Vita Nostra Q5: Words and hypertext

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Words are a vital part of the book, with the students realising they're not human but are embodied words, and therefore have magical powers. They start their journey to the Institute controlled by the words spoken by Farit. Later, Sahsa is controlled by the threat of words coming through her pink phone. Yet at the same time, there are offhand references to how words don't matter: Sasha dismisses what she says when her mother comes to visit.

Any thoughts on these different importances of words? Are words the key to magic (again, compare with how words embody magic for Harry Potter and Ged, versus mystic/shamanic magic by intuition).

Magic in Vita Nostra is word-based and referred to as hypertext. Other authors, notably Charlie Stross, have posited that we're returning to a demon-haunted world (voice controlled smart devices) controlled by wizards who have immense power from inscribing occult words (programmers). Is that an appropriate reading for the magic in the book? Is it an analogy for our increasingly digitised world?

Comments

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    Re Vita Nostra, I guess you could say that some words have power and others don't, perhaps analogous to how some characters are able to actualise their innate power and others are not. In EarthSea, of course, the words have to be spoken in the right language and the equivalent phrase in the common speech does nothing... it's not clear to me here in Vita Nostra whether the words have to be in Russian or if that is an accident of the characters being Russian.

    I confess I am not persuaded by Charlie Stross's suggestion - it is absurdly easy now for pretty much anyone to set up a web site / app / Alexa skill / machine learning algorithm with no coding skills and simply using drag and drop or equivalent actions. Now, real programmers will say (almost always correctly) that the code which is auto-generated by those actions is kind of crap in terms of structure, maintainability, and such like, but nevertheless the actual act of creating the thing has become hugely democratic. (Geek note: this historically has happened in waves as auto-generated code in 4GL languages and similar gain popularity and then prove unable to tackle certain kinds of task until the next iteration).

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    I think there's something about the difference between the Words that are the true essence of the students, and the words spoken to base, material humans. The former are hugely significant, the latter are trivial. And this distinction is something that only comes up later in the book, when Sasha is becoming enlightened.

    The "hypertext" thing may be a feature of the translation. Were the original authors making a connection to the World Wide Web, or is that something that I'm picking up due to the transation?

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    I thought this was both a missed opportunity, and a problem.

    I agree with @RichardAbbott that the hypertext thing seemed stuck on to me, although I guess the idea was that there is a source for how the word appears in the world is another controlling word. But that's quite mechanical (code), and language is not code despite what occultists, fundamentalists, and conspiracy theorists say about signification.

    The word thing seemed like a good way to discuss magic, and I was quite interested to see it worked out, but it seemed to me to be really ad hoc. I can't imagine converting this to a RPG rule-system, or at least successfully converting it. Magic is the setting here The magic system is the PCs? Maybe Amber diceless?

    And I was hoping that there might be something interesting about grammar and language, but was disappointed. The loss of grammar in school is quite terrible, and I think has contributed to many of our current cultural-cognitive difficulties, so I was hoping there might be something that would inspire some study of it, but I don't think there is any take-away for a young reader here. But maybe the education situation in Russia / Ukraine is different. As I understand it Russian language is quite heavy on case so maybe the youths there know syntax.

    All in all, I thought not nearly well enough worked out. And the idea of true nature being one proper word which is essential intrinsic identity seems to me just ripe for abuse.

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    And I was hoping that there might be something interesting about grammar and language, but was disappointed. The loss of grammar in school is quite terrible, and I think has contributed to many of our current cultural-cognitive difficulties, so I was hoping there might be something that would inspire some study of it, but I don't think there is any take-away for a young reader here. But maybe the education situation in Russia / Ukraine is different. As I understand it Russian language is quite heavy on case so maybe the youths there know syntax.

    Yes, totally agree. It must have been one of the biggest problems of translation, to go from a language where case, tense, aspect etc is obvious from the form of the verb / noun / whatever, into one where these things are far less explicit, and often not marked at all but have to be identified from context. I wonder how many UK (or North American?) teenagers would be familiar with what a verb in the subjunctive even was?

    In Russian, and indeed in most languages which are widespread in the modern world, parts of speech are necessarily learned as you go along, and are immediately apparent. I can easily imagine an author writing in his or her native language which does mark all these things right into the verb, seeing associations with the inner self and identity of a character which people can identify from the outset.

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    Does this confusion disappear if you think of "word" as "Holy Word of God, an aspect of Creation" rather than "constituent of a human language"?

    Also, this is the beginning of the trilogy. Perhaps later books will go into how Words are combined to influence the world. I've no idea, but it could make an interesting avenue to explore.

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    Out of interest, I looked up the meaning of Sasha in Russian, which derives from Alexandra (as we know from her full form, used first by the man who at that stage she doesn't know but who is following her, and echoed by her mother in introduction... it's not until much later we learn he is Farit), which in turn comes from Greek alexo, meaning "to defend" and andros, meaning "man".

    Interestingly, Farit is a Russian name but derives from Arabic and means "guide".

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    @NeilNjae said:
    Does this confusion disappear if you think of "word" as "Holy Word of God, an aspect of Creation" rather than "constituent of a human language"?

    I think this is an idea they were playing with - this is how I understand the discussion of Sasha being in the imperative mood. And it just occurred to me that a password might be construed as a command to open something (Sesame!), but it actually has no creative power - whatever is in there is presumably always in there, whether you use the password or not. So maybe there is something about Pandora echoing in Sasha here.

    But this again is why I was disappointed: Rather than understanding intentional ambiguity I feel these connection are more like happenstance, like playing six degrees of separation. Artistic creation is as much about limiting interpretation as generating possibility?

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    And it just occurred to me that a password might be construed as a command to open something (Sesame!), but it actually has no creative power - whatever is in there is presumably always in there, whether you use the password or not. So maybe there is something about Pandora echoing in Sasha here.

    Yes, that totally echoes my own thoughts - a password does not create anything or generate anything original, it just allows access to something that has already been produced. It seems to me less effectual than a verb in the imperative, as though Sasha has just been downgraded. Yet the tone of the book suggests that this is an upgrade, which (IMHO) is either a flaw in understanding or a flaw in translation. I suspect the latter - all the other parts of speech make sense as parts of a whole utterance, but "password" kind of makes no sense at all.

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    I don't feel especially qualified to comment, but am following with interest.

    Any thoughts on a relationship to the Kaballah? I seem to remember something about the syllables in the name of god, and how they might bring power.

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    @RichardAbbott said:

    Yes, that totally echoes my own thoughts - a password does not create anything or generate anything original, it just allows access to something that has already been produced. It seems to me less effectual than a verb in the imperative, as though Sasha has just been downgraded. Yet the tone of the book suggests that this is an upgrade, which (IMHO) is either a flaw in understanding or a flaw in translation. I suspect the latter - all the other parts of speech make sense as parts of a whole utterance, but "password" kind of makes no sense at all.

    I think you may be right, it's a problem with translation. Sasha is an imperative verb, but we don't know what verb. Perhaps at the end she discovers that she's the verb "Create" or "Open", and can be applied to worlds (or the gates to them). "Password" ties into the idea of "hypertext", granting access to locked places.

    @Apocryphal said:
    Any thoughts on a relationship to the Kaballah? I seem to remember something about the syllables in the name of god, and how they might bring power.

    Wikipedia suggests they're related, with Kabalists influenced by the Cathar gnotics. But I'm just quoting Wikipedia articles at this point. Nevertheless, good connection, @Apocryphal !

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    @Apocryphal said:
    I don't feel especially qualified to comment, but am following with interest.

    Any thoughts on a relationship to the Kaballah? I seem to remember something about the syllables in the name of god, and how they might bring power.

    In a weird bit of tangential association, your comment reminded me of Arthur Clarke's Nine Billion Names of God (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nine_Billion_Names_of_God), although the stories don't seem to me to have any actual connection!

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    @RichardAbbott said:
    Yes, that totally echoes my own thoughts - a password does not create anything or generate anything original, it just allows access to something that has already been produced. It seems to me less effectual than a verb in the imperative, as though Sasha has just been downgraded. Yet the tone of the book suggests that this is an upgrade, which (IMHO) is either a flaw in understanding or a flaw in translation. I suspect the latter - all the other parts of speech make sense as parts of a whole utterance, but "password" kind of makes no sense at all.

    The password is an oblique substantive, as is the verb in imperative when parsed (I command you = Sit!), so we can go down a rabbit-hole here, but I have little doubt that imperatives are a speaker's effort to strip other agents of their agency while maintaining their instrumentality (technology). Edge cases can involve care for an agent manifesting a lack of awareness, but I cannot think of a practical moment when an imperative could function to restore agency to an instrument. Pay attention! Satori, but still not coming from the speaker.

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    ...Edge cases can involve care for an agent manifesting a lack of awareness, but I cannot think of a practical moment when an imperative could function to restore agency to an instrument. Pay attention! Satori, but still not coming from the speaker.

    This brought to mind the passage from The Magician's Nephew when Aslan activates Narnia “Awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”

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    edited October 2021

    I suppose self-hypnosis is a case where an imperative functions to restore agency. It's a pretty stark question of world-view though as to whether such creation is actually possible.

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