One of my earliest memories of the internet dates back to the Nineties when I participated in a “trade-off story” on the discussion forum of the Starcraft custom maps fansite, Campaign Creations. It was jolly good fun – individual forum members would write a few paragraphs before passing on to the next, and even though that sounds like a recipe for incomprehensible chaos it was astonishing how quickly we dialled ourselves in to each other’s frequency and amplified it with each successive post to make a reliably rolling adventure.
Sadly, this early escapade has evaporated into the electronic ether – always make sure you back up your internet memories, because you can’t rely on the Wayback Machine to preserve everything – but the enthusiasm I had for it was something I carried forward for years afterwards, like Omega Intertainment’s From the Logs of Captain Sodon where we gleefully flung every single geeky franchise into a referential blender that would make Gainax’s famous Daicon IV opening movie look bland by comparison. I even sustained the feeling when I started getting into anime, going through an intense fanfiction phase on the Cyborg Central discussion forums of my favourite anime Gunslinger Girl, where we all clubbed together in a sort of online writers’ room referencing each others’ characters in our shared alternate universe – various personal circumstances caused me to drift away from it over the years and that’s something I regret as having people to bat around ideas with was a real springboard to launch the imagination, and I wish that I could go back to it.
These experiences have meant that the “SCP Foundation” has always fascinated me. If I was dabbling on the shores of collaborative fiction, SCP was swimming in the ocean. A long-running cooperative storytelling project initially launched in 2008, SCP leveraged new Wiki technology to do something much more interesting than just paginating databases of old cartoons. SCP’s conceit is based on the unexpected ending to Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the US Government preferred to box away the Ark of the Covenant rather than having to confront its implications – except in SCP’s world the “top people” really did exist and did want to probe its secrets. The SCP Foundation (standing for its mission to “Secure, Contain, Protect”) is a global secret organisation dedicated to discovering evidence of the paranormal – and capturing it and sealing it off where it can’t disturb the everyday lives of the human race. SCP facilities are vast underground complexes where thousands of weird and wonderful artefacts are stored and studied, and the fiction is presented as a series of analysis reports written in a deadpan pseudo-academic style detailing the various twists and threats that each “SCP Object” presents to normal life and how the SCP Foundation contained them. It’s something that the Wiki format was innately suited to – not excluding new blood of casual readers, as anyone can write a page for their own supernatural episode as a discrete individual object without needing a whole team of moderators stopping you from treading on each other’s narrative toes, whereas for the most active contributors you could spill out into a whole additional library of games, art and stories.
SCP has managed to discern a signal out of the white noise of the internet’s constant chatter and it has been quite influential in its own right – the television series Warehouse 13, successful enough to run for five seasons, was pretty much a direct rip-off of the concept and more recently the award-winning 2019 videogame Control is also strongly inspired by its background. Nonetheless I was a bit late to the party and missed out on a lot of the buzz surrounding SCP when it was at its most popular. It wasn’t really a thing on the internet communities I frequented, and I know that saying what comes next makes me sound like a horrendous hipster but SCP becoming ‘cool’ also spoiled a lot of its atmosphere: SCP reports stopped being creepily weird and just became outright incoherent as contributors entered an arms race of competitively trying to out-quirk each other to the extent that SCP Objects stopped being unsettling distortions of life and escalated into outright Lovecraftian Elder Gods; along with a community dedicated to celebrating the supernatural being laid low by more mundane issues, as a few years ago it was divided by counter-editing wars over various political squabbles.
That’s what caused the light novel SCP Foundation: Iris Through The Looking Glass to catch my eye – despite SCP seeming such an inherently online concept, tying it down to paper actually promises to give you a cleaner atmosphere – you don’t need to be linked to arguments and can just enjoy the pure and untrammelled original experience as those novel adventurers who broke new ground and first put it together would have felt back then. Has SCP Foundation: Iris Through The Looking Glass managed to secure, contain and protect my intrigue, or is it better left dusty and forgotten with the Ark in its crate?
Our narrator, name [REDACTED], is an ordinary Japanese high school boy living an entirely conventional and humdrum school life – until something strange starts creeping into the edges of his experience. Every single book he opens, whether it be a school textbook, a magazine at the newsagent, or a novel in the library, has a photograph tucked inside like a forgotten improvised bookmark. Each one depicts the same foreign blonde-haired girl. The narrator is naturally weirded out by this – the same thing happening dozens of times can’t just be a coincidence – but then it becomes not a little scary. He touches one of the photos and then finds himself dragged through it, sucked into some kind of portal which dumps him into a windowless concrete room – and before the shocked blonde-haired girl in question.
The girl introduces herself as Iris Thompson, and our narrator has just inadvertently broken into her prison – for he’s somehow warped all the way from a Tokyo suburb into an underground base run by the SCP Foundation in a secret location somewhere in the USA. Iris is an inmate of the facility, designated SCP-105 because she has the paranormal power that the photos she takes become permanent windows giving real-time live footage of the scene they show. But no-one has ever come through them before – and so our narrator discovers that he himself is now classed as an SCP Object and he’s not going to be allowed to leave… can SCP-105-C adapt to his sudden new life under the scrutiny of the mysterious SCP Foundation?
Seven Seas Entertainment have put a good effort into the presentation of this book, atmospherically reflecting the cod-scientific analysis style of the original SCP articles by formatting the text like it’s an official intelligence report with barcodes in the corners of the pages, warning notes tabbed into the margins (the injunction that unauthorised readers will be “detained” sounds like a deliciously sinister euphemism and suits the secure-and-contain theme), “page intentionally left blank” signs and in particular the names of people and locations (like the narrator’s own) being redacted out by black censor bars, which is a cute touch. All these extra doodads around the side don’t distract from the text, which remains quite easy to read – with smaller digest-sized pages and wide spacing, I was able to breeze through the book in just a few hours on my first reading. The illustrations are all straightforwardly decent – one, for SCP-294 (“The Coffee Machine”) is an exactingly precise re-drawing of the photograph on the original website entry of the coffee machine in question, even to the picture on its hoarding and the shape of the coin slot. There are still some inconsistencies between the text and the pictures though – really just little inessential things like a character being written as wearing a top hat and being drawn as wearing a trilby, or the narrator saying how Iris’s help “was enough to blow the dissatisfaction and depression accumulated in me to smithereens” only for the artist to have interpreted this as a literal explosion erupting in a massive fireball behind him – which is actually worth a bit of a chuckle.
What hidden mysteries of the world are revealed by the text? This is a bit more qualified. The content of Iris Through The Looking Glass is basically just a quick rummage through a few of the SCP Objects posted onto the website, sticking in random pins into the list to pick out a handful which the narrator, as a new inductee to the SCP Foundation alongside the reader, can be introduced to as he encounters them in the corridors of the facility, and witness them strutting their stuff. Seven Seas has given a full list of author attributions for each SCP Object referenced (even if many of them are “unknown” or things like "username lkr_4185”) with links to the original articles, as well as a prominent Creative Commons license boilerplate. Reading around on SCP message boards, this seems to have been accepted widely by the community and there isn’t any controversy about plagiarism here.
Nonetheless, there’s not much more to be text other than the articles in question. Each object is interesting enough in its own right, but the book doesn’t really do anything new with them – there’s no elaboration of their concept, no putting them into new contexts or seeing how they function in new scenarios – they just operate in their containment zones in the way they are described in their original articles, and that is that. Dialogue is heavily expository as other characters reel off the objects’ attributes and it feels a lot like just a padded-out reading of the original articles with “he said” and “she explained” inserted every few sentences. This becomes perhaps most egregious during the chapter on SCP-914, “The Clockworks” – an accident while experimenting with the device grievously injures one researcher, but even though she’s literally coughing up blood she can still jabber out whole pages of uninterrupted commentary. Another researcher is subjected to an extreme life-altering transformation which dramatically alters his relationship with his colleague… but in the next chapter they’re both walking down the corridor together apparently none the worse for wear. The appeal of a shared universe is being able to jump into the playpen and fool around with each other’s toys, but everything here is resolutely staying inside the toybox.
The chapter dedicated to ‘The Coffee Machine’, a device which seems able to replicate any liquid and even condense abstract concepts down into a fluidic analogue, even outright tells you to go to the SCP wiki page to find out more – “a bemused researcher compiled a list for fun, so anyone interested should go check it out.” Okay, sure, but if I’m being directed to a free website why does this book cost £10.99?
This highlights the problem with Iris Through The Looking Glass that it’s really being sold in the wrong market. Although the SCP Foundation originated in the West, this light novel was first written in Japanese. SCP has only made a limited penetration into Japan - this light novel was originally published in 2018 but even two years later only a fraction of the original English SCP articles are translated into Japanese. Given that, for the intended Japanese audience this book is actually very handy, a window into a world that they otherwise had no awareness of and no means of accessing. The final chapter of the book involves the narrator being able to go home none the worse for wear for his summer holiday underground, with the amiable open invitation to return and continue adventuring with his new friends in the SCP Foundation whenever he wants – maybe a bit inconsequential, but there’s a reason for it because the door’s been deliberately left open precisely so that new readers are encouraged to follow the narrator back through the photo-portal and help discover more objects. That’s all fair enough, but English-language audiences don’t have this limitation and can get full and complete access with a simple Google search, so the book feels redundant unless your imagination's so limited that you really need to self-insert through the narrator to feel connected to the articles.
For anyone who’s already experienced with SCP then this book really is a waste except for any vicarious pleasure you might get from seeing casual fannish scribblings getting made professional and official, but if you’re not the always-online sort and so have not previously encountered SCP then this SCP Foundation: Iris Through the Looking Glass is a fair purchase as an easy read of gentle, light, undemanding X-Files-style fun.