Wednesday, August 27, 2014
It has been a few years since Reamde, so I've been getting a bit antsy of late. Neal Stephenson is my favorite author, and I've long since exhausted reading just about everything he's published. I'm always on the lookout for his latest, and I recently discovered this mysterious book called Seveneves. How very palindromic of him. The blurb, which originally showed up in some random upcoming books PDF, goes something like this:
When the moon blows up, the earth's atmosphere is predicted to go through changes that will eventually lead to a Hard Rain, a meteorite storm that could last for thousands of years, rendering the earth’s surface uninhabitable. In preparation, the nations of the earth send an ark of humans to an International Space Station. But the Station isn’t immune to the galactic catastrophe and many of its people are lost, mostly men. When stability is reached, only seven humans remain, all of them women. Jump forward thirty thousand years. Two peoples exist: those who survived on Earth, living rustic, primitive lives; and those who derived from the Seven Eves of the space station, affluent, sophisticated, organized sects looking to colonize the surface of earth. Stephenson’s next novel is an epic potboiler, with political and military intrigue, and plenty to say about evolution, genetic engineering, and civilization as we know it.The PDF sez it's due "Winter 2015", but Amazon and Goodreads have it at 4/14/15. Clocking in at 1056 pages, it appears that Stephenson's ways have not changed much.
Now, it's unclear to me if this book is the first of a series that Stephenson hinted at in a BBC interview last September, or if this was an interim book. Based on the description, I think Seveneves will be different.
"They're historical novels that have a lot to do with scientific and technological themes and how those interact with the characters and civilisation during a particular span of history," he says of the new series, refusing to be specific about the exact period."Something like that", meaning 2015 I guess. Not that I'm complaining, as it looks like we'll be awash in new Stephenson at some point in the near future. In other news, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future comes out on 9/9/14, and it features a bunch of stories inspired by Stephenson, in particular his desire to see more "positive" science fiction (as opposed to the dystopia or misery porn that seems to infect a lot of modern SF). It includes new stories by Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, Gregory Benford, Elizabeth Bear, and Bruce Sterling (presumably amongst others). I will most certainly be reading it, and will hopefully be able to glean a few Hugo nominatables!
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Don't care how I want it now!
We are living in the age of on-demand media, so this post might rankle some of those who read it. For the uninitiated, Lent started a week ago, and it's got me thinking about the nature of sacrifice. I always hated Lent growing up, but as an adult, I've found it an invaluable way to break bad habits and/or try new things. 40 days is an excellent length of time to give something up. It's short enough that it's achievable, but long enough that your routine can be changed for the better. I actually wrote that a couple days ago in reference to a little beer hiatus (er, quasi-hiatus) I'm going through, but the notion of delayed gratification is powerful, and it applies to lots of other things. Namely, media.
What got me started on this post was Neil Gaiman's eloquent response to a fan's query about the growing dissatisfaction that George R.R. Martin takes so damn long between installments of A Song of Ice and Fire. In short, Gaiman said "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch." And he is correct.
I consume a lot of media. Television, movies, books, you name it. I find it astounding that this sort of thing is possible. On Sunday, I posted a list of TV shows I'd like to catch up with. I probably won't watch all of it, because it's likely that I won't particularly love all of it. But I can just about guarantee that I'm going to get hooked on one of those shows and burn through several seasons in a couple weeks. It's fantastic when it happens, and the novelty whore inside of me rejoices, but it is never sustainable. When I think of the amount of work that goes into producing a TV show, my mind boggles. Hundreds of people working thousands of person-hours, all to produce something that can be consumed in 22-42 minutes (pay-cable TV shows have a higher range of 50-60 minutes or so, but the point holds). Obviously, I'm not the only viewer, but it's still a wide discrepancy. Binging is fun and it's really awesome to hit that great show high, but the show will invariably end (or you'll catch up with it and have to wait agonizing weeks or months, months I tell you, before a new episode airs) and that can lead to a serious crash, followed by withdrawal symptoms.
Writers are a little different in that they are a single person, but they're no different in terms of the amount of work they put in to write, and the corresponding pittance we spend reading their work. Someone like George R.R. Martin is writing an obscenely long story, with dozens of main characters and a convoluted plot. It's going to take him a lot of time to keep it all straight, write the story, edit the story, go through the obscenely long publication process, etc... I can accept that. But then, I would say that, as I've not read any of his books (though I am currently whinging about having to wait for Season 4 of Game of Thrones). Still, I think it's fair to say that the dude's earned his time, and we the readers aren't really entitled to anything. It would, of course, be really nice if he would, you know, finish the series. He's not getting any younger, and it's not like certain fears are entirely unfounded (on the other hand, by all accounts, that particular situation turned out pretty well.)
There is some hand wringing that occurs when an author takes time away from a series (that they haven't finished yet, jeeze!) to dedicate time to other things. But as Gaiman notes, writers aren't machines. They're just people, and sometimes they get worn out or inspired by something else. Maybe that something else will be another book, and maybe no one will buy it because they're frustrated at not getting the series book they wanted. Then the author becomes a victim of their own success. That would be a crushing situation for them, but I suspect it doesn't happen that often. The word "fan" is short for "fanatic", and despite what you may think from reading vitriolic comments on the internet, most people aren't really that fanatical about this stuff.
There are plenty of authors that I wish would publish more often. Neal Stephenson only publishes something once every 3-4 years (come to think of it, Reamde came out 2.5 years ago, and I don't know what's next - oh noes!) I've read just about every published word that guy's written, from his lowly first novel, to his pseudonymous novels, to non-fiction and op-eds. And you know what? That entitles me to nothing. Stephenson isn't obligated to write another word. I'm sure there are folks who look at his work on projects like Clang and get frustrated because it seems like he's not working on his next novel. But then, Stephenson has been very clear about his writing habits. Mainly, he finds that he can get the best results by writing a few hours a day, after which he gets burnt out and needs to engage in something else to clear his head (or allow his subconscious to work stuff out so that he can write stuff the next day). Eminently reasonable, and he's very clear and upfront about that. Plus, his books are great.
I was supremely disappointed about some aspects of John Scalzi's The Human Division. He sold the book as a series of short stories and novellas that could be put together in the end to tell a whole story. Only, it didn't. The book ends on a cliffhanger. Then he admits that he did this before he even knew if he could get the follow-up published, which just seems wrong. Fortunately, he did get the go-ahead from his publisher, so the sequel is forthcoming (and will hopefully resolve the story). In the meantime, he's publishing a different novel, which I'm actually looking forward to. So all is well, I guess, but this does bring up a good point about how authors interact with fans.
And here's where I go all Gollum to the above's Smeagol. Authors (or any creators) are not obligated to write what fans want or even really to interact with fans. But it is possible to interact poorly. I was upset and felt deceived by Scalzi's quasi-bait-and-switch with The Human Division, but then, he was really good about asking for feedback and (seemingly) taking it to heart. So I don't hold it against him at all that he went and wrote another novel before working on the sequel to The Human Division. I'm not entitled to anything in this situation, but I think it's fair to say that if Scalzi does start promoting the sequel, that he should be clear about what he's delivering.
But Scalzi's a bad example, because he's really good at that sort of thing and the sequel is forthcoming and even if it doesn't complete the story, I'm sure he'll finish it off at some point in the near future. And again, writing an unrelated novel (or working on other projects) between entries in the series? That's fine too. But there is an extreme here that can be extremely frustrating, and his name is Clive Barker.
About 20 years ago (Jesus, has it really been that long?), I read a great book called The Great and Secret Show. One of the best openings I've ever read in a story, and the rest of the book wasn't too shabby either. It was the first Book of the Art, a planned trilogy, and it was published in 1989. Five years (and two other novels, including the most excellent and rather epic Imajica) later, and the sequel came out. Everville was not nearly as compelling as the first novel, but then, middle parts of a trilogy often feel that way when isolated from their siblings. So I waited. And waited. Barker has published 9 novels in the interim, worked on several plays, painted a crapton of artwork, produced some movies, and probably a bunch of other stuff I don't even know about. And he hasn't been silent on the third Book of the Art (you'll need to scroll down past all the other "current" projects he has going on). He's been talking about it in interviews since 1990. In 1996, he said "The final part of the Art Trilogy will be published before the end of the century, I promise!" Well, fourteen years after the turn of the century, and we're still not that close. He wants to finish his Abarat books first, and he's got two of them left.
As I understand it, this third book is going to be massive and ambitious, so I get it, it will take a while, and I'm sure he's burnt out on it a few times and worked on other stuff. But 20 years? That's pushing it a bit, dontcha think? He's still not obligated to deliver it just because I want it, but I think you can understand the frustration fans are going through right now.
Back to the Smeagol side, Barker is ambitious and clearly very excited about wayyy too many things. There's a good chance that this sort of thing is what lead me to enjoy his work in the first place. And I really do believe he'll eventually finish out the Art books, if only because we've had the relatively recent news that The Scarlet Gospels is completed and with the publisher (looking at a 2015 release). This is another novel he's been talking about delivering since the early 1990s, though in fairness, when he originally brought it up, it was going to be a short story, and it will be published next year as a 243,000 word behemoth. So when he says he'll finish off Abarat and move on to the final Art book, I'm on board. But I ain't expecting it anytime soon.
The digital era is the bearer of great tidings, and while there are often frustrating and arbitrary constraints tied to it (and those should totes be fixed, they are not covered under this immunity that artists and creators get), artists are not obligated to deliver exactly what we want all the time. 20 years may be pushing it, Clive, but what can I really do about it? I can scream "Don't care how I want it now!" at the top of my lungs, but acting childish on the internets isn't going to get me anywhere and it's not going to help Clive finish his book. So let's show some self control and glory in the knowledge that delayed gratification can be oh so very sweet.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
So this is old and indeed, the Kickstarter for Clang has already ended (funding successful!), but there's some interesting stuff going on here beyond the typical Kickstarter stories. This was a campaign to raise money for an accurate sword fighting video game, one that would rely on motion controls. This seems soooo 5 years ago at this point, but on the other hand, if someone actually made this game 5 years ago, motion controls might not be the joke they are right now. That's interesting, right? Alright, fine, you caught me. My interest in this originates more from Neal Stephenson's involvement than anything else. Here, check out this funny, detailed pitch:
It might seem odd that a science fiction novelist is making a video game based on swordplay, but then again, this is a guy who wrote a book about a sword-wielding pizza delivery ninja. It also seems to be an outgrowth from one of his other interesting projects: a collaborative, interactive publishing system optimized for digital devices. I still haven't gotten around to reading The Mongoliad, but it's making its way up the queue.
Anyways, there's been some interesting interviews about the project and he even did a Q&A on Reddit recently which was pretty fun. It's all well and good, but I'm glad his involvement in this stuff seems to be winding down. I'm sure I'll keep tabs on Clang and the Mongoliad, but in the end, I'm really a fan of Stephenson's writing, so I'm looking forward to a new book... at some point.
Posted by Mark on July 11, 2012 at 10:07 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
I'm gonna be taking a trip to The Cabin in The Woods tonight, so time is sparse, thus some linkys for you:
Posted by Mark on April 18, 2012 at 07:09 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Neal Stephenson wasn't particularly successful early in his career. I imagine having trouble for a few years is rather common amongst successful authors, and obviously Stephenson has gone on to establish himself as a big name, especially in the nerdy science fiction community. But, as he snarkily wrote in his author bio on my copy of Snow Crash:
His first novel, The Big U, was published in 1984 and vanished without a trace. His second novel, Zodiac: the Eco-thriller, came out in 1988 and quickly developed a cult following among water-pollution-control engineers. It was also enjoyed, though rarely bought, by many radical environmentalists.While writing Snow Crash, Stephenson started looking into other options. Because who would want to read a book where a hacker/pizza delivery boy/cyber-ninja researches Sumerian mythology and linguistics theory? In an old interview, he comments on his career thusly:
I was writing Snow Crash about the same time my uncle, George Jewsbury, and I started talking about doing collaborations. The rationale behind that was, clearly, I may be able to limp along indefinitely, writing these little books that get bought by 5,000 people, but really it would be smart to try to get some kind of serious career going. We had heard somewhere that Tom Clancy had made like $17 million in a year. So we thought, 'Let's give this a try.' The whole idea was that 'Stephen Bury' would be a successful thriller writer and subsidize my pathetic career under the name Neal Stephenson. It ended up going the other way. I would guess most of the people who have bought the Stephen Bury books have done so because they know I've written them. It just goes to show there's no point in trying to plan your career.Indeed! I actually rather enjoyed the Stephen Bury books, and they actually presage Reamde in their thriller genre roots. But Stephenson has gone on to write impenetrable books that have become quite popular amongst a certain type of geek (i.e. me). Unfortunately, this presents something of a problem. Long time readers of this blog know that I'm a huge fan of Stephenson, but in reality, I've never actually met a person that really loves his books (the online world is another story). This makes it quite difficult to recommend my favorite novels to other people, because I generally know they're not going to like it (I generally settle on Snow Crash as a recommendation, but there are things about that book that often don't go over well with normal folks). In particular, Cryptonomicon (which is my favorite novel) seems to polarize readers. Shamus describes the phenomenon best:
In fact, I have yet to introduce anyone to the book and have them like it. I’m slowly coming to the realization that Cryptonomicon is not a book for normal people. Flaws aside, there are wonderful parts to this book. The problem is, you have to really love math, history, and programming to derive enjoyment from them. You have to be odd in just the right way to love the book. Otherwise the thing is a bunch of wanking.Similarly, The Baroque Cycle (basically a 2700 page prequel to Cryptonomicon) is not a series for normal people. The subjects are similar, but weighted differently. Much less programming, and much more history and monetary theory. Anathem probably appeals to folks who love Philosophy and/or Quantum Physics, with some linguistics thrown in for fun. The common factor with all of this is that Stephenson's books aren't particularly accessible to mainstream audiences. Thus it's hard to find a way to introduce people to his work.
Enter Reamde, Stephenson's latest and most accessible novel. Well, accessible for folks who don't mind reading 1000+ page novels. Ironically, this accessibility seems to have garnered the only real complaints about the book. Which isn't to say that people don't like the book. Reviews seem to be overwhelmingly positive, but the one thing that comes up again and again is that it's "just a thriller." It is not a novel that plumbs the depths of technology or philosophy, nor does it wrestle with big questions the way a lot of Stephenson's other works do. For my part, I finished it a few weeks ago and find myself thinking about it often. This isn't to say that I think there's something profound going on beneath the surface, but who knows? Maybe a second reading will unearth something more. But then, I don't really need it to be a profound life-changing book. It's a page-turning thriller written with wit and humor, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Stephenson's fans will certainly not be bored. Despite the fact that many seem to enjoy the inaccessibility of his earlier novels, I do think there are plenty of Stephensonian digressions that will keep fans interested. Take, for instance, "The Apostropocalypse", wherein one of our main characters explains how two writers he hired to provide background material for his video game argued over the semiotics of fantasy naming conventions. The video game itself is rather cleverly designed, and Stephenson spends a lot of time describing its mechanics, allowing him to delve into geography, monetary theory and the practice of gold farming in MMORPGs. Stephenson even addresses how this game came to compete with World of Warcraft by catering to the Chinese market. Later in the novel, there's an interesting digression into how great circle routes work. These are things that Stephenson excels at, and there's certainly a lot to chew on here. He's taken standard genre tropes and overlaid his own style, ultimately elevating this book from much of its competition.
The basics of the plot itself are rather straightforward. Richard Forthrast is one of our primary characters. He was a draft-dodger who figured out a way to cross the Canadian border undetected, parlayed that knowledge into marijuana smuggling, then turned legit serial entrepreneur. His latest venture is a fantasy MMORPG video game called T'Rain, and it's become quite successful. He's hired his niece, Zula Forthrast, to work for his company. As circumstances would have it, Zula ends up getting kidnapped by Russian mobsters who are afflicted with a virus from the game (this virus has locked up the mobsters' monetary livelyhood). Pissed off to no ends, these Russian mobsters want Zula to help find the virus writers (no doubt Chinese kids) so that revenge can be exacted. Along the way, we run into a lively cast of characters, including a group of Jihadis (who eventually become the main villains of the novel), a Hungarian hacker, a Chinese mountain-girl, the Chinese kid who wrote the virus, an MI6 agent, and, of course, a badass Russian security consultant. The terrorists want to kill lots of people, and most of the other folks want to stop them. Typical thriller stuff, I guess, but done with more nuance than you'd normally expect.
As characters go, the Forthrast clan, Iowa natives, will strike most Stephenson fans as being familiar. Not quite Waterhouses (from Cryptonomicon/Baroque Cycle), but Richard certainly leans in that direction. The Forthrasts also bear a resemblance to the family clan in The Cobweb. Sokolov, the Russian security consultant, is more of a Shaftoe kinda guy. This isn't to say that the novel is completely derivative of Stephenson's earlier novels - there are plenty of wholly new characters, and I generally enjoyed most of them. Depth seems to be reserved more for the Forthrasts, Richard and Zula, while the others are more surface-level affairs, but they're generally a likable bunch. And they're all pretty damn competent too. Indeed, most of the time, they're downright Sherlockian. Take this quick sequence, in which Sokolov deduces what's happening from very little information:
Sokolov retrieved his spare clip and other goods from the wreckage now strewn around the conference table, but paused on his way out of the suite to shine his flashlight over the dead man's face. He was ethnic Chinese.Thought processes like these are peppered throughout the book, and our intrepid heros and nefarious villains are all pretty damn good at this form of deduction.
The book does start off a bit on the slower side, and you're not really sure where it's going until about 50 pages in, when things kick into high gear and don't really let up for about 600 or so pages, and even then, there is only a brief respite as various characters are maneuvered to the ultimate showdown. And there are a lot of concurrent storylines being maintained here, much moreso than Stephenson's recent work. He may not have been shooting for profundity when writing this novel, but he sure amped up the complexity, to the point where calling it "just a thriller" doesn't do it much justice. I'm not a particularly accomplished thriller reader, but I from what I have read, this is far more complex and adroit than I would have expected. And it's funny too.
She picked up her phone, navigated to the "Recent Calls" list, and punched in Richard Forthrast's number.And then there's this bit, from perhaps the funniest chapter in the book:
How could your cover be blown in Canada? Why even bother going dark there? How could you tell?After which we get to witness a hysterical chain of emails with two spys basically berating one another while getting actual espionage work done. Great stuff.
There were perhaps a couple of times where the MMORPG side of the story seemed a bit incongruous, like maybe Stephenson was writing about it for its own sake rather than advancing the story, but he manages to tie it all together by the end. Stephenson sometimes gets dinged by folks for his digressions and his endings, but this is a tight novel, and the ending is an epic gunfight ranging over a hundred pages (or maybe even more). There's even a chapter of wrapping things up. Another minor complaint is that Stephenson seemed to go to extreme lengths to get his characters romantically paired up. Actually, I didn't really mind it, but at the same time, I did find it a bit odd in at least a couple of cases (Alex mentioned that it may be a preemptive strike against fan fiction authors who would pair the characters up, but if that's the case, then I actually kinda hate it. I think it's really just that Stephenson likes his characters and wants to see them together...)
Ultimately, it's a fantastic novel and I loved it. This should not surprise you, as I tend to love all of his novels, but as a longtime fan of Stephenson, it is really nice to be able to point to a book that anyone could read and enjoy without being scared away by weird SF tropes, mathematics, obscure history, detailed monetary theory, existential philosophy, the creation of a new vocabulary that is similar, but not quite the same as ours, etc... There's enough Stephensonian digressions into obscure topics that it will give a new reader a nice introduction to Stephenson without drowning them, and I appreciate that because while I love Snow Crash (the book I used to recommend as a place to start with Stephenson), it's got a few things that seem to turn off "normal" people. As for the accessibility issue, I don't really get that as a complaint. No, the book hasn't changed my life, but few do, and I don't think all art needs to be like that. Indeed, artists often overreach when they try to shoehorn "profound" into a story that doesn't need it. And this story doesn't. What it needs is action and thrills and laughs, which are present in abundance. It's an excellent book, and a good introduction to Stephenson. For those who aren't scared of long books, that is...
Update: Otakun comments with some interesting MMORPG perspectives.
Posted by Mark on November 13, 2011 at 01:33 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books
I've been meaning to comment on this for a while, but haven't gotten around to it until now. A couple months ago, NPR put out the call for fans to nominate the best science-fiction and fantasy books. Out of several thousand nominations, NPR narrowed the list down to a few hundred, then had another voting period, finally ending up with the top 100 books (or series).
Like most lists, especially crowd-sourced lists like this, there are many quibbles to be had, but it's a pretty decent list. Below, I'll bold the ones I've read and add annotations where I can, then follow up with some comments.
I'm not sure what to make of the disparity between male and female authors on the list. Is it that there are less female authors of SF/F? Or is it that there are less female readers voting? I can think of one glaring omission on the list - The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel is superb, and would certainly be on my list (I'm pretty sure it was on the shortlist, but got culled when NPR cut down to 100). Thanks to my incessant Bujold reading, 10 of the 23 books I've read so far this year have been written by a woman (though again, most of that is Bujold). I could probably improve that to 50/50 by the end of the year, which would be nice.
And that about covers it. How many have you read?
Update: Forgot to bold one of the books I read, so my count at the end was off. Updated!
Posted by Mark on September 18, 2011 at 08:32 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Doing a bit of belated Spring Cleaning and computer upkeep this weekend, so not a ton of time. Thus, links:
Posted by Mark on May 29, 2011 at 06:57 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Back in March, I posted about Neal Stephenson's new novel:
Not long after the release of Anathem, it was announced that Neal Stephenson's next novel was due in 2011 and would be titled "Reamde". The computer geeks among Stephenson's fans (which is to say, most of Stephenson's fans) were quick to wonder if the title was really supposed to be "Readme", a common name for help or pre-installation files on computers, but everyone insisted that it "wasn't a typo". Well, a couple of days ago, I see on Tombstone that HarperCollins has now listed the book on their site... as Readme. So was it a typo all along, or are the new listings (also on booksellers like Amazon) the actual typo?Well, as it turns out, the new listings actually were a typo. I don't know when it was corrected, but the book is now listed as Reamde everywhere. Also, on another Harper Collins site, there's a plot synopsis:
Four decades ago, Richard Forthrast, the black sheep of an Iowa family, fled to a wild and lonely mountainous corner of British Columbia to avoid the draft. Smuggling backpack loads of high-grade marijuana across the border into Northern Idaho, he quickly amassed an enormous and illegal fortune. With plenty of time and money to burn, he became addicted to an online fantasy game in which opposing factions battle for power and treasure in a vast cyber realm. Like many serious gamers, he began routinely purchasing viral gold pieces and other desirables from Chinese gold farmers— young professional players in Asia who accumulated virtual weapons and armor to sell to busy American and European buyers.Fans of Stephenson will notice tons of overlap with his previous work. Gold, virtual money, virtual worlds, etc... The blurb isn't exactly a barn burner, but if Stephenson is writing it, I'm reading it. It seems to have also been pushed back to September 20. It can't come soon enough.
Posted by Mark on May 11, 2011 at 07:20 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 03, 2011
So the NY Times has an article debating the necessity of the various gadgets. The argument here is that we're seeing a lot of convergence in tech devices, and that many technologies that once warranted a dedicated device are now covered by something else. Let's take a look at their devices, what they said, and what I think:
"It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any older Systems. But things I have seen recently ... have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microscope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive. ... And so I say that Alchemy shall not vanish, as I always hoped. Rather, it shall be encapsulated within the new System of the World, and become a familiar and even comforting presence there, though its name may change and its practitioners speak no more about the Philosopher's Stone." (page 639)That sort of "surround and encapsulate" concept seems broadly applicable to a lot of technology, actually.
Posted by Mark on April 03, 2011 at 07:42 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 09, 2011
You know the drill:
Posted by Mark on March 09, 2011 at 08:10 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 02, 2011
Not long after the release of Anathem, it was announced that Neal Stephenson's next novel was due in 2011 and would be titled "Reamde". The computer geeks among Stephenson's fans (which is to say, most of Stephenson's fans) were quick to wonder if the title was really supposed to be "Readme", a common name for help or pre-installation files on computers, but everyone insisted that it "wasn't a typo". Well, a couple of days ago, I see on Tombstone that HarperCollins has now listed the book on their site... as Readme. So was it a typo all along, or are the new listings (also on booksellers like Amazon) the actual typo?
There isn't much information about the book available just yet. Just that it's coming in at a svelte 960 pages (about par for Stephenson's recent work) and that it will be released on September 13 (which happens to be my birthday). The original io9 article also noticed that it was classified as "thriller" rather than SF. They wonder if that means he's abandoning the genre (as if the 2700 page historical epic featuring no science fiction that he wrote a few years ago didn't happen), but they may have a point about the novel perhaps resembling the pair of pseudonymous techno-thrillers that Stephenson wrote in the early/mid-1990s with his uncle - The Cobweb and Interface. I actually really enjoy those novels for what they are, so I wouldn't have any problem with the new book being like that. Given the aforementioned significance of the term "Readme" and how it relates to computers, I think that most SF fans would probably be fine with it too.
Unless the book actually is titled "Reamde". Then we're totally fucked.
Posted by Mark on March 02, 2011 at 07:47 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Link Dump & Notes
Just some interesting links and some notes about upcoming posts and whatnot:
Posted by Mark on February 23, 2011 at 07:00 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Time is short, so just a few things I've found interesting lately:
Posted by Mark on February 09, 2011 at 10:59 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
About a week ago at the SF App Show, an alpha version of something called The Mongoliad was presented. The description shows promise:
The Mongoliad is a sort of serialized story, created by Neal Stephenson, and written by Neal, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, and a number of other great authors. It will be told via custom apps on iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and Android, and will be something of an experiment in post-book publishing and storytelling.Besides Kaedrin favorite Neal Stephenson, the project also seems to be attracting some other high profile talent like Greg Bear. The use of New Media apps to deliver the stories gives pause, and I have to wonder if this is being optimized for the form factor of the medium, or if it's just because that's the hot new thing to do... Details of the project are a bit scarce, buy you can find some info at the Subtai Corporation page as well as their Facebook page. The overview on the Facebook site gives a little more info on the setting and the plan for populating the world with stories...
The Mongoliad is a rip-roaring adventure tale set 1241, a pivotal year in history, when Europe thought that the Mongol Horde was about to completely destroy their world. The Mongoliad is also the beginning of an experiment in storytelling, technology, and community-driven creativity.Still not sure if the New Media route is the best way to distribute this sort of information, but it at least seems like a better medium than the standard dead tree novel. The other piece of info that's come out about the project is that it will apparently be seeking fan submissions:
Very shortly, once The Mongoliad has developed some mass and momentum, we will be asking fans to join us in creating the rest of the world and telling new stories in it. That’s where the real experiment part comes in. We are building some pretty cool tech to make that easy and fun, and we hope lots of you will use it.It's an interesting concept, and not something I can think of seeing before. There have been various experiments in serialized novels being released on the web, but I can't think of anything massively successful and nothing quite this ambitious has been tried. Stephenson's involvement pretty much guarantees that I'll be trying this app out, but I have to admit to being a bit skeptical about the fan-fiction aspect and the post-book ambitions. I think it's a worthy effort though, and I'm glad to see people of this caliber willing to experiment with new forms like this.
Another funny note about Stephenson, from Subutai's team page:
He is also the Company’s armorer, in charge of developing and producing helmets, gauntlets, and other such protective items as may be required.Heh. Other members of the team seem to have their own funny quirks as well. If nothing else, it's an interesting idea, and I'm looking forward to it...
Posted by Mark on June 02, 2010 at 10:58 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Is Inglourious Basterds Science Fiction?
John Scalzi recently tackled the question of whether or not Quentin Tarantino's WWII epic Inglourious Basterds qualifies for science fiction. Unfortunately, I should mention at this point that the rest of this post contains mild spoilers about the movie. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it (also, it was my favorite movie of 2009).
In any case, the entire argument hinges around the SF sub-genre of alternate history. In such stories, authors will change some aspect of history in order to explore some sort of narrative idea. This type of story takes all sorts of forms, such as Phillp K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, where Dick speculates about what would have happened if the Axis powers won WWII. There are tons of other examples. I've never read one of his books, but I know Harry Turtledove has made something of a career out of similar alternate history stories. Often, the alternate history comes about due to some form of time travel (such as The End of Eternity) or speculation about the many worlds theory of parallel universes (such as Anathem).
A more recent example of the genre is Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Set in the present day, that book's alternate timeline starts that during WW II, when a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees was established in Alaska. Chabon uses the premise to explore Jewish social and cultural issues, but never really uses "science" to explain his settings (i.e. there's no time travel or mention of parallel universes, etc...) This is a particularly relevant example because it really does skirt the boundaries of several genres (the book reads more like a noir detective story than a SF tale), yet it's generally considered part of the SF canon. We'll revisit this book later in this post.
Without getting into too much detail, let's just say that at a certain point in the movie, Tarantino diverges significantly from history. As Scalzi points out, the movie is still very much a WWII movie, but by the end, it's just not quite the same WWII as what's in the history books.
In his post, Scalzi outlines 4 arguments against the interpretation that Basterds is SF. However, I don't find them entirely convincing:
1. It wasn't marketed as science fictionWhile true from a factual standpoint, I don't find this argument at all convincing. It wasn't marketed as SF because the SF elements were meant to be a surprise. Marketing it as an alternate history would be akin to marketing The Sixth Sense as a movie in which Bruce Willis plays a ghost. It's also worth noting that the marketing for a movie isn't always entirely accurate. This is especially true when it comes to cross-genre pieces like Basterds. By necessity, marketing simplifies a given movie to it's basest, most salable features. Indeed, the marketing campaign for Basterds focused almost entirely on Brad Pitt's motley crew of Nazi-hunters and their action packed exploits, yet those characters are not really the focus of the film and indeed, several of the main characters are barely mentioned. So no, it's not surprising that the marketing didn't focus on the SF aspects of the story. That doesn't necessarily make it less of a SF story.
2. The science fictional aspects of the movie are not necessarily essential to itOn this point, I wholeheartedly disagree. Scalzi does admit that changing the SF aspects would make it a different movie, but what he doesn't note is that the movie would be drastically inferior in that case. Without the ending (which is where the SF elements really kick in), the movie might still work, but it wouldn't work nearly as well as it did. That ending is necessary to the success of the movie. It's also worth noting that the movie does start with some premises that could be considered SF. For instance, take the trailer for the movie in which Brad Pitt gives a speech to his men on their upcoming mission. This scene ostensibly takes place before the D-Day invasion of Germany and it assumes a lot of things. For instance, it's revealed that all the members of the squad are Jewish. As present day audiences, we know what this means (and Tarantino is certainly counting on that), but in reality, while the Allies knew of Nazi antisemitism in a general sense, the specifics of the Holocaust were not known until after the invasion when various concentration camps and mass graves were discovered. Now, I'm not going to call this science fiction, but it's clear that Tarantino is counting on audience knowledge of the Holocaust during this scene, and he uses that knowledge to his advantage. This is something that will come up again later in this post.
3. It's kinda more like fantasy than scifi anywayThis is certainly a fair point, but at the same time, a lot of what we consider SF could also be termed "Fantasy". You could probably make a compelling argument that Star Wars is more fantasy than SF. Perhaps this is why SF and fantasy seem to get lumped together in bookstores and whatnot. There is certainly a fantasy element to Basterds though, but I'm just not sure if it outweighs the SF elements.
4. If Inglourious Basterds is science fiction, so are most historical moviesAnother fair point and probably the most compelling among Scalzi's arguments, though I think some important distinctions need to be made here. Movies like Gladiator and Braveheart just contain bad history. For the most part, the people who made those movies were altering history to make for more entertaining narratives, and they knew they could get away with it because 99.9% of the audience doesn't know or care about the real history involved (and in all fairness, such tactics work - both are very good movies).
With Inglourious Basterds, something different is happening. Scalzi even mentiones that "Tarantino's messing with history we actually still remember." And that's important because Tarantino is attempting something subversive. Unlike Gladiator and Braveheart, Basterds actually relies on the audience's knowledge of history. This is a movie that wouldn't work nearly as well if you didn't know anything about WWII. In terms of information theory, Tarantino is making masterful use of exformation whereas movies like Gladiator change history with the confidence that the audience won't notice or care. In short, changing history is the whole point of Basterds, whereas it's just used to spice up the narrative in Gladiator and Braveheart.
In a very real sense, the primary theme of Basterds is the transformative power of cinema. To achieve this goal, Tarantino employs several techniques. One is the direct role of cinema in the plot. A British film critic and a German actress team up with the Basterds to accomplish a specific goal. At several points, discussions of classic German cinema become integral to the plot. Old nitrate filmstock becomes a key plot element. The final showdown occurs in a movie theater that's run by our heroine. And so on. There's obvious symbolism at work there. But let's return to the idea of exformation, as it's an interesting topic (and one I've mentioned before). In short, exformation refers to communication that is dependent on a shared body of knowledge between the parties involved. Wikipedia has a great anecdotal example:
In 1862 the author Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher asking how his most recent book, Les Misérables, was getting on. Hugo just wrote “?” in his message, to which his publisher replied “!”, to indicate it was selling well. This exchange of messages would have no meaning to a third party because the shared context is unique to those taking part in it. The amount of information (a single character) was extremely small, and yet because of exformation a meaning is clearly conveyed.In the case of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino uses exformation masterfully. He knows what the audience knows about WWII and he plays on that. At first, he does so with small things, like the all-Jewish Basterds team (which, at first glance, plays like a Braveheart-style historical inaccuracy, but upon further reflection once the film is over, you can see that Tarnatino is really foreshadowing his subversion of history). A movie like Braveheart diminishes in value when you learn more about the true historical basis for the story. I'm sure there are plenty of historians who get incredibly frustrated when watching a movie like that. But Inglourious Basterds only grows stronger, even as you learn more about the historical basis for that film. For instance, the film does not require you to know all about prewar German cinema, but it certainly could be enhanced by such knowledge.
Take the aforementioned symbolic components, add in Tarantino's use of exformation to manipulate audiences, and then look at how the ending cements the whole film (this is another strike against Scalzi's second point). It's not just that Tarantino doesn't follow history in his movie, it's that he explodes history. He's making an audacious and subversive statement about the power of cinema, and he knows he can go over the top with it because we already know about WWII (not because he thinks he can get away with a few historical inaccuracies).
However, it is interesting to note how history often plays a role in science fiction literature. Indeed, for a while, it seemed like a lot of science fiction authors were leaving behind their SF roots in favor of historical fiction. For example, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, both known for their dystopic cyberpunk work, went out on a limb and published The Difference Engine. Similarly, Kaedrin favorite Neal Stephenson went from his popular futuristic stories in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, the semi-historical WWII/present day thriller Cryptonomicon. He then dove even further into the past with the massive Baroque Cycle, a series of books that took place in late 17th, early 18th centuries. It did concern itself with the emergence of modern science and featured notable scientists and organizations like the Royal Society. In an interview with Salon, Stephenson speculated about whether or not the Baroque Cycle was SF:
I always make it clear that I consider myself a science fiction writer. Even the "Baroque Cycle" fits under the broader vision of what science fiction is about.And he also mentions SF's relationship with history:
There was a review of "Cryptonomicon" with a line in it that struck me as interesting. The guy said, "This is a book for geeks and the history buffs that they turn into." I'm turning into one.Of course, he does note that this fits under a "broader vision" of science fiction, but at the same time, there's more to it than just the subject matter and ideas. Science fiction authors approach the world in a certain way, and that sort of thing tends to come through in their writing, even if what they're writing is not science fiction in the strictest sense. So while The Baroque Cycle is primarily a historical series, it's got some science in it and it reads enough like science fiction that SF fans can appreciate it without any issue.
But the difference between Tarantino and Stephenson is that Stephenson fully acknowledges his SF roots, while Tarantino has not. This is why I previously brought up Michael Chabon's novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Like Tarantino, Chabon is not known primarily for science fiction work. Yet he produced this exceptional alternate history novel that ended up winning the Hugo award for best novel. There are a lot of other similarities between Chabon's book and Tarantino's movie. Both are set in an alternate universe, but neither really explores the speculative aspects of their situations. Chabon's novel probably comes closer to doing so and does not rely on the alternate history as a surprise or shock in the way that Basterds does. Both the novel and the movie are cross-genre stories (the novel using elements of noir and the detective story; the movie using war movie tropes). I don't remember any marketing around The Yiddish Policeman's Union, but I remember being surprised that it won the best novel Hugo (this was before I had read the book and known about its alternate history premise), so I'm guessing that neither movie really calls itself SF.
Then again, the Hugo website does note:
Science Fiction? Fantasy? Horror?And so we finally arrive at the classic classification problem. What is science fiction anyway? It turns out that according to the Hugos, it's whatever they say is SF. Going by Stephenson's broader definition, it makes sense that a book like The Yiddish Policeman's Union could win a Hugo, as it certainly contains its fair share of interesting ideas. Similarly, I think that Inglourious Basterds could easily be considered SF. It contains interesting ideas and is reliant on relatively sophisticated information theory concepts like exformation.
Observant readers may notice that the Kaedrin Movie Awards contains a category for best SF or Horror film, and that Inglourious Basterds was absent from the nominations in that category. So it seemed that back then, I didn't consider it SF enough to nominate. And now? I think it certainly could (and it would have won). But I think what it really comes down to is the Hugo test: Do most people consider it SF? And that's where I think my argument that it is SF falters. I think most people do not think of it as a SF movie. This may stem from the nature of the plot, which makes it hard to market the movie as SF (and to Scalzi's point there, blatant categorizations like SF exist for marketing purposes in the first place). Tarantino isn't generally associated with the SF world and isn't calling the movie SF either, which also tends to diminish my argument. But after thinking about it, I still like to think of it as SF. It may not be like any other alternate history story, but just because it's wholly unique in that respect doesn't make it less of a SF movie.
Posted by Mark on February 21, 2010 at 07:00 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Stephenson For Beginners
Long time Kaedrin compatriot Sovawanea has recently started a blog chronicling her quest to read 96 books in 2010. One of her sub-quests is to read all of Neal Stephenson's novels (truly a woman after my heart). Knowing my love of all things Stephenson, she asked me for some advice: "Any suggestions on which order I should tackle Stephenson in? Baroque Cycle first?" To which I replied "Noooo!"
I like the Baroque Cycle as much as anyone and it is true that it's a standalone story. However, unless you're a die-hard scholar of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century European history, I think you'd be much better off reading Cryptonomicon first, then easing into the Baroque Cycle later. There are many advantages to this approach. First off, Cryptonomicon is about 1800 pages shorter than the 2700 page Baroque Cycle. Second, Cryptonomicon's settings (WWII and present day) are more accessible. Third, the entire series focuses on characters from around 2 major families, with several other side character families, and I think the introduction to these families is better made in Cryptonomicon. This provides you with a sorta shorthand when encountering characters in the Baroque Cycle, allowing you to focus on all the other stuff Stephenson is throwing at you without being totally overwhelmed. Finally, I think Cryptonomicon is just plain better than the Baroque Cycle, though I really enjoyed both. But this also begs another question - is Cryptonomicon the best place to start? If not, what is?
It's a truly tough question. I think Shamus really nailed Cryptonomicon and Stephenson in general with this statement:
In fact, I have yet to introduce anyone to the book and have them like it. I’m slowly coming to the realization that Cryptonomicon is not a book for normal people. Flaws aside, there are wonderful parts to this book. The problem is, you have to really love math, history, and programming to derive enjoyment from them. You have to be odd in just the right way to love the book. Otherwise the thing is a bunch of wanking.When I read Anathem, I got a similar feeling, but with different subjects. And when I think about the rest of his work, I find myself struggling to find an ideal starting place for Stephenson. I've come up with some ideas below, but I'd certainly be interested in any of my 5 readers' (at least a couple of whom have read some Stephenson) thoughts on the subject as well. In any case, I think the best place to start (perhaps not coincidentally) is the same place I started: Snow Crash. It's more accessible than most of Stephenson's later novels, and it's not nearly as long either. It's also a lot of fun.
Now, there are some things about Snow Crash that might be off-putting to new readers. For instance, it belongs to a specific sub-genre of science fiction called Cyberpunk. To be honest, I'm not especially in love with that sub-genre. William Gibson popularized the concept with his novel Neuromancer, which was kinda like futuristic Raymond Chandler, and that's widely considered to be the best cyberpunk novel. Snow Crash is almost (but not quite) a parody of cyberpunk tropes, while still being an excellent example of the sub-genre. One of the things I don't like about Cyberpunk is that it's infused with a sorta earnest nihilism or cynicism. Stephenson doesn't take it as seriously and has a lot of fun with the typical tropes of the sub-genre, which makes some of the more ridiculous stuff go down easier. There's a satirical element to the book that I don't get from a lot of other cyberpunk, and that makes the proceedings more interesting to me. Once you get past the initial culture shock at the beginning of Snow Crash, things rocket along pretty quickly. There's plenty of action and even the occasional info-dump doesn't slow things down too much. The characters are fun and the ideas are interesting. What's more, I know lots of people who have read and enjoyed this book, which seems to indicate that it's perhaps not as narrowly focused as something like Cryptonomicon. It's also widely considered to be one of his best novels and also one of the best SF novels of all time. For all these reasons, I think this is probably the best place to start. After that, you could go any number of directions.
I suppose one purist way to look at it would be to read his books in the order they were written. The big issue there is that you start with The Big U, which I did have some fun with, but which is really only for Stephenson junkies who have read everything else.
However, you could make a compelling case for starting with Zodiac, which I think is one of Stephenson's more underrated or at least, forgotten books (perhaps because it was written before Snow Crash). It's also probably his most accessible book, and it's subject matter is surprisingly relevant even today (it's about a group of environmentalists). If the concepts behind Snow Crash turn you off, you might still enjoy Zodiac a lot. It's a present day story, and not nearly as stylistic as Snow Crash. It also might be his shortest book.
The Diamond Age is a good book for those who loved Snow Crash and it makes for an interesting bridge between Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon (not surprising, as it's the book that was written between those other two). It has a similar Cyberpunky setting, though you are also starting to see a real historical influence, as Stephenson establishes a Victorian undertone layered on top of a more typical SF setting (with nanotech and immersive interactive books, etc...). The one bit of warning about Diamond Age though: I'm convinced that Stephenson's undeserved reputation for bad endings is due to this book (which has a deservedly bad, or at least strangely abrupt ending). It's something I want to revisit at some point to see if the ending makes more sense upon rereading, but still.
Cryptonomicon is great, but as previously mentioned, it's relatively long and it seems to rub some people the wrong way. Still, I consider it to be Stephenson's best novel and it's actually my favorite novel of all time. Following that with the Baroque Cycle makes sense, as they're both part of the same series.
Anathem is his most recent novel, and it is very good. Perhaps not as good as Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash, but excellent in its own right. The only real caveat with this one is that Stephenson kinda invents a new vocabulary in the story, and it takes a little while to get used to the style. That said, it's not a gimmick and there actually ends up being a pretty good reason for it. It's up there towards the top of my rankings, but I also don't think it's an especially good one to start with.
One other interesting idea for a place to start with Stephenson would be the novels he wrote under a pseudonym (Stephen Bury) with his uncle, J. Frederick George - The Cobweb and Interface. They're both written in a more prosaic style and read more like a techno-thriller than Stephenson's other novels. They start with absurd premises (the blurbs about their plots make the books sound awful), but the authors make them seem realistic and populate the world with good characters, then have a less realistic ending. I actually really enjoyed them a lot more than I thought I would, and you can clearly see Stephenson's influence, but they're not as deep as the rest of his stuff. I'd recommend holding off on these until later, but they're definitely worth reading if you're a fan (and maybe even if you're not).
I think that covers all his fiction novels. In terms of Non-Fiction, he actually has a few great books (or, er, reallly long essays). In the Beginning Was the Command Line is horribly out-dated (it's about operating systems, but it was written 10 years ago - before OSX, Win XP, Ubuntu, etc...), but still an entertaining read. Despite being out-dated, it's still relevant because he spends a lot of time talking about cultures and history of the computer and operating systems, etc.. It's also available for free online. In the Kingdom of Mao Bell and Mother Earth Mother Board are two absurdly long articles that Stephenson wrote for Wired in the 90s. The most interesting thing about them is that you can really see how his experiences writing those articles influenced his later novels.
So in terms of a recommended order to tackle his books in, my thoughts seem to point to something like this: Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, Anathem, Zodiac, Interface, The Cobweb, and finishing off with The Big U. It's a little top-heavy in that his best works are at the front of the list, but I think that's generally how people approach authors anyway.
That list is, of course, purely subjective. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the matter...
Posted by Mark on January 06, 2010 at 06:27 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Link Dump - Video Edition
Just a few interesting links I've run across recently:
Posted by Mark on November 25, 2009 at 09:16 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Stephenson @ Google
This is old and I probably should have posted it half a year ago (and I'm surprised I didn't - I had to check and make sure), but it's still interesting and if you haven't seen it and are a Neal Stephenson fan, it's worth a watch. He talks about Anathem and knowing that he's speaking to Google, he suggests they talk about the infamous Atlantic article Is Google Making Us Stupid? (the article shares some thematic similarities with Anathem). It's mostly a Q&A though, so there's a lot of other topics.
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on March 25, 2009 at 09:49 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
For obvious reasons, time is a little short these days, so here are a few links I've found interesting lately:
Posted by Mark on January 07, 2009 at 08:56 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
I finished Neal Stephenson's latest novel, Anathem, a few weeks back. Overall, I enjoyed it heartily. I don't think it's his best work (a distinction that still belongs to Cryptonomicon or maybe Snow Crash), but it's way above anything I've read recently. It's a dense novel filled with interesting and complex ideas, but I had no problem keeping up once I got started. This is no small feat in a book that is around 900 pages long.
On the other hand, my somewhat recent discussion with Alex regarding the ills of Cryptonomicon has lead me to believe that perhaps the reason I like Neal Stephenson's novels so much is that he tunes into the same geeky frequencies I do. I think Shamus hit the nail on the head with this statement:
In fact, I have yet to introduce anyone to the book and have them like it. I’m slowly coming to the realization that Cryptonomicon is not a book for normal people. Flaws aside, there are wonderful parts to this book. The problem is, you have to really love math, history, and programming to derive enjoyment from them. You have to be odd in just the right way to love the book. Otherwise the thing is a bunch of wanking.Similarly, Anathem is not a book for normal people. If you have any interest in Philosophy and/or Quantum Physics, this is the book for you. Otherwise, you might find it a bit dry... but you don't need to be in love with those subjects to enjoy the book. You just need to find it interesting. I, for one, don't know much about Quantum Physics at all, and I haven't read any (real) Philosophy since college, and I didn't have any problems. In fact, I was pretty much glued to the book the whole time. One of the reasons I could tell I loved this book was that I wasn't really aware of what page I was on until I neared the end (at which point dealing with the physicality of the book itself make it pretty obvious how much was left).
Minor spoilers ahead, though I try to keep this to a minimum.
The story takes place on another planet named Arbre and is told in first person by a young man named Erasmus. Right away, this yields the interesting effect of negating the multi-threaded stories of most of Stephenson's other novels and providing a somewhat more linear progression of the story (at least, until you get towards the end of the novel, when the linearity becomes dubious... but I digress). Erasmus, who is called Raz by his friends, is an Avout - someone who has taken certain vows to concentrate on studies of science, history and philosophy. The Avout are cloistered in areas called Concents, which is kind of like a monastary except the focus of the Avout is centered around scholarship and not religion. Concents are isolated from the rest of the world (the area beyond a Concent's walls is referred to as Extramuros or the Saecular World), but there are certain periods in which the gates open and the Avout mix with the Saecular world (these periods are called Apert). Each concent is split up into smaller Maths, which are categorized by the number of years which lapse between each Apert.
Each type of Math has interesting characteristics. Unarian maths have Apert every year, and are apparently a common way to achieve higher education before getting a job in the Saecular world (kinda like college or maybe grad-school). Decenarian maths have Apert once every ten years. Raz and most of the characters in the story are "tenners." Centenarian maths have Apert once every century (and are referred to as hundreders) and Millenarian maths have Apert once every thousand years (and are called thousanders).
I suppose after reading the last two paragraphs, you'll notice that Stephenson has spent a fair amount of time devising new words and concepts for his alien planet. At first, this seems a bit odd and it might take some getting used to, but after the first 50-100 pages, it's pretty easy to keep up with all the new history and terminology. There's a glossary in the back of the book for reference, but I honestly didn't find that I needed it very often (at least, not the way I did while reading Dune, for instance). Much has been made of Stephenson's choice in this matter, as well as his choice to set the story on an alien planet that has a history that is roughly analogous to Earth's history. Indeed, it seems like there is a one-to-one relationship between many historical figures and concepts on Arbre and Earth. Take, for instance, Protas:
Protas, the greatest fid of Thelenes, had climbed to the top of a mountain near Ethras and looked down upon the plain that nourished the city-state and observed the shadows of the clouds, and compared their shapes. He had had his famous upsight that while the shapes of the shadows undeniably answered to those of the clouds, the latter were infinitely more complex and more perfectly realized than the former, which were distorted not only by the loss of a spatial dimension but also by being projected onto terrain that was of irregular shape. Hiking back down, he had extended that upsight by noting that the mountain seemed to have a different shape every time he turned round to look back at it, even though he knew it had one absolute form and that these seeming changes were mere figments of his shifting point of view. From there, he had moved on to his greatest upsight of all, which was that these two observations - the one concerning the clouds, the other concerning the mountain - were themselves both shadows cast into his mind by the same greater, unifying idea. (page 84)Protas is clearly an analog to Plato (and thus, Thelenes is similar to Socrates) and the concepts described above run parallel to Plato's concept of the Ideal (even going so far as to talk about shadows and the like, calling to mind Plato's metaphor of the cave). There are literally dozens of these types of relationships in the book. Adrakhones is analogous to Pythagoras, Gardan's Steelyard is similar to Occam's Razor, and so on. Personally, I rather enjoyed picking up on these similarities, but the referential nature of the setting might seem rather indulgent on Stephenson's part (at least, it might seem so to someone who hasn't read the book). I even speculated as much while I was reading the book, but as a reader noted in the comments to my post, that's not all there is to it. It turns out that Stephenson's choice to set the story on Arbre, a planet that has a history suspiciously similar to Earth, was not an indulgence at all. Indeed, it becomes clear later in the book that these similarities are actually vital to the story being told.
This sort of thing represents a sorta meta-theme of the book. Where Cryptonomicon is filled with little anecdotes and tangents that are somewhat related to the story, Anathem is tighter. Concepts that are seemingly tangential and irrelevant wind up playing an important role later in the book. Don't get me wrong, there are certainly a few tangents or anecdotes that are just that, but despite the 900+ page length of the book, Stephenson does a reasonably good job juggling ideas, most of which end up being important later in the book.
The first couple hundred pages of the novel take place within a Concent, and thus you get a pretty good idea of what life is like for the Avout. It's always been clear that Stephenson appreciates the opportunity to concentrate on something without having any interruptions. His old website quoted former Microsoft employee Linda Stone's concept of "continuous partial attention," which is something most people are familiar with these days. Cell phones, emails, Blackberries/iPhones, TV, and even the internet are all pieces of technology which allow us to split our attention and multi-task, but at the same time, such technology also serves to make it difficult to find a few uninterrupted hours with which to delve into something. Well, in a Concent, the Avout have no such distractions. They lead a somewhat regimented, simple life with few belongings and spend most of their time thinking, talking, building and writing. Much of their time is spent in Socratic dialogue with one another. At first, this seems rather odd, but it's clear that these people are first rate thinkers. And while philosophical discussions can sometimes be a bit dry, Stephenson does his best to liven up the proceedings. Take, for example, this dialogue between Raz and his mentor, Orolo:
"Describe worrying," he went on.And this goes on for a few pages as well. Incidentally, this is also an example of one of those things that seems like it's an irrelevant tangent, but returns later in the story.
So the Avout are a patient bunch, willing to put in hundreds of years of study to figure out something you or I might find trivial. I was reminded of the great unglamourous march of technology, only amplified. Take, for instance, these guys:
Bunjo was a Millenarian math built around an empty salt mine two miles underground. Its fraas and suurs worked in shifts, sitting in total darkness waiting to see flashes of light from a vast array of crystalline particle detectors. Every thousand years they published their results. During the First Millenium they were pretty sure they had seen flashes on three separate occasions, but since then they had come up empty. (page 262)As you might imagine, there is some tension between the Saecular world and the Avout. Indeed, there have been several "sacks" of the various Concents. This happens when the Saecular world gets freaked out by something the Avout are working on and attacks them. However, at the time of the novel, things are relatively calm. Total isolation is not possible, so there are Hierarchs from the Avout who keep in touch with the Saecular world, and thus when the Saecular world comes across a particularly daunting problem or crisis, they can call on the Avout to provide some experts for guidance. Anathem tells the story of one such problem (let's say they are faced with an external threat), and it leads to an unprecedented gathering of Avout outside of their concents.
I realize that I've spent almost 2000 words without describing the story in anything but a vague way, but I'm hesitant to give away too much of the story. However, I will mention that the book is not all philosophical dithering and epic worldbuilding. There are martial artists (who are Avout from a Concent known as the Ringing Vale, which just sounds right), cross-continental survival treks, and even some space travel. All of this is mixed together well, and I while I wouldn't characterise the novel as an action story, there's more than enough there to keep things moving. In fact, I don't want to give the impression that the story takes a back seat at any point during the novel. Most of the world building I've mentioned is something that comes through incidentally in the telling of the story. There are certainly "info-dumps" from time to time, but even those are generally told within the framework of the story.
There are quite a few characters in the novel (as you might expect, when you consider its length), but the main ones are reasonably well defined and interesting. Erasmus turns out to be a typical Stephensonian character - a very smart man who is constantly thrust into feuds between geniuses (i.e. a Randy/Daniel Waterhouse type). As such, he is a likeable fellow who is easy to relate to and empathize with. He has several Avout friends, each of whom plays an important role in the story, despite being separated from time to time. There's even a bit of a romance between Raz and one of the other Avout, though this does proceed somewhat unconventionally. During the course of the story, Raz even makes some Extramuros friends. One being his sister Cord, who seems to be rather bright, especially when it comes to mechanics. Another is Sammann, who is an Ita (basically a tecno-nerd who is always connected to networks, etc...). Raz's mentor Orolo has been in the Concent for much longer than Raz, and is thus always ten steps ahead of Raz (he's the one who brought up the nerve-gas-farting pink dragons above).
Another character who doesn't make an appearance until later on in the story is Fraa Jad. He's a Millenarian, so if Orolo is always ten steps ahead, Jad is probably a thousand steps ahead. He has a habit of biding his time and dropping a philosophical bomb into a conversation, like this:
Fraa Jad threw his napkin on the table and said: "Consciousness amplifies the weak signals that, like cobwebs spun between trees, web Narratives together. Moreover, it amplifies them selectively and in that way creates feedback loops that steer the Narratives." (page 701)If that doesn't make a lot of sense, that's because it doesn't. In the book, the characters surrounding Jad spend a few pages trying to unpack what was said there. That might seem a bit tedious, but it's actually kinda funny when he does stuff like that, and his ideas actually are driving the plot forward, in a way. One thing Stephenson doesn't spend much time discussing is the details of how the Millenarians continue to exist. He doesn't explicitely come out and say it, but the people on Arbre seem to have life spans similar to humans (perhaps a little longer), so it's a little unclear how things like Millenarian Maths can exist. He does mention that thousanders have managed to survive longer than others, but it's not clear how or why. If one were so inclined, they could perhaps draw a parallel between the Thousanders in Anathem and the Eruditorium in Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. Indeed, Enoch Root would probably fit right in at a Millenarian Math... but I'm pretty sure I'm just reading way too much into this and that Stephenson wasn't intentionally trying to draw such a parallel. It's still an interesting thought though.
Overall, Stephenson has created and sustained a detailed world, and he has done so primarily through telling the story. Indeed, I'm only really touching the surface of what he's created here, and honestly, so is he. It's clear that Stephenson could easily have made this into another 3000 page Baroque Cycle style trilogy, delving into the details of the history and culture of Arbre, but despite the long length of the novel, he does keep things relatively tight. The ending of the novel probably won't do much to convince those who don't like his endings that he's turned a new leaf, but I enjoyed it and thought it ranked well within his previous books. There are some who will consider the quasi-loose-ends in the story to be frustrating, but I thought it actually worked out well and was internally consistent with the rest of the story (it's hard to describe this without going into too much detail). In the end, this is Stephenson's best work since Cryptonomicon and the best book I've read in years. It will probably be enjoyed by anyone who is already a Stephenson fan. Otherwise, I'm positive that there are people out there who are just the right kind of weird that would really enjoy this book. I expect that anyone who is deeply interested in Philosophy or Quantum Physics would have a ball. Personally, I'm not too experienced in either realm, but I still enjoyed the book immensely. Here's to hoping we don't have to wait another 4 years for a new Stephenson novel...
Posted by Mark on December 07, 2008 at 08:39 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Anathem is Referential
I am surprisingly only about halfway through Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem. Of course, this has nothing to do with the book itself and is more a result of a certain baseball team's improbable World Series win (Go Phils!), a particularly eventful election season and, of course, watching ridiculous amounts of horror films in preparation for Halloween. Also, since Stephenson only tends to put out books at a rate of about once every 3-4 years, I figure it's a good thing to savor this one. So far, it's excellent, and I can't wait to see where it's going.
There are a couple of interesting questions that keep popping into my head though, one of which has to do with the referential nature of the setting. The story takes place on an alien planet named Arbre. This planet is remarkably similar to Earth in many ways. The civilization on Arbre is a few thousand years beyond where we are, but again, there are many parallels between Arbre's history and Earth's history. Since it's an alien planet, there are different names for lots of things or historical figures, but it's often very clear who has inspired various ideas in the book. The book actually has a glossary in the back and peppers various dictionary definitions throughout the book to keep the reader up to speed on various differences between the planets. This can be a bit tricky at first, but after the initial shock, I realized that it was pretty easy to follow and even fun to puzzle out the various connections (in other words, I don't think the glossary is as necessary in Anathem as it is in a book like Frank Herbert's Dune, where I found it necessary to frequently reference the glossary). However, I can't help but wonder, why place the story on an alien planet at all? Why not just set it far enough into the future that you can still hint at the various historical connections and ideas without having to specifically call them out? Perhaps there's more to it than meets the eye. As I've mentioned in an earlier entry about Anathem, decoding all the references is part of the fun of SF.
And indeed, I do get a kick out of reading Stephenson's description of Hemn Space and thinking to myself, that sounds an awful lot like a Hilbert Space! It was oddly satisfying to recognize some obscure reference like Project Orion just from the description of a cosmological observation made by some of the characters. And there are a ton of these: Protas is a philosopher who is clearly supposed to be analogous to Plato, Adrakhones is like Pythagoras, Gardan's Steelyard is similar to Occam's Razor, and so on. When I did a quick search, I found that there were tons of other references that I didn't even pick up on... One of my favorite references is actually rather trivial, but it makes sense in terms of the story and it gives us SF nerds something to geek out on. (from page 47 of my edition):
"...what is the origin of the Doxan Iconography?"The series is obviously an analog to Star Trek and Dox is clearly a reference to Spock. If I had more than 5 readers, there'd probably be one who was really into Star Trek and they'd probably be fuming right now because the description above doesn't match exactly with the real Star Trek (I mean, duh, the Enterprise's mission was to explore space, not to attack an alien race!). Perhaps Stephenson set the story on Arbre so that he could avoid such nitpicks and get people to focus on the story. Indeed, this wouldn't be the first time he sought to avoid the nitpicking masses. In Cryptonomicon, Stephenson's characters ran around using computers with the Finux operating system, an obvious reference to Linux. Stephenson has an FAQ where he explains why he did this:
> Neal, in Cryptonomicon why did you call Windows and MacOS bySo perhaps setting the story on Arbre just affords Stephenson the creative freedom to tell the story as he sees fit, instead of having to shoehorn everything into Earth history and worry about people missing the forest for the trees. In the process, the story becomes more cognitively engaging (in the way most referential art is) because we're constantly drawing parallels to Earth's history.
As previously mentioned, this is a somewhat common feature of the science fiction and fantasy genres. It's one of the reasons SF/F fans enjoy these books so much... Alas, it's probably also why true SF doesn't get much of a mainstream following, as I can't imagine this sort of thing is for everybody. In any case, I'm really enjoying Anathem, and now that my various distractions have calmed down a bit, I'll probably tear through the rest of the book relatively quickly.
Posted by Mark on November 05, 2008 at 08:45 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Neal Stephenson's Endings
One complaint frequently aimed at Neal Stephenson is that he can't write an ending. Even the Wikipedia article on Stephenson (which is supposed to be written from a neutral point of view) mentiones that his books have "an abrupt ending with no conventional denouement and many loose ends" and that this pattern holds true for all of Stephenson's books. A couple of advance reviews of Anathem have been posted, and both of them mention that the ending is abrupt, but an improvement over his other endings. Personally, I've never had much of a problem with his endings (minor spoilers ahead):
Stephenson himself has addressed the perception of bad endings:
I always write the endings that I want to, and am as satisfied with my endings as I am with any other aspect of my writing. I just have an opinion about what constitutes a good ending that is at variance with some of my readers.Gretta Cook also talked about Stephenson's response to the question during a talk at Google:
He dislikes pat endings that explain everything and tie everything up with a neat little bow; in real life, there are no convenient termination points.Indeed.
In other Stephenson news, there's a great article in Wired about some of the themes that drove Stephenson to write Anathem.
Posted by Mark on August 20, 2008 at 11:28 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
More Anathem Details
Not sure when this happened, but there's a new video on Amazon's Anathem page that features a 4 minute interview with Stephenson, who explains a few things about his new book. Most notably and despite Stephenson's best efforts, it appears that the book has developed it's own vocabulary and will feature a glossary (similar to Dune, though I get the impression that his planet won't have quite as much in the glossary). I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, but my initial impression is that it's a good thing. The story is supposed to be set on an alien planet, so it makes sense that there would be concepts and vocabulary that would require explanation. One of the things that always bothered me about alien planets in fiction (particularly in TV and movies) is just how homogenous they are. When you look at the history of our planet you see a ton of variety surrounding life, society, culture, etc... and you rarely see any of that kind of depth in SF stories. Again, this is more evident in TV and film, where you see things like a multitude of humanoid races (not that humanoid aliens can't exist, it's just that humans developed and evolved to survive in a distinct environment - to assume that most aliens would develop in almost the exact same way (except with some strange bulges in their forehead) is ludicrous - and besides, we know humanoids, humanoids are boring, give us something new and interesting, like the Alien) or overly simplistic environments like "the ice planet of Hoth" (Star Wars seems particularly willing to simplify planets by endowing them with a single ecological system that covers the entire planet). Books seem to be a little better suited to establishing a fictional world anyway, so I'm hoping that Stephenson will be able to do so effectively.
I've actually been reading a lot of SF recently (which I guess you can tell, from the recent SF content that's been posted on the blog recently) and will probably be posting a recap of several recent reads, but one book that really caught my attention with it's depiction of a non-humanoid alien race was Vernor Vinge's excellent A Fire Upon the Deep. There are actually several interesting alien races in the book, but the primary one is called the Tines, which basically take the form of packs of dog-like beings. I don't want to spoil the book, but the way Vinge handles the Tines is fascinating. In some ways, they're very similar to humans, but in other ways, they are dramatically different, and Vinge does a good job extrapolating from those differences. I can't tell yet if Stephenson's novel will feature humanoid aliens or not (are they even aliens?), but he does mention that their history of ideas runs roughly parallel to our own. Again, I'm not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I don't want aliens that are exactly the same as us, but on the other hand, there needs to be some similarities or else we won't be able to relate (nor would it be realistic to expect Stephenson to conceive of something like that). Indeed, Vinge's Tines had a roughly parallel history of ideas as well, except that they were stuck in a medieval state that, for physical reasons, they could not transcend (until aliens land on their planet, of course).
Anyway, there also appears to be a PDF of Anathem's first chapter available, though I have not read it yet (and probably won't until the book comes out). No word about whether or not we'll get an accompanying CD with the book (like the advanced copies had). Sorry to keep blabbing about Anathem, but I'm obviously excited for this novel.
Posted by Mark on July 27, 2008 at 09:27 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Genres and SF
Neal Stephenson recently gave a talk called The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture at Gresham College. It's an interesting talk, and one of the things he talks about is how genres have evolved over time. Fifty years ago, there were a lot of fairly well delineated genres. He gives some examples like Romance, Westerns, and Crime. Westerns have basically disappeared. It's still a genre, but anything produced in that genre happens in some exceptional way (I think the genre survives because it has a rich history; otherwise it would have disappeared completely). Romance has more or less merged with all the other genres. Sure, bookstores still have unabashed romance sections, but you don't see much of those stories elsewhere in movies or television. Instead, you see romance merged in with just about every other genre. Most movies feature some romantic element these days. There are exceptions, of course, and there are sub-genres that are more romantic than not (i.e. romantic comedies), but for the most part romance on its own is pretty rare in movies. In a way, romance has become so ubiquitous that it ceases to be its own genre. Similarly, crime stories have become so commonplace that it's barely retained itself as a grenre. This is especially the case in television, and I can guarantee that there are at least 3 or 4 separate episodes of Law & Order and/or CSI playing on television right now, as I write this entry. Stephenson goes into more detail for all of these genres, and it is quite interesting.
A while ago, I linked to an article that featured a bunch of SF authors attempting to define the science fiction genre. I didn't talk much about my thoughts at the time, except to say that I favored a more broad definition than most of the authors, and part of the reason I did that was because of Neal Stephenson. He became famous for novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, obvious and unabashed science fiction, but his later works have curiously moved into more of a historical fiction. Crytponomicon takes place partially during WWII (with the other plotline being in the present day) and The Baroque Cycle takes place entirely in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both stories feature a lot of science and/or math, but they aren't your steriotypical SF. There's nothing futuristic about them, they don't take place in space, they don't feature aliens (well, we don't exactly know what Enoch Root is, so perhaps I'm wrong about that - then again, I don't think I ever want his character to be explained). Basically, a lot of the more strict definitions of SF would exclude those books. As such, I've always been curious to see what Stephenson's thoughts were, and perhaps unsprisingly, he seems to hold an extremely broad definition of what constitutes SF. He seems to embrace the notion of SF as meaning Science Fiction but also Speculative Fiction, which opens the doors to a lot of seemingly non science fictional things. For instance, he notes the way that science fiction and fantasy are often conflated, and he also seems to include anything influenced by comic books, video games or martial arts films as well. He also quotes Bruce Sterling's hilarious definition of "thrillers" (which funnily enough, involves science fiction). Is his definition too broad? Perhaps, but I think it's also a part of his larger point, which is that genres are kinda meshing together.
It's an interesting talk, and Stephenson goes into a lot more than just genre talk here, including stuff about vegging out and geeking out (which is something he's written about before) and the way most people seem to have become geeks in one way or another (geekhood no longer seems to be limited to computer enthusiasts).
Posted by Mark on July 09, 2008 at 09:23 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Anathem Music Update
Apparently the advanced reader copies of Neal Stephenson’s new novel Anathem are starting to arrive... along with an unexpected musical accompaniment in the form of a CD. According to Al Billings:
There is a note with it stating that “In order to conform to the practices of the avout, this disc contains music composed for and performed by voices alone.”Interesting. I wonder if this is something that will come with the book once it is released... or if it's just an added bonus for those lucky enough to be selected for an early reviewer book like Al. In any case, Cory Doctorow notes that the music was created by Dave Stutz, a retired Microsoft employee who apparently advocated open source software, but now owns a winery and makes strange music.
And so this Anathem thing gets more and more interesting. September 9 can't get here fast enough! [Thanks to Tombstone for the links]
Posted by Mark on June 25, 2008 at 08:30 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Time is short, so just a few interesting links that I've run accross recently:
Posted by Mark on March 26, 2008 at 08:35 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Interesting article about geeky dads who worry that their kids won't become geeks, too, and how they try to instill a sort of geeky work ethic in their kids.
Science fiction author Neal Stephenson once told me something memorable as we were hanging out in his back yard. He pointed to an unfinished kayak under a tarp. He said he was slowly working on it, in part to mentor his kids, even though they did no work on the boat, nor express the least bit of interest in this project. None-the-less he continued puttering on the undertaking while they were home. Stephenson said when he was a kid, his dad was constantly tinkering on some garage project or another, and despite Neal's complete indifference for any of his dad's enthusiasms at the time, he was influenced by this embedded tinkering. It was part of the family scene, part of his household, like mealtime style, or the pattern of interactions between siblings. Later on when Neal did attempt to make stuff on his own, the pattern was right at hand. It felt comfortable, easy. Without having to try very hard, he knew how to be a nerd.Interesting stuff. And speaking of Stephenson, Warren Ellis apparently finished the Baroque Cycle lately:
I have just finished reading The Baroque Cycle of Neal Stephenson, and feel like giving up writing entirely.I guess he liked it? Further thoughts on his blog:
I finally got to finish reading the last of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. I'd never normally recommend you read a 3000-page work, but the Cycle is just a towering piece of work, and I think you should read it before you die. A hundred pages from the end, I got that terrible longing sadness, the one that comes when you realise you're near the end of something and you'ĺl never have the joy of reading this in the same way again.I've had that feeling before. I definitely had it while reading the Baroque Cycle, but that was more just because I'd been reading the thing for 2 years. And it had one of Stephenson's better endings, I think. I had the same feeling while reading Cryptonomicon, except I had it more like three or four hundred pages from the end. Heh. [Warren Ellis links via No Mod Required]
Update: Shamus joins in the discussion Alex and I had about Cryptonomicion.
Posted by Mark on February 27, 2008 at 09:47 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Holy crap! I just found out that Neal Stephenson's new novel is to be titled Anathem, and according to Amazon, it's set to be released on September 9, 2008. Also, it's 928 pages. I don't know how I missed this, but apparently, some details about the novel leaked last September, in this LJ entry:
He's writing a science fiction novel unrelated to Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. It's set on another planet and has aliens and so on. It's really about Platonic mathematics, but he needed the aliens and space opera-ish elements to spice it up a little bit, just like the pirates kept people engaged in the Baroque books. He's nearly finished writing it, and if he doesn't finish by the end of the calendar year he'll have to give some money back. If everything proceeds according to schedule, it should be available in stores in about a year.Damn! Looks like my US Civil War era prediction was a bit off, though I do think my prediction is still in place for the next Cryptonomicon/Baroque Cycle style novel will feature at least one portion set in the US Civil War Era. Or something. In any case, I'm psyched. (via this wikio page I found in my referrers)
Update 3.31.08: Lev Grossman, geek blogger for Time magazine, reports on the plot:
Since childhood, Raz has lived behind the walls of a 3,400-year-old monastery, a sanctuary for scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians—sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, unpredictable "saecular" world that is plagued by recurring cycles of booms and busts, world wars and climate change. Until the day that a higher power, driven by fear, decides that only these cloistered scholars have the abilities to avert an impending catastrophe. And, one by one, Raz and his cohorts are summoned forth without warning into the Unknown.Interesting. No mention of other planets or aliens, but a promising plot, I guess.
Posted by Mark on February 20, 2008 at 10:35 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Thoughts on Cryptonomicon
Alex has some choice words for one of my favorite books, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. In all honesty, I don't really blame him. It's not necessarily that I agree with all his comments so much as I can see why some people would be bothered by some of the things in the book. For a 900+ page book, it sure doesn't seem to have a lot of plot. What it has instead is a whole bunch of tangential stories and anecdotes revolving around what basically amounts to a treasure hunt. There are lots of other subplots. There's a war story, a couple of romantic threads, lots of technology, some history, and a bunch of other junk thrown in for good measure, but in the end, the plot is about Nazi gold.
What follows might seem a bit defensive, but I want to start with a disclaimer that I just can't resist discussing Stephenson. As I mentioned before, I don't blame Alex for not liking various bits and pieces of the book, I just don't happen to agree about most of them.
I don’t strictly look for a point in the books that I read, but nonetheless I found Cryptonomicon distinctly lacking in the department of points, and I feel like it ate my time.I can see why someone would say something like that after they finish the book. The ending is mildly lackluster (Alex barely mentions my least favorite part of the book, which is Andrew Loeb, jungle warrior). After the first few hundred pages of the book, I had no idea where Stephenson was going with the story. But hell, I was enjoying myself immensely. I don't mind my time being "eaten" if I'm enjoying the process. Is there a point to the book? Well, it depends on what you want to get out of it. I saw lots of themes that I found relevant and interesting, and Stephenson touches on many interesting topics. For instance, cryptography plays an important role in both the WWII and modern day portions of the book, but it's also a thematic element that permeates the entire book. A large portion of the book is about separating signal from noise, whether it be Randy trying to decode Amy Shaftoe or Bobby trying to decipher why the heck his unit is being asked to do all sorts of strange things. Maybe it's just that I find the world mystifying in the extreme, but I like the way the characters in the book strive to figure out the world. Is that a "point" of the book?
Amidst all of the whatever going on, there’s some talk of sex. ... Anyway, it’s terrible. You want to personify your protagonist’s prostate, Neal Stephenson? Call him "Little Man 'Tate"? Okay. You want to spend, let me count them approximately eight pages talking, in character, about a fetish for stockings and a woman who can only orgasm when having sex upon antique furniture? Be my guest, I guess. ... Then, when you come to write the narrative sex scenes, all I can say is wow. ...I've seen this complaint a few times before, and if you can't tell by all my ellipses above, Alex has a lot more in his post about it. I personally had no issue with it. I mean, sure, it's a little weird, but the book is filled with weird stuff. The characters are weird. The stuff they're doing is weird. Heck, real life is weird. Why single out the sex stuff? And sometimes it has a point. Take the aformentioned "eight pages talking, in character, about a fetish for stockings and a woman who can only orgasm when having sex upon antique furniture." Why is that important? Because Stephenson is setting up a surveilance technique that will become important later on in the story. In context, those eight pages are important because they're intensely personal and private to the character who is being surveiled, and yet there are these guys in the next room who are able to invade the perceived privacy and security of being alone, all through extraordinary technological means. The chapter wouldn't work if the guy was writing out his grocery list. That's not private. It has to be something personal and perhaps embarrassing for it to make an impact not just on you the reader, but on the characters in the story. So later in the book, when Randy gets into a situation where he's alone in a jail cell, handling sensitive information, well, it makes sense that he would be a little paranoid about it and goes to extreme lengths to obfuscate what he's doing. Did Stephenson need to spend 8 pages setting it up? Did he need to write a scene where a character engages in a mathematical discussion of Concentration as a function of Horniness, complete with graphs? Maybe not, but I kinda like that he did. He lets these situations breath, and that's a big part of why I like his stuff.
Something that made sense in Snow Crash, it being an alterna-future where the US had split into nation states, was the use of slightly different names for things. I can therefore be forgiven for being confused when Cryptonomicon used the term "Nipponese" all the time while still being set in our own theoretical timeline. This constant, unexplained reference struck me as an act of amazing grease.I distinctly remember the reason Stephenson gives for this in the book, though he does so in the WWII portion of the novel. It's in a footnote around the time when Bobby Shaftoe gets sent back to America and he's talking to some Colonel about his time in the Phillipines (Look, I found it in Google Book Search at the bottom of page 114). The footnote reads: "Men with experience in Asia use the word 'Nip.' The Colonel's use of 'Jap' suggest that his career has been spent in the Atlantic and/or Caribbean." Now, I suppose that doesn't explain why, two generations later, a bunch of techno-businessmen would go around refering to Japan as "Nippon," but from the earlier reference to "Men with experience in Asia," I'm guessing that Stephenson was trying to imply that, you know, Randy and co. had experience in Asia. Now I can see why someone would think this was a bit weird, but as we've already established, that doesn't bother me.
Which brings me to my final complaint: all of these disparate characters are supposed to combine for an ultimate goal. Which is, of course, the ultimate goal of well, whatever it is that they end up with. Fifty years later, the descendants of these characters are remarkably untouched by everything that has happened in the WWII segment of the book. Stephenson may as well have written in wholly different characters for all the effect that these ones had. You’re left wondering, at the final page, precisely why everyone went through all of this ...I've already mentioned that I can see why someone would be underwhelmed by the ending, so that complaint doesn't bother me, but the part about the descendents being untrouched by their grandparents deeds in WWII is a little off in my opinion. Once again, we find the theme of cryptography rearing it's head: the modern day characters are trying to piece together what happened back in WWII, but it's not easy. I don't think it's unusual at all for a grandson to not know what their grandfather did in the war, if only because I had the relatively recent experience of finding out that my grandfather was a freakin' tank hunter in Europe (I still don't know the specifics of this). Anyway, to say that the descendents are untouched by the WWII generation is to miss one of the themes in the book, which is that people of our generation are totally in awe of the WWII generation and feel a little awkward working in our world knowing that our grandparents were literally fending off evil on a worldwide scale. This is something you see all throughout the modern day portions of the book, though not put as baldly (or written as poorly) as that.
It’s as I’ve said before: being long is not the same as being epic. Cryptonomicon has many pages, but never once does it feel like a grand adventure.I certainly agree that being long is not the same as being epic, but I wouldn't call Cryptonomicon an epic. Sweeping? Yes. Epic? No. Also, I think Alex misses the point. The interesting material isn't buried amongst the mountains of digressions, the interesting material is the mountains of digressions. Without the digressions, the book isn't nearly as interesting. In his post, Alex mentions that Snow Crash worked as well as it does because it's relatively compact. Well, I think Cryptonomicon works as well as it does because it's distinctly not compact. Different strokes, I guess.
Again, I'm not suggesting that the book is perfect, and I think Alex makes a lot of valid points, but I love it anyway. Even things that used to bother me about it (like Andrew Loeb, jungle warrior) don't loom as large as they used to. As a commenter at Alex's site suggests, perhaps having read the Baroque Cycle has given me a little more depth into Cryptonomicon, but I don't think that's it (though you do tend to notice many more connections between the characters). If Alex didn't like Cryptonomicon, he'll be doubly confounded by Quicksilver. Even I was complaining a bit that those books needed some editing. But then again, I ended up enjoying them and want to read them again someday. In the end, I love almost everything Stephenson has written, and greatly look forward to his next novel.
Oh, and incidentally, the Australian cover art for Cryptonomicon (pictured in Alex's post) is awful! On the other hand, the Australian cover art for The Yiddish Policeman's Union (also at Alex's site) is awesome (I think I like it better than the American art). And to digress even further, I agree with Alex in wondering how on earth the Coen Brothers will adapt that book to the screen (I suppose if anyone could do it...)
Update: Alex responds at the bottom of his post and in the comments here. I may respond later, but it's late now, and I need to go to bed...
Update 2/27/08: Shamus comments
Posted by Mark on February 13, 2008 at 09:48 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
I've never done this before, but let's give it a shot. Here are some predictions for 2008:
Posted by Mark on January 09, 2008 at 12:28 AM .: link :.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Towards the beginning of his career, Neal Stephenson used the pseudonym Stephen Bury to publish straightforward thrillers. In an old interview, he comments thusly:
''I was writing Snow Crash about the same time my uncle, George Jewsbury, and I started talking about doing collaborations. The rationale behind that was, clearly, I may be able to limp along indefinitely, writing these little books that get bought by 5,000 people, but really it would be smart to try to get some kind of serious career going. We had heard somewhere that Tom Clancy had made like $17 million in a year. So we thought, 'Let's give this a try.' The whole idea was that 'Stephen Bury' would be a successful thriller writer and subsidize my pathetic career under the name Neal Stephenson. It ended up going the other way. I would guess most of the people who have bought the Stephen Bury books have done so because they know I've written them. It just goes to show there's no point in trying to plan your career."In any case, I've recently picked up both of the Bury books (which have now been published under Stephenson's real name) and I'm about halfway through the second one. They're actually better than I thought they would be, but not particularly great. Part of the reason I had low expectations for the books is that the little blurbs describing the stories on the back of the books sound stupid. So far, though, the execution of said absurd stories isn't so bad. I think this has something to do with uncommon settings and characters, something Stephenson has a knack for. Nothing really approaches Stephenson's popular works, but these are diverting enough thrillers.
As of right now, I prefer The Cobweb to Interface, though I'm only halfway through Interface. I actually quite enjoyed The Cobweb and would recommend it to Stephenson fans. The story follows a midwestern deputy sheriff named Clyde Banks who stumbles upon an Iraqi plot in his hometown to produce chemical weapons during the first Gulf War. Another plotline follows a low-level CIA analyst who "exceeds her task" and makes a lot of folks in Washington look bad by noticing some anomalies in funding. Both characters are somewhat unusual, as are the specifics of their arcs (one is running for sherrif, the other is constantly bewildered by bureaucratic excess, amateur wrestling is often brought up, etc...) - not your steriotypical thriller fare, which is precisely why it's interesting. I can see a lot of Stephenson in the story, though there's clearly something else here (these are collaborations, after all). For instance, the Dhont family bears a likeness to the Shaftoes from Stephenson's recent works and Stephenson's penchant for including actual historical figures into a fictional story comes into play (at one point, the CIA analyst ends up on a boat with George H.W. Bush in an encounter that very much resembles something out of Cryptonomicon or The Baroque Cycle).
Anyway, here's one quote regarding the aforementioned bureaucratic excess as a Washington insider talks to the deputy sheriff:
"You and I know that something is going on in Forks County, and we would like to do something about it," Hennessey said, "but between the two of us are about ten thousand of these people who are too busy looking down their noses at us to actually grasp the problem and take action. You must know that taking action is looked down upon, Clyde. This is the postmodern era. When events come to a cusp, we're supposed to screw our courage to the sticking place and launch a reanalysis of the eleventh draft of the working document. Actually going out and doing stuff in the physical world is simply beyond comprehension of these people. They're never going to do anything about the Iraqis in Forks. Never."Again, the story is a bit... unlikely... but it's entertaining and approached from a distinct angle that makes it feel fresh. Interface seems even more absurd, and so far it hasn't quite overcome that absurdity, but it's making a valiant effort and I'm enjoying it. Interface follows William Cozzano, a popular Illinois governor, and his run for President. That's not unlikely, but when they start talking about putting biochips into his brain and hooking them up to a computerized polling system, well, I was a little worried. It hasn't been as bad as it sounds so far, and they do a good job building up the technology behind this so that it perhaps doesn't seem so unlikely. They also do a reasonable job setting up why Cozzano would consent to such a risky procedure. Again, I'm only a bout halfway through, so the jury is still out, but so far, it's ok. Not as good as The Cobweb though, and it lacks the idiosyncratic bits that made me enjoy The Cobweb so much. Still, there are some interesting characters and concepts. For instance, the pollsters in the book are interesting. Here's a quote from one of the pollsters, who speculates on what drives politics.
"In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam." ...This seems appropriate, given the upcoming election. Interestingly, the same pollster speculates that HDTV will mark the next shift in politics, as people look different on HDTV than they do on regular TV. This may seem like a trivial point, but I guess the idea is that politics these days rely more on trivial stuff like how to position your eyes so that the whites don't make it look like your eyes are bulging out of your head on TV.
I'd say that The Cobweb is definitely worth checking out for Stephenson fans, and probably anyone who likes techno-thrillers like Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn's stuff (I'm not an authority on the genre though). So far, it seems like Interface would be worth reading for die hard Stephenson fans, and there might be a more limited mainstream audience for this one as well. They both seem a little better than your average thriller.
Posted by Mark on June 17, 2007 at 04:04 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Neal Stephenson is a Wiseass
Time is short this week, so I just wanted to throw this out there. The author bios you normally find at the end of a book are usually pretty sparse. They'll generally list out what previous books the author has written and if you're lucky, you'll get a little blurb about what they did before writing or where they're from. Anyway, I was looking at my copy of Snow Crash and noticed that the author bio was really long, and had quite a strange tone:
Neal Stephenson issues from a clan of rootless, itinerant hard-science and engineering professors (mostly Pac 10, Big 10, and Big 8 with the occasional wild strain of Ivy). He began his higher education as a physics major, then switched to geography when it appeared that this would enable him to scam more free time on his university's mainframe computer. When he graduated and discovered, to his perplexity, that there were no jobs for inexperienced physicist-geographers, he began to look into alternative pursuits such as working on cars, unimaginably stupid agricultural labor, and writing novels. His first novel, The Big U, was published in 1984 and vanished without a trace. His second novel, Zodiac: the Eco-thriller, came out in 1988 and quickly developed a cult following among water-pollution-control engineers. It was also enjoyed, though rarely bought, by many radical environmentalists. Snow Crash was written in the years 1988 through 1991 as the author listened to a great deal of loud, relentless, depressing music. The Diamond Age was his last novel.He's just screwing with us, isn't he? Curiously, this sort of wiseass bio does not appear in any of the newer editions of his books...
Posted by Mark on January 28, 2007 at 08:18 PM .: link :.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
The Diamond Age Miniseries
It appears that Neal Stephenson's neo-victorian nanotech novel The Diamond Age will be a miniseries on the Sci-Fi channel:
Based on Neal Stephenson's best-selling novel The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, this six-hour miniseries is executive produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov of Smokehouse Productions. A prominent member of a conservative futuristic society grows concerned that the culture stifles creativity, and commissions a controversial interactive book for his daughter, which serves as her guide through a surreal alternate world. When the primer's provocative technology, which adapts to the reader's responses, falls into the hands of a young innocent, the girl's life is accidentally reprogrammed with dangerous results. Neal Stephenson will adapt his own novel for this project, the first time the Hugo and Nebula winning author has written for the small screen.I have mixed feelings about this. Stephenson is probably my favorite author, so I'm thrilled that his work is being adapted. However, adaptations are tricky, and I think part of the reason Stephenson's books haven't been adapted is that they're probably more difficult than most. The choice of The Diamond Age is a baffling one, given that it's universally seen as having an awfully abrubt ending (and has given the author an unfair reputation of writing bad endings). That it's a Sci-Fi Channel original series isn't exactly comforting either. They did a decent enough job with the Dune miniseries I guess, but honestly, this is that channel that brought us masterpieces like Man-Thing and Basilisk: The Serpent King (I'm serious, those two movies were both playing tonight.)
Stephenson's involvement is somewhat heartening, but also a mixed blessing. For one thing, nothing guarantees that a great novel-writer will turn out to be a great screenwriter. It's a different medium and, as such, different conventions and language apply. Given that we're talking about a Sci-Fi Channel original, I'm sure his involvement won't be a negative, but that leaves one other consideration: If he's busy working on the screenplay for this series, he's probably not working on his next book. Gah! It's been a few years, and I want me some new Stephenson.
If it turns out good, I'll be elated, but I'm wary. Think of this post as tempering my expecatations so that it can't possibly be that much of a dissapointment. Incidentally, I just ran across Ben Thompson's beautiful rant about Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies:
Nothing makes me happier when I'm flipping through the channels on a rainy Saturday afternoon than stumbling upon whatever god-awful original home-grown suckfest-and-craptasm movie is playing on the Sci-Fi Channel. Nowhere else can you find such a clusterfuck of horrible plot contrivances and ill-conceived premises careening face-first into a brick wall of one-dimensional cardboard characters and banal, inane, poorly-delivered dialogue. While most television stations and movie production houses out there are attempting to retain some shred of dignity or at least a modicum of credibility, it's nice to know that the Sci-Fi Channel has no qualms whatsoever about brazenly showing twenty minute-long fight scenes involving computer-generated dinosaurs, dragons, insects, aliens, sea monsters and Gary Bussey all shooting laser beams at each other and battling for control of a planet-destroying starship as the self-destruct mechanism slowly ticks down and the fate of a thousand parallel universes hangs in the balance. You really have to give the execs at Sci-Fi credit for basically just throwing their hands up in the air and saying, "well let's just take all this crazy shit and mash it together into one giant ridiculous mess". Nothing is off-limits for those folks; if you want to see American troops in Iraq battle a giant man-eating Chimaera, you've got it. A genetically-altered Orca Whale the eats seamen and icebergs? Check. A plane full of mutated pissed-off killer bees carrying the Hanta Virus? Check.Brilliant. Ironically, I'm more excited for The Diamond Age miniseries now that I read that. Something's wrong with me.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
A Spamtastic Mystery
One of the joys of maintaining a website is dealing with spam. Over the years, I've had to deal with several different varieties of spam here, including comment spam, trackback spam, even my old forum got inundated with spam. As such, countermeasures were deployed with varying degrees of success. Movable Type has improved its spam blocking capabilities considerably, and I use a plugin to close comments on posts older than 60 days, so the blog has remained relatively spam free for a while now. I replaced my forum with a new system that requires registration (ironically, even the new forum was spammed with a bizzarely intriciate scheme to sell, no joke, biodynamic cheese).
Until this morning.
I awoke to find my site had several hundred hits overnight (much more than usual). When I looked at the referrals, I noticed that I was getting a huge amount of traffic from a bunch of sites that were all variations of the same domain. A sampling includes:
http://qfm96.listenernetwork.com/SearchWeb.aspAs you can see, all the referrs are coming from some sort of search application. Going to the various "listenernetwork.com" home pages, it became obvious that they were all radio station sites that were apparently all using some central application to produce cheap, easy sites for themselves (they all use the same template with content and styles tailored towards individual stations). The sites and referrals were distributed all throughout the country. At a glance, they seemed to be legit stations. How odd.
All of the referrals were going to my Neal Stephenson category archive page, which was strange. At first, I thought, hey, maybe Neal Stephenson announced a new book on the radio this morning! Of course, that doesn't make much sense, but I'm a sucker for Stephenson and so I wanted to believe. In any case, it immediately became obvious that something else was going on (damn!).
The most frustrating thing about these referrals is that they're obviously coming from these radio station sites' built-in search engine, which apparently uses a HTTP POST request instead of a GET request. Most search engines use GET requests because then the search parameters are contained in the URL, which allows users to bookmark searches. POST requests hide search parameters, so users can't bookmark their searches and referred sites can't see what the search terms are. So not only was I getting all this traffic from a mysterious search engine, but I didn't even know what people were searching for...
Back to the logs I go. After rooting around a bit, I found some other search engines like ask and google were referring to the same Neal Stephenson page... but they had the search terms in their URL:
what unit of length used in nuclear physics is named after a famed manhattan project scientist?Allright, so I'm making progress. My Stephenson category page contains most of those terms, so that kinda makes sense. I went to one of the refferring sites and was quickly able to reproduce the search on their site and see my page come up in the results. But this question is rather odd, and there were many people searching with that exact question. What the heck is going on here?
Confused and a little intrigued, I started clicking around one of the referring radio station's sites hunting for clues. Then I found it. Apparently, all these stations run some sort of big national contest, and the mysterious question above was today's "Really Hard Trivia" question. The site even conveniently notes: "Don't know the answer? Search the web below." Bingo.
So it appears that these are all indeed legitimate referrals, though I can't imagine anyone becoming a reader, as they didn't find the answer on my page. However, in the off chance that someone is still looking, the answer appears to be the Bohr Radius, named after Neils Bohr.
It turns out that I probably could have saved myself a good deal of effort by simply googling "listenernetwork referrer spam," as this issue has apparently struck others before. Still, it was somewhat intriguing and I'm glad it didn't turn out to be referrer spam...
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Everyone loves to be on a bunch of blogrolls, but just because you're there doesn't mean you'll get a lot of visitors. This becomes more true as the blogroll gets larger. Blogrolls are subject to an inverse network effect; the more blogs in the blogroll, the less valuable the link. Kaedrin gets a small amount of traffic, so even though I have a short blogroll, I'm guessing most of those blogs don't get a ton of visitors coming from here. So I just figured I'd throw some additional links their way:
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Travelling Link Dump
I'll be on vacation this week, so Kaedrin compatriots Samael and DyRE will be posting in my stead, though they may not be able to post tomorrow. In any case, here are some links to chew on while I'm gone.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
The Big U and Journalists
I finished reading The Big U (Neal Stephenson's first novel) tonight. Stephenson himself describes this as "a juvenile work," and now that I have finished it, I can see where he's coming from. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed it, but the story becomes a bit unhinged towards the end. At the beginning of the book, it's obviously a satire, but as the story progresses things begin to slow down a bit and Stephenson starts to take the satire over-the-top in an attempt to compensate. Each chapter in the book corresponds to a month of the school year, starting in September and ending in May. By the time you get to November/December, things slow down a bit, and in March things begin to get a bit more absurd... this leads to a sudden (absurd) explosion of events in April, followed by the conclusion in May. Again, I enjoyed it, but I can see how some people would be turned off by the sudden turn of events. Sure, it's ridiculous, but if you can get past that, there are still a few gems along the same lines as the ones I wrote about a few weeks ago...
Spoilers ahoy, if you care...
So at the beginning of April, an all out war breaks out in the Plex (for those who don't know what the plex is, see my last entry). By "all out war," I mean a literal war, with guns and bombs and plenty of deaths. Various groups of students, administration officials, and the bizzarre Crotobaltislavonians (yet another of Stephenson's fictional nationalities) have fought it out and carved up their own spheres of influence. Things have calmed down a bit, and the narrarator is making a trek towards the library to recover a fellow professor's research notes (this is an absurd motive, but everything is so surreal at this point that I was willing to let it ride). To reach the library, they must cross several "stable academic blocs" including the journalism bloc. The journalists have negotiated several treaties with various other blocs in exchange for safe passage and weapons for their guards. In exchange for an interview and allowing a camera crew to follow them, our narrarator's group is able to make it through the journalism zone. The narrarator has some questions:
"You've got a hell of a lot of firepower. You guys are the most powerful force in the Plex. How are you using it?"Heh. Again, this book was published in 1984. Was that considered over-the-top satire at the time? Seems rather tame by today's standards.
Stephenson has a reputation for bad endings that just sort of happen without warning, but that doesn't really happen here. To be sure, it's not a great ending (like the rest of the book, it's slightly absurd as it hinges off of one of the groups' fanatical religious devotion to a giant neon sign), but it was better than expected. Overall, I'd say the book is worth reading for die-hard Stephenson fans and maybe geeky folks who don't mind that he goes off the deep end about 200 pages in...
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
In an effort to exhaust the novelty of my current favorite author, Neal Stephenson, I've been reading his first novel, The Big U (I think I've covered everything else but his pseudonymous work). Stephenson himself describes this as "a juvenile work," but I'm greatly enjoying myself. Filled with geeks pursuing... geeky pursuits, I'm reminded of the latter day portions of Cryptonomicon (though when you compare those two, I can see why The Big U would be called juvenile). It's quite entertaining so far, though there does seem to be a lack of traditional plot points and I'm not expecting a particularly revelatory ending. The book is probably best described by it's setting (American Megaversity) and characters (geeks). Some choice quotes are below:
Most of the facilities of the Big U are contained within a group of buildings refered to as the Plex:
The Plex's environmental control system was designed so that anyone could spend four years wearing only a jockstrap and a pair of welding goggles and yet never feel chilly or find the place too dimly lit.Sounds like a fun place, and it seems that Stephenson's humor was fully in place when he started his writing career. I've also noticed that he seems to have a fascination with how smart people find one another in the throngs of normal people. For instance, two of the characters get lost in the Plex's labyrinthine stairway system and end up exiting at the back of the building:
Later I was to think it remarkable that Casimir and I should emerge from those fire doors at nearly the same moment, and meet. On reflection, I have changed my mind. The Big U was an unnatural environment, a work of the human mind, not of God or plate tectonics. If two strangers met in the rarely used stairways, it was not unreasonable that they should turn out to be similar, and become friends. I thought of it as an immense vending machine, cautiously crafted so that any denomination too ancient or foreign or irregular would rattle about randomly for a while, find its way into the stairway system, and inevitably be deposited in the reject tray on the barren back side. Meanwhile, brightly colored graduates with attractively packaged degrees were dispensed out front every June, swept up by traffic on the Parkway and carried away for leisurly consumption...Much the same situation brought Daniel Waterhouse and Isaac Newton together in Quicksilver. Other similar scenarios populate his various other books as well.
The book is obviously a satire, but I still can't help but find a grain of truth in some of the absurdly bureaucratic obstacles that pop up for various students.
"I'm an English major. I know this stuff. Why are you putting me in Freshman English?"Nothing that bad has ever happened to me, but there was that time the university lost my enrollment (in which I had very carefully picked what classes and professors I wanted) and, for my convienience, enrolled me in the remaining open courses that fulfilled my needs (at this point, though, everyone else had already registered, so the only classes that were open were the ones no one wanted to take). That was a fun semester.
It turns out that Freshmen English is being taught by a lunatic The student from the above excerpt gets a bad grade and decides to speak with the professor because other barely literate students got a better grade than her:
He took a long draw on his pipe. "What is a grade? That is the question." He chuckled, but apparently she didn't get it. "Some teachers grade on curves. You have to be a math major to understand the grade! But forget those fake excuses. A grade is actually a form of poetry. It is a subjective reaction to a learner's work, distilled and reduced down to its purest essence-not a sonnet, not a haiku, but a single letter. That's remarkable, isn't it?"Oh, but he's not done yet. He actually goes on to describe how the barely readible grammar of a competing paper is better than Sarah's:
"You aren't necessarily a better writer. You called some of them functional illiterates. Well those illiterates, as you called them, happen to have very expressive prose voices. Remember that in each person's own dialect he or she is perfectly literate. So in the sense of having escaped orthodoxy to be truly creative, they are highly advanced wordsmiths, while you are still struggling to break free of grammatical rules systems. They express themselves to me and I react with little one-letter poems of my own - the essence of grading! Poetry! And being a poet I'm particularly well suited for it. Your idea of tearing down these little proto-artists because they aren't just like you smacks of a kind of absolutism which is very disturbing in a temple of academic freedom."I think he perfectly captured the futility of Sarah's quest in this scene. It's masterful, really. The book was published in 1984, so it seems that this sort of PC lit-crit babbled newspeak was just as common and annoying then as it is now. It's kind of reassuring, in a dejected way. When I hear about crazy professors going on about this or that these days, it's always tempting to assume that the sky is falling and that we're all doomed. But it appears that this has been going on for quite some time now, and while I don't like it and it may be harmful, it probably doesn't mean the end of the world either. Anyway, I'm only halfway through the book, but I thought I'd share my impressions, because I was expecting a lot worse...
Thursday, February 09, 2006
The Art of Rainmaking by Guy Kawasaki: An interesting article about salesmanship and what is referred to as "rainmaking." Kawasaki lists out several ways to practice the art of rainmaking, but this first one caught my eye because it immediately reminded me of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and regular readers (all 5 of you) know I can't resist a Stephenson reference.
“Let a hundred flowers blossom.” I stole this from Chairman Mao although I'm not sure how he implemented it. In the context of capitalism (Chairman Mao must be turning over in his grave), the dictum means that you sow seeds in many markets, see what takes root, and harvest what blooms. Many companies freak out when unintended customers buy their product. Many companies also freak out when intended customers buy their product but use it in unintended ways. Don't be proud. Take the money.This immediately reminded me of the data haven (a secure computer system that is protected by it's lack of governmental oversight as well as technical means like encryption) in the "modern-day" segments of Cryptonomicon. Randy Waterhouse works for the company that's attempting to sett up a data haven, and he finds that the most of his customers want to use the data haven to store money. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, most of the people who want to store their money their are criminals of the worst sort. I guess in that particular case, there is reason to freak out at these unexpected customers, but I thought the reference was interesting because while there may be lots of legitimate uses for a data haven, the criminal element would almost certainly be attracted to a way to store their drug money (or whatever) with impugnity (that and probably spam, pornography, and gambling). Like all advances in technology, the data haven could be used for good or for ill...
Sunday, June 19, 2005
Neal Stephenson's take on Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith in the New York times is interesting on a few levels. He makes some common observations, such as the prevalence of geeky details in supplementary material of the Star Wars universe (such as the Clone Wars cartoons or books), but the real gem is his explanation for why the geeky stuff is mostly absent from the film:
Modern English has given us two terms we need to explain this phenomenon: "geeking out" and "vegging out." To geek out on something means to immerse yourself in its details to an extent that is distinctly abnormal - and to have a good time doing it. To veg out, by contrast, means to enter a passive state and allow sounds and images to wash over you without troubling yourself too much about what it all means.Stephenson says the original Star Wars is a mixture of veg and geek scenes, while the new movies are almost all veg out material. The passive vegging out he describes is exactly how I think of the prequels (except that Episode III seems to have a couple of non-veg out scenes, which is one of the reasons I think it fares better than the other prequels). He also makes a nice comparison to the business world, but then takes a sudden sort of indirect dive towards outsourcing and pessimism at the end of the article, making a vague reference to going "the way of the old Republic."
I'm not sure I agree with those last few paragraphs. I see the point, but it's presented as a given. Many have noted Stephenson could use a good editor for his recent novels, and it looks to me like Stephenson was either intentionally trying to keep it short (it's only two pages - not what you'd expect from someone who routinely writes 900 page books, including three that are essentially a single 2700 page novel) or his article was edited down to fit somewhere. In either case, I'm sure he could have expounded upon those last paragraphs to the tune of a few thousand words, but that's what I like about the guy. Not that the article is bad, but I prefer Stephenson's longwinded style. Ironically, Stephenson has left the details out of his article; it reads more like a power-point presentation that summarizes the bullet points of his argument than the sort of in-depth analysis I'm used to from Stephenson. As such, I'm sure there are a lot of people who would take issue with some of his premises. Perhaps it's an intentional irony, or (more likely) I'm reading too much into it.
Posted by Mark on June 19, 2005 at 10:19 AM .: link :.
Sunday, March 13, 2005
A tale of two software projects
A few weeks ago, David Foster wrote an excellent post about two software projects. One was a failure, and one was a success.
The first project was the FBI's new Virtual Case File system; a tool that would allow agents to better organize, analyze and communicate data on criminal and terrorism cases. After 3 years and over 100 million dollars, it was announced that the system may be totally unusable. How could this happen?
When it became clear that the project was in trouble, Aerospace Corporation was contracted to perform an independent evaluation. It recommended that the software be abandoned, saying that "lack of effective engineering discipline has led to inadequate specification, design and development of VCF." SAIC has said it believes the problem was caused largely by the FBI: specifically, too many specification changes during the development process...an SAIC executive asserted that there were an average of 1.3 changes per day during the development. SAIC also believes that the current system is useable and can serve as a base for future development.I'd be interested to see what the actual distribution of changes were (as opposed to the "average changes per day", which seems awfully vague and somewhat obtuse to me), but I don't find it that hard to believe that this sort of thing happened (especially because the software development firm was a separate entity). I've had some experience with gathering requirements, and it certainly can be a challenge, especially when you don't know the processes currently in place. This does not excuse anything, however, and the question remains: how could this happen?
The second project, the success, may be able to shed some light on that. DARPA was tapped by the US Army to help protect troops from enemy snipers. The requested application would spot incoming bullets and identify their point of origin, and it would have to be easy to use, mobile, and durable.
The system would identify bullets from their sound..the shock wave created as they travelled through the air. By using multiple microphones and precisely timing the arrival of the "crack" of the bullet, its position could, in theory, be calculated. In practice, though, there were many problems, particularly the high levels of background noise--other weapons, tank engines, people shouting. All these had to be filtered out. By Thanksgiving weekend, the BBN team was at Quantico Marine Base, collecting data from actual firing...in terrible weather, "snowy, freezing, and rainy" recalls DARPA Program Manager Karen Wood. Steve Milligan, BBN's Chief Technologist, came up with the solution to the filtering problem: use genetic algorithms. These are a kind of "simulated evolution" in which equations can mutate, be tested for effectivess, and sometimes even "mate," over thousands of simulated generations (more on genetic algorithms here.)Now what was the biggest difference between the remarkable success of the Boomerang system and the spectacular failure of the Virtual Case File system? Obviously, the two projects present very different challenges, so a direct comparison doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. However, it seems to me that discipline (in the case of the Army) or the lack of discipline (in the case of the FBI) might have been a major contributor to the outcomes of these two projects.
It's obviously no secret that discipline plays a major role in the Army, but there is more to it than just that. Independence and initiative also play an important role in a military culture. In Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, the way the character Bobby Shaftoe (a Marine Raider, which is "...like a Marine, only more so.") interacts with his superiors provides some insight (page 113 in my version):
Having now experienced all the phases of military existence except for the terminal ones (violent death, court-martial, retirement), he has come to understand the culture for what it is: a system of etiquette within which it becomes possible for groups of men to live together for years, travel to the ends of the earth, and do all kinds of incredibly weird shit without killing each other or completely losing their minds in the process. The extreme formality with which he addresses these officers carries an important subtext: your problem, sir, is doing it. My gung-ho posture says that once you give the order I'm not going to bother you with any of the details - and your half of the bargain is you had better stay on your side of the line, sir, and not bother me with any of the chickenshit politics that you have to deal with for a living.Good military officers are used to giving an order, then staying out of their subordinate's way as they carry out that order. I didn't see any explicit measurement, but I would assume that there weren't too many specification changes during the development of the Boomerang system. Of course, the developers themselves made all sorts of changes to specifics and they also incorporated feedback from the Army in the field in their development process, but that is standard stuff.
I suspect that the FBI is not completely to blame, but as the report says, there was a "lack of effective engineering discipline." The FBI and SAIC share that failure. I suspect, from the number of changes requested by the FBI and the number of government managers involved, that micromanagement played a significant role. As Foster notes, we should be leveraging our technological abilities in the war on terror, and he suggests a loosely based oversight committe (headed by "a Director of Industrial Mobilization") to make sure things like this don't happen very often. Sounds like a reasonable idea to me...
Posted by Mark on March 13, 2005 at 08:47 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 20, 2005
The Stability of Three
One of the things I've always respected about Neal Stephenson is his attitude (or rather, the lack thereof) regarding politics:
Politics - These I avoid for the simple reason that artists often make fools of themselves, and begin to produce bad art, when they decide to get political. A novelist needs to be able to see the world through the eyes of just about anyone, including people who have this or that set of views on religion, politics, etc. By espousing one strong political view a novelist loses the power to do this. Anyone who has convinced himself, based on reading my work, that I hold this or that political view, is probably wrong. What is much more likely is that, for a while, I managed to get inside the head of a fictional character who held that view.Having read and enjoyed several of his books, I think this attitude has served him well. In a recent interview in Reason magazine, Stephenson makes several interesting observations. The whole thing is great, and many people are interested in his comments regarding an American technology and science, but I found one other tidbit very interesting. Strictly speaking, it doesn't break with his attitude about politics, but it is somewhat political:
Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.I took particular note of what he describes as a "triangular system" because it's something I've seen before...
One of the primary goals of the American Constitutional Convention was to devise a system that would be resistant to tyranny. The founders were clearly aware of the damage that an unrestrained government could do, so they tried to design the new system in such a way that it wouldn't become tyrannical. Democratic institions like mandatory periodic voting and direct accountability to the people played a large part in this, but the founders also did some interesting structural work as well.
Taking their cue from the English Parliament's relationship with the King of England, the founders decided to create a legislative branch separate from the executive. This, in turn, placed the two governing bodies in competition. However, this isn't a very robust system. If one of the governing bodies becomes more powerful than the other, they can leverage their advantage to accrue more power, thus increasing the imbalance.
A two-way balance of power is unstable, but a three-way balance turns out to be very stable. If any one body becomes more powerful than the other two, the two usually can and will temporarily unite, and their combined power will still exceed the third. So the founders added a third governing body, an independent judiciary.
The result was a bizarre sort of stable oscillation of power between the three major branches of the federal government. Major shifts in power (such as wars) disturbed the system, but it always fell back to a preferred state of flux. This stable oscillation turns out to be one of the key elements of Chaos theory, and is referred to as a strange attractor. These "triangular systems" are particularly good at this, and there are many other examples...
Some argue that the Cold War stabilized considerably when China split from the Soviet Union. Once it became a three-way conflict, there was much less of a chance of unbalance (and as unbalance would have lead to nuclear war, this was obviously a good thing).
Steven Den Beste once noted this stabilizing power of three in the interim Iraqi constitution, where the Iraqis instituted a Presidency Council of 3 Presidents representing each of the 3 major factions in Iraq:
...those writing the Iraqi constitution also had to create a system acceptable to the three primary factions inside of Iraq. If they did not, the system would shake itself to pieces and there was a risk of Iraqi civil war.It should be interesting to see if that structure will be maintained in the new Iraqi constitution.
As for Stephenson's speculation that a triangular system consisting of libertarians, statists, and terrorists may develop, I'm not sure. They certainly seem to feed off one another in a way that would facilitate such a system, but I'm not positive it would work out that way, nor do I think it is particularly a desirable state to be in, all the more because it could be a very stable system due to its triangular structure. In any case, I thought it was an interesting observation and well worth considering...
Posted by Mark on February 20, 2005 at 08:06 PM .: link :.
Thursday, November 11, 2004
Arranging Interests in Parallel
I have noticed a tendency on my part to, on occasion, quote a piece of fiction, and then comment on some wisdom or truth contained therein. This sort of thing is typically frowned upon in rigorous debate as fiction is, by definition, contrived and thus referencing it in a serious argument is rightly seen as undesirable. Fortunately for me, this blog, though often taking a serious tone, is ultimately an exercise in thinking for myself. The point is to have fun. This is why I will sometimes quote fiction to make a point, and it's also why I enjoy questionable exercises like speculating about historical figures. As I mentioned in a post on Benjamin Franklin, such exercises usually end up saying more about me and my assumptions than anything else. But it's my blog, so that is more or less appropriate.
Astute readers must at this point be expecting to recieve a citation from a piece of fiction, followed by an application of the relevant concepts to some ends. And they would be correct.
Early on in Neal Stephenson's novel The System of the World, Daniel Waterhouse reflects on what is required of someone in his position:
He was at an age where it was never possible ot pursue one errand at a time. He must do many at once. He guessed that people who had lived right and arranged things properly must have it all rigged so that all of their quests ran in parallel, and reinforced and supported one another just so. They gained reputations as conjurors. Others found their errands running at cross purposes and were never able to do anything; they ended up seeming mad, or else percieived the futility of what they were doing and gave up, or turned to drink.Naturally, I believe there is some truth to this. In fact, the life of Benjamin Franklin, a historical figure from approximately the same time period as Dr. Waterhouse, provides us with a more tangible reference point.
Franklin was known to mix private interests with public ones, and to leverage both to further his business interests. The consummate example of Franklin's proclivities was the Junto, a club of young workingmen formed by Franklin in the fall of 1727. The Junto was a small club composed of enterprising tradesman and artisans who discussed issues of the day and also endeavored to form a vehicle for the furtherance of their own careers. The enterprise was typical of Franklin, who was always eager to form associations for mutual benefit, and who aligned his interests so they ran in parallel, reinforcing and supporting one another.
A more specific example of Franklin's knack for aligning interests is when he produced the first recorded abortion debate in America. At the time, Franklin was running a print shop in Philadelphia. His main competitor, Andrew Bradford, published the town's only newspaper. The paper was meager, but very profitable in both moneys and prestige (which led him to be more respected by merchants and politicians, and thus more likely to get printing jobs), and Franklin decided to launch a competing newspaper. Unfortunately, another rival printer, Samuel Keimer, caught wind of Franklin's plan and immediately launched a hastily assembled newspaper of his own. Franklin, realizing that it would be difficult to launch a third paper right away, vowed to crush Keimer:
In a comptetitive bank shot, Franklin decided to write a series of anonymous letters and essays, along the lines of the Silence Dogood pieces of his youth, for Bradford's [American Weekly Mercury] to draw attention away from Keimer's new paper. The goal was to enliven, at least until Keimer was beaten, Bradford's dull paper, which in its ten years had never puplished any such features.Franklin's many actions of the time certainly weren't running at cross purposes, and he did manage to align his interests in parallel. He truly was a master, and we'll be hearing more about him on this blog soon.
This isn't the first time I've written about this subject before either. In a previous post, On the Overloading of Information, I noted one of the main reasons why blogging continues to be an enjoyable activity for me, despite changing interests and desires:
I am often overwhelmed by a desire to consume various things - books, movies, music, etc... The subject of such things is also varied and, as such, often don't mix very well. That said, the only thing I have really found that works is to align those subjects that do mix in such a way that they overlap. This is perhaps the only reason blogging has stayed on my plate for so long: since the medium is so free-form and since I have absolute control over what I write here and when I write it, it is easy to align my interests in such a way that they overlap with my blog (i.e. I write about what interests me at the time).One way you can tell that my interests have shifted over the years is that the format and content of my writing here has also changed. I am once again reminded of Neal Stephenson's original minimalist homepage in which he speaks of his ongoing struggle against what Linda Stone termed as "continuous partial attention," as that curious feature of modern life only makes the necessity of aligning interests in parallel that much more important.
Aligning blogging with my other core interests, such as reading fiction, is one of the reasons I frequently quote fiction, even in reference to a serious topic. Yes, such a practice is frowned upon, but blogging is a hobby, the idea of which is to have fun. Indeed, Glenn Reynolds, progenitor of one of the most popular blogging sites around, also claims to blog for fun, and interestingly enough, he has quoted fiction in support of his own serious interests as well (more than once). One other interesting observation is that all references to fiction in this post, including even Reynolds' references, are from Neal Stephenson's novels. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what significance, if any, that holds.
Posted by Mark on November 11, 2004 at 11:45 PM .: link :.
Saturday, October 23, 2004
The new Slashdot interview with Neal Stephenson is an unexpected treat. Not only are the questions great, but Stephenson's responses are witty and somewhat more profound (and much longer, as he had time to compose answers to some of the more difficult questions). As Nate points out, one of the more enlightening answers deals with the much rumored feud between Stephenson and William Gibson:
I was doing a reading/signing at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Gibson stopped by to say hello and extended his hand as if to shake. But I remembered something Bruce Sterling had told me. For, at the time, Sterling and I had formed a pact to fight Gibson. Gibson had been regrown in a vat from scraps of DNA after Sterling had crashed an LNG tanker into Gibson's Stealth pleasure barge in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. During the regeneration process, telescoping Carbonite stilettos had been incorporated into Gibson's arms. Remembering this in the nick of time, I grabbed the signing table and flipped it up between us. Of course the Carbonite stilettos pierced it as if it were cork board, but this spoiled his aim long enough for me to whip my wakizashi out from between my shoulder blades and swing at his head. He deflected the blow with a force blast that sprained my wrist. The falling table knocked over a space heater and set fire to the store. Everyone else fled. Gibson and I dueled among blazing stacks of books for a while. Slowly I gained the upper hand, for, on defense, his Praying Mantis style was no match for my Flying Cloud technique. But I lost him behind a cloud of smoke. Then I had to get out of the place. The streets were crowded with his black-suited minions and I had to turn into a swarm of locusts and fly back to Seattle.Heh. Stephenson apparently fought Gibson two times after that, and the interview is worth reading just because of that answer... but the whole thing is worth reading, especially his answer regarding why genre and popular writers don't get the literary respect they deserve (or don't, depending on your point of view). [Thanks again to Nate for pointing this out to me, who, in my work induced haze, had missed it entirely]
Update: Just for fun, I checked out Stephenson's homepage and found this picture of the entire Baroque Cycle manuscript:
Again Update: Holy Crap! Stephenson t-shirts? And they look cool too! Why was I not informed? Damn you monkey research squad!
Posted by Mark on October 23, 2004 at 12:04 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 02, 2004
The Unglamorous March of Technology
We live in a truly wondrous world. The technological advances over just the past 100 years are astounding, but, in their own way, they're also absurd and even somewhat misleading, especially when you consider how these advances are discovered. More often than not, we stumble onto something profound by dumb luck or by brute force. When you look at how a major technological feat was accomplished, you'd be surprised by how unglamorous it really is. That doesn't make the discovery any less important or impressive, but we often take the results of such discoveries for granted.
For instance, how was Pi originally calculated? Chris Wenham provides a brief history:
So according to the Bible it's an even 3. The Egyptians thought it was 3.16 in 1650 B.C.. Ptolemy figured it was 3.1416 in 150 AD. And on the other side of the world, probably oblivious to Ptolemy's work, Zu Chongzhi calculated it to 355/113. In Bagdad, circa 800 AD, al-Khwarizmi agreed with Ptolemy; 3.1416 it was, until James Gregory begged to differ in the late 1600s.π is an important number and being able to figure out what it is has played a significant factor in the advance of technology. While all of these numbers are pretty much the same (to varying degrees of precision), isn't it absurd that someone figured out π by dropping 34,000 pins on a grid? We take π for granted today; we don't have to go about finding the value of π, we just use it in our calculations.
In Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson portrays several experiments performed by some of the greatest minds in history, and many of the things they did struck me as especially unglamorous. Most would point to the dog and bellows scene as a prime example of how unglamorous the unprecedented age of discovery recounted in the book really was (and they'd be right), but I'll choose something more mundane (page 141 in my edition):
"Help me measure out three hundred feet of thread," Hooke said, no longer amused.And, of course, the experiment was a failure. Why? The scale was not precise enough! The book is filled with similar such experiments, some successful, some not.
Another example is telephones. Pick one up, enter a few numbers on the keypad and voila! you're talking to someone halfway across the world. Pretty neat, right? But how does that system work, behind the scenes? Take a look at the photo on the right. This is a typical intersection in a typical American city, and it is absolutely absurd. Look at all those wires! Intersections like that are all over the world, which is the part of the reason I can pick up my phone and talk to someone so far away. One other part of the reason I can do that is that almost everyone has a phone. And yet, this system is perceived to be elegant.
Of course, the telephone system has grown over the years, and what we have now is elegant compared to what we used to have:
The engineers who collectively designed the beginnings of the modern phone system in the 1940's and 1950's only had mechanical technologies to work with. Vacuum tubes were too expensive and too unreliable to use in large numbers, so pretty much everything had to be done with physical switches. Their solution to the problem of "direct dial" with the old rotary phones was quite clever, actually, but by modern standards was also terribly crude; it was big, it was loud, it was expensive and used a lot of power and worst of all it didn't really scale well. (A crossbar is an N� solution.) ... The reason the phone system handles the modern load is that the modern telephone switch bears no resemblance whatever to those of 1950's. Except for things like hard disks, they contain no moving parts, because they're implemented entirely in digital electronics.So we've managed to get rid of all the moving parts and make things run more smoothly and reliably, but isn't it still an absurd system? It is, but we don't really stop to think about it. Why? Because we've hidden the vast and complex backend of the phone system behind innocuous looking telephone numbers. All we need to know to use a telephone is how to operate it (i.e. how to punch in numbers) and what number we want to call. Wenham explains, in a different essay:
The numbers seem pretty simple in design, having an area code, exchange code and four digit number. The area code for Manhattan is 212, Queens is 718, Nassau County is 516, Suffolk County is 631 and so-on. Now let's pretend it's my job to build the phone routing system for Emergency 911 service in the New York City area, and I have to route incoming calls to the correct police department. At first it seems like I could use the area and exchange codes to figure out where someone's coming from, but there's a problem with that: cell phone owners can buy a phone in Manhattan and get a 212 number, and yet use it in Queens. If someone uses their cell phone to report an accident in Queens, then the Manhattan police department will waste precious time transferring the call.He also mentions cell phones, which are somewhat less absurd than plain old telephones, but when you think about it, all we've done with cell phones is abstract the telephone lines. We're still connecting to a cell tower (which need to be placed with high frequency throughout the world) and from there, a call is often routed through the plain old telephone system. If we could see the RF layer in action, we'd be astounded; it would make the telephone wires look organized and downright pleasant by comparison.
The act of hiding the physical nature of a system behind an abstraction is very common, but it turns out that all major abstractions are leaky. But all leaks in an abstraction, to some degree, are useful.
One of the most glamorous technological advances of the past 50 years was the advent of space travel. Thinking of the heavens is indeed an awe-inspiring and humbling experience, to be sure, but when you start breaking things down to the point where we can put a man in space, things get very dicey indeed. When it comes to space travel, there is no more glamorous a person than the astronaut, but again, how does one become an astronaut? The need to pour through and memorize giant telephone-sized books filled with technical specifications and detailed schematics. Hardly a glamorous proposition.
Steven Den Beste recently wrote a series of articles concerning the critical characteristics of space warships, and it is fascinating reading, but one of the things that struck me about the whole concept was just how unglamorous space battles would be. It sounds like a battle using the weapons and defenses described would be punctuated by long periods of waiting followed by a short burst of activity in which one side was completely disabled. This is, perhaps, the reason so many science fiction movies and books seem to flaunt the rules of physics. As a side note, I think a spectacular film could be made while still obeying the rules of physics, but that is only because we're so used to the absurd physics defying space battles.
None of this is to say that technological advances aren't worthwhile or that those who discover new and exciting concepts are somehow not impressive. If anything, I'm more impressed at what we've achieved over the years. And yet, since we take these advances for granted, we marginalize the effort that went into their discovery. This is due in part to the necessary abstractions we make to implement various systems. But when abstractions hide the crude underpinnings of technology, we see that technology and its creation as glamorous, thus bestowing honors upon those who make the discovery (perhaps for the wrong reasons). It's an almost paradoxal cycle. Perhaps because of this, we expect newer discoveries and innovations to somehow be less crude, but we must realize that all of our discoveries are inherently crude.
And while we've discovered a lot, it is still crude and could use improvements. Some technologies have stayed the same for thousands of years. Look at toilet paper. For all of our wondrous technological advances, we're still wiping our ass with a piece of paper. The Japanese have the most advanced toilets in the world, but they've still not figured out a way to bypass the simple toilet paper (or, at least, abstract the process). We've got our work cut out for us. Luckily, we're willing to go to absurd lengths to achieve our goals.
Posted by Mark on May 02, 2004 at 09:47 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
Error, Calibration, and Defiant Posturing
I'm still slogging my way through Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, and I recently came across a passage that I found particularly insightful (or, at least, that overlaps some of my interests). I'm tempted to reproduce the entire chapter, but will limit it for the sake of brevity. The two characters involved in the scene are an ambitious former-slave woman named Eliza, and famed astronomer, mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens. Huygens is observing the sun so as to correct any error in his clocks (even a well made clock drifts and must be calibrated from time to time) and this act is used as a metaphor to describe people. The quote is from pages 715-716 of my edition:
"...Imagine my parents' consternation. They had taught me Latin, Greek, French and other languages. They had taught me the lute, the viol, and the harpsichord. Of literature and history I had learned everything that was in their power to tech me. Mathematics and philosophy I learned from Descartes himself. But I built myself a lathe. Later I taught myself how to grind lenses. My parents feared that they had spawned a tradesman."I've written about this sort of thing before, only applied to systems rather than clocks or people. One of the things I left out of this quote is actually quite important: "Of persons I will say this: it is difficult to tell when they are running aright but easy to see when something has gone awry." And the same goes for systems, too. I've often commented on the intelligence community, and one of the truisms of intelligence is that when it is going well, it is transparent - you don't know it is there. We don't reveal intelligence successes, because to do so would prevent us from further exploiting an asset, and so on. But when there is an intelligence failure, it is quite obvious to all, even if it was debatably unavoidable.
One could go crazy applying this concept to the world of current events, but I suppose that it is such an interesting point precisely because it is so broadly applicable.
Update: Removed some of the specific current events originally referenced in this post, as they distracted from the general point and I wanted to be able to refer back to this without worrying about that.
Posted by Mark on December 10, 2003 at 08:28 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 03, 2003
Neal Stephenson's new novel, Quicksilver, is due to be released later this month. It is both a sequel to his brilliant novel Cryptonomicon, and the first in a trilogy of novels known collectively as The Baroque Cycle (to be published at six month intervals).
On the front page of the Baroque Cycle website is a rather interesting cryptographic puzzle (not quite up to the level of some other promotional games or puzzles, but an interesting foray nonetheless) which appeared without fanfare or instructions (well, sort of). Todd Garrison solved the puzzle, and how he did so makes for fascinating reading. Countless setbacks and dead ends eventually led the patient Mr. Garrison to a "Philosophical Language" invented by John Wilkins and expressed in what was called "Real Character."
Also of note is a new Stephenson interview in Wired. Its short but its good:
During the information revolution, it became possible for those with an engineering mentality to control large amounts of capital. So people who, if they'd been born a generation or two earlier, would've ended up sitting in a little office at IBM pushing a T-square around ended up becoming captains of industry. From that point of view, it seems like there's been this revolutionary change that's occurred within our lifetimes, but there are precedents. The power of engineers and scientists waxes and wanes. In the '90s, we went through a period when that influence became very large, but those times may be over, at least for a little while.Good stuff.
Posted by Mark on September 03, 2003 at 07:27 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 25, 2003
Security & Technology
The other day, I was looking around for some new information on Quicksilver (Neal Stephenson's new novel, a follow up to Cryptonomicon) and I came across Stephenson's web page. I like everything about that page, from the low-tech simplicity of its design, to the pleading tone of the subject matter (the "continuous partial attention" bit always gets me). At one point, he gives a summary of a talk he gave in Toronto a few years ago:
Basically I think that security measures of a purely technological nature, such as guns and crypto, are of real value, but that the great bulk of our security, at least in modern industrialized nations, derives from intangible factors having to do with the social fabric, which are poorly understood by just about everyone. If that is true, then those who wish to use the Internet as a tool for enhancing security, freedom, and other good things might wish to turn their efforts away from purely technical fixes and try to develop some understanding of just what the social fabric is, how it works, and how the Internet could enhance it. However this may conflict with the (absolutely reasonable and understandable) desire for privacy.And that quote got me to thinking about technolology and security, and how technology never really replaces human beings, it just makes certain tasks easier, quicker, and more efficient. There was a lot of talk about this sort of thing around the early 90s, when certain security experts were promoting the use of strong cryptography and digital agents that would choose what products we would buy and spend our money for us.
As it turns out, most of those security experts seem to be changing their mind. There are several reasons for this, chief among them fallibility and, quite frankly, a lack of demand. It is impossible to build an infallible system (at least, it's impossible to recognize that you have built such a system), but even if you had accomplished such a feat, what good would it be? A perfectly secure system is also a perfectly useless system. Besides that, you have human ignorance to contend with. How many of you actually encrypt your email? It sounds odd, but most people don't even notice the little yellow lock that comes up in their browser when they are using a secure site.
Applying this to our military, there are some who advocate technology (specifically airpower) as a replacement for the grunt. The recent war in Iraq stands in stark contrast to these arguments, despite the fact that the civilian planners overruled the military's request for additional ground forces. In fact, Rumsfeld and his civilian advisors had wanted to send significantly fewer ground forces, because they believed that airpower could do virtually everything by itself. The only reason there were as many as there were was because General Franks fought long and hard for increased ground forces (being a good soldier, you never heard him complain, but I suspect there will come a time when you hear about this sort of thing in his memoirs).
None of which is to say that airpower or technology are not necessary, nor do I think that ground forces alone can win a modern war. The major lesson of this war is that we need to have balanced forces in order to respond with flexibility and depth to the varied and changing threats our country faces. Technology plays a large part in this, as it makes our forces more effective and more likely to succeed. But, to paraphrase a common argument, we need to keep in mind that weapons don't fight wars, soldiers do. While technology we used provided us with a great deal of security, its also true that the social fabric of our armed forces were undeniably important in the victory.
One thing Stephenson points to is an excerpt from a Sherlock Holmes novel in which Holmes argues:
...the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful country-side...The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish...But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.Once again, the war in Iraq provides us with a great example. Embedding reporters in our units was a controversial move, and there are several reasons the decision could have been made. One reason may very well have been that having reporters around while we fought the war may have made our troops behave better than they would have otherwise. So when we watch the reports on TV, all we see are the professional, honorable soldiers who bravely fought an enemy which was fighting dirty (because embedding reporters revealed that as well).
Communications technology made embedding reporters possible, but it was the complex social interactions that really made it work (well, to our benefit at least). We don't derive security straight from technology, we use it to bolster our already existing social constructs, and the further our technology progresses, the easier and more efficient security becomes.
Update 6.6.03 - Tacitus discusses some similar issues...
Posted by Mark on May 25, 2003 at 02:03 PM .: link :.
Thursday, May 31, 2001
Why I am a Bad Correspondent by Neal Stephenson : A perfectly reasonable document that tries to explain why he is not very diligent about answering his mail, and why he doesn't accept speaking engagements. He gives a summary:
"I am not a recluse or a misanthrope or a grouch. I simply cannot respond to all incoming stimuli unless I retire from writing novels. And I don't wish to retire at this time."I found the document at Stephenson's webpage, which is, in itself, a plea for people to leave him alone so that he may write his next novel. He cites the quote "We live in an age of continuous partial attention." and goes on to explain that writing novels is one of those activities that requires ALL one's attention. I find the idea of "continuous partial attention" to be a fascinating one, as it is something I try to avoid whenever possible. There is a certain attitude in our culture that expects us to be able to do everything at once and be happy about it. Personally, I would rather do one thing really well than do many things averagely. So I can see where Mr. Stephenson is coming from, I recognize it as a completely reasonable request and I am determined to do my part in helping him achieve his goal. That is to say, I am going to do nothing.
Nothing except link to The Big U, Stephenson's first novel, self described as: a first novel written in a hurry by a young man a long time ago. Which basically means its not that good. I only mention it because its reproduced there in its entirety, and, until recently, its a hard book to find.
Posted by Mark on May 31, 2001 at 01:01 PM .: link :.
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