Neal Stephenson

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

When I was a teenager, I once picked up a copy of Paradise Lost and immediately bounced right the hell off of it. Something about the blank verse or Milton’s particular style was just impenetrable to me. As Samuel Johnson once quipped: “Paradise Lost is a book that, once put down, is very hard to pick up again.” And lo, I did not pick it back up again. As such, when news of Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, pitched the story as “a high-tech retelling of PARADISE LOST featuring some characters from REAMDE” or “Paradise Lost by way of Phillip K. Dick”, I was a little apprehensive. Was my hesitation warranted? Maybe! Despite some serious gripes, I ultimately enjoyed the book.

As Fall starts, we center on the titular Richard “Dodge” Forthrast (a character from Stephenson’s earlier thriller, Reamde, though Fall could easily be read as a standalone) as he goes about a routine day leading up to a minor medical procedure… that results in his death. Spoilers, I guess, but this is at the start of the book. As it turns out, when video-game magnate Dodge came into money a while back, he signed a will dictating that his body be frozen after death, with the assumption that future technologies would be able to revive him. As his niece Zula and friend Corvallis (both also from Reamde) parse through the will and manage the estate, they come to the conclusion that the state of the art is not to freeze the meat, but to preserve the brain’s connectome. Eventually, this leads to a high resolution scan of Dodge’s brain, which is then uploaded into a computer, wherein it becomes aware and starts doing… stuff. The process is not perfect, and thus things like memory and identity aren’t fully resolved in the uploaded system, but the disembodied mind of Dodge, seeking qualia, is able to construct a body for himself as well as a virtual landform to exist upon. As time goes on, more brains are uploaded and must coexist. Naturally, some conflicts break out in the uploaded bitworld, and hijinks ensue.

The book is essentially told in two parts. First is the real world, where Zula and a cast of familiar characters from Reamde as well as other Stephenson works (including the Waterhouse clan and Enoch Root from Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle) deal with the legal implications of Dodge’s death and complicated estate (he’s obscenely wealthy, so there’s a lot to do there) over the course of decades. Second is in the bitworld, which eventually evolves into a sorta Biblical-flavored high fantasy story. The novel starts in the real world, then starts to interleave chapters in the bitworld, which eventually takes over the narrative completely until a brief interlude in the real world at the end.

The real world portions of the novel are fantastic. Stephenson’s usual digressions are present in full force here, but are as cogent and relevant as ever. Which, naturally, means that some of them maybe feel misplaced or extraneous, but are interesting in their own right (for example, the opening of the book is likely to garner some side-eye, as it features Dodge ruminating about lots of seemingly irrelevant topics like alarm clocks and soap bubbles and whatnot). The initial explorations of the will’s legal implications and the notion of preservation moving from meat to connectome is handled in detail, but with Stephenson’s usual wit.

As the story progresses, we get some jumps in time which allow Stephenson to extrapolate on some of our current day woes. For instance, relatively early on, there’s an elaborate hoax that spreads like wildfire on the internet, despite being rather quickly debunked. The whole event is eye opening and tense; Stephenson captures the unfolding drama and the way in which it’s received perfectly. The notion of people creating neat little echo chambers for themselves on the internet has always been a concern, but the rise of social media seems to have accelerated some of the complications, and Stephenson does a great job encapsulating the problem and hypothesize the consequences. Some of this might veer too far into hyperbole (the short trip into Ameristan is a good example of that – entertaining and interesting for sure, but a little strained in terms of plausibility), but other aspects are absolutely dead-on. The notion that the internet will become so embedded into daily life and yet so untrustworthy that we’ll have to hire full time personal editors to keep things straight is interesting and fraught with dilemmas (only a tiny fraction of which are dealt with here, but done well enough that the reader can generalize). Some of the wrangling around the philosophy of the brain processes that are running on computers are also well rendered in this side of the story, and the conflicts generated on this side of the divide feel real enough.

The uploaded world portions of the novel are… less successful. At their best, they take on an archetypal, mythic quality that lives up to the billing as a “retelling of Paradise Lost”. At their worst, though, they’re just dull as as spoon. A lot of time is spent, for instance, describing geographic features in unnecessary detail. While this might be expected as Dodge generates the landform, it is still present much later in the story (which is a little strange, as the book contains several detailed maps, as required by Fantasy literature law). And there’s plenty of stuff inbetween. When Dodge first regains consciousness and must figure out how to exist again, it’s not exactly thrilling, but it holds at least some interest.

It doesn’t help that these uploaded brains don’t really resemble their real world personas, except in vague ways. As the novel progresses, many of the characters we know in the real world die and get uploaded… but the processes of scanning and uploading are lossy at best, and the world they inhabit is oddly limited by Dodge’s initial choices (amongst lots of other constraints that are not very clearly laid out). As a result, the characters in bitworld feel like regressions of their original selves. There are a number of newly introduced characters that don’t really connect well, and all the interactions in bitworld can’t help but feel a little flighty and airless.

On a thematic level, there’s plenty to chew on, but again, since bitworld is so aimless, it’s hard to really attribute any real depth or meaning to the happenings there. Sometimes it works better than others, but it ultimately can’t help but mute the themes. You might expect that a novel influenced by Paradise Lost would feature a moral component, and this certainly does… but again, the very nature of bitworld mutes any morality here. The parallels are not exact, to be sure, with Dodge kinda personified as both God and Satan at various times, which does bear thought.

Stephenson’s stated intention here was to embed a high fantasy within a more conventional SF or techno-thriller narrative, so maybe some of my complaints are nitpicks, but the interaction between bitworld and the real world seems ripe for exploration that Stephenson almost completely ignores. One would think that someone whose beloved relative has died and been uploaded into bitworld would, you know, want to reconnect with their dead relative. There is a brief mention of some sort of method developed by the villain of the piece that allows some form of communication from bitworld back to the real world, but it’s just a passing reference that isn’t mentioned again. What’s more, the bright folks in the real world quickly realized that a lot of the activity in bitworld resembled a physics simulation and were able to create a landform visualization tool that allowed people to watch what was happening in bitworld. Once you have that, it seems almost trivial to devise a way to open up communications between the two worlds. I can think of, like, five different ways off the top of my head. Sure, some of these are rudimentary at best, but that’s all you’d need at first. As it is, the book covers almost a century of real world time, but somehow, while real world folks can watch bitworld, the information flow is only in that one direction and no one seems that interested in expanding that flow (yet people have started to change their real world behaviors to make sure their brain can be uploaded once they die, despite knowing squat about what happens there). Plus, well, the bitworld doesn’t seem like much of an afterlife.

As the bitworld portions progress, they do managed to pick up some steam and by the time the final quest and showdown arrives, it’s chugging along well. Assuming you’re able to get past some of the bitworld’s shortcomings, it’s got a reasonably satisfying ending (though given Stephenson’s reputation for endings, I don’t think this would be a particularly good rebuke to the haters). As a whole, the narrative comes off a bit disjointed, though much of that is intentional. There’s a bunch of time jumps and corresponding new characters, which can sometimes be disorienting, and a little weird when, say, Dodge himself disappears from the story for several hundred pages.

Once the narrative shifts to the bitworld, most of the real world stuff still remains great. Some of it provides needed context to the happenings in bitworld, some of it is just further ruminations on existential themes, and some of it is really quite tantalizing. At one point, Stephenson casually approaches the notion that the “real world” portions are also a simulation. That all of existence might be a Turtles All The Way Down series of simulations within simulations (this might even help explain what’s up with Enoch Root). He wisely keeps this idea vague, something that might bother me in other contexts, but which feels well calibrated here. Lots of food for thought in this book.

Samuel Johnson also said of Paradise Lost that “None ever wished it longer than it is.” I suspect the same could be said of Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, which does clock in at a hefty 883 pages. About par for the Stephenson course, to be sure, but it does feel like the bitworld portions could be streamlined, which could make for better pacing. Ultimately, I enjoyed this novel for what it was, and while I don’t think the bitworld fantasy is entirely successful, I have to admire the ambition. But then, I’m a total sucker for Stephenson, so your mileage may vary. Still, while this novel probably works as a standalone, I don’t think I’d recommend it as a starting place for Stephenson. Reamde might actually be a pretty good choice for that, given its more mainstream techno-thriller bent (it’s sole difficulty on this front is its 1000+ page length). Still, it was nice checking in with Dodge and Zula and characters from other Stephenson books. I remain intrigued by pretty much anything Stephenson writes, and am already looking forward to his next story, whatever it may be (sadly probably a few years out).

Stephenson’s Fall (Redux)

You folks remember, like, three years ago, when some digital spelunking on my part uncovered that Neal Stephenson’s next novel would be called “Fall” (“pitched as a high-tech retelling of PARADISE LOST featuring some characters from REAMDE”). After a slight detour with The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., it looks like Fall has finally panned out. Harper Collins and Amazon both have listings for Fall, Or Dodge in Hell, with the same description:

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of Seveneves, Anathem, Reamde, and Cryptonomicon returns with a wildly inventive and entertaining science fiction thriller—Paradise Lost by way of Phillip K. Dick—that unfolds in the near future, in parallel worlds.

In his youth, Richard “Dodge” Forthrast founded Corporation 9592, a gaming company that made him a multibillionaire. Now in his middle years, Dodge appreciates his comfortable, unencumbered life, managing his myriad business interests, and spending time with his beloved niece Zula and her young daughter, Sophia.

One beautiful autumn day, while he undergoes a routine medical procedure, something goes irrevocably wrong. Dodge is pronounced brain dead and put on life support, leaving his stunned family and close friends with difficult decisions. Long ago, when a much younger Dodge drew up his will, he directed that his body be given to a cryonics company now owned by enigmatic tech entrepreneur Elmo Shepherd. Legally bound to follow the directive despite their misgivings, Dodge’s family has his brain scanned and its data structures uploaded and stored in the cloud, until it can eventually be revived.

In the coming years, technology allows Dodge’s brain to be turned back on. It is an achievement that is nothing less than the disruption of death itself. An eternal afterlife—the Bitworld—is created, in which humans continue to exist as digital souls.

But this brave new immortal world is not the Utopia it might first seem . . .

Fall, or Dodge in Hell is pure, unadulterated fun: a grand drama of analog and digital, man and machine, angels and demons, gods and followers, the finite and the eternal. In this exhilarating epic, Neal Stephenson raises profound existential questions and touches on the revolutionary breakthroughs that are transforming our future. Combining the technological, philosophical, and spiritual in one grand myth, he delivers a mind-blowing speculative literary saga for the modern age.

That’s a fascinating little SFnal departure from Reamde’s distinctly non-SF roots. Still not entirely sure how it parallels Lucifer’s quest and the angelic wars that comprise Paradise Lost, but one suspects liberties were taken (though the description does indicate more possibility in that direction, I guess). The character of Dodge wasn’t exactly my favorite from Reamde, so I’m hoping more of the supporting cast shows up at some point.

It comes out in June, 2019 (still no cover released), so gird your loins, Stephenson fans. That’s 3 Stephenson novels in around 4 years, which is actually a step up in his production. Fingers crossed that he keeps this up… (Hat tip to Kaedrin friend and fellow Stephenson fan Ilya for the pointer on this new info)

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

Without delving too deeply into defining Science Fiction (a contentious undertaking worthing of a separate post), there is a tendency to expand the bounds of the genre by applying scientific precepts to other, nominally supernatural stories. Witness Arthur C. Clarke’s infamous dictum: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And speaking of magic, one such sub-genre could be called the “technology of magic” story which layers a science fictional structure on top of fantasy (or horror) tropes. Nicole Galland and Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is one such technology of magic story.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

Melisande Stokes is a struggling academic linguist who inadvertently meets one Tristan Lyons, a handsome military man who recruits her for a secret research project. He reveals little of his motivations or goals or even who he even works for (as he flatly responds to one of Mel’s many questions about documents she’s translating, “Whether or not they are classified is classified.”) Nevertheless, Melisande’s polyglot skills quickly reveal some context: Magic was once a real, measurable phenomenon and driver of history, but witch practitioners reported a waning of magic in the early 19th century, eventually disappearing completely in 1851.

The scientific hypothesis is that this magical extinction event was precipitated by the invention of cameras, and in specific, an 1851 eclipse that was widely photographed. The explanation being that magic was some sort of manipulation of quantum physics and that photography represented a form of observation that resulted in a sorta magical wave-function collapse.

It’s a clever conceit that provides a good basis for the story. Once they realize what caused the disappearance of magic, our heroic duo get in contact with Dr. Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca East Oda, who have independently been working on a kind of Schrodinger’s Cat box, an isolation chamber that might prove ideal for practicing magic in the modern world. After making contact with a real, live witch named Erszebet Karpathy, our oddball band of heroes manage to show that magic does, in fact, exist. Once this hypothesis is confirmed, the government begins a more formal exploration with the hopes of restoring magic and exploiting it for their own strategic ends.

Of course, magic isn’t quite all its cracked up to be. Its applications are not immediately obvious until they stumble upon Erszebet’s ability to send someone back in time. Even this ability comes with numerous unexpected complications. It turns out that while you can travel back in time and make changes, you must do so on several “strands” of the multiverse until you reach some sort of critical mass where those changes become permanent (or, at least, observable in the present). Of course, this can get pretty tedious and there are additional dangers. If, for example, you were to attempt too large of a change, the universe responds with a literal explosion of magic referred to as Diachronic Shear. Let’s just say that it’s something to be avoided.

But our heroes persist and after some early success, the DODO (now revealed to be an acronym for Department of Diachronic Operations) organization grows at an alarmingly fast rate as they create new ODECs (i.e. Schrodinger’s Cat boxes that allow magic), recruit an army of historians, martial artists, and other subject matter experts, and of course identify Known Compliant Witches (KCWs) in pre-1851 Diachronic Theaters (so that present-day operatives that have been sent to the past have a way to get back to the present, naturally). One such historical contact is the Irish witch Gráinne, who appears very cooperative, but also has motives of her own. As the title of the book implies, the whole undertaking may be undone thanks to bureaucratic excess and manipulative figures like Gráinne…

The majority of the novel is comprised of first person accounts in the form of diaries, government memos, after-action reports, intranet chat logs, wiki-style howtos, epistolary accounts, and so on. In the beginning, this is primarily from Melisande’s perspective, but as the DODO organization grows, so too do the perspectives. As a literary device, this provides convenient cover for the SF genre’s info-dumping tendencies while also allowing you to get multiple perspectives on the same events. It works well and never wore out its welcome (unlike some other framing devices I’ve read recently).

Not having read any of Nicole Galland’s previous work (save some of the Mongoliad, another collaboration with Stephenson and several other authors), I can’t say for sure how the collaboration worked, but as a rabid Stephenson nut, I can tell you that there’s plenty of Stephensonian touches here. Of course, one would assume their collaboration involves shared obsessions, so this all makes sense. Still, there’s enough commonality between certain things here and Stephenson’s other work such that I feel confident that, for example, the whole subplot involving the underestimated Viking Magnus’s assault on a Walmart is very Stephensonian in concept and execution (As the character Rebecca notes in her journal entry: “Magnus is ludicrously hyper-masculine in ways that have been bred and trained out of modern-day men and so they have to deprecate his intelligence.” In fact, Magnus’ intelligence just manifests in a different way, similar to, say, the Shaftoe brand of genius being quite distinct from the more common Waterhouse conception (for the uninitiated, those are characters from Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle.)) The Fuggers, an enigmatic family of well-connected bankers, also feel very Stephensonian (and while they are not implied to be immortal, their subtle methods of influence recall Enoch Root… or maybe I should just stop comparing everything to Cryptonomicon.)

From what I understand, many of the historical bits come from Galland (though, again, that’s not an unusual avenue for Stephenson either), and they jive well with the rest of the story. There are, perhaps, a few quibbles to be made about the plot. In particular, Gráinne’s rise to power seems precipitated by an event I’d be extremely wary about. The ending works well enough, though it does appear to be setting up a sequel/series and when combined with Stephenson’s reputation for endings, this may rub some folks the wrong way.

There’s still more than enough good to make up for any of the nitpicks though. The clever quantum underpinnings of magic, the slow exploration and tedius implications of the way magic works (uh, that’s a good thing), the droll and humorous takedown of beurocratic excess, the seemingly infinite parade of acronyms (my favorite being the Diachronic Operative Resource Center or DORC), the well researched historical panache, the winning and charismatic characters (even the villains are the types you love to roll your eyes at), it all contributes to a fun adventure tale that is well paced and entertaining. There aren’t a ton of completely new ideas here and you could argue that it isn’t as deep or idiosyncratic as Stephenson’s best, but it is a very well executed take on those tropes, and one that I prefer to many other offerings.

Overall, it’s a light, fun, entertaining romp reminiscent of Stephenson’s other collaborations (the Stephen Bury books, which he cowrote with his uncle George Jewsbury) or Reamde. It might not be as revelatory as Cryptonomicon or Anathem, but it’s a fantastic book. I will most likely put it on my nominating ballot for next year’s Hugo Awards.

Not much to go on when it comes to Stephenson and/or Galland’s next books, but in this interview, they mention that they’re both approaching the homestretch on solo projects, but are not ready to announce anything yet. Given the ending of DODO, I have to wonder how quickly we’ll see a sequel (or if it will even be written by these two authors again?) Time will tell, but I will most likely be reading whatever these two put out (and frankly, I should get on some of Galland’s back catalog).

Stephenson’s Fall

Buried in an excerpt of Neal Stephenson’s interview with Locus Magazine is a throwaway line that mentions his next project:

Fall, featuring some characters from Reamde, is forthcoming.

Well that’s interesting, isn’t it? It certainly doesn’t say much, and there’s almost nothing else being reported out there. After many machinations, I managed to discover a slightly more descriptive notice at Publisher’s Weekly (it has since gone off the first page and thus requires a login, but Google Cache still has it, and this blog picked it up as well):

NYT bestselling author, including the most recent SEVENEVES, Neal Stephenson’s FALL, pitched as a high-tech retelling of PARADISE LOST featuring some characters from REAMDE, to Jennifer Brehl at William Morrow, in a major deal, for publication in Fall 2017, by Liz Darhansoff at Darhansoff & Verrill (World English).

The plot thickens. Sorta. I have no idea how a story about Lucifer’s quest to poison God’s most favored creation (with flashbacks to angelic wars) would play out in a high-tech fashion (with characters from a contemporary thriller like Reamde), but hell, I’m on board. And Fall of 2017 (I see what they did there) is not that far away in Stephensonian timescales (most books are separated by 3-4 years), so I’m sure we’ll find out more in due time. While I have no idea how this will work, it’s not at all surprising that Stephenson is working on a Milton-themed book…

No word on the series of historical novels Stephenson teased in an interview a few years ago:

Stephenson says he has returned to the past to tap a “similar vein” to that covered in his globe-spanning Baroque Cycle.

“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.

“It looks like it will start with two back-to-back volumes.

“One of those is largely done and the other will be done early next winter. So I think [they will be released] mid-to-late 2014 perhaps – something like that.”

Well clearly that didn’t happen, as Stephenson must have switched gears to put out the long gestating Seveneves. No word as to when or even if these novels will ever happen. Whatever the case, I’m all aboard the Stephenson train, as per usual.

Update from November, 2018: Fall, or Dodge in Hell is confirmed!

Update from August, 2019: The book is out, I have read it, and I have thoughts.

Seveneves

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

That’s the eye-opening first sentence of Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, palindromically titled Seveneves. It speaks to how much science fiction loves the what if mode of storytelling. What if the moon exploded? At first, not a whole lot. The moon splits into 7 big pieces, but thanks to gravity, they’re generally in the same location and orbit, exerting the same tidal forces, and so on. That is, until the pieces of the moon start to smash into one another, splitting massive rocks into smaller chunks, leading to an exponentially increasing number of collisions. While we’re not really expecting the moon to explode anytime soon, the notion of space debris colliding with other space debris, creating more debris and thus increasing likelihood of further collisions, is something NASA scientists have actually speculated about. In the novel, Stephenson calls this the “White Sky”, and the smaller pieces won’t stay nicely in orbit like the moon did. Within two years of the moon exploding, the Earth will be assaulted by what Stephenson calls the “Hard Rain” as all of the pieces of the moon fall to earth as bolides, releasing so much energy and heat as to make the Earth uninhabitable for thousands of years.

The human response to this news is to send as much material into orbit as possible. In a way, this is an “ark” story (a common subgenre, though it’s also often relegated to backstory), but since Earth orbit is going to be crowded with moon parts, it can’t be a single, giant ark. Instead, Stephenson comes up with the concept of a “cloud ark”, a series of small, independent arklets that can swarm and maneuver to avoid debris. Various groupings can be made, and there’s also a home-base of sorts with the International Space Station, which is somewhat larger than it is today and which is also bolted to a large iron asteroid called Amalthea (which acts as a shield for the ISS). Naturally, the cloud ark cannot accommodate more than a few thousand souls, so there’s lots of Earthside wrangling and politics over who is chosen to survive, and who will remain on ground to perish in the hard rain.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about characters yet, and that’s pretty illustrative about how this book reads. There is a very large cast of characters, of course, but the book seems primarily concerned with orbital mechanics and more broad sociological interactions. The depth with which Stephenson explains various elements of humanity’s future home in space will no doubt turn casual readers off, but this is par for the Stephenson course. Blog readers know that I’m totally in the bag for this sort of thing, so it didn’t really bother me, and while info-dumps can be frustrating when done poorly, Stephenson is a master of incorporating that sort of detail into a larger narrative. Here, the orbital mechanics are mixed fairly successfully with social mechanics and the more divisive political aspects of the cloud ark.

Depending on your point of view, this could be viewed as an intensely pessimistic view of humanity. I was actually reminded of the Battlestar Galactica television series, where people can’t seem to agree with each other about anything, even when the entire race is on the brink of extinction. In some ways, it’s not quite that pessimistic, and spoilers aho, humanity manages to survive, but not after some pretty harrowing and surprisingly sudden crises. More spoilers forthcoming, but the immediate takeaway is that fans of Stephenson will probably enjoy this, but like most of his novels, you probably have to have a certain mindset to enjoy it…

Individual characters feel more like chess pieces in the story’s game. Sure, they have personalities (this comes into play later in the book, moreso than early on) and they’re a compelling enough bunch, but their actions are severely constrained by their circumstances. This is, in many ways, the point. Living in space does not allow for many of the habits and practices we’re used to here on our cushy planet, after all. Personal space, privacy, and so on are pretty severely limited. Still, the characters feel more like types than individuals. There’s a science populizer called “Doc” Dubois Harris who is basically Neil Degrass Tyson. There’s a miner turned roboticist named Dinah Macquarie, who is arguably the main character of the first two thirds of the book. We like both of them, and several of their surrounding characters. There’s an almost cartoonishly devious political villain that emerges as well, along with her own retinue of followers. We don’t like them! And there are dozens of other side characters, some becoming very important, some unceremoniously dispatched in one space disaster or another.

It’s a huge novel in nearly every way, including it’s physical size (another 800+ page hardcover), but also in terms of its ambition and the way Stephenson tells the story. If you think the first line is cool, the transition about two thirds of the way through the book was another pretty big surprise. At the time, humanity isn’t in particularly good shape. They’ve fractured into two main camps, but few remain alive when they rejoin one another. On the other hand, they’ve finally reached a relatively safe and stable position in space to build out from, and they have enough technology to ensure the survival of the species… and then Stephenson starts a new chapter with “Five Thousand Years Later” and proceeds from there.

It’s a bold choice, one of many in this book. Unfortunately, when you move the action that far forward, there’s a lot to catch up with. As mentioned above, Stpehenson is a master of info-dumps, but this section of the book, in which nearly every narrative event is preceded by long and complicated digressions about how this or that piece of new orbital technology works or how this or that aspect of society works (again we get the juxtaposition of orbital and social mechanics frequently here) left even me a little impatient. It doesn’t help that the events that drive that future part of the narrative seemed pretty obvious to me from the start (it’s based on something from earlier in the book). Still, once the basics are established, the story gets moving on its own terms and ends strong enough.

It’s just that you have to get through 5000 years of basics, which takes a while. A lot of Stephenson’s ticks are noticeable here (and I don’t mean that in a bad way). Stephenson loves to play with familial relationships and often returns to certain types of characters. Here, we get seven different strains of characters, such that when the story is moved 5000 years into the future, even if we don’t know the new characters yet, we know their ancestors, and this gives you a little bit of an idea as to who they are. It’s not a perfect, one-to-one relationship, the same way that Randy Waterhouse is distinct from Lawrence Waterhouse (in Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon), but there’s some underlying type that works for them both. Now, it is a bit of a hard sell to say that the 7 distinct genotypes (the eponymous seven “eves”) wouldn’t have interbred more in the intervening 5000 years (it is implied that this does happen, but it seems infrequent), but I can accept that the storytelling works better when you make such sharp distinctions.

It’s funny, but this feels like Stephenson’s most cinematic work. Many of these info-dumps and extended discussions of orbital mechanics would be much less daunting if presented visually (the book even includes a few illustrations to help you visualize what he’s talking about, but they are few and far between). Alas, I’m guessing such a movie (or, more likely, TV series) would be cost prohibitive because of all the special effects required to blow up the moon, portray the white sky and hard rain, and all the arklets, let alone the far future space habitats and gigantic orbital launch devices, etc… Perhaps someday this could happen, and I think it could perhaps even surpass the book in terms of quality if done right.

I’m a total sucker for Stephenson, so it’s not a surprise that I enjoyed this novel. It’s not going to unseat Cryptonomicon as my favorite, but it compares favorably to his other work. I have to admit that I don’t particularly agree with all of his sociological musings here, but this is interesting, exciting, and ambitious stuff, and I can’t fault Stephenson for wanting to explore this fascinating territory. I know that this is an unpopular line of thought with increasingly ideological Science Fiction fans of late, but I’m actually capable of disagreeing with a work that I think is great without actually needing to doubt that greatness. This is bold, adventurous writing, and while there are plenty of valid complaints to be made, I still think this is some of the most interesting SF published in the last few years (it certainly puts the last few Hugo novel ballots to shame). You can bet this will show up on my 2016 Hugo nomination ballot.

A Non-Hugo Book Queue

As I wind my way through this year’s Hugo nominees, I’ve realized that there are several books coming in the near future that I really, really want to read. It’s almost enough to want to opt out of the Hugos (what with all the lame controversy), though I suppose there’s a fair chance that two of these will be eligible next year (and one the following year). There’s also the fact that I’ve already read 3 of the Hugo novels and am halfway through another, so I guess that’s still on the table. Still, These 4 books make me want to drop everything and read them first:

  • Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (May 19, 2015) – So close I can almost taste it, this is coming in the mail next Tuesday. Stephenson is my favorite author, so I don’t even really need to know what it’s about, but if you do want to know, I posted the official synopsis a while back.
  • Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold (February 2016) – Just recently announced, this is most exciting news. Bujold is my other favorite author, so this is another almost blind buy. Details are sparse, but Bujold has stated that the main protagonist is Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, which is most exciting. She’s also stated that “It is not a war story. It is about grownups.” which doesn’t really narrow it down much, though it may suggest that this novel takes place long after Cordelia’s previous entries in the series (Shards of Honor and Barrayar, both great) and perhaps during her stint as Vicereine of Sergyar (will Aral be there?) Honestly, this one is probably the most exciting on the list to me, if only because I have so much already invested in the series.
  • The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (May 19, 2015) – Finally! Barker has been talking about this story since 1993. 1993! I know he doesn’t owe his fans anything, but it’s been 20+ years, which is a bit excessive… It supposedly features Harry D’Amour (from The Last Illusion and Everville) and Pinhead (from The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser). This gets on the list simply because it’s been so damn long, but since it comes out on the same day as Seveneves, it will have to wait!
  • The End of All Things by John Scalzi (Serial, August 11, 2015)- I was a huge fan of The Human Division… right up until it ended on a cliffhanger. Well Scalzi’s finally gotten around to publishing the second volume (which supposedly will finish off the overarching story), which is supposed to happen in serial form over the next few months, but I’ll probably wait until the full collection is released in August.

There are tons of other books in the queue, but these are some of my favorite authors and they deserve special attention. Can’t wait for some of these!

Seveneves

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.

“It looks like it will start with two back-to-back volumes.

“One of those is largely done and the other will be done early next winter. So I think [they will be released] mid-to-late 2014 perhaps – something like that.”

“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!

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.

Clang

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:

There’s actually a bunch of other interesting videos explaining some of the detailed thought behind why they want to make this game. I particularly enjoyed the one talking about how comprehensive our selection of guns are in games and how people argue over the minutia of gun combat, but sword based games have a depressing lack of options.

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.

Link Dump

I’m gonna be taking a trip to The Cabin in The Woods tonight, so time is sparse, thus some linkys for you:

  • In Defense of Microsoft Word – Aziz makes a nice argument in response to incessant whinging on the internets:

    It’s certainly true that using Word for simple text like email or blog posts is overkill, in much the same way that using a jet engine to drive your lawnmower is overkill. What’s peculiar is that rather than using simpler tools for their simpler tasks, these people have declared that the more complex and capable tool is “obsolete” and “must die”. This attitude betrays a type of phobia towards technology that I suspect has grown more prevalent as our technology interfaces have become increasingly more “dumbed down”.

    I mostly agree with Aziz. While I haven’t used Word (or a Word processor in general) in my personal life in years, I use it every day at work, and the notion that you can’t use Word to collaborate is bonkers. It may not be the best tool for that, but it’s certainly not something that needs to die. An interesting post…

  • Books: Bits vs. Atoms – Those who have enjoyed my recent bloviating about ebooks will probably get a kick out of this… better organized… take on the subject (that being said, we cover a lot of the same ground).
  • What Amazon’s ebook strategy means – Speaking of ebooks, Charlie Stross clearly lays out why Amazon is dominating the ebook market, how the publishers shot themselves in the foot by practically insisting that Amazon dominate the market, why it’s a bad situation to be in, and how publishers can take some steps in the right direction. Hint: get rid of DRM, you dummies! There’s a lot of lawsuits and wanking in the book and ebook industry right now, and it’s tempting to take sides with Amazon or the publishers or Apple or whoever, but the more I read about it, the more I think that everyone is to blame. So far, this hasn’t really impacted us consumers that much, but it certainly could. Here’s to hoping these folks get their heads bolted on straight in the near future.
  • Neal Stephenson has a hard time talking about swordplay – Normally I find “trailers” for books to be mildly embarrassing (the trailer for Stephenson’s Anathem is a particularly bad example), but this one is pretty funny. No idea how much of it will be represented in the forthcoming paperback release of The Mongoliad, but still.
  • Gabe’s PAX Post – Gabe from Penny Arcade helps run huge video game conventions that are explicitely targeted towards players (most conventions are about general technology or development, and are targeted towards journalists or developers). As one of the creators and organizers, Gabe has to deal with all sorts of crap, and he covers a few of these, including a little prank he played on a troll, and a vexing problem concerning boobies (aka the perennial Booth Babe issue). Read the whole thing, but the key graph is this:

    How about all of you that hate me get together and have your own conference. I need you to decide if half naked girls are empowered or exploited because I’m doing my fucking best here and it’s apparently always wrong. I swear to God I don’t understand how I’m supposed to know if I’m promoting the patriarchy or criminalizing the female body.

    As Steven notes, this is a cry for help. I wish I had answers, but fortunately, I’m not in Gabe’s position. I can just treat people equally and be happy with that.

That’s all for now. Also, go Flyers.