Thursday, April 8, 2010

First thoughts on Stephenson

I know at least one person has waited so patiently for me to get around to this. Fair warning, there will be spoilers. Thanks for being patient Mark!

So, I started off with Snow Crash. I found the idea of the country being broken up into private franchises pretty fitting for the genre. The technologies introduced were interesting, but if it's possible for something that doesn't exist to be outdated, some things come off that way. Being published in 1992, before the internet became a daily part of life for so many people, I think that Stephenson's Metaverse should have had the feeling of something that might have been possible and become widely available, that can always make SF much more exciting. Having seen SecondLife and not having a 3D chamber/computer or a holodeck yet, I just can't accept that something like the Metaverse is really going to happen. But, wait, how is that a criticism when I read books with talking horse beings, fairies and elves in them? I guess because Stephenson goes for a more realistic tone and sets the book in land that is supposed to be recognizable, yet futuristic; I lose a little bit of the suspension of disbelief when it comes to the technologies he is describing.

Also, the style of the book reminded me so much of The DaVinci Code . I think it was the focus on the Sumerian myth and history bit. I adored the idea of it; the linking of a virus to the explosion of languages really lit up both the science and word geek parts of my brain. However, The Librarian was tedious and I just kept wishing that there could be a better way to get the background across than those long, long sections of dialogue between it and Hiro.

But, the kicker for me was how none of the female characters are really relatable or fully realized people. Jaunita walks the line between a cypher and a saint the whole time. She never feels like a real person, but we are expected to buy that Hiro is completely in love with her and that on some level she is returning the feeling. I identified with Y.T. at first and I think that got me through most of the book. And then, with no warning or explanation he takes away all of her agency and skewers her character completely for the sake of plot advancement! It actually pissed me off, in a way that a work of media has not pissed me off since I watched rape scenes not treated as rape scenes in movies like 40 Days and 40 Nights and Rules of Attraction. He created a world were the is almost no rule of law and plops this teenaged Lara Croftesque character in it, but just could not allow himself to write the inevitable of her being raped. He gives her the dentata to protect her somewhat against this eventuality. So, she's smart enough to realize the risks of the life she is living and be prepared, but it ends up being more of a magical talisman than an effective weapon. When she is eventually captured by the villains, she runs smack dab into what up until that point had been made out to be one of the biggest, badass villains the world has ever seen, Raven. But, he makes her forget she has the dentata. I understand that since she was basically a captive in a cult, he was making her forget a lot of things. I just fail to understand how anyone could ever forget something being in their vagina. Especially something that is supposed to incapacitate an rapist in the middle of the act. Sure, you can get used to wearing a tampon or some such, sort of in the same way that you might not always consciously realize you are wearing glasses. But, you wouldn't forget about the fact that you own a pair of glasses and I don't think that when you are being held against your will is the time you will forget that you own a weapon you store in your vagina. So, what happens when our heroine is whisked away by the villain? She falls in lust with him immediately, forgets the dentata and accidentally incapacitates him with the dentata after one of the most awkward and unbelievable (not in a good way) sex scenes I have ever read. Including squicky rotting corpse sex scenes from Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series of vampire books. So, the assasination of Y.T. as a character really ruined it for me. I can admire the imagination and the storytelling ability it takes to tie everything together in the end. I might have even been in awe of the fact that the sort of rag tag group of saved the world and that you were rooting for them from saving this imperfect world from becoming even worse...if I hadn't recently read that theme done so masterfully by China Mieville in Perdido Street Station. The abrupt ending did not bother me so much as I was just sort of relieved to be finished and that nothing worse happened, like Y.T. ending up forced married to the Mob boss or something.

Given that Snow Crash was supposed to have been a graphic novel and was written early on on his career, I decided to give Stephenson another chance with The Diamond Age. This works much better as a novel on so many levels for me. It seems different enough from our world as we know it, that I wasn't bothered in the least by any sort of plausibility of the technology and was just able to admire the niftiness of it. Okay, maybe not the whole embedded guns inside your brain part, but the being able to walk to a matter compiler and just request some new clothes, or a blanket or a dish of Mac and cheese? Having a 'pen' that beeps everytime you have email? That would be awesome.

Most of the characters had way more depth this time around and for many of them we also get a real glimpse into their psyches and understand what is driving them to do the things they least sometimes. The primer itself is created by two men out of a desire to inoculate their granddaughters against the failures of the current educational system and turn them into individuals who can surpass mediocrity and into greatness for their society. However, through a strange series of events, Nell, a peasant with no cultural affiliation and tens of thousands of Chinese girls also get their own versions of the primer.

I think my favorite parts of the novel occur in the Primer with Nell. The elements of fantasy and myth were interesting, although some of the individual tales from the primer went on a little bit too long. The whole concept of the primer reminded me very much of the mind game at the Battle School in Ender's Game...complete with accidentally spawning a female gaurdian for the protagonist although Miranda is flesh and blood and Jane is A.I. In both works, the only interactions with Nell and Ender exist because of and through complex computer networks. I think there can also be some comparisons to Nell with Ender in that they both end up leaders of real armies because of their performances in what they thought at the time were childhood games, as Nell eventually leads the Chinese girls as the Queen of their Mouse Army, both in the primer and eventually in a real life war.

But, just when I thought that Nell was becoming so much of a fully realized character and so much of an improvement over Y.T., what happens? He's not done with Y.T. yet! I completely read the character of Miss Matheson at the boarding school to be an elderly Y.T. The reference to being a thrasher in her youth being the most obvious bit of evidence. I'm a little torn at liking where she ended up and hating it. On the one hand, she's independent at least, but on the other she's in this repressed society and stuck in a wheelchair and sort of pathetically trying to create a vicarious legacy with Nell.

But, then just when I thought we might get through the novel without any weird sex scenes or rapes (to give credit where it is due, Stephenson handles Nell's childhood abuse well, including allusions to at least grooming for molestation, but with enough subtlety that it's possible to believe Nell blocks out the worst parts or she escaped before it got that far) he introduces the Drummers. Which are sort of like hippies on acid and ecstasy at the same time that they create a collective concious by basically wandering around and screwing each other's brains out. From the introduction of this society on out, it not only gets weird but just down right confusing. As in, I completely will give up trying to give you any kind of plot synopsis from memory. It eventually makes sense, but I just can't explain it to you and still have time to eat, do yoga and take a shower before bed.

So, we'll skip ahead to the part that makes me uncertain on how far I want to go with this pledge to read everything by Mr. Stephenson. At the beginning of the conflict at the climax of the book, Nell is captured and raped. Again, Stephenson creates a world and puts his heroine in a scenario where this becomes inevitable. But, again, you later find out that it isn't just the situation that has created the need for it, but again rape as plot device because Nell becomes infected with a nanotech virus from the rape. Which might have been excusable, had the way that it was written not been so jarring. The language used I recall as being flowery, glossing over the details and in the end leaving her almost unaffected by her rape. A certain level of fight or flight, not being able to breakdown because she had to escape would be expected. But, instead of that it seemed as if Stephenson made it seem almost like Nell was just so strong that she transcended being raped in this weird, metaphysical way. It just did not work for me at all and to basically have the same problem in two novels in a row? Not a great sign that you aren't going to feature these gratuitous and odd rape scenes in everything else.

So, once again, I'm more relieved than disturbed by the abrupt ending. Although, it might have been nice to have seen Nell get to collapse, lose it and be nurtured through dealing with what happened to her by Miranda. I understand that Stephenson is known for doing this in everything, which also makes me question wanting to continue with the rest of his oeuvres. However, I have to wonder if it is being a symptom of being a programming geek? Not that I know anything about programming, but the point is to get all sorts of lines of codes to work together to create something else, a program that is greater than the sum of his parts. And pieces of code while they might be unique or interesting or whatever, don't have their own motivations beyond how they are being used to create the program. Once his characters have achieved the connecting of all the dots to the end of the climax of the story, there is no longer a purpose for using them or writing about them? Or maybe I have been sitting at my computer way too long and am no longer making sense.


  1. I've never really considered Snow Crash to even be attempting any sort of realism. I've always considered it to be more of a hightened reality bordering on parody. Regarding the librarian, yeah, I think perhaps that sort of info-dump could have been handled a little better... except, that I kinda like info-dumps. The whole sumerian mythology and language ideas was fascinating to me in my formative years (I'd never been exposed to anything remotely that interesting when I was 15), and I think all the ideas in the book are what make me enjoy it so much. That and the fact that there's like, samurai swordfights and crazy 30-minute pizza delivery for the mob type scenes.

    Now that you mention it, the YT dentata scenes have always struck me as being odd. But I've never read the book with YT as the person I identified with. I'm honestly blanking on the circumstances and plot at that point, so I'll refrain from any specifics. I reread the book about 6 years ago, but it's probably worth picking up again at some point (when I finish off a lot of other things). I remember enjoying the plot and thinking that the various ideas he'd thrown out there were all tied together well enough at the end that it made for a satisfying story. But then, being a guy and having Hiro as the guy I related to helps, as he's the main character here.

    I've always considered The Diamond Age to Stephenson's weirdest work, and I've found the ending in particular to be lacking. I think you hit on a the key low points, in particular the Drummers sections, which are nigh incoherent. There's an interesting idea buried in there (with the whole collective consciousness thing), but I remember emerging from those chapters with a "What just happened?" feeling (that might have been kinda the point though).

    If I remember correctly, the whole climax of the book was very awkward. First, there's a big jump in time. Nell goes from being a little girl to being kinda grown up, and a high-priced call-girl? Catering to neo-victorian prudes? Or something like that? I don't really remember. And the rest of the ending didn't really do much for me either. I just remember confusion. I enjoyed the book because it had interesting ideas, but I agree about the ending and am convinced that this book gave Stephenson his reputation for bad endings. (Cryptonomicon has a rushed ending too, but both the Baroque Cycle and Anathem have, like, entire chapters devoted to epilogue.)

    At this point, I'm not sure how you'd take Cryptonomicon. For one thing, there's even less of a female presence in the book. There is one female character in the present day portions of the book who I think is pretty awesome, but she's more of a side character and she's as much defined by her family (and most of the ones we see are men) as she is by herself. She's also the romantic interest of one of the 3 main characters and is kinda portrayed as being too cool for school. Or something. There's some weird sex stuff, but as I recall, not much in the way of rape (I think there might be some general mentions of Japanese war atrocities, etc...)

    Heh, did a quick google search and found this: "I stopped reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon around the point where it was revealed that the protagonist's evil feminist academic ex-girlfriend hated beards because she considered them a manifestation of the patriarchy." This is, of course, a really minor part of the book, but if you find that sort of thing off-putting...

    So I'm kinda rambling now and I'll stop. I'm mildly disappointed that you didn't enjoy the books, but I'm not entirely surprised. Stephenson seems to have a limited appeal, even in a general sense. When it comes to feminism, well, I don't think his books really address those sorts of issues (it's not something I've ever really examined in his books though - perhaps worth further examination).

  2. Realism isn't the best word I could have used. It's like there's two kinds of speculative in SF. There are the kinds where it's more of a what if scenario, like alternate histories or worlds that may only resemble our own. And there's the sort of parody/satire/dire warning type, where it's supposed to be where our own future could be headed. Stephenson seems to be more of the latter and I expect more in the way of plausibility out of that kind.

    Nell doesn't work as a call girl. She works at a fancy sort of brothel, but as a writer/director, coming up with customized scenarios for the clients.

    A book doesn't have to have female characters for me to identify with for me to enjoy it. I think I may have identified with Y.T. by default due to her being a girl, since none of the characters were very relatable or had obvious motivations for doing anything. Y.T. was young enough that she could have just been caught up in everything out of boredom, so it wasn't as annoying...until she meets Raven.

    I'll definitely still read Anathem, it's actually the one that from reviews seems most interesting.