A Big Book and a Little One. And some other stuff I’ve been thinking about.
My ex-husband had this theory that women like big books. Big, long, bang-for-buck books. Don’t read anything in here, he really was talking about books. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
So I don’t know whether he was right or whether his entire statistical sample consisted of me, no others, no control groups, just this insane extrapolation derived from the single and singular experience of living with me, a woman for whom long books are not only not daunting – they are welcomed. And there has been a proliferation of long books in recent years starting, I think, with INFINITE JEST. Everyone bitched about how long it was, but I read the whole thing. Twice. And since then, a whole host of writers have brought out monster sized books for our edification and enjoyment. DeLillo, Pynchon, Wolfe. Everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon.
And now, Neal Stephenson and CRYPTONOMICON. At 900 pages it’s longer than DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD and Wolfe’s A MAN IN FULL, but not MASON AND DIXON or INFINITE JEST. The plot is relatively complicated (better be, at that length, huh?) and the interweaving of stories requires a certain amount of attention, plus you just get a lot more out of this book if you’re willing to expend the energy to read it carefully and absorb some of the information that Stephenson provides. CRYPTONOMICON is astonishingly smart and surprisingly funny. Sometimes cynical, sometimes absurd, occasionally silly, but never the easy joke and never, ever the stupid one.
Stephenson has a couple of issues that he can’t resist sermonizing about, and his real shortcoming as a writer seems to be that he can write characters that we like and want to pal around with but whose deaths we recover from remarkably quickly. In addition, Stephenson sees male/female relationships so much in terms of hormones or Men-Are-From-Mars, etcetera (about which one of his character says that once you’ve read the title you have no need to read the book itself), that his human relationships are all a bit distant. Those who have significant relationships are separated by miles; others are just kept at arm’s length by emotional short circuits.
But this isn’t really a complaint, just an observation. Stephenson has not set out to write a book about human emotions (except to the extent that he can’t really avoid it in the relatively complex plot that he’s created) but, rather, to write about world events and feats of human ingenuity, including creating (or breaking) unbreakable codes and ciphers in World War II and today, building meticulously planned engineering wonders, defeating Van Eck phreaking through clever use of Unix, or just throwing the enemy off the scent, whoever that enemy may be and whatever the scent may lead to. Stephenson cleverly provides us all the information we need to not quite be lost at any given point… and no more. Plot turns and resolutions are generally a surprise but they always make sense, and often we realize that we know why the action works because he has carefully set up the background – most often without giving us the final connector until it’s really ready for splicing in. This, and Stephenson’s smart and sharp sense of humor, make for a really, really enjoyable book that ties together myriad disparate elements – including computer programming, currency systems, subtle and less subtle digs at Wales and the Welsh, start up high tech companies, power point business plans, strategic litigation, and all kinds of mazes, mental and physical.
One of the plot lines exemplifies the maze – Imagine that you and two close friends had seriously discussed number theory and cryptanalysis during long days spent together as grad students. Now imagine that some years later, one of those friends is in Nazi Germany while you and the other friend are in the U.S. and England, respectively. And you are all in relatively high places with regard to your respective country’s codes and ciphers. How do you prevent your German friend from breaking your codes? He knows how you two think. Even more complicated – you’ve broken his codes but you can’t let him know. How do you use the information you’ve gleaned without tipping him off? The machinations this question produces provides one of the central stories of CRYPTONOMICON, and it’s a good one, especially because another of the handful of main characters of the book is an enlisted man who is part of the misinformation mission but does not in fact know what the purpose of his many assignments is. Thus, he is often set to tasks that seem nonsensical to him – and we, knowing the whys, see the humor in his predicament.
Stephenson is, I guess, pretty well known among cyber punk sci fi readers, and I’ve skimmed enough of SNOW CRASH to understand the William Gibson comparisons. But for me it’s not the creation of a new or different world that makes him so interesting, it’s the long and very hard look he gives to the existing one.
He gives the world this hard look in CRYPTONOMICON and he does so in a different way in the fairly short non-fiction book called IN THE BEGINNING… WAS THE COMMAND LINE. This one is short enough (especially in comparison to CRYPTONOMICON and uh this review) that he refers to it throughout as an essay. It’s not; essays don’t have chapters, but it is short enough to read in a couple of hours. As closely as he held my attention throughout CRYPTONOMICON, he absolutely gripped me in IN THE BEGINNING… It pretends to be a look at operating systems, comparing specifically MacOS, BeOS, Windows and Linux, in what appears to be a fairly balanced approach (but what do I know about this stuff?). The surprising thing is that without much visible effort he got me all fired up to learn more.
And I think that the reason for my reaction is that Stephenson sees the relative success of the four systems as indicative of something deeper – which may simply be American purchasing trends, or which may be a transition from a word based society to an image based one. And while the image, the icon, the “button” that we “click on” is not in and of itself a bad thing (after all, there is no reason for everyone to remember a lot of complicated information that they’ll either waste a lot of time typing over and over, in the case of the frequently used buttons, or, in the case of rarely used ones, to remember long strings of complicated and unfamiliar information), what IS important is that we don’t mistake the icon for the reality. The semiotician Umberto Eco makes much the same argument in the title essay of his book TRAVELS IN HYPERREALITY, albeit without reference to computers.
It’s important to remember that the button is only as good as the code behind it. And it’s important to maintain some facility with the word, the command line, or else risk the ultimate breakdown of communication with societies and persons who are still word-based, such as, he says writing in 1999, Muslim nations in the middle east who see our images, our metaphors and take them literally or at face value.
And it’s important to remember the dangers inherent when the metaphor is a bad one (he particularly dislikes the term “Information Superhighway”).
And it’s important that we not forget that the image is metaphor, useful only for streamlining or abbreviating a complicated message and, instead, start to take the metaphor as the entirety. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this sort of thing in THE TIPPING POINT, in which he talks about (among other things) the spreading of rumor – first the message is smoothed and simplified so that it fits in with a pre-existing world view (see also “Lynching in Huejutla” in TRUE TALES FROM ANOTHER MEXICO by Sam Quinones or, e.g., see what I am doing here, smoothing away differences that aren’t meaningful to my discussion, and focusing on that which is so as to draw together the variety of examples that all seem to me to point in the same direction).
The ability to speak both languages – word and image – also resonates within the linguistic debate as between Standard English and other forms, such as Ebonics, about which David Foster Wallace wrote so convincingly in this past June’s Harper’s Magazine. He makes a credible case that one must be proficient in both in order to be truly successful and I think Stephenson would agree.
So Stephenson has cleverly tricked me into seeing the relationship and importance of computer operating systems to the real world, today’s world, my world. A world at war, in a war that may be between two ways of seeing the world – one being Do What You Wish So Long as You Don’t Hurt Others and the other You Doing What You Wish Hurts Me In Ways You Don’t See. Is that what this war is about?
And, too, is there another alternative? What happened to all that thinking “outside the box” that got so much press in recent years? Is it simply more rhetoric?
Are we all so indoctrinated by the icon that we can no longer type a command line? I have been concerned for some time about the end of the political discourse, watching it devolve over time until it has become nothing better than two people shouting sound bytes at one another, and doubtless Stephenson resonates in me because of this. I have occasionally held out some hope for internet message boards as a means of training our new thinkers to express themselves in the written word, but even there the pithy statement gets more attention than the essay. So I return to my damned, thick, square books.
Scribble, scribble, scribble.
~ ~ ~ All meetings end in separation All acquisition ends in dispersion All life ends in death - The Buddha