Deciphering Documents in the Footprints of Birds
The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing
by Raymond St. Elmo
“What people call ‘Artificial Intelligence’ are two very different things.
There is artificial reasoning, which is the
manipulation of concepts according to math-like rules.
And then there is artificial personality, the act of making
a machine seem like a person. There are no rules for ‘personality’ except whatever trick works.
Raymond St. Elmo, The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing
Clarence St. Claire is a programmer who cherishes an orderly life. His motto: ‘work is important; people, not so much’. His determination to be The Most Serious Person on the Planet is threatened when he becomes haunted by a mysterious manuscript from his past: 300 pages of possibly random bird tracks. Risking his career and self-possession, St. Claire dares to pursue the manuscript against the opposition of hackers, the NSA, the ghosts of famous writers and doubts of his own sanity.
Lost in a maze of bird-prints and their possible meanings, St. Claire determines to summon the late writer Jorge Louis Borges to help with the translation. He will dream Borges into existence, exactly as Borges wrote of doing. But this act stirs the opposition of a secret order of past writers, who may, possibly, have their own agenda.
The duel between St. Claire’s reality and theirs leads to a final encounter in The Dark Library, before the dread conclave known as The Tribunal of Dreams.
‘Origins’ is a book about books, about magic realism and artificial intelligence, virtual reality and languages, and how sensible people wind up in strange situations by strangely sensible steps. It is built of the words books whisper to each other alone after the library has closed. It ends as it must: with the hero tossed into a pit by Edgar Alan Poe.
Kidding. I mean, that last does happen but the final ending is the hero finding the answer and getting the girl, as well as his sanity back. Mostly back.
From the book:
I sat on the bed in the dark, my back to the wall. I began a new web page. Time to tell the world the truth, I thought, and felt a surge of pride. This would upset the Secret Powers of the world. But hey they had cost me my $400 security deposit. It was payback time. I would tell the world. But tell what? I typed out the flat truth to see how it looked. There is a secret society of dead writers who live in the wall spaces between realities, in the silence of empty rooms, in the Schrödinger-uncertainty of unopened books.
They call themselves the Tribunal of Dreams. Often they appear as birds. They peek out of mirrors and walk the shadows of libraries. They are old and sly and are not retired. They have vast plans. They have me barricaded in my bedroom and they painted my windows black. They are listening at the door now. Send help. I read it over several times. It expressed all the facts nicely, yet it lacked something. Specifically, it lacked the power to convince the world of anything except that I was insane.
I cannot review The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing without bringing up Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. Foucault’s Pendulum follows three people in a vanity press who create a conspiracy theory, as both joke and grift, until enough other people take it seriously that it becomes dangerous. It’s a brutal, clever satire, and one of my favorite books.
The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing is not Foucault’s Pendulum, but I had the same sense of feeling reality shift as I read it. Both books deal with signs and forcing intentionality and meaning where none necessarily should be.
Clarence St. Clair works for the NSA, where he’s given the task of deciphering a document that contains nothing but the footprints of birds. Through persistence and cryptography, he does it. Or at least he’s pretty convinced he did. Forcing oneself to find patterns in random signs doesn’t have the best track record. Clearly, something happened, because he gets fired.
Ten years later, St. Clair has switched his career to programming and is trying to build an android capable of thought. He wants to name it Odradek-Dupin, after characters from Kafka (The Cares of a Family Man) and Poe (The Murders in the Rue Morgue) but the company he works for changes the robot’s name to Bob The Answer Man.
“What people call ‘Artificial Intelligence’ are two very different things. There is artificial reasoning, which is the manipulation of concepts according to math-like rules. And then there is artificial personality, the act of making a machine seem like a person. There are no rules for ‘personality’ except whatever trick works. Our artificial man must do both; hence, Odradek-Dupin. One half of him thinks about the concepts of things, the other half chats confidently about what he thinks.”
I sat on the bed in the dark, my back to the wall. I began a new web page. Time to tell the world the truth, I thought, and felt a surge of pride. This would upset the Secret Powers of the world.
Raymond St. Claire, The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing
People are told to ask questions to Bob The Answer Man, and he will respond. But some questions are answered with the same strange dream-phrases that were deciphered in the manuscript of bird tracks.
As he deals with this St. Clair is targeted by a persistent hacker and some NSA agents and eventually some far stranger people. One could assume that outside the strangeness of the bird tracks the novel could well be a traditional tech thriller plot. “Caught between hackers and the government, possessing secrets they want to know—” but St. Elmo has no interest in that.
The action sequences, such as they are, feel perfunctory. They’re irrelevant. This isn’t the kind of book aiming at pulse-pounding adventure.
It’s not a book aimed as a deep dive into characterization, either. Outside of Clarence, most characters get little more than a brief descriptor. This isn’t a flaw in the book, but again, characterization is simply outside the purview of what this book wants to be. As far as Clarence St. Clair goes, he happens to have the same background as Raymond St. Elmo. Both have a degree in Spanish Literature and now work in artificial intelligence. Clarence is far from the idealized figure most authorial self-inserts would be, yet he ends up having a wild adventure with characters St. Elmo clearly regards highly.
Around the mid-point the story shifts drastically. St. Clair hopes for Borges—as in Jorge Luis, the Argentinian author—to translate the bird prints. At this point, the story, which has teetered on the edge of realism (Seriousity in the parlance of the book) falls all the way off into unreality and you simply need to go along for the ride. It’s more fun that way.
This book is aimed at people who love books, who would do anything for the feel of a folio, who climb the library stacks searching for their next fix. This is not a book content to be a pleasant diversion. It wants to worm its way into your brain until you start grabbing strangers on the street and yelling at them about how much you love books.
At the beginning of the review I mentioned Eco. When Borges enters the story, he’s the head librarian—the same position Jorge of Borgos had in The Name of the Rose. And Eco is directly name-dropped:
“Umberto Eco described it as conversation going on across centuries. But no; it’s sex. One book argues with another from an earlier time, and their argument gives birth to a shelf of little lesser arguers. Or a book inspires a painting that creates a discussion that leads to a piece of music that leads to a play that inspires a book that argues with all of its parents. Kids. God knows they are all quoting each other, stealing from each other, passing the DNA along. And when translation and transcribing go off-track you get mutation. Maybe even evolution.”
check out some other reviews
If You Liked This - Please Share the Love
Where to find it?
I purchased a copy of this for my own library.
About the Author
Raymond St. Elmo is a programmer of artificial intelligences and virtual realities, who has no time for literary fabrications of fictitious characters and world-building. And yes, that was meant to be ironic.
A degree in Spanish Literature gave him a love of Magic Realism. Programming gave him a job. The job introduced him to artifical intelligence and virtual realities; as close to magic as reality is likely to get outside the covers of a book. And yes, that was meant to be cynical.
The author of several first-person comic-accounts of strange quests for mysterious manuscripts, mysterious girls in cloaks whose face appears SUDDENLY IN THE FLASH OF LIGHTNING. And yes, that was meant to be dramatic.