starlady: (but it does move)
Something everybody loves that you don't (or that you love that nobody else seems to) for [personal profile] the_rck 

I am a day behind--whoops! 

I think the answer I am going to give, to the positive permutation of the question, is the books of Neal Stephenson. I am immediately going to put in the caveat that I've "only" read The Baroque Trilogy (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) and Anathem, but when you think about the length of a typical Stephenson novel--and the sad fact that most people don't seem to make it all the way through the Baroque trilogy, sob!--that is still pretty respectable.

The line I most often hear about Stephenson is that he is bad at endings and women, and while I obviously can't speak to his earlier books, I think both books disprove that idea to some extent. The Baroque Trilogy has many awesome female characters, for example, starting with but by no means limited to Eliza, and The System of the World is both an excellent book with a conventional plot structure in its own right as well as one long ending to a thousand-page epic. And the female characters of Anathem at least play active parts, even if the actual protagonist is male.

But what I love about Stephenson most is that he's so smart and so funny. The number of times I laughed out lout while reading the Baroque Trilogy was in the dozens--he has a way with quips, particularly in the first and third books, that is hilarious, though the Star Trek joke in Anathem was hilarious too--and also just a bravura way with words that I think is really great. Some people have said to me that they find Stephenson's prose style boring. I also like Thomas Pynchon and China Miéville, and in the end there's no accounting for taste. And while Stephenson may not be a Virginia Woolf or a Joseph Conrad in terms of prose style, he does have a style, and moreover, he's astonishingly smart and astonishingly good at explaining very complicated ideas very clearly. The part in Quicksilver where they escape Blackbeard with calculus--let me say that again, they escape Blackbeard with calculus, oh excuse me Sir Isaac, I meant fluxions--is a case in point. Anathem, where the characters run around doing all kinds of complicated trigonometry and orbital mechanics with not much more in the way of tools than were available to Euclid, with the crucial exception of their prodigious scholastic tradition and the minds they use it with, is another excellent example.

Anathem is another example of the ways in which Stephenson isn't afraid to channel that intelligence towards speculation--informed speculation, but speculation nonetheless--about science and technology, though I'll say no more about Anathem because it's all major spoilers. [personal profile] spaiku said to me once that The Diamond Age is the only work from the cyberpunk age that got the way we live now right (and I think that's true if you take a mulligan on William Gibson, whose novels came true in pieces and who then stopped writing science fiction), so this isn't precisely a new trick, either.

Talking of The Diamond Age brings up the other reason people tend not to read Stephenson, namely the very questionable racial politics in some of his books. I called The Diamond Age "the masterpiece of techno-Orientalism" in my Ph.D. exam, which is a characterization I stand by, and I'd really rather just pretend the Mongoliad books or whatever the fuck they're called don't exist. In its dealings with the Ottomans Quicksilver in particular suffers from some of this, but in drawing on history and also research Stephenson is insulated from some of the more pernicious effects of unconscious attitudes. It's a shame that such a learned guy can't get past his own privilege or ignorance or whatever, and I certainly can understand why people would avoid Stephenson on this account. But at least these four books, and some of his others about which I've heard good things, are ones on which I want to play the "this author is problematic but I like them anyway" card. I actually heard him speak at my university once, and he struck me as actually quite humble, which might come as a surprise to some people. I would have liked to ask him a question about some of these points, but the Q&A moderation was terrible and so were the moderator's questions. Don't let physicists ask writers about novels, people. Just say no to that.

Anyway, I commend The Baroque Trilogy to anyone interested in the Scientific Revolution, 17thC Europe, or London; I walked around the city this summer with scenes from the books playing through my head like some kind of multimedia installation. And I commend Stephenson to your reconsideration, if you're so inclined.

Oh, if you want the answer to the other half of the question, because they just came up on a playlist: FUCKING MUMFORD AND SONS. ALL THEY DO IS GROAN MELODICALLY. SHUT UP MUMFORD AND SONS. WHY
starlady: (but it does move)
Stephenson, Neal. Anathem. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

I absolutely loved this book. Let me also say, the fact that this book did not win the Hugo Award is all the proof that anyone - even the most dyed-in-the-wool old-school SF fan - needs to know that the Hugo Awards are completely and totally irrelevant (except when they aren't).

Having said all that, let me also make it clear that, as much as I love Stephenson, I am well aware that he is not without serious problems, some of which will be addressed later in this post. I have not yet read the techno-Orientalist fest that is The Diamond Age, and you couldn't pay me to touch The Mongoliad with a ten-foot pole. I really loved The Baroque Trilogy, though.

So, Anathem. The book follows about a year in the life of the young avout Erasmas, who is a Ten-Year member of an outpost of the order in his world that concentrates all its thinkers into one governed body consisting of people who take vows to emerge once a year, once every ten years, once every thousand years, or once ever millennium. Erasmas' tale begins in the year 3689 in which this Rule was re-established, but by the end of his tale, everything in his world, and also beyond it, has changed.

There's not much I can say specifically about this book outside of a spoiler cut, but let me say what I can. First of all, I am developing a theory that the very best science fiction makes you reconsider the world around you as you are reading it, and this is the first book in a while that I've read that does that (another one being Mira Grant's Feed, also a Hugo nominee). The intellectuals of Arbre live in convents away from the world and don't miss what they don't have, and their uncaring attitude towards the fluctuations of the Sæcular Power made me reconsider my own stance toward all of that. It's closer than one might think; indeed, I realized as I read that if someone offered me what we might term Cartas' Choice - the intellectual life away from the world, or a non-intellectual life within it - I would make that deal. I've already made that deal in some ways, and no, I don't regret it. And the fact that Arbre is so advanced, in some respects, technologically and intellectually, must be attributable to the fact that its intellectuals are free to spend all their time thinking. And because the book does reflect our world in those respects, it does make you think really hard not only about the relations between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, but also about certain uncomfortable technological truths, such as the fact that digital formats decay but vellum and parchment and papyrus last for millennia, and also for the fact that with the LHC and similar devices we are actually coming up against the hard limits of what we can actually prove with devices. Barring a paradigm-altering advance in propulsion technology (i.e. FTL travel), we will eventually find ourselves up on crags like the Thousander avout, waiting for a very slow series of data to come back to us via telescopes.

I realized, as I got to the end of the book, that part of the point of all the philosophical dialogues was to teach readers how to understand the plot developments and eventual denouement, and Stephenson, as usual, does a masterful job - I've never read anyone who's better at explaining complicated scientific, theoretical, and philosophical ideas. In particular, this book depends on some fairly advanced quantum mechanics, including the idea of the multiverse (or as they say in this book, the polycosm), and…it's brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. The other thing is that as far as I can tell, none of the quantum mechanics and philosophy in Stevenson's concepts are wrong, even if most of them are derived from untested theories. SF and the life of the mind (spoilers) )

Critiques )

Nobody can quite get over Star Trek )

I suspect I have made it sound as if the plot is somewhat secondary, but one of the marvels of this novel is how primary its plot is, and how much the plot advances by ideas being worked out and worked on. I also marvel consistently at Stephenson's ability to introduce seemingly innocuous throwaway details that then turn out to be central to the plot. It's The Name of the Rose crossed with Gene Wolfe, in some ways, and it's amazing.

I was going to end it here, and then I started reading the Acknowledgements (which have book-ruining spoilers, so don't read them if you haven't finished the book), and then I realized that I wanted to talk about some of the actual ideas of the book, too.

In the first place, the idea that the human brain uses quantum effects to do some of what it does - Stephenson remarks that "this has been so controversial that I have found it impossible to have a dispassionate conversation about it with any learned person" - I don't actually find all that terribly controversial, or at least, not implausible as a theory. What makes me suspicious of the idea is that it seems to give humans and our brains a very significant edge over every other species in a way that seems very anthropocentric. Still, in the absence of further evidence, it does make for an interesting idea.

The convergence between mathematics, physics, logic, and philosophy that began in the 20thC is exciting to me as someone who is interested in ideas and in understanding what we know about the world, but also means that I am beyond the core competencies of my education thus far and must rely on the work of others to explain a lot of the things that Stephenson mentions in his acknowledgments. Let me just say that I find the idea of computational metaphysics to be highly intriguing, and that I don't actually have any objection to the mathematical Platonism espoused in the novel. The problem with Platonism is when it tries to go beyond maths and geometry, in my opinion; for more on this, see The Republic, which for my money is still one of the most terrifying dystopias ever described in writing.

That said, however, I do want to lodge one final objection against the stark depiction of the Procians vs. Halikaarnian split, aka the Rhetors and the Incanters, aka the Continental and the British schools of 20thC philosophy. That the Procians are the social scientists of their world is tipped off by Raz's description of the two groups to Cord thus: "One sort of glib explanation I heard once was that Rhetors could change the past, and were glad to do it, but Incanters could change the future--and were reluctant" (103). The Procians come off very badly throughout the narrative in a way that doesn't entirely surprise me. But. We do have our uses, even though in this world I'd probably be up with Orolo at the starhenge doing cosmography too.
starlady: (but it does move)
I saw "Coraline" with [ profile] sparowhawk  today (after many restaurant misadventures, we wound up at a really tasty Thai place. score! south jersey is not the culinary wasteland one might think from my rants, I admit). It's been rather a while since I read the book, though I do remember the book being creepier (and I think Wybie is an invention?), but I thought it was an excellent movie that doesn't condescend to children or to adults. And it certainly is creepy. The 3D was very cool (and not hugely obnoxious) too, and the stop-motion animation was excellent. Though I would gladly fling the glasses in the face of whomever thought another freaking "Ice Age" movie was a good idea. Schlock I say, schlock. (Item: it would be cool to write a story about a town where people spoke only in Shakespeare quotations.)

I also finished, at long last, Neal Stephenson's The System of the World, the final volume of his Baroque Cycle, the other day. I suspect that if I had read Cryptonomicon beforehand I would get some of the jokes about the future descendants of Waterhouse and the Shaftoes, and I have horrible suspicions about the Leibniz/Waterhouse logic mill, but I particularly enjoyed Eliza's pontificating on the nature of investing in intellecutal endeavors (yeah copyleft!), and the poignant touches in the end, particularly in the Newton/Leibniz philosophick showdown. Princess Caroline's nightmare has stuck with me too, and I wonder whether Stevenson would say that we are living in the era in which the System is breaking down, and if his book Anathem is set in the aftermath of its collapse. It's certainly dispiriting, in a way, that so many citizens of our time, at least in America, are unable to reconcile religion and Natural Philosphy as the founders of the latter did so passionately. Perhaps that's the flaw in the System that Caroline feared.

At any rate, I have quite a few more damned, thick, square books to get through before I'll be at leisure to tackle Stephenson's other tomes, but I can't recommend him highly enough.
starlady: (impending)
I finally finished reading Neal Stephenson's The Confusion last night. I left it unfinished @ M's in July because it was too heavy to bring back to Japan (this was the right decision), and then I read the last bit really slowly because I didn't want it to be over. Aside from it being one of the best novels I've ever read, full stop, Stephenson gets major points for finding a completely plausible way to turn parts of it into a spaghetti western, a sort of pirates-and-samurai slice-fest. Oh, it's awesome. If one thing's for certain, it's that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

On that note, I was somewhat disturbed to read this post on Steve Coll's blog about the history of the Great Depression (the economic situation that dares not speak it name--depression in small letters, that is), particularly the eyebrow-raising line "First, the neat distinction between liquidity and solvency had become meaningless." History repeating? That's still one of my favorite songs ever, by the way.

I'm obsessed with Not only is the guy a) brilliant and b) the guy who revolutionized baseball with math, he's also daring to say what for some reason the mainstream media (with the notable exception of The New Republic) can't or won't. How's that for an original maverick?

starlady: Raven on a MacBook (Default)
Apparently it's some sort of holiday in the States. For me, today will be spent trying not to sweat to death, as usual. It does seem fitting, though, that I finished Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver in an apartment without air conditioning about a year after I started it, in an apartment without air conditioning. Not that the book was actually that long, but I wanted to stretch it out because it was so good. And my apartment has air conditioning, but I don't use it.

Anyway, Quicksilver. It struck me as I was going to bed that this is arguably another fantasy besides Pullman's His Dark Materials whose heroes are scientists and philosophers rather than monarchs and knights. Quicksilver is definitely a fantasy of the Enlightenment, but I think people could possibly argue with calling it "fantasy", the only really fantastical element is Enoch Root, who is apparently immortal. I know a lot of people call Stephenson "steampunk", and I guess I could buy that, though of course it's set way before the steam age. Seriously, though, no matter genre quibbles, it's an amazing book--wildly intelligent, hilarious, addictive, with brilliant insights on just about every other page.

Postscript: Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others were freed the other day in Colombia, finally. Which is wonderful, but it really irritates me the the Times persists in referring to her interrupted presidential campaign as "quixotic." Screw you! Would you call it quixotic if she were a man? I really don't think so.

Second postscript: The Economist gets major points for referring to Kasumigaseki as "Tokyo's bureaucratic ghetto." So true. But maybe the answer to the taxi problem is tp let the bureaucratic hacks go home before the Diet session ends? Maybe? Just maybe? 


starlady: Raven on a MacBook (Default)

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