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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Summer Movie Review (Numero Uno)

Just a few general updates here: life is good, I had cinnamon rolls this morning, and not I’m in the library reading The Sandman.

Amidst the fun of the week, I’m mostly waiting for friday. Why Friday, you ask? Why, that’s when Stardust comes out. Stardust is based on a Neil Gaiman novel, and, from what the reviews said, is a wonderful fairy tale, and an all round excellent movie. From what I’ve read of Gaiman so far, I’d believe it. I just finished his novel, Neverwhere, which features a bizarre world that exists underneath London, and a man who accidentally falls between the cracks of London above into the dark universe of London Below. It was excellent—it had an oddly beautiful feel about it, but was at the same time dark and terrifying. Fantastic book.

One of the greatest praises I’ve heard for Stardust is that it forms a fantasy movie triptych with The Princess Bride, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Given that The Princess Bride, on of my favorite films, was nice and innocent, and Pan’s Labyrinth was frighteningly dark, I’m looking forward to see what happens here. I’m going to make an effort to have the book read before friday—it doesn’t look terribly long, so that shouldn’t be difficult.

Also coming out soon is Beowulf, screenplay also written by Neil Gaiman. Now, those of you who know me personally and have also seen the adds for this movie would wonder, David? Beowulf? Huh? This is likely because (speaking of fantasy triptychs) the adds feature a bare-chested, muscular, incredibly attractive Beowulf, a hulking monster which I assume to be Grendel, and—of course!—a woman. This woman is, for all intents and purposes naked, save an odd sort of slime which covers her, skin-tight, to the shoulders. She is, if there was any doubt in your mind, slender, dark of hair and eye, and standing in such a profile that seductively outlines one of her breasts. Those that know me would assume that I would be mortally irritated by such blatant advertising, and, I’ll be honest, when I first saw it, I was.

Then, I saw the name Neil down by the bottom edge, right near the crouching Grendel, and I began to have a little faith. So I studied the poster a bit more. (Studied, not ‘ogled.’ The only difference I can actively tell was that my jaw was clenched contemplatively, instead of hanging open.) I noticed a few things about the woman, though. Her hair, for instance, is in a long braid, and hangs down to her waist. But it changes as it goes, and by the end it has a distinctly smooth, almost scaly look. I noticed that her eyes were slitted. Her hands disappear into darkness, but if you manage to pull your eyes from the focal point of the picture, you can see, clearly, the outline of claws, not fingers.

I was suddenly very interested, because the picture that I originally assumed was blatantly for advertising purposes (and still is, of course) had caught my imagination. Ahh, I thought, maybe Grendel isn’t the hulking one in the middle.

And that is the story of how I got interested in the movie. I admit the possibility that it could turn out to be trash (Neil isn’t actually directing, after all, and screen play writers seldom have control beyond the point of, well, writing), but at least I know it has a good story behind it. That gives me faith. I’m very much looking forward to it.

As a last little note, I’ve also seen the Pixar-film-about-the-rat-that-I-never-can-spell, which was excellent, Harry Potter, which did a good job of doing what it was supposed to do, and Transformers, which was abysmal.

I was especially dissapointed with Transformers, since I was such a fan of the old series—it failed to give me any sense of nostalgia, and as a movie in it’s own right, it was terrible as well. I’d rather what Transformers the Movie. That’s right, the old animated one. At least it treats the transformers as more than bit players.

*grumble grumble*

In any case, go see Stardust. It looks good. You should see it. This friday. If you’re in Grand Rapids, you could even go see it with me!

Zodiac

Zodiac is yet another title by one of my favorites, Neal Stephenson.

In Snow Crash, Stephenson dragged us through the virtual reality of Cyberpunk. In The Diamond Age, he yanked us through a nanotechnological world of post-cyberpunk sci-fi.

Now he gives us another time period and another genre—the time of Zodiac is now, and the style of Zodiac is noir.

Those of you who are familiar with noir already know that it came from the film noir movement, a style of film making that was infested with grittiness, both in the film quality and in the stories the films told. They had a propensity for violence, vulgarity, and a cynical, edgy feel that made them ideal for detective stories and mysteries.

Some of you may recognize the name Guy Noir, Private Eye, a popular character from NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion. All his exploits are captured in a farcically noir setting, full of busty women and intrigue. The old Loony Toons, where Daffy Duck ends always ends up saying Wait A Minute, I AM Dick Twacey! Both are light hearted mockeries of the Noir style.

Too be frank, I don’t much care for noir, especially as it is transferred into literature. It lends itself towards narrative devices that should be used with care, and infrequently. The substitution of people’s features for their names, for instance (a man with a pinstripe suit might be referred to as if his name is “Pinstripes,” and a man with a mustache becomes “Whiskers”) is a classic noir concept. Other tricks of the trade include: swearing a lot for no apparent reason; not fully describing anything beyond four letter words, to deepen a sense of mystery; having a cynical main character who runs a constant inner monologue of sarcastic thoughts about everyone and everybody throughout the entire course of the book.

In sum, Noir has a tendency toward non-descriptive, underdramatic writing, and tries to make up for it by having lots and lots of attitude. It is the antithesis of Pollyanna, that is, the standard romance novel, which has far-too descriptive and melodramatic writing. Too much of either one is not entirely good.

Zodiac applies noir styles to Neal Stephenson’s writing. Stephenson, I would normally say, has more attitude in his writing normally than any other novelist I’ve read today, but also a fair amount more brilliance in the art of description. When he dresses himself up in a grainy trench coat for a romp in noir, not too much changes. He gets more attitude, as one might assume. And he gets less descriptive—although only in quantity of metaphors. Even in Zodiac, when he describes something, he does it fiendishly well.

The plot he weaves is a detective story, too, in accordance with tradition—with a cynical, sarcastic main character named Sangamon Taylor who has an unusual propensity for figuring out the mystery in the nick of time, and a cast of gritty characters who you can never quite tell are good or innocent until the very end.

There’s a twist though: Taylor is no normal detective. He’s an environmentalist, and the crimes he busts are toxic—like companies dumping toxic waste into Boston harbor. Picking up the book, I was worried. I thought that Stephenson, who I always saw as a paragon of mere commentary in a world of messages, was finally trying to persuade me of something, and I was in for a moralistic tale of saving whales.

Nothing of the sort here—if you like a detective story, you’ll love this. Stephenson tells a story of crime, murder, and confusing science that would make even Sherlock Holmes sweat. There’s real mystery here, and a real sense of horror when you realize that a whole lot of the chemistry and biology Stephenson talks about through the detective work—as always, presented in a brilliant way that even the layperson might fully appreciate—is actually accurate.

It all starts when Taylor, being the professional corporate pain-in-the-rear that all environmentalists are, discovers some PCBs in the Boston Harbor—a form of toxin that, unlike most unhealthy water-bound things, tends to kill people within a week, from insides-turning-to-jelly instead of years, from cancer, like most poisons to.

As he searches for the culprit, he manages to get on the bad list of half a dozen corporations, the FBI, perhaps the mafia, and a group of satanic druggies who misheard PCB as PCP, and have been on a jealous craze ever since. An, in the background, the looming threat of a contamination that would wipe out all marine life grows steadily larger in the background.

I tend not to like noir unless it’s at its best, and I liked this very much. The things that annoy me about noir still annoy me about the novel, but I’m willing to let them slide in light of all the good here. If you are a noir fan, this is a definite read. If you aren’t, pick it up anyway, or borrow my copy—it’s worth it, if only for the education.

Not as good as some of Stephenson’s other works, but still far better than most.

Thoughts on The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age

Government has failed. This is the first thing you need to know about The Diamond Age. In some cases, it was simply destroyed through public revolt. In other cases, through economic systems that made taxes both impossible and impractical. Still others through outright disintegration. Whatever the reason, government is dead, and it isn’t coming back.

But, no matter how bohemian folks claim to be, nobody really likes anarchy, and so rising up to take the place of government is big business, catering to the law society and security that customers demand. Say you’re a white, Christian, right-wing conservative: well there’s a community for you. It’s a hyper-advanced gated community called a burbclave, guarded by microscopic defense robots called mites. Perhaps it’s run by Walmart, or Microsoft or some other megacorperation. Well, you show up at the Walmart burbclave. You pay Walmart money, and they let you in the gate, give you a house. You live in that burbclave, until you feel like leaving. You pay Walmart, and Walmart supplies you with gas and electricity and utilities. They have their own police force, that patrols the burbclave and shoots the people who don’t have permission to be in there. But it’s not just Walmart who has burbclaves. They have burbclaves for everyone.

If your a hippie, there’s a burbclave for you. If you want to be immersed with fellow spanish-speakers, there’s a burbclave for you. If you’re in the KKK, and hate everybody but white people, there’s a burbclave for you. And each one is a sovereign nation, which might be split in to hundreds of individual franchises scattered all across the world. If you’re a citizen of the Uncle Joe’s Chinatown in Kentucky, then your a citizen of Uncle Joe’s Chinatown in England, and in China as well. They’re all one nation, owned by good old Uncle Joe.

It’s a world where you can go shopping for whatever culture happens to float your boat, and with no government and, by and large, no law outside of these burbclaves, nobody can criticize you for it.

This is the world that was presented to us in Snow Crash, a book by Neal Stephenson that came out slightly before the Diamond Age. It’s important to talk about this, because in many ways, The Diamond Age is a sort of indirect sequel to the previous novel. It takes place in the same world, some fifty to sixty years later. The plots of the two books aren’t connected, and it doesn’t really matter which order you read them in, but Snow Crash came first, and the world setting in that novel is sort of a stepping stone over to culture in The Diamond Age. And believe me, the world that’s thrown at us in The Diamond Age requires a stepping stone to fully grasp.

The Burbclaves are still present, although toned down somewhat with time. This isn’t the primary cultural icon of The Diamond Age, though. Franchise Nations are old hat in this novel. The that has completely revolutionized the world is an invention known as The Feed, which catapulted humanity out of the space age and into the diamond age, from which the book draws its name.

The concept behind the feed is that nanotechnology (that is, machines that work on a very, very, very tiny scale) has come to a point now that we are able to construct things a single atom at a time. With the birth of this technology, diamond, which is really just a whole lot of carbon atoms stacked on top of one another in a very simple way, becomes the cheapest and most common substance in existence. The feed itself is a massive storehouse of atoms, containing all the different elements on the periodic table. People use Matter Compilers (MCs for short) which are hooked up to this feed.

Want a hunk of diamond? Go over the the MC, hit in that you want a hunk of diamond and wait a few minutes. Then, like getting heating a cup of coffee from a microwave, you open up the MC and theres a diamond, probably in a cube a few inches square, sitting there.

But why would you want diamond? It’s cheap and worthless. Even glass is more valuable. There are millions more uses for the MC than just diamond.

Say you’re hungry. Hop to the MC, and order some rice: it’ll pop out seconds later, and if you were smart about how you ordered, it’d be steaming, ready to eat, and in a disposable bowl. Or say you needed a place to sleep: go find an MC big enough, and crank out a mattress, maybe along with some pillows and a comforter. Not everything is free, of course. Rice doesn’t cost anything, effectively solving world hunger, but if you want a shiny new laptop, you’d have to pay for that.

This is life in The Diamond Age. You live in your prepackaged burbclave, and eat rice that was constructed, not grown.

Enter Nell, a 4 year old street urchin who doesn’t even know what letters are. She has a mother, Tequila, who jumps from abusive boyfriend to abusive boyfriend like a child playing hopscotch. Nell also has a brother, who tried his hardest to protect Nell from the walking emotional land mine that is their mother, and the string of attempted rape and beatings that come from her boyfriends. She has four children, consisting of a stuffed dinosaur named Dinosuar, a stuffed duck named Duck, a stuffed rabbit named Peter Rabbit, and a doll with purple hair named Purple.

Also enter John Hacksworth, a nano-engineer from a neo-victorian burbclave who is working on a very important project for a very important little girl: a princess named Elizabeth, in fact. The project is a book. Not just any book, in fact, but the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This isn’t a normal book, made of paper and bound in leather. The pages of this book are made of countless nano-machines, constantly observing, processing, and calculating information. It is through coincidence that the book doesn’t end up in the hands of Princess Elizabeth, but instead the hands of young Nell.

When the little four year old, not even able to read, opens the book, her life changes forever. This is Nell’s first experience with the Primer, which reads aloud to her, because she cannot read herself:

~~~~~

Once upon a time there was a little Princess named Nell who was imprisoned in a tall dark castle on an island in the middle of a great sea, with a little boy named Harv, who was her friend and protector. She also had four special friends named Dinosaur, Duck, Peter Rabbit, and Purple.

Princess Nell and Harv could not leave the Dark Castle, but from time to time, a raven would come to visit them…

 

“What’s a raven?” Nell Said.

The illustration was a colorful painting of the island seen from up in the sky. The island rotated downward and out of the picture, becoming a view toward the ocean horizon. In the middle was a black dot. The picture zoomed in on the black dot, and it turned out to be a bird. Big letters appeared beneath. “R A V E N,” the book said. “Raven. Now, say it with me.”

“Raven.”

“Very good! Nell, you are a clever girl, and you have much talent with words. Can you spell raven?”

Nell hesitated. She was still blushing from the praise. After a few seconds, the first of the letters began to blink. Nell prodded it.

The letter grew grew until it had pushed all the other letters and pictures off the edges of the page. The loop on the top shrank and became a head, while the lines sticking out the bottom developed into legs and began to scissor. “R is for Run,” the book said. The picture kept on changing until it was a picture of Nell. Then something fuzzy and red appeared beneath her feet. “Nell Runs on the Red Rug,” the book said, and as it spoke, new words appeared.

“Why is she running?”

“Because an Angry Alligator Appeared,” the book said, and panned back quite some distance to show an alligator, waddling along ridiculously, no threat to the fleet Nell. The alligator became frustrated and curled itself into a circle, which became a small letter. “A is for Alligator. The Very Vast alligator Vainly Viewed Nell’s Valiant Velocity.”

The little story went on to include and Exited Elf who was Nibbling Noisily on some Nuts. Then the picture of the Raven came back, with the letters beneath. “Raven. Can you spell raven, Nell?” A hand materialized on the page and pointed to the first letter.

“R,” Nell said.

“Very good! You a clever girl, Nell, and good with letters,” the book said. “What is this letter?” and it pointed to the second one. This one Nell had forgotten. But the book told her a story about an Ape named Albert.

~~~~~

And thus begins Nells education. The story is a bildungsroman about Nell, wherein she travels from an ignorant street urchin to, transformed by the nurturing of the primer, a brilliant lady capable of studying and comprehending subjects like advanced nano-robotics without any more than a few pages of scrap paper (which the primer is always ready to supply).

The novel is set in the Hong Kong/China area, and is heavily influenced by Confucian thought. The quote from Confucius I posted a few days ago was pulled directly from the text of this book, in fact. It delves into matters of education, and where the duties of rearing a child belong, along with the power of technology for both advancement and destruction of culture and society. The characters are original and believable. The plot is, 95% of the time, coherent and educated, and while the book is a dense read, there isn’t any need to drudge through it.

Stephenson is a masterful writer of fiction. He understands humanity and people well enough to come up with good characters, and he understands how dialog works well enough to write quality conversation. He manages to explain the technology in enough depth to satisfy the sci-fi buffs out there, but does it in such a way that even the most technologically inept could follow along. On a level of both linguistics and storytelling, this is certainly worthy of a read.

Now that the praise is over, there needs to be a few warnings. First and foremost, this is a work of adult fiction, and deservingly so. It is very, very good adult fiction, but adult fiction nontheless. If you are queasy, not up to dealing with mature themes, or under the age of 17-ish, don’t try and read this. Second off, there are passages of this that get very surreal and hard to follow. The society that the novel takes place in is for the most part followable, but there are times when it gets weird enough to throw even the most avid readers. I had to read these passages through several times, and even now they’re still hard to follow.

The last warning, is that Stephenson seems to have a little trouble with his endings. In this particular case, I like the ending. You might not, though. There are a lot of little side stories that don’t get resolved, and compared to the sheer scale of the story (it ranges over 14 years, and has a huge cast of characters) the end can seem underwhelming or abrupt.

Despite these few hitches and warnings, though, the book remains fantastic. Neal Stephenson is a good author, and one can never really go wrong with him. I highly recommend you give this one a read, along with Snow Crash, as soon as time permits.