- Published on
Let's talk about Neal
- Karthik Narasimhan
“And so,” the snotty bunch of hazers asked him, “do you read?”
“Yes sirs,” he said. Knighthood by coercion.
“What's your favorite genre?” I asked, gazing at the immense forehead. “I was born with a large forehead, and no, that is not a receding hairline, you jerk” he would tell me later, when we had become friends.
But going back to now, his answer was “Science fiction. Asimov. Long pause. Sirs.”
Science fiction, in that little clique, was passe. It was boring and juvenile, a resort of failed fantasy writers (it was either that or . Worlds with scary green faced aliens and half baked scientific theories on time travel weren't gonna cut it, not for hard nosed young men who could smoke a whole Benson & Hedges without coughing. By the way, we are a socially responsible blog and would like inform you that smoking in Bhutan can land you in jail, unless you are the king.
“Yes,” we said, “Foundation was good. Dick was good too.” Stifled laughter. “But that's it. No new ideas anymore, and how many variations on time travel can you read ?”
“No, but …”
“Why do we get the sense you are trying to contradict us?”
“I mean yes… sirs. SF is not a happening field. I agree wholeheartedly.”
It has been a few years since the conversation happened, and I wish I could go back in time and take the side of the young man with a receding hairline and tell the others to go read Cyberpunk. That'll only happen in bad science fiction, so I'll have to make do with a tribute to Neal Stephenson.
The problem with sci-fi (we all thought) was that it took itself too seriously. ‘Twas a genre lost in its gadgets, a genre enamored with its clairvoyance, a genre filled with stuffy geek-writers who believed that mediocre plots could be transformed into classics when set in the future in imaginary planets. Margaret Atwood helped weaken the impression (you can't really call her works science fiction, so scratch that) and William Gibson broke its resolve, but Neal Stephenson shattered it, burnt the remnants and shot the ashes up in the air with the weapons that he invented in Snow Crash. He did this by adding one ingredient to his books: irreverent satire. A self deprecating tone. Scathing social commentary. Intriguing new social orders, a healthy interest in the flow of money, an awareness of the impact of technology on people. Ok, I was off by a few ingredients. Big deal.
His books are elaborately plotted and incredibly detailed ( and very long), drawing on ideas from several sources: Snow Crash blends in virtual reality with notions of a libertarian future, The Diamond Age is about society's response to nanotechnology. The complexity of the ideas is balanced by the irreverent, satirical tone of the narrative – Stephenson's books never take themselves too seriously. And that endears them to you – a self deprecating geek discussing his ideas with passion is much more likable than someone earnestly trying to sell stories about plants that grow on Mars. This excerpt from Snow Crash is typical of how Stephenson treats conventional science fiction , turning hackneyed ideas into fun.
The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He's got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.
When they gave him the job, they gave him a gun. The Deliverator never deals in cash, but someone might come after him anyway - might want his car, or his cargo. The gun is tiny, aero-*d, lightweight, the kind of a gun a fashion designer would carry; it fires teensy darts that fly at five times the velocity of an SR-71 spy plane, and when you get done using it, you have to plug it into the cigarette lighter, because it runs on electricity.
The Deliverator never pulled that gun in anger, or in fear. He pulled it once in Gila Highlands. Some punks in Gila Highlands, a fancy Burbclave, wanted themselves a delivery, and they didn't want to pay for it. Thought they would impress the Deliverator with a baseball bat. The Deliverator took out his gun, centered its laser doo-hickey on that poised Louisville Slugger, fired it. The recoil was immense, as though the weapon had blown up in his hand. The middle third of the baseball bat turned into a column of burning sawdust accelerating in all directions like a bursting star. Punk ended up holding this bat handle with milky smoke pouring out the end. Stupid look on his face. Didn't get nothing but trouble from the Deliverator.
The Deliverator's car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator's car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car's tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator's car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady's thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.
Why is the Deliverator so equipped? Because people rely on him. He is a roll model. This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them.
Just when you think “Bond wannabe”, you find out. That the Deliverator delivers pizzas in a world run by corporations. That the deliverator is a software engineer with attitude. And you grin, shake your head and move on to the next chapter about Governmentless worlds.
The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education Ph.D.s, the Deliverator's report card would say: “Hiro is so bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills.”
After Snowcrash and The Diamond Age – Cyberpunk Classics – Stephenson changed tack. Cryptonomicon, his follow-up book, isn't really Science Fiction, it is a “historical techno-thriller.” It is an outstanding book that has been has been compared in its breadth and scope to Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon's dense World War II classic. But Stephenson won't mind it being called Science Fiction:
“The science fiction approach doesn't mean it's always about the future; it's an awareness that this is different.” [Link]
follows two parallel sagas: that of cryptographers during World War II attempting to crack Axis codes and that of their descendants attempting to use modern cryptography to build a data haven in the fictitious state of Kinakuta, a small nation […]. It also details the political machinations that follow both efforts. [Link]
A much more confident Stephenson digresses heavily, including a pointless short story written by one of the characters and Perl source code for a cryptographic algorithm he describes in the book. The book is a delightful read, each digression a source of unexpected pleasure. Stephenson blends in his fictional protoganists with real life people: Dr. Waterhouse, his cryptographer hero spends time with Alan Turing, and Einstein and Churchill make cameo appearances as themselves. Cryptonomicon is smart, supremely funny and densely packed with ideas and an acute awareness of the several societies spanned by the plot.
[…]When he does get to the right floor, thought, it is a bit posher than the wrong one was. Of course, the underlying structure of everything in England is post. There is no in between with these people. You have to walk a mile to find a telephone booth, but when you find it, it is built as if the senseless dynamiting of pay phones had been a serious problem at sometime in the past. And a British mailbox can presumably stop a German tank. None of them have cars, but when they do, they are three-ton hand-built beasts. The concept of stamping out a whole lot of cars is unthinkable.
[…]Waterhouse has forgotten all of their names. He always immediately forgets the names. Even if he remembered them, he would not know their significance, as he does not actually have the organization chart of the Foreign Ministry (which runs Intelligence) and the Military laid out in front of him. They keep saying “woe to hice!” but just as he actually begins to feel sorry for this Hice fellow, whoever he is, he figures out that this is how they pronounce “Waterhouse.” Other than that, the one remark that actually penetrates his brain is when one of the Other Guys says something about the Prime Minister that implies considerable familiarity. And he's not even the Main guy. The Main Guy is much older and more distinguished. So it seems to Waterhouse (though he has completely stopped listening to what all of these people are saying to him) that a good half of the people in the room have recently had conversations with Winston Churchill.
And perhaps in response to criticism that he couldn't tie up his plots properly, Stephenson ends Cryptonomicon well, tying up most loose ends. An awesome, awesome read.
A review of Cryptonomicon at Slashdot.
Which brings us to the Baroque Cycle, his ambitious trilogy set in the early 18th century. Stephenson insists that the Baroque Cycle is still Science Fiction, because the book mostly focuses on science in the Baroque Era. Hmm. He continues using the technique of blending in fictitious people with real ones – the duel between Newton and Leibniz forms the backdrop for a large part of the cycle.
It is not Cryptonomicon, but it is a fine book nevertheless. Even though it feels a bit like reading a smart schoolboy's scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings from the 17th century, the writing sparkles, and the characters intrigue. (And the second book in the trilogy is set in eighteenth century India, which is another reason to read it).
And the books are also… you know what, this post is way too long. So without much ado, I'll conclude.
Therefore, I conclude, Neal Stephenson is a good writer who writes elaborately plotted science fiction full of irreverent humor. Hence, I infer, you will all go read his books and write your own reviews. Please wipe your glazed eyes and go back to your own blogs. If you are a came through google, sorry, no naked pictures exist on this blog, except on one post. Continue searching.