Posts Tagged ‘Neal Stephenson’

This Wednesday

23 November 2011

Dear J-

There are a ton of things to do this last working day of the week but instead I think I’ll revel in the fact that it’s only Wednesday and the weekend stretches out before me with infinite possibilities (except for rain tomorrow when I’ve been asked to take a portrait of everyone). If I hold true to form tomorrow’s going to be spent in regret over having eaten too much and half-asleep on the couch while better things go on around me. Thanksgiving has turned into a mad eating and shopping holiday but at least you don’t see the same degree of questionable taste (“sexy” outfits like at Halloween) or commercialism (osale sale sale)p as its nearest holiday neighbors.

I’m reading the new novel from Neal Stephenson, /REAMDE, which reads a little like Snow Crash (computer virus!) without quite the same degree of imagination (set in the near-future rather than your standard cyberpunk post-apocalyptic dystopia) or restraint, clocking in at over a thousand pages in the hardcover edition. After the success of his long-form trilogy and Anathem, though, I think hes’s earned a certain degree of freedom from his publisher. And if the comparisons to other works isn’t fair it’s what everyone’s going to do as anyone’ who’s read anything by him has read (and adores) Snow Crash.

Personally I like the novel, at least as much as I’ve read thus far (twenty percent or so) as it has enough of the signature Stephenson devices — complex plot, long narratives told from intertwining storylines, technology, a slightly condescending tone of pedantry from the characters, who are remarkably good at what they do and use their skills as far as possible, and long digressions on incidental points that help flesh out the world (here I’m singling out the apostropocalpse). Although it isn’t set in some exotic place that means the world-building he has to do is limited to the in-novel game of T’Rain and it makes the first part of the novel move along smartly. There are those who say it’s too thick, but I wonder what they thought of the post-Diamond Age Stephenson.

Mike

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Anathem

30 November 2010

Dear J-

I finished up Neal Stephenson’s Anathem today — three days short of the three-week due date and faster than I’d predicted, given that I was only halfway through on Saturday.  The story picks up steam towards the end, and there’s a lot of endless philosophizing that just needs to get plowed through, unless that’s your bag and the thought process behind thought and reality gets you going.  I understand why there’s a few reviews that slagged Stephenson for producing what they considered a bloated (890 pages of main story in the hardback edition; if there’s a paperback you’re a better person than me), unreadable (like some other recent books I’ve read you’re dropped directly into the world and a new set of terms without any gentle introduction — sink or swim, people) wrack of a novel, but I also believe that they didn’t have the time it demands.

If you really want to know why I love reading stuff by Stephenson it boils down to this:  he takes care of the reader without pandering.  The hero/narrator, Erasmas, isn’t some extraordinarily infused specimen, meaning that he’s not the strongest, nor the smartest, nor the best behaved of his peers and in doing so, you believe that the extraordinary things he does do are achievable by anyone.  Contrast this to the book I’d just read before, Boris Starling’s Visibility*, which is a sloppily-done spy/police thriller set in London’s Great Fog where the confirmed-bachelor protagonist somehow ends up with the one beautiful woman who actually understands him instinctively and completely over the course of a single meal.  Worse, the centerpiece of a Cold War-era espionage novel is an encoded secret, but the code consists of nothing better than a grade-school caliber single substitution cypher, which is then decoded at great length and detail in the plot as though it was a staggering accomplishment.  Anathem does not insult you like that.  It assumes a reasonable level of intelligence and parades big questions in front of you, philosophical dilemmas and forces you to re-examine what you’re doing.

It’s not completely faultless:  without giving too much away I never felt like any of the main characters were in much jeopardy although there are tragedies along the way, and they find themselves in an impossible, one-way-mission situation later on.  Said situation is actually responsible for the best (hilarious gallows) humor in the novel and maudlin facing-death-bravely manly man actions; it comes at just the right time, when the plot threatens to bog down in endless conversations of hypotheticals and what-may-be after an exciting journey.  It’s strange, though; the first hundred pages or so I couldn’t tell where he wanted to go with the story and we’d be subjected to endless pages of life in a monastery run by math geeks.  But once it takes off, hold on:  the ride is just as memorable as all the other Stephenson books I’ve been lucky enough to lay hands on.

Mike

* Ironically, the version of Visibility that I read has a “Great Read Guaranteed” sticker on the cover; if I hadn’t checked it out from the library I’d definitely ask for my money back.

Jack and Eliza

24 June 2010

Dear J-

At some point in this third chunk of The Baroque Cycle, I’ve realized that this really is a story that has something for everyone: for us engineer-types, there’s the Logic Mill and various arcane devices that lend well to a proto-Steampunk atmosphere colored by historical fiction and liberties. But wait, there’s more — that intertwined story of Jack Shaftoe and Eliza is worth calling a romance on its own; Jack never misses a chance to declare his love for Eliza, nor do his actions belie those declarations: everything for the Duchess.

Even as he works his ways as a shadowy villain in this third book, The System of the World (finally, the Waterhouse and Shaftoe storylines collide beyond incidental contact, which reminds me that I need to reread Cryptonomicon), the lever that’s given France power over him is Eliza herself. Considering that he is the self-styled King of the Vagabonds with no loyalty to country or place, his only ties are to people, and those he does hoard jealously.

I can’t help but think of another collision, though: that of Jack’s notion of romance with Eliza’s modern sensibilities. Jack wants to prove his love by demonstrating that he’d do anything for her, which I think is a very male way of doing it, yet rooted in the swooning ladies school of chivalry; Eliza’s amply demonstrated that she’s more than capable of taking care of herself — this I think is in keeping with the modern idiom and so they’re both characters that seem out of place in this setting at the transition to the Industrial Age. This series is enthusiastically recommended, though, and it bears re-reading at some later date, I think.

Mike

Why Not What If

10 June 2010

Dear J-

I’ve said that Neal Stephenson is possibly the single best reason to get a Kindle (put the Baroque Cycle in your bag and you will regret it), but I haven’t actually read anything he’s written on the iPhone until these past few weeks. I’m a third of he way through the aforementioned Baroque Cycle trilogy and it’s been an excellent read so far — at the start, I wasn’t crazy about it, as that first book seemed to drag on while they described the doings of Isaac Newton and the fictional Daniel Waterhouse in school and the genesis of their young careers.

That’s something that runs throughout the book, at least as far as I’ve spot-checked; the nice thing about the e-book is being able to look up things on wikipedia nearly simultaneously (note to application developers: figure out a night mode with black backgrounds and I’ll be more willing to use them) and finding out once again that the truth is often stranger than fiction. You might think it’s a sort of conceit, hanging fictive details on the framework of truth and history (and that canvas is broad, from Cromwell to Louis XIV and William of Orange), but it works very well together. On the other hand, the story moves at a crackling pace when history moves to the background and his constructs take center stage.

My schedule is no longer my own; I’ve become more involved and that means committments up and down all hours of the day. I’m not going to go so far as to say that the winds of history are filling my sails, but it feels like I’ve just sit down before ten hours pass and I’m out the door again. Life is attitude, isn’t it? Attitude is a choice, not a mandate, and if I learn to accept that I’m going to have days and nights that aren’t my own, I’m going to have a better time with it. The most wickedly gleeful character thus far, Jack “L’Emmedur” Shaftoe, would have you believe that it’s some wayward perverse impulse that keeps him from doing the right thing all the time, but I recognize it as the why-not what-if that rules my mind.

Mike