Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review: The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite sci-fi writers and I’m disappointed that with all the funny, rich, and prescient books he has written, I only get to write about one of them here.

I was introduced to Stephenson by a co-worker who suggested that I start with this book rather than the somewhat more famous Snow Crash. About ten pages in, I was hooked.

The opening chapter drops you bang into a new world on the outskirts of Shanghai fifty years or so in the future. You don’t understand any of the lingo or the technology or much of what is going on at first. But (as in Neuromancer, or A Clockwork Orange, or anything by Shakespeare) you learn quickly by immersion.

The society of The Diamond Age is technologically advanced but in many ways socially backward. Almost everybody belongs to a “phyle,” which is a sort of tribe or clan. Phyles are heavily class-segregated; the phyle you are in determines where you live, whether your neighborhood is polluted and crime-filled or not, how much education you receive as a child, and so on.

People who don’t belong to any phyle are called “thetes.” They live in a sort of demilitarized zone between phyle enclaves. They are outcasts who must survive by their wits and often by turning to lives of servitude or crime.

Some phyles have strength because of sheer numbers or sheer ruthlessness. Others have strength because they possess skills that others are willing to pay for. The richest and most powerful of these is the New Atlantis phyle, which is home to nearly all the “artifexes” (designers & programmers) of the nanotechnology that the world depends on. New Atlantis enclaves are on artificially extruded hills high above the poorer sea-level phyles, where the air is cleaner and their houses are easier to defend.

New Atlantans have adopted the lifestyle and mores of late-19th century Victorians – deeply repressed emotions; convoluted social etiquette; sweeping skirts and parasols for women; snuffboxes and waistcoats for men. But all of these affectations are supported by, and in some cases overtly combined with, the incredibly advanced nanotechnology that pervades everything.

Nanosites are responsible for purifying water and air and for performing most medicine. Neighborhoods are protected by grids of hovering nano-pods that can either be passive information-gatherers or defensive weapons. And the coolest thing (I thought at the time I read it) is that newspapers and books are no longer made of paper and print; they are now made of nano-paper, thin layers of nanosites sandwiched between mediatronic screens that can display a universe full of multimedia presentations at the request of the reader. (And to think it only took Apple 15 years after this book came out to come up with the iPad.)

To try to sum up the plot quickly (a tremendous injustice):

Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkel-McGraw, a powerful man in New Atlantis, sees that the crushing overprotectivity of his clan is causing their children to grow up without either creativity or common sense, and that this will eventually lead to their downfall. He hires a brilliant artifex, John Percival Hackworth, to build an intelligent, interactive book, a book he calls the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, for his granddaughter. The book will supplement and subvert the Victorian educational system; it is designed to teach a child to think creatively and to solve real problems, instead of the theoretical ones presented in schools.

Finkel-McGraw contracts with Hackworth to build one book, under top secret conditions, and makes him swear to destroy the compiled code so no one can ever build another one.

Hackworth builds the book but does not, however, destroy the code. He sneaks it out of his laboratory and takes it to a seedy neighborhood in Shanghai where he pays Dr. X, an off-network power broker with a matter compiler, to compile a second copy for his own daughter.

From here on in, of course, the gig is up. Not only does Dr. X immediately start trying to decrypt the compiler code so he can build his own copies of the book, but also, on his way back to New Atlantis, Hackworth is mugged by a gang of thete youths who rob him of everything he has, including the book. One of the thetes takes the book home and gives it as a present to his four-year-old sister, Nell.

Nell and her brother live in poverty, holed up in an apartment with a mother who entertains a steady stream of boyfriends, many of whom are abusive. They get most of their food from the free public matter compilers. Nell’s brother has steadily worsening asthma from the pollution in their neighborhood. Neither Nell nor her brother goes to school. But Nell immediately takes to the book, and the book, as it was programmed to do, bonds with her. It builds its lessons around her real life, including teaching her weaponry and self-defense. Eventually, following the arrival of a particularly violent boyfriend and with the help and advice of the book, Nell and her brother run away.

Tension builds as Nell spends the next few years evading capture by various people who want her book. Dr. X starts creating hundreds of thousands of copies of the Primer to give to orphans in China. Several phyles with terrorist bents, including one particularly scary one called the Fists of Righteous Harmony, grow stronger and begin to endanger the safety of the formerly protected ones. Eventually it starts to look like Nell, with her book-raised intelligence, pragmatism, and reluctant leadership skills, will be the one the world will depend on to take it in a new and better direction.

The style and content of The Diamond Age make you think right away of Neuromancer. While I liked Neuromancer okay, I never found myself laughing out loud while reading it like I do with Stephenson’s books. He’s got a sarcasm to him that is really funny.

Also, there’s something about the characters and the environment here that is more appealing to me. Some people have called Stephenson’s writing “post-cyberpunk,” to differentiate it from Gibson, the main idea being that in Gibson's original cyberpunk fiction the heroes are criminals bridling against a repressive dystopia, while the heroine in this one is definitely not a criminal and the world is not under any one omnipotent entity’s control.

The technology in The Diamond Age is just futuristic enough to be cool and amazing, but it is also described realistically enough that it seems like it could conceivably be developed by humans without aid of magic. It isn’t jarringly juvenile and is clearly thought up by somebody who knows about computers. It is also a great combination of old and new; for example, the New Atlantans want to ride around on horses like real Victorians, but they demand robotic horses that can take them at car-like speeds and do their own navigation.

Also, the Primer itself, as a storybook within a story, was brilliant. One of the best fairy tales Nell reads in her Primer takes place in the Dukedom of Turing, which is populated by robotic knights who throw her character into a dungeon. She has to figure out how to escape and then how to gain mastery over all of the robot knights, and along the way you (and she) see that the fable is teaching her the basics of computers and binary numbering systems and how to debug and reprogram code to do what you want it to do. It is awesome.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Paleolithic Diet

Periodically I hear talk about a cure-all eating regime called the “Paleolithic diet.” The idea behind it is that our bodies are adapted best for the diets we ate 30,000 years ago, as opposed to all the processed foods and refined sugars we’re eating now. I like the basic idea, but none of the descriptions I have heard felt truly Paleolithic to me.

After consulting with some anthropologists of my acquaintance, I have come up with what I believe is the true Paleolithic diet, which I present here.

Simply choose one of the following five menus:

No refrigeration is allowed, but you may smoke, dry, salt-cure, or ferment foods to preserve them. Eat meats in bottom section only once every four weeks. When you are in a meat-eating week, eat every edible part of the animal and consume the equivalent of one-quarter to one-half deer within the first three days.

Coming soon: menus for Ngandong & Monte Verde.

Friday, July 15, 2011

It Has All Been Foreseen

Could the current debt ceiling standoff herald a key turning point in American history? Check out this scenario laid out in 1997 by Generations authors William Strauss and Neil Howe:

An impasse over the federal budget reaches a stalemate. The president and Congress both refuse to back down, triggering a near-total government shutdown. The president declares emergency powers. Congress rescinds his authority. Dollar and bond prices plummet. The president threatens to stop Social Security checks. Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Default looms. Wall Street panics.

—Strauss and Howe,  The Fourth Turning
p. 273
Strauss and Howe argue that American history repeats itself on a four-generation cycle, and since the early 1990s they’ve been warning us to expect an historic turning point right around now. They predict a cataclysm on the scale of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression / World War II. They call it the “Fourth Turning.” Depending on who wins the conflict, this crisis and its aftermath will define the course of American history for the next four generations.

Thanks go to Cthulhu, Destroyer of Worlds for staying on top of this.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Book Review: Black Cherry Blues

James Lee Burke
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

This book was well-paced and suspenseful. The core plot was good. It wasn’t cheap or sloppy or half-heartedly put together. Otherwise, however, it was pretty much a disappointment.

The descriptions of Louisiana and Montana landscapes, cuisine, and people seemed self-conscious and smug. So did the main character’s running and weightlifting. Conversations were full of phrases that I think were supposed to be clever but just came out as strange. The treatment of race was weird. And the hero had a streak of violence in him that seriously undercut his indignation about the behavior of others.

The story is about a former cop, Dave Robicheaux, who lives on the Louisiana coast making a modest living running a bait shop and fishing-boat rental business. His inner circle consists of two people who help him out around the shop and his house, and an adopted daughter, Alafair, from El Salvador. He is haunted by dreams of both Vietnam and his dead wife, who was killed by gangsters getting revenge on him for some past escapade.

Aside from the dreams, all is basically well with Robicheaux’s life until he bumps into an old friend: a drug-addicted, down-on-his-luck former rock-and-roll star now working as a leaseman for an oil company. His friend asks him to investigate a conversation that he overheard between two co-workers talking about how they killed a couple guys up in Montana. Before he knows it, Robicheaux is sucked up into a web of danger and intrigue involving mobsters, hired hit men, hot-blooded Salish Indian women, and, of course, winsome elementary school principals who have such incredible generosity they don’t mind that he keeps dumping his kid on them when he needs to go beat up a guy or confront a mobster or otherwise put himself in a life-threatening situation.

In the course of his investigation, Robicheaux has to travel from Louisiana to Montana, giving the author plenty of opportunity to show his intimate knowledge of both (Burke lives in Louisiana and spends a lot of vacation time in Montana). Sometimes an author will bring you into a country with them, sharing it with you, making you feel like you understand it too (as in The Healer’s War, Dance Hall of the Dead, or The Lingala Code). But Burke’s descriptions came off as braggadocio – or as inside jokes I wasn’t privy to. Also, although his writing about scenery is quite detailed, I found it strangely hard to picture.

I had a bit of a hard time with how Burke portrays black people in the book. Robicheaux is white. About the black man and woman who work for him (whose poor grammar he is constantly making fun of), he says: “I was always amazed by the illusion of white supremacy in southern society, since more often than not our homes were dominated and run by people of color.” I think this is supposed to come across as a compliment, or perhaps wryly funny, but, since he shows no real understanding of what his employees are like as people, it comes across as a tad patronizing. When push comes to shove, who’s really in charge of that bait shop? This is also the only time in the book he calls them anything but “Negro.” I might be a prude, but I’m not sure that “Negro” is the absolutely best term for 1989.

Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic, but I found his recovery very glossy. It felt more like a gimmick than an integral part of his character. He goes through a dry drunk complete with fever and tremors one day and then the next day goes to get an ice cream cone with his daughter like nothing ever happened. He is also very smug about abstinence with his rock-and-roller friend, who still struggles with self-control every day. It is a pale shadow of Lawrence Block’s excellent Matt Scudder novels, another detective series with an alcoholic lead, which, fortunately, I’ll get a chance to rave about another time.

And, finally, Robicheaux is self-righteous and judgmental about the violence of the mobsters he’s investigating, but he himself has horrifyingly violent episodes. At one point, for example, he ambushes two goons who threatened the life of his daughter and spends probably fifteen minutes beating them within an inch of their lives with a five-foot length of chain. This doesn’t fit. If you’re going to be an anti-hero, you can’t go around on the one hand talking like you’re a saint and then on the other hand be eagerly and gratuitously bloody in your revenge. You need to take care of your problems with reluctant but necessary dispatch.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Roger, Wilco

I got no reading done this past weekend. I spent the entire time at the Solid Sound festival in North Adams, MA. This was my first music festival ever and I had a really, really, really, really, really good time. More creative neurons were firing in my brain than had been firing for a very long time.

More power to the members of Wilco for encouraging each other to express themselves independently in so many different ways. My personal highlights:
  • Being right up front for two Wilco concerts on two consecutive days
  • Neil Finn joining the band on stage for an awesome two-fer: Wilco's "I Got You" followed by Split Enz's "I Got You"
  • Vivian Maier photo exhibit curated by Pat Sansone
  • Picturesque de-industrialization-of-America venue at Mass MoCA
  • Falconry
  • Sweet potato fries at the Samosa Man
  • Art & music everywhere
The rain only made it more memorable. I'm only sorry that I missed the handmade music lounge.

Waiting for WILCO
Nels's Guitars
Nels Cline
Jeff Tweedy
Pat Sansone
John Stirratt
Cline-Sansone Guitar Battle
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