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Hundreds of years in the future, long after the floods and earthquakes have destroyed the former great civilizations of the earth, the island-empire of California merrily languishes in a technological state not surpassing that of the late Hellenistic world.
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Written in the summer of 2000 in a tiny south Crete hamlet, The Third Emperor of California is (by date, at least) the first great metafiction novella of the 21st century. Inspired in large part by Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (which the author was reading as an accompaniment during the writing process), the text- like many great works of literature – has been rejected countless times.
Christopher Deliso relishes the fact that for most of these publishers, The Third Emperor of California is just ‘too literary’ to publish. One major publisher even thought it should be completely rewritten as one of your typical formula-fantasy trilogies that sell well… but which is a completely different thing. Yet some more discerning critics and experts in Sterne have, over the years, offered private praise for the book.
The 40,000-word novella’s sole excuse for a plot (for it is actually largely concerned with philosophical questions of time, narrative, and the physicality and repeatability of text) involves misadventures of a base and bellicose emperor, a kidnapped princess, a scheming and similarly captive courtier-academic, and a blind library-philologist. Their lives are all affected by a singular absurdity; that is, the improbable decision to create a stone labyrinth in which the sole remaining challenge to the all-powerful, yet rather dim-witted emperor (a mysterious adversary known own only as ‘Narrative’) can be forcibly imprisoned.
As the story disintegrates towards its inevitable end, the reader becomes aware that its own narrator is even less trustworthy than the characters are. He cannot be relied upon to tell the tale straight; whole blocks of text repeat, are omitted, and rebound; and, philological exploits become spectacular when an entirely new language is perfected by the otherwise shy and unassuming blind librarian. Action – or, what can pass for it – is derided as ineffective and merely an amusement of errors. If there is a moralism in the story, it derives not from convention, but from the influence of authors like Borges and Flann O’Brien.
Other Related Texts
While the novella The Third Emperor of California is a stand-alone one that Christopher Deliso still cannot believe he wrote at the age of 26, it is not the only contemporaneous work to populate the general Empire-of-California universe; in fact, a veritable cottage industry of mock-academia surrounding the intellectual history of the bygone future empire had already sprung up before the book was even written. This is both ironic and well in keeping with the concomitant spirit of the anachronistic and future that enliven the work.
A couple months before the novella, in June 200 in Heraklio, Crete, Christopher Deliso wrote the mock-academic essay, “Some Notes on the Inflection of ‘Lobster.'” A supposed examination of the philology of the created language ‘New Poetic English’ as used by the future Californians, the story was in fact inspired by the author’s own experience with learning Ancient and Byzantine Greek.
Since that version converted the original footnotes to endnotes, readers can also enjoy reading “Some Notes on the Inflection of ‘Lobster'” in its original 2000 printed form with footnotes, the intention of which was to preserve a certain subterranean character to the increasingly bizarre tale of philological disarray and dissolution.
Other mock-academic works, written more recently, include an essay on the California Firing Squad Syllogism, a fun philosophical adventure. Indicative of the way Christopher Deliso processes information from other sources into his fiction, it was in fact created after the author was requested to edit an academic paper on the scintillating topic of Aristotle’s modal logic. The inherent inanity of the discourse so impressed him that he found it only fitting that current scholarly ruminations on the ancient Greek find a home – however distorted it might be – in the very distant future of the Californian state.
And this brings up an important point. Because, at this stage in the history of the island-empire, the ‘future-scholars’ upon whom the author is relying for information have informed that it will at a certain point, no longer an empire. No, the Third Emperor and his successor populated the archaic period- something, we can imagine, like the Greece of Homer’s time… for it appears that, as of the syllogistic period at least, the Californian state is under the administration of a central committee of philosophers. What could go wrong?
From the sounds of it, a sequel to The Third Emperor of California will have to be written. But it would be most efficacious to get the original in print first. The author has a certain vision for the book which involves lavish illustrations, vellum, rope binding, and inlaid, jewel-like decorations. But, he will probably be happy enough to see it published in some form before the end. After all, it is not easy to be so far ahead of one’s time for so long, and to wake up each day expecting the distance to not be made up by the criticks and publishing establishment.