Imagine if you were rummaging through a library and discovered an old book. This book seemed rather plane at first, but inside were not only the text of the story but also a hand-written discussion between two people trying to solve a mystery. Stuffed between the pages were several items that only added to enigma. This is exactly what you will get with the book titled S. or Ship of Theseus by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.
So let’s be honest. Doug Dorst probably did a vast majority of the work. But it was an idea that J.J. Abrams had and Doug Dorst helped him turn into a reality. S. is really the overall experience as the book is titled Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. This copy of the book in English was translated by F.X. Caldeira who we will find out knew the mysterious V.M. Straka. Two readers communicate and discuss the mysteries of the story by writing to each other in the margins of the book. The book is filled with various documents, postcards, maps, and a compass decoder ring. There is a lot more to the story than what appears on the surface.
The Ship of Theseus, or the text story of the book, is unfortunately weak. The idea behind this book would have been much better executed if the story was worth reading. We follow a man who has lost his identity. He ends up on a ship where everyone’s mouth has been sewn shut and the destinations of the ports seem to transcend time. He frequently meets up with freedom fighters against their country’s tyrannical leader or corporate leader or something. He becomes an assassin and starts blindly carrying out missions as he tries to discover his purpose in life. The two characters in the margins lead us to believe that this is all metaphorical representation of what the author, V.M. Straka, was going through as it mirrors his mysterious life. Even the translator notes the parallels between them. I struggled through this book thinking it will all be worth it with a satisfying ending. It was a difficult read and it just abruptly ends with no real resolution. I never actually watch it, but I imagine it was something like the Sopranos.
Almost nothing is known about V.M. Straka, the author of The Ship of Theseus. There are several theories about who he or she may have been. Straka has written 18 books prior to the Ship of Theseus which would be the last. Straka either died or retired after this book was released even though it was originally unfinished and missing the 10th chapter. Straka’s books are so provocative that they have “toppled governments” and “shamed ruthless industrialists”. Straka was probably a spy or a freedom fighter, but his enemies thought of him as a terrorist. This book has so much character and so much to build from that it was a real shame to me that it didn’t play out like it could have.
The theme surrounds the idea of identity. The ship of Theseus is an ancient philosophical question. If Theseus had a ship and eventually had to replace a wood plank, followed by a sail, then some rope, then an anchor. Over time more and more of the ship will be replaced with a new item. At what point is the ship no longer the original ship? If a single board or nail remains from the original, is it still the ship of Theseus? What if nothing remains from the original? What if you took all the original parts that were removed and assembled them to create another ship? Which ship is the true ship of Theseus or do they both have that identity now? I think this was a great concept to build the experience of S. from. The characters from the main story as well as our vandal friends both struggle with identity as the story progresses. The philosophy of the ship of Theseus is also brought up in stories like Star Trek. If Scottie beams you to another location, but the atoms used to create the new you were not physically you before, are you still the original? Technically the cells in your body are replaced slowly anyway and so there will be several times in your life where nothing that made you physically will be the same as before. Every seven years supposedly. Just let all this sink in and have an existential crisis.
The inserts and the overall aesthetic of the book is fantastic. The book itself feels aged and well-used. There is a map made on a napkin and a newspaper on the crisp “newspaper paper”. The ink from the two characters in the margins looks real but isn’t indented like a pen writing would be. Even if the story fell short a little for me, I will still keep it forever just for the beauty of it. Nobody would see this thing and not be immediately intrigued to pick it up and bury themselves in it.
It appears as though the translator, F.X. Caldeira, has been writing codes into the footnotes of each chapter. There are 10 chapters and each chapter ends in a footnote. Each chapter has a different way of encoded the secret message but there are definitely secrets to be found. They appear to be the translator’s way of secretly communicated to the author V.M. Straka. This was the main reason I wanted to read this book. The idea of a “normal” book that contained secrets and codes sounded awesome. My only gripe with this is that the two characters writing in the margins have solved just about all of them or at least tell you how to solve them. They aren’t speaking directly to you, just trying to solve the mystery themselves. I know there is a lot more secrets to this book such as what to do with the compass encoder. The rest of it seems like a crazy amount of work to solve though. I’m sure someone has solved some if not all the books mysteries on the internet somewhere. However, the difficulty level is somewhere in the realm of finding the secret messages in the Shakespeare plays. It’s definitely there, but how much work are you willing to put in to solve it?
The conversations between the characters that are handwriting in the book are vaguely interesting. Most of the guides to reading this book will tell you to skip these the first time you read the book. I think this is good advice if you want to be reading this book for a month or two. I read it all at once and it was a bit of a nightmare. First of all, it doesn’t really make sense for two people to communicate this way. How would they know when the other has written something in the book? Plus, they go back and forth hundreds of times. They would have literally been in the same library staring at each other as they both took turns writing in it. That aside, it’s not always in chronological order and it gets really confusing. My biggest problem is that I’m not sure there was a resolution to their story in the book. I have no idea if they solved their issues or solved the mystery of V.K. Straka like they were aiming for. Maybe that’s where I’m supposed to come in and solve the book, but like I said it would take months or more.
J.J. Abrams is the master of mystery. He has a way to start a story that is bursting with intrigue and secrets. His problem is that he is more of an idea person. Lost was amazing for the first few seasons, but then it dragged and dragged, and nobody seemed to know how to end it. The Cloverfield series got people hooked with the viral marketing every single time, just to get an okay movie every single time. He made or sponsored a mystery box that I’m glad I didn’t get. The idea was amazing where you had to solve a puzzle to get into a wooden box that contained an exclusive deck of cards. But the puzzle was just an anagram and the exclusive cards were boring at best. He has amazing ideas, but he really needs someone else to write his endings. For this book, that writer was not Doug Dorst.
Ultimately, I think this was an attempt to make something as mysterious and addictive as House of Leaves. It looks beautiful and if you’re into this sort of book it’s worth picking it up for sure. Just don’t expect to be moved by a fantastic story or groundbreaking codes as it slightly failed for me in that regard. It’s mediocre as both a book and a puzzle. I think if the ending to the story was better then I would have liked it a lot more. I understand the story and that the last chapter was probably written by the translator, but it was just underwhelming. Never leave a book mystery unsolved!
-J.C. Mystery Detective