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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Test of Metal - The Metal Island: Principles of Design

The story takes turn.

The Metal Island: Principles of Design

Nicol Bolas disengages from Jace Beleren's mind, and comments that there is this curious feature with human memory. They can remember being in pain, but don't remember the pain itself. Tezzeret replies that he believes it is a product of their construction.

“I'm sorry?”

“The human brain is largely a signal-processing apparatus. As such, it is divided into specialized sectors. Pain is a product of specific neural activity in a specific sector of the brain. Memory arises of neural activity in a different sector. The pain sector is not activated in the process, except in pathological cases. If it hurt as much to remember pain as it had to experience it, there would be little disincentive to repeat the experience. Which would defeat the design function of pain in the first place.”

(Stop it! This cannot wait until later. This doesn't make any sense!! I'm not talking about the words of the discussion, but the reason why they're having this discussion in the first place.

(Why is this an interesting feature regarding humans? Does Nicol Bolas remember every single pain he's ever felt as if he's feeling it for the first time? Or even limit that to remembering the pain that coincides with every memory he has of being hurt? Nicol Bolas is a powerful telepath that has been alive for thousands of years and has no doubt been inside the minds of all kinds of creatures, is he saying that other creatures have a vivid memory of every pain they've ever taken? Every goblin, elf, merfolk, centaur, kithkin, etc? Every bird, dog, and cat?

(That doesn't make any sense! Obviously that isn't the case.

(These  two supposed intelligent beings should not be having this conversation in the first place. This is such a clear example of the author trying to make the two characters sound smart and so clearly failing.)

Bolas tells Tezzeret that him giving a lecture on mechanics is quite predictable and Tezzeret replies that he'll take that as a compliment because reliability is the most useful objective measure when it comes to quality design. Bolas questions if Tezzeret is trying to say that his own design is the superior one, and if he didn't think so would he ever admit it out loud? Tezzeret responds by saying that his design is a work in progress, but that the most interesting thing is that what Nicol Bolas is not talking about.

(So we had this long, meaningless conversation, just to point out that Nicol Bolas is not reacting to the memories of Jace Beleren and how he saw Tezzeret declare that he would kill the dragon...

(Wait a second... how does Tezzeret know how much of Jace's memories he saw? Jace was in pain multiple times throughout that flashback. It could very well have been a guess to help prod out the answer.)

Nicol Bolas tells Tezzeret that it's not a discussion even worth having. That the artificer can't actually believe that he can kill him.

Using the most words possible, Tezzeret tells him that he most definitely can kill him, and Nicol Bolas tells him he's insane. Tezzeret tells him that if he is insane, it is most likely his own fault, because it is quite clear that as part of restoring him to his new life, Nicol Bolas made some alterations to him.

Bolas chuckled. “So whatever’s wrong with you is all my fault, eh? Because you’re just a machine.”

“Hardly,” Tezzeret said. “No competent artificer would design humans as we are: so limited an array of operating environments; so many useless parts; vital systems so inefficient and prone to breakdown that the vast bulk of the energy we expend is wasted in mere maintenance—maintenance which, even if performed perfectly, is still insufficient to materially lengthen productive life span. Not to mention that we are difficult to repair, and prohibitively expensive to replace.”

Nicol Bolas replies by saying that it was his understanding that human replacements were not only free, but were also enjoyable to create. Tezzeret goes on to respond by talking about these replacements take seven years for primary assembly and sixteen years before being fully functional, all the while requiring food, attention, protection, and education before they can read emotional stability and self-direction. His conclusion is:

“If people had any idea just how expensive a human being actually is, they’d take better care of themselves.”

(*facepalm* I think any human society in this magic multiverse understands the concepts of food, shelter, and education. The inability for a particular society to understand what resources are needed to raise and educate a child would mean that the society on that particular plane would not even form in the first place. Humans would likely not even exist unless they were being kept as pets or slaves by other races or be in some other similar circumstance.

(And... is Tezzeret saying that people would take better care of themselves if they knew how much it cost to produce themselves?

"I cost that much to make? I better make sure I don't die. What a waste of resources that would be."

(How ridiculous is that!)

Tezzeret then goes on to brag that he could easily create a machine that could do everything a human can do that will last a thousand years. But Nicol Bolas finally decides to end this tangent and wonder why it is that every time they talk, the conversation always leads to Tezzeret talking about how smart he is.

“Our whole relationship is about how smart I am,” Tezzeret said. “It goes back to your predictability.”

If that's the case, well then... if that's the case... then what is it that Nicol Bolas has been waiting for? Tezzeret responds that he's been waiting for an interplanar gate to appear and Nicol Bolas is stunned.

(Really? He's shocked? Nicol Bolas said out loud that he was waiting for someone to appear in what can't be more than a few hours ago their time, if not even just a few minutes or moments depending on how much time it takes every time Nicol Bolas goes and dives into someone's mind.)

With attention now fully captured, Nicol Bolas wants Tezzeret to answer why he's waiting for such a thing to appear. Tezzeret knows the answer to this as well. It's the same reason he knew that Baltrice and Jace were going to appear before they actually did. It was a power that Silas Renn knew. The person that Nicol Bolas crunched down on as he arrived on this metal island. A power known as clockworking.

(Silas Renn can also be read about in The Seeker's Fall.)

Silas was able to see a smear of all possible near futures and watch as events became more and more likely. Nicol Bolas tries to convince Tezzeret that he picked up clockworking during his twenty-five thousand years of life, and Tezzeret says that he's sure that's true... which only makes it all the more interesting that he had to learn it again.

Nicol Bolas becomes very still, and Tezzeret continues to talk about how he knows that Bolas is no longer the dragon he once was, even as recently as twelve years ago when he took the Infinite Consortium from him. It's easy to see if you know where to look.

The dragon’s response was to turn fully to face Tezzeret, to spread his wings and draw mana from throughout the Multiverse until the air around him blazed with power.

Tezzeret said, “You’re not going to like how this ends.”

Nicol Bolas lifted one enormous fist. “I’ll regret it in the morning, right?”

“In the morning you’ll be decomposing on this beach.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“You can see futures. In how many of them am I dead?”

(This dialogue I have no problem with. I just want to point out something that's actually engaging enough. No more bravado, and trying to one-up each other with who can say the simplest things in the most complex way, just straightforward threats, warnings, and counter-threats in a moment that means life or death.)

More importantly, Tezzeret tells him to pay special attention to all the futures where he attacks Tezzeret and remains alive. Bolas does so and backs down in shocked disbelief.

(Maybe he should have looked into the possible futures where he invades Tezzeret's mind and forces him to be a loyal servant like Jace has done to Baltrice.)

Nicol Bolas still doesn't believe, and with but a small gesture, Tezzeret animates the wing of the Metal Sphinx to slam into the dragon. He then walks through the web of restraint that Nicol Bolas had cast around him and tells the dragon it's time they have a real talk. He tells him to take a look around, and really look at where they are. This whole world is made of etherium. A substance that bends to Tezzeret's will.

Nicol Bolas realizes that Tezzeret could have killed him at any moment, and asks why he hasn't done so already.

“You may as well ask why we haven’t played Intimidate the Naked Prisoner. Or why I haven’t insisted on calling you Nicky, or perpetrated any of the various indignities with which you have amused yourself at my expense,” Tezzeret said. “The answer to all three is an aspect of character that I value; one which you, I might add, conspicuously lack.”

“And that is?”


(More on this later.)

Tezzeret then goes on to explain how important manners are and goes on brag to Nicol Bolas' face about how his own sense of manners is so refined that he would never brag about how much better he is than someone if that someone was in his complete control like Nicol Bolas is at that very moment.

(Seriously. It goes on for a whole page about Tezzeret would never do exactly what he's doing at that moment.)

Tezzeret then goes on to warn Nicol Bolas that when he allows the gate to finally form, that he is not to make any sudden moves or exert any power of any kind, or that might end in his death. And yes, he does mean it when he says, "when I allow." Tezzeret is the reason why the gate didn't appear the last time.

As for who is going to appear, Tezzeret tells him that it isn't actually one specific person, but is actually one of three possible people, one of whom may be the Crucius the Mad Sphinx. He used to be one of four possible people, but the fourth candidate is now partially stuck between Bolas' teeth.

Another candidate is Tezzeret himself.

“Wouldn't that be some kind of paradox—put you in two places at the same time, something like that?”

(Seriously? After all the "Look at me and how smart I talk"... now we have Nicol Bolas telling us the definition of a paradox?)

Tezzeret explains that time is a slippery thing, especially where there are right now, because here is always now. When Nicol Bolas asks him if they were both here on this island when Tezzeret first arrived here, Tezzeret smiles and says he's not telling.

But what he will say is that Nicol Bolas is free to go or stay as he pleases. There is no reason why the two of them both can't live, and no reason why they both need to constantly worry if the other will be hunting the other down. But there is something he wants the dragon to see.

If the person who appears is he one that he considers to the be the most probable, she will be elderly and quite frail, but Tezzeret will aggressively defend her should Bolas make any move against her.

The gate appears down the beach a few hundred closer to them than Nicol Bolas expected, thanks to Tezzeret's influence, and he explains that he didn't not want her to have to walk further than necessary. Nicol Bolas tells him that he is quite the fount of surprises and Tezzeret cannot help to spout out another saying to make it sound like he's so full of wisdom.

“The measure of character lies not in how powerful you are, but in how you use the power you have.”

(Okay... so it sounds smart. But you what's also a good measure of character? How often you act like a jerk.)

Out from the far side of the shimmering plane hobbled the wreckage of an ancient sphinx.

Even at her obviously advanced age, she was huge, much larger than an ordinary sphinx, very little smaller than Bolas himself. Her wings hung in tatters, her feathers showing iridescent azure only in patches, as though most of them were dying or dead, little more than naked quills hanging from perished follicles. The joints of her enormous legs were swollen, and her toes were knobbed with arthritis. Her shield-shaped head swung uncertainly, as though seeking an angle that would allow her cataract-webbed eyes to focus, and her skin was everywhere crosshatched with striated scars that once had held etherium filigree of extraordinary complexity and grace.

With her eye sight nearly gone, she addresses the only thing that she can see in front of her, the dragon Nicol Bolas. When the dragon assures her that she has nothing to fear from him, she asks if he knows of a human mage called Tezzeret the Seeker. Tezzeret speaks and tells her that he is happy that she's made the transit.

“So am I. When Kemuel revealed the stricture of the Riddle Gate, I very nearly despaired.”

But she has survived, and made it to the time and place prescribed. She can feel "him" near, and Tezzeret confirms that to be so.

“Yet I see nothing but blur.” Her great face shone with tears. “And so I have crossed entire universes to see him, this once and final time, stripped away every scrap of my power … only to have my eyes fail me at the last. The final bitter jest in my mockery of a life.”

Tezzeret tells her that he did not invite her here only to have him disappointed. He asks her to bend down, and he gathers etherium sand from the beach and fills the patterned scars throughout her face and restores her to as she once was.

The joy she feels as she looks upon the metal sphinx upon the beach is immeasurable, and Nicol Bolas himself is quite taken by events and admits that at this very moment he is as close as speechless as he's ever been. But he's quite confused, and comments that her reaction to seeing the statues is as if she's looking upon Crucius himself.

Tezzeret says it is. A part of him. This whole island is an expression of his remains.

“Yes," Tezzeret said. “Interested in more of the story?”

* * *


Despite how the pointless, contradictory dialogue made me angry and frustrated with this chapter, it is this portion that cuts deep. It means the core of Tezzeret's plan revolves around a character flaw that does not exist in the character that I know.

The Nicol Bolas that I know from previous books is one filled with honor and majesty. It adds quite a bit to the sense of power about him.

The dragon’s response was a contemptuous snort.

Tezzeret shrugged. “Manners are commonly derided by those who have none, just as education is derided by the ignorant, refinement by the coarse, and intellect,” he said with a tiny sigh of apology, “by the stupid.”

The dragon’s growl, low in his throat, had much the same brick-grinding quality as had his earlier chuckle. “Who in the hells cares about your manners?

Maybe Nicol Bolas is just lashing out with anger because he's been caught off guard and now his life may very well end soon as far as he knows, and he's just saying something he doesn't quite believe, because in reality a certain etiquette, especially amongst planeswalkers, has been a part of the majority of his twenty-five thousand years of life.

(But we all know that isn't the author's intention.)


So it wasn't Liliana. It's some entirely new character, so I can't really be faulted for not guessing who was going to make an appearance (although Crucius is an obvious guess that I missed.) Whoever she is, she somehow dodges the terrible dialogue curse that both Nicol Bolas and Tezzeret are often plagued with. Her emotions are solidly conveyed and she comes off as quite sincere.

I would have loved if the first 80% of this chapter was condensed into two pages and go straight to her appearance. Just completely cut out all that parts about pain and human physiology, have Tezzeret just straight to springing his trap with the etherium, quickly make his offer of "life and let live," and then move right on in to the sphinx.


In reply to Tezzeret's question. I do want to hear the rest of the story. Most of this chapter was pretty painful to read, but the final couple pages were fantastic.


  1. When has Nicol Bolas ever been polite to Tezzeret?

    From Agents of Artifice: "I hate you, artificer, and I find rare cause to bother hating anyone anymore. The only reason I'm not currently picking your spine out from between my teeth is because you were smart enough to arrange these wards ahead of time. More to the point, I know full well you feel the same about me, no matter how you choose to doll up your words and trot them out like perfumed trollops. So perhaps we can save the pleasantries for those who actually care about them..."

    He comes off as majestic because he's aloof, not cuz he's polite.

    Also, I suppose I may as well tell you the sphinx is Sharuum. Not really a spoiler or anything, I just figured since that's how you tag these...*shrug*

    1. I was thinking more about the Nicol Bolas in the Time Spiral trilogy as I wrote this write-up, but you do make a good point and I had to go back and refresh myself on that scene in Agents of Artifice to make sure I wasn't just completely off.

      After taking a second look, the big thing is that hate and etiquette are completely independent from each other.

      As a whole, that scene in Agents of Artifice feels like two CEOs sitting down at a table with their lawyers at hand, for the purpose of airing grievances against the other in regards to who legally owns the mines in question. When Nicol Bolas states that he cares nothing for pleasantries, it's actually an implied "false pleasantries." They know their feelings towards each other, so there is no need for flattery they both know the other doesn't feel, so it's better to get straight to business. They're stating their extreme positions to have room to make compromises to reach a beneficial agreement.

      (Not saying that was either of their true intentions, but that's how the conversation came off.)

      Nicol Bolas is ready to be ruthless and blunt and ready to take whatever advantage he can, which includes taking that opportunity to size up Jace's ability by way of the side telepathic conversation they have without Tezzeret's knowledge (a conversation that also has a feeling of sophistication to it), but isn't going to tell Tezzeret that he's ugly and has a stupid name.

      In this chapter in Test of Metal, there is no implied "false" here. *This* Nicol Bolas comes across as meaning exactly what he says here with nothing to read into beyond the surface. While the Nicol Bolas in Agents of Artifice may be one step away from the Nicol Bolas in the Time Spiral trilogy, this Nicol Bolas is ten.

      The way the dialogue is written between Tezzeret and Nicol Bolas in this book feels s more like two kids trying to one-up each other rather than two CEOs maneuvering for advantage. They boast and brag and try to see who can sound the smartest by using the words with the longest syllables and saying things in the most complex way rather than try to convey the most meaning.

      It's like watching people who like to say "This is an A and B conversation, so C yourself out of it," to a third person that is coming into the conversation late, because it gives them a sense of power and they think it makes themselves sound witty, when the reality is that they just sound like jerk.