This review was a long time coming because, to be honest, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Is The Octavo that rarest of things… Something new?
Also because -more than a mere review- it’s best considered a really a long love letter to Peter J Carroll.
I could have written the letter anytime in the last fifteen years but now seems the best. Here’s why:
“Thus we arrive at the sobering conclusion that although this universe contains enough Chaos to allow magic it doesn’t contain enough to permit gross miracles in a hurry.
The magician will need to target events which depend on very small energy or entropy changes and the results won’t often look much like spectacular parapsychology, they will look more like a series of events going somewhat improbably in the desired direction.”
Imagine my amazement/erection when the great PJC gets into the same probabilistic strategies that we have been discussing right here. With more or less the same math!
He came at them from a theoretical physics angle and I stumbled blindly upon them from a social theory/communications point of view, but still… There may have been some public gasping when I first encountered it. (Sorry London commuters.)
Let’s do another one:
“…For example a stationary die shows just one of its six possible microstates and the transition energies between them remain fairly high, you cannot easily flip it by telekinesis. However whilst a die tumbles vigorously the transition energies between its final microstates remain tiny.”
Of course, the similarity is not strictly so surprising a coincidence given that it was his early books that started me on a particular journey as a young teenager that probably influenced a lot of my later decision making. (“Enchant long.”)
Here then, is the real meaning of my use of ‘definitive’ in the title. Writing this post forces me to ‘define’ how I have been shaped by PJC’s oeuvre. There is still too much I don’t understand about The Octavo to consider my review “definitive” in the traditional sense.
Anyway, so the title comes from the book that contains the 8 spells that run Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. PJC’s book is a tongue-half-in-cheek attempt to replicate that for our own universe… And, by and large it’s a successful attempt.
These are the 8 spells:
- The Spells of Binding
- The Spells of of the Spinning
- The Spells of Illusion
- The Spells of Subtle Magic
- The Spells of the Linking
- The Spells of Impractical Magic
- The Spell of Practical Magic
- The Spell of the Narration
When I say successful I mean that, if you read back over his last three books, you witness the development of what is probably the most elegant theory of magic ever.
And it’s elegant because Peter J Carroll does something you may remember from your high school math exams: He “shows working”.
Interestingly, the conclusions he reaches broadly match the ones Lon Milo DuQuette outlines in his latest (also excellent) book… In fact, the Octavo could almost be seen as the tech specs to LMD’s universe.
Which is perhaps the most important point to make about the Octavo. Contrary to what its name suggests, this is most certainly not a book of practical magic in the way we would usually understand the term. Reading it will give you literally dozens of practical ideas to explore. But this is hardcore quantum panpsychism taken to its boldest il/logical conclusions. (Check out this slideshow for some background on QP.)
Not that it isn’t a pleasant read. I would hate to give you the impression this is a textbook. PJC is unbelievably cheeky. He has an amazing capacity for reducing literally anything into a pithy, insightful turn of phrase. You’ll be offended. I was offended and that’s speaking as someone who -when I eventually move back to Bristol- can’t promise I won’t take telephoto images of him from a parked car across the street as he walks to the shops.
Here’s a snapshot of the cheekiness:
“To access such powers magicians need to explore their own Psychotheology and then act as Priests and Avatars of their chosen gods. It may appear quite deranged to civilians that anyone might choose to create a few gods and goddesses out of their own impulses and bits and pieces of mythology, but in fact humans have always done this, how else do you think they do it? Divine revelation just means getting really excited when you do it, and we can arrange that technical matter fairly easily.”
The Octavo has zero time for the kinds of unproven claims that underpin most magical worldviews -indeed you notice a distinct trend toward more abrupt dismissal in his later books than in his earlier ones, but I suppose that’s one of the concessions of forty years in the magic biz. Instead, PJC’s own terrifying and brilliant speculations spring from proven, largely unalterable observations about our universe. (Read that sentence carefully.)
Before you take issue with ‘unalterable’ and say “science… worldview… blah blah blah” (you know how the sentence goes), he actually points out early on in the book that there is in fact quite a lot that we do know for certain about the universe that isn’t going to change much: its mass, what it’s smallest parts are, etc. It is inaccurate to reduce science down to a mere ‘worldview’ in the same way as, say, fundamentalist christianity.
Because there are, as previously discussed here, Things We Can Know. For certain. Great chunks of science aren’t a matter of opinion or personal preference.
So you could say we now know enough about the universe to at least book it an airline seat.
And as far as the Octavo goes, any magical worldview that doesn’t incorporate these things is a malfunctioning belief system. I appreciate the sentiment. My own mind has a tendency to expel them before too long.
Now, as many of you know, incorporating scientific observation into a magical worldview isn’t unique to chaos magic. Indeed, you could argue that it is the single defining characteristic of western magic since the classical age. But this book shows that no one currently does it better than chaos magic at its best -and Peter J Carroll is chaos magic at its best.
The Octavo is an unbelievably difficult read for civilians such as myself. But that’s because we’re told that the mechanics of the universe are simple. They’re not. They’re elegant. It’s a subtle difference but an important one that the scientific world needs to differentiate better. So really give the hard bits a shot, don’t just skim. (Hint: Wikipedia is your nerdy math friend. Read the book near a laptop/smartphone.) Because once you get your heard around one of them, the others get easier.
At the very least I want you to understand the Spells of Impractical Magic. If you’re a regular rune soup reader then it will feel vaguely familiar but it’s also really important. Leave comments if you just flat-out don’t get it and we may go through it in a future post.
Speaking of important, there is a Robert Anton Wilson quote that’s been used to describe PJC on the back of most of his books. “The most original, and probably the most important, writer on Magick since Aleister Crowley.” I stare at it a lot on the tube. (It’s a small book so it’s perfect commuter reading.)
Sure, it’s marketing copy but I’m uncertain whether that makes it incorrect.
So read the book. If only to take the same comfort I do from the knowledge that there is this mad, brilliant wizard living in Southwest England and thinking about things we all consider important: magic, the universe, and our place in both.
“There seems little point in practicing magic unless you want to do at least a few extraordinary things with this incarnation.”
End note: how to read PJC
- Get The Apophenion and The Octavo at the same time. As he points out on his site, they both arrived per the whims of the same goddess.
- Read The Apophenion first as it gives you a more comprehensive grounding in quantum panpsychism. Which you need in preparation for the much more difficult Octavo.
- Read each book over and over. They’re only small so it gets easier and easier to do. The first time through you will pick up maybe 20% of the physics… Then next time through around 32%…. And usually it clicks like crazy revelation on the third time. This will only work if you actually attempt the math!
- Practice on his articles about Magical Theory and Probability. (The divination one is also amazing.)
- His earlier books are absolute classics but no longer represent an accurate picture of his worldview. Understandable given that they are thirty years old. I still regularly read them, though.