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

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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.

Paper or Binary?

I’ve been thinking about manuscripts lately. Or rather, I’ve been thinking about how computers have destroyed them.

I went to the Pierpont Morgan Library over Thanksgiving break several months ago. It’s basically the library and mansion of an old wallstreet baron (for those who don’t know who Pierpont Morgan was), converted into a museum showcasing all the stuff he has. There’s a lot of it: beautiful old hard-bound books of a quality that just doesn’t happen any more, and priceless pieces of art, and orthodox iconography. But more than anything else, it was the original manuscripts that fascinated me.

They had them in glass cases, old manuscripts of books that everyone knows at the time. They cycled what was on display, and so I found myself on the day that I went looking at the yellowing pages of The Picture of Dorian Grey, the original ink-marking made by Oscar Wild himself, on the actual pages. The script was elegant and cursive, obviously written with a fine-nib pen. There were some of the original essays written by Mark Twain, and some of Beethoven’s handwritten scores, the writing of the later fierce and jagged with angry little notes stabbed onto the pages.

There was something powerful about being in the manuscript room, as if there was some sort of physical presence to the paper that was much more powerful than just the mass of the pages on their own. It was like being able to share in genius.

My problem is, of course, that I don’t write on paper. My hand writing isn’t elegant. It isn’t even illegible, because at least with illegible writing you can claim a creative style. Mine is simply unsteady and awkward, like a third grader just learning the shapes of the letters. Not the writing suited to manuscripts. And I can’t even write very well on paper, either: my mind has synced with the feel of a keyboard, and I’ve never managed to reprogram it to work with anything else. When I try to shift to paper, the quality of my writing goes perceptibly down. It’s no fun whatsoever.

I’ve been fully raised on computers, and can’t manage to bring myself to that previous time where people wrote by hand. There aren’t going to be any manuscripts for me. There aren’t going to be manuscripts for hundreds of people in the coming generations. The keyboard has taken over.

Not only that, but even typewriters are outdated. The hard work of millions of people all over the world exits only as streams of binary: ones and zeros. There will be no physical record of the process of writing, only the final product.

Now, I should say: I’m a technical boy. I believe in computers, and in technology in general with a fierce intensity. They do make life better. But there is a cost, and the presence of manuscripts is one of them. I know not all authors are capitulating to this as easily as I am: Neil Gaiman, for instance, writes his manuscripts with quill and ink, by hand. Lots of poets I know go to great lengths to write things out longhand, just because it feels weird to them to write poetry on a computer. But for lots of us authors, especially the fiction writers, manuscripts are things of the past.

Every once in a while, I’ll buy a comp-book, or open my nice journal, and start writing something from the beginning out of admiration for those manuscripts I saw at the Morgan Peirpont Library. Truthfully, I would love to see one with my name on it in someone else’s famed collection one day. But it doesn’t work: not only because I’m lazy, but because I just don’t write well with a pen. I’m disorganized, and lose my comp-books, and things just don’t work.

Mostly, though, I wonder what’s going to replace the comp-book. Perhaps it’s what I’m doing right now—the blog is the journal and manuscript of tomorrow. It fulfills many of the same things form a literary standpoint: shows the process that a work went through before publication. But it’s not the same, there’s no physical product to it. People aren’t going to file into a museum just to see the IBM R50 that David King wrote Artifice.EXE on. And this blog is data: easily copied and distributed.

No, I think that the internet has ended a generation completely. We’ve lost something.

But then again, we’ve gained a world of technology. We’ve gotten word processing, and connectivity, and Wikipedia. We’ve gained things we won’t even know about until after they’re established as part of our lives. Some people don’t think it was worth it, but personally, I have a lot of faith in the new things to come.

Posting from Myrtle Beach

Spring break started yesterday at Houghton. The second classes left out, my parents and I piled in a car and headed for South Carolina. Myrtle Beach.

My brother has a time share, but couldn’t use it. He let us take a vacation. Very kind of him.

It’s wonderful down here. I walked out on the beach in shorts—I haven’t been able to wear shorts since sometime in September. That’s about six months. Entirely too long, in my opinion. It is warm here, and vaguely tropic. There’s pine trees, at least. It feels enough like vacation that writing more than simple sentences seems a chore.

I’ve brought Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson with me, and have been enjoying it throughly so far. Since my current project is cyberpunk, I feel I have a need to read as much in the genre as I can. I hope to be able to secure a copy of Neuromancer by William Gibson as well. Neuromancer, for those of you who don’t know, isn’t necessarily the first cyberpunk novel, but is quintessential to the genre in much the same way as Lord of the Rings is to high fantasy. I need to read it before I can properly write.

(Speaking of which, no word count this post, because it hasn’t gone up in any significant portion. Been busy packing, and I can’t really use my computer in the car—to many jitters on the road to type proper.)

I’ve been thinking about cyberpunk for a while, and the difficulties this particular genre presents to the writer and reader, but I need to ruminate a bit more before I’m ready to share them. I think I might write an essay.

Speaking of essays, I hope my last post didn’t surprise anyone. It was the essay I used to head up the charter issue of The Woven Thread (more about that soon to come). Just some thoughts on the way writers interact with one another.

In any case, I hope to be able to take this week easy enough to have time to think thoroughly about this and that and the other, and then also have time to write about it. I find that if I don’t have time to do both, I end up just thinking a lot, which don’t actually help me at all as writer, now does it. That, I think, is how Philosophers are born, and heaven help me from that fate.

I hope to have some seafood tomorrow. Seafood is always good for the soul, but not always for the stomach. And, I also hope, there will be lots of time for sleep.

Looking forward to a relaxed week,

~DK

P.S. Found another writer dealing with this whole writing-of-the-novel bit. Working on a work of high fantasy, and seems to have a good head for a rather tricky genre. Added him to my blogroll, but figured I’d give a little plug to his blog, Five Circles.

Forecast: Greater Word Counts

Hullo, all.

My fingers are getting lots of exercise, and I’m beginning to get back into the swing of things. It’s taking my mind a little while to rewire, though. Writing is a habit just as much as it is an art, I think, and when I haven’t done it for so long, it takes a little while to remember how it feels.

Of the many things I’ve missed, one is being able to read what I’ve written. I know that sounds narcissistic, but it’s true, as well. I take a deep satisfaction in concrete things, and being able to see what I write in a tangible block, either on paper on a machine, makes me think that I’m actually creating something, instead of just some fancy ideas.

I want to do more stuff like this—creating physical things. More than just writing. Dad has a wood-working shop downstairs in the basement. It’s not the New Yankee, but it has enough equipment that perhaps I could make something neat. I think that over break, I’ll talk him into showing me how to work with wood. I have an old chess set that is missing pieces. I think it would be neat to be able to turn my own pieces out, and use them. That would be very neat.

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s blog recently. It ranges in topic, from simple Q&A to talking about the writer’s lifestyle. Today, this was posted:
Dear Neil,
I read your site everyday, and STILL I’m not a famous author, what am I doing wrong?
-mE.

At a guess, either you aren’t writing enough, you aren’t finishing things, you aren’t getting them published, or, if you’re doing all of those, you’re worrying about the wrong things. Anyway, famousness is probably about as useful for an author as a large, well-appointed hiking backpack would be for a prima ballerina. Honest.
~Neil

It makes me realize something I already knew. I had misplaced the thought for a little while this semester, but I think I’ve found it again. As a writer, my duty is to write. Spending too much time worrying about whether what I write is good or not isn’t going to be helpful to me—not if it gets in the way of my actually writing something. I need to write first, and make sure it’s good second.

I want to spread my work around more, too. Does anybody know where I could find some contests for short fiction? Or perhaps poetry? I just turned twenty one, I’m an adult now. I hope to start being able to get small works published, soon.

Juggling

The first thing I did this morning, after I took my shower and stood with my head leaned against the glass shower stall, scalding water running on my shoulders till I woke up properly, was listen to Eric Whitacre’s choral setting of E.E. Cummings’ poem i thank You God for most this amazing day.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings;and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

How should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt the unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Having listened to that, I attempted to turn on my computer, only to find that it was stubbornly refusing to turn on. I fiddled with it for fifteen minutes, and finally got it to turn on. I printed off my calculus III homework that I was up till four this morning working on, and arrived at class twenty minutes late.

After, I skipped chapel (what a heathen am I?) and instead read the short stories for my fiction class that I was supposed to read last night, when I was working on my calculus. In that class, I sat and listened, because normally I’m very vocal. Everybody seemed to dislike the stories I happened to like, even the professor.

Afterwards, I managed to get sick on a hamburger and a bit of orange soda.

I went on a walk to calm my stomach, and made my way down to the arboretum. The arboretum isn’t a building, like it would be in many places, but a patch of forest sandwiched between Rt. 19 and the campus. It is filled with walnut trees that are just beginning to change color, and the light filters through the leaves all green and gold, like fine jewelry.

I took a quick nap there, waking up fifteen minutes after falling asleep when I rolled my face against a walnut. Now, walnuts, if you’ve never seen them right off the tree, don’t look like they do in stores. They have a skin on them, like leather, just like a coconut does. It’s thick and rubbery, and to break it open you throw one against a rock or the pavement of the sidewalk. The pith of the skin is strong smelling—they use it to stain wood, and it will turn your fingers dark mahogany.

I palmed the offending walnut—it felt full and round in my hand, and got loam into the wrinkles of my joints. I gave it an experimental toss, and by the time it came down into my hand again, I had decided that I wanted to learn how to juggle. I picked up two other walnuts of similar size and shape, and began to practice. I stayed in the trees for more than an hour fumbling out basic tossing patterns, and by the time I came out, I was able to, with reasonable competency, perform something that was in no way, shape, or form, juggling.

Then I got on the internet, and found a nice website that told me how to begin juggling, and I discovered that all I had really gotten out of the afternoon was a sore back from sleeping on the grass, three walnuts in my pocket, and stained hands that smell like wood varnish. I failed my quiz in German, because I was learning how not to juggle when I should have been studying.

But I like the feel of the walnuts in my hand, and life is, for the moment, good.

Panera Again, Fourth of July, 2007

Happy Independence Day, everybody.

I’m sitting in my Panera again, wondering what it is I should write about. I hope that this won’t end up being just another rambling post that won’t actually go anywhere, but if it does I won’t take it down. People deserve to see writers at their worst as well as at their best, and I don’t quite think I’ve managed either in this blog yet.

Finished up Akira today, and I’m just pages away from two more. This’ll give me four reviews to post over the coming week. It’ll be fun, I think.

I’ve been writing more, too. I haven’t wrestled any games off the internet and into my computer, yet, and so I have little to do but. I’ve been starting a whole lot, lately, and not finishing very much. My 7th grade English teacher would be rolling in his grave right now–he always told me that you have to start what you finish. He was a good man, but I can’t agree with him here.

Leax was writing about characters in Grace is Where I Live, and the process of writing fiction. He talks about how, before he could fully write fiction, he had to understand what it was. Fiction is intrinsically different than any other form or writing. With poetry, there is a demand for truth to be in the words, or at least some sort of significance. All the great poetry follows this pattern, it seems to me, and most of the greats like Wordsworth and Frost have described it as such: “Poetry is truth filtered through emotion,” or “Poetry is the meeting of Humanity and Truth.” And essay has a certain purpose surrounding it: when you write an essay, you know what you want to accomplish, or it turns out to be a bad essay–meandering all over the place with no point whatsoever. Even journals and memoirs are meant to record some sort of personal feelings on a subject or event.

Fiction seems more whimsical to me. It is easy to look at a poem and say “the poet thinks this” or “the poet is saying that.”

Not so with fiction. I think it is because of characters. In a work of fiction, it is not only the author who is writing. All the people the author is writing about have their own say in the story, and the writer is just as controlled by the narrative as the narrative is controlled by the writer. This means that you can’t just sit down and write and say “I’ll write a novel about how unfair capital punishment is.” What if one of your characters disagrees with you–you must either destroy the character for the sake of your message, or destroy yourself for the sake of a person who exists only in your mind. I think Flannery O’Connor says it better than me:

“It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus recreate some object they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and to want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not people.”

and later…

“When you write fiction you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action.”

Leax puts his two cents in, as well:

“The possibility of writing fiction opened to me when I finally understood that patterns of meaning are not shaped by the conscious intent of the writer; they emerge naturally from the freely chosen actions of the characters… The story itself is its meaning. A writer’s task is first to tell it and second to trust it…. To write fiction I had to sacrifice that drive for self-knowledge appropriate to me as a poet and seek instead to know, to love and to honor my characters and the world in which they lived.”

This is what I’m doing: I have characters, and I’m beginning to get to know them before I begin a significant work. I throw Sera Bevens, my protagonist, into a western world, or perhaps next to a stranger on an airplane, just to see how she will act. I wish to know her, like I’d know a dear friend, and I wish to be able to tell her story like she’d like me to tell it. This is the challenge of the fiction author–learning to sacrifice self for story.

Words of Wisdom from Someone Besides Me

“The ancients who wished to demonstrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost of their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things… from the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.”

~Translated from Confusius