Ancestral Memory Point of View Experiment

Miles Desmond, in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, sitting in an Animus: a machine that enables you to revisit ancestral memories and travel through time. But how to represent the experience of entering such a memory in fiction?
Miles Desmond, in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, sitting in an Animus: a machine that enables you to revisit ancestral memories and travel through time. But how to represent the experience of entering ancestral memories in fiction?

Over the summer, I was debating what kind of new short story I should write, when I found myself gravitating towards the technical challenges and experimentalism that the Assassin’s Creed franchise might inspire in fiction. What really got me thinking was how to represent the experience of entering an Animus in fiction.

Altair
Altair

The Animus machine in Assassin’s Creed splices two consciousnesses. Tracing ancestral memories through a subject’s DNA–an intriguing bit of pseudoscience–an animus can make you re-experience the memories of distant ancestors. In the game, the modern-era protagonist Desmond Miles revisits worlds of Crusade-era Jerusalem as his distant ancestor Altair, then sees Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Ezio Auditore, before experiencing the American Revolution through the eyes of Connor, a Mohawk.

There are certain rules to the Animus. For example, the bleeding effect: too much time spent in the Animus can cause your visions of the past to appear, ghostlike, in the present. This can lead to madness, as it does with Subject 16 in the game. Also, it is (or should be) impossible to view later memories of an ancestor, if he or she conceives or bears the next child in the subject’s bloodline. The child’s DNA would contain the ancestral memories of both parents, but later memories of his or her parents would be lost, since chromosomes are obviously not given to children after conception. The possible conflicts inherent in this conundrum are not explored in the game. In fact, they are outright ignored in Revelations.

The synchronization bar essentially serves as the life meter in Assassin's Creed.
The synchronization bar is the life meter in Assassin’s Creed.

Thirdly, there is the entire concept of “synchronization.” In the game, Desmond’s DNA grants him access to certain early memories, but only through completing memory sequences can he uncover later, or even repressed, memories. Synchronization is an organic way to explain why Desmond must progress through a series of “levels” in the game. But is Desmond passive to Ezio’s memories, or does he engage actively with them? Most of the time, it seems that Desmond is only seeing through Ezio’s eyes what happens. However, if you kill a civilian, fail to complete a level, or die in the game, you “de-synchronize” with Ezio’s consciousness. Desmond has to repeat all the actions Ezio performed in real life. But he does them in a kind of liminal space between history and the player’s failures to “synchronize” perfectly. For example, when you die in the game, especially by doing something stupid like falling off the top of a church steeple, a common reaction is to sarcastically groan, “And so that’s how Ezio died…” and slam the controller on the ground. The skill of players–and Desmond himself–must coincide with Ezio, or all is lost.

Ezio in Venice
Ezio Auditore conspicuously breaks through a crowd in Piazza San Marco, Venice, in Assassin’s Creed II. To what extent does Desmond control what Ezio does?
Connor, aka Ratonhnhaké:ton: the first Native American Assassin
Connor, a.k.a. Ratonhnhaké:ton: the first Native American Assassin

All this to say, there is a nonlinear nexus where Ezio’s actions can coincide with Desmond’s or not, a kind of free, Matrix-like world created in the universe of artificial experience that the animus creates. This space not only causes us to ask, “Is this the real world, or just an illusion?” but even makes us ponder, “Is Ezio’s history real, or is the world created by the Animus itself, only an illusion, like a computer game?” (Perhaps Abstergo Industries, the all-powerful organization that invented the Animus, controls perceptions of the past in this way. THAT would make waves. A dilemma never addressed in the game.)

Now that those who may be unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed have an idea of how the Animus is supposed to work, let me address my initial question: how can literature represent the unique consciousness of a subject like Desmond in the Animus? Two minds vying for the same stream of consciousness make it a challenge to write well–even omitting the whole paradox of synchronization.

Dumbledore extracts his memories through magic, to store in a pensieve.
Dumbledore extracts his memories through magic, to store in a pensieve.

Before I get into my analysis, I must clarify that the challenge of the Animus POV extends much, much farther than the world of Assassin’s Creed and its novelizations (none of which use experimental language). One common science fiction and fantasy trope, to cite one example, involves aliens and other creatures who are able to share memories instantly with other organisms, at touch. I believe Vulcans and Na’vi fall under this category, neither of which are limited by the paradoxes of the Animus technology. Furthermore, a fantasist can imagine an infinite number of other ways in which memories can be stored inside inanimate objects and reproduced in the character’s consciousness when activated. I recall Harry Potter’s adventures in the pensieve, for example–not to mention Kimberly Ford’s flashes of Seer insight in Fionavar Tapestry. The great virtue of revisiting memories is that you can make characters re-experience backstory and elide much of the drawl of re-telling history.

Looking into a pensieve, you can revisit your own memories or those of others, walking through them as if through a world that doesn't see or hear you.
Looking into a pensieve, you can revisit your own memories or those of others, walking through them as if through a world that doesn’t see or hear you.

My method of representing the Animus viewpoint is as follows: I wrote a story where I began with one consciousness that exists in normal circumstances, made it pass through a transitional phase through the Animus, and then found some way to represent the nexus of consciousnesses within the Animus itself.  First person “I” and third person “he/she/it”: these pronouns each create a certain effect when used with either the present or past tense (I left out ‘you’ because the second person is too experimental and thus an unstable ground on which to test this already-experimental strategy). Perhaps it is best for Desmond’s consciousness to be distinct and separate from Ezio’s, which would be a clean, clear reading experience. If we want to experiment with synchronization, however, we might try to keep Desmond’s mind somehow in dialogue with Ezio’s viewpoint, like some kind of self-conscious narrator in Ezio’s story. A happy in-between may also be possible…

If you try to combine the first person with the third person perspective, then make both either present or past tense–and then repeat them again, to form the total number of possible combinations–then you end up with 16 possibilities. These combinations do not employ the synchronization paradox (that, later), but some have the benefit of clarity. I have included the list of aesthetic effects I observed below:

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Desmond – Ezio

I am – I was: This combination causes Desmond’s viewpoint to become lost in an ancestor’s voice, who retells his story in the past tense, as though it has already happened. The voices are distinct, but the perspectives do not synchronize.

I am- I am: Smooth transition from POVs. Immediacy, in-the-moment. Subjective, so close to a direct experience. Desmond is perfectly synchronized to the second POV to the point where he seems to transform into Ezio and acquire his sense perceptions.

I am- He was : I found that this combination distanced Desmond from Ezio. Desmond ends up describing Ezio’s viewpoint after-the-fact, as though he left the animus and is now explaining what he saw. Or perhaps the narrative’s camera follows the ancestor over his shoulder.

I am- He is: Really postmodern effect. The character loses control of his own narrative, stops telling us his direct experience, and another unknown, possibly non-participant narrator begins telling his story from above.

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I was-I was: This effect is like ‘normal’ literature. Desmond is simply revisiting a memory in his own past, in a flashback where he imagines himself revisiting his past experiences.

I was -I am: Decent synchronization effect, and a reasonably smooth transition. To my ears, at least, it did not feel so much that Desmond’s POV became Ezio’s or that Desmond’s POV was replaced by Ezio’s, but that Desmond was wearing the skin of Ezio for a while, as though he was playing his part, a bit like an actor. Not perfect synchronization, but does present an interesting effect that can absolutely work.

I was -He was: There is no direct synchronization, Desmond watching Ezio from a detached, almost God-like or narrative standpoint. Unless explained in the text, we do not necessarily understand their minds to be melded in one; he could simply be watching a video of Ezio moving.

I was – He is:  Like ‘I am-he is,” the character loses control of the narration of his own story. However, the transition between past tense to present, which is a bit arbitrary, threw me off and sounded clunky. Not recommended.

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He was – I was: Ezio ends up speaking about himself, but it runs a bit clunky. Not immersive: there are two viewpoints being juxtaposed.

He was – I am: Tense difference can be choppy, but it requires the ancestor to have a distinct, immediate voice.

He was – He was: Like normal literature. Desmond is simply reliving his past.

He was – He is: An interesting effect. The synchronization is such that it feels like though Desmond is playing Ezio’s role, (as in “I was-I am”) only it is told with more distance, so the effect of role-playing is reduced. Also, since the Ezio POV is so immediate, it is not necessarily true that it is presenting a linear narrative–only a series of immediate sensations and experiences. This can enable you to scramble the order of the ancestor’s story.

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He is – I was: The effect of this is like a retelling in Ezio’s journal. It is strange to use to create the illusion of synchronization, but still viable as a technique. Desmond’s experience of Ezio seems second-hand.

He is – I am: Feels more synchronized than if past tense was used. Ezio ends up speaking about himself in a separate viewpoint, but a clever person might be able to make it clear Desmond is somehow integrated into Ezio’s consciousness, since the experience is in the present-tense with both characters.

He is – He was: Feels like Desmond is visiting his own memory. But the difference in tense makes it awkward, like a failed transition into a normal flashback.

He is – He is: Perhaps the easier, most viable, though one of the least experimental, of these options. The present tense makes it immediate and the consistent third person makes the transition smooth. It is almost as if Desmond has physically turned into Ezio. In fact, this point of view might be effective for metamorphosis stories. Unless we are reminded that Desmond’s own body is still lying in the animus, it will seem to be a complete transformation.

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When Desmond and Ezio’s scenes are told from either the same tense or same person, it is generally more effective–although there are some interesting effects that can work where there is a difference. Now, there is one last problem: accurately describing the synchronization process–how Desmond’s mind might occasionally conflict with Ezio’s memory. One solution is to elide this dilemma entirely.  After all, losing synchronization does not have to be a danger in a fictional world in the way it must be in the Assassin’s Creed video game. Your readers cannot “lose” a story, unless you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure. However, if I were to encounter this dilemma head-on, I might write something like this:

“Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys.  The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. Connor felt angry today and Desmond could see why: the man in the blue coat standing near the bench on the other side was Haytham. I don’t have to see him yet, thought Desmond, and walked into an alleyway. His body was not sore, refreshed from Connor’s last fight, so he climbed onto the roof of the print shop when he spotted a piece of Ben Franklin’s almanac flying in the wind.”

Chasing the almanac page is literally a side-quest in the game, translated directly to the page, and threatens only to be a distraction, however. For a tighter narrative, either Desmond would have to search for something important that he would have motivation to find in 1781 New York, or he would go right towards activating the next memory, by speaking with Haytham.

“”Connor,” said Haytham. “You’re late.”

“I came as quickly as I could,” said Connor.

“Follow me. We have a matter at the brewery.”

Desmond remembered Rebecca and Shawn had found something in the Abstergo database about the Old Brewery.  He followed Haytham, keeping an eye out as Connor made an angsty sound in his throat, at his father who cared nothing for him. Perhaps he and Connor had more in common than he’d thought–he’d been riled up against his own father, William Miles, earlier.”

If this style of writing satisfies, then my job is done.  In conclusion, I have isolated five types of perspectives that can be written, which have resulted from this experiment:

-Split Synchronization (as above)

Straightforward Transformation of Consciousness: “I am/I am, “he is/ he is,” and “I was/I was,” “he was, he was.”

Remembrance of things past: “I was /I was” and “he was/ he was.”

Non-linear/Timeless animus effect: “He was / He is,” “I was / I am.”

Journal memories: “He is/ I was,” “I am/ he was” “He was / I was” “I was/ I was”

The following are some examples of these last four types, made essentially by taking the first paragraph of Desmond’s above story and changing the tense and person accordingly.  Taste the effects like a subtle wine.

What would it be like to be Ratonhnhaké:ton?
What would it be like to be Ratonhnhaké:ton?

Transformation of Consciousness: “I am sitting down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clack over the computer keys.  The pulse of electricity surges up my spine. I close my eyes. When I open them, I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I am angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.”

Remembrance of things past: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys.  The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes.

He was in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It was a market day in 1781. He felt angry today: Haytham Kenway, his father, was standing there in his posh blue coat over by the bench on the other side. He looked restless, expectant.”

Non-linear, timeless Animus effect: “I sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys.  The pulse of electricity surged up my spine as I closed my eyes.

I am no longer in the cave, but in New York, in the midst of a crowd of merchants. It is a market day in 1781. I feel angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, is standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side. He looks restless, expectant.

Rebecca’s voice in my ear tells me to prepare for step back in time. The cityscape vanishes into blue squares and formless shapes while the Animus knits the world back together. Suddenly it is 1776. I’m younger, staring at my father as he waits below the State House, whispering to Charles Lee. The Boston Massacre is about to begin.”

Journal memories: “Desmond sat down in the Animus as Rebecca’s fingers clacked over the computer keys.  The pulse of electricity surged up his spine as he closed his eyes…

I was angry today: Haytham Kenway, my father, was standing there in his posh blue overcoat by the bench on the other side of the market. He looked restless, expectant. What could I do, if the Templars have a chance of winning this war? Benjamin Church must pay for his crimes.”

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Which passage most pleases the ear? I leave that up to you decide…

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Photo Credits:

Altair: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Alta%C3%AFr_Ibn-La%27Ahad

Connor1: http://www.idigitaltimes.com/articles/10594/20120802/assassins-creed-iiis-anvilnext-creating-unprecedented-experience.htm

Connor 2: http://wiiudaily.com/2013/02/assassins-creed-3-wii-u-review/assassins-creed-3-connor-fighting/

Desmond in Animus: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/acb_360/

Ezio: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/File:AC2_Ezio_in_crowd.jpg

Pensieve: http://www.evercurious.com/2010/01/11/a-memory-catching-pensieve-for-muggles/

Pensieve 2: http://www.thinkboxsoftware.com/krakatoa-in-production/

Synch bar: http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Synchronization

Eternal Guarantee

salesEvery once in a while, two events in your life happen simultaneously and in their juxtaposition, a humorous situation appears in your imagination. I had just finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry and started a job as a salesman. Anyone familiar with the myth of King Arthur, especially as retold by Kay, and the cliches of the sales pitch will find the following short story’s concept amusing.

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Eternal Guarantee

Nine Worthies
The Nine Worthies of Medieval Legend: Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon. Part of Avalon Enterprises’ Premiere Set of Heroes. Customers can also buy individual warriors.

“We’ll sell you a High King, and if he is ever damaged or killed in battle, just send him back to Avalon, and we’ll return him. That’s our eternal guarantee.”

Morgan le Fay of Camlann Marketing, the sales branch of Avalon Enterprises, smiled with her pearl teeth at the customer, a prophet with a white beard by the name of Merlynn. They were sitting at a stone table in the middle of her grove, while she spun her webs and charms.

“I see,” said Merlynn, arching his eyebrows. “And when would that be?”

“There will be a prophecy in the end. He’ll wait on the island for when he is needed once again. Now,” she said, opening her illuminated codex. “Let me show you the wide variety of saviours Avalon Enterprises has in its collection of Worthies.”

Merlynn nodded and pressed his forefinger above his eye, to furrow his brow. Morgan le Fay was always troublesome, but when she’d asked for him to listen to her presentation, for the sake of the nation he could not have refused. Uther was dead and Wales needed a king. He listened to her litany of saviours, as she pointed to a picture of a warrior in bronze armour.

“Hector of Troy,” she said. “Customers like him, because he is strong, agile, and versatile for mostly every occasion. However, he is not stronger than Achilles. He’s perfect as a strongman, but his temper makes him poor for politics, which means you might want King David. He killed the giant Goliath with a slingshot when he was only a young man, and thereafter ruled as a great king. However, he was not resistant to the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, which means you might need Godfrey of Bouillon. A French crusader sworn to the ideals of chivalry, he took Jerusalem from the Saracens and ruled as king, although he refused the title. However, though a virtuous knight, he was not the ruler of a kingdom that endured, which means you might need Frederick Barbarossa …”

“The German makes are never quite as good,” said Merlynn, shaking his head sadly. “And I don’t see this country moving in that direction.”

“That’s all right,” said Morgan le Fay, lending him another pearl smile. “Besides, maybe what this land needs is another sort of king. Not an Alexander the Great, but perhaps a Christ, a Buddha, or a Gandhi?”

“Gandhi?” asked Merlynn. He closed his eyes and focused on the name. Threads of time, centuries of civilization, wove themselves through his synapses and he tasted the future. “Not the violent type of man, I see. But it’s my impression that all these saviours have some fatal defect or another. Either that, or they die a martyr.”

“There is always a price,” said Morgan le Fay, sounding concerned. “But if the weight of that knowledge sounds like too much at once, you can make three equal payments. And if you find you don’t like him, you can return him during our free-trial period.”

“A free hero does not sound like much of one,” said Merlynn, folding his arms. “But what about the payments?”

“Your saviour will endure an even amount of grief over his or her lifetime,” she said. “You might be interested in Hercules, perhaps: that’s a twelve payment plan.”

Merlynn sighed with such a deep longing that he could not encompass just how much he wished for the world to be different. But the earth was still there, in so much need. “You know … I don’t think Wales can pay such a hefty price for a saviour. In this age, after all, who needs a hero who causes so much more grief? Sure, these heroes legends, but I really don’t think Wales is ready for this investment.”

Morgan le Fay nodded and smiled. “That’s why we have our free-trial period. If you are in any way dissatisfied, we can return your hero to Avalon for a full refund.”

Merlynn cursed himself for a fool. He wanted heroes to lead Wales as they had in the days of old, but time had moved on and the every year brought a steeper decline in glory. He supposed it was simply not possible in this age, for heroes to be born the way they used to be. Ever since the goddesses had formed Avalon, their corporate machine had experienced unprecedented successes, selling high-quality heroes to lands bereft of them. This was the way of the future, and the past was done.

He grumbled from behind his white beard, a throaty old-man sound. When had he gotten so old?

“Him,” he said, pointing to an illumination in Morgan le Fay’s codex. A golden crown rested heavily on a man’s bearded head, a silver sword sheathed by his side and a red-tipped spear in his hand.

“That is the dux bellorum, lord of battles,” said Morgan le Fay. “He is expensive, but it’s worth it, because he comes with Caliburn, his famous sword, Ron, his great spear, and a host of eight other gallant knights. Is this who you want?”

“I’m on the verge,” said Merlynn, nodding, and trying not to think of the cost. “But I cannot justify saturating this world with so many heroes. There could be glory in it, but evil as well.”

Morgan le Fay squeezed her lip together. “I can give you a deal. If you agree to rid the world of one or two of your more common heroes, I can give you the Knights of the Round Table—which, by the way, includes the world’s greatest knight, Lancelot du Lac.”

Merlynn wondered what her game was, but there was no doubting that she was giving him an excellent deal. He thought he would surely weep later, if he passed up the chance for such a bargain.

He smiled. The promise of future glory, the shortcut history could take towards remaking the social cohesion of the pax romana, was too tempting. It was an investment in the future. He owed his decision to succeeding generations.

“He will be called Arthur Pendragon,” he said, and signed by Avalon’s wax seal.

merlin and morgan.

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Photo Credits:

Morgan le Fay: http://www.howarddavidjohnson.com/arthurian.htm

Nine Worthies: http://www.scotiana.com/the-nine-worthies-on-the-oak-heads-medallions-at-stirling-castle/

Salesguy: http://www.zerotimeselling.com/confuse-activity-with-selling/

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

foucault's pendulum

A group of editors gets together to write a parody of a conspiracy theory. What if the parody ends up becoming perceived as the source of ultimate truth for an actual underground group that styles itself after the Templars and Rosicrucians?

The answer lies in the pages of Umberto Eco’s intellectual thriller Foucault’s Pendulum. In a way, the book is Dan Brown on steroids. Conspiracy theories abound in dizzying multitudes. Heretics, Knights Templar, Assassins, cabalists, Diabolicals, Masons, Jesuits, the Bavarian Illuminati, and the School of Night all become implicated in one giant Plan that spans centuries and has formed the very shape of history.

The editors at Garamond Press in Milan, Italy compose the Plan as a parody of a Templar plot that Colonel Ardenti believes he has uncovered from evidence found in Provins (Provence). However, as the editors mock Ardenti’s leaps in logic, their research into secret societies and the occult inspire them to create their own ultimate Plan.

However, the pastime, begun for the editors’ amusement, eventually begins to poison how the editors think. The Plan becomes real; life imitates art. And the central object that ties the created reality together—the thing that may reveal the greatest secret of all—is Foucault’s Pendulum, located in a Paris museum.

Though it was published in 1989, Foucault’s Pendulum continues to excite readers today. With the popularity of such authors as Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons (and his new thriller Inferno), interest in conspiracy theories and secret societies is running high.

Also, if reading Foucault’s Pendulum, you are reminded of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, you were not alone. In the Plan, Ismaili Assassins inspire the secret rites of the Templars, and dispense secret information to them about a powerful artifact with which they could control the world.

A Knight Templar.
A Knight Templar.

Perhaps Foucault’s Pendulum inspired Assassin’s Creed; perhaps Assassin’s Creed inspired Foucault’s Pendulum! After all, the programers were (obviously) Assassins themselves… And the only way to tell if someone really is an Assassin, is if they deny it.

Such is a sample of the kind of warped thinking into which the editors of Eco’s thriller fall. It combines the paranoid thought patterns of conspiracy theorists and witch hunters with the ars combinatoria, which seeks to interconnect all human knowledge. In Cabala, for example, passages of Hebrew scripture may be randomly combined with each other in order for new truths to emerge. In a similar way, the editors of Garamond Press enter statements of knowledge into a computer called Abulafia, which reconnects the entered statements randomly. Thus they emerge with a list, such as the following:

“The Templars have something to do with everything

What follows is not true

Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate

The sage Omus founded the Rosy Cross in Egypt

There are cabalists in Provence

Who was married at the feast of Cana?

Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancée” (364).

The editors connect the random terms into a narrative and come up with the grand and exquisite claim that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene and it was His marriage that was feted at Cana. In a clever way, Eco ridicules the exact same Templar conspiracy discovered in The DaVinci Code, which (coincidentally?) reveals the “truth” about Jesus Christ.

This is one example of Eco’s exploration of signs and symbols and how people connect them all together, even when no such connection exists objectively. It is the way that Garamond Press’ target audience, the Diabolicals, think.

I personally find Eco’s ideas fascinating, especially in the context of historical fantasy. In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the philosophical implications of how desire influences how narratives of random historical events are told. These events become signs of a pattern, or signs of a plan to history’s unfolding. Eco shows how such plans may be interpreted from random data. Furthermore, he implies that in hyperreality, a universe where reality has largely been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality, the creation of such a plan in a spirit of fictitious play may have actual, historical consequences.

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose

Eco explores these ideas because he is a semiotician, a scholar who studies the structure of signs and the processes in which they develop signification. For example, his most famous novel, the medieval mystery The Name of the Rose, explores how signs can be interpreted, or misinterpreted. In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco explores similar themes. Symbols and signs have such a wide range of meanings that everything (a rose, a triangle in a Leonardo DaVinci painting, historical events) can be interpreted in hundreds or thousands of different ways.

Indeed, it would be a legendary meeting if it were possible for Eco to meet Dan Brown’s protagonist Robert Langdon, who is a symbologist, a professional who interprets the historical meaning of symbols. While Langdon sees a triangle in Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper and interprets it as a symbol for the sacred feminine, Eco would perhaps more closely analyze at the process of how Langdon came to make that interpretation. Perhaps Leonardo had intended to make a symbolic triangle. Then again, the triangle may have been a random shape that Langdon only perceived to signify something.

We see symbols everywhere, but where are the real ones? This is a mystery that Eco leaves ambiguous, to his credit. After all, life is much more interesting with symbols to interpret that do not have fixed meaning.

On the whole, Foucault’s Pendulum makes for an engrossing read. Irony, a concern with symbols, and plenty of lists: these signature features of Eco’s style combine to create a unique reading experience. As the Garamond Press editors formulate the Plan, scenes pass almost exclusively in dialogue-based exposition, but somehow, Eco makes it work. Do not expect Eco’s thriller to read like a Dan Brown novel, but expect it to be richer, to fascinate and challenge you intellectually.

And take care you don’t become a Diabolical while reading it.

Foucault's Pendulum, in Paris
Foucault’s Pendulum, in Paris

Photo Credits:

Foucault Pendulum:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foucault_pendulum

Foucault’s Pendulum cover:  http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17841.Foucault_s_Pendulum

Templar: http://boltzmann.wordpress.com/2006/04/27/a-templar-in-his-habit/

Umberto Eco: http://politics-prose.com/event/book/umberto-eco-prague-cemetery

Quotation taken  from  Harcourt paperback edition, translated by William Weaver.

Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted: Historical Reality and the Creation of the Myth behind Assassin’s Creed

Horseback altair

A white-robed hooded rider spurs his stallion to the castle of Masyaf to receive an assassination contract from his master Rashid al-Din, the infamous leader of the Assassin Brotherhood. The rider’s name is Altaïr ibn la-Ahad. They meet in a library, and the assassin receives his instructions: Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, a Templar crusader, must die.

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If this sounds like a video game you’ve played, then you might be aware of how the creators of Assassin’s Creed conduct thorough historical research. Although they take liberties in inventing a fanciful storyline, there are historical realities behind the famous video game.

The fida’is, brave soldiers of the Ismaili sect of Islam, are the real-world historical source for the Assassin myth. In Crusader-era Syria and Iran, they would infiltrate the social circle of political targets and wait, keeping up appearances, before threatening them by thrusting a dagger beside into their pillow at night.

Often, the threat would be enough to deter the enemies of the Ismailis, but occasionally they used real violence against targets, as a last resort. One such a target was Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, assassinated in 1192 in a courtyard at the port-city of Tyre just before his coronation as King of Jerusalem—by figures disguised as Christian monks. Wearing robes reminiscent of these assassins, Altaïr is the character that players of Assassin’s Creed guide through multiple levels, conducting similar assassinations. However, the names of the real assassins are lost to history.

Rashid al-Din Sinan (left) was a real leader of the Ismaili.
Rashid al-Din Sinan (left) was a real leader of the Ismaili.

As for the castle of Masyaf, it actually does stand in Syria, though not in the location specified in the game. Sinan Rashid al-Din, Altaïr’s master, was the actual legendary Ismaili leader who once called it home. Called “The Old Man of the Mountain,” he was lame in one leg, a learned alchemist, and was said to have had telepathy, clairvoyance, and the ability to communicate with spirits. Perhaps the Apple of Eden, Assassin’s Creed‘s illusion-creating artefact, had had something to do with that .. but once again, these stories are lost to history.

The truth of the Ismaili Assassins is often difficult to separate from myth.

Modern-day Masyaf castle.
Modern-day Masyaf castle.

One of the first myths is from Marco Polo’s account of the Earthly Paradise of the Assassins in his Travels. Assassin’s Creed II: Revelations has sequences that play off Niccolo Polo’s supposed encounter with the Brotherhood.

A painting of the Old Man of the Mountain receiving assassins in his castle within the garden of the Earthly Paradise.
A painting of the Old Man of the Mountain receiving assassins in his castle within the garden of the Earthly Paradise.

Supposedly, the Old Man of the Mountain had command of a fortress called Alamut (in Polo’s account not Masyaf), where he had an exceptionally beautiful garden. Milk and honey flowed in rivers through his garden, which was filled with fragrant fruits and flowers, appearing as the Qur’an’s vision of Paradise. The Old Man would bring men into the garden and have young virgins entertain them, before serving them wine laced with hashish. He would then bring them into his presence.

There, mission briefing would occur, and a promise. Since an assassination was essentially a suicidal job—it was assumed that the guards protecting the target would inevitably kill or capture an assassin—the Old Man offered Paradise itself to his minions. Since the drugged assassins thought they had truly found Paradise at Alamut, they believed the Old Man could offer that.

Through this method, the Old Man of the Mountain supposedly eliminated his political rivals and advanced his own interests.

Marco Polo’s account is a juicy myth. Essentially a result of Western fascination with the East, Europeans found in the Earthly Paradise of the Assassins a way to explore fantasies forbidden within their moralistic society. The myth gained popularity throughout the ages. According to Wikipedia, Friedrich Nietzsche in his Geneology of Morals considered the Assassins free spirits not bound by Western strictures of morality, operating according to the creed—now made famous by the video game—that states, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.”

The Ismaili Assassins have captured the imagination of the West for centuries.
The Ismaili Assassins have captured the imagination of the West for centuries.

However, the historical reality behind the Brotherhood demolishes these Orientalist fantasies.

To begin with, there could never really have been a garden at Alamut. Peter Willey, in his book Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, to which I am indebted in this article, describes the castle’s physical details at great length. Alamut, which means “Eagle’s Nest,” is perched above a steep and rocky ridge. It is a very narrow castle and is said to have once contained a great library. However, it is simply impossible to imagine a luxurious garden growing in such a narrow courtyard.

A modern-day shot of the castle of Alamut.
A modern-day shot of the castle of Alamut.

Marco Polo clearly had never seen Alamut, which leads scholars to suppose that his famous journey to the Orient never actually happened. He may never have left Constantinople, composing his Travels from hearsay and the stories of other travelers.

To debunk the myth that the Assassins took hashish before carrying out their murders, Peter Willey draws attention to how it is impossible to aim a blade with any accuracy while high. Dexterity takes a serious hit when the mind is clouded, and a successful assassination would require presence of mind to quickly slide a blade between a target’s plate armour or through chain mail—and sometimes the target would be on horseback.

It also must be emphasized that the fida’is did not always kill. Often, the mere threat of a dagger thrust in a target’s pillow would make him withdraw a siege from a castle, or pull back his troops from a strategic region. The fear caused by the fida’is had a real affect on the enemies of the Ismailis, who were much more powerful and numerous. It kept them away from strongholds and villages—and added to the paranoia that would launch the Assassin myth.

The Ismailis were considered heretics by many Muslim religious groups. Hunted like witches by enemies seeking to weed out the fida’is from their ranks, they became blamed for assassinations that they did not commit. Innocent people were accused of being Ismaili assassins. For these, the punishment could be severe: al-Ghazali suggested the death penalty for any Ismailis who remained apostates of the Islamic faith. Meanwhile, the political situation in the Middle East—so little has changed since—was volatile and paranoid, filled with many rival political groups, most of whom employed assassination as a tactic.

In such an environment of fear, myths can easily arise. The Ismailis were blamed for more assassinations than it would have been prudent to commit. Those who blamed them were either reacting out of paranoia, or seizing an appropriate scapegoat, to better mask their own political and military stratagems.

It is precisely through such times of paranoia that fantasies take root. The historical record today can only give us glimpses into the past, and those records may be contaminated with hearsay at best, if not a deliberate falsification of information. Today, you can immerse yourself in the myths that history has passed down to you, playing a part in them through your PS3 controller.

What the the Assassin myth tells us is that human beings prefer to indulge in great stories rather than seek the truth of history. Fiction and reality: these are opposed modes and people enjoy fiction more than reality. For a writer of historical fantasy such as myself, what an insight! “Nothing is true; everything is permitted”: the creed of the historical fantasist!

Photo Credits:

http://www.gamesradar.com/awordfromoursponsors/?page=2&zone=p3_pc_x3/reviews&sendMeBackTo=http%3A//www.gamesradar.com/assassins-creed-review/%3Fpage%3D2

http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/William_of_Montferrat

http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Rashid_ad-Din_Sinan

http://www.iis.ac.uk/view_article.asp?ContentID=101164

http://www.sickchirpse.com/2011/01/13/origin-and-myth-the-mashed-assassins/

http://simerg.com/special-series-i-wish-id-been-there/the-great-resurrection/