Cryptonomicon

So, today, I’m going to talk a bit about Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson.

Some information you might want to know before hand: this book was published in 1999, almost ten years ago. This was a fair bit before the time of blogs and, really, even before the time of popular internet usage the way we think of it today. This was back in the days when the gray blocks of Windows ’95 had only just been updated to the gray blocks of Windows ’98. A time when e-mail was still considered fairly impressive communication. Keep that thought in mind: focus on it.

Cryptonomicon, really, is two stories combined into one. Given that the book is 1000+ pages long, and very dense reading for most of those pages, this is a good thing—it splits the readers attention nicely.

One of these plots is set in WWII, where we follow the trail of Bobby Shaftoe, a United States Marine, and Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematician who finds himself in the Navy (as a Glockenspiel player), and then through an odd twist of genius, as one of the single most important mathematicians in the allied forces, working on decrypting enemy messages.

The other story is set in modern times (remember: 1999) and mainly follows the hacker Randall Lawrence Waterhouse—the grandson of our WWII mathematician friend—and the company he works for, Epiphyte(2), as they seek to 1) increase shareholder value, 2) prevent all future holocausts, 3) find an entire mountain full of hidden Japanese gold and 4) use it to fund an entirely online form of currency, completely independent from taxation or regulation by any of the world’s governments.

So, if you didn’t catch it yet, the plot of this entire thing is very complex. The 1100 pages is well spent on Stephenson’s part. There’s not a lot of unnecessary narrative, and I actually felt that if it were any shorter, the book would have been hurried and confusing. Don’t be misled though: this isn’t a page-turner, Barnes&Noble best seller we’re dealing with here. This book takes time and energy to read, and isn’t one to be rushed through in one night.

Those familiar with Stephenson’s writing will know that he is very, very technical in the way he works. His roots are in science fiction, and unlike some authors of the genre, Stephenson always goes out of his way to explain the science portion, instead of just making up whatever technology he wants to suit his plot. Most of his books are equal parts educational and entertaining. Just by reading this one, you will automatically get a crashcourse in: WWII cryptology, modern information technology, computer architecture, basic economics, and a certain amount of sociology. It’s like going to a liberal arts college, only you might learn something from the gen. eds.

But don’t be completely discouraged, the reading isn’t like slogging through a textbook. We’ve got a nice little setup here, to keep the reading from getting bogged down too much. On the WWII front, we have the dual adventures of Bobby Shaftoe—always narrated in a rough and tumble sort of way that is well suited to a Marine, but not so crass and foolish as to be annoying to read—and the work of Waterhouse—who’s narrated in such a mathematical way that it almost implies a mental disorder. Bobby Shaftoe’s scenes are always beautifully narrated. Stephenson has a real talent with the language, no matter what he’s doing, but one of the places he really shines is when describing action. Action scenes are hard to write, because language is a naturally an intellectual medium of communication, rather than an emotional one, but Stephenson handles things with such clarity that you are never once bothered by the fact that you’re limited to only reading what’s happening. And on the other side, the mathematics are handled with an ease of explanation that even a layman could get it—most of the scenes of really heavy mathematics are utterly hilarious, although the humor might be a miss for some.

Same applies for the present day story, where we have action in the form of business intrigue and treasure hunting (and a little romance between Randy Waterhouse and Filipino diver and salvage worker, America Shaftoe), and intellectual stimulation from Randy’s computer-and-math oriented friends and coworkers, along with a bit of reflection from Randy himself, who has a mind not dissimilar to his grandfather’s.

(There is, for instance, a segment of about ten pages devoted entirely to Randy reflecting on the proper physics and engineering of the preparation and consumption of a quality bowl of Cap’n Crunch. I don’t often laugh out loud while reading, but this is one of many points in this book that I was rendered completely unable to read further until I regained the ability to breathe properly.)

So it’s good. Really good. On a purely linguistic level, not many can touch Stephenson: his sense of word placement, sentence structure, and style are completely top notch. The composition of this story is really ingenious too: in addition to all the above praise, it’s also completely enjoyable to watch how the WWII plot affects the modern day plot. Many of the present-setting characters are descendants of the WWII-setting, and the events between the two stories are absolutely interrelated; the present-day folks keep looking for the treasure the past-day folks hid. And, even more happily, the pacing of the two plots together is such that any plot twists you do figure out ahead of time are pleasant, rather than predictable.

With all that out of the way, there are some gripes: firstly, this book is dense. I, being a bit of a techie, really enjoyed some of the more mathematics/engineering oriented bits. They are excellently done, but might not necessarily be for everyone. Stephenson might teach well enough that even non-math-oriented people can understand, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will want too. For some, this book might be a bit more work than they’re wanting to put into a read. And another thing Stephenson is pretty famous for are letdown endings, and this isn’t quite the exception. No spoilers here; the ending isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels like it could have been a bit stronger, with a few more loose ends tied up.

Nevertheless, a subpar ending is an unpleasant blemish on an otherwise good book: noticeable, but forgivable.

You should pick up a copy of this: it’s a good book. Healthy doses of treasure hunting, WWII submarine warfare, mathematics and apocalyptic economic theory makes for a read that is entertaining, rewarding, and thoughtful—and getting all three of those in one go is pretty good in anyone’s book.

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Miss Troublesome

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: Same as before.

As mentioned in the previous post, I want to be able to talk about my characters a bit.

Or, in this instance, one specific character. She is the central character of Artifice. The story is told in third person limited, and significant chunks of the book are going to occur through her perspective, along with a few other select characters. The story starts with her, and ends with her, and is very much about the things that happen to her, so I suppose that that makes her the protagonist.

The problem is that she confuses the hell out of me.

Her name is Sera Bevens, which is, no matter how you look at it, no proper name for a cyberpunk heroine. “Chevette” and “Hiro Protagonist” are good, traditional cyberpunk names. And, no matter how you look at it, she’s not a cyberpunk character.

Well, that’s a lie. She is, but only because she’s trying to be. The typical cyberpunk character is a largely stress-free sort of character, at least in terms of personal identity. They are confident in who they are, don’t worry about looking cool or acting tough, they just naturally do. Especially the female ones. Cyberpunk characters are edgy and cynical and street-wise. They think they know everything and, in the typical cyberpunk setting, they really do.

Sera does all these things, quite effectively. But, at the same time, the entire cyberpunk personna doesn’t come easy to her: she’s got an entire naive and slightly-romantic side to her that she tries to crush down. The typical cyberpunk genre is devoted to a certain amount of cynacism, and it really clashes with certain parts of Sera’s personality. I have to find a way to preserve that part of her without betraying the genre entirely. She’s cynical about her own romanticisim, I know, and it pisses her off.

The most difficult thing is that she isn’t faking the cyberpunk persona. If it was a typical character-trying-to-be-something-she’s-not scenario, then the narrative would flow evenly because I’m used to that one. The issue is that when she’s being punk, she’s genuinely punk, and so not faking at all. It makes trying to capture both sides of her difficult in practice.

Sera is also a very guarded character to get: normally I can get a feel for one of my characters within a couple scenes, but Sera’s been throwing me for a while. It’s not that she’s more complex than some of my other characters, but that she’s more subtle about it. Cyberpunk characters are normally very obvious on the outside, but that’s more of a distraction from subtle character-traits on the underneath. I’m having trouble finding out what those more subtle character traits are.

I wrote about Sera in The Glory of God. You’ll notice that there’s a lot of her behavior in there, but her personality is a much more subdued throughout. Lots of the stuff I write with her in it is this way: the personality is there, but subdued. And if it isn’t, then it’s very aggressive: the loud superficialness of her personality popping out more than the quiet subtlety.

Still trying to work her out. I’m sure I’ll get more done in the coming days.

~DK

Character Design and Discovery (CHAR 101)

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 2,403

Talking a bit about how I come up with characters today.

I’ve got an agenda here; namely, I want to be able to talk about the characters I’m working with, but in order to do that I’ve got to talk about the process first, so any readership I have isn’t left in the dark.

I’ve heard writers talk before about how they don’t like to think of themselves as creating characters, but rather discovering characters that were already there, and using them. I normally hate this kind of stuff, it reeks of pretentious artsy-types and squishy thinking. But, in this case, there’s definitely something to that way of thinking.

When I create a character, there are definitely elements of discovery to it. Normally, I’ll end up creating a vague outline of what there character is: a very general personality. You can always tell the mediocre fiction writers because normally stop here. Their characters aren’t completely flat, but they don’t have any depth either. They tend to have only one emotional state, and one frame of speaking, and repeat the same things over and over in dialog. They feel like bit characters—they’ve been drawn using only one crayon, with the only degrees of changing being whether the author was pressing down normal-hard of really hard. Another telltale sign is that you’ll see characters pop up that just appear to be there for no reason whatsoever. They’ll typically have their moment in the sun for two pages in one chapter, and then vanish into the background, doomed to float spectrally behind the rest of the cast and pop in for one unimportant line of dialog here and there again. This is because when the author came up with the character, it was just the character—the personality—and not a role for that character to play.

When I come up with the beginnings of a character, I only come up with the vague outline of a personality that I came up with before, and I also come up with a role for that character to play. If I can’t come up with one on the spot, I normally put the character on hold until I have a clear purpose for them. Never include a character that has no purpose in the final product of the book, because the reader will be able to tell. (This is not to say that you shouldn’t create characters spontaneously. A writer’s instinct is a powerful thing, and some of my favorite characters have been throwaway cast that I added into a story on whimsy. Some of them were weeded out as unnecessary. Others turned out to be some of the finest characters I’ve ever made. But be flippant about it in the drafting process; if a flippantly made character is still flippant by the time you’re submitting to publishing houses, nix the poor sucker.)

At this point, I’ve got the two of the three most important parts of the character down—purpose and overarching personality. After this comes the discovery. There are any numbers of ways to do this: you could play the what-if game, or write little short stories involving the character, or write an imaginary interview with the character. I’ve heard it all, tried them all, and find all of them useful to varying degrees. But honestly, I don’t necessarily find any of them to be the final answer.  To put what I do in the most succinct way possible, I do on instinct.

An aside: The writer’s instinct is an important part of the process which can’t be ignored but also, sadly, can’t be taught. Having a good sense of aesthetic and character are indispensable to a writer, both in character development and other things. If you don’t have them, don’t despair, they can’t be developed. You’ll find some say ‘read, read, read’ and others say ‘write, write, write.’ I say ‘read, listen, observe, write, sing, speak, do things as well as you possibly can do them.’ Explore other art forms, look at Rembrandt, listen to Mozart, read a Calvin & Hobbes comic. Form and beauty are all around you—if you stop and pay attention to it, you can learn how to emulate it. And don’t be a genre snob, or a form snob. Go outside your comfort zone to see things you don’t necessarily appreciate as much. If you like Bach, listen to some Barenaked Ladies. If you are all into Ghost in the Shell, go read some classic lit. If you like to watch American Idol, go rent an old, black-and-white silent movie. But remember that nothing gets done if you don’t practice either, pay attention, then write while you do it.

Aside over: when I go with instinct, it mostly takes the form of finding out what kind of character is most appropriate to the story I’m trying to tell. The plot will shape the character—if you know what you need the character to do, make sure you’ve created a character that would do it. If your character doesn’t fit your story, you’ll have to fight the entire way through to get the character to behave. But keep in mind that the character will also shape the plot—if you’re having to force your creation to do something directly out of character, perhaps your plot needs to change. There’s a balance here. Eventually, if you’re doing it right, your characters will develop personalities of their own and start guiding you in this process. If they have too much freedom, you’ll never have a story because they don’t cooperate, but if you don’t let them muck about and play, you’ll kill them, and lifeless characters destroy a book faster than a disgruntled review columnist.

It’s much like pruning a tree: you have an image of what you want the tree to look like, but you can’t just force the tree to look like that image. You’ll cut off too many branches and leaves, and kill the poor thing. But if you just let it grow unchecked, you’ll have some monstrosity that doesn’t look good, feel good, or fit anywhere in your story.

Again with the instinct: if you do it right, you’ll know. You’ll be able to work with the character to tell the story, instead of just forcing pieces about on a chess board. Things will start to work, narrative connections will start to flow, and you’ll write better without even having to try. The character will, in as much as a technically non-existent person is able, get to know you, and the vice versa will happen as well. And sometime down the road, probably years after the novel is published and you’ve moved on to other projects, you’ll feel like you finally know the character well.

And, as a final note, sometime in this whole process the character gets a name. Names are important—I’m going to swear by that till the day I die. They help define a character. Not in the artsy way, like, someone named Brian (which means ‘defender’) will be stalwart and strong, but in a much more subtle way. Sometimes the names will just happen, and be built into the character from ground zero. Other times they’ll take forever to nail down, and you’ll have the entire groundwork for a character worked out prior to naming. I always find that I have a name before I the character starts revealing details to me. I’m not sure why, but it always seems to me that it’s when a character first gets a name that they start feeling more alive to me. The name is what lets them talk back.

The name of a character is a character’s life.

No Real Substance

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 1747

It’s slowly going up. This break, I’ve managed to make a post on this blog every day, and write a little bit on Artifice every day. Things are going well, but then again, I don’t have school work or anything of the like to worry about right now.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to maintain this work during the last several weeks of school.

I need to be writing even more though: several hundred words a day doesn’t quite cut it. I’ve been reading on what other writers prescribe as good wordcounts  for a day’s worth of writing, and get different numbers from everyone. I’ve known people to say they go for three, solid pages a day: that’s 1500 words, thereabouts. A little more. My writing professor says that’s entirely too high, and that I should focus more on quality then quantity. But he’s a poet, so I’m not sure his vote counts.

Terry Pratchett says that writing a novel takes being alive for fifty years, plus four to six months of frantically scribbling words on a page. I like that idea, even if I’m short the prescribed time by about thirty years or so.

I think the simple answer is, at this point, to simply get words on the page, and try to do more today than I did yesterday. That should be a good enough goal.

I’m going to stop talking now, though, and go write something of substance instead of blogging.

~DK

Some thoughts on Cyberpunk

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 1,439

I worked a little more on Artifice today. About the most I can get done in a sitting is roughly a page, because I’m trying to think things through as a type. I’m suspecting that there will be much rewriting of these earlier bits, as well, on account of the world I’m playing in is sort of developing as I go.

I think that each genre presents its own difficulties as the author plows through. I was talking with Cirellio about some of the dangers inherent in fantasy (particularely: the need to overcome cliché). The central concern of the cyberpunk writer isn’t, however, cliché. Well, that’s only true to a certain extent: all writers must always fight cliché, but if you manage to lose that fight while writing cyberpunk, you are, de facto, not writing cyberpunk. In it’s very crux, it isn’t cliché. At least, not the Pollyanna sort of cliché we normally think when we hear the word.

(For those who have no idea what cyberpunk is, I have no desire to offer an explanation it when perfectly good ones already exist).

The central struggle I’m dealing with in writing cyberpunk is to have the knowledge I need to do it well. My central writing professor, Jack Leax, always says that the poets are lucky because they can just write about what they feel. Novelists actually need to know things. I didn’t agree with him when he first said it, but now I do.

Cyberpunk requires knowledge in much the same way that baking requires flour. It doesn’t work without it. Cyberpunk is almost always deeply economic, with hints of politics and other social sciences built in, and that’s just when it comes to the world setting. You also have to know about basic computer technology and infology (I’m not sure if that’s a word, but I’m using it to mean the study of how data flows and functions) in order to write the genre effectively.

One of the best examples of cyberpunk I can think of is Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, and just by virtue of reading that book you are given a basic understanding of information technology, economic theory, and computer architecture. The sequel, The Diamond Age, refers constantly to Confusion philosophy, Victorian sociology, and theoretical nano-technology. And the information it references isn’t just made up willy-nilly, either, but firmly based in science fact or theory, depending on the particular science.

And all this is merged so seamlessly with an excellent sense of character and story crafting that you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. The intelligence of a cyberpunk story is an essential part of the recipe, not just icing on the top.

Have you ever heard of William Gibson? How about the word “Cyberspace?” “Cyberspace,” wasn’t coined by a computer scientist, not did it just fall into vogue by chance. It was coined by Gibson in his cyberpunk work, Neuromancer. Same for the online term “Avatar,” in reference to the little picture people are allowed to assign to their posts in a forum. That was originally from Snow Crash, by Stephenson.

These authors are at the same time both creative and brilliant enough to create terms and scenarios that work not only in the story, but invade our own lives in a real day-to-day sense as well. The computer tech of the future stems, partially, at least, from cyberpunk. Those are big shoes to fill.

My central struggle is to come up with a system that works. I’m reworking America’s political system (we’re up to four presidents at any given time, and an extra representative house in addition to the Senate and the House of Reps, called the house of Lobbyists, designed specifically for the rich). The economic system is still capitalistic, but takes place almost exclusively online—physical shopping is nearly a thing of the past, for everything but groceries. And the entire concept of an i-pod is gone, replaced by the Rig, an entire computer system people can wear on their bodies at all times: monitors built into glasses lenses, keyboards built into big metal gauntlets.

And along with it, I’m having to come up with a whole new slew of social problems and pariahs to make up for the ones that have become outdated. I have to change things enough so that they’re different, but provides some sort of social access point to give the readership a lead in. The trick is to, to paraphrase a review of Snow Crash, to make a future world so twisted and shocking that people recognize it immediately.

I’m still working on it. I hope I get it right.

~DK