Friday, September 7, 2012

Guest Post: Secrets of Story by Aldous Mercer

I had really hope to finish The Prince and the Program to go along with this post, but life got in the way. I have read a little so far and I can tell you it really is very interesting. Speaking of interesting, this post really is. I think I lived my life very oblivious, because I had no clue what an Easter Egg was but now I know and its fascinating. If you are any good at codes and such, then you definitely need to take part in the giveaway at the end of this post.

Secrets of Story: Easter Eggs in Fiction 

We find something incredibly titillating about secrets. As children, some of us wrote them down on paper and passed them in class. Some of us used codes – Pig Latin comes to mind – to communicate in secret with our friends. These were all early attempts at cryptography: the art and science of hiding things.

 Then some of us grew up to become software developers and engineers, and incorporated secrets in our creations in the form of Easter Eggs. Some of these secrets have the potential to change the user’s perception of reality: people use Microsoft Excel every day for (let’s face it) mostly boring tasks. But did you know there’s a secret Flight Simulator you can find and play while doing your accounts? And if you’re up to it, Excel 97 lets you play a shooter/RPG called the “Hall of Tortured Souls”.

 Other children that liked secrets grew up to be professionals in the spy business. And others still became novelists.

Hiding secrets like this in books - and I’m not necessarily talking about things like references to bands or cameos by the author, but the actual use of cryptography to pass messages to readers – can be a complicated task. Here’s an example of a few Easter Eggs that fall into this category:

Dan Brown tells us something in Digital Fortress: there is a string of numbers on the last page. 128-10-93-85-10-128-98-112-6-6-25-126-39-1-68-78 . And if you go to the corresponding chapter and replace the number by the first letter of that chapter, you get a Caesar Square:


Read it top to bottom starting on the left – “We are watching you”.

Language translation is also a form of cryptanalysis. You have cyphertext (the message in a different language), a key (a lexicon of grammar and vocabulary of that language) and the plaintext. On the title page of the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote something in Elvish, which in English reads:

“of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkein. Herein is set force the history of the war of the ring and the return of the king as seen by the hobbits."

And in Dwarvish:

"The Lord of the Rings: Translated from the Red Book."

My novel, The Prince and The Program, has many Easter Eggs in it – a very specific number between forty and fifty. For example, if you read every fifth character that precedes the name “Mori” (Latin: To Die) in the book, you get a musical score. And if you find all the times mentioned in the book (12:20, 07:10, etc.), lay them out in sequence, convert them to binary and then to ASCII, you get a poem written by Alan Turing.

The thematic significance of Easter Eggs extends beyond just a cool secret. Some Eggs you don’t need mathematics or cryptanalysis to find, just careful reading. And finding the Eggs conveys an additional layer of meaning for readers.

In Margaret Atwood’s iconic vision of dystopia, A Handmaid’s Tale, the real name of the narrator is never mentioned. But if you read closely, there comes a point when Offred tells us of handmaids learning to lip-read, passing their names to each other in secret: "Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June." The first four, Alma, Janine, Dolores and Moira show up again in the book. June never does, leading readers to conclude that June is the narrator’s real name. And then we have “Offred” itself – on the surface it means “Of Fred”, the man who ‘owns’ the handmaid. But the handmaids are required to wear the color red, and “Off Red” takes on another meaning in the context of the story.

J.K. Rowling did something very sweet in Goblet of Fire. There was a little girl – Natalie MacDonald – who was suffering from a terminal illness, and knew she wouldn’t live to see the end of the story. Natalie wrote to Rowling, and Rowling wrote back with the details of the plot. But Natalie died a little while before she could get the letter, and when the authoress heard of this, she edited Goblet of Fire to include Natalie as a character – a little girl who gets sorted into Gryffindor.

Aldous Mercer is a workaholic with a penchant for numerical mind games and caffeinated beverages. He is offering a $1,000 award to any reader that solves the code in his debut Science-Fiction/Fantasy Novel, The Prince and The Program. Aldous can be found on twitter (@technomance), Goodreads, Facebook and his own website,

Book One of the Mordred Saga

Mordred Pendragon, the Bastard Prince, has done a Bad Thing—again. Exiled to Canada for seven years, he has to find a job to pay his bills. For reasons he refuses to reveal, Mordred decides “Software Engineer” has a nice ring to it. And though experience with “killing the Once and Future King, my father” and “that time in feudal Japan” makes for a poor resume, he is hired by a small tech startup in Toronto.

In the midst of dealing with a crippling caffeine addiction and learning C++, Mordred thinks he has finally found someone to anchor him to the world of the living: Alan, the company’s offsite lead developer. Except that Alan might not be a "living" entity at all—he may, in fact, be the world's first strong AI. Or a demon that mistook a Windows install for the highway to Hell. Or, just maybe, the ghost of Alan Turing, currently inhabiting a laptop.

Mordred's attempts to figure out his love life are hampered by constant interference from the Inquisitors of the Securitates Arcanarum, corporate espionage, real espionage, a sysadmin bent on enslaving the world, and Marketing's demands that Mordred ship software to the Russian Federation. Then Alan gets himself kidnapped. To save him, Mordred must ally himself with the company’s CEO, who will stop at nothing to rescue her lead developer so he can get back to work. But the Prince doesn’t just want to rescue Alan, he wants a Happily Ever After—and he will travel beyond Death itself to get one.

Too bad Alan is perfectly happy as a computer.

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