“The Cipher”, Kathe Koja

I wrote this in an email and now I am leveraging it as Content. Sorry to the email recipient, I did not mean to make this a blog post, it was meant for you but now everyone gets it — I hope the sharing greatens it. Anyway:

One of my favorite novels, ever, is The Cipher by Kathe Koja, a 90s grunge horror killshot about a man (written expertly by Kathe who, afaik, is a woman) in love with his ex, Nakota, an edgelord punk who looks for meaning in things that are horrific and strange and intrusive. The two discover a hole in their apartment’s chemical closet — a hole that is black, strange, and apparently bottomless. They call it the Funhole and they investigate it, despite its obvious and increasing power and danger. But really the novel is about their relationship as lensed through the Funhole – Nakota wants to go near it, to go into it, our protagonist just wants Nakota to love him, but the Funhole chooses him and Nakota can’t stand it. “Love is a hole in the heart” is the last line of the book.

Is this a bleak, nihilistic condemnation of love? Yes? No, no, absolutely not. The book is so good! It is alive! Nakota and the protagonist’s relationship is miserable and broken, but it makes the book sing! We, the reader, find interest and attention and thrill and life in the book because their love, their fucked up arguably abusive certainly malformed love, is what brings meaning to what would otherwise be a Ligotti-ish drudge through the miserable lives of miserable people encountering a horror. I am not a moralist, I do not read a book and say “these characters had a bad relationship, so the book is bad”. I would never want to live like Nakota and the protagonist. But their relationship is the filament which burns at the middle of the book and that is why it cannot be nihilistic. It is not the laughing abyss of the Funhole which dominates the book. It is the feeling and intent created by the bond between two people. It does not matter that so much of this feeling and intent is ugly and ‘toxic’, what matters is the assertion that even in the face of a cosmic nothing, love is the thing that matters to these people. It is ultimately the assertion of a human experience over the alien.

6 thoughts on ““The Cipher”, Kathe Koja

  1. ohyeah

    Really sorry for being unrelated and you probably get this a lot but I love your work on Destiny. All the darkness lore with Unveiling and Books of Sorrow was amazing. And I miss seeing your stuff in the game especially with how the current darkness storyline with the Witness is being handled. Would be cool to see you write something for The Final Shape expansion but you’re probably busy with Subnautica. Anyways have a great day!

  2. Roland

    Hey Seth, massive fan of your works and your writing style. Specifically your writing in the Destiny lore and grimoire. Just wanted to ask if you were the one to create the character of ‘The Witness’ whom we’re gearing up to beat in D2?


    1. Seth Post author

      Hi Roland, thanks for your kind words. I can’t talk about behind the scenes stuff in detail, but I haven’t done any writing for Destiny outside of Collector’s Edition material since Shadowkeep.

      1. Roland

        Aw shucks, thanks for replying this fast. On another note, have you begun writing story for subnautica? Is there any place where we can read your works for that game? If there’s any available of course.

  3. Maya

    Ooh! Gonna have to pick up the Cipher next, it sounds like it follows a lot of the themes I love in weird fiction; quiet surrealism hiding amongst the mundane, complicated and deeply flawed characters, the horrible unknown… I find myself immediately relating to Nakota, even.

    I’m a tremendous fan of your novels and also Blue Planet, both of which had me bouncing off the walls exhausting my poor partner with enthusiastic gibbering. Very much looking forward to your future endeavours, whatever they may be!

  4. Antonina

    Sometimes the “toxic” relationships really define who you are by illustrating who you don’t want to be. I’m putting The Cipher on my top 5 TBR 🙂

    Also would you mind adding email subscriptions to your blog? I’d love to get notified when you post! (I couldn’t figure out how to subscribe through WordPress either.)

    Here’s a helpful how-to to add the button:

    Thanks either way, I love your books!


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