The Next Big Thing: Blog Hop!

Yeah, apparently there’s this new thing making the rounds known of late. Lord knows this here internet is filled with memes, but when you get tagged as part of a new one, you gotta go play. My thanks to Casey Sheridan for being the one to tag me, and now I go on to spread the word! Of course, it behooves me to post the rules of this particular meme. Here they are:

  • Give credit to the person/blog that tagged you (already done!)
  • Post the rules for this hop (in progress!)
  • Answer these ten questions about your current WIP (Work In Progress) on your blog
  • Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

And now, here are the author questions which I shall begin to answer in sequential order:

  1. What is the working title of your book?
    Data Miners
  2. What genre does the book fall under?
    Thriller/suspense, but with some clear science fiction elements since a lot of it is speculative
  3. Which actors would you choose to play your characters for the movie rendition?
    C.S. Lee (who plays Vince Masuka on Dexter) as Yamal Pradchaphet, Lyndsy Fonseca as Agent Righetti, and Mila Kunis as Angela Thompson.
  4. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
    A second-rate programmer by day and hacker by night finally stumbles onto a real-life conspiracy that is ten years in the making.
  5. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
    Self-published to begin with, with the intent that it will be represented at some later date
  6. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
    Three y
  7. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
    If pressed, I’d say Neuromancer, Cryptonomicon, and Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, the works that most directly inspired it.
  8. Who or What inspired you to write this book?
    Reading plenty of William Gibson and other thrillers about technological trends, cryptology and espionage.
  9. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
    The book explores the mysteries of the human mind, with inspirations from Arthur Koestler, B.F. Skinner, and Gilbert Ryle; the concept of digital immortality; and several ongoing questions about what really happened to the Stealth Fighter that was shot down during the Kosovo War.

And last, but certainly not least, are the five people I want to tag next. Naturally, this is 100% volunteer participation, so if you can’t join, don’t worry about it:

Rami Ungar – http://ramiungarthewriter.wordpress.com
Nina D’Arcangela – http://sotetangyal.wordpress.com
Nicola Higgins – http://nicolahigginsfiction.wordpress.com
Lesley Carter – http://lesleycarter.wordpress.com
Margaret E. Alexander – http://addictivestory.wordpress.com

Thanks again to Casey, and hope everyone has a good week!

10 Sci-Fi Novels People Pretend to Have Read

Came across this article in Io9 recently, then again over at Scoop.it. You can tell something is important not only when it speaks to you, but when like-minded individuals begin referencing it! And if you own a blog, you definitely want to get on that! In any case, I found the list especially interesting for two reasons. One, many of the books I have already read. And two, I haven’t even heard of the rest.

I’d say a list like this is long overdue, but it’s still highly subjective isn’t it? The books we pretend we’ve read all comes down to what we consider important and relevant, not to mention popular. And even within the genre of sci-fi, I’d say that list is too big to boil down to a simple top ten. Even so, it’s interesting to read and compare, and find out just how many you’ve read yourself. So please, check this out and tell me which of these you have read and which you think you’ll want to check out:

1. Cryptonomicon:
Read it! This book is Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking piece of historical fiction, combining narratives involving World War II cryptographers with modern day IT geeks who are looking to establish a data haven in the South Pacific. The story tells the tale of a massive shipment of Nazi gold that got lost on its way to Japan, ran aground in the Philippines, and remained hidden until the late 90’s.

Personally, I loved this book because of the way it weaves history, both recent and distant, into a seamless narrative and draws all the characters into the same overarching plot. One would think that Stephenson was making a point about how we are all subjects of our shared history, but it could just be he’s that good a writer!

2. Dune:
Read it thrice! In Dune, Frank Herbert draws upon an immense store of classical sci-fi themes, a grand awareness of human nature and history, and a keen grasp of ecology and the influence environment has on shaping its inhabitants to create the classic that forever established him as one of the greatest sci-fi minds of all time.

Sci-fi geeks everywhere know this one and it saddens to me to think that it’s even on this list. Anyone who’s willing to pretend that they read this book clearly considers it important, which is why they should have read it, dammit! Not only is it a classic, it’s from the guy who literally wrote the book on science fiction that was meant to be taken seriously.

3. Gravity Rainbow:
Never heard of it! Apparently, the story came out in 1974 and deals with the German V2 rocket program near the end of World War II. Pat Murphy, author of The City, Not Long After and The Wild Girls, went so far as to compare this book to James Joyce, a the great Irish modernist writer who was also renowned for being brilliant and inaccessible.

In addition to be classified as enriching, it is known for being odd and hard to get through, with many authors themselves claiming to have started it several times but never being able to finish it. The plot is also rather unique, combining transgressive sexuality with the idea of total war and technological races. But one look at the dust jacket will tell you all of that, right? Crazy Germans!

4. Foundation:
Read it myself, and also am somewhat sad that it made the list. Sure, the fact that it’s a classic means that just about everyone who’s eve shown the slightest interest in sci-fi would want to read it. But I can’t for the life of me understand why people would claim to have read it. Jesus, it’s not a hard read, people. And Amazon sells used copies for cheap and handles shipping. No excuses!

And having just reviewed it, I shall say nothing of the plot, except that it in many ways inspired fellow great Frank Herbert in his creation of Dune. Like Frank, Asimov combined the idea of a Galactic Empire with a keen awareness of human history, eternal recurrence, and prescient awareness.

5. Johnathon Strange & Mr. Norrell:
Now this one I have heard of, but never felt compelled to pick up and read. Apparently, its size and bulk are the reason many people react the same. This 2004 book is the first novel by British writer Susanna Clarke which deals with the nature of the English character and the boundary between reason and irrationality.

Set in 19th-century England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the story is an alternative history that is based on the idea that at one time, magic existed in England and has thanks to the help of two men – the namesakes of the story, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. At once interesting and speculative, it also presents the rather romantic vision of romance returning to a world increasingly characterized by modernity and cold reason.

6. 1984:
Yep, read this one thrice as well! And given it’s reputation and place in the annals of literary history, I can totally see why people pretend to have read it. Oh, and let’s not forget the way people love to reference and abuse it’s message for the sake of making a quick and easy political point! But none of that excuses not reading it.

Set in an alternate history where WWIII and revolution have led to totalitarian governments in every corner of the world, the story tells the tale of one man’s quest to find answers and facts in a world permeated by lies and absolute repression. Of course, this meager description doesn’t do it justice. In the end, so much comes into play that it would take pages and pages just to provide an adequate synopsis. Suffice it to say, it’s a book that will change your life. READ IT!

7. First and Last Men and Star Maker:
Another one which I’m not too sure about. Much of what is described within are concepts I have heard of in other places, and some of the content sounds familiar. Still, can’t say I’ve ever heard of Stapledon or these two works by name. But after reading about his work, I’m thinking I ought to check him out now. Tell me if you’d agree…

Published in 1930 and 1937, these two books tackled some rather broad ground. The first deals with the history of humanity, covering 18 species of humanity from the present to two billion years into the future. Based on Hegelian concept of history, humanity goes through several different types of civilizations and passes between stability and chaos over the course of it all. However, undeniable progress is made, as each civilization reaches further the last, culminating in leaps in evolution along the way.

In Star Maker, the plot revolves around a man who is able to leave his body and venture throughout the universe. He is able to merge with more minds along the way, a snowballing effect which allows him and his companions to explore more and worlds through time and space. This leads to a climax where a cosmological mind is created and makes contact with the “Star Maker” – the creator of the universe.

Sounds cool huh? And they appear to have no shortages of accolades. For example, Arthur C. Clarke called Star Maker one of the finest works of science fiction ever written, and the concept explored therein had a profound influence on many subsequent sci-fi minds, not the least of which were Gene Roddenberry and J.M. Straczynski.

8. The Long Tomorrow:
This one, I have heard of, mainly because it’s on my list as an example of post-apocalyptic fiction. I have yet to read it, but after reading about it, I think I would like to. Set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, the story takes place within a society that is controlled by religious groups preaching a technophobic message.

Inevitably, the story comes to a head when young people, intrigued by stories of a neighboring community, go out in search of it, braving punishment and even exile. Sounds familiar? Well, it should. This book, which was published in 1955, has gone on to inspire countless variations and pop culture renditions. It also attempts to illustrate the connection between natural disasters and regression, traditionalism and repression.

9. Dhalgren:
Yet another book that’s compared to James Joyce, largely by people that haven’t read it. I’m one of them! Apparently, this 1975 story by Samuel R. Delany takes place in a fictitious Midwestern town that has become cut off from the outside world by an event horizon. All communications are cut off, and the population become frightened by the night sky reveals two moons, and the morning sun is many times larger than our own.

More strange is the fact that street signs and landmarks shift constantly, while buildings that have been burning for days are either never consumed or show signs of damage. Gangs also begin to roam the nighttime streets, their members hidden within holographic projections of gigantic insects or mythological creatures. Against this backdrop, a group of people come together and try to make sense of what has happened as they struggle to survive.

Told from the point of view of a partial amnesiac, dysmetric, schizophrenic, as well as a bunch of other people who find themselves stranded in the city, the story is an exercise is confusion, dissociation, and a really just a big mystery. In the end, what is truly going on is never revealed, thus leaving the reader with their own interpretations. This is one of the selling points of the book, with William Gibson himself saying that it was “A riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Yeah, I definitely need to read this one!

10. Infinite Jest:
This last novel is more recent, having been released in 1996. Once again, haven’t heard of it, but given its content, praise, and the fact that the author’s low life was cut tragically short, it doesn’t surprise me that its one of those books that everyone feels they must read. But given the length, complexity and the fact that story contains 388 numbered end notes, I can see why they’ve also held back!

The story focuses on the lives of a celebrity family known as the Incandezas, a clear pun on their, shall  we say… luminous fame? The family is deeply involved in tennis, struggles with substance abuse, and in a state of disrepair since the father – a famous film director – committed suicide with a microwave. His last work was apparently a film (entitled “Infinite Jest”, but known throughout the story as “The Entertainment”) which is so entertaining, it causes viewer to lose all interest in everything besides watching the movie.

Clearly meant as a satire on North American culture, particularly celebrity families, entertainment, substance abuse and the sideshow that is celebrity rehab, the story is all about various people’s search for the missing tape of “The Entertainment” and what they plan to do with it. The novel received wide recognition and praise after its publication and became a testament to Wallace’s talent after he committed suicide in 2008.

Okay, that’s four out of ten for me. How did you do? And even if you could say that you’ve read most of the books on this list, or at least the one’s you’ve heard of, I’d say we’ve all come away with a more additions to our reading lists, hmmm? Yeah, I guess its back to Amazon for me!

A Tribute to Alan Turing

Wouldn’t you know it? Today marks what would have been Alan Turing’s 100th birthday. This man was not only immensely influential in the development of computer science and cryptanalysis, he is also considered the father of Artificial Intelligence. In fact, words like “algorithm” and “computation” are traced to him, as was the development of the “Turing machine” concept which has helped computer scientists to understand the limits of mechanical computation.

However, his reputation goes far beyond the field of computer science. During World War II, he worked at the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking centre. For a time, he was acting head up Hut 8, the section responsible for breaking the Enigma Code, Germany’s wartime cypher which they used to encrypt all their communications. Were it not for this achievement, the Allies may very well have lost the war.

Especially in the Atlantic, where German U-boats were causing extensive losses in Allied shipping, Turing’s work proved to be the different between victory and defeat. By knowing the disposition and orders of the German fleet, crucial shipments of food, raw material, weapons and troops were able to make it across the Atlantic and keep Britain in the war. Eventually, the broken codes would also help the Allied navy to hunt down and eviscerate Germany’s fleet of subs.

After the war, he worked at the National Physical Laboratory in London, where he created one of the first designs for a stored-program computer, the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine). He named this in honor of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, a mathematical machine built a century before. This machine was the culmination of theoretical work which began in the mid 30’s and his experiences at Bletchley Park.

In 1948, he joined the Computing Laboratory at Manchester University, where he assisted fellow mathematician and codebreaker Max Newman in the development of the Manchester computers. Their work would eventually yield the world’s first stored-program computer, the world’s first computer to use transistors, and what was the world’s fastest computer at the time of its inauguration (in 1962).

He then switched for a time to emergent and theoretical field of mathematical biology, a science which was concerned with the mathematical representation, treatment and modeling of biological processes, using a variety of applied mathematical techniques and tools. This field has numerous applications in medicine, biology, and the proposed field of biotechnology. As always, the man was on the cutting edge!

In terms of Artificial Intelligence, Turing proposed that it might be possible one day to create a machine that was capable of replicating the same processes as the human mind. The “Turing Test” was a proposed way of testing this hypothesis, whereby a human test subject and computer would both be subjected to the same questions in a blind test. If the person administering the test could not differentiate between the answers that came from a person or a machine, then the machine could be accurately deemed as an “artificial intelligence”.

Tragically, his life ended in 1954, just weeks shy of his 42nd birthday. This was all due to the fact that Turing was gay and did not try to conceal this about himself. In 1952, after years of service with the British government, he was tried as a criminal for “indecency”, homesexuality being considered a crime at the time. In exchange for no jail time, he agreed to submit to female hormone treatment, which is tantamount to “chemical castration”. After a year of enduring this treatment, he committed suicide by ingesting cyanide.

In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated”. Between his wartime contributions and ongoing influence in the field of computer science, mathematics, and the emerging fields of biotechnology, and artificial intelligence, Turing has left a lasting legacy. For example, at King’s College in Cambridge, the computer room is named after him in honor of his achievements and that fact that he was a student there in 1931 and a Fellow in 1935.

In Manchester, where Turing spent much of his life, many tributes have been in his honor. In 1994, a stretch of the Manchester city intermediate ring road was named “Alan Turing Way” while a bridge carrying this road was widened and renamed the Alan Turing Bridge. In 2001, a statue of Turing was unveiled in Sackville Park, which commemorates his work towards the end of his life. The statue shows Turing sitting on a bench, strategically located between the University of Manchester and the Canal Street gay village.

The commemorative plaque reads ‘Founder of Computer Science’ as it would appear if encoded by an Enigma machine: ‘IEKYF ROMSI ADXUO KVKZC GUBJ’. Another statue of Turing was unveiled in Bletchley Park in 2007, made out of approximately half a million pieces slate and showing the young Turing studying an Enigma machine. A commemorative English Heritage blue plaque was also mounted outside the house where Turing grew up in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

In literature, Turing’s name and persona have made several appearances. The 1986 play, Breaking the Code, was about Turing’s life, went from London’s West End to Broadway and won three Tony Awards. The 1996, the BBC television network produced a series on his life, starring Derek Jacobi in the leading role. In 2010, actor/playwright Jade Esteban Estrada portrayed Turing in the solo musical, ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol. 4. And, my personal favorite, he was featured heavily in Neal Stephenson’s 1999 novel Cryptonomicon.

Rest in peace Alan Turning. Like many geniuses, you were ahead of your time and destroyed by the very people you helped to educate and protect. I hope Galileo, Socrates, Oppenheimer and Tupac are there to keep you company! You have a lot to discuss, I’m sure 😉

Cryptonomicon

Having covered Snow Crash and Diamond Age awhile back, I thought it was time to move on to the third installment in my Neal Stephenson series. Today, for consideration, the historic techno-thriller Cryptonomicon! This story took me close to a year to read, in part due to interruptions, but also because the book is pretty freaking dense! However, the read was not only enjoyable and informative, it was also pretty poignant. As a historian and a sci-fi buff, there was plenty there for me to enjoy and learn from. And for those who enjoy techno-thrillers and dissertations on mathematics, this book is also a page turner! Little wonder then why this novel was dubbed the “ultimate geek novel”.

The name is derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictitious book that has been referenced numerous times in western literature and pop culture. The name is indicative of the book’s main theme, cryptology, as well as the unofficial manual used by cryptologists during and after World War II. In addition to featuring fictionalized versions of real events, it is also chock-full of fictionalized personalities drawn from history. They include Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan, as well as some highly technical and detailed descriptions of modern cryptography and information security, with discussions of prime numbers, modular arithmetic, and Van Eck phreaking.

Unlike his other novels, Cryptonomicon was much more akin to historical fiction and techno-thriller than actual sci-fi, mainly because its narratives take place in the past and present day. However, this is a bit of an arbitrary designation. As most fans of science fiction know, a story need not take place in the future in order to explore the kinds of themes common to the genre. And really, all science fiction is actually about the time period in which it is written, and actively draws on the past to create a picture of the future. So putting aside the question of where it falls in the literary spectrum for now, allow me to delve into this bad boy and what was good about it!

Synopsis:
The story contains four intertwining plotlines, three of which are set in the Second World War, and a fourth which takes in the late 90’s. The first follows the exploits of a man named Bobby Shaftoe, a decorated Marine who has just survived the battle of Gaudacanal and is being transferred to the OSS’s counterintelligence division. The second follows Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematician and cryptologist working for the joint American and British cryptology unit 2702. This work involves breaking German codes and leads him to several interesting encounters with famous people. including Albert Einstein and Alan Turing. The third involves a Japanese man named Goto Dengo, an Imperial Army officer and a mining engineer who becomes involved in a a secret Axis project to bury looted gold in the Philippines. The fourth and final perspective which takes place in the 90’s centers on Randy Lawrence Waterhouse, an expert programmer working for an IT company (Epiphyte) that is been doing business in the Philippines.

As the story develops, we see Shaftoe become marooned in Finland where he meets up with some unlikely compatriots. The first is a Catholic priest and physician named Enoch Root, who is attached to 2702, while the second is a Kriegsmarine Captain named Günter Bischoff, who is the commanding officer of an experimental rocket-propelled U-Boat. We learn that an alliance has formed between these individuals, mainly because Bischoff, who became marooned in Finland with the rest of them, has learned that the Kriegsmarine has been given the task of smuggling gold to Japan in order to buy their continued cooperation in the war. He and the others decide to work together to get their hands on some, and soon find themselves back in the Philippines. Before the war, Shaftoe had a sweetheart there named Glory, who he has not seen since the Japanese invaded, and whom he is eager to get back to.

Meanwhile, Waterhouse is bounced around the globe in his efforts to break the Axis’ codes. First, he is sent to a fictional island in the English Channel known as Qwghlm (pronounced ???). On this island, the people wear incredibly thick wool sweaters and speak a language that is loosely related to Gaelic, and incredibly hard to understand. He is then sent off to Brisbane, Australia, to work on breaking the Japanese’s codes. While there, he finds a community of Qwghlmians, who he learns are serving as operators for the British. Whereas the US had their “Wind Talkers”, Navaho signal officers who used their native languages to confuse Japanese listeners, the British had Qwghlmians. Here, he falls in love with, and eventually marries, a young woman named Mary cCmndhd.

At the same time, Goto Dengo is nearly drowned when his troop ship is sunk in the South Pacific. He narrowly survives and drifts to an island where he is forced to survive amidst squalor, decay, and a group of Japanese soldiers who are pillaging and raping amongst the natives. In time, he is found by his fellow officers and is sent to the Philippines where he is put to work on the construction of a series of underground caverns. The purpose of these caves is to store the vast amounts of looted gold which is being shipped from Germany since the Germans are now losing the war and fear being overrun. After many years, the caves are completed and the Americans invade, during which time Dengo is reunited with Shaftoe. Having reenlisted with the Marines, Bobby was sent ahead to organize the resistance, and has learned that he has a son. After convincing Dengo to surrender and defect, he heads off for what turns out to be his final mission. Meanwhile, the sub carrying Gunter Bischoff and a hoarded supply of gold runs aground in the Philippines and the crew drown.

Fast forward to 1997, we come to meet Lawrence Waterhouse as he begins his work in the Philippines. Ostensibly, this involves selling Pinoy-grams to migrant Filipinos, a sort of fiber-optic communication system that allows migrants to speak with family instantaneously. However, he soon learns that his friend and CEO of Epiphyte, Avi Halaby, is interested in using this stream of capital to fund the building of a data haven in the nearby (and fictional) island of Kinakuta. At this point, his job description changes to surveying the laying of the underwater fiber optic cables that will run from the Philippines to Kinakuta, a job which leads him to enlists the help of a Vietnam veteran and mariner named Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe and his daughter, America “Amy” Shaftoe. These people, we quickly learn, are the son and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe. In addition, on the island of Kinakuta, the company that is contracted to build the underground facility that will house the haven is run by a Japanese man named Goto Furudenendu, who just happens to be the son of Goto Dengo.

Over time, there plans to create a haven free of repression and scrutiny comes under fire from various quarters. At this point, Amy and Doug begin to help Lawrence and his company find an alternative source of revenue – a hidden cache of gold rumored to be at the bottom of a Philippine harbor. They find the gold and have the money they need, but in the course of it, they also uncover the plot involving detachment 2702, the Japanese, the Nazis, and an unbreakable code named Arethusa. This discovery makes them more enemies, people who want the gold for themselves, or just revenge, and things start to get dicey! However, through this they also get to meet an aged Goto Dengo, CEO of the construction company and man who buried the gold. He agrees to show them where the cache is hidden so that it can be repatriated; and with his help, they find it, Randy and Amy get together, the haven is built, and just about everyone lives happily ever after!

Strengths:
From the description alone, I’m thinking people will assume that this story was dense, well-conceived and came together quite nicely. And they would be right!  One thing that is immediately clear about it is how well Stephenson weaves past and present together to create a grand narrative that is chock-full of suspense, intrigue and history. This last element is especially prevalent. I can’t tell you how many historical cameos made it into the novel. Through the character of Randy Waterhouse, Albert Einstein and Alan Turing make an appearance. Through his German counterpart, Rudy von Hacklheber, Hermann Goering makes several. Gunter Bischoff, though he never meets Karl Doenitz in the story, repeatedly references him since it he whom he is blackmailing and gets all his orders from! And through Bobby Shaftoe and Goto Dengo, Douglas MacArthur and Isoroku Yamamoto are also woven into the story.

In addition, the way he brings past and present together is done masterfully through his main characters, all of whom are apparently related. Lawrence Waterhouse is the son of Randy Waterhouse and Mary cCmndhd, Doug and Amy are the and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe respectively, and Furudenendu is the son of Goto. Hell, even Lawrence ex-girlfriend ends up shacking up with the son of a character in the story! In this way, the sense of connection between past and present is made more clear, as is the sense that destiny or some kind of long-term plan is being fulfilled. The evolution between cryptology and modern computing, how one grew out of the other, is also made abundantly clear.

Weaknesses:
As more than one critic observed, this book tends to appeal to the techno geeks in the crowd. In fact, that aspect of the novel can be quite oppressive at times. In several parts, the descriptions of mathematical concepts as they apply to various things (even the everyday), can go on and on and on. Two examples come to mind: the equation Randy comes up with to describe the rotation of a bicycle wheel, and the section where Lawrence and his peers are conducting some Van-Eck phreaking email surveillance. I mean really, page after page after page of inane detail! I got that the intent was to be comical in the sheer geekiness of it all, but for the non-geeky, the only way to survive these sections was to skip ahead or just keep reading and pray there was a point in there somewhere. Other than that, the sheer length of the book can feel somewhat stifling, which is why it took me a few months to finish it.

However, this book goes far beyond the mere technical. History buffs, fans of sci-fi and people who just plain like a good, complex and interwoven story will find something to enjoy here. Not only was it a good read, it previewed Stephenson’s ability to combine historical fiction and sci-fi, something he would reprise with the Baroque Cycle trilogy and the more recent Mongoliad, all of which I have yet to read! However, one thing at a time. I have yet to finish Anathem, and I’ve been eyeing Readme with keen interest lately…

Snow Crash!

Snow Crash!

You know how everyone has a set of favorite authors, people that they feel inspired them more than anyone else? Some people are lucky and have just one. Others, the “well-read” type, can name about ten, twenty or more! Me? I guess I’m lucky in that that list comes down to about five names. For me, that list includes George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Frank Herbert, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson.

Like many people I know, I enjoy Stephenson’s books because they are entertaining and interesting, but also because he inspires thought. Upon writing this, I’ve read Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and just started Anathema. And I can honestly say that each one is a timely creation, combining a cutting-edge knowledge of technology and computer science with a profound sense of history, politics, anthropology, and philosophy.

So, I thought it high time that I actually review one of his books, and what better place to start than with his first big hit, Snow Crash! Although it was his third book to date, released in 1992 and preceded by The Big U and Zodiac, it was arguably this book that established his reputation and put him on the radar of every fan of the post-cyberpunk genre.

Snow Crash:
The story takes place in Los Angeles during the early 21st century. The United States has effectively disintegrated, the vast majority of society now living in privatized areas known as “franchulates” (which are clearly meant to satirize gated communities) and the federal government maintaining islands of influence in between it all. Enter into this world Hiro Protagonist, a comically named freelance hacker/swordfighter, who lives in a storage closet and spends much of his free time in the virtual environment known as the Metaverse.

After an abortive delivery working for Uncle Enzo’s Pizza, he meets a young woman named Y.T. (short for Yours Truly) who works for a the “Kourier” delivery company. In this day, couriers get around by riding high-tech skateboards and “pooning” (i.e. harpooning) their way through traffic. After making Hiro’s delivery for him, she becomes a personal friend of Uncle Enzo himself, a friendship which proves lucrative as the story goes on. Since she also saved his butt, Hiro and her decide to become partners in the “intelligence business”, meaning they now work together to obtain and sell information through the CIC (Central Intelligence Company, the leftovers of the CIA).

Things begin to get interesting when Hiro becomes aware of a new pseudo-narcotic that is making the rounds in the Metaverse. It’s called Snow Crash, the use of which causes anyone’s system to crash and emit total static (hence the name). In the real world, a hard version of the drug is making the rounds which alters the minds of users and causes them to utter some kind of “glossolalia” – i.e. speaking in tongues – and become disconnected from reality. Upon investigating, Hiro and Y.T. learn that the drugs are being distributed by a chain of Pentecostal churches known as “Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates”, which is owned by software magnate L. Bob Rife.

Rife is currently at sea and in possession of the USS Enterprise, which has become part of a massive flotilla of ships that makes periodic crossings from Asia-Pacific to North America. Apparently, everyone on board is infected with this virus as well, the people speaking in strange, monosyllabic tongues whenever they are interviewed. After being encouraged to look into this by his Catholic and linguist ex-girlfriend, Juanita Marquez, Hiro begins to uncover that Rife is at the center of Snow Crash and what his plan is. Essentially, it relates back to the mythology of ancient Sumer when the myth of Babel took place (language becoming confounded and splintered).

According to Stephenson, Sumerian is to modern languages what binary is to programming languages. It affects the user at a far more basic level than acquired/programming language. Unlike modern language, Sumerian was rooted in the brain stem and its culture was ruled and controlled via “me”, the human equivalent of software which contains the rules and procedures for various cultural activity (harvesting grains, baking bread, making beer, etc.). The keepers of these important documents were priests referred to as “en”; some of them, like the god/semi-historical-figure Enki, could write new me, making them the equivalent of programmers or hackers.

In any case, the connection between past and present is demonstrated when Hiro learns how the ancient goddess Ashera created a dangerous biolinguistic virus that infected all peoples. This virus was stopped by Enki, another god, who used his skills as a “neurolinguistic hacker” to create an inoculating “nam-shub”, an anti-virus, that would protect humanity by destroying its ability to use and respond to the Sumerian tongue.

It was this creation, a modern take on the Babel myth, that created modern language as we know it today. However, Asherah’s meta-virus did not disappear entirely, as the “Cult of Asherah” continued to spread it by means of cult prostitutes who spread it through sex and the breast-feeding of orphaned infants. This is turn was countered by the ancient Hebrew priests, men who quashed the cult of Ashera and introduced sanitized, reproducible information with their written testaments.

Furthermore, Hiro learns that Rife has been sponsoring archaeological expeditions to the Sumerian city of Eridu, and has found enough information on the Sumerian tongue to reconstruct it and use it to work his will on humanity. He has also found the nam-shub of Enki, which he is protecting at all costs since it can counter the virus. After making their way to the Raft with the help of the Mafia, Hiro and Y.T. set about trying to find the Enki tablet so Hiro can upload its nam-shub to the Metaverse.

However, their efforts are frustrated somewhat by the presence of Raven, a massive Aleut freelancer who is in possession of his own thermonuclear weapon (which he acquired from a Russian sub and intends to use on America). He is helping Rife because of a score he wants to settle, being the child of people who endured exposure to two nuclear bombs (Hiroshima and nuclear testing in the Aleutians).

In the end, Hiro engages Raven in a virtual battle in the Metaverse while Y.T., Uncle Enzo and his men are forced to take down Bob Rife. Hiro manages to successfully upload the “nam-shub” of Enki, the world is saved, and Rife is brought down. There is also a brief side story of a budding romantic relationship between Y.T. and Raven, but that doesn’t work out in the end. She’s a young girl, he’s a homicidal, giant maniac… what can you do? Also, Hiro gets back together with Juanita and just about everyone lives happily ever after.

Strengths:
In a previous post, I believe I compared Gibson’s Virtual Light, the first book in the Bridge Trilogy, to this story, and for good reason. Both stories took place in an America where the country had become Balkanized, marked by privatization, major corporations and weird religious sects. The themes of hyperinflation, hard-living, overcrowding and urban sprawl were also consistent. And finally, the main characters – one a freelance agent and the other a delivery girl – were virtually identical.

However, when it comes right down to it, Stephenson’s take on the whole thing was better. His mix of satirical wit and social commentary was far more effective at critiquing the process whereby America is becoming increasingly privatized and polarized in terms of wealth and power. His fictional money, “Ed Meeses” and “Gippers” – the trillion and very rare quadrillion dollar note – were a nice very touch; and his use of “franchulates” in the story, a clear reference to gated communities, was nothing short of brilliant. His concept for the Metaverse, a virtual environment contained in cyberpace, and the spread of computer viruses also predicted several developments that would be taking place with the World Wide Web up to a decade later.

On top of all that, Stephenson managed to weave a great deal of history, philosophy and a fascinating take on neuro-linguistics into the story. Essentially, he demonstrated how human language and programming language are similar, when viewed in the right light – language is to the human brain what software is to the hardware. In addition, the story was replete with clever tidbits of history – WWII, the Vietnam War, nuclear testing, Biblical myths – and some rather hilarious twists and plot devices. “Reason”, a miniature Gatling gun used by the Mafia as a heavy-duty persuader, takes the cake for me (“I’m sure they’ll listen to Reason”)

Weaknesses:
However, it was also the mythological elements of this story which kind of brought it down in a way. While the allegorical similarities between programming language and spoken language was fascinating – as was the exploration of its biological and psychological aspects – one could not help but feel that the line between literal and figurative was being overstepped. In short, the idea was brilliant when considered from a metaphorical perspective – i.e. that the Babel myth might accord to some primordial event whereby language and human psychology became more complex.

However, the story is clearly presented in literal terms, the reader being told point blank that there really was an Tower of Babel-type event just a few thousand years ago that confounded our language, that made us what we are today and beforehand we were all slaves to social programming. Kind of seems a bit odd, but that’s Stephenson’s thing, using satire that is at once brilliant and at the same time a bit hokey. One can never tell where one ends and the other begins.

The only other weakness, and this is something Stephenson is a bit notorious for, is the ending. Stephenson himself laments that this is something he’s become known for, largely because he feels that its a jinx that’s haunted his subsequent work. Basically, he writes odd endings, ones that feel cut off and sudden. In Snow Crash, that is certainly the case. After a long chase scene, which ends when Rife’s helicopter is brought down by a dozen Kourier harpoons, Y.T. simply says goodbye to Raven (flips him the bird) and then calls her mom to tell her she’s coming home.

An additional chapter where Hiro gets to meet up with his friends in the Metaverse and reunites with Juanita would have been a good addition. Much was made of how his friends, hackers like him, were being specifically targeted by Snow Crash since they were the biggest threat to Rife’s plans. Given all that, it would have been nice to show how they all came through the crisis, not to mention a final romantic scene between Hiro and his ex. Similarly, it would have been nice to see Y.T. actually make it home, her give her usual reassurances to her worried mother (who works for the feds), and for her to see her romantically challenged boyfriend, maybe realize he was okay after all the time she spent with Raven. Just saying…

But overall, Snow Crash was an awesome read and a real tour de force for me. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, or is just intrigued by history, hacking, computer science, and gritty science fiction. It’s got it all, and some pretty cool departures for the philosophically inclined along the way!

Of Great Sci-Fi (and other non-affliated) Quotes:

alien-worldRecently, I’ve taken to posting quotes by the great science fiction authors on twitter. Most are from the authors I draw the most inspiration from, others are just from people I admire and who offered some wisdom along the way. Like a true nerd, I keep these things in a file on my computer, adding to it every time I find a new one or think up one myself. Might sound odd but I find it useful, it offers fresh inspiration and perspective whenever I’ve hit a wall or am not sure how a piece of writing is turning out. Today, I thought I’d share a few of the gems that have really inspired me over the years. To be fair, some of them are not science-fiction related, or even by authors; they’re just moments of brilliance captured in an utterance. Here are a few:

“We sit atop a sort of anthill of technologies. At the bottom there’s fire, and growing cereal grains, and learning to store cereal – all those things that people have to store edible energy and start building cities. Not that we’re the crown of creation; we are at the crown of technological creation at any given moment.”
-William Gibson during an interview after writing “Pattern Recognition”

“It’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information.”

“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…”

“When I began to write fiction that I knew would be published as science fiction, [and] part of what I brought to it was the critical knowledge that science fiction was always about the period in which it was written.”

“. . . the street finds its own uses for things.”
-Other tidbits from Gibson, who’s nothing if not prolific in his observations!

“The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”
-Neal Stephenson, “The Diamond Age”

“Ronald Reagan has a stack of three-by-five cards in his lap. He skids up a new one: “What advice do you, as the youngest American fighting man ever to win both the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, have for any young marines on their way to Guadalcanal?”
Shaftoe doesn’t have to think very long. The memories are still as fresh as last night’s eleventh nightmare: ten plucky Nips in Suicide Charge!
“Just kill the one with the sword first.”
“Ah,” Reagan says, raising his waxed and penciled eyebrows, and cocking his pompadour in Shaftoe’s direction. “Smarrrt–you target them because they’re the officers, right?”
“No, fuckhead!” Shaftoe yells. “You kill ’em because they’ve got fucking swords! You ever had anyone running at you waving a fucking sword?”
-Stephenson, “Cryptonomicon”. One of the funniest written passages I’ve ever read, and fitting because it puts Reagan in his proper, historically accurate place!

“I just think talk of suffering should be left to those who’ve actually suffered.”
-Jack (a First Nations former student I knew. As soon as he said it, I knew that I had just heard one of the smartest things ever said by anybody, anywhere, ever!)