Neal Stephenson

Link Dump

Time is short, so just a few things I’ve found interesting lately:

  • Star Wars Fan Documentaries: I realize that the phrase “fan documentary” probably made you throw up a little in your mouth, but these amazingly comprehensive movies are actually quite well done. They’re built on top of the base of the Star Wars movies themselves, but they feature all sorts of production notes, commentary from cast/crew, and are even sometimes re-cut with alternate takes, deleted scenes, concept art, and original audio. Creator Jambe Davdar must have spent years pouring through Star Wars minutiae to put this together. I haven’t watched all of the videos (there’s a lot of them), but so far, it’s great stuff.
  • The Most Ridiculous Thing that writer/artist Dan McDaid has ever drawn. It’s also pretty awesome.
  • Game Dev Story – An iPhone video game about… well, making video games. A meta video game, if you will. I don’t play a lot of iPhone games, but I heard the guys talking about it on Rebel FM a few weeks ago and it was only $0.99 so I figured I’d give it a try. It’s kinda addictive, despite the fact that the critics never rate my games well.
  • Space Stasis – I haven’t read this yet, but it’s an article by Neal Stephenson, so I’m looking forward to it (apparently a new novel is coming this year as well, though the news has been suspiciously quiet about that so far).
  • MST3k says: Packers win the Super Bowl! – They somehow knew!

That’s all for now!

The Mongoliad

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.

Our story begins with a serial novel of sorts, which we will release over the course of about a year. Neal Stephenson created the world in which The Mongoliad is set, and presides benevolently over it. Our first set of stories is being written by Neal, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, Mark Teppo, and a number of other authors; we’re also working closely with artists, fight choreographers & other martial artists, programmers, film-makers, game designers, and a bunch of other folks to produce an ongoing stream of nontextual, para-narrative, and extra-narrative stuff which we think brings the story to life in ways that are pleasingly unique, and which can’t be done in any single medium.

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…

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 fiction

From a practical point of view, neither writer-director Quentin Tarantino nor The Weinstein Company made any attempt to play up its speculative elements, and indeed probably hoped to keep them under wraps until the last possible moment.

While 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 it

To be sure, without the alternate history aspect it becomes a somewhat different movie in the end. But the fact is that the majority of the movie’s themes, characters and narrative are developed without engaging in or resorting to the alternate historical aspects …

On 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 anyway

This 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 movies

Most historical epics are about as alternate in their history as Inglourious Basterds is. For example, take Gladiator — the most recent historical epic to win the Best Picture Oscar

Another 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 what’s that?

Fiction that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.

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?

While the World Science Fiction Society sponsors the Hugos, they are not limited to sf. Works of fantasy or horror are eligible if the members of the Worldcon think they are eligible.

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.

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…

Link Dump – Video Edition

Just a few interesting links I’ve run across recently:

  • Seeing Science Through Fiction: A talk with Neal Stephenson, Lee Smolin and Jaron Lanier at the Quantum to Cosmos festival. They talk about lots of interesting stuff. Also of note is a panel discussion featuring the same folks and more, though that one isn’t as interesting (and is preceded by some awful babbling). In other Stephenson news, he does have a book coming out… in 2011. It’s supposed to be titled REAMDE, though no one seems to know what it will be about (there is speculation that it might have something to do with deliberately mispelling “readme”, a commom filename).
  • The Netherbeast of Berm-Tech Industries, Inc.: In this world of vampires and werewolves, you can never be too careful. This video is pretty awesome, and I’d wager that it’s probably a lot better than New Moon! (via Hey! Look Behind You!)
  • The Legend of Neil: So this is pretty old, but I just found it. It’s about Neil, who was playing Zelda and accidentally got transported into the game. Moral of the story, don’t drink and play Zelda. It’s pretty funny, with lots of in-jokes and dirty humor.
  • Johnnie Walker – The Man Who Walked Around The World: For a commercial, this is pretty amazingly well done. It helps that you have an actor like Robert Carlyle, but I wonder how many takes it took (or if there were any cheats)…

That’s all for now… Have a great Thanksgiving everyone!

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.

Link Dump

For obvious reasons, time is a little short these days, so here are a few links I’ve found interesting lately:

  • Still Life – This is a rather creepy short film directed by Jon Knautz. It has a very Twilight Zoney type of feel, and a rather dark ending, but it’s quite compelling. Knautz went on to make Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer… alas, that film, while containing a certain charm for the horror aficionado, isn’t quite as good as this short.
  • Zero Punctuation: Assassin’s Creed: I’ve seen some of Yahtzee’s video game reviews before, but while they are certainly entertaining to watch, I’ve never quite known whether or not they were actually useful. It can be a lot of fun to watch someone lay the smackdown on stupid games, and Yahtzee certainly has a knack for doing that (plus he has a British accent, and us Americans apparently love to hear Brits rip into stuf), but you never really know how representative of the actual game it really is. Well, after spending a lot of time playing around with Assassin’s Creed this week, I have to say that Yahtzee’s review is dead on, and hilarious to boot.
  • A Batman Conversation: It’s sad and in poor taste, but I bet some variant of this conversation happened quite frequently about a year ago.
  • MGK Versus His Adolescent Reading Habits: Look! I’m only like 2 months behind the curve on this one! MGK posts a bunch of parodies of book covers from famous SF and fantasy authors (I particularly enjoyed the Asimov, Heinlein, and even the Zahn one).
  • Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2008: Self-explanatory, but there are some pretty cool pics in here…
  • Books as Games: I realize most of my readers also read Shamus, but still, this faux-review of Snow Crash if it were created as a video game before it became a book but in the present day (it, uh, makes more sense in his post) is pretty cool.
  • “Sacred Cow Slayings” Rumored at Sony… Is PlayStation In Jeopardy?: It figures… I finally get off my butt and buy a PS3 and then rumors start appearing that Sony is about to can the program. I don’t think it will happen, but this news is obviously not comforting…
  • Keanu Reeves wants to make a live-action version of Cowboy Bebop. No comment.

Anathem

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.

What!?

“Pretend I’m someone who has never worried. I’m mystified. I don’t get it. Tell me how to worry.”

“Well… I guess the first step is to envision a sequence of events as they might play out in the future.”

“But I do that all the time. And yet I don’t worry.”

“It is a sequence of events with a bad end.”

“So, you’re worried that a pink dragon will fly over the concent and fart nerve gas on us?”

“No,” I said with a nervous chuckle.

“I don’t get it,” Orolo claimed, deadpan. “That is a sequence of events with a bad end.”

“But it’s nonsensical. There are no nerve-gas-farting pink dragons.”

“Fine,” he said, “a blue one, then.” (page 198)

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…

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?”

“A Praxic Age moving pictures serial. An adventure drama about a military spaceship sent to a remote part of the galaxy to prevent hostile aliens from establishing hegemony, and marooned when their hyperdrive is damaged in an ambush. The captain of the ship was passionate, a hothead. His second-in-command was Dox, a theorician, brilliant, but unemotional and cold.”

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 by

> their true names but used the fictitious name ‘Finux’ to refer

> to what is obviously ‘Linux?’ Does this mean that you hate Linux?

Since Finux was the principal operating system used by the characters in the book, I needed some creative leeway to have the fictitious operating system as used by the characters be different in minor ways from the real operating system called Linux. Otherwise I would receive many complaints from Linux users pointing out errors in my depiction of Linux. This is why Batman works in Gotham City, instead of New York–by putting him in Gotham City, the creators afforded themselves the creative license to put buildings in different places, etc.

So 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.

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):

  • The Big U: Considering that the novel has very little actual plot, the ending fits reasonably well. The book gets a little ridiculous, but as Stephenson himself notes, this is in many ways a juvenile work (it was his first novel, after all). [previous blog posts: Megaversity and The Big U and Journalists]
  • Zodiac: This is a pretty straightforward book with a good ending. The ecological crisis at the heart of the plot is averted through a satisfying set-piece. In a lot of ways, it’s one of Stephenson’s more accessible efforts, including the ending.
  • The Cobweb (as Stephen Bury with J. Frederick George): One of his pseudonymous novels, this one does begin to stretch plausibility towards the climax, but I thought the ending worked well (and really, it’s no more ridiculous than any other techno-thrillers that I’ve read – indeed, I found both Bury novels to be much more entertaining). [previous blog posts: Stephen Bury]
  • Interface (as Stephen Bury with J. Frederick George): Similar to The Cobweb, the ending of this novel, while perhaps straining believablility, was also quite entertaining and worked reasonably well. [previous blog posts: Stephen Bury]
  • Snow Crash: The novel that made him famous and probably his most popular novel to date, this book has a fine ending. Computer virus crisis averted and all is well. [full review]
  • The Diamond Age: And finally we come to a book that I think has a legitimately unsatisfying ending. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I remember it being confusing and very abrupt. A lot of his other stories have abrupt endings, so that alone isn’t the issue. There’s a quick, disorienting jump in time, followed by a rushed revolutionary-style climax. It didn’t quite work for me (and apparently a lot of other folks too). At some point, I will probably reread this book, and maybe it will be less obtuse upon that second reading. In any case, this is one situation where I agree that the ending could use some work (and perhaps it will get a revamping for the upcoming mini-series).
  • Cryptonomicon: Once again, there are parts of this ending which are a little absurd (namely, Andrew Loeb, Jungle Warrior), but I thought the ending was fine. The book is infamous for it’s various tangents, but it’s got a few core threads, all of which seem to be resolved and tied together nicely. I don’t love this ending, but I think a big part of that is that I loved the book so much that I didn’t really want it to end. I [full review]
  • Quicksilver: This is the only other book I think has a substandard ending… but, of course, it’s also the first book in a series… a series which essentially tells one 2,700 page story. Thus, I think this novel can be forgiven for any loose ends or questions it leaves open (as they are amply addressed in the next two volumes).
  • The Confusion: There are times when this book lives up to its title, but the ending is not one of them, and indeed, I loved the ending to this book. This is especially true when considering that the book is the second in a series of three and that the story isn’t anywhere near complete. The ending perfectly sets the stage for the third book in the series. Maybe it’s just because I’m a movie guy and the ending seemed kinda cinematic to me. Jack Shaftoe, freed of slavery and thrust into political intrigue, stands in a boat on the Thames and stares at his nemesis, Isaac Newton, who sits silhouetted atop the Tower of the London mint. I can clearly envision the cinematic shot in my head as Jack says, “Enjoy your perch up there, Mister Newton, because Jack the Coiner has come back to London-town, and he aims to knock you down; the game has begun and may the best man win!” Brilliant stuff.
  • The System of the World: The end of a 2,700 page story is perhaps Stephenson’s least abrupt ending (there’s a whole chapter of epilogue!), and maybe even my favorite of his endings. It’s hard to say, because the story is so long. I guess some folks get annoyed at some loose ends that were not really tied up, but that’s because these three books were part of an even larger story which also includes Cryptonomicon and really hasn’t concluded yet (there is supposedly another book to be written that takes place in the future). Even so, I don’t mind some of the loose ends. What’s the deal with Enoch Root and that special gold? I don’t think I want to know. I like that Stephenson has kept those elements of the story mysterious. Some will call that cheap and manipulative storytelling, but what can I say? I enjoyed it.

In the end, I think it’s unfair to say that Stephenson is bad at writing endings. I wouldn’t say they’re his strength either, but for the most part he does a fine job. They can be abrupt at times and maybe even a little absurd (especially the Stephen Bury books), but neither of those things is necessarily bad, especially when you consider how great Stephenson is at crafting incredibly detailed and wonderfully realized settings, characters and stories. Sure, there are sometimes loose threads, but endings are, by their very nature, arbitrary. There’s always more story to tell.

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.