Lime Ergot, by Caleb Wilson, has just been republished by sub-Q Magazine – Which, full disclosure, also published my work in the past, particularly Lyreless which came out last week. I think of Lime Ergot as a pretty important entry in the canon of parser fiction, and also a very good starting point to introduce players new to parser IF, so I’m taking the occasion to make it all about myself and write a few impressions of it. This post contains mild spoilers.
General Livia Tudor-Adolphus is the senior colonial officer left on St. Stellio. She is a tiny woman in her eighties. She is wearing a dark green uniform. Beneath a peaked hat, and a wig made of white metal molded into the shape of tight curls, her face is tanned and wrinkled. Her eyes are like small and perfectly formed spheres of ice.
The rotting corpses of colonial empires are not a standard-issue settings for horror; we like our decline and decay distant, preferably European and Gothic. There is a heat-rash rawness to Lime Ergot that discomfits, and its backdrop in the ugly haze of postcolonial states is crucial to building it.
We don’t associate horror with heat or with tropicality at all, of course; in our horror stories, people waste away from consumption or freeze to death.
A year or so ago, during one a pretty bad outbreak of dengue fever in São Paulo, I came down with it. Given modern medical treatment, one’s first such infection is not much worse than a nasty bout of influenza; you spend about a month laid up and experiencing the umwelt of hot garbage baking on the pavement.
This is a disease that has no antiviral treatment presently available and which, in its worst possible form, causes internal bleeding until death if untreated.
There is not, I don’t think, nearly enough horror about mosquitoes silently carrying deadly disease, about malarial delirium states, about the self-defeating panic inherent in heatstroke.
This tangle of bushes grows from water at the end of the pier. Deep inside the maze of stems and leaves you spot a skull. Beside the skull is a rusted sword.
Sitting beneath the rusted sword is a fat lizard, motionless as a statue.
The lizard sits curled around the rim of a golden goblet scaled with grime.
After a few years on St. Stellio, everything becomes grimy.
Lime Ergot is a telescoping perception puzzle. This is where its importance to the parser medium lies: it uses the traditional construction of objects and subobjects to recast movement and perception. For decades, the parser was very concerned with “mimetic” representations of realistic space, with achieving a form of immersion that is present, also, in graphical video games; particularly with achieving the sort of materiality and space that is also found in those games.
Works like this upend this ideal. They present a space that has to be traversed on different terms. You play Lime Ergot by falling into its descriptive text, one layer at a time. Most uses of this device only go a couple layers deep and rely on increasingly-minute detail; Lime Ergot discards our spatial expectations entirely, and not only builds in an implausible number of layers of perception, many of the moves are lateral or even not spatial at all. It’s probably one of the best representations, in fiction, of a hallucinatory or dissociating state.
It’s also very much of its medium, so much of its surprise and power deriving from the veiled way in which the parser can only ever suggest what you might do but never entirely enumerate options for you. In many instances, this haze of unknown quantities presented by the parser is a hindrance; in Lime Ergot, it’s a core strength of the piece.