originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/741553...

Bas-relief mural on the wall of a hospital showing the a medic pushing back the Grim Reaper with the Rod of Asclepius.
Or, what if that mural was the heart of a web serial.

I’m reading The Flower That Bloomed Nowhere by Lurina, thanks largely to the enthusiasm of @azdoine and @lukore on my dash over the last few months.

This is absolutely not gonna be a liveblog in the level of detail of the great Umineko liveblog project. Rather I’m gonna be aiming at something like the comics comints series or those occasional posts on anime. Or indeed what I wrote about Worth The Candle last year. I must create a robot whose purpose is to watch to see if I start writing detailed plot summaries and hit me with a stick labelled ‘remember you have a job now’.

That outta the way, let’s talk flower!

No, not that flower!


  1. the general shape of things
  2. the world
  3. the names
  4. the magic
  5. the cast
  6. the events
  7. the dying
  8. the comments

I will start with an anecdote. When I was at university, I ended up attending a talk by court alchemist senescence researcher Aubrey de Grey, who at that time did not yet have a ‘sexual harassment allegations’ section on his Wikipedia page. The main thing that struck me at the time was his rather spectacularly long beard. But I did listen to his talk about ending aging.

de Grey’s schtick is that he, like many people in the transhumanist milieu, believes that medical technology is on the cusp of being able to prevent aging sufficiently well to prolong human lifespans more or less indefinitely. He believes that the different processes of aging can be understood in terms of various forms of accumulating cellular ‘damage’, and that these will begin to be addressed within present human lifespans, buying time for further advancements - so that (paraphrasing from memory) ‘the first immortals have already been born’. He has some pretty graphs to demonstrate this point.

At that talk, one of the audience members asked de Grey the (in my view) very obvious question about whether access to this technology would be distributed unevenly, creating in effect an immortal ruling class. de Grey scoffed at this, saying he always gets this question, and basically he didn’t think it would be a big deal. I forget his exact words, but he seemed to assume the tech would trickle down sooner or later, and this was no reason not to pursue it.

I’m sure de Grey is just as tired of being reminded of how unbalanced access to medical technology is in our current world, or the differences in average life expectancy between countries.

So, I was very strongly reminded of de Grey as The Flower That Bloomed Nowhere laid out its major thematic concerns and characters. I was also put in mind of many online arguments in the transhumanist milieu about whether it would be a good thing, in principle, to end death.

In particular, of course, comes to mind transhumanist Nick Bostrom’s short story The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, in which death is likened to a huge dragon that demands to be fed trains full of humans every day. In the story, humanity’s scientists secretly build a giant gun to kill the dragon. Naturally, despite all the doubters and naysayers who foolishly feel obliged to justify the existence of the dragon, the gun works. Bostrom’s imagery is incredibly heavy-handed (particularly the trains à la Auschwitz), but just in case you didn’t get it, he also spells out the moral explicit at the end: basically, every day not spent putting resources to abolishing death is adding up more and more bodies to the pile of people who don’t get to be immortal.

So far, Flower seems to be shaping up to be a critical intervention into that milieu, with a much more grounded view of death and a much stronger model of society - admittedly not a high bar but it’s going good so far!

At the time of writing this commentary, I have read the prologue and first two six-chapter arcs, namely Mankind’s Shining Future (1-6) and Pilgrimage to the Deep (7-12).

the general shape of things

We are introduced - from the perspective of sardonic, introverted Su, who is going to be the protagonist of our time loop - to a group of brilliant young medical wizards, who have just been invited to visit the headquarters of a secret society whose mission is precisely to abolish death. Su’s grandfather was some kind of controversial luminary who was expelled this organisation, and he also did something to her, which is giving her some kind of ulterior motive to find her way into this society.

We know pretty much from the outset that this is a time loop scenario: Su has been explicitly given the opportunity to replay the scenario in the hopes of find an alternative outcome, by some kind of presently mysterious parties. This first part is the ‘control’ loop, i.e. probably more or less how things went down ‘originally’.

I believe Umineko is an explicit inspiration for this story, and the influence is pretty evident. But parallels with the Locked Tomb series, especially Gideon the Ninth, are also quite noticeable. @lukore spoke of it as the STEM to Locked Tomb’s humanities, and I can already kinda see it, although we haven’t got into the real meat of the scenario yet. This story began serialisation four years ago, making the two works roughly contemporary. The latest chapter was published in the last couple of weeks - no idea if I’ve arrived just in time for the ending!

Stylistically, it’s generally pretty heavy on dialogue and long asides. The characters are a bunch of mega nerds who love to have big philosophical and political discussions, but their dynamics are well enough realised and their dynamics clear enough that it can double up as naturalistic characterisation. So far, the discussions have been interesting to read.

Below I’m going to make some notes and comments on various elements of the setting and story. In a followup post (because it got too long) I’m going to talk a lot about entropy. Perhaps you will find this interesting!

the world

The first few chapters are dedicated pretty hard to exposition. We find ourselves in a distant-future setting - one in which it seems reality has totally collapsed and then been rebuilt using magic, creating a somewhat oddball universe which lacks things like the element iron, and also electromagnetism. This seems like it would have pretty severe implications for just about everything!

However, the ‘ironworkers’ have, after producing a series of trial and error ‘lower planes’ that didn’t quite get it right, landed on a fairly close approximation of how things used to be on the old world. Though by ‘fairly close approximation’ I mean like… it’s a bowl-shaped world and the sun and stars are artificial lanterns. But still, there are humans, and they seem to work more or less like we’re used to humans working, apart from the whole ‘magic’ thing.

So, an alt-physics setting. Praise Aealacreatrananda, I love that shit.

While electromagnetism might be out, the more abstract physical principles like thermodynamics still apply, and the humans of this universe have managed to find analogues to a number of things in our world. Instead of computers, they have ‘logic engines’ which run on magic. Horses seem to have made it in, so we get delightful blends of historical and futuristic concepts like a self-driving computer-controlled horse-drawn carriage taxi.

The biggest difference is of course that in this setting, magic - more on that in a bit - has solved most medical problems and humans routinely live to around 500. The setting is ostensibly a semi-post-scarcity one, although a form of money exists in ‘luxury debt’, which can be exchanged for things like taxi rides, café food and trips on the space elevator.

Politically, we are told that the world has enjoyed a few hundred years of general peace, broken in living memory by a revolution which put an end to a regime of magical secrecy. There are lots of countries, and an alliance overseeing them.

There’s a few other oddities in this world. Something called a ‘prosognostic event’ can happen if you see someone who has the same face as you, and whatever this is, it’s bad enough news that everyone is constantly reminded to veil their faces in public and there’s some kind of infant ‘distinction treatment’ to mitigate the risk. Given that, in the regular world, nothing particularly bad would happen if you ran into a long-lost identical twin, it suggest there is probably something a little fucky about how humans work in this world!

There’s evidently a fair bit of effort put into the worldbuilding of fictional countries and historical periods. The important elements seem to be roughly along the lines of:

Writing a far-future setting is hard, because trying to deal with the weight of history without the story getting bogged down with worldbuilding details is a fiddly line to walk. The Dying Earth series of Jack Vance might be a relevant point of comparison. Vance leaves the historical details vague - there are endless old kingdoms and strange artefacts and micro-societies for Cugel and co. to stumble on. Far more important than the specifics of history is establishing the vibe of a world that’s seen an unimaginable amount of events layered on top of each other and is honestly a bit tired.

Flower makes things a bit more concrete and generally manages to make this work decently well. I do appreciate the asides where Su talks about, for example, the different architectural styles that layer up to make a place, or the way a technique has been refined. It establishes both that Su is the kind of person to notice this sort of thing, and also helps the world feel lived-in.

the names

The story doesn’t do a lot with language. The story is written in English, and the narration will occasionally make reference to how things are phrased (e.g. how divination predates the suffix -mancy). We can probably make the standard assumption that this is all translated from $future_language, with the notional translator making a suitable substitution of whatever linguistic forms exist in that language.

The characters are named in a variety of languages. Our main character’s full name is Utsushikome of Fusai. We’re told that this is “an old name from Kutuy, and means something like ‘mysterious child’” - so Kutuyan is one of the languages spoken in this world. It’s blatantly got the same phonotactics as Japanese, and indeed if I search up ‘Utsushikome’, I find an obscure historical figure called Utsushikome-no-Mikoto, wife of the Emperor Kōgen; she has no article on English Wikipedia, but she does have a brief one on Japanese wiki. Just as Su says about Kutuyan, ‘Utsushikome’ is written 欝色謎 in Japanese, but it relies on archaic readings of those characters and wouldn’t read that way in modern Japanese. We could perhaps assume a good old translation convention is in effect where Kutuyan is replaced with Japanese.

A lot of characters have Greek names, as do various setting elements. One exception is Kamrusepa, or Kam, who is named for an ancient goddess of medicine worshipped by the Hittites and Luwians. I know basically fuck all about Hittites and Luwians but it’s a cool little nod to mythology, and it won’t be the only one!

I’ll run down a list of characters and my comments about them in a bit. But many are named after gods or other mythological figures.

the magic

Most of the divergences come from magic existing. Certain humans are ‘arcanists’, who are able to use the ‘Power’, which is a magic system with a highly computational flavour. Thanks to Su’s expositional asides, we know that an incantation is something like a short program written in cuneiform with the ability to gather information, perform maths, and manipulate particles. An example we are given is a spell called “entropy-denying”, which is the following string of cuneiform:

“…(𒌍𒌷𒀭)(𒌍𒁁𒀭)𒅥𒌈𒆜𒈣𒂠, 𒋢𒀀𒅆𒌫𒃶,𒈬𒊹.”

We’re told that spells always start with phrases ending in 𒀭, and end in 𒊹. Beyond that, I’m not sure how far the author has actually worked out the syntax of this magic system - probably not in too much detail! Seems like the kind of thing it’s better to leave vague, but also she seems like kind of nerd who would (positive). It’s conceptually a reasonable magic system for a world where more or less realistic physics applies.

The use of unusual scripts for a magic system isn’t that unusual - the old European occultists who wrote the [Lesser] Key of Solomon loved to write on their magic circles in Hebrew, and in modern times we could mention Yoko Taro’s signature use of the Celestial Alphabet for example - but the specific use of cuneiform here seems like it might be a little more significant, because a little later in the story the characters encounter a mural depicting The Epic of Gilgamesh, which of course was recorded on cuneiform tablets. Remains to be seen exactly what these allusions will mean!

The magic system is divided into various disciplines defined by the different ways they approach doing magic, with the disciplines breaking down broadly along the same lines as the modern scientific disciplines. For example, our protagonist is a thanatomancer (“necromancer” having become unfashionable), which is the discipline dealing with death; she’s specifically an entropic thanatomancer, distinguished by their framework viewing death as the cessation of processes.

Magic relies on an energy that they refer to as ‘eris’ (unknown relation to the Greek goddess of strife and discord). We are told that eris must be carefully apportioned across the elements of a spell or shit blows up, that it can be stored, and it accumulates gradually enough that you don’t want to be wasteful with it, but so far given little information about where it comes from.

Magic in this story generally seems to act as a kind of ‘sufficiently advanced technology’. It’s very rules-based, and used for a lot of mundane ends like operating computers or transport. Advancement in magic is something like a combination of basic research and software development. But the thing that makes it a magic system and not merely alt-physics is that it’s at least a little bit personal: it must be invoked by an individual, and only certain people can operate the magic. We’re told a little about how wizards are privileged in some societies, indoctrinated in social utility in others, and expected to be inconspicuous in the present setting. It’s not clear yet if you need some kind of special innate capacity to do the magic, or if it’s just a matter of skill issue.

With one exception, our main characters are a gaggle of wizards, and exceptionally skilled students at that. They’re at an elite institution, carrying high expectations, even if they are themselves fairly dismissive of the pomp and ceremony. They have grandiose plans: Kamrusepa in particular is the main voice of the ‘death should be abolished’ current.

the cast

We’re entering a cloistered environment with high political stakes hanging off of it. Even if I hadn’t already heard it described as a murder mystery, it would feel like someone will probably be murdered at some point, so lets round up our future suspects.

Su (Utsushikome) is our protagonist and first-person POV. She’s telling this story in the first past tense, with a style calling to mind verbal narration; she’ll occasionally allude to future events so we know for sure narrator!Su knows more than present!Su. She’s got a sardonic streak and she likes long depressing antijokes, especially if the punchline is suicide. She will happily tell us she’s a liar - so maybe her narration isn’t entirely reliable, huh.

Su is more than a little judgemental; she doesn’t particularly like a lot of her classmates, or people in general, and generally the first thing she’ll tell you about a character is how well she gets on with them. She introduces the theme of ‘wow death sucks’ in the first paragraph, but she is, at least at this point, pessimistic that anyone will manage to do anything about it for good.

Her magical specialisation is entropic thanatomancy, roughly making processes go again after they working coherently.

Her name is a reference to an obscure Japanese empress, as discussed above.

Ran is Su’s bestie from the same home country. She is generally pretty on the level. She likes romance novels and she is pretty sharp at analysing them. She will cheerfully team up with Su to do a bit or bait someone else when an argument gets going.

Her magical specialisation is Divination, which is sort of a more fundamental layer of magic, about gathering information by any means. In medicine it’s super advanced diagnostics.

Her name is too short to pin down to a specific allusion. Could be one of a couple of disciple of Confucius such as Ran Geng, or a Norse goddess of the sea.

Kam (Kamrusepa) is the de facto class prez and spotlight lover. She’s hardcore ideological, the story’s main voice of the de Grey/Bostrom death-abolishing concept so far - I think she straight up calls someone a ‘deathist’ at some point. She loves to tell everyone what she thinks about everything, and getting the last word.

Her magical specialisation is Chronomancy, so time magic. It’s described as secretive and byzantine, but also it can do stuff like (locally?) rewind time for about five minutes. No doubt it has something to do with the time loop.

As mentioned above, she’s named after a fairly obscure ancient deity of healing and magic.

Theo (Theodoros) is a fairly minor character. He’s scatterbrained and easily flustered, he has a similar background to our protagonist, and he’s not great with people. His name is shared with a number of ancient Greek figures, so it’s hard to narrow it down to one allusion. I don’t think his magic school has been mentioned.

Ptolema is a cheery outgoing one, someone who Su dismisses as an airhead. And she is at least easy to bait into saying something ill-considered. Her specialisation is applying magic to surgery. As a character, she tends to act as a bit of a foil to the others. Bit of a valley girl thing going on.

‘Ptolema’ is presumably a feminised version of the renowned Greek philosopher Ptolemy.

Seth is the jock to Ptolema’s prep, and our goth protag Su doesn’t particularly like him either. …lol maybe that’s too flippant, I may be misapplying these US high school stereotypes. To be a little more precise then, he’s pretty casual in demeanour, flirty, likes to play the clown. He specialises in Assistive Biomancy, which revolves around accelerating natural healing processes.

Seth is named for either the Egyptian god (domain: deserts, violence and foreigners) or an Abrahamic figure, the third son of Adam and Eve granted by God after the whole Caim killing Abel thing.

Ophelia is someone Su describes as ‘traditionally feminine’ - soft-spoken, demure etc. (Gender in this world appears to be constructed along broadly similar lines to ours). Indeed we get a fairly extended description of her appearance. Her specialisation is Alienist Biomancy, which means introducing foreign elements to healing (not entirely sure how that differs from the Golemancy mentioned later).

Ophelia is of course a major character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, best known for going mad and dying in a river.

Fang is the only nonbinary member of the class, noted as the most academically successful. They’re not on the expedition, but the characters discuss them a little in their absence, so maybe they’ll show up later. It seems like they have a bit of a rebellious streak. Their magical specialisation is not mentioned.

Fang is a regular ol’ English word, but I gave it a search all the same and found there’s an ancient Chinese alchemist of that name. She is the oldest recorded woman to do an alchemy in China, said to know how to turn mercury into silver.

Lilith is the teenaged prodigy in computers logic engines, and Mehit is her mother who accompanies her on the trip. They’ve got a big Maria and Rosa (of Umineko) dynamic going on, with Mehit constantly scolding Lilith and trying to get her to obey social norms, though in contrast to Maria, Lilith is a lot more standoffish and condescending to the rest of the gang. Lilith specialises in ‘Golemancy’, which means basically medical robotics - prosthetic limbs and such. She spends most of her time fiddling with her phone logic engine, and will generally tell anyone who talks to her that they’re an idiot. Sort of a zoomer stereotype.

Lilith is named for the Abrahamic figure, the disobedient first wife of Adam who was banished and, according to some Jewish traditions, subsequently became a demon who attacks women at night. There may be some connection between Lilith and the lioness-headed Mesopotamian chimeric monster Lamashtu, which I mention because Mehit is an Egyptian and Nubian lion goddess.

‘Golemancy’ is probably playing on the popular fantasy idea of a ‘golem’ as a kind of magic robot, but given the Jewish allusion in Lilith’s name here, I do wonder a little bit if it’s going to touch on the Jewish stories of the Golem which inspired it - a protective figure with a specific religious dimension.

There are some other characters but they’re not part of the main party on their way to the function, so I won’t say much about them just yet. Also it’s entirely possible I went and forgot an entire classmate or something, big whoops if so.

the events

In true Umineko tradition, the beginning of the story narrates in great detail how the protagonists make their way to the place where the plot is going to happen.

To be fair, there’s a lot of groundwork to be laid here, and the characters’ discussions do a lot to lay out the concerns of the story and sketch out the setting, not to mention establish the major character relations. A murder mystery takes a certain amount of setup after all! There’s plenty of sci-fi colour to be had in the ‘aetherbridge’, which is a kind of space elevator that lifts you up to a high altitude teleporter network. (It’s technically not teleportation but ‘transposition’, since teleportation magic also exists in the story, with different restrictions! But close enough for government work.)

They go to a huge space citadel, which is kind of a transport hub; some cloak and dagger shit happens to hide the route they must take to the mysterious secret organisation. They find a strange room with a missing floor and a mural of the Epic of Gilgamesh, albeit modified to render it cyclic. What does it meeaaaan?

The idea of a secret society of rationalists is one that dates back to the dawn of ratfic, in HPMOR. It was kinda dumb then, but it works a lot better here, where we’re approaching the wizard circle from outside. The phrase ‘Great Work’ has already been dropped. I love that kind of alchemical shit so I’m well into finding out what these wizards are plotting.

the dying

A lot of the discussions revolve around the mechanics of death. Essentially the big problem for living forever is information decay. Simple cancers can be thwarted fairly easily with the magic techniques available, but more subtle genetic slippages start to emerge after the first few hundred years; later, after roughly the 500 year mark, a form of dementia becomes inevitable. It’s this dementia in particular that the characters set their sights on curing.

One thing that is interesting to me is that, contra a lot of fantasy that deals with necromancy (notably the Locked Tomb series), there appears to be no notion of a soul in this world whatsoever. The body is all that there is. Indeed, despite all the occult allusions in the character names, there is very little in the way of religion for that matter. Even the ‘fundamentalism’ is about an idea of human biological continuity that shouldn’t be messed with too much.

Su distinguishes three schools of thought on death, namely ‘traditional’, ‘transformative’ and ‘entropic’. The ‘traditional’ form attempts to restore limited function - classic skeleton shit. ‘Transformative’ sees death as a process and uses dead tissues together with living in healing. Su’s ‘entropic’ school broadens this ‘process’ view to consider death as any kind of loss of order - a flame going out as much as an organism dying. At the outset of the story, Su has discovered a ‘negentropic’ means to restore life to an organism, which she considers promising, even if for now it only works for fifteen minutes.

This is an interesting perspective, but the devil is in the details. Because processes such as life or flames, necessarily, result in a continuous increase in the thermodynamic entropy of the universe. And yet this idea of death-as-loss-of-order does make a kind of sense, at a certain level of abstraction.

Elaborating on this got rather too long for this post, and I think it can stand alone, so I’m going to extract it to a followup post.

the comments

As is probably evident by the length of this post, I am very intrigued by The Flower That Bloomed Nowhere. The setting is compelling, and it seems like it’s got the willingness to bite at the chewy questions it raises instead of acting like it has all the answers, which is I think one of the most crucial elements for this kind of scifi. I like how unabashed it is at having its characters straight-up debate shit.

Of course, this all depends where they go with it. There’s so many ways it could be headed at this point. I hear where it’s going is ‘dark yuri’ and ‘Umineko-inspired murder mystery’, so that should be really juicy fun, but I do end up wondering what space that will leave to address the core theme it’s laid out in these first few chapters.

Overall, if this and Worth the Candle are what modern ratfic is like, the genre is honestly in pretty good shape! Of course, I am reading very selectively. But this is scratching the itch of ‘the thing I want out of science fiction’, so I’m excited to see where the next 133 chapters will take me.

Though all that said, I ended up writing this post all day instead of reading any other chapters or working, so I may need to rein it in a bit.


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