Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Read Me First

Yowza! Reading Neal Stephenson's latest opus, REAMDE, feels a little like getting sucked into the engine of a jet airplane. It's impossible to resist.

As is usually the case after I've finished reading one of his books, my head is still kind of spinning. I was debating whether to throw up my thoughts now, while the experience of reading is still fresh, or to wait a while, to give things a while to settle. I've decided to press ahead for now, but I reserve the right to post again in the future if it seems warranted.

Let's start off with that spinning head. In the last books that Stephenson has written, that head-spinning sensation is the result of volume; here, even though REAMDE is over a thousand pages in hardcover, the spinning is a result of velocity. I've tricked myself into thinking of a "typical" Neal Stephenson novel as one with a sprawling plot, a multitude of characters, incredibly broadly branching ideas and theories, and clever writing. REAMDE's plot is tremendously exciting, but it feels more linear and comprehensible than the plots of, say, The Diamond Age or The Baroque Cycle. For the most part, the plot is about A leading to B leading to C leading to D, unlike some other books where A, B, C, and D are all occurring more or less independently of one another, smashing into each other from time to time. If I were to graph it, the REAMDE plot would consist of only two arrows, but with lots of twists within them; other recent Stephenson books would require a dozen arrows.

The characters are just as varied as in his other books, and I think they may be his best set to date. I'll get into more details in spoilerville down below, but he covers a lot of ground among them (ages, genders, interests, capabilities, personalities), and everyone feels both cool AND essential to the action, which is no mean feat. He does a great job of introducing them as well. We get a core of key characters, mainly orbiting around the Forthrast family, in the first few chapters of the book. This group mostly remains throughout the book, but we're treated to additional major characters until quite far into the story. That tends to be a bit risky, just because the author doesn't have as much time to establish the characters' personalities, but Stephenson is a pro at this - when necessary, he'll break from the main action to fill us in on the new character's background, but focusing on their actions and interesting contributions in the past, so that it feels like a flashback and not like exposition.

Stephenson seems to have tamped down on the wildly meandering digressions that have long been the hallmark of his books. I'm a bit sad to see them go, but that doesn't mean that we don't get discursive passages with interesting and fully developed ideas in them; it's just that those passages tend to be more obviously germane to the story than they used to be. We learn a lot about how firearms work, and the technical and political processes that go into developing a flight plan between two cities, and the care that must be observed when attempting to offer assistance to Midwesterners (I can vouch for the complete accuracy of that last part).

One thing that especially struck me about Stephenson's storycrafting in this book is how masterfully he portrays characters' thinking. I think a lot of authors try to make their characters smart by having them KNOW things - one person will be confronted with an obstacle, and then go, "Ah, I know how to solve this problem," and we're impressed by their solution. Throughout this book, though, Stephenson's characters impress us as they're confronted with situations where they don't know the answer; over a page or two, we'll see how they study the problem, perhaps try out one or more hypotheses, draw conclusions from their failures, and eventually LEARN a better solution. We see one woman trying to figure out a Chinese numbering system; a group of urbanites attempting to steer a boat through a storm; some criminals cleaning up the evidence left behind. It's highly engaging and rewarding to read this; we aren't just asked to admire someone's excellence, but can track them through their progress and struggle.

Stephenson's writing is as clever and sharp as ever. I'm reluctant to pull quotes here, maybe I will later, but he just has an absolutely amazing knack for pithy phrases and memorable phrasemaking.

A few minor technical notes before I plunge into the plot proper:

The paper stock and binding for this book is very similar to that used for the Baroque Cycle, and unlike that used for Anathem: the paper feels rough, and the edge lengths are varied, which lends it a slightly antique character. I haven't decided if I should read anything into that or not... it totally made sense for the Baroque cycle, given its historical milieu; this book doesn't share that setting, but if there is a reason for those pages, it may have to do with the occasionally rural and anti-modern themes of the book.

This book is written in a standard past tense ("Zula looked him in the eye"), unlike Stephenson's occasional present tense ("Hiro races down the street").

I think this is the first book I've read that uses a new system of punctuation popularized on the Internet: the combination of an exclamation mark and a question mark to indicate extreme surprise. He only uses it within dialog ("You think!?"). It totally works, and if the technique enters into the literary mainstream, I'm pretty confident that this book will be cited in whatever equivalent of the OED gets used for punctuation.


I got the book on Wednesday night. On Thursday night, I laid down in bed around page 250, having gotten to the part in Xiamen when they're closing in on the Troll. "This is pretty exciting," I thought. I decided that I'd keep reading until they finished that scene. Little did I suspect that this is where the afterburners would kick in. I FLEW through Yuxia's kidnapping, the casing of the Troll's apartment complex, Zula's electrical gambit, the INSANE introduction of Abdullah Jones, the holocaust on the fifth floor, the AMAZING introduction of Olivia, the way everyone fractures into a half-dozen groups of survivors, the flight from the explosion, the premeditated hijacking, Sokolov's incredible reorientation from sole survivor to capable operator, the various nautical piratings, MI-6's potential double-cross, and, of course, Zula's totally bad-ass approach to self-defense. That brought me up to... um, about page 540. I was pretty tired the next day. But, I'm convinced that I wouldn't have been able to sleep if I'd tried to stop at any point in between those two spots. It's seriously the longest, most intense and most exciting sequence that I recall having ever read in a book.

This seems like a very plot-oriented book, but for some reason I actually don't feel like writing about the plot - it would take forever to recap, and I can't do justice to how awesomely it all spins out. So, instead, here are a few brief thoughts on each of the characters.

Richard Forthrast: I kind of get the feeling that he might be Neal's alter-ego in this book. Oh, to be sure, they're very different: Richard is older, and heavier, and used to be a marijuana smuggler and presently owns a Fortune-500 company. Still, I get the impression that many of Richard's concerns are Neal's concerns as well. Richard spends a lot more time observing and thinking than many other characters in the book get to, and that leads to come great insights. I wanted to picture him as being kind of a Richard Garriott figure - more on the inspiration below - but the text makes it pretty clear that he isn't. He primarily wanted to solve a technical problem and make money; the other people in his company, who we don't spend as much time with, are more of the world-centric fanatics of Garriott's stripe.

The Forthrast Clan: I really, really liked this family. Not to put down the Shaftoes or the Waterhouses, but the Forthrasts seemed more varied and more believable: there's a lot of different types of personalities, different histories there. I particularly loved the intricacies of the internal politics, and the simplicity of the external politics: the family can talk darkly about one another, but they present a unified front as soon as any one of them comes under threat. I really related to this large, sprawling, Midwestern-originating family. The King clan on my dad's side is similarly large, and I know all to well the feeling that Richard gets when he encounters "cousins" (Stephenson nails the way that this word gets used in this context) who he doesn't remember at the re-u. This is pretty fertile ground, and I can easily imagine Stephenson doing another Forthrast book, perhaps with Richard as a minor character who pops up in a scene or two.

(Another fun thought experiment: would there ever be a book with the Forthrast and the Shaftoes/Waterhouses? Or, to ask the question slightly differently, do you suppose that this book is in the same universe as Cryptonomicon/The Baroque Cycle; and as a corollary, if they are, is it the same as our own universe? Cryptonomicon and REAMDE are particularly interesting because they're all set more or less in the present day, but that present day is going to be obsolete in the near future, so it's kind of tempting to view them as occurring in an alternate universe one or two steps away. Farther up the wick, perhaps?)

Zula: Oh. My. Gosh. She's gotta be the most bad-ass heroine this side of The Bride. I love that what makes her so deadly is her mind. She's dealing from the most limited deck that anyone gets, and somehow manages to find the cards to make her survive. I cringed and cheered when she did for Khalid on the plane. When you take a step back, it's a bit harder to cheer for her as hard - her decisions to help save herself also result in touching off Jones' bloody flight from China, and later she puts her family directly at risk to save her life again. Still, who can fault her for making those decisions? She extends life into a future that she wouldn't otherwise have. She breaks up Jones' planned assault on the Taiwan conference - it seems clear that Olivia and MI-6 weren't going to be able to stop him, and if that had gone down, who knows, it might have touched off a series of events leading to World War III. And turning Jones towards the Schloss ultimately leads to the eradication of not only the survivors of his China network, but also flushes many Canadian and American jihadist sleepers out. It's impossible to do moral calculus on human lives (125 innocent civilians killed in border crossing, but saving an unknown number in Las Vegas or the Mall of America), but we can cheer for Zula in each decision she makes. I also think that Zula may be the best female protagonist from any of Stephenson's books, with the possible exception of Eliza from The Baroque Cycle. Zula is a believable, awesome, independent and intelligent woman, and one of my favorites in a book with lots of good candidates.

Peter: I hesitate to say "He got what he deserved," but... yeah. I do, however, like the way that Stephenson introduced the character. We don't get inside his head for a while; instead, we see Richard trying to figure him out. He's elevated by Zula's aura, so it takes a little bit to recognize what a jerk he is. Even then, he isn't evil - we all know lots of people like him - and he's kind of cut adrift of our sympathy and interest.

Ivanov: I was getting an Uncle Enzo vibe from him at first. You eventually realize, though, that he's consciously projecting that vibe. He isn't really Uncle Enzo, just a wacked-out crime boss who can turn on the charm when it benefits him to do so. The biggest plot twist in the book is probably when Ivanov exits the action and Jones enters it. For the last 700 or so pages of the book, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: after we learn that Ivanov is just a player within this larger organization, it seems inevitable that they'll get around to investigating the incredible mess he made, and bring in their own guns against al-Qaeda. That never happens, but it seems like yet another good opening if Neal ever decides to write a sequel.

Solokov: Another guy who made my favorite-character short-list. Ivanov stays a bad guy all the way through his end, but Solokov gets to play both sides, an intimidating villain in the early pages and probably the most capable of the heroes after the jihadists appear. I loved his Jason Bourne-esque movements through Xiamen; it's a testament to Stephenson's great writing that his infiltration of a luxury hotel and acquisition of a stolen suit made a bigger impression on me than him counter-ambushing and machine-gunning three Public Security Bureau agents. He's skilled, but more than that, he's incredibly adaptable and a quick learner. I was initially going to complain about his timeline - he cut his teeth in Afghanistan, and I thought he seemed too young to have fought there - but it never says that he was involved in the invasion, and I presume that the USSR kept their own anti-insurgent forces in there well through the 80's.

Csongor: Less exciting than the other characters, but really decent; he's certainly the nicest criminal of the group. His affection for Zula was really touching; heck, even Ivanov thought he'd make a better boyfriend than Peter. I liked his humility, his loyalty, and his intellectual tenacity. For a hacker, though, he really doesn't get to do a whole lot of hacking; he basically runs traceroute in Xiamen and installs Linux in the Philippines, not exactly the most technically taxing tasks. But, I think that Stephenson was able to get at his hacker mindset, and show how Csongor could apply that to different situations he found himself in. I probably related most strongly to Csongor out of all the characters in the book.

Yuxia: She's... interesting. She sometimes comes off as a potential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. When she first showed up, I had wondered if she might represent some other, hidden layer in the rapidly thickening plot - perhaps she was a secret agent for the Chinese government, or had ties to the Russians or the Troll. Nope - she was what she seemed, which in itself is surprising. She's incredibly resourceful and determined, but often seems out of her element, even in Xiamen and definitely after leaving China. Still, when confronted with the unknown, like everyone else in this book she buckles down and figures out how to make it work. She's a striver, much like Marlon in her own way, and I think she'll have an exciting story of her own in the States. I can easily imagine Richard fronting her seed money to open a distribution channel for her mountain tea in America.

Marlon: Much like Csongor, he's out of his element for most of the book; a city-dwelling professional video-game player is thrust into the stormy world of international terrorism. Unlike Csongor, though, we get to see him at his peak: marshaling a vast army of real and virtual followers, capping off a long-running criminal extortion scheme (that we nonetheless can't help cheer him for - hey, it was their fault for not updating their antivirus programs!), bridging the gap between the virtual and the real worlds. It's interesting to finally meet the Troll after such a long chase, and he proves quite likeable; I particularly liked how he prepared his roommates for the zombie apocalypse. I got a kick out of his approach to thinking of things - I think that at one point Csongor asks, "Should we grab their weapons?", to which Marlon replies, "That's what we'd do in a video game" - which, of course, means "Yes". A life of playing video games proves to be a surprisingly good preparation for the crazy situation he finds himself inside.

Olivia: I think she was the last major character introduced who I really got. Stephenson kind of takes a break from all the totally crazy stuff going down across the street, but it's totally the right time to introduce her: the first we hear about her is after we realize that there's this entirely different threat that's completely orthogonal to everything we've seen up until now. Olivia's passages are really fun to read - Stephenson isn't as obviously POV-centric as George R R Martin, but like GRRM he lets each passage's character's personality somewhat color the prose, and I loved reading the various dry and sly Britishisms that pop up when Olivia is thinking about her situation. The various references to James Bond are quite fun as well. Unlike most of the other characters, Olivia is probably more important for who she is than for what she does, but she crucially serves the plot and does it with style.

Abdullah Jones: Holy cow, he's scary. Stephenson spends a lot of time with him, and like Ivanov he shows us how charming he can be. That charm just makes him all the more horrible; he isn't a faceless villain, but someone who believes deeply enough in the rightness of his cause that he's comfortable joking with his victims or parlaying with them. He's a far more capable villain than Ivanov: he's more intelligent, and crazy more in a sociopathic sense than a psychopathic sense.  He's less impulsive, which drives MI-6 nuts; where Ivanov flies off the handle and takes huge risks to uphold his respect, Jones gets cold, thinks through the problem from all angles (just like our heroes), and because of his care he's able to survive many situations that would otherwise leave him dead (again, just like our heroes). We're well rid of him.

Seamus: He arrives a bit late to the party, but is still fun to have around. It seems pretty clear to me that, despite what he might say, he probably is looking for a T-Bird after all; he fell for Olivia while she still had her pageboy, and Yuxia's similar haircut was sending signals to the Russians and others (incorrect signals, but still). Like Olivia, he's important for what he is: he's the only significant US military character in the book, and is in the right place with the right status to bring Csongor, Yuxia and Marlon into the final level.

T-Rain sure sounds like fun, doesn't it? I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about MMOs in contrast to how little I play them, and I think that Stephenson is fascinated by the same theoretical aspects that attract me: the formation of virtual communities, and how they do or do not relate to communities in the real world.

REAMDE is the second book in the past two years I've read that deals intensely with a fictional MMORPG. The first, of course, was Charles Stross's "Halting State." HS is like REAMDE in that it's set in the very near future, using technology that's pretty familiar to us, with just a few comprehensible changes (most importantly, someone proving P == NP). HS's Avalon Four (run on ZONE) bears some similarities to REAMDE's T-Rain; besides an obvious fantasy-inflected flavor taken from World of Warcraft, both also assign real monetary value to in-game assets, and both plots are initially driven by money-related shenanigans taken place within their in-game worlds. The details are a bit different, though. The crime there was a bank robbery, and the underlying problem was the dissemination of encryption keys that were meant to protect such transactions. Ultimately, it's the encryption that's the biggest threat, and the ways the platform is being put to use. My favorite line from that book is "They're tunneling TCP/IP over AD&D!"

In contrast, the crime in T-Rain is... I guess blackmail, or kidnapping, if you can kidnap data. What's interesting is that, from the perspective of both the criminals (Marlon) and the game owners (Richard), there really isn't a problem. Sure, the governments are mad, but T-Rain was explicitly designed from the ground-up to support the transformation between real-world and virtual wealth. Someone paying a ransom in-game isn't Corporation 9592's fault any more than someone paying a ransom in New York City is Mayor Bloomberg's fault, or someone sending a ransom note through the mail is the US Post Office's fault. Stephenson doesn't exactly defect the virus-writing, but he assigns some of the blame to the victims as well, and in the grand scheme of things, the hackers here are far from the worst criminals.

I should also point out that I preferred the writing in REAMDE. Partly because Stephenson's awesome at everything, also because I was never able to get into HS's second-person narration.

So: on a more lateral note: I'd briefly mentioned Richard Garriott before. Garriott is the creator of the Ultima series, which may be my favorite fantasy RPG of all time (though the Baldur's Gate games certainly give it a run for the money). One of the cool things about Garriott's approach to making games was that he had a very world-centric approach. Before starting on a new Ultima, one of the first things he would do was draw out the map. He'd sketch in the main continent of Britannia, draw in the islands, draw castles and mountain peaks and dungeons and villages. Working with other artists and creators, he would come up with a really complete map. Only then would he start work on the actual story of the game.

I think that's quite similar to Pluto's approach to creating T-Rain. Making the game world first creates all sorts of wonderful benefits that may not be immediately obvious, but that turn it into an incredibly rich and deep experience. I remember so many hours of pleasure from my time exploring the world of Ultima VI, just wandering through the wilderness, stumbling across interesting places and encounters. The game world included some pretty massive and complex structures to explore that were completely optional in terms of the plot; if memory serves, you only had to enter something like three of the eight dungeons in order to beat the game, but if you decided to go into any or all of the other five, you'd find thoughtfully designed and challenging environments to explore. There was an entire castle that filled most of the Isle of the Avatar; just from looking at the map, you'd assume that that was where you'd go to fight the ultimate villain, but no; it's just a place in the world. Of course, these things all contribute to a sense of "realism," of existing in a fully-realized world. You might be on an epic quest to save the world, but not every single thing you encounter has to be related to that quest; you'll also see farmers harvesting cotton from their fields, and weavers in town spinning that cotton into cloth, and merchants carrying cloth between towns, and tailors creating and selling fine garments from that cloth. You don't need to ever think about cotton in your quest, but the fact that numerous characters are devoting their lives to carrying out such activities makes it feel more like a real world, and all the more important to save.

Similarly, Pluto's simulation of five billion years of physical processes, plate tectonics, magma flow, erosion, and other arcana have allowed him to create the most realistic game world ever. I can totally buy that this would be one of the things that allows T-Rain to challenge WoW: people can FEEL it when the creators have paid attention to the environments, and that's the sort of thing that would make someone want to actually spend time in the world, and not just run quests. Heck, it's even more important for T-Rain, given that they're asking many of their players to spend their lives harvesting ore.

It's also fun to look at the literary/creative input into the game. Donald is, of course, a proxy for Tolkien: the Englishness, the fact that he's a professor, his love of language, all cry out "Tolkien." I can't immediately think of a counterpart for Skeletor, but I think that's part of the point; I certainly have the impression that there are some fantasy writers out there who can churn out an incredible number of books with very little effort. The clashes between those two was fun to read, since it wasn't just the mixing-up of two fictional writers, but a not-too-thinly-veiled manifestation of the endless conflicts between High Fantasy and Swords & Sorcery, between Low Magic and High Magic worlds, between thoughtful literary epics and action-packed pablum. My sympathy's with Donald, of course.

Now that I think about it, I guess that this is one of the plots that ends up not really going anywhere, at least not that I remember. Richard eventually figures out that Skeletor had been actively (if furtively) agitating the War of Realignment, then gets him and Donald to take more active roles in leading their respective factions. But it doesn't really have much to do with what's clearly the main plot, to stop the terrorists. Well... I guess that the havok they create does keep any one faction from taking over the Torgai Hills and preventing Marlon from reclaiming the gold that he'll eventually use to fly them home, so I guess it does tie in after all. Still, I did love everything related to the game, and am sure that Stephenson could have written an entertaining (if shorter) book that was only about 9592, the WoR, and Reamde.


Maybe I'd been primed by the Q&A session at the Swedish-American Hall, but as I read I kept on thinking, "Wow, this would make an AMAZING movie!" It's very kinetic writing, and there are long stretches with pretty much non-stop action, occasionally interrupted by extremely witty dialog. That, in turn, got me thinking about why Neal Stephenson would want to be a novelist instead of a Hollywood scriptwriter: what's the point of putting something in a novel instead of in a movie? For starters, we're privileged to actually move around inside the heads of the characters; even the best actors in the best movies can only give us limited access to their thoughts. You can get around that problem with a voiceover monologue, but that seems to kill the dramatic impact of a movie. I think the pacing can help too. In a movie, exactly one person (the director) can decide when things should happen, and then sets the beats. It's like pressing "Play" on a CD. When you read, it's more like you're the conductor of your own personal orchestra. You can progress fitfully, or race ahead, or slowly ponder the themes and variations as you encounter them.

I'll be very interested to see how people respond to REAMDE once the reviews trickle in. I suspect that people who've first come to Stephenson in the past decade will be caught off-guard by the book; it's about the same length as each of the Baroque volumes and Anathem, but reads much more easily, and is less dense and more action-oriented. Most people who met Stephenson through Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon will feel a bit more comfortable here; the pace of this book feels like the most active portions of Snow Crash (like that killer opening chapter), married to the setting and some of the interests of Cryptonomicon (present day, business drama, international travel). But I think the people most at home will be those who've gone into Stephenson's deep cuts. The overall trajectory of this book feels very similar to something like Zodiac or Interface, and the midwestern/Iowa milieu matches that found in The Cobweb. Crucially, REAMDE is longer than any of those books (heck, it's probably longer than all of them), but... well, to use what might be a slightly dirty word, they're all thrillers. They're highly literate thrillers, which are much more interested in a broader range of topics than you would get from John Grisham or Tom Clancy, but they're anchored around engaging and highly kinetic storylines. I think that that's how I'll remember REAMDE, as another entry along the Zodiac/Interface chain that displays the author's incredibly heightened powers.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stephen, son!

I was thrilled to have another chance at seeing Neal Stephenson in person - and, this time, to actually stick around for a book-signing! This was the second event in a row I've attended that's been hosted by the Booksmith; obviously, its Haight store isn't sufficiently large to accomodate the size of crowd that Neal would attract (particularly in the tech-happy Bay Area), so they held the event at the Swedish-American Hall, a nice venue in the Castro.

There seems to be a good new trend for supporting major author tours like this: you buy a "ticket" in advance of the book release from your local independent bookstore; you redeem the ticket for admittance to the event and your copy of the nice hardcover book. That's how Kepler's handled the George R R Martin event, and how Booksmith handled Neal Stephenson. It seems like a good and fairly efficient way to promote the author, reading, community, and the local-bookstore economy.

I was a bit surprised at the size of the event. Don't get me wrong, it was a great turnout, but still noticeable smaller than the 2008 one. I'm a bit curious as to why this is - the previous one had been sponsored by the foundation that does the Clock of the Long Now, and I suppose they may have had some extra publicity or something that supported the larger venue and bigger turnout. It all worked out fine, though... this way everyone got a better look at Neal, and the signing line at the end of the night was less horrendously long than it would otherwise have been.

Neal was introduced by a local radio host, who I'm afraid I'm not familiar with, but who gave a good, spirited introduction that prompted numerous scatterings of applause. The host praised Neal's work for its transformative power: it shows us where we, as a species, have been, where we're headed, and how we're getting there.

Neal gave a couple of readings from REAMDE. He lightly glossed the characters, but for the most part didn't lecture, just plunged into the words. I was irrationally disappointed at his first selection, from a scene in the first chapter, which I had read while waiting for the event to start. I suppose that I was upset at myself for having "spoiled" the reading by, um, reading the book; which is interesting, since it implies that I'd be happier about Stephenson "spoiling" the sections that I had not yet read, which seems backwards.


I needn't have worried. As was the case with Orozco's reading, Neal's delivery helped me pick up on some stuff that I'd missed when reading fifteen minutes earlier. I remembered the great line as the cousins leave the Wal-Mart along the lines of "Richard decided that Wal-Mart was not a spaceship, but rather an interdimensional portal to every other Wal-Mart in the world, and that they might as well emerge in Topeka or Cleveland." I'd missed the earlier comparison to a spaceship that opened that section, though, which nicely brackets the whole experience inside. His wonderful phrasing comes across even better in speech, as when he describes how the cousins draw up short at the threshold of the Wal-Mart, as the ironic detachment that substitutes for souls are overwhelmed by the vastness inside.

He followed this up with a description of Richard's furtive exit from the family reunion the next day, along with his experience with Black Friday traffic. Then he jumped ahead to a later section (which I haven't yet gotten to) where Richard, exiting a plane, is speaking with his corporate lieutenant, who is filling him in on the legal situation that's growing up around the REAMDE virus. This part had some GREAT lines; there was noticeable laughter throughout much of the reading, but the most and densest lines were probably from this section. Richard is an interesting character; he's the founder and nominal head of a Fortune-500 gaming company, but has retired from daily operations and so spends his time in a sort of free-floating poorly-defined role, following his bliss and only doing what he wants - but still working very hard at it. This lets him make some great observations on the detritus of corporate culture that he's involved with while simultaneously operating above. There's also a great joke somewhere in there where Richard says that T'Rain's opening scene was ripped off from the start of Google Earth, but that this didn't bother him, since he'd heard that Google Earth had gotten the idea from "some old science-fiction novel." That novel, of course, was Snow Crash. I LOVE this. In the past, elements from the world within one of his novels will interact with elements from the world of another novel, as when Cryptonomicon anticipates the Waterhouses. Here, elements from the fiction of one of his novels affects the fiction of another novel. It's a sly meta-joke, which we really don't get that often from Stephenson (at least, not that I've caught before).

Oh, and this also had a flashback to the transformation of a biker gang into a group of LARPers, which formed the foundation for the medieval armed combat at the core of T'Rain. I was delighted to catch a single brief reference to Shekondar; here I think it was the fictional alter-ego of one of the men, but I'll always remember SHEKONDAR as the fictional deity/AI from The Big U, which manifests in Fred Fine's delusions and is sort of a benevolent form of the bicameral mind dissolving that takes place throughout the Plex.


After wrapping up the reading, Neal took questions for about a good half-hour. He's... a really interesting guy. He comes across as very intense and extremely intelligent. He also has a VERY dry sense of humor, which everyone really appreciated. It's hard to describe; the closest comparison I can find is Harold Ramis's character in Ghostbusters, but even that only brushes against his style of humor. Anyways, he took particular care to understand exactly what each questioner was asking for, and visibly marshaled his thoughts as he responded. It's quite different from other Q&A periods I've seen, where speakers confronted with difficult-to-understand questioners will wait until they're able to latch onto something comprehensible and then just give a response to that.

As usual, here are my best recollections of some of the questions and Neal's answers.

"I have both the Kindle edition and the hardcover, and there are some... inconsistencies, or errors. Can you say anything about this? IS IT A CODE?!"

This had happened earlier, particularly with Cryptonomicon, which had numerous errors. This led to all sorts of theories, with a small but vocal group of people convinced that the "mistakes" actually formed some sort of code. Unfortunately, no, they're just mistakes. "Even if it WAS a code, of course, I would say that it wasn't. But it isn't."

"I loved reading about the Shaftoes and the Waterhouses, and felt like we'd really gotten to know those amazing families so well throughout Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. Do you think you might return to telling those stories, or do you feel like it's done."

Neal has a lot of fun writing these characters and telling those stories. When he finished the Baroque Cycle, he could easily see himself turning 90 years old and releasing the 57th volume about them. (Applause.) But, he kind of wanted to try doing something else for a while. He has no particular plans; he can return to writing those stories if he wants to, or not. He had fun writing the new family in REAMDE, the Forthrasts, and thinks they're just as interesting as the Shaftoes and Waterhouses.

"For any novel that you write, how much time is spent researching, and how much actually writing?"

It depends, of course, on the book and the phase he's in. When writing the Baroque Cycle, at the beginning he was probably spending 99% of his time reading about that era and 1% actually writing. By the end of the Cycle, those ratios were pretty much reversed, and he would only "research" if he needed to find out, say, what kind of pompadour a French courtier would be wearing. REAMDE is set in the present day, so he didn't really need to do much reading at all for it, it's just stuff that he knows."

"(Someone asked a long and kind of confusing question about how Neal Stephenson dealt with such a large and complex 'estate'. At first I thought that he was getting at the intellectual-property rights associated with his books - handling licensing, fair-use, adaptations, translations, etc. - but when Neal pressed him for a more specific example, he brought up Neal's Facebook page, so I think it actually had more to do with how much of Neal's reader-facing publicity is Neal himself, and how much is done by other people affiliated with him.)"

Speaking to the specific case of the Facebook page - it is kind of an accidental thing. A while back someone had started it as a fan page, which is fine. Later on, Facebook changed their template, or whatever, and so it became seen as a more official page, which it's never really been, but people confuse it for Neal's "real" page. Separately, Neal has his own Facebook account, but it isn't a publicity thing, and he only connects with people who he actually knows. He thinks that his publisher is working something out with the existing Neal Stephenson Facebook page, so that it's no longer the responsibility of the fan who started it, and instead is managed by his publisher. He (Neal) thinks that the guy currently running it is relieved by the change.

"(I forget exactly what this question was, but do remember the response.)"

With different books, Neal is able to emphasize different parts of the writing process. All novels contain some mixture of elements like plot, characterization, stylistic writing, and so on. Anathem was a book that was very focused on philosophy. With REAMDE, Stephenson was more interested in plot. He'd had the idea in his mind for a while, and decided to just capture it in novelistic form. He doesn't write all of his books in that way, but it's an aspect that he enjoys exploring occasionally. It feels a little like The Confusion, the middle volume in the Baroque Cycle, which is pretty much all about events happening, unfolding an intricate plot.

"I recently re-read Interface, which has all sorts of interesting political elements that feel very relevant to what's going on today. Do you think you might want to revisit those kinds of books later?"

He'd had a lot of fun writing those two books, Interface and The Cobweb, with his uncle. He doesn't have any plans to co-write any other books, but that doesn't mean he won't. He thinks that REAMDE may actually be closer to those two books than any of the solo books he's done, in that they're set in the present time and very plot-oriented.

"I think that Zodiac is probably the book of yours that would lend itself best to a movie adaptation." (Neal: "I would agree with that.") "What's the status of that and any other books that might get turned into movies?"

He isn't too connected with the process. In the case of Zodiac, he sold the rights outright, and doesn't even own them any more. He thinks that Warner Brothers currently owns them, so they can do whatever they want. Getting a movie made can be a decades-long process; something's always happening, but nothing actually gets done. Some books generate more interest in movies than others - "Unlike, for example... well, anything that I've written in the past decade." (Laughter.) He's also interested in the long storytelling form that would be possible in, say, a miniseries. (Applause. I've been thinking along these lines, too - everything he's written since at least Zodiac, and possibly since Snow Crash, is so sprawling and intricate that it's practically begging for the HBO treatment.) But, nothing is currently happening there.

One person asked a long and confusing question that seemed to come down to something along the lines of, "What elements from your earlier books do you revisit in your later books?"

He doesn't have any particular plan for any of this stuff. He never re-reads his older books. The questioner had noticed that, for example, REAMDE has scenes of guys riding around in motorcycles, "Taking advantage of Canada's surprisingly lax sword laws, riding with five-foot-long Claymores strapped to their back." This had reminded the questioner of Hiro Protagonist from Snowcrash; in one of that book's many awesomely indelible scene, Hiro becomes the Baddest M*****-F***** in the Universe when he rides a motorcycle with a Katana strapped to his back. It sounds like this was more or less accidental for Stephenson, not part of some grand book-spanning thematic scheme.

"Are we going to see any more of your long-form non-fiction in the future?"

Probably not. There have been happy coincidences in the past, as when he was able to write some long-form essays around the time that Cryptonomicon came out, but it just doesn't pencil out for him to do much of that stuff. "Writing non-fiction is harder, takes longer, and doesn't pay as well as writing novels. Plus, there's all sorts of annoying things that come with non-fiction, like needing to tell the truth." That said, his publisher (I think maybe Harper-Collins?) will be releasing a collection of his non-fiction this coming year (maybe in February?), so that will be a chance to read all of that stuff. "It will be the same material as before. Just placed in a new... physical object."

"Do you read fiction, and if so, what books?"

When he's writing, he doesn't read much of anything, since he's so focused on his current book. When he has free time, he tends to binge on fiction for a while, and enjoys it. This past summer, he read through the whole Game of Thrones series (hooray!), and he's now in the same state as everyone else, irritated at needing to wait until the next book comes out to continue the story. He also read, and recommended, a novel by an author whose name I didn't recognize (sorry!). He tends to read more non-fiction, and recommended a couple of books, including 1493.

There were a few more questions, but those are the ones that I can recall a day later.

The signing itself was interesting too. I hadn't thought to bring any of my (many, many) other Stephenson books, so I just had the one copy of REAMDE. He would have signed up to two other books, and I'm not sure what ones I would have brought. Anathem and the Baroque Cycle are the only other hardcovers I have, and they're also first-editions; but, for sentimental value, I probably would have brought In The Beginning... and, heck, maybe The Big U.  Anyways... pretty much everyone stayed for the signing, and since I'd been lucky enough to sit close to the podium, that also meant I was towards the end of the signing line. Which was fine; I got through a score or so more pages.

The line snaked through the auditorium, out through the hall past the bar area where they were selling more copies of the book, and into a little foyer. Interestingly, and unlike any other signing that I remember attending, the line didn't end with Stephenson. Instead, after an employee queued up the books, they released a person at a time into the actual signing room, a large hall that felt vaguely like a church chapel. It was smaller than the auditorium, but still far larger and more spacious then the area connecting the two rooms. At any given time there were only a half-dozen or so people in there. Neal stood at a table, efficiently signing books. He was flanked by two female attendants, I presume representatives from the publisher, who took care of taking and returning the books, maintaining a bit of a buffer between Neal and the readers. And then there were the few of us waiting in the new, far shorter line. His interactions were brief, but not unpleasant; given the enormity of the crowd, he certainly couldn't have had a real conversation with everyone coming through, but he made eye contact and would exchange a few works with each person. He didn't pose for pictures, but a few people did photograph themselves standing near him after he'd moved on to the next person. For once, I'd actually thought of what I'd say, and instead of just blurting something inane like "You're awesome!", I mentioned how glad I was to see Shekondar pop up again. He almost smiled, and said, "I can't fit it into every book, but it occasionally works out."

I stayed up until way too late last night reading REAMDE. It's very good, and I see what Stephenson meant about it being a very plot-oriented book. It's very well-written, but a lot less dense than, say, Anathem or Quicksilver. With Anathem, I needed to stop every page or two to reflect on what had been said, or to re-read the preceding passage and make sure I was parsing all the terminology correctly. I'm flying through REAMDE - it's got nice meaty bits of expositional monologues, as do all of Stephenson's books, but so far everything ties in pretty directly with what seems to be the main thrust of the book; they're less lateral than those in Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon.

I've very deliberately stayed away from any talk of REAMDE: I haven't visited the Amazon page, or looked for any reviews, or read the dust jacket. I don't know exactly where it's going, but based on the 150 pages or so I've read thus far, I think it's closest in feeling to the modern-day portions of Cryptonomicon. It's set basically in the present day, just a year or two in the future; people in the book are doing things that we aren't doing in the real world, but it's all built on recognizable technology that we're capable of today. Also like Cryptonomicon, there's a tech aspect to the plot, but most of the interest comes from the business angle of that tech. It isn't so much sci-fi about new tech as fiction about the stuff that people can build using that tech, and how that can change our culture. Like Cryptonomicon, it also is pretty interested in money. (I remember Stephenson answering a question around the time that Anathem came out, to the effect that he seemed very interested in the theory behind money, which played a major role in Cryptonomicon, and also was explicitly a big part of the Baroque Cycle, particularly in Quicksilver, which explores the medieval system of currency, and The System of the World, where our modern currency is born. Stephenson had answered that the thing that was most interesting to him about money was how LITTLE it had changed. All of our monetary systems were basically created a few hundred years ago, and for all the interest around stuff like e-cash today, there really haven't been any revolutions in our concept of money for centuries. I'd taken that answer to mean that, after the Baroque Cycle, he would close off that line of inquiry similarly to how he seemed to close off his inquiry into the bicameral mind after Snow Crash; but so far, it looks like that interest is alive and well in REAMDE.)


I probably won't be checking in as frequently as I did with my progress through Anathem, just because I'm more confident in being able to hold all of REAMDE in my head without resorting to external support. So, expect a review when I'm done, but probably not interim progress reports. We'll see how much I can get away with reading over the next two weeks - I don't exactly want to rush this, but I'm loving the book so far, and would love to finish it before I feel tempted to start on the next thing.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Long after his death, we continue to receive trickles of genius from J. R. R. Tolkien. No, there will never be another Lord of the Rings, but we increasingly see more of the concerns that actually occupied Tolkien for most of his career.

The most recent addition comes with the very-posthumous publication of his Lays of Sigurd and Gudrun. To back up a bit: LotR was a novelistic adventure set within Tolkien's grand creation of Middle-earth. He was specifically inspired to create Middle-earth to remedy the lack of a truly English mythology. Tolkien had long been fascinated by the Northern mythology of the Scandinavians, which had also influenced the legendary literature of Iceland and the Germanic tribes. Now, Old English literature did have legends, but they weren't really their own - for example, the most famous ancient English story of all, Beowulf, is actually set in modern-day Denmark and Sweden. There wasn't anything that the English could uniquely claim.

So, in many ways, Tolkien's grand creation - the deities, the creation myths, the myriad tales of battles and vendettas and legacies - was his way of taking the profound emotional impact of the old Northern myths, and setting them in a wholly new context, created specifically for a new people in a new age.

His love of the literature of the North predates his creation, and this collection is a fascinating glimpse into another outlet that this love took. The main offerings in this book are verse translations that a young Tolkien made from the ancient Poetic Edda, an Old Norse collection of sagas, into modern English. Unlike other translators, Tolkien didn't simply put the story into prose, nor did he use standard English poetry. Instead, he kept the original qualities of the poem, maintaining the force and structure that it would have had on its original listeners.

Reading this made me recall my college class on Old English, a fascinating trip I took through a dead language. Old English is similar to German, and like ancient German and Latin, it featured declined nouns. In other words, the form of the noun would change based on the role it plays within a sentence. We've mostly eliminated declension in modern English, but you can still see it in pronouns - "I", "me", "my", "mine".  Anyways, since declension tended to follow standard patterns, the ending of Old English words tended to be highly regular - the ending sound of a word only reflected the part of speech it was using.

So, Old English poetry didn't "rhyme", which would have been fairly pointless. Instead, the poetry focused on alliteration - it was the beginning of words, not the end, that the poet had control over, and that repeated sound is what lends Old English poetry its strange beauty. As with all poetry, you really need to speak it out loud in order to get the full impact.

As one might expect, old Norse poetry turns out to be quite similar to old English. Both are very alliterative, and focus more on unity within the line than on bridging two lines. (Without going into details, where the typical modern English poem might have a rhyming scheme like ABABCC, old English and Norse would look more like A-A B-B C-C.) There are differences as well. Christopher Tolkien, who lightly edited the poem and added a great deal of additional commentary, often quotes his father from lecture notes and other extant sources; Tolkien notes that the Norse followed a fairly strict stanza-based format, with each stanza focused on a particular element of the story. Partly as a result of this, Norse poetry tends to be extremely forceful: it grabs your attention, powerfully tells you what it has to say, and drags you along. In contrast, Old English (as exemplified in Beowulf) has a more flowing structure, where the poet can linger over some details or rush onward. At one point he observes that one can keep re-reading Beowulf, and keep discovering new joys within it; but anyone who reads the poetic Edda will immediately encounter everything there is to know. You may love it or hate it, but subsequent readings of the Edda won't change your opinion as to its quality.

Circling back around: Tolkien wrote these poems in modern English vocabulary, using the poetic form of the original Norse poem. It's a pretty amazing achievement. Obviously, I can't compare this to the original, but I can say that it's an incredibly powerful poem, and one that resonates surprisingly strongly with other stories as well.

It might seem strange to use spoilers tags for a work that's around 1500 years old... but I'll do so, just because I was a bit surprised by what I found of the story.


Christopher Tolkien barely mentions Wagner's "Ring Cycle" at all, but in many respects, this story perfectly matches the opera's beats. In a way, this only makes sense, since Wagner was drawing on ancient German myths, which were derived from these very same Norse myths. Still, it's fascinating to see how many inconsequential things have changed, and how many important things stayed the same.

First of all, your basic mythology classes should already have prepared you for the similar-yet-distinct deities: the Norse Odin and Loki became the German Wotan and Loge. Both mythologies look forward to an apocalyptic battle that will destroy the world: Norse Ragnarok, German Gotterdammerung. Odin/Wotan knows of the impending doom, and his own vows constrain him from preventing it; but, he attempts to exploit a loophole, by allowing a mortal champion to change the course of history.

The Ring Cycle has Sigmund and Siegfried. The Lay has Sigmund and Sigurd. In both cases, Sigmund had incestuous relations with his sister, and Siegfried/Sigurd was the result. Sigurd is raised by a dwarfish character, without knowledge of his heritage. That dwarf forges Sigurd a special sword, and tells him about a powerful dragon (Fafnir in Norse, Fafner in German) who guards a huge hoard of treasure. Sigurd slays the dragon. He tastes the dragon's blood, and learns the speech of birds. This allows him to detect that the dwarf-father means to betray him, so he kills him, and takes the treasure. Later, Sigurd crosses a ring of flame and wakes the enchanted sleep of a Valkyrie who was dismissed by Odin: Brunnhilde in German, Brynhildr in Norse. They exchange vows. Later, Sigurd falls under the sway of a treacherous set of siblings, who use magic to lure him away from Brynhildr. The tale ends in tragedy as Sigurd is slain and Brynhildr immolates herself in an immense pyre.

So: based on that paragraph, you'd think they're exactly the same story, right?

Due to the similarities, I found myself focusing on all the interesting ways in which they were different. On the whole, I think that Wagner's version is a bit more... compact, maybe, or at least self-contained. For example, in the Lay of Sigurd, we really don't get any background on why Brynhildr had been enchanted; she's just conveniently sort of there. In Die Walkure, though, Brunnhilde was intimately connected with his story, risking Odin's wrath by intervening to save Sigmund's life. The connections between the Sigmund and Siegfried parts of the story seem tighter in the opera.

That said, the Lay is a story, while the Cycle is... well, epic. The Lay opens with a prologue that ties in with some of the gods and their characters, but for the most part tells a single, coherent story. It's mostly concerned with the human characters, and sees their story all the way through. The Lay of Sigurd ends at about the same point as Gotterdamerung, but we immediately get a sequel in the Lay of Gudrun, where we learn about the fate of Sigurd's erstwhile wife, the family that betrayed him, and the final disposition of his treasure. The Cycle uses these characters to powerful effect, but it ultimately looks outward, towards the end times and the twilight of the gods.

All of the Lay of Gudrun was new to me, so it was a bit of a jolt to suddenly get the next chapter in a story of characters who already appealed to me. I've previously remarked that the Ring Cycle inverts the story flow that one gets in a romantic comedy: a rom-com usually has a first act of rising mood (boy meets girl), a second act of rising mood (boy and girl fall in love), a third act of falling mood (a misunderstanding drive boy and girl apart), and a fourth act of rising mood (boy and girl are reunited and more in love than ever). In contrast, the ring cycle has a first act of falling mood (Wotan rashly bargains away the fate of the world), a second act of falling mood (Brunnhilde fails to save Sigmund and Sieglinde from death, or herself from Wotan's wrath), a third act of rising mood (Siegemund kills the monster, finds the treasure, and gets the girl), and a fourth act of falling mood (Siegemund and Brunnhilde are betrayed and die). Gudrun adds a final act of falling mood, but it's one so powerful and so vengeful that it almost feels like rising mood. Horrible things happen here, but they happen to horrible people who kind of deserve it, so it feels a little like history cleaning up after itself, or chickens coming home to roost.

Gudrun herself is a fascinating character. Even in the Lay of Sigurd she's an ambiguous figure: how much of Sigurd's fall is her fault, and how much is she another victim of her family's greed? She's powerful in her own right - not supernaturally so like Brunhilde, but she has inherited some of her mother's gift for prophecy and insight. She does seem to love Sigurd, but since she's aware that she falsely obtained that love, it is inextricable bound with bitterness. She plays a part in Sigurd's death, and so hates herself for killing the one she loved, and her siblings for killing her husband. Even if we just had the Lay of Sigurd, we wound end on a downer note about her, as she orchestrated a series of falsehoods to convince her siblings of Sigurd's supposed treachery. The Lay of Gudrun sees her family basically whoring her out once more, tying her in with a distant Germanic tribe (which, we learn in Christopher Tolkien's notes, is a fictionalized version of famed Attila the Hun, here called Atli) in order to increase their own standing.

The ensuing action is byzantine in complexity, and gut-wrenching in its brutality. I'm pretty surprised that there hasn't been a movie adaptation of this, because the poet basically choreographed all the fight scenes and battles. The Lay of Gudrun might have the epitome of the fast, powerful, punch-punch-punch rhythm of Norse poetry: for pages on end, we're treated to a series of stanzas, each treating the annihilation of foes and the smashing of enemies and the valor of the doomed. I read them through, then went back and recited them out loud, feeling the thrumming beats of intense, deliberate slaughter.

And, wow... those ancient pagans were hard-core! At one point, Gunter and his near-feral half-brother Hogni have been captured by the Huns and separately imprisoned. Atli commands Gunter to tell him where the treasure lies. Gunter replies that he won't speak unless Hogni's heart is cut out. Atli's servants try to trick Gunter, and instead cut out the heart of a cook's thrall. Gunter basically says, "Ha! That isn't Hogni's heart. Look at how it trembles and quivers." So, they cut out Hogni's heart. Then Gunter says, "Nice ones, idiots. Hogni and I were the only ones who knew where the treasure was hidden - how he's dead, and I'll never talk. Suckers!"

And the scene where Gudrun finally gets her ultimate revenge... good lord. For years I've thought that Eric Cartman's vengeance against Scott Tenorman in the Radiohead episode of South Park was the apogee of Grand Guignol revenge, but I take it back now - Gudrun has him beat. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Matt and Trey may have taken some inspiration from this poem.


The book itself is kind of a hybrid - it comes out of academia, and is primarily driven by scholarship and criticism. However, everyone knows that a large audience (yours truly included) will pick up any book that lists J. R. R. Tolkien as the author. So, what we end up with is the text of the two poems as the core of the book. In a very wise move, they are presented without any footnotes; there's the occasional odd archaic Englishism in there, but you can certainly read them normally. There are endnotes at the conclusion of each poem, and many pages of essays before them, mapping out such issues as the historical context, reliability of sources, and evolution of the poem.

Depending on your tastes, you can just read the poems themselves - and I think they certainly do stand on their own - or go full-on lit-nerd like me and read the whole book, cover to cover. There's a lot of fascinating stuff in there, even if you aren't steeped in the arcana of ancient literature. For example, when I heard that this was a translation of a Norse poem, I imagined that the task was something like, say, translating Haruki Murakami from Japanese into English: Tolkien had a text in one language, and had to put it into another language.

The actual task turns out to be much more complex. There are multiple versions of the story, which were set down over a period of several centuries, and in several styles and languages. There is the Poetic Edda, and the Prose Edda, and the various Germanic sources. Frustratingly, some of these sources are incomplete - in one case, several pages had been removed from a particularly ancient book in the middle of this story.

What Tolkien was kind of working towards, then, was a sort of Ur-Edda, the original oral legend that was the source of the myriad and disparate written poems. By examining the snapshots of the legend in its various forms, he was able to make certain educated guesses about what parts were core to the story, which parts had been grafted on from other legends, which parts were "repaired" by later poets hoping to "fix" aspects that they found unpleasant. This is ultimately a task that cannot succeed - we just have too little information, and so inevitably some speculation and subjective choices must be made - but it's fascinating to read about Tolkien's process of reconstruction.

I think that this also provides one of the best explanations I've seen yet of Tolkien's pessimism. One aspect of "Lord of the Rings" that critics tend to harp on, apart from its supposed moral absolutism, is the pervasive sense of decline. The books are filled with a sad and widespread sense that the world is less than it once was. The Valar no longer walk Erda; the Sindarin and Sylvan elves are a faint shadow of the Noldor from the First Age; the mighty empire of Numenor has been shattered, and even its lesser progeny Arnor lies in ruins and Gondor has become practically irrelevant. Even the opposing forces are lesser: Sauron is mighty, but bears only a fragment of Morgoth's evil power; Shelob is a candle to Ungoliant's mighty sun; a single Balrog is the most fiersome enemy faced by the Fellowship, but in the great battles of the First Age whole armies of Balrogs fought the Alliance; Smaug is content to lie on his gold and swap riddles while Glaurung reshaped the world.

That sense of decline wasn't just some authorial knack; it's something that Tolkien deeply felt. Reading through his letters, you regularly see glimpses at his anguish over having missed the time in the past when things were better. Now the woods of England have been cut down, the air has grown polluted, everything has grown less.

Critics often point to this and use it as a lesson to talk about the dangers of fantasy in general and Tolkien in particular: it's promoting a reactionary worldview, they say, that inspires people to look to the past for all the answers, instead of working towards the future. And it's certainly had a huge impact on the field of post-Tolkien fantasy: writers like Terry Brooks and settings like the Forgotten Realms ape this decline, with fictional ancient settings far grander than the mean world its present-day characters inhabit.

Anyways - reading the commentary on the Lays made me realize that Tolkien's sense of diminishment may have come about not from his personal sadness but from his professional frustrations. His entire career was focused on these ancient languages and ancient writings, and they universally had been corrupted by the ages. They certainly have value today, but nobody will ever write a new poem in old Norse, and we may never know the beauty of the poem as it once existed. Pages have been lost, intervening generations have spackled new words onto the old text, and confusions have mounted about the thrust of the stories as reinterpretations multiply. I imagine that virtually every hour of Tolkien's job lay, to one degree or another, under the shadow of lost words, failed reproductions, broken stories. The very nature of his work primed him to always strive towards perfection, which required delving into the past.

I wonder how the Lord of the Rings might have been different if Tolkien hadn't been a linguist. Well, it probably wouldn't have existed, for starters... but just to play around with this idea, it's interesting to consider the sort of epic fantasy that might be written by, say, an engineer, or a scientist, or an artist. Professions that are oriented towards the discovery and creation of new things might be predisposed towards crafting stories where the future is brighter than the past, perhaps driven more by prophecy of a better tomorrow (LotR is notably devoid of prophecy) than legends of a better yesterday.

That would be an interesting tale to read - but, again, it wouldn't be Lord of the Rings. For those of us devoted to the series, even prizing it above other excellent fantasy like A Song of Ice and Fire, that very sense of pessimism and loss is exactly what makes it so powerful. The story is great, but we're captivated by the enormity of its history, the vastness of its landscape, and the calamities of all the ages of failure separating Eru's song from the Battle of Pellanor Fields. The Lays of Sigurd and Gudrun don't have the slightest connection in plot to the Lord of the Rings, but getting a glimpse into Tolkien's professional life has helped me understand just how he could invent such a rich and tragic world.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Few Things

It suddenly struck me last week what an amazing period I'm living in. Within a span of a few months, four of my favorite living authors (three of which go for years between finishing books) have or will release new novels.

A Dance with Dragons, of course, came out this summer. The new Neal Stephenson book, REAMDE, arrives September 20th (just over 2 weeks from now!). Terry Pratchett's latest, Snuff, drops on October 11th. And as a strong finish, Haruki Murakami's long-awaited 1Q84 will be in my eager hands October 25th.

The day after REAMDE goes on sale, Neal Stephenson will be in San Francisco, giving a talk at the Swedish-American Hall under the benevolent auspices of Booksmith. Have I mentioned lately how incredibly fortunate I am to live in the Bay Area? I realized that almost exactly three years ago, when Stephenson's Anathem came out, I was also able to hear Stephenson speak (and listen to some really unusual chant music) at a similar event; not only that, but it was around that time that I fulfilled a lifetime wish to hear Murakami, when he gave an interview at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley. Given how little these men travel and speak, I feel especially blessed. (No word yet on whether Murakami will be doing publicity for the English edition of 1Q84, but I imagine that if he does anything in the States, he'll make an appearance in the Bay Area.) At that event, Murakami had announced that he had just sent his latest novel (which became 1Q84) to his publisher; it has taken three years and two translators to bring it across the Pacific to us.

I'm really excited about Snuff as well. This will be the first book featuring Sam Vimes, almost certainly my favorite of Pratchett's characters, since Thud! in 2005. (Vimes is such a large personality that he makes an appearance in virtually all of the Discworld books set in Ankh-Morpork, so we've gotten to see him in books like Making Money, but it'll be great to have him be the focus again.) Terry has suffered from Alzheimer's for the last few years, and I'm amazed and honored that he continues to write; from what I hear, he's no longer able to hold a pen or type on a keyboard, but he's been dictating this latest novel to his assistant. That's incredible devotion, and great evidence (as if we needed any) about how deeply Terry loves his work.

I'm deliberately staying away from knowledge about all three books, as this will be my one chance to read them relatively spoiler-free. That said, the latest issue of the New Yorker has an excerpt from 1Q84, titled "A Town of Cats." (That link will probably go behind a paywall in a few days, so print the article if you'd like to hold on to it.) I still know nothing about 1Q84 or how that story relates to the larger novel, but AToC is a remarkable piece of work. I think that it's the clearest statement Murakami has ever made on his writing style and the mode of his fiction; appropriately enough, this is something that would be impossible to convey within an essay, but that becomes beautifully clear within a story.