We’re reading SELF-REFERENCE ENGINE by Toh EnJoe

25 Apr

Terry Edge enters a cloud of unknowing:


Self-Reference Engine
Toh EnJoe (translated by Terry Gallagher)
Haikasoru, PPB £9.99

Nearside review:

Somewhere between thinking Self-Reference Engine is the worst book ever written and believing it’s the best, I experienced an event – possibly, an Event. I’m not a physicist, which is perhaps why everything changed for me while watching an episode of Bones in a break from reading. Now, Bones, an American crime comedy-drama, is constructed according to pre-Quantum storytelling theory. The plot is always the same; only the characters’ sub-plotted lives change (but not very much). Anyway, suddenly, I couldn’t follow the plot of Bones. I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen next, even though what did eventually happen next is what always happens next. Self-Reference Engine did this to me, I have no doubt.

Which got me thinking about how conventional story-telling turns us all into followers. Jeffrey Archer knows this only too well, of course, which is why his concretely plotted books brainwash us into following him all the way to his bank account.

So I decided that “worst” or “best” are irrelevant terms for Self-Reference Engine. It affects your mind, is what it does. And let’s face it, very few novels do that.

Farside review:

“What’s Self-Reference Engine about?” is probably also an irrelevant question. It features “giant corpora of knowledge” triggering (I think) an Event. At one point, their knowledge of everything is challenged and they decide to “fight back with comedy”. I thought that perhaps at last we were going to have some real emotion to deal with. Because one thing Self-Reference Engine does not do is emotion, pretty much of any kind. And of all the emotions, humour is probably the most difficult for an author to elicit.

Well, no laughs ensued, although there were one or two wry chuckles, usually followed by a thumping headache. Which left me with the overall conundrum of this book: how much is the author deliberately eschewing standard story-telling virtues, and how much is he just not able to produce them when needed? I don’t know. My mind went around in circles about this. Finally I decided, I think, that at its core, this book is about ideas, not human realities.

All the same, the odd laugh would have been nice. There is a talking bobby sock but I found that embarrassing, because I wasn’t sure if it was just a weak idea or in fact a subtle reference to Planck’s lost Y-fronts which we non-physicists are shamefully ignorant of.

There is a chapter towards the end of aching but not-quite-painful-enough beauty. There aren’t really any characters; at least not ones that develop according to the exigencies of the plot. Most of the time, I couldn’t even tell who the “I” was telling us the story (Richard, I think, but probably not Feynman – some of whose jokes I can actually understand).

A lot of people will love this novel. Others will be baffled. The only thing I can say for certain – and I think this is a compliment: no way will Stephen Spielberg be making a movie out of it.

Read Terry Edge’s prize-winning story “Big Dave’s in Love” in Post human conditions (Arc 1.2), out now for tablets, screens and phones and in a collector’s print edition.

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