Page 4 (cont.)

Now if I wanted to spend several hundred dollars, I’d be able to purchase my very own reprint from a specialty bookseller, but that seemed a little severe for the purpose of cracking a message that, for all I knew, contained the publishing equivalent of "Drink more Ovaltine." I looked into borrowing one from a nearby university’s rare books collection, but one phone call made it quite clear that no self-respecting librarian was going to let my grubby hands anywhere near a 335 year-old book. Desperate, I scoured the Internet looking for online versions of Real Character. It turned up in bits and pieces, but those were invariably converted into plain text—useless if you want to view the original symbols and even worse if you wanted to decode anything.

And then, like a bolt from the blue, it appeared. One site that seemed to have an eerie fascination with Wilkins offered me everything I could have asked for. Not only was the entire book online, but it was in its original form too, scanned and converted into large GIF files. Displayed within the browser’s window, the pages were too small to be legible, but I found that if I downloaded each page individually to my computer (there were more than 600), I could then read the document in its original size.

The Final Push consisted of trying to figure out how Wilkins went about creating this language, requiring a healthy chunk of the book to be actually read. As Mr. Stephenson pointed out, Wilkins was trying to create a universal language, and it was supposedly understandable by anyone as long as you knew how the system worked. He came up with a hierarchal means of classifying words, dividing the English language into roughly forty categories. These categories were then divided into smaller and smaller subsections, until every word would fit somewhere within.

In order to take the message and convert it back into English, I needed something that would give me the roadmap as to which category any particular word belonged. Once I had located this particular chart, I realized this was the key to using his "dictionary," from which I could then look up words. To make things easier, I began with a word I already knew (from the Lord’s Prayer), and reverse-engineered it to better understand the system. From there, it became a pretty straightforward process to do the same with the remainder of the words.

Getting the hang of the language’s subtleties like verb tense, adverbs, etc., was a bit stickier and required some extra reading, but in the end, every word found on the Baroque Cycle site was capable of being identified and translated. There were some liberties taken with words that didn’t exist in 1668, like "fax" or "telephone," but Lisa Gold, the message’s creator—and my greatest aggravation—found a clever way to work around these obstacles.

It turns out that the message was really a set of instructions to anyone who could read it, and the first person to do so would receive a reward for their efforts. For all of you who have waited patiently through all this, you’ll find the complete translation taken from Wilkins’s script below:

Quicksilver will be published in the fourth week of the ninth month
in the year of our Lord 2003. If you understand this, send
a fax to 1 (212) XXX-XXXX with your name, address, phone number,
and email address along with your translation. The first person to
accomplish this will receive a signed copy of the book.

See the image below for a literal translation:

Click image for larger view

I hope you enjoyed the story, and despite my protestations to the contrary, I really did enjoy the challenge of tackling Wilkins's system of writing. In fact, the whole process was an immense learning experience as well. If you have any additional questions or comments about any of the above, you are more than welcome to email me at todd AT substream DOT com.


- Todd Garrison
June 2003

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