BooksOfTheMoon

Some Remarks

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

Neal Stephenson is mostly known for writing big books, so the idea of a set of essays (with a couple of short stories thrown in for good measure) was attractive. To be honest, it’s a mixed bag. I really found myself floundering in Metaphysics in the Royal Society which (I think!) was about Newton and Leibniz and their differing philosophies.

On the other hand, the longest piece in the book, the Wired article Mother Earth, Mother Board is excellent, compelling and well worth the read. That is about the laying of what was, at the time, the longest undersea cable in the world, a project called Fibreoptic Link Around the Globe (FLAG), as well as delving into the history of undersea cables in general (something which it turns out that Glasgow’s very own Lord Kelvin had a fairly major role in).

A couple of the other pieces rail against a perceived stalling of progress and the corporate timidity that now means that we no longer take the sort of risks needed to, as Stephenson says, delve into the valley past our local maxima to climb new heights. Personally, this is something I wholly agree with him about.

And I certainly have to thank his article Innovation Starvation for bringing ISBN: 9781848878549
Publisher: Atlantic
Year of publication: 1994

Cobweb

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this political thriller, set just before the onset of the first Gulf War. It draws two very different threads, eventually weaving them into a single whole, although I’m not entirely sure how successfully. The first thread involves deputy sheriff Clyde Banks, his campaign to be elected sheriff and the discovery of a dead foreign student at the bottom of a local lake. The second involves Betsy Vandeventer, a lowish ranking CIA agent, who writes a report that ruffles some feathers and makes enemies in all the wrong places.

Of the two strands, I much preferred Clyde’s story. His small town charm and solid mind, behind a dumb fa├žade make him a pleasure to read. And the fact that he spends so much time carrying his infant daughter around in his car (whether on- or off-duty) just adds to the charm.

The CIA politicking in Washington left me a bit cold. I still don’t know if I entirely understand it, especially the set-up with Betsy’s social circle. I appreciate that it could have been deliberately worked to make the small town sheriff come out better than the conniving federal agents (whether they be FBI, CIA or any other TLA) and, if so, it worked on me.

I don’t usually read present-day fiction, so it was somewhat odd seeing real people popping up in the book; both Tariq Aziz (the Iraqi foreign minister) and President George (H. W.) Bush turn up, in extended cameos. The closest thing that the book has to a villain is James Millikan. A top diplomat, who just wants things to stay under his control so that he can get on with having lunch in expensive restaurants with his friends (such as the aforementioned Mr Aziz). When Betsy’s report suggests that the Iraqis may be up to something funny, Millikan immediately stomps on it, and ‘cobwebs’ the whole thing, which basically seems to involve wrapping everybody remotely involved in so many layers of bureaucracy that nothing could possibly get done.

And that’s depressingly plausible. Despite the copious humour running through the book, the idea that very clever people are doing their best to stop others doing what’s in the best interest of the country strikes me as wholly believable and wholly depressing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099478850
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1996

Snow Crash

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

Hiro Protagonist, last of the freelance hackers and self-styled greatest sword fighter in the world, helped to create the Metaverse, a virtual reality that is ubiquitous in Stephenson’s world, and now he’s facing something that’s never been seen in the Metaverse before: a virtual drug that scrambles the brains of the user back in Reality. He teams up with teenage Kourier Y.T. and along the way discovers a conspiracy that goes back to ancient times.

This was an odd book. I’m still not entirely sure if I liked it or not. It had a fabulous opening chapter with Hiro getting ‘sacked’ from his pizza delivery job but overall it felt very disjointed. The characters were interesting and often fun, but exposition was delivered with a trowel, often in seemingly inappropriate points. Also, the ultra-capitalistic world that Hiro and Y.T. live in bugged me, although I’m not sure why; it was well-realised and sort-of believable but it still oddly stopped me from suspending my disbelief in a way that the opposite, such as Iain Banks’ Culture, wouldn’t.

I think this probably needs to be re-read to get the most out of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553380958
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year of publication: 1992

Cryptonomicon

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

This is a geek’s book. Obviously written by a geek for geeks, it took me a while to decide whether I liked it or not. It’s a very rambling book and in the end, I decided that it was worth it for the journey, not the destination. Split into two time periods, it follows the work of cryptographers during WW2 and then a bunch of hackers trying to set up a data haven in south east Asia in the present day.

The book goes so far as to include snippets of Perl code, lots of equations and graphs (including some devoted to describing the relationship between the amount of work that one of the protagonists can do related to the last time he had an orgasm) and an appendix written by Bruce Schneier containing a real cryptographic algorithm that is used in the book. Oh, and there’s liberal sprinklings and explanations of Unix commands used by some of the present day geeks (who use a Unix variant called “Finux”, guess what that’s a reference to). Think of it as the antidote to that silly Dan Brown book allegedly about cryptography.

As I say, the book rambled an awful lot, and by the time it got to its destination I had pretty much forgotten why I was going there. It was enough to just enjoy the scenery en route.

Book details

ISBN: 9780434008834
Publisher: William Heinemann
Year of publication: 1999

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