impatient and/or prefer things to be grounded in the concrete, Borges’ concept-heavy counter-factuals are almost certainly not for you.

Yet the bigger problem, I think, is one of style, because Borges writes with a kind of refined, over-polished lightness that somehow never quite becomes levity. I don’t believe that the reading difficulties are translation artefacts: they’d be just as difficult in Hawaiian or Esperanto.

Is Borges a fellow-traveller to Voynich researchers? He certainly sets his readers cerebral challenges, ones which wear cloaks of obscurity, esotericism, and a tight knowingness, yet which he then reveals to be simpler than they at first seemed: and in some ways this is the (idealized) research trajectory.

But in the end, I think the answer is no: his mystification and erudition aren’t his means to knowledge, they are merely the scaffolding he uses to support the canvas behind his all-too-briefly-erected stages. Borges offers only an anagram of research, not research itself: the teasing paranoia of conspiracy, rather than causality.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Borges: but, like fried grasshoppers dipped in Marmite, I can quite see he’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes. :-/

A few years back, Bill Walsh sent me a (fairly early, as I recall) draft of his vaguely-Voynich-Manuscript-themed novel to have a look at. And now that a proper copy has finally landed on my doorstep, all finished and shiny, the inevitable question arises…

Is it any good?

Tales From The Black Chamber: A Supernatural Thriller

First things first: anyone who fills their bookshelves solely with High Literature can look away now. “Tales From The Black Chamber” was written more as an amuse-bouche, to the point that many of the book’s protagonists were simply light-hearted pastiches of Bill’s friends at the time. He even mentions me (p.110) as an interesting Voynich theorist (but don’t hold that against him, it’s mercifully brief).

His story races past all manner of things cryptographic and demonological, with a sassy female bibliophile main character who gets swept up (mostly unwillingly) in a world-spanning story that’s far more fin du monde than fan-fic. Even though knowing a bit about Richard Kieckhefer and the history of magic circles beforehand might help the reader a little, such research fare is certainly far from essential here. Oddly enough, I didn’t remember the story’s ending at all from when I read it the first time round (perhaps it changed along the way?), but it did wrap everything up quite satisfyingly.

So… what are the scores, George Dawes? Well, my arithmetic goes like this: Tales From The Black Chamber gets four stars, basically for being pacy, genuinely readable, not outstaying its welcome, and having characters you don’t actually want to punch after half a page. The extra half a star I’d really like to give it for The Best Gratuitous Inclusion Of A Mongolian Shaman gets cancelled out by The Worst Job Offer (And Least Plausible Job Acceptance) In History Ever Ever (Ever), along with the main characters’ hyperactive overuse of weaponry (despite the fact that this has become completely par for the course in a primarily American genre, arguably).

Even though Bill seems never to have expected it to turn out so well, I think he’s ended up doing a damn fine job: and anyone who secretly enjoys the warm buzz of reading about necromancy and the supernatural that always seems to be a mere half-step away from the Voynichian research mainstream will probably enjoy his book. Good luck, Bill, I hope it does well! 🙂

PS: doubtless some people (OK, mainly Americans) will actually rather enjoy all that gun fetishry, but it’s a big Internet out there, with plenty of space to write your own reviews if such a thing wouldst pleaseth thee greatly. If so, then go ahead, knocketh thyself out. 🙂

Too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel, some might say that The Voynich Affair by Linnet Moss suffers from both problematic elongation and improper positioning.

But given that Google (until today) yielded precisely zero hits for the phrase “Voynich erotica”, Moss is clearly reaming out a niche untouched by few (if any) previous hands.

Voynich Erotica

But has she hit the spot?

I must confess that I found reading “The Voynich Affair” on a Kindle on the bus towards Staines in the morning rush hour more than a bit unsettling. Coming to the genre for the first time (so to speak), what I found oddest was that it seems to be written by people scared to death of physical intimacy, and aimed at readers who are also scared to death of physical intimacy. No, really.

I don’t know, it’s like it was typed by someone wearing gloves: chic, distantly-perfumed Italian leather gloves, sure, but gloves nonetheless. And for all the shudderingly implausible physical encounters described in the text, the whole endeavour came across as being locked within a resolutely lonely world, sans any flicker of Sartrean authenticity.

As a result, I can’t claim to have liked (or even mildly empathised with) any of the protagonists: but given that there are plenty of Internationally Acclaimed Bestsellers which failed that same test even more dramatically (Digital Fortress, anyone? *sigh*), that hardly amounts to a serious criticism. And anyway, that’s probably not the point of erotica, right?

At this point, a traditional review would tell you about how the story is based around extra missing pages of the manuscript in a French chateau, and involves various broodingly mysterious (and sociopathic) Voynich researchers: but frankly that’s a bit pointless. By now, you’ve almost certainly decided whether or not you’re interested, so all I can usefully add is that all fifteen chapters are freely available online, starting here.

The Selfish Reason

At this point, I have to ‘fess up to the real reason I bought a copy of The Voynich Affair (which Linnet Moss published as part of “The Mind-Body Problem: Stories of Desire and Love in Academe” (2012), complete with Voynich page on the (virtual) front cover)…

mind-body-problem

…which is that I wanted to see if the various Voynich researchers in the story were loosely based on any real-world Voynich researchers.

OK, OK: I wanted to see if I had been parodied. Not that I can’t take a joke, it’s just that I’d rather know about the joke than find out about it a decade later. 🙂

Happily, though, I can exclusively reveal that no Voynich researcher seems to have been openly parodied (no Randy Zenbergen, no Donna Via-Odeon, and no sign of the infamous Len Pickling), nor were any Voynichians’ sexual proclivities (errrm, to the best of my knowledge) turned into sort-of-page-turning Voynich-themed erotic encounters.

Unless you know better, that is? 😉

But… Who Would Write Such A Thing?

Author Linnet Moss claims to be:

“a college professor who writes fiction in her spare time. She adores old books, new books, cats, frogs, miniature books, wine, Trappist ales, tea from Ceylon, vegetarian gourmet food, London, Rome, Art Deco skyscrapers, and beautiful men.”

Of course, while some (or indeed all) of this may be true, it remains just as possible that Moss is a short balding non-professor bloke from Deptford with OCD, conceptually not too far removed from “paradee man woman” Wor Cheryl, pet.

As a result, I can (just about) see how some readers might possibly see decrypting the author’s identity, age, and/or indeed gender from the text as a worthwhile challenge.

For me, though, I’m sticking with the Voynich Manuscript: that has more than enough strangely inscrutable nymphs to worry about for one lifetime. 😉

A nice set of past Voynich limericks are elsewhere on Cipher Mysteries, but I thought (six years on) I’d write a couple of new ones for you:

Might Voynichese be Nahuatl?
Or incomprehensible prattle?
We might never find
How this thing was designed
Without patronage from Seattle.

The Voynich Manuscript’s a conundrum
One that draws us away from the humdrum
It defies those who attack it
But have faith – you’ll soon crack it
Illegitimi non carborundum! 🙂

I’ve read a lot – and I really do mean a lot – of Voynich Manuscript-themed (and other genuine-historical-cipher-themed) novels over the years, and I have to say that the whole experience rarely gets any better than just-about-OK-if-there’s-nothing-much-on-TV. Yes, even with TV in the nadir-like pit it has winched itself down into these days.

Sad as it is, such novelists’ including-an-ancient-unbroken-cipher writing mechanism comes across to reflective readers as rather, I don’t know, desperate-and-wanting-to-be-loved (and doubtless someone will tell me an obscure German or Icelandic adjective to describe this more precisely). More precisely, it shouts out “please God, let importing some genuine real-world mystery be enough to distract attention from the countless plot flaws, the unconvincing characters, and the piss-poor writing“. And that’s before you’ve even got to page one.

At the same time, none of the above ever hurt Dan Brown, so why not press that button and see where it leads, eh?

the-voynich-deception

Indeed, Michael Lancashire pressed that very button: and to his credit, his novel “The Voynich Deception” comes out of it basically an OK read. As the backdrop to his story, he has an unfeasibly clever guy (‘The Architect’) devising unfeasibly-clever-yet-still-oddly-micromanaged evil plans for ambitious crims to buy to execute. The rest of the plot involves a group of brutal, greedy and unlovable – though utterly uninvolving – Albanian gangsters following a blood-soaked trail of Voynich-linked cookie crumbs ever onwards towards a long-concealed treasure trove, where… well, that last bit would be telling, so my lips are sealed.

But at the same time, what I can say is that the structural weakness of “The Voynich Deception” is that while Lancashire’s ‘Architect’ is just an anti-Sherlock Holmesian conceit, the entire story pivots entirely on a single (admittedly fairly large) twist, one which the author flags very early on. As such, it’s more like a long short story than a novel: and for all the (occasional spatter of) blood ‘n’ gore, it does end up feeling a bit… thin.

Still, Lancashire is respectful towards the Voynich Manuscript (which is good), and he tells his story at a fair old pace, something far too many cipher novelists struggle with (hint: a fight they usually lose ignominiously).

The Kindle ebook version is only £1.99, so it’s not a huge investment or risk. And if you like The Voynich Deception, Lancashire has since written an Architect prequel novella (“Kernel Panic”) for you to move onto. All in all: not my tasse de thé, sure, but a perfectly OK read.

The Brazilian nurse adjusted the Great Poet’s line and pillows with genuine tenderness but little effect.

“Titanic deckchairs?” he mused. “Infinitesimal parameters?” Words, old friends, pain relief, they all failed him now: like the snow falling softly outside, the only way was down.

Since arriving, he had only written occasional haikus on a Post-It Note pad: but day by day even that had become impossibly long-form. His writing fingers drummed arthritically on the coverlet, empty-tanked sports cars ever impatient for races they would never finish.

On a whim, he stared past her out of the window at the snowman standing in the tiny courtyard. It lacked yesterday’s newly-made sharp definition, true, but a pinprick of its shaped vitality was still discernible, if you knew where to look. “You and me both, pal”, he wheezed ineffectively.

“Are you alright, Meester Alston?”

“Never better”, he tried to lie: but as with his pen, the words seemed too wide, the channel too narrow.

She paused, watching his struggle for breath. “I will leave the light on”, she said as she left. “You seem to have a lot on your mind tonight.”

As the ground-floor’s other temporary residents turned in and switched off, the snowman gradually found itself illuminated just by the poet’s room light, leaving it a white lighthouse in a wine-dark sea of night. And far off in the hospice, a muffled radio played the organ intro to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

And he was back in the ballroom, Bayswater, 1967, winter solstice. Dress code was pagan, Bohemian black for everyone except his bride, white-faced, ivory-clad Lindsay, his Mama Cass, his muse, with her sane reasoning and insane appetites.

Oddly, his resentful, drug-abusing sons were there too, their burning arrows of creativity forever condemned to sail listlessly beneath his own Laureate arc: and his daughter Caterina as well, beautiful before she was born and serene after she died.

“We skipped the light fandango…” Indeed: so what shall we dance this time, my dear? His mistresses, Tarni and Ute and Iris, eased gently out of the shadows as bridesmaids – though hardly vestal virgins – lifting him to the stage, to Lindsay, to a reconciliation they had both wanted but had never quite reached.

And everywhere he looked in the darkness around her, he saw more eyes, more faces, more everything, and with a vivid clarity that had long eluded him. And he was writing, writing now, writing his life and his love and his pain and his death, trapped and freed within a seventeen syllable prison cell of heaven and hell…

It was Nurse Celestina who found the body beside the snowman: how the Great Poet got there was a mystery. The Post-It Note in his hand was blank, though: there never was enough time to write that final haiku.

Our winter ballroom
Fills with friends anew.
My first and last dance, with you.

I’ve just heard about an upcoming auction for a Da Vinci Code “cryptex”. It’s allegedly one of the ones ‘potentially’ used in the film (whatever ‘potentially’ means, you’d have to ask an IP lawyer to be sure), but is believed by the auctioneers to be genuine. Which is nice.

cryptex-in-box

I should add that word on the crypto street (if your street just happens to have lots of collectors) is that movie props are widely forged and can be very hard to prove genuine, so it really is a case of caveat emptor etc.

But if neither your budget nor your appetite for risk will stretch quite that far, you can buy Authorized Cryptex Replicas on eBay (of course you can, that’s exactly what eBay is for, isn’t it?).

Here’s a nice departure from normal: a ‘Peter Crossman’ short story that just appeared on tor.com called The Devil in the Details, by Debra Doyle and James D. McDonald.

It’s a kind of high-octane (parody of / homage to) the modern-day Knights-Templar-as-God’s-Special-Ops novel genre, based around missing pages from the Voynich Manuscript being offered at a dangerously high-powered auction, at an arcane and mysterious venue with the Vatican and (possibly) Google Research also trying to bid, if they can stay alive long enough… you get the idea.

The writing sustains a quirky balance between rigid Latin medievalism and modern weapon fetishism, with tongue firmly in cheek. I hope you like it! 🙂