Self-reference ENGINE

Self-reference ENGINE / Toh EnJoe

Why do you keep so many Freuds under the floor?

So. Now we come to Self-reference ENGINE, the final book in this series of posts (for now?).

Self-reference ENGINE is a novel

Self-reference ENGINE is a book of short stories

Self-reference ENGINE is an incoherent mess

Self-reference ENGINE is a blueprint, a literary virus that will infect the reader and as it propogates itself our world will become overwhelmingly strange

This post is gonna get pretentious.

Brief… summary

Self-reference ENGINE is structured as a series of… chapters? short stories?

I’ll call them vignettes. There are a couple of recurring themes, and some characters appear in multiple vignettes.

There are a number of possible reading orders. The book would probably make just as much sense following any of them. There’s a diagram at the beginning of the book that shows these.

Some of the recurring elements:

“self-organizing corpora of knowledge”

a nameless narrator who appears to be living backwards, or who is somehow unstuck in time

an invasion of furniture that grows from the ground and must be constantly pruned back

So how is it?

Bizarre. More bizarre than A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world.

Intellectually demanding. Moreso than The quantum thief. The major players in this book are described as self-organizing corpora of knowledge.

Honestly, it was a struggle to finish.

There are a lot of high-level ideas here, presented in frequently outlandishly absurd contexts. Really, Selg-reference ENGINE is a mystery novel. Not in the sense that it’s part of the mystery genre (although there are some elements in there) but in the sense that the book itself is a mystery, presented to the reader as-is. In this way it’s one of the most interactive books I’ve ever read. Beyond the multiple reading orders (Stand on Zanzibar did that too, to a lesser extent) the book is largely shaped by what the reader brings to it. That’s true of every book, of course, but Self-reference ENGINE brings that experience forward to the conscious mind.

Urgh… that last sentence makes me hate myself a little.

Honestly, the whole thing feels like Hoshi Shinichi with a degree in quantum physics. Hoshi is pretty clearly an influence here, the structure of Self-reference ENGINE mimics Hoshi’s assemblage, including the abundance of apparent non-sequiturs amongst a series of frequently very short vignettes.

Hofstadter is also a visible influence. Thematically, there are connections with his (nonfiction) I am a strange loop.

I honestly can’t think of much else to saya – even mroeso than The quantum thief, Self-reference ENGINE is a highly unique book that defies normal rules of fiction.

My favorite vignette was about a sock. A talking sock. If that sounds incredibly stupid to you then this book probably isn’t for you.

A word on the translation:

I haven’t read the Japanese edition, but even if I didn’t already know it was translated it would be obvious by reading it. The prose has that “slightly detatched” feeling that I’ve encountered in pretty much every English translation of a Japanese novel that wasn’t by Murakami (whose writing in Japanese kinda reads like it’s already been translated from English. So.).


Read Hoshi Shinichi first (disclosure: I have only read Hoshi in Japanese, and can’t speak to the quality of the English translations I am linking here). If you like the style and are interested in reading something similar but more modern and more informed by cutting-edge science, then check out Self-reference ENGINE.

There’s no way I would recommend this book to a patron unless I knew them very, very well, or they were a theoretical physisict interested in their field’s influence on sf. I’d also recommend it to LessWrong cultists, AI researchers, and others in highly technical fields, as long as they weren’t looking for something to help them wind down from their jobs. Most people I’ve encountered in the library who do work in fields like that have expressed no interest in reading books this demanding, so I don’t recommend this one as a rule.

Avowed fans of Hoshi Shinichi are the one other group that I might recommend this to.

Specific recommendations:
Gödel, Escher, Bach : an eternal golden braid / Douglas R. Hofstadter
Cronopios and Famas / Julio Cortázar – (translation seems decent, but I have no experience with the original. This is another one I’d recommend reading before Self-reference ENGINE)
Ring / Koji Suzuki – (I haven’t seen the movie, so can’t comment on the differences) translation is okay but not distractingly bad
Darwinia / Robert Charles Wilson

And the generic recommendations from this series:

The world of the end / Ofir Touché Gafla.
Annihilation / Jeff VanderMeer. First published 2014.
Man in the empty suit / Sean Ferrell.

A highly unlikely scenario, or, A Neetsa Pizza employee’s guide to saving the world / Rachel Cantor
The quantum thief / Hannu Rajaniemi

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