I’ve got an interesting book to discuss today! It is very fresh, very modern. It may be somewhat strange to traditionalists, but it is definitely a 21st century vision of where at least some literature seems to be headed. What I saw of it was very cool and worth looking at.

First let’s get oriented a bit. In some ways, this is a real and proper book. Here is a bona fide link to The One Bookstore and a paper tome you can buy and hold in your hand.


However, the fact that a physical book exists is almost a distraction.

Ok, it is sort of a book but sort of not. What exactly is it? I must confess that I’m probably not quite cool enough to properly understand what this weird medium really is. But I’ll try to explain it. The medium seems to be a big online improv party for very literate people, people who like to read and/or write for fun. It is configured as a giant wiki website with thousands of contributors. This community writes fictional articles about weird and interesting sci-fi things. Imagine if the Twilight Zone and Wikipedia had a baby. The stories are about the work of a secret agency, sort of like the ones in Men In Black or Monsters Inc. The format is generally in the form of "SCP" articles which are styled like internal technical notes about various topics. Ok, I know this is hard to explain and I’m doing it badly. Old fashioned mostly-true Wikipedia comes to the rescue with this helpful description.

Within the website’s fictional setting, the SCP Foundation is a secret organization entrusted by governments around the globe to contain and study anomalous individuals, entities, locations, objects, and phenomena operating outside the bounds of natural law…

If you’ve never heard of this strange nexus of literary talent, you’re not alone. If you have, then you know it’s actually pretty cool. The content I’ll be discussing specifically within this universe is a book length (about 100k words, e.g. size of The Hobbit) contribution of a coherent story by the author qntm. Specifically, what I read are the works by this author which are presented here:

If you’re still not getting it, just imagine some high quality fan fiction written about some obscure corner of the Star Wars universe. It’s kind of like that if all of the Star Wars universe was composed entirely of fan fiction on a wiki and much of it was good.

So, this work has an interesting meta existence. What about this story itself? I liked it! It is really quite good.

In fact, the premise is about as good as I’ve ever seen in science fiction. Ever. Even though it generates inevitable tricky world building problems, the main concept is absolutely genius. Here is the soundbite blurb for it:

An antimeme is an idea with self-censoring properties; an idea which, by its intrinsic nature, discourages or prevents people from spreading it.

The SCP organization’s tasks involve (among other things) the research and protection from "anomalous antimemes". These are creatures (or something) that do the reverse of what normal communication channels do — instead of giving you knowledge, they remove knowledge.

To get you started, here’s a familiar example. Imagine someone goes to a party. The party definitely happened. Many events unfolded. But the next day the person wakes up in their bed knowing only that they had gone to the party and remembering nothing else. In this case one might suspect alcohol would be the antimeme. But if there was some artifact or creature or drug or situation that caused this effect even more acutely and in unexpected situations, how would one know they were even affected?

Here’s a nice introduction from a history of the organization. It starts out as a war time project.

1941 - The "Unthinkables" project begins, … Initially an experiment in advanced propaganda, its objective is to find a way for the Allies to circumvent the physical conflict of World War II and destroy Nazism as an abstract concept.

1945 - The Unthinkables construct and test-detonate their first antimemetic bomb… and accidentally destroy all of their research into antimemetic bombs. The Unthinkables learn their lesson and start over, but very soon the war is ended by other means.

From here they start to develop antimemetic measures and from that, countermeasures. With antimemetic countermeasures, they start to realize that the universe is filled with complicated information stealing ecosystems. Taking for granted our memories as a record of what truly happened is shown to be naive. Talk about your unreliable narrator.

If you’re thinking this sounds a bit like Memento, yes, it does. And that movie is cited specifically. I remember watching that movie (five times, like one does) and thinking, wow, that’s the kind of writing I’m impressed with. Well, this is no less impressive.

Concept - I’m going to add a new item to my fiction reviewing checklist: concept. E.g. the concept behind Robinson Crusoe and the Martian is a dude gets shipwrecked in tricky conditions. The concept in Tolkein is that the protagonists take a grand tour of a mishmash of European folklore. The concept in Skyrim and Star Wars is you are the dovahkiin, the chosen one, born to save a magical world. Etc.

The concept in There Is No Antimemetics Division is that there is a big complex unexpected branch of physics that deals with situations where people’s minds lose information in ways that they generally can not perceive. While it is not without flaws, this concept is a 10 out of 10. Absolutely brilliant.

Style - The writing is very clean and polished. But it’s the composition that really shines. Here’s a random example I liked.

The bunker was empty when he got there. His associates were missing. He was forced to presume them dead. And, in a rare lapse of forethought, he had neglected to bite off one of his human body’s fingers before fleeing the scene of the shooting.

Organization - Obviously this is something quite special. It’s almost like a computer nerd had installed a wiki engine and started playing around with some fun stubs (been there done that) and that spiraled out of control. (If Wikipedia is to be trusted, this whole site was started as some 4chan spinoff, proving that flowers can grow out of shit.) Whatever the origin, this story’s concept is perfectly crafted for the wiki format. Everything is therefore extremely well organized.

Character names - All good. I even felt like the jargon of the organization and their naming conventions were all very convincing and well done. The worst thing, beyond the control of qntm presumably, was the main acronym "SCP". I eventually had to write it down so I could refer to it each of the 1000 times I read it and it still wouldn’t stick. (An antimeme?) It apparently stands for: "Special Containment Procedures". Though elsewhere (e.g. in the title block) on the web pages it says "Secure, Contain, Protect" which does not help. Either of those two definitions are awkward for the purpose they served.

Believable characters - It all seemed fine. Maybe because the concept mostly overshadowed any petty personality issues of any of the people involved.

Natural dialog - Quite good. The author definitely pays attention to detail. The one jarring character quirk was smoking. For me if you want to indicate that a character is a moron, having them smoke cigarettes is a great technique. So when the "smart" people do it, I have to ask: are these people really so clever or was this author error? (I’ve been watching Sergio Leone films recently and the constant smoking is more grating than great. Apparently Leone insisted that Eastwood always be smoking even though Clint didn’t smoke! That is somewhat forgivable for a 1964 audience, but not today. And no, smoking wasn’t super common in the old west — before cigarette rolling machines were invented. If you want your smart-ish characters to be smokers, better set the work between 1917 and 1980.)

Plot complexity - I think it is at the global maximum. Any more complex, and it would be painful to keep up. Any less and it would be less interesting. Nailed it.

Plot resolution - A wee bit confusing, but mostly ok. And bonus points for the fact that you can keep reading other SCP stories indefinitely. Wow. Write your own if you’d like a better ending.

Erudition - Good. While the author is a computer nerd, that didn’t come up as much as it could have.

Gems - It wasn’t packed with them, but there were a few nice gems. Puns, clever references. I especially liked the name they gave to their information-proof room which they called a "Vegas room" (as in: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas).

Believable tech - Given the extraordinary premise, obviously physics will be very different from ordinary life. The one flaw I perceived was related to the aforementioned Vegas room. Some gunfire goes on inside, the noise of which alerts some robot on the outside. Perhaps I misunderstood the setup.

Immersion/world building - Beyond the story, there is a massive wiki that’s just bursting with tales about this fictional world. This real life community dedicated to building up this huge fictional world seem quite fastidious about avoiding paradoxes too. So a perfect score here.

Imagination/creativity - It’s not completely novel to have a secret organization that works in the shadows to protect humanity, etc. But this one felt very special. Normally, you find yourself asking, why is this secret? Why not just have a public "space alien investigation bureau" or whatever? Why exactly does it have to be secret? But with this, they would love for people to know more, but it’s not practical because this knowledge easily gets excised from people’s minds. It’s quite a tricky topic, and handled well.

There you have it. You had to suspect that out of nearly 8 billion people, that there would be some pretty good authors and ideas lurking out there beyond the ken of traditional publishing milieux. But with a brutal signal to noise ratio finding them yourself wasn’t going to be easy. Fortunately I found this one and verified that I at least thought it was well worth the price. I can enthusiastically recommend you read it too. Start here.

Or… don’t. Make it all the more clever by completely forgetting you ever read this review.