Fri
May 3 2013 9:00am
The Folding Knife Reread: “One Little Room an Everywhere”

The Folding Knife by KJ Parker Reread One Little Room an Everywhere

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.

(taps fingers)

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:

  1. There’s no connection to him.
  2. He had no idea who the victim may be (and has no ill intent towards them).
  3. The accident or disaster always has another source (e.g. murder, arson, plague, etc.)
  4. 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.

Theories

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

(Full thing here.)

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.

Hmmm.

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….

The Gazetteer

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

Whew.

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….


Jared Shurin writes at pornokitsch.

6 comments
Juanito
1. Juanito
"Boc Bohec" is from the Scavenger Trilogy. My memory fails me but I don't recall it getting destroyed by an earthquake during the events of that particular series. The main character, Poldarn, visits several cities throughout the novel and they all wind up being destroyed by these vicious (well, effective) raiders that run into town, kill everyone, burn shit, and leave the cities a smoking ruin.

I kinda thought this would be the story that would connect all the different worlds together. We see Ap'Escatoy from the Fencer Trilogy, Boc Bohec from the Scavenger Trilogy, a name vaguely reminiscent of the Engineer Trilogy (urgh, that book hurts), and allusions to "The Folding Knife." I don't think I saw any explicit references to "Sharps," but I do recall one of the characters being known for flooding a city and killing all or most of its inhabitants. Epistemius mentioned a flood... maybe? Stretching it?

Also, this story and its magic system seem to tie into another short story of Parker's, A Rich, Full Week. It's about a similarly middling-talented man in some form of mathematically themed magic (I want to say it's the Studium? Maybe?), and most of the magic has to do with mental presence and placement of oneself in a "room" that could be someone else's mind (or your own!) There's even a spooky older man that tries to fuck with the main character in this story as well.

Gotta say, I'm loving this re-read. KJ Parker's novels have a lot of gray areas that could use a bright light being brought to shine on it, to quote Parker.
Christophe Van Tilborg
2. Baalmond
"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)" - When Miel Ducas talks with Ziani, Ziani corrects him on the pronunciation of his name. Ziani says something along the lines of "No, there's actually a little break in my last name, like va-atzes." So I think it was very much intentional. Maybe it's a simplification of the name. Like Va --- atzes is harder to pronounce than Vatatzes so they stuck a t in it to make it roll off the tongue easier.

I vaguely remember this, because I read out loud in my head, so it was a detail I retained.

Studium seems like it has its roots from the academy in Fencer, but that's so obvious I should be embarassed to write that down.

In Scavenger you have... Two rivers, I think, or two valleys: Mael Bohec definitely and MAAYBE Boc Bohec, but I couldn't find it in sections where I'd thought I'd find it (also no time).
Charity and Diligence is an inn in Shadow. I'd just like to mention this, because I thought banks follwed this naming covention too in the Folding Knife. I'd reread them, if I wasn't preoccupied with school work.

Also, travelling in the world of interpretation here, I think Epistemius is responsible, but he can't possibly be held responsible, in the same way we can't be held responsible for supporting industries that have hellish conditions for their workers but supply cheap, reliable products.

Wish I could say more useful things, but here we go. Thanks for keeping a regular schedule to this.
Jared Shurin
3. Jared_Shurin
Well, you two are amazing...

@Baalmond: The interesting thing if the Vaatzes / Vatatzes connection exists, is that Ziani is a no one - not an aristocrat and certainly not rich. So at some point between the two events (Engineer and "One Little Room"), his family must've done something with itself. Which implies all sorts of interesting things about what happened after the close of the Engineer trilogy.

Good parallel on the responsibility front - there's also a sort of economic argument involved, isn't there? Does Epistemius' responsibility grow once he's already wealthy? Maybe when he needed to sell icons to survive, he was less responsible? Ack.

@Juanito: The rooms also appear in "A Room with a View", in which another wizard of middling talent is using Rooms to search for demons in the heads of dogs. That one gives a lot of detail on how Rooms work. I think "Amor Vincit Omnia" goes more into Forms. Maybe we'll get one on See-ing soon as well... (http://subterraneanpress.com/store/product_detail/subterranean_tales_of_dark_fantasy_2)

This really does feel like things coming together, doesn't it?
Juanito
4. Peter Davies
The 'Invincible Sun' is Sol Invictus, one of the important late Roman gods and the forerunner of a lot of the religious architecture that got appropriated for Christianity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sol_Invictus).

Overall this is another one that reminds me of being a lawyer. A lot of people drift into law school and on into the major law firms because it's a relatively prestigious, highly-paid indoors job with air-conditioning and no heavy lifting. A lot of those people aren't really cut out for being lawyers, whether corporate, litigation, tax or whatever, at such firms. This is because the profession requires a very particular skill-set that doesn't map perfectly onto the hiring criteria. So it amused me that the start of this short story is very close to being the conversation a young lawyer who falls inside the 'hired by a major firm' bubble but outside the 'actually ought to be a lawyer' bubble has with a supervisor who is trying not to be too much of a dick and doesn't actually want to fire the junior because (a) not a dick and (b) that looks bad.

Coincidentally, typically this becomes apparent after a couple of years in the job - i.e., around age 25 - at which point people quit and go off to do something else. Painting, for example. Or writing...
Jared Shurin
5. Jared_Shurin
@Peter: That made me laugh - it certainly is true for a lot of professions, but I suspect the lawyers/doctors/engineers of this world perhaps get that the most.

Incidentally, in the re-read above, I sort of downplayed two of the possibilities that now occur to me.

1) Epistemius could actually be an (accidentally) genius wizard - something he does touch on when he goes back to the Studium. He's discovered something new. Again, is he responsible? In that case, it is a bit more like scientists that wind up having their work used for military purposes (yes, I just saw Iron Man 3 and that's stuck in my head). His (unanticipated) skill as a wizard, but not used for the purposes he intended.

2) Epistemius could be lying about any part of this. I'm irritated I didn't mention this possibility sooner. We only have his excuses why he's not responsible. He may have put the pieces together sooner, but still kept selling the eeeeevil icons. Or he could be lying about how the connections with the icons and the magic - it could be much more blatant, but he's burying that. (Or he could be lying that the icons are evil - maybe this is just his excuse for no longer painting!) Parker's been known to futz with unreliable narrators before, and Epistemius has all the tell-tale signs.
Juanito
6. SemblioSanctii
"no-Vei" is almost certainly referring to the Aram no Vei, who we've seen referenced in other places (usually by outsiders just sufficiently informed to get things wrong, though, and thus they've frequently been lumped in with the Aram Chantat, et. al.).

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