1/14/2006

Fantastic Metropolis » The Codex Seraphinianus

The Codex Seraphinianus

By John Coulthart

Nonfiction · Originals · January 2, 2002

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listen:there’s a hell
of a good universe next door;let’s go

—e.e.cummings

When considering the canon of inventive, intelligent works of fantasy, it’s probably fair to say that if the Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it. Imaginary worlds are as old as the human imagination itself and will be with us for as long as imagination lasts, despite their currently rather devalued reputation as staples of bad science fiction and fantasy. Conveyor-belt proliferation aside, ‘We all love a mysterious country,’ as Nebuchadnezzar the dandy reminds us in David Britton’s Lord Horror, the words being a quote from M John Harrison’s ‘Egnaro’, a story that is, in part, an examination of the condition and effect of imagined worlds (and in Harrison’s story the quote comes from Lucas, a character based on David Britton—how’s that for a circular reference?) Most invented worlds, however, serve only as the backdrop for a narrative, whatever mythologies or ersatz histories might be created to substantiate their existence. The Codex Seraphinianus is unique in placing its invented world centre stage and, even more uniquely, purporting to be a product of that world itself. Its creation seems the inevitable result of a trend of fantasy writing that delights in invention purely for its own sake, particularly invention that goes to great lengths to seem authentic or authoritative, academic even. The great precursor here is Borges’ short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ which relates the invention of a Britannica-style encyclopedia describing with the greatest detail and authority a completely fictional world. Typically for Borges (as for Harrison), the story is also a commentary upon this kind of invention, as well as the effect it can have on our “real” world—for Borges and Harrison reality is more mutable than people like to think. Luigi Serafini takes the whole game a very difficult step further, by creating a complete work which describes his own fictional world in detail, with numerous colour illustrations and the whole written in a completely invented language and alphabet. I’ve never seen a comment by Borges that refers to the Codex but I’m sure he would have been delighted by it.


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