Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Becoming educable

Stephenson's novels teach even though they're only fiction - they teach history and mathematics and human nature and philosophy. Anathem teaches all of these things except for history, and even then it does teach history; it's just that it teaches history that isn't exactly ours.

I don't connect with Anathem the same way I connect with most of Stephenson's other work; part of this is because I just haven't read it as many times as, say Cryptonomicon, but part of this is because so much of the book is focused on philosophy instead of story. It's all interesting, philosophically speaking, but I spend most of my time reading wishing that there was a little more to the story.

It's not, by any means, a bad book. Anathem is, however, a very dense and somewhat slow book. Having now read it twice I'm interested in reading it again, but I think it'll be a few years before I find myself peeling back the cover.

I like being taught by the books I'm reading, I like learning, but it seems like most of the things that happen in Anathem happen only to teach the reader, not to advance the plot.

The book is totally worth reading, and what story there is is very interesting and takes place in a fascinating world, but don't expect a goofy pace or as much of the wonderful humor that is usually so characteristic in a Stephenson novel.

     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. Anathem. WM Morrow. New York: New York. 2008.

Shine on

I have to confess that I'm pretty sure I stole this book. Arclight, I doubt you're reading this blog but if you are please remind me to take you over to the bookstore and get you a new copy someday.

I stole Diamond Age because I haven't been able to let it go - I'm hooked on it and it and so I try not to cling too tightly to it. I read it every couple of years and in between readings it kicks around in my brain and won't let me go. A lot of my life in the last decade has been trying to emulate Nell, partially because she's a total badass, mostly because she's a girl who used a book to make herself into a better, stronger person.

Diamond Age is pretty much the best princess story that will ever be written. It is, of course, more than just a story about a princess - and the princess starts her life as an incredibly poor, illiterate little girl locked in a slum apartment - it's also a story about technology and culture and consciousness and conflict.

It also has a pretty cool metaliterary thing going on that I really dig - reminds me a bit of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler in some places, but without the pretension (though I will say that being an avid reader of Stephenson made it a lot easier for me to get through Calvino at first).

There's a lot going on in this relatively little book, but it's less tedious than a lot of Stephenson can be and doesn't get off on nearly as many tangents; there are still about twenty characters to be tracked through the pages, and they do all sorts of interesting, divergent, and confusing things, but it tends to stick to telling the story in one decade (as opposed to the two centuries of The Baroque Cycle, the five decades of Cryptonomicon, or the two millennia of Snow Crash) so it's not as hard to parse as some of the other books I've been reading this month.

Anyway, if you're sick of Disney princesses or struck by the damsel-like nature of Joss Whedon's "strong female characters" you'll probably like Diamond Age because it's full of women who are strong while still being realistically flawed humans who don't wait around to be rescued.

     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age. Bantam Books. New York: New York. 1996. (1995)

Friday, May 23, 2014

I paid for this at some point?

Yesterday I wandered into the house to hang out with my puppy; suddenly it was a couple of hours later and I had just watched Saw II while doling out ear-scratches to a chihuahua mutt. The dog was pretty happy with the whole situation but I felt retroactively guilty for having spent actual, real money to see Saw II in theaters on Halloween almost ten years ago.

The story is shit. Cancerous Jigsaw has locked a bunch of people in a house/torture-chamber and they all have something in common aside from being there and it has to do with the cop (who I think is a Walburg brother) watching this remotely as he's talking to Jigsaw who's the one really being tortured here. I guess. Something something. Also it doesn't make any sense. Oh, Dina Meyer and her amazing cheekbones are in it too, and as much as I adore her in Johnny Mnemonic and Starship Troopers she's usually a pretty good indication that your movie is edging into Razzie territory. Some of the characters have their stories expanded upon a little, but you're mostly left in the dark.

Which is a convenient segue into the fact that the movie looks like shit too! In some ways this is a good thing, because the sets are supposed to look like shit (which they do, thanks to David Hackl who was the production designer on a couple of crappy movies I actually enjoy: Repo! The Genetic Opera, and Outlander) but in other ways this is a terrible thing because something went wrong with the lighting or the shot quality and so all of the cool nasty traps and gross stuff hanging out in the background are either washed out and grainy or dim and grainy from shot to shot.

The flick wasn't the biggest critical or fan favorite of the series (that honor goes to the original - I'm sure Cary Elwes is thrilled) - but it did put up the biggest box office numbers, so that's something. And I got to contribute to that. Yay.

Anyway, I'd say skip it and probably will do the same in the future - there's better gorenography to be had out there and the traps in the first one are cooler-looking and more visible.

     - Alli

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The bit with the dog always gets me

After reading Snow Crash last weekend I had to spend quite a bit of time cuddling my puppy. Even when the universe you're reading about is full of bright neon and filthy streets and a strange future, there's just something about the feelings of dogs for humans and humans for dogs that will always resonate with anyone whose heart isn't made of ceramic.

Snow Crash is an unbelievably great book. I know I harp on Stephenson a lot and think that everyone should read his work, but I'm fucking serious about Snow Crash. You can't claim to be into sci-fi in this day and age if you haven't read Snow Crash because it's one of maybe three books written since 1980 that's really changed the sci-fi landscape. And fuck the sci-fi landscape, it's one of maybe ten books written in the last few decades that's changed the literal landscape that all of us inhabit. It's kind of like Star Trek - without Star Trek to aspire to we might still be using wall-mounted phones and 3D printers would be something that we couldn't imagine, much less assemble in our garages. Without Snow Crash the entire internet might not have blossomed into the crazy pornfest that we all know and love and video games would still be mouldering in 8 bits.

And we might not have this whole argument going about net neutrality (which is almost too depressing to even get into) because the neutrality argument would have gone out the window decades ago if people like Stephenson hadn't warned us (meaning the general population, not serious techies) about it first.

In a lot of ways Snow Crash is one of the most amazing, kick-ass, eerily-predictive books ever. It's also a story about a digital samurai, capitalism run rampant, liberty, and a healthy dose of Sumerian mythology. But it's also a simple story about people, and for at least a few pages it's about a dog who thinks of himself as Fido and the nice girl who he loves.

It's not every super-slick sci-fi history lesson that can make me cry like a baby, but this one sure does. Stephenson covers a lot of wonderful ground and makes a brilliant and terrifying universe for us to peer into, but he also tempers it with simple things that all of us can relate to; feelings of love and loss, the relationships that teenage girls always seem to have with their mothers, and the pants-shitting fear of totalling a mafia-owned pizza delivery car.

And read it, seriously.
     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. Bantam Books. New York, New York. 1993. (1992)

Monday, May 19, 2014

It's all about the details, but maybe there are too many details here

The first time I read Reamde I happened to take it to a computer security meeting that I attend each month. If you're familiar with Stephenson or with computer security geeks (read: hackers) then you won't be surprised that a lot of people noticed the book and wanted to know my thoughts on it. The group was well-read when it came to Stephenson but most of them hadn't seen this particular novel before - I let them know that it was generally good but not as heavy on the math as some of his novels are. I was a little surprised by the fact that most of the people there who had read the novel didn't like it; they seemed fine with the technical information, but bored with the story.

I think I dismissed some of their brush-offs as gender-based because one of the guys (but only one) told me that he just couldn't get behind a story where the main character was a tough woman (I think that may have been the last time that I spoke to that particular guy) and I may have projected some of that attitude on the rest of the group, which was tremendously unfair of me because now that I've re-read the book a couple of times I think that it mostly gets dismissed because it's so fucking long.

Now, yes, this is a Stephenson novel and Stephenson doesn't even get out of bed in the morning unless the book he's working on can be used as a doorstop for a Gothic cathedral so no one should be startled to find out that it's about a thousand pages. But they might be a bit startled by how slow some of it goes.

The book is full of complex characters all of whom do interesting things, but it's also full of the travel itineraries of those characters and gives the reader a play-by-play of some characters playing a MMORPG. I'm unwilling to watch people play video games (and even most sports) in the real world - translating these things into a fictional universe doesn't make them anymore interesting, which is problematic because a huge portion of the narrative requires the reader to understand a fictional universe within the book's fictional universe. And the travel bits are just odd - for the most part Stephenson is pretty good at making it interesting when characters move from one place to another, but in this case it's just as frustrating to be in the backseat for a six-hour drive in the novel as it would be on the Ten from LA to Phoenix. I don't get it.

In spite of these issues, the meat of the story is good and I actually really enjoy a lot of what's going on in the book; I just got a little bored here and there, but not enough to keep me from skimming those sections and having fun with the rest of the novel.

     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. Reamde. Harper Collins Publishing. New York: New York. 2011.

Zipping around an unsafe harbor

It's only on this reading (probably my seventh or eighth time through) of Zodiac that I'm beginning to realize how much I really like the book. I'm a bit irritated because so far it's the only book in my Stephenson project that I can't directly connect to all of the others, but I guess that's made up for by how much fun I had reading it.

In an odd way the surliness of the narrator (who describes himself as a professional asshole and who is employed in this capacity by a Greenpeace-like organization) and his dry, scientific attitude are the best advertisements I've ever seen for the green movement.

The book is all goofy action and a ramping trajectory that explodes into an intense and overwhelming climax (just like every other Stephenson book I've read this month) but Zodiac is relaxingly simple at its heart - it's just a book about a guy who is hard to get along with but who's trying to do his best anyway.

It also takes place in the least fantastic and arguably most dystopian universe of all of Stephenson's work - Boston Harbor in 1987. The contemptuous and queasy descriptions of harbor pollutants and mountains of garbage no only helps to hammer home the message that "There's a harbor out here, it's dirty" but also makes a sickeningly real backdrop for mostly sickeningly plausible drama.

There are, of course, deep messages that can be found in the novel but mostly you walk away from it feeling like you've had a good time skimming along on the surface. You can choose your depth with each reading have some fun no matter which way you go.

It's probably clear by now that I think almost everyone should read almost everything but the people I really want to recommend this book to are Stephenson fans who are so quick to dismiss it. That, and I want to ask them all a question: what the fuck is wrong with you?

     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. Zodiac. Grove Press. New York: New York. 1988.

That was a distinctly odd experience

I had never read The Big U before picking it up as part of my Stephenson-mapping binge, and now I'm pretty sure I know why. The book is a good satire of college life and has many of the hallmarks of later Stephenson novels, but it's also completely insane and not terribly well organized, something that became a staple for Stephenson when his books started to exceed 600 pages.

It almost feels like I started reading a Stephenson novel that turned into a Phillip K. Dick novel halfway through and decided it wanted to be Heinlein for the last fifty pages. Having read it, I now feel very confused and wish it made more sense but it left my head too fuzzy (or maybe that's just the fever I've got) for me to re-read it immediately.

The book is totally recognizable as a Stephenson work in spite of how jumbled it is - there are recognizable (if early) versions of character-types who repeatedly pop up in Stephenson's later books; there is an awful lot of proof that Stephenson spent a lot of his life learning about and listening to organs; and there are the requisite Hackers Fighting for an Ideal who I love so much in his novels.

The book starts off pretty straight, describing the lives of students at a university, and then quickly devolves into a portrait of what a university would look like if it were drawn by H.R. Giger, complete with slimy tunnels, giant rodents, and a malevolent computer virus.

By the end the story doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense but is still fun to read. I'll probably get around to re-reading it again in a few years, but for now I'll be content to let it sit on the shelf gathering dust as I try to make sense out of what it said.

     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. The Big U. Harper Perennial. New York: New York. 2001. (1984)

Binge-reading some thick stuff

I'm working on a theory here, and it involves reading a tremendous amount of hilarious fiction written about cryptography and general sciencey-type-stuff. It's more fun than you might expect but it can be a little daunting.

Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite books. The first time I read it I made the tactical error of leaving it on the black dashboard under un-tinted windows on a 110 degree Southern California day. The glue in the spine of the book broke down into its component elements and left me with about 200 5-page sections of book to read; I carried it around wrapped in an overextended hairband, dropping it a few times and having to furiously reshuffle the mess to make sense of the story. Maybe that's why the book sticks with me so much, but I'm guessing it has more to do with the fact that it's a really cool book.

The novel follows (primarily) three storylines - those of Lawrence Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe, and Randall Waterhouse; Lawrence and Bobby's stories take place during World War II, Randy's story takes place in the nineties and all of the stories get mixed together and create an interesting temporal landscape.

This has a lot to do with the theory that I'm working on (that most of Stephenson's novels take place in the same universe and are actually telling the same story over the landscape of centuries in a way that can be tied together with admirable neatness and that leaves the reader staggering in the wake of the author's foresight) so I had a lot of fun tracing some of the more obscure parts of the book than most people probably will. While doing so I still got to enjoy Randy's fumbling attempts at interacting with other human beings and the adaptable attitude of the family Shaftoe.

It's kind of hard to get into what goes on in the story without giving away really amazing parts that you should read on your own. Let's just say that there's a lot of action, some really cool history, and an appendix that will teach you an utterly bitchrod cryptosystem if you have the patience to sit down and learn it (I don't, but I can appreciate that it's rad).

It's not hard to get me all gushy over a Neal Stephenson book, but this one is full of some of my favorite descriptions ever. The way that Stephenson writes Lawrence's interpretation of English manufacturing is completely brilliant and utterly hilarious. The brief but memorable tangent about Randy's search for an orthodontist is sure to tug on the heartstrings and turn up in the nightmares of anyone who has had their own experience with wisdom teeth.

If you're feeling up to reading 1100 pages that take place on five continents and have about 100 distinct and interesting characters then Cryptonomicon is a book to add to your list.

     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon. Avon Books. New York: New York.  2002. (1999)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Missed opportunities

I've probably seen Ben Stiller's painfully silly Zoolander something like twenty times. I know for sure that I REALLY hated it the first two times I saw it (and I still adore Roger Ebert's scathing commentary about digitally deleting the WTC Towers from the finished film) but some time in the middle two thousands I started having fun while I was watching the movie. I like a lot of the silly jokes, I like how slapstick-stupid the film can be, I like all the ridiculous cameos from people (ahem, David Bowie) who should have had something better to do with their time, and I like the way the film represents the absurd spectacle that is the fashion industry. In my late teens and early twenties all of these things that I liked were good enough for me to sit down and let Zoolander run in the background while I was doing something else.

I guess at some point in the last five years that changed because I watched it yesterday and felt surprisingly stabby through a significant portion of the film.

Here's how I'm going to break it down: Zoolander had the opportunity to be both funny and meaningful, but chose to be only funny which actually made it less funny because the lack of meaning is distracting.

In the background of all of Derek Zoolander's stupid antics the film brings up fair wages for clothing manufacture, eating disorders triggered by the fashion industry, and whether there's more to life than being really ridiculously good-looking. None of these things except the last is discussed in any meaningful way, and then it's decided that Yes, there is more to life than being good-looking and it can be taught in an institute that trains young, poor models.

Here are just a couple of things the film easily could have done differently, better, or at all, and made the movie less of an object of contempt:

1 - Poke SERIOUS fun at fashion: the only way the fashion industry is mocked is through the stupidity of its models and designers, not for any of the serious problems that it has (contributing to the idea of a disposable world, considering a large number of consumers as sub-human, actually having a HUGE FUCKING PROBLEM with paying slave wages to third-world manufacturers - a real problem, not just a funny reason to train a model to assassinate a Prime Minister).

2 - Actually discuss eating disorders: when Matilda admits that she had been bulimic the two models she's talking to basically say "Yeah, everyone does that - so what?" and later in the movie Derek says "I'm sorry if fashion made you feel bad about yourself and made you make yourself puke." Let's pause for just a second. Absorb. *Sigh.* Eating disorders are the sort of thing that needs to be talked about soberly and thoroughly. If your only response to "fashion gave me an eating disorder" is "that's okay because everyone in fashion has an eating disorder" then you shouldn't bring up eating disorders at all. Because this isn't explored any further than the above, the apology that Derek gives Matilda comes off sounding like "I'm sorry you felt bad about yourself but I'm totally going to keep purging" because at no point is it explained to him (or to the audience) that eating disorders are bad. Instead you just see someone admitting to have an eating disorder and then being told "oh yeah, that's a great way to lose pounds quick for a shoot." WHAT THE FUCK?

3 - Maybe leave out the sexy/funny date rape; After Matilda is reassured that all models have eating disorders and has been lambasted for going a couple of years without sex, Hansel stays her arguments by saying "Shh, shut your mouth and let the tea do its work" which then segues into a gangbang featuring Matilda and a rota of Lapp dwarves, Sherpas, models, and people with facial tattoos. I'm not going to say that it's always date rape when someone has been using drugs or drinking  but I think the date-rapeyness quotient goes up when you're inviting people for a fuckromp with someone who is high. Just to clarify a little, Matilda drinks the tea and starts having sex with Hansel and Derek while she is still presumably sober and seems pretty into it, then at some point AFTER she is high she has sex with a whole bunch of people that we never saw her considering sex with while sober. Some people might say "eh, she was into it, who cares" and I say I care because impaired people are not capable of giving consent and so by throwing this silly little "how could we get this hot chick to have funny sex with little people" scene into the movie they're accidentally normalizing date rape and reinforcing the idea that "it's not rape if she's into it" - it absofuckingloutely can be rape if she's into it and she's drugged, fuckwads.

Anyway, I'm clearly too angry to write anything else about this movie. I may continue to enjoy clips of it in the future, and the mer-man commercial is pretty goddamn funny, but I think I'm finally totally over Zoolander.

     - Alli

Saturday, May 3, 2014

If it ain't Barock, please fix it

It's not quite correct to say that Neal Stephenson is prolific, but at the same time it's an almost dangerous understatement. In the 30 years that he's been publishing Stephenson has written about fifteen books, and a book every two years doesn't seem like great shakes when compared to Stephen King or Philip K. Dick's terrifying abilities to grind out novels (56 and 49 respectively that we know of). But, while a book like 11/22/63 requires at least some research and a book like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch requires just a TON of meth, a book like Quicksilver requires a jaw-dropping amount of research and balls the size of a SmartCar just to get started.

Stephenson is described by Cracked.Com's Robert Brockway as a man who "once wrote a book about a virtual-reality bushido master/pizza delivery man named Hiro Protagonist, but has since devoted his entire writing career to meta-history at the expense of all the world's forests" and "who is apparently out to drown the world in his books to avenge some childhood slight."

Stephenson has "only" written about fifteen books, but as near as I can tell at least five of those books are about everything. I know that sounds like an overstatement, but Cryptonomicon is approximately 1000 pages, takes place in two decades and on five continents, and aside from its main plot and characters spends a fair amount of time discussing Chinese currency, municipal building ordinances, RPGs, subsistence patterns of various Native Americans, calculus, the place of technology in mythological structures, and the possibility of mapping the streets of London based on seemingly random data.

When I was researching Stephenson so that I could figure out exactly how much of the universe he's crammed into 15 books I came across the term "maximalism" for the first time and immediately understood it because Stephenson's been showing me maximalism for 10 years and I only just now found the proper term to describe it.

So anyway, that's how Stephenson writes. You thought you were going to just be reading a novel about VR samurai but instead you got to strap in for an exciting discussion of Sumerian mythology and information theory too. FUCK YES.

I'm ashamed to admit it but the first time I saw part of The Baroque Cycle at a bookstore I sneered at it. As best I can recall I was thinking something like "Aw, man, here's this awesome sci-fi/cyberpunk author whose books I love and I'm going to have to stop reading him because he's started writing bullshitty history books." I'd like to go back in time and smack myself in the head for how wrong I was. These books are still sci-fi/cyberpunk(ish) and totally kick-ass, they just happen to take place in the 1600s. Ridiculous anachronism abounds and does wonders to humanize insane geniuses such as Issac Newton and Robert Hooke.

Oh, and the series is freaking enormous. There are eight books in three volumes and each volume is about 900 pages. It's so good. There's so much delicious speculative historical fiction to dive into.

Volume One - Quicksilver

Daniel Waterhouse is the the son of a Puritan and college roommate of Issac Newton; he tries to find his foothold in the world only to deal with plagues, fires, cut-up dogs, and the King of England blowing up his father. Liberal discussion of calculus, pirates, and the Tower of London included.
King of the Vagabonds
Jack Shaftoe, born low and fighting to stay that way, is drawn into bizarre intrigues and rituals by the lovely former slave Eliza. The unlikely pair ask questions about the nature of money and encounter all sorts of obstacles in their attempt to collect, control, or at least follow, specie. Jack has an unfortunate, though much-deserved, interaction with a large harpoon.
As Eliza's knowledge of finances grows she is caught up in drama all around Europe; Dr. Waterhouse has fallen out of Issac's favor but caught the eye of the King of England (not the one who blew up his father, a different king). Waterhouse and Eliza are wrapped up in intrigues separately and together. Dr. Waterhouse wishes he'd known to hydrate more.

Volume Two - The Confusion

Jack Shaftoe has found himself chained to an oar with a scheming cabal of slaves. They manage to free themselves and scrape up some scratch before improbably becoming food for insects and then royals in India. After losing their gains to a pirate queen they convince her that she should finance a ship for them, then sail to Japan, Manila, and cross the Pacific to end up in South America before braving Europe once more.
The Juncto
All that Daniel Waterhouse wants to do is sail away to America but people keep insisting that he owes a debt to England. Daniel's cohorts in the Royal Society work hard to try to gain political control an Eliza takes advantage of the essentially bankrupt island. Daniel convinces Sir Issac Newton that he might be good at running the Mint as the debate between Newton and Liebniz grows in furor and venom.

Volume Three - The System of the World

Solomon's Gold
Daniel Waterhouse makes it back to London just in time to be almost blown up by an Infernal Device. Jack Shaftoe is messing with money and causing Issac Newton no end of trouble, while Eliza is embroiled in the intrigues of the Hanoverian court because of the death of Electress Sophie.
Eliza and Daniel work together to improve technology, end slavery, and un-fuck England. Daniel and Issac manage to chase down and capture Jack on the eve of an enormous upheaval that sends Princess Caroline rushing out of the country, but no one but Jack knows what's been done to the Pyx, a box that holds samples of money as a safeguard for the mint. Peter the Great makes a stop in London and terrifies essentially everyone with his size and frustration.
The System of the World
Since Daniel and Issac have found out that Jack was responsible for polluting the Pyx they have been trying to track down the parties responsible for Jack. One Charles White becomes problematic until he is disposed of by a cannon duel, which really only makes him more trouble. Jack is hung at Tyburn before a Mobb that disapproves of the situation at exactly the same time as Daniel is busy acting as Issac's alchemical understudy and fighting off death by arcane means. Everything is an enormous mess, but in the end it looks like London is as much better off for having burned metaphorically as literally.

I have no idea how to review, or even effectively summarize, these wonderful books. They are too full and rich and startlingly dense for me to even say what they're about. I could spend fifteen hundred words describing one percent of this series and then I'd still have only described one percent and you'd have no idea what they're really talking about. But basically they're about an elderly scholar and a middle-aged criminal saving the world with the help of a harem slave, several savants, a watchmaker gone bad, half of the royalty in Europe, and one immortal wizard.

Good luck parsing that. And please read The Baroque Cycle because it kicks three thousand pages of ass.
     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. Quicksilver. Harper Collins. New York: New York. 2003.
Stephenson, Neal. The Confusion. Harper Perennial. New York: New York. 2005.
Stephenson, Neal. The System of the World. Harper Perennial. New York: New York. 2005.