Last week, we reached Chapter Eight in The Folding Knife reread and had a chat about Basso’s future plans, marriage and destiny. Chapter Eight felt like a peak—everyone was happy, things were going well—and, (mild spoilers) things start falling apart in Chapter Nine.
To give Basso another seven days of comfort, I thought we’d go off-piste a little bit and discuss one of K.J. Parker’s short stories, “One Little Room an Everywhere.”
First, you can get this story for free online through the publisher—Night Shade Books. They published it in Eclipse Online on 22 October, 2012. Go have a read, and we’ll reconvene in a few minutes. We’ll wait for you.
If you haven’t taken this opportunity to go read a (free) (great) story, prepare yourself for spoilers.
It seems that Epistemius is a half-talented adept. He can do “Rooms” (more on those), Voices (not sure what those are) and quite a few different Forms (get the impression that these are more traditional spell-like spells). But other powers are beyond him. Can’t See a thing, for example.
This has him in a bit of a pickle. He’s graduated, but, as we quickly learn—he’s not getting a sterling reference. The Studium is fussy about their graduates, and they don’t want him embarrassing the institution. If anything, the Brother would like him to go try something not related to the “talent.” Accountancy, perhaps.
Epistemius wanders out and promptly sells his schoolbooks to a dodgy bookseller. With the money, he buys a long list of artist’s supplies and some cheap wine. It takes him five tries, but on the fifth he’s got an icon worth selling. Bamf. He’s a professional iconographer. Well, with cheating.
It turns out that a few years ago, Epistemius did some late night exploring into the forbidden section of the Studium’s library. Talis artifex is an illegal Form, but, as we learn “you can’t really expect scientists to destroy data once it’s been discovered.” Epistemius, with a little sneaking about, got his paws on a copy. And, since he couldn’t really ask anyone what it did, he tried for himself.
For talis artifex, a wizard needs to be in the east Room on the fifth floor (the only one with a window). For this, we learn a bit about Rooms: they’re, in geeky parlance, sort of a personal astral plane. Wizards slip into the Rooms—there are six floors, apparently—and, from there, they can perform a wider range of Forms. Rooms themselves are a bit tricky. There are creatures that sneak about and strange and unpredictable events.
Epistemius, when he performs talis artifex in the east Room of the fifth floor, is confronted by a strange man with an icon on the knee. The man explains it to him: talix artifex can create anything possible by human hands. He punctuates the point by handing Epistemius the icon. “What do you want, a user’s manual? Take it, or go away.” Epistemius takes it.
This is all explained and, now, we’re back in the present—it turns out that Epistemius’ (magically fabricated) icons are a big deal. He’s making an absolute fortune on them. He’s tempted to retire after fifteen—the icons give him a huge headache and he’s made more than enough money—but the offers get larger and larger. A cotton dealer, a silk dealer, the Scrivener’s Guild… more and more impressive clients.
Yet, it dawns on Epistemius that something else is going on. Wherever his icons go, tragedy follows. An icon given as a wedding present results in murder. The guild’s chapel burns down. The list grows and grows: “of the thirty-six Epistemius icons in existence, twenty-five have been owned by people or institutions that have come to harm in some way.” This includes over 150 killed or injured, but not the death toll from plagues, tsunami, etc. The connection to the icon’s a bit more tenuous in those case.
Epistemius goes back to the Studium to investigate—not only does it turn out that talis artifex doesn’t exist, it appears that’s no such thing as the east Room on the fifth floor. Eep.
He quits (much to the chagrin of the Studium at this point). But he’s rich, and you know, is this really his fault?
What’s this all about?
The big theme is responsibility. Epistemius is making icons that may or may not be “cursed.” But:
- There’s no connection to him.
- He had no idea who the victim may be (and has no ill intent towards them).
- The accident or disaster always has another source (e.g. murder, arson, plague, etc.)
- It couldn’t possibly be his fault—“even if you confessed, nobody would listen.”
More than that, as he points out, talis artifex doesn’t even exist. So it couldn’t have any sort of effect. Being, well, non-existent.
As far as Epistemius can argue: he didn’t do anything, if he did it wasn’t intended, if something happened it can’t be connected with him and even if he took the blame for it, no one would believe him.
Which leads to the question posed repeatedly to both Epistemius and the reader—is he responsible?
And, to follow up, what could he do? Epistemius tries to destroy an icon (it won’t burn) and to talk to “wiser heads” (they just get greedy and want his knowledge). Which adds a final point to the list above: even if he does confess and people do believe him, there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
Perhaps the whole thing is an inevitable balance—that would eschew him of responsibility. By bringing an icon into the world, Epistemius is spontaneously generating an expression of the best that can be done by human hands. The law of conservation would then require some sort of horror—also done by human hands—to balance that out. But, arguably, this falls apart at the very first hurdle. None of Epistemius’ creations are actually going for uses that one could consider inherently good. The motivations of his clients range from greed to spite, even the icon given as a wedding present is less a matter of generosity than “showing up the in-laws.”
Or, perhaps talis artifex is all just one of those creatures from the Rooms. The east room, Fifth Floor is tellingly “the only one with a window”. The unidentified man lured Epistemius in with an imaginary (perhaps “unreal” is a better term) Form, then used him to disseminate his capital-e-Evil. Epistemius notes that “his” innovation in one particular icon is the presence of a window after all… maybe his 36 icons are 36 individual peepholes for the Whatever that lurks in the tower. In a way, this is the most comforting option. “The Devil made me do it” removes any responsibility from Epistemius himself.
But this theory also has holes. Epistemius can’t destroy the icons, but he can stop making them. Initially he’s reluctant, but that seems more a case of “hard to say no.” At the end of the story, he can pull a plug on the entire experiment. So if the Devil made him do it, the Devil doesn’t have quite the pull that one might think….
There are no answers in the story (welcome to Parker!), but my hunch? The answer to the core question (is he responsible?) is “yes,” and Epistemius agrees. As Epistemius spends more time making icons, the mysterious “icon man” begins to take on Epistemius’ own appearance—eventually even making cracks like “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
And that’s the key—talis artifex can make “anything you like, so long as it’s made by human hands.” Drilling down into that, I think Epistemius’ hunch is right—things like the plague and the tsunami probably aren’t connected with his icons, but the murders and accidents are: they’re created by human hands.
Is that a typo in the title?
After typing “One Little Room and Everywhere” about sixteen thousand times (that makes sense with the creepy demon/window theory, right?), I did a proper Google and discovered the line is from “The Good-Morrow” by John Dunne:
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere
Now, poetry and I went a different direction at a very specific point in my life (here’s a haiku to explain: I was just sixteen / high school poetry journal / the horror—my eyes!). I’m not even sure that “fear” and “everywhere” rhyme, but in the early 17th century, maybe they did.
Fortunately, this week’s guest expert, Anne Perry, is an accomplished editor with a handful of advanced degrees. “The Good-Morrow,” according to her, is translated from poetry to English as:
God, what were we doing before we had each other? We were like little babies. Lame. Anything awesome was just, like, a cool precursor of you, person I’m in love with. It’s like we were asleep.
But now it’s like we’re awake cuz we gots each other, yo, and all the most amazing stuff in the entire world isn’t half as amazing as our stuff. Even though our lives are small and limited, the fact that we have each other makes everything huge and amazing.
Our love is so awesome that it’s essentially like the best place in the entire world, only BETTER because it’s US. And it can never die, and because we love each other we can never really die, either.
Specifically, she explains, “one little room an everywhere” connects to bit about small and limited, but actually huge and amazing.
Well, leaping to a few wild conclusions (in the 17th century “conclusions” probably rhymed with “kettle drums,”) the title could mean that our lives are small and limited—we can have no idea of the scale/repercussions of our actions.
It also is worth noting that Parker’s other short story, published at the same time, is “Let Maps to Others,” the title coming from the same poem.
Which leads us to….
As with The Folding Knife, I’m going to pull out the world-building stuff and tack it here, at the end of the post. If you spot references to these things in other KJ Parker books or stories, please say so in the comments!
- The Studium: a university for wizards. Basso studies at the Studium in The Folding Knife, but no mention is made of magic. Given the similarities (both use religious terminology, for example), it seems that they’re potentially distantly connected—possibly over time, if not geography? If magic is either discovered or forgotten, that would account for the difference in the programme of study.
- The Invincible Sun: simply guessing from the nine subjects of iconography, it sounds like the Invincible Sun was a person who ascended to immortality.
- The First Emperor: historical/religious figure, mentioned in the list of icon subjects
- Conessus: a city
- Salim Beal: another city
- Boc Bohec: another city (region), earthquake
- Seal Island: another city (or island/city), possibly destroyed by tidal wave
- Sembrai: region (flooded)
- The Bank: Epistemius goes to the Bank (capital B)—the same informal way people refer to the Bank in The Folding Knife
- Ap’Escatoy: another city, here it is referenced for riots (icon-induced), it was also in The Proof House
- no-Vei: language of origin for our hero—this is familiar, anyone remember where we’ve seen this before?
- Second Vesani War: another connection with The Folding Knife, although this would, of course, be the title of a war given by a country that’s not Vesani, so we’re not sure how it can connect
- The City: population 250,000 people… the same City as the Vesani? That seems unlikely, given the phrasing above.
- The Olybrias family: definitely a familiar name from The Folding Knife, but whereas Olybrias was one person (Basso’s overmatched rival), here we have the entire family found dead in their beds
- Patriarch of Perimadeia: Epistemius’ name in the Studium came from a “twelfth-century Patriarch of Perimadeia” (apparently there were 36 during that century). Perimadeia is the focal point of the Fencer trilogy.
- Saloninus’ Essays: book referenced in this story, presumably also the protagonist of Parker’s Blue and Gold (so this takes place concurrently or after that story…)
- Dalassenus, Scylitzes, Symbatus, Laelianus, Macrianus, Coyrdon, Desert school: artists and styles
- Vatatzes: noble family (there’s a Vaatzes in the Engineer trilogy, but that seems a stretch—the Vatazes were a Byzantine family, perhaps it comes from there)
- Tarasius Brothers: another bank or prominent money-lender
Next week, back to our regularly scheduled disaster in The Folding Knife, Chapter Nine. I wonder if any of that art in the Severus house came from this fellow….