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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, October 22, 2007

top of the reading-stack

Hello friends. What can I tell you in the dark of a Monday morning in October, with rain pouring heavily outside for the nth consecutive day?

Kimmie is still on vacation, and now very much enjoying the new (used, actually) PC set up in her "office" (sewing-room/mad-scientist's laboratory of creative projects). I finally got all those machines set up, networked, and functioning. Now I'm pleased with the result.

On my current reading-pile is Neal Stephenson's 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. I decided to get it after reading a feature article in the MIT Technology Review about the present and future of Web-based virtual reality, as embodied right now in Second Life and Google Earth. (The article, speculating about what a convergence of these systems might look like, was called "Second Earth".) In Second Life (which I've never explored), you, represented by an animated "avatar", enter a virtual world built mainly by your fellow visitors. There you poke around, do stuff, and interact. In the article, a couple of key programmers associated with this networked virtual-reality world said that they had been inspired by Snow Crash. Since the novel has had such an impact on people so influential on where our society is going, it is, as far as I'm concerned, socially significant, so I thought I'd read it.

I'm on page 198 of 468, reading two short chapters a day. It's holding my attention, which is more than most novels can do.

It takes place in a near future that includes, among many other things, a virtual Metaverse like our own current Second Life, although more potent in that people occupy it via VR goggles that immerse them in the experience, rather than merely watching it on a computer monitor. The main character, Hiro Protagonist, is a hacker and adept of the Metaverse. The book's title refers to a new drug whose effects seems to straddle both worlds: it fries your mind even as it fries your computer. (The term itself is apparently hacker slang for a computer crash so profound that it makes your monitor generate random noise or "snow".)

I remember my first exposure to Neal Stephenson. It was in a small bookstore in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 2002. I was still temporarily ordained as a Buddhist monk at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, and had traveled to Sackville with Ani Tsomo, a young Irish nun, to attend four weeks of Ponlop Rinpoche's Nitartha Institute, an intensive (and excellent) program in Buddhist philosophy held at Mount Allison University. Tsomo and I, in our robes, were browsing some local shops in our free time. We made our way quietly and separately past the shelves, the only shoppers moving over the worn linoleum tiles of the store. On a rotating book-rack I found a massive (1130 pages, plus an appendix!) paperback with the daunting title Cryptonomicon.

What's this? I wondered. Science fiction?

The blurb on the back advertised it as "three novels in one", including World War II adventure, cryptography, and high-tech finance. Intrigued, I opened it up. A few pages of enthusiastic notices, couple of pages of acknowledgments, a couple of epigraphs from Alan Turing and The New York Times, then, on page 1, the opener of a prologue:

Two tires fly. Two wail.
A bamboo grove, all chopped down
From it, warring songs.

...is the best that Corporal Bobby Shaftoe can do on short notice--he's standing on the running board, gripping his Springfield with one hand and the rearview mirror with the other, so counting the syllables on his fingers is out of the question.

Ah! A soldier-haiku-writer riding a vehicle of some kind at high speed! I was impressed with how original and vivid this was--and how it was not talking down to me. But I felt a clench of worry too, for it reminded me strongly of reading Thomas Pynchon, especially his most famous work, also set in World War II, Gravity's Rainbow. As I read on through the paragraph, the feeling grew. Here was a super-talented writer writing more or less in the style (incredibly, impossibly!) of Thomas Pynchon.

As a young writer I was a huge fan of Thomas Pynchon, and also tried to write in his inimitable style. It was a bust. One needs to find one's own style (no easy task). I'm less of a fan now, not so easily impressed by riffing. I thought I recognized in Stephenson a kindred spirit (he was born in 1959, just a few months after me), someone who had been thrilled and electrified, as I had been, by Pynchon, but who had had the energy and stamina to actually produce a long work (much longer than Gravity's Rainbow) in that profligate, inventive, and knowing style. If the rest of the book held up at that pace, it should be at least fun to read.

I returned it to the rack. I was too afraid of being dished up secondhand Pynchon, but more than that I already had more reading than I could handle with the Nitartha Institute. And once I had returned to the Abbey, "samsaric" reading was something that would be limited only to Saturdays, our day off. I gave it a pass.

But later, when I'd returned home to Vancouver, on one of my near-despairing traipses through a bookstore's fiction section, I gave the book another look, and realized that, whatever flaws I might think it had, it nonetheless was head and shoulders--possibly more--above anything else in the store inventiveness, intelligence, and refusal to patronize the reader. If anyone there deserved a chance, this guy did. So I bought the book (you're welcome, Neal--45 cents of your kids' education came from me).

I think that was November 2004 (unlike nonfiction books, novels I don't sign and date--usually I'm too disappointed in them to keep them, and wind up sending them to a used-book store, where they're worth more unblemished). Well, I read the whole thing. That's saying something, since not only is the book long, but I just don't finish books all that much, especially novels, which usually become stale and uninteresting (to me) long before they end. I wasn't thrilled with Cryptonomicon, but he kept me interested enough to keep reading. Stephenson really is able to dish up surprises, and situations that are lifelike in their tragicomic complexity. Quite consistently he is able to evoke a sense of richness in his world--that quality I yearn for and look for in writing. And even if he doesn't always completely succeed in what he sets out to do (which always seems to be more or less hugely ambitious), he does not talk down to his reader. For that he has this reader's gratitude.

So Snow Crash seemed like a low-risk buy to me (and another 45 cents to Neal). And so far I am indeed, mostly, enjoying it. He has a gift for jarring, outrageous, and hilarious similes and metaphors, in that way faring tolerably well against writers like Pynchon or Tom Robbins. It's a whole hell of a lot better than the flat, stale, unimaginative, often semi-literate prose of most published fiction.

How about a sampler. Here is chapter 1, paragraph 1 of Snow Crash:

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 arachno-fiber 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.

If being a fiction-writer means being able to evoke a world forcefully in the mind of a reader, Stephenson is one, certainly for this reader. He's earned his 90 cents.

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