“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.

13 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!

  5. Ghost of the Future

    Hello, I would like to ask. You were the one who participated in the creation Destiny: The Taken king And I want to clarify some things that I found, but for which I did not find answers. Could you answer, or try to answer?

    First question. The material universe, by design, contains an infinite number of dimensional, Since it is a Hilbert space. Can it be said that if the Ascendant Plane is something more real than the material universe, then could it be that spatial dimensionals do not exist for beings on the Ascendant Plane? Or rather, they are so abstract that they seem to be outside this concept?

    Second, what are layers of understanding? Why do they protect the material world from the ascending plane? Why were they called a barricade?

    Third, have you or any of the developers thought about creating a cosmological map Destiny? If so, what would it be like?

    I will be glad if you answer. I apologize for any mistakes, English is not my native language.

    1. Seth Post author

      I’m not really involved in Destiny these days, they didn’t ask me back for Final Shape and I’m not sure what they’re doing with the cosmology. My own ideas of what was happening in Destiny have diverged a fair bit from the canon as I understand it, so I’m not sure I could really say anything useful.

      Your English is great, don’t worry!

  6. Research Rants

    Hey, hope you’re doing well; miss you on Reddit! Anyway Amazon sent me a sneak peak or something like that of Exordia, which I pre-ordered back in March, not sure when it popped onto my Kindle but I finally finished whatever else I was in the middle of & started this the other night — just wanted to pop in and say how much I LOVE IT. Can’t wait for the whole thing later this month.

    (And yes, something about “the way of knives” and “brace for ontopathology” is pressing a “sword logic” and “paracausality” button in my brain, despite the unrelatedness. It still just feels “right,” somehow?

    1. Seth Post author

      Hey, thanks for dropping by! I do not miss me on Reddit, alas. Glad you enjoyed what you read and hope the rest of it lives up!

      I do think people will probably draw some comparisons to Destiny, to which I can only say that my brain is very small and contains few ideas

  7. Brynna

    Seth, come on, I’m trying to work my exceedingly boring desk job and Exordia is RIGHT THERE on my kindle IT’S NOT FAIR.

    I am completely hooked and RIP my attention during cameras-off zoom meetings.

  8. 1a3orn

    Just wanted to say I really enjoyed Exordia, and will recommend it to my friends — it pulled me in from start to finish. Am curious whether Erik is more a deontologist or a virtue-ethicist in your head, or more a weird flavor like a functional decision theorist or something. (Ofc you could have written him without having a single, boring tag attached to him, idk your process.)

    1. Seth Post author

      I am glad you enjoyed it! I think Erik is…well, ok, bear in mind that people are complicated and inconsistent, and even with Blackbird’s effects it’s hard to call Erik exactly one thing. But I think he is a deontologist/virtue ethicist, because I know what that is, and I don’t know if he’s a functional decision theorist because I’m not smart enough to know what that is 🙁

      But I also think that there is a dark side to Erik, which is honor. I generally believe the argument that honor represents not just social respect and credibility, but the ability to remove that respect from others. Taking captives in battle was honorable; an honored man had a retinue and followers. Honor became a source of authority, in particular the authority to dominate.

      Part of what Erik’s morality does is allow Erik to act violently and unhesitatingly against those who fail to meet his moral standards. He has a strong intuitive sense of what’s right and wrong, and he acts in a way that he thinks everyone should act in the same situation, but he is unforgiving of common problems like information asymmetry or people acting under coercion or people acting selfishly to protect themselves from expected selfishness.

      I don’t know that any of this is answering your question at all. What’s a functional decision theorist, tell me!


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