I first came up with the idea for my novel “Placeholder” in the spring of 2007, shortly after moving in to my new apartment in the Annex. I had been working heavily on my con-lang at the time, and was obsessing over such mundane concepts as the associative understanding of language and the true difference between the semantic signs—ie., is there a true distinction between the signifier and the signified? If the abstraction that is the signifier is arbitrary, then is the signified thought, the mental conception of the object being referred to, not also arbitrary? I wondered, solely for the sake of my own amusement via my Phoeronitic con-lang project, would it not be better and more true to human nature to do away with associative understanding of language?
It seemed to me at the time, insofar as my con-lang was concerned, that the most elegant solution was to scrap associative language and the psychology behind it altogether; a lexical understanding seemed far superior, a neat, orderly re-conception of the universe and our inner selves that accepted the arbitrariness of both signifier and signified, and banished the messy chaos of metaphor, simile, and allusion. So how would I go about reordering all perceivable nature and all conceivable thought into a new psychology that supplanted the messy, illogical, and supremely archaic tendency to build meaning by association only? If I were to go about the process completely randomly, the so-called lexicon of perception and conception would become even messier than our current sloppy attempt at understanding; so an arbitrary order would have to be imposed. For the order to make sense and be useful, to complement the wealth and diversity of what humans can signify, it would have to naturally occur from the simplest possible abstractions of all our core perceptions and conceptions. So I came up with a long list of consonants, 36 in all, and assigned specific archetypal abstractions to them, and then created a rigorous vowel system to modify the consonants in very specific meaningful ways. The system worked, and it worked well. I could naturally derive the best possible morpheme for the specific signified abstraction, and technically speaking, you would not need a dictionary to understand any such morpheme—the meaning was obvious based on the structure of the language. I had unified syntax and semantics into a single system.
After coming down off the high of my own self-praise, naturally I saw the fault in my logic. I had been obsessing so much over the details, that I missed the most obvious fact about my system. It wasn’t a replacement for associative understanding and language; it was an entirely associative system. No matter what I tried, I could not actually find a logical way to overcome meaning-by-association with a truly arbitrary system. The associations of meaning to create the entire spectrum of human perception and conception were so intrinsically a part of my psychology, that I could never actually create a linguistic and/or psychological system to supplant my current understanding of logic so long as I continued to perceive the world and myself through my current psycholinguistic projection of the Self.
Obviously this was a big blow. I all but stopped working on my con-lang; and when I did pick it up again, the project had lost its magic, its wonder. Without the ability to supplant the current psychological and linguistic abstractions within the human mind, there didn’t seem much point to it. The point of my con-lang, after all, had been to further the development of Phoeronism, to add another layer to my own personal system of individuation. If my con-lang was such a failure, then what was the system behind it?
With all these thoughts in mind, the concept of “the Placeholder Theory” came to me. I wondered, what if there was only one step between the understanding of myself and what I intended Phoeronism to be? If it had to be only one step, then it was obvious. Total annihilation of the self. And what did that make me? A placeholder. A temporary filler, to mark out a space for meaning yet to be defined. And since I always tend to think of everything in terms of inversion, I considered the antithesis equally true; that the meaning yet to be defined was a retroactive placeholder for me.
Fine, I admit that I got a bit carried away with the idea. That’s what happens when you obsess over tiny little consequences of a given model and insist on connecting them with everything else. But when I very-shortly-thereafter came to the conclusion that I had gotten carried away, I came to wonder what the most sensible use of such a random idea might be.
That is where my future history comes in, the “SPQS Universe.”
Now, I’ve been working on this future history since I was in grade 3, so it’s been just over 20 years in the making all together. It didn’t amount to much until the summer before grade 5, when I was 9 going on 10; a few of my friends and I had started acting out the scenes I had in mind, massive battles, political intrigue, betrayal, including a steady progression of technology side-by-side with the steady decline of society. I had always planned to turn it into a novel, but at the time I thought a graphic novel would be the most appealing way for me to present my vision. That worked out well enough; I completed a couple issues of the story before I decided that a proper sci-fi novel, my original approach, was preferable by far. It’s not like it couldn’t be illustrated.
For the next four years, I rewrote my novel over and over, until it got far too out-of-hand, becoming an expansive future history that I couldn’t even see the end of anymore. As I looked back at it, all I could see was the childish naïvety of the whole project. So I destroyed it. Every page of every version, every illustration, sketch, and note; I had a brief moment of hope amongst the overwhelming self-loathing I felt when looking through my project—I could start fresh, once I could see the story from a more mature perspective.
The years went by. I revisited the project on numerous occasions, but never got much farther than a few pages of notes and a handful of first draft chapters. I couldn’t grasp it anymore, the story eluded me. I tried my hand at a few other novel ideas, mostly sci-fi, but nothing stuck, none of them worked, and worse, I felt like there was no point to them because they weren’t part of my future history. It was starting to seem like I would never become a novelist, despite my effectively life-long goal. Until the day in the spring of 2007, when I came across the idea of the Placeholder Theory amongst the wild chaos of my psycholinguistic musings.
There was a symmetry to it; it contained the kernel of truth that led me to destroy the original project, but completed it, balanced it with a purpose, a self-signifying meaning. The nothingness of the void equated to the infinite meaning and potential of eternity, within the self, the mind.
So I got to thinking, how would an average person come to a similar conclusion about themselves and the universe? They would have to see it, experience it, and have it reflected within themselves to know it. And where’s the best place to stare into the void? The first thing that came to mind was deep space, but that didn’t seem far enough. The galaxy is full of stars, interplanetary and interstellar space is anything but empty. A person would have to see a true and total void, pass through it and somehow survive. Then they would have to see that every point in an infinite set is null.
The rest of the story flowed naturally enough from there, but even so, it took me three years to turn Placeholder into a first draft, and another three revisions to make it into a novel. But it was worth it. Placeholder is the keystone of my future history, the nexus of the SPQS Universe’s light cone. The entire future history is contained within it, as hints, allusions, casual remarks, accidental discoveries, and even all the little things that come across as being taken for granted.
And to think… this whole lost-cause lifelong project of mine finally came together because of a linguistic technicality. Sadly, my grammar of Phoeronitic still sits there unfinished, and Phoeronism itself is still indefinitely on hold; but I’m okay with that. My dark vision of the future is alive, and it’s a story that needs to be told now more than ever.
— the Phoeron