Storytelling — The Penumbra of Mortality

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been reading Permutation City by Greg Egan, my first taste of his work. I picked it because it seemed like something of a contemporary chaser to J. G. Ballard’s work, whose complete short stories I just finished and thoroughly enjoyed (also a first taste for me). I was not disappointed. Though a much weaker writer, Egan’s writing scratches the same itch as Ballard’s. He seems to be generally classified as hard science fiction but I suspected going in that this was a misclassification, and I was right. I’d classify both Ballard and Egan as ontological speculators whose work draws on mathematics (and to a lesser extent, science), for generativity rather than constraints. Rather than telling human stories stressed by the limits of math or science (like the value of pi or the speed of light), both tell mathematical stories stressed by the limits of conventional human subjectivity. Both explore the same basic question: how weird of a reality can a subjectivity experience while still remaining a recognizably human subjectivity.

Egan is obviously the better mathematician, and Ballard obviously the better storyteller. To some extent, Ballard was better because he knew not to spend time on elements of craft that clearly bored him. Both are clearly bored by conventional storytelling craft, and want to get to the cool ideas. But where Egan diligently grinds through conventional character and plot elements with awful, wooden prose, Ballard had the nerve to just skip them entirely most of the time. But when he did do plot and character, he did a much better job than Egan does (at least in this one novel). While Ballard was not at the level of say a Dickens or Tolstoy, he clearly possessed a workmanlike competence in conventional storytelling departments. There are occasional sparks of genuine liveliness, and even authorial interest where the elements rise above mere scaffolding to directly help explore the ideas. There are a couple of Ballard characters who rise to almost-memorable 2.1 dimensional, where Egan struggles to break one dimension.

But in one important area, both Egan and Ballard seem like kindred souls: their prose is deliberately and consciously loveless. In their universes, emotions like love are mostly unimportant noise that get in the way of exploring interesting mathematical conceits, and within the logic of their universes, they are right. Explorations of the emotional lives of their characters would be annoying and pointless in their stories. The humans in their fiction are creatures of timeless and austere mathematical universes, interesting primarily as subjective points of view whose experiences illuminate the character of the world. They serve as measures of reality rather than parts of it. Egan’s humans in Permutation City are effectively origins of solipsistic coordinate systems for apprehending reality. Ballard’s humans are more complex, but also seem like automaton subjectivities, contrivances designed to mediate speculative experiences of space, time, and materiality.

But one very human aspect of subjectivity does seem to strongly interest both these imaginative ontological speculators: death.

Physical death in Permutation City is no more than an insignificant abandoned proto-meatbag fork in a world where potentially immortal digital “copies” appear to experience an indistinguishable kind of subjectivity. Ironically the digital characters seem obsessed with the threat of artificial mortality posed by scarce computing power. They worry about their simulations being shut down and not restarted, or slowed down too much (slowdown of simulated copies relative to reality is a key plot element).

In exploring these themes, Egan explicitly analogizes relativity and solipsism in a very interesting way (tldr: consciousness is just a particularly convenient reference frame for experiencing the information content of reality, and the meatbag frame is in no way special). My suspicions of where he was going were confirmed when I noticed that a key background character is named Daniel Lebesgue. The inspiration for the atomized being-and-time conceits explored in the story is clearly drawn from measure theory and the idea of Lebesgue integration, which are the basis of a kind of atomized calculus developed by the mathematician Henri Lebesgue (if you’re unfamiliar with this stuff, think of it as doing calculus on dust clouds instead of in well-behaved Euclidean space). The idea is genuinely interesting, both mathematically and philosophically. It’s a whole new spin on “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The story Egan crafts around the idea is a bit underwhelming and tedious so far (I’m about half done), but if you like the mathematical and computational ideas underlying it, the story is worth enduring.

Death in Ballard’s universe is more subtle philosophically, but less sophisticated mathematically. His characters are usually left-behind denizens of dying worlds, where life is draining away, leaving behind only what Bruce Sterling once called the mathematical bones of reality. The characters seem curiously (and lifelessly) at home in these dying worlds. Zombies unaware they are zombies. They exist only to bear witness to the nature of reality in the absence of life.

I like to think of Ballard-Egan ontological speculation as a kind of partial shadow-of-death fiction — call it one penumbral limb of the umbra of death — where mortality is seen in the light of perhaps the only kind of permanence there is: mathematical truth. Prime numbers are forever, all else is dukkha.

There is a more familiar kind of partial shadow of death that is thoroughly explored in traditional fiction. This is mortality seen in the light of love. What to Ballard and Egan is a distraction is of course the core concern of a great deal of literary fiction. An excellent example can be found in Dickens’ David Copperfield, which has several moving mortality-themed scenes. Two in particular affected me powerfully when I first read the book as a teenager. The first is the scene where David’s childlike young wife Dora, and her aging dog Jip, die within moments of each other. The second is at the end of his book, where David mulls his own future death, wishfully imagining that the love of his (idealized and angelic) second wife, Agnes, will be the last thing he will be aware of when he dies. In both scenes, there is powerful imagery of everything but strong bonds of love fading with the approach of death.

Even at 13, when I had banked no relevant experiences, these scenes in David Copperfield (one of the first literary novels I read) struck me as capturing a powerful emotional truth: love, of the sort depicted in the context of death as the last connection to reality before oblivion descends, is more than a distracting detail. It is an ontological concern as critical to a complete understanding of life as the eternal verities of mathematics.

I recall similarly powerful love-suffused death scenes in Tolstoy and Chekov, though they seem to eschew the kind of sentimentality that seems to be a trademark of Anglo-Saxon writers.

Dickens’ approach to the depiction of love and death has been reduced to an efficient and effective formula by Hollywood, where a dying character sees loved ones beckoning as they die (Gladiator features a fine example, as does the most recent installment of John Wick), or connects to a living loved one (Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in Avengers: Endgame) who will survive them. One of my favorite examples of the brutally efficient Hollywood death-storytelling machine in action is the opening sequence of Up, which in a few wordless minutes tells the life story of the old man up to the death of his wife. It hits like a gut punch given you’ve only known the (cartoon) characters for a few minutes. The death frames the whole adventure that follows, where the grieving old widower goes off adventuring in South America with a young boy, who reconnects him to life through a new bond of love.

This kind of literary love-and-death technique seems based in fact. Going by some hospice anecdotes I saw somewhere recently, love is the last connection with the world to fade from awareness (modulo physical pain). Certainly my own limited experience of being around death and serious illness seems to confirm it. Dying or seriously ill pets, in particular, seem to draw real comfort from being physically held with unconditional love towards the end. After they have lost all interest in food or play, when almost nothing can penetrate the haze of terminal pain, love seems to get through, and they feebly seek it out with their last dregs of strength. With humans, language is a basis for connections that last almost as long, but even after the capacities for speech and comprehension fade, the capacity to experience love seems to persist to nearly the last conscious breath. No wonder the ability to supply love to the dying is a priceless commodity in human culture, and perhaps the best justification available for the existence of religion.

The partial shadow of death cast by the light of love is perhaps the other penumbral limb of the shadow of death; a dual to the one cast by the light of mathematics. While the light is perhaps best provided by a living, loving human, it can also be provided by entirely imagined sources. The sincerely and unironically religious seem able to approach death in a spirit of drawing closer to the light of the unwavering love of their chosen gods. The divine may not be real, but it is apparently as eternal as mathematics, and the solace provided to the dying by its light is certainly real.

These two eternal lights — the cold, austere light of mathematics, and the warm, soft light of love — are perhaps two sides of the same source. Together they produce the long shadow of death cast by our own anticipations of non-being. This shadow, I suspect, is far longer than we usually imagine it to be, because we usually talk of its earliest manifestations through euphemisms. It reaches out across decades to begin touching us as early as middle age, when we first begin attending to matters like chronic illness or career burnout. One sign is the almost cinematic slow fading of concerns beyond those of love and mathematics (for want of better words; the latter understood not literally, but in a sense of strengthening connection to the timeless patterns of reality, regardless of mathematical awareness of them). They are rarely in the foreground, but constitute a slowly strengthening, eventually overwhelming background. I am 48 now, and hopefully decades away from my own death, but I can already feel the penumbra of mortality gently but irresistibly directing my attention in certain directions. The concerns of youth seem to be increasingly fading into the background. They are not so much rationally deprioritized as rendered increasingly invisible by the play of the shadows of mortality.

The mathematician Leopold Kronecker once said: God created the integers; all else is the work of man. We might modify that to: God created the integers and love. All else is the work of man. And the closer we get to the end of our own work in the world, the more we can only see the two things that can penetrate the deepening shadows: integers and love.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. kevembuangga says

    Looks like mathematics is about to take over “love” and whatever else belongs to consciousness.

  2. Liminal Warmth says

    Great post, Venkat–one thought is that the first half of the book is much more tedious and the second half is where the most interesting ideas come into play, so I’d love to see a follow up once you finish it! Egan’s short fiction is better than his novels, too, and it’s very enjoyable.

  3. As I understood the concept of “inner space” in Ballard, it is a regressive psyche which has been pulled out and is now all-over-the-place. It is in the birds, the technology, in the built and in the (altered) natural landscape. It has no individual character, it is not like someone acts within someone else dream. It is also not an entity ( good or evil ) with magical powers. The “Drowned Giant” for example is just a huge corpse which slowly decays, a big weird body at a beach, which nevertheless leads to attune the local population to its own barbarian instincts and transgressions. There is nothing bourgeois about the scenario. The body is not like an invader, which destroys a normal family or persons life to its own horror.

    Love is present in a regressive mode too, namely as loss. Sometimes as grief over a loss, at other times as relief over a divorce. The loss is necessary for the story because love is a civilizing force, something which leads, especially in males, maintaining a connection to a normal life, which Ballard is going to dispose. In Ballard, love, especially maternal love, is more primitive in woman though and they don’t lose it when they enter the barbarian stage. It can also keep them operate normally, to some extent, when the world around them decays.

    “Culture and its discontents” is a major theme, varied by Ballard. Everyone enjoys to attune to some form of psychopathy in worlds where the psyche has leaked out. Ballard is a skeptical “moralist” only in so far, as the worlds don’t make a good turn. Their decay is a fatality, there is no reverse gear, no return to manufactured normalcy and no higher game level. Sometimes people enter the stage late in the stories ( e.g. in “The Drowned World” ) who represent the return to normalcy, who want to dry the swamp and Ballards protagonist comments about them as people from a vanishing and irrelevant world.

    There are rare cases when Ballard works in the opposite direction, for example when he revives London in “The ultimate city” which has been abandoned for the sake of green, low tech communities in its periphery. Reviving it also means bringing back criminal gangs and violent psychopathic gang leaders – for the fun of it – but everything seems better than the tranquil life of humanized Hobbits who have found their balance-with-nature.

    • Addendum / correction. If there is a “higher game level” and some kind of salvation and happiness in Ballard it is associated with flying. Being a pilot is good. They go broke too but flying is good nevertheless. Flying from ones own muscle force with mechanical crutches is even better – everything which makes man more birdlike.

  4. I thank you for the profound observation that love is one of the few things that remain sensible until death. I would like to add that the penumbra of mortality can come to young people as well. This is usually considered “traumatic” and emotionally disfiguring, and no doubt it is for many. However, when properly supported, an early exposure to the emptiness of the vanities of life is usually a very healthy reprioritizing effect, for which you do not have to read Ecclesiastes. Long before middle age, it can make a person see the relevance of love, even that love is already relevant long before the last breath of another person.

  5. Hi Venkat! Do you know the work of Mark Coeckelberg, and more specifically his latest book on Digital Technologies and…. temporalities? Petervan

  6. Millard Johnson says

    Mr. Rao — My first writing was for a professional journal. I labored over every pithy syllable. When I was done, I ask my mentor, a terrific writer, what she thought. I am sorry I didn’t keep her response, but I remember the first few lines. She said, “Mr. Johnson, I am sorry to say, I find your writing turgid and coy…” She went on from there. The next day, after my face quit burning I looked up “turgid” and “coy.” A day later, I concluded, she was right. Then I asked her to teach me to write.

    Among the things I learned was: say what you have to say as simply as possible. Never use a two dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do. The bulk of your work should be simple sentences.
    What I was trying to do was write complex sentences using big, rare words. I thought, by using difficult and complex sentences, my reader would think me smart. Communication was secondary.
    Mr. Rao, I am sorry to say, I find your writing turgid and coy.
    By the way, when you are borrowing the ideas of fellow writers, it is not good form to spend your first paragraphs bashing them.

  7. Rory Kaufmann says

    Love how you highlighted “simulation death”. Compute power as lifeblood is a fantastic stab at AI qualia, and that’s the 1 bit of Egan that stood out to me.

    In a “turtles all the way down” angle, whats to say our world isn’t fundamentally built on the same premise? In my more philosophical moments, I believe attention is a proxy for compute.

  8. I bet you’d like A Simple Heart by Flaubert.

  9. Michael B Vaughn says

    I absolutely love the “Ontological Speculator” classification. I’ve never been able to explain that distinction very well, and it’s been driving me nuts, so I’m very glad to see someone finally hit the nail square on the head like this.