Review: Codex Seraphinianus

Cover of Abbeville edition

Image via Wikipedia

Codex Seraphinianus is a very, very large book by Luigi Serafini, a neo-Surrealist from Italy. It was written (or, rather, created) in 1981 (or thereabouts), and it’s referenced in Douglas R. Hofstadter‘s Metamagical Themas (a collection of his early 1980s columns for Scientific American).

The Codex is an illustrated encyclopedia of a world that doesn’t exist, in a language that likewise doesn’t exist. Even though it doesn’t use characters like any other language, as far as anyone can figure, Codex Script is consistent. There’s even a Rosetta Stone on one of the pages. Unfortunately, it just translates to another script, which is, of course, just as inscrutable. One neat thing — all the pages are numbered… in Codex Script. And, the society depicted uses a different number base.
The book is separated into sections, including (roughly) Science, Technology, Plants, Animals, and Humans. One of the neat things is, unlike a lot of things like this, the world isn’t nightmarish at all — it’s actually pretty nice. There’s a Fish-Tap! You can have a faucet that gives you fish! It’s definitely a bizarre world, but it’s not a dystopia or anything. Nor is it a utopia — it’s just pretty much a normal-type world, only with Fish Taps and people with Fountain-Pen fingers, and creatures with one base and 4 or 5 human torsos/head/arms going around and doing stuff. It’s pretty damn keen.
The language of the book is really intriguing too; aside from the different number-base, it’s sort of up in the air whether or not Codex Script is an actual, devised language or not. Evidence seems to point to “not”, however — as my friend Ben points out, there’s a lot of duplicated characters in the Codex’s words, which typically isn’t the norm. (His example: It’d be like, in English, if “bookkeeper” were a common word.) Still, though — it could be possible, since we don’t know how the grammar of the language would work (and perhaps double/tripled symbols have different pronunciations. It looks like the symbols are either an alphabet or syllabary, probably the latter. As Ben points out, there are tons of characters, generally not a feature of alphabets, but there’s words with over a dozen characters, generally not a feeature of pictographic systems.
There is one down-side of the Codex: It’s incredibly expensive. It’s actually in print, but only in a French edition (which doesn’t actually mean anything, except that the cover is in French, and there’s a French-language introduction), and they’re around 220 Euro, plus shipping. (For me, shipping was 20 Euro to the US – the grand total for me was 237.24 Euro, for the record. That’s a bit pricey for shipping, but it is a very large and heavy book.)
I’ve had this book for about a year or two now, and I love it. It’s great to show to people, just because it’s such an odd book, but incredibly beautiful as well. The publisher did a very nice job as well – heavy paper, a special box cover, beautiful printing. It may be very expensive, but you really do get your money’s worth. (And if you’re not willing to spend $300 on a book, sometimes you can get it through Inter-Library Loan, if you’ve got access to that type of thing.) It truly is a magnificent piece. Also, there was a short video on Luigi Serafini’s (now defunct) site, which seems to be a little bit of computer animation based on the Codex; I’m not sure what that means, but I’ve often thought that there actually could be a really cool (and incredibly unprofitable…) film that could be made from it, basically like a travelogue in Codex Speech. I’d love to do that. But something tells me it’d be a hard sell… (“Yes, I’d like to do a film that’s not in English or any language, really, not subtitled, a fake travelogue-style documentary that’d require loads and loads of special effects to do right. Hello?”)

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