Piranesi is a scientist, working to understand the world around him. That world may seem odd, or circumscribed, to readers, but Piranesi does not question it. It is the world, after all; the House. He does not inquire into its origins, nor try to understand its supports. Instead, he maps it. The House has Halls and Vestibules, of which there is apparently no end, and Levels. “The Lower Levels are the Domain of the Tides; their Windows — when seen from across a Courtyard — are grey-green with the restless Waters and white with the spatter of Foam. The Lower Halls provide nourishment in the form of fish, crustaceans and sea vegetation.” Then comes the level where Piranesi lives. Above that “The Upper Halls are, as I have said, the Domain of the Clouds; their Windows are grey-white and misty. Sometimes you will see a whole line of Windows suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning. The Upper Halls give Fresh Water, which is shed in the Vestibules in the form of Rain and flows in Streams down Walls and Staircases.” (All Ch. 1)
What lies beyond? “Outside the House there are only the Celestial Objects: Sun, Moon and Stars.” He is also an explorer. To the west of the Hall he chose as his starting point, he has traveled 960 Halls, to the north 890, and to the south 768. To the east, parts of the House have collapsed, and he can go no further. “In all of these places I have stood in Doorways and looked ahead. I have never seen any indication that the World was coming to an End, but only the regular progression of Halls and Passageways into the Far Distance.” (Ch. 1) Fortunately for him, and for readers, Piranesi has an excellent memory. He knows the Statues in the Halls that he has visited, he knows his way around, he knows how to make provisions from the bounty of the House, and he knows practical things such as how to calculate the Tides that sometimes combine and rise quite high in the House.
Piranesi the book opens with Piranesi the person going “to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.” His calculations are not as reliable as his memory. He has underestimated two of the Tides, and is in danger of being drowned or swept away. He clings to a Statue and hopes, or rather he prays to the House for protection. When the Tides recede while he still has breath, he concludes “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” (Ch. 1)
Piranesi is not really his name, it is what the other person in the House calls him. He does not particularly see the need to call himself anything else, or indeed anything at all. He is. That is sufficient. Piranesi, for his part, calls the other person the Other. The Other is also a scientist, though a bit moody. The two of them meet twice a week, generally for an hour each time. Piranesi supposes that the Other is very busy with his research in other parts of the House because he often seems hurried and sometimes cuts their meetings short. The Other is vague about which parts of the House he lives and works in, but that does not trouble Piranesi very much. They are working together in search of some great knowledge that will give them both deeper understanding of the House.
In his explorations, Piranesi has come across evidence that other people have also been in the House, at least for a while: skeletons. There are thirteen of them, leaving him to draw the conclusion that the world has only ever held fifteen people. He tends to the skeletons, making sure that the Tides do not carry them off, bringing them presents occasionally so that the deceased know that the living have not forgotten them. It does not seem a small number to him; that is all the world has had.
If Piranesi reminds me of another story, it’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things. In Rothfuss’ book, a major character lives in a particular world alone, with a heightened sense of the inanimate objects in that world, with rituals that shape their relationship to the world. Like Auri, Piranesi is slightly askew from the ordinary run of people.
Part of what makes this book great is the beauty and simplicity with which Clarke shows Piranesi and his world. The most extraordinary things are self-evident to him, while others escape his wit and attention entirely. How does he know concepts like week and month? What was he like as a child? Did he even have parents? None of this comes up in the diaries that form the text of Piranesi. As the story goes on, I found myself wondering more and more about the gap between what Piranesi discussed and what he obviously knew.
Crossing that gap is the greater part of what makes Piranesi brilliant, and plot details that are not apparent from the beginning are crucial to the changes. Things are not entirely as they seem, and there is more in the House than is reckoned in Piranesi’s science.
Piranesi is a finalist for this year’s Hugo Award in the Best Novel category. It is the fourth book I have read in that category, and it will get my top vote unless one of the two remaining books is much better than I expect.