Some Links

So, I realized that if I’m going to be focusing more on reviews and the like, I’m going to need to expand my reading a bit. Three Stephenson reviews and nothing else does not variety make.

I spent the last couple days writing fiction, and looking around for different ways for me to find new authors. Found a couple things.

There a list of the top 100 SF&Fantasy writers that seem to include some good ones. I’m glad to see all my favorites are on the list. I’m not entirely happy to see a lot near the top who I don’t know: we’ll have to fix that. This list is, just so you know, compiled through popular opinion. When I first saw it, I started doing the thing where you complain about how He or She isn’t above Him or Her, and it just goes downhill from there. So as much as it irks me that Stephenson is only 45. on the list, I think it might be better for me to use this to look up some of the authors I don’t know, hunt them down, and start reading.

It was good to see that Tolkien wasn’t in slot number 1, though. Not that he doesn’t deserve it: I just feel that he’s gotten slot 1 on so many of these things that perhaps he should be disqualified by default, to allow someone else a go at it.

There’s also Goodreads, which seems to be a sort of reading recommendation site. I haven’t made an account yet, but if/when I do, I’ll report on how good the service is.

If anyone has any points around the web that I might be interested in, do let me know. I like investigating things.

Thanks.

~DK

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.

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.

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

Artifice.exe (the Blurb)

So, I was reading an essay on being a paperback writer by Terry Pratchett, and something he said caught my eye. He said that a writer should never be too proud to write his own flap-blurb. You know, the little story-summary that goes on the inside flap of a hardcover? That’s the flab-blurb. At least, that’s what I call it. It has a technical name, but I can’t remember it off the top of my head at the moment.

In either case, Mr. Pratchett said that it a) is fun and b) helps focus, and so I gave it a try for the tentative plot I have in my head for Artifice.exe, and here’s what I came out with:

—————————————————–

Cyber-savvy hacker Sera Bevens has as normal a life as one can expect, given her profession. She goes to classes (sometimes), plays video games (mostly during said classes), and when night falls, she slinks online and takes what she needs to get by (money for food, a really nice sound system, a car…).

Things change, though, when Sera’s best friend and hacking mentor approaches her with information about a top-secret, revolutionary piece of software that is in the middle of production. Sera, who collects software like most people collect germs, snatches the new program for herself. She doesn’t think anything odd about the situation—Grand Theft Microcode is something that suits her just fine.

That is, at least, until the program identifies itself as Adam, and begins to talk to her.

Suddenly she finds herself on the run from the world’s most dangerous businessman, a melodramatic private eye, a love-crazed programmer, and an insane robotics engineer. And all the while, she has to come to terms with the the fact that the most powerful piece of software ever created is not a program—it’s a person.

The Making of Friends

I’d like to make a few comments before posting this. I mentioned a post or two ago that I was having trouble with a short work entitled Disciple of the Gauntlet.

Well, I kept having trouble with it, and found two of the reasons that I kept struggling were these: First, it was very long, and really more of two short stories that were only slightly related stuck together. Second, it felt more like part of a novel than a short story, which isn’t a huge problem, except that I was trying to make each individual thing self-contained.

Both of these problems stem from the fact that I wanted the readers to be able to read the story on it’s own, and still get it without having to read any of the other stories to do with Artifice. Well, I decided to forget that, and just fix the problem. Here lies the first of the two quasi-related stories, entitled The Making of Friends, and it is at least slightly recommended that you have read both The Glory of God and The Trick to Fish prior to reading this, although it is most certainly not necessary.

As a final note, if this feels a little half-finished, that is because, really, the stories of Sera and Terri are part of a larger work, and thus the story isn’t finished yet. Perhaps not that beneficial in the realm of short story, but this is stretching boundaries all over the place anyway, so here’s the bit-of-novel/short-fiction, The Making of Friends.

———————————————–

The first time Sera met Terri, was at the Pike Place Market, when Sera had been idly watching the show, and accidentally beaned Terri with a crab.

It had happened fast, and Sera hadn’t quite realized the significance of what had taken place that day. She had, as usual, been using her specs. She had just turned sixteen, and had gotten a new pair for her birthday the week previous. Her old specs had been clunky and too big—like those massive goggles that kids wore at the pool before they learned how to keep water from going up their nose. These were much better—they were to her old specs what a crotch rocket is to a little pink tricycle with streamers coming off the handlebars. Even sitting still on her face, they looked like they were going fast.

The gauntlet that had come with them wasn’t bad, either—great processing power, and a much more reliable wireless signal, so it was always in contact with the specs. Her old glove had looked like something an old lady would use for pulling weeds. This was a proper gauntlet—encased her arm halfway to her elbow, and was streamlined so that, for all the thing’s bulk, it didn’t look like she had a sledgehammer instead of an arm.

Sera had been watching the show from afar, using her specs to zoom in and record some of the more entertaining bits. She normally didn’t stop by Pike Place, because it had become a tourist trap over the years, and she didn’t like crowds. After all, she almost always had her specs on, and was at least a little more prone to run into other people than the normal pedestrian. She tried to stay away from streets, too, in case she took a real car for something that her specs showed her, and waltzed in front of it.

Today, though, she was shopping for a present for mom, and Mrs. Bevens was quite partial to the hand-made preserves that the stand just down the street from the fish market sold. She had stopped by, jam in one hand and gauntlet in the other, to watch the fish market just for old time’s sake.

She almost didn’t see the crab coming. It must have slipped from someone’s hand, because it was on a collision course from her head, and she only caught the tail end of one of its pinchers in her telescoped vision.

Pure instinct—Sera had always had good instincts, and good hand-eye coordination—made her reach up and catch the thing with a gauntleted hand before she knew what was fully going on, which earned her a small round of applause. With a few flicks of her pinky and a twist of her wrist, her specs became as translucent as normal glasses and left her staring at a pair of black goggled eyes on stalks like black marbles each glued to a bit of red macaroni. She gave a girlish scream, and flung it back in the direction it had come from.

That haphazard throw ended up changing the entire course of her life, because the crab had flown strait and true, and skipped off Terri’s surprised face like a piece of shale skipping off a pond. The tall girl—who at first, Sera thought looked more like a puppeteer’s marionette, stretched out lengthwise—fell over in a mess of gangly limbs, strawberry-blond hair, and orange waders.

Sera actually had the grace to look embarrassed when Terri got to her feet, stalked from behind a stand of ice-packed squid and up to her.

“You throw this crab?” she asked, holding up the offending crustacean at her.

Terri was tall—very tall. Sera wasn’t, and the older girl towered over her by more than a head’s-height.

“Ah, yes?” Sera offered, wondering somewhere in the back of her mind whether assault by crab was a punishable offense.

“Not a bad throw,” Terri said, waving the google-eyed thing at her. “Crabs are slippery, and it’s easy to botch. You ever thrown a crab before?”

“Not to my knowledge,” Sera said honestly. She was sixteen, and this imposing girl in big orange waders was clearly older—maybe even nineteen. Clearly in another class of adulthood altogether. Sera wasn’t used to being noticed by college aged kids.

Terri seemed to find this response funny, and let out a laugh that would have been more appropriate coming from a man. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“Sera. Um.”

“Sera?” Terri asked. “Well, I’m Terri. It’s not a bad job, catching a crab whats been thrown at you, you know, Sera. You must have been paying attention.”

Sera wasn’t entirely sure that because this older girl was suddenly on a first-name basis with her that it worked the other way around.

“I try, um… Ma’am.”

Terri. It’s Terri. That’s what names are for, right?”

“Yeah,” said Sera, although she wasn’t as sure as she’d like to be. “I guess.” Her lips moved for a moment, as if trying to parse a detail from the conversation. “’What’s been thrown at you,'” she said softly. “What, you threw that crab at me? On purpose?”

“Yeah,” Terri said lightly, “I thought you were a Goggle Kid, and they annoy me. Quick crab on the head makes them wake right up, though.”

Sera found herself scowling. “I’m not a Goggle Kid,” she said frostily.

She wasn’t a Goggle Kid, although this hadn’t been the first time she was confused for one. After all, Sera was almost always wearing her specs, and the the folks at her school would be shocked to know that her right arm really did exist under her gauntlet. And she was a little more klutzy than most people, even without the specs on, and so it was easy to associate her with the society of the Goggle Children—the ones that became so wrapped up in the images on their lenses that they forgot the real world even existed. The ones that forgot what trees looked like, unless they saw them in a D&D game.*

But Sera always kept in mind that there was one key difference between her and the Goggle Kids: her opacity settings. Out of her own room in her own home, she never turned hers up past 50%, and settings that high were reserved for sitting on the bus while checking her mail, or working on a paper for school over some McDonald’s. She never played games while walking, or worked on schoolwork or anything. Out in the open, her specs were for observation—zooming in on an interesting scene without looking nosy, or taking a picture or movie when she wanted to remember something. But she never disconnected herself from the real world. There was a line there, and even if she was close to it she wouldn’t cross over. Not into Goggle Kid territory. She would keep her eyes open to what was really around her.

“I’m not a goggle kid,” she said again.

“Well, I figured not. You caught my crab,” Terri said. “I’ve hit Goggle Kids before. Sometimes with halibut. They normally only flinch a little. They never catch the thing.”

Sera found herself smiling, despite herself.

“That’s a nice rig you got,” Terri said. “You good with specs?”

“Pretty good,” Sera said humbly, because even though the computer guy at her school called her in to fix things, she didn’t want to assume anything about this older stranger. She found out, later, that she had made a wise decision.

“Great. Do you play Tourney?” Terri said, and she was smiling with a friendly, infectious grin that Sera couldn’t quite help but start to return.

Tourney was a game, and Sera did play it. She was a little nervous about saying so, though, because the game was rated Adult for bloodshed and revealing costumes for the women, and Sera wasn’t quite legally an adult yet, but Terri’s smile won her over.

“Yeah, I play.”

“What’s your username? Maybe I’ll come find you sometime, and we’ll play?”

Terri was still smiling. She had thin lips, and a lot of teeth. She looked slightly hungry. She had lots of hair, too, and it hung almost to her waist in a rather unruly manner, which made her seem much bigger and taller than she actually was. Sera looked up, a little intimidated, and thought of Eric Mathews, from her biology class, who was six foot one. She was fairly certain that Terri was even taller, and certainly more spindly.

“The Glory of God,” Sera squeaked out, and then, because she felt that this might require explanation, “so that when I kill somebody, it says ‘so-and-so has been killed by The Glory of God,’ see. I wanted The Wrath of God, but it was already taken.”

“Right,” Terri said, and rested her palms on the back of her head, bony elbows hanging forward on either side. Sera suddenly thought of a satisfied spider who had just felt a tug in her web.

“Well, I should be getting back to work. I have to stuff a mackerel down my drawers and dance around. If you’ll excuse me.”

She gave Sera a pat on the shoulder, and left towards the fish market again.

That was their first meeting—and Sera really didn’t think much of it. She didn’t realize it at the time, but that was when the words Once Upon a Time found her, and her story started beginning.

——————————————————

*In fact, almost all Goggle Kids did play all the latest Dungeons & Dragons software, and so not only did they almost all know what trees looked like, but most of them knew which ones to pray at to get a +9 defense against ogres, and which ones were infested with level 21 bark-goblins.

Here’s My Badge

Began working on this after reading Zodiac, because I figured, the best way to understand a genre is to try to write it, so I tried my hand at noir. At least, that was how it was for the first five sentences. Then it got all silly on me, and ended up as this, which isn’t very noir-ish at all. I’m still tagging it as noir anyway, though, in case that brings in extra views.

I appologize, I’ve been reading no small amount of Terry Pratchett lately, and the Italian mob boss suddenly turned British on me the second I introduced him. I hope you’ll forgive me.

In any case, here it is, introducing a new character to the growing list: Rebecca Clives.

—————————————————-

Inspector Clives was sitting calmly in the parlor of Boss Giovanni.

She was dressed in pinstripes, for the irony. Her legs were crossed at an angle that was specifically calculated to run parallel with the line of a sight with someone with a height of five foot nine, and revealed a tantalizing little triangle of space between her two thighs and the material of the skirt. It was a window—the perfect voyeuristic porthole, revealing several inches of pure skin before dipping temptingly into shadow.

She was reading a magazine, posture relaxed but good, even with the legs.

She wasn’t really reading, though. She was looking at a blueprints. Her glasses, which looked like the might be better suited for a secretary, weren’t glasses. They were high model specs. The latest edition. The insides of the lenses were painted a transparent blue, just clear enough so that she could, should she need to move quickly, see what was happening in the room she was occupying. The blue was cris-crossed with white lines, set at neat right angles to each other, to show a perfect floor plan of the parlor and surrounding rooms, scaled down to fit within the confines of each lens.

Casually, without moving so much as an inch, she hooked her right index finger into the air and pulled it downwards, like she was scratching behind the ear of some invisible cat. The images on her specs shifted; the current set of blue prints scrolled to the bottom of the lenses and disappear while a new set scrolled down into view from the top. Blueprints for the floor above her.

She didn’t think she would need it—a good escape plan—but it never hurt to have one.

Her index finger drifted into the air again, and repeated the motion, only backwards, and the previous floor appeared on her glasses again. She made the scratching motion with her middle finger, and the layouts of the two floor superimposed themselves.

The implants had been worth it. Before, when she’d still been using a gauntlet, something like this wouldn’t have been possible. Gauntlets stuck out like a sore thumb, and made anything stealthy impossible. Now the motion and pressure sensors that used to lay in the giant metal glove had been compressed into five microcomputers, and implanted under each fingernail of her right hand. It had hurt like having her hand in a meat grinder after the surgery, but the sheer convenience of it made the whole thing worth it.

Of course, the loss of the gauntlet had meant loss of processing power and memory, too—no room to put much of that in the microcomputers—but she made do with the built-ins of her specs and the few little backup storage units under her nails. She didn’t need much, after all. She didn’t live in her specs—not like the Goggle Kids. No, she just needed something to keep a few bits of data in—a few hundred gigs is all. not even a full terrabyte. They had offered her one, but it would have taken up all the room in her specs, and she needed at least one ear piece free for… additional hardware.

Now nobody suspected a thing. She always kept her specs on one-way view, so nobody looking in from the outside could see the images on the inside of the lenses. They looked like normal glasses—you’d probably find them on a particularly professional school teacher, or perhaps a personal aide.

As she sat, the receptionist walked in. In the old days, back when things worked the way they were supposed to and the Boss was always hanging out in a fancy office behind some close, family run business, this would have been the guy behind the counter, smiling and asking what you wanted. Of course, if you told him you wanted the exact right things, and then gave a little wink, you’d get in to see the Boss.

That, though, was the old way of doing things.

Now it was much worse. Now it was… honest. Giovanni didn’t hide that he was a Boss, anymore. Too much work, and not enough payoff. Now it said it on his business card.* This was, when one realized it, a genius strategy, because nobody really read business cards anyway, and the few that did only stared at it for a while before dismissing it out of hand.

There, went a great many famous last words, is a businessman with a sense of humor.

Well, with all the good natured honesty going about, Inspector Clives felt it would be good to return the favor.

The man—who spoke in an Italian accent and had an Italian mustache—was exactly five foot nine, and so his eyes fell perfectly to the tantalizing corner of shadow peeking from Inspector Clive’s skirt. Normally this would annoy her, but today it gave her an odd sense of satisfaction. It meant she had done her research well.

After a moments ogle, which was clearly not intended to be surreptitious—there was the honesty again—the man’s eyes flicked to her face. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

Inspector Clives put down her magazine. “Not an appointment,” she said, “but I feel Boss Giovanni would like to see me anyway. I believe he’s free at the moment. My name is Rebecca Clives.”

He was free, at least according to the her specs. This was unusual, which was why she was here at eight thirty on a Saturday. Boss Giovanni was a busy man, and finding a time when he didn’t have an appointment was a stretch.

The man smiled patiently—the sort of weasel-smile that would, on a more seedy man, involve gold teeth. “Perhaps I could check and see if he is keen to take any unscheduled visitors,” the man said. “What is the nature of this visit?”

“I’m a freelance worker,” she said, “here to assassinate him.”

There was a brief moment of silence. Inspector Clives has just handed over her business card.

But, of course, the man doesn’t read the card. Honesty, and whatnot.

He smiles again, and Inspector Clives once again expects to see gold teeth.

“I’ll see if he’s interested in dying today,” the man says politely, and turns to go.

As he is gone, Inspector Clives picks up her magazine again, and runs over some potential escape routes. Boss Giovanni’s office has windows in back, and is on the first floor. If nothing else she could put a few shots through it and jump through—that would be messy, though.

The man comes back, smiling. “The Boss,” he said, “Is interested. He will see you. You understand I’ll have to check for any hidden weapons and what. If you please.”

Inspector Clives understood that getting frisked by this man was likely to include a grope or two, but was entirely prepared for that. Putting aside the magazine again, she stood up, and thrust her arms out to either side. Her pin-striped coat pulled apart, and interesting things happened to the oxford covering her torso. The man’s eyes bobbed down from her face like a yo-yo.

She gave him a professional smile, and said, “Well?”

He was surprisingly professional about it, actually. A hair further forward on her sides that police regulations, and there was an obvious debate in the man’s mind before he decided against a blatant palming of her rear.

Things went smoothly until he found her handgun. She was half thinking he wouldn’t find it—for the same reason that nobody read Giovanni’s business cards. Honesty. He was, after all, looking for hidden weapons, not a firearm that was sitting right her hip.

For a moment he stared at it, as if not quite believing it was there, before staring up at her, smiling again. Amazing, thought Inspector Clives, he thinks this is some joke.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to confiscate that,” he said, almost apologetically, like he wanted to see what would happen if she got in to see Boss Giovanni with it.

Inspector Clives shrugged, and pulled it away from the holster. It was a trusty handgun. She’d had it custom made for her. She called it the Blacktail, on account of it being all black, and she liked the name.

She handed it over to the man, warning him that the safety was off. Casually, she lifted a hand and rubbed the right ear piece of her specs—a habit she had since she was a child. “Is that all then?”

The man’s face twitched, and he reached idly to scratch at his left cheek. “Yes, Boss Giovanni will see you now.”

Inspector Clives nodded, and stepped around him, back towards a door that looked remarkably like any other door in the building. She remembered the days when there was some drama about it—a big set of oak double doors, probably, and a big heavyset desk behind it.

She was about to grip the handle when there was a heavy thud behind her. The man wasn’t big, but he had fallen like a tree and hit the ground all at once, creating quite the sound. She turned around, curiously, and decided that she would take her Blacktail back, just to be on the safe side.

With it again at her hip, she knocked on the door and, without waiting for any response, pushed it open just wide enough to slip inside without the slumped body in the hall beyond to be visible.

Boss Giovanni was fat, but in a rather regal way that made you think of a man who merely appreciated a good meal, rather than bathed in it. On either side of him, standing with arms akimbo and completely-shaded specks over their disproportionately small heads, were two flunkies she immediately decided to call Thing 1 and Thing 2. It was likely that three of her, plus a small elephant wouldn’t have weighed as much as either of them. They were shaped remarkably like bricks from the Jurassic period.

Boss Giovanni smiled at her, not unlike a barracuda smiles at, well, anything made of flesh, really.

“Miss Clives, was it? Come in, please. I hear you are hear to assassinate me.”

“Inspector. Inspector Clives, actually,” she said, and as she walked forward she gave a courteous nod to Things 1 and 2, again rubbing the ear piece of her specs out of habit.

Thing 1 didn’t move.

Thing 2 raised a hand that could have enveloped her head like a ping-pong ball, and scratched at his neck with a finger like a French baguette.

“I’m not an official inspector, you see,” she said, briefly flashing a badge that made it look and awful lot like she was a real inspector, “but the title helps open certain doors you understand. Mostly I do freelance work. I can be Officer Clives, and even Detective Clives if necessary.”

Giovanni nodded appreciatively. “I understand the need to emulate certain branches of law enforcement entirely,” he said, in the same voice that craftsmen everyone talk shop with. “I take it you’re looking for employment?”

Inspector Clives shook her head, “I’m afraid not,” she said. “Work is pretty good this time of year, actually. I’m here to assassinate you.”

They hadn’t noticed her wearing the gun, yet, probably because they knew that nobody got into this room with weapons on them. They weren’t looking for guns.

For a split second, Inspector Clives was a little worried that they would notice, though. Honesty, she thought, was a troublesome gig, because there was always a risk that somebody might believe you.

But then Boss Giovanni smiled again, and laughed. “Very good, Inspector,” he said. “As it so happens, I do have a few certain errands that I could use some help with. I’d pay you handsomely, of course. And who knows, if I like your work, we could use you again in the future. Would you like a cigar?”

“No. Thank you.”

“I see, then,” Giovanni said, lighting his. “Nothing important at first, you understand. I can’t let you get in too deep to early, I think. Professional distrust is necessary.”

Inspector Clives nodded.

“In that case, I think that I’d-”

Thing 1 collapsed. Didn’t make a sound when he did so, other than the slow rumble as he fell: first knees, then the chest and, like a snowball following an avalanche, the head.

Giovanni looked at him, vaguely suspicious.

Thing 2 tensed momentarily, and collapsed as well. There was a slight burn mark on his neck, where he had scratched earlier. If Giovanni had time, he could take a very fine magnifying glass, or even perhaps a microscope, and look to see a very tiny red barb in Thing 2’s skin. It was pumping out electricity, and Thing 2’s body, which only dropped by his brain every few days or so to catch up on things, had just realized that it was no longer conscious.

The barb, if Giovanni really had time, could be seen to come from a very small, short range dart gun which used highly compressed air to fire the projectiles. The guns were very expensive, and always used for stealth operations. They were normally mounted in innocent looking things. Like the ear piece of a pair of glasses, for instance.

Giovanni had no such time, though, because he was sweating, and looking down the barrel of Inspector Clives’ Blacktail.

She smiled, a sweet smile, and said—

“Rebecca?”

–and said…

said…

Rebecca, who wasn’t really in Boss Giovanni’s office at all, sat up from her bed guiltily.

“Yes?” she asked.

The door to her room cracked, and someone poked their head inside. “Rebecca? Hows homework coming?”

Rebecca, more than just a little indignant that Inspector Clives’ final statement had been cut off, resisted the urge to say something nasty.

“Fine, mom,” she said.

There was a moment, while the head, which was haloed by the upstairs hall light, stared at her a moment. “You haven’t been playing, have you?”

Rebecca moved a few fingers inside of her gauntlet, and the half-written adventures of Inspector Clives disappeared from her clunky goggle-specs, and were replaced by a long, long list of half-completed algebra. “Of course not, mom,” she said.

The head looked momentarily suspicious—which made Rebecca nervous. If only the Honest strategy worked in real life.

“Well, dinner will be ready soon,” she said. “You should turn some light on. It’s not good for you to be in the dark all the time.”

She closed the door, and Rebecca was alone with her specs again.

Rebecca fiddled with her fingers, wishing that she really did have the implants. Again. The yet-to-be-completed adventured of Inspector Clives, appeared back on her specs.

“She smiled a sweet smile and said…” Rebecca dictated, and the words appeared on her lenses.

What did Inspector Clives say?

Rebecca had had an absolutely perfect one liner to cinch this up right before she had been interrupted, but now it was gone.

Rebecca pouted for a moment, saddened by her suddenly missing words. How was a freelance detective supposed to garner any respect without a suitable line before pegging the badguy?

She let out a sigh, and said “Bang!”

But it just didn’t feel right.

————————————————————–

*Boss Giovanni – freelance policy enforcement, entrepreneurial assistance, sub-legal contract and loan broker

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.

The Glory of God

Here’s another brief piece of fiction, introducing another character I’m working on. Chughes made a post on the trials of fiction writing, and the balance of single-character introspect verses character interaction. I’m in the same boat, but on the other side—I can write two characters together in a serious scene, and I can write about things happening, but as soon as a plot slows down, so do I.

Well, in any case, here’s the introduction of a character named Sara. I should give a dual warning: first of, these characters are going to be part of a cyber-punk universe, so be prepared for occasional sci-fi elements creeping in. Second off, this particular revolves around a video game, and contains minor vulgarity and bloodspray. If you don’t want to read either of these things, I would recommend you go down to a different post, and read that.

In any case, enjoy.

————————————————————–

The only light in the room is the soft glow coming from a pair of specs. The room is small, though, and the dim light it well. The specs are resting on the face of a girl, who is sitting in front of a desk looking for all the world like she’s unconscious—she’s limp like the wadded clothes that are strewn across the floor, and her mouth is hanging open just wide enough for bugs to make their way inside.

The only telltale signs that she’s even alive are occasional twitches. Her mouth will close to swallow now and again, or her jaw will clench. The muscles along her cheekbones shift now and again, presumably to squint or widen her eyes. It’s hard to tell if that’s the case, though, because her eyes are invisible behind the specs. She has the opacity set to max, and so the lenses might as well have been spray painted white.

In the real world her name is Sera Bevens, but that doesn’t matter at the moment. Nothing in the real world matters at the moment because, as might be seen from her zombie-esque state, Sera isn’t currently a resident of the real world. Sera is currently in the middle of an advanced fortress somewhere light years from earth. Most of the details about this fortress are inane and unimportant. What is important about the fortress is that it’s been partially destroyed, and huge hunks of metal are strewn about conveniently for use of cover.

Sera has about eighty three percent of her body armor left, and her shields are recharging at an acceptable rate, which means she’s better off than most of her opponents. She has a shotgun as her primary weapon (it’s the best for one on one close encounters, and this fortress throws a lot of those at you) and a long range rail gun thrown over her shoulder should any sniping opportunities pop up. She also has a single incendiary grenade, but those are by and large useless unless she’s in a close quarters free for all, so it will no doubt stay by her side in reserve.

Also, her name isn’t Sera right now. It’s The Glory of God. The Glory of God named herself this for one specific reason: the rush of satisfaction she gets whenever she does… this.

In the real world, one of Sera’s fingers, which is encased in a heavy, almost gauntlet like glove, twitches. In the space-fortress, The Glory of God, who has worked her way up to the rafters, pulls out her rail gun and takes aim. Somewhere, some two hundred meters below her, another player collapses with a staggering amount of nothing where most of him was supposed to be. That person, who’s name was pen15m4n, is probably sitting somewhere on the other side of America staring dumbly at the inside of his specs, which are displaying his dead body and the words “You have been killed by The Glory of God.” The Glory of God can’t see the words, but she knows that they’re there, and it fills her with satisfaction all the same.

Sera is grinning. The specs, which take the basic concept of wrap-around sunglasses and surgically remove all the ugly bits, are flickering spectacularly with backlight reflections of the images being sent directly to Sera’s eyes. The earpieces wrap around the back of her ears and then plug directly into her cochlear canals, simulating perfect surround sound. She even has a special attachment that juts off one side, runs down her right jaw and then up to her mouth, so she doesn’t have to rely on the shitty microphone that the specs originally came with. Where she in a team-based match, she’d be using this to be in constant communication with her allies. She doesn’t really play this game to communicate, though. She plays for the blood spray. In free for all matches like this, she seldom uses it.

Other, like the kid she just pegged, do. “Jesus Christ!” he screeches, and The Glory of God can tell from the voice that he’s too young to be playing a game this violent. “Camping whore!”*

“I know,” says another soul, who she had demolished a few minutes earlier. “I think she’s hacking.”

The Glory of God is used to this sort of audio, and ignores it. She sees another likely target, but he’s hiding a bit too well to snipe. She shoulders her rail gun, pulls out the shot gun, and dives from her peak in the rafters like an eagle with a shot gun.

The maneuver she is attempting to pull requires her to steer a free fall with a back-mounted jet back, aim, and turn all at once. It takes near-perfect coordination to pull off, but this isn’t much of a problem, because The Glory of God makes a habit of being perfect.

She drops right in front of the shmuck, with both barrels leveled at his nose.

The game is graphically unrealistic. In the real world, Sera flicks two of her fingers in her gauntlet. In the space-fortress, the guy’s head explodes, spattering The Glory of God and the surrounding area with three metric blood-drives worth of people-juice.

This makes her eighth kill since her last spawn. Were this a one on one match, it would be no big deal, but this current round is a brawl-type match with about thirty players at any given moment. The average lifespan for a combatant in a game like this is less than a minute, and a normal player is lucky if she gets more than a single kill in that time. The Glory of God is no normal player, though. She averages four to five kills per spawn—she’s an elite. Eight kills is still a lot, though, even for her, and she can’t help but be a little impressed with herself.

In the process or scoring her eighth kill The Glory of God had dropped down into a mesh of shredded steel siding which resembles a some sort of jungle-gym turned evil, like a playground had wandered into a knife shop and had an accident. It’s dangerous, because it gets extra-hard to maneuver, and enemies can hide anywhere.

Sera’s hand is moving frantically, her five fingers squirming like the legs of an ant under a magnifying glass. On the inside of her gauntlet are countless little pressure-sensitive joints and panels, little gyroscopes and wireless transmitters and LPSs (Local Positioning Systems) that tell two hundred fifty six separate processing units what’s happening with the glove. When she wants to fire, she taps her index finger against the table top. When she wants to change weapons, she thrusts her thumb out then drags it in towards her palm. To jump, she simply lifts her palm off the desk, and The Glory of God’s back-mounted boosters catapult her forward into space.

Sera’s going into her third hour of gaming though, and so none of this is even on her conscious anymore. It’s taken a long time for her to get as good as she is, and by now her brain’s adjusted. She thinks jump, and it happens in the game. The fact that her palm lifts from the surface of the desk doesn’t even register in her mind anymore, and she merely recognizes the spinning of her vision as The Glory of God’s jets go off, slinging her forward like a skipping stone fleeting across the surface of a lake.

In the middle of flight, a camper from some higher level snipes her. It’s a head shot, that cuts through her shields and body armor and thunks into her skull like a shotgun shell hitting a watermelon.

Sera’s lips pull in a sudden grimace. On her specs, the view shifts so that she’s viewing The Glory of God’s body from an angel’s eye view. The now-useless hunk of meat continues to careen across the charred landscape, where it splats uselessly against one of the fortress’s far walls and flops to the floor.

“Shit,” is the first thing Sera says into her microphone, then, to concede that a headshot against an airborne target is no small feat, “Nice one.”

Her specs dull just a little, and a bold number 10 in angry orange appears on her lenses. It counts down slowly, one number per second, and she prepares, suddenly keenly aware of the soreness in her finger joints and wrist. She rotates the gauntleted hand twice, wriggles her digits, and then plops it down heavily on her desk again.

The number reaches 0, and then her specs glare to life again. Her vision swims in a sudden, spontaneous, unloving birth, and The Glory of God is alive again.

—————————

* Camping refers to a strategy used in many games which involves sitting in a single spot with a sniper rifle, and picking off enemies as they come into range. While tactically sound, it is normally considered a form a cheating. The phrase “Camping Whore” on the other hand has little to do with camping. Rather, it is the mating cry of adolescent boys who lack any form of gaming skill in the first place, and try to make up for it by being fowl-mouthed.

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.