The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson

The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.

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Further to my plan to read everything Neal Stephenson has ever written, the Chaos, who is a good sort, bought me The Diamond Age for Christmas. Like all of Stephenson’s books I’ve read so far, I found it thoroughly addictive, so much so that I blasted through it in under two days. As I go further into his back catalogue, though, and approach his plots with a slightly more critical eye, I’m also discovering that his earlier work tends to suffer from structural weakness. He gets away with it because his invention is explosive and boundless and entirely seductive; the reader is swept up in a world they don’t want to leave, and so the fact that the whole narrative is curiously lopsided doesn’t matter. But it’ll leave the book vulnerable on rereading.

The Diamond Age is set in a near-future made possible by huge leaps in nanotechnological development. Nation-states are obsolete; people now select their own tribe (or join a “phyle”, a slightly less centralised version thereof). Some of them are familiar: the Jews, the Parsis, the Zulus. Some of them are less so: most of England has become neo-Victorian, while America includes a tribe known as the Heartlanders and China is divided into the Celestial Kingdom and the Coastal Republic. Body modification is most commonly practiced through the use of “sites”, nanobots introduced into the bloodstream that can enhance reflexes, incite pain or pleasure, interface with other objects like spectacles or external weaponry, and much more.

Our heroine is little Nell, a “thete” girl who belongs to no particular tribe and into whose hands falls a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. The Primer is an interactive (or “ractive”) book, programmed with both fairytales and useful instruction, that changes and adapts according to Nell’s responses. It has been designed by John Percival Hackworth, a programmer or “artifex” of great skill, and commissioned by the neo-Victorian Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw. Lord Finkle-McGraw has worked out the fundamental problem with choosing your own tribe: your children will grow up in a society that seems “natural” to them because it is familiar, and will stay in it out of habit, not out of choice. Finkle-McGraw believes, of course, that to be neo-Victorian is the best choice, but he wants his little granddaughter Elizabeth to be raised and educated in such a way that she has the skills and knowledge, eventually, to make that choice. Hackworth is only too happy to build such an education in the form of the Primer, but he makes an illegal copy for his daughter Fiona. And another copy is stolen by Nell’s ne’er-do-well brother, Harv, and finds its way to her…

Add to this heady mix some subplots involving Confucian justice as administered by an inscrutable judge named Fang, a rebellion being led by the Fists of Righteous Harmony and puppeteered by the mysterious Doctor X, and the ractress Miranda Redpath, who, as the voice of Nell’s copy of the Primer, develops a close relationship with this little girl she has never met, and you have some downright addictive stuff. Stephenson’s trademark dry wit is here (I imagine his prose is talking to me with one of its eyebrows lightly arched at all times), as is his entirely unashamed approach to cliffhangers and to proliferating narrative streams. It all makes it very hard to put the book down.

Eventually this becomes a bit of a problem because it also poses a challenge to anyone trying to make the book cohere in their head. About halfway through—roughly, I would say, at the point at which Nell joins Madame Ping’s, though actually I think it starts happening when Hackworth emerges from his ten-year sentence in the realm of the Drummers—the focus of the story shifts from the personal to the political. Technically, I suppose, you could argue that the story has always been political—that the whole thing has been catalysed by Finkle-McGraw’s bid to mass-inculcate subversiveness in the young—but our focus up until now has been on individuals, in whom we have become invested. To see them so suddenly yanked out of one context and thrust into another, and then the battle scenes that follow, is disorienting in the extreme. And, I’m sorry, but I am not satisfied with the ending. It doesn’t need much, maybe another five pages, but I would really have liked those five extra pages.

The star of this book, though, is definitely the Primer. What a wonderful invention; what a beautiful piece of symbolism, using and enriching the trope of a lost child finding solace in books. The Primer isn’t just something you read. It talks back to you; it uses the events of your life as a springboard for the lessons you need to learn; it can zoom in and out on images and stories, showing you both fine detail and the big picture. It contains blueprints, manuals, tales, keys, maps. Had I read The Diamond Age fifteen years ago, I’d have pined away for a Primer of my own. If you love books, you’ll probably love this one just for the way it literalises and takes seriously the deep truth that readers know: a book really can be your best friend.

The Diamond Age is published by Penguin Books.

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2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

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January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

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February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

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March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

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April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

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May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

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June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

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July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

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August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

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September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

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October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

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November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Like a pipe organ, a Digital Computer is not so much a machine as a meta-machine that can be made into any number of different machines…

As an eight-year-old, I suffered the indignity of having my parents rung up by my math teacher. This was not the last time my parents were rung up to discuss my behaviour—there was the time when I wrote rude notes about a teacher in my notebook, and the time when I hit a boy in the hallway and was recommended for child psychotherapy; I was a bit of a trial as a kid—but it was, in retrospect, the most depressing. My peccadillo, it turned out, was to have written, in darkly pressed graphite capitals, I HATE MATH in the top margin of every page of my math workbook. Every single one.

Things didn’t get any better after that. At nine, I memorized multiplication tables, but, oddly, didn’t learn long division. At ten, I went to middle school and was immediately placed into the bottom set for maths. At twelve, I was taught for a year by the redoubtable Amy Brudin, in whose classes I tried to read novels under the table. At fourteen, I went into freshman geometry, where I set the pace for the rest of my high school maths career by sitting silently near the back of the classroom, copying the answers out of the back of the textbook and being hit by intermittent waves of despair. At seventeen, I got into Oxford and told my AP Statistics teacher, as politely as I could, that her class was going to be the bottom of my priority list until I sat my AP English exam. She nodded, appeared to understand, and gave me full marks for the end-of-year project, which I’m fairly certain I didn’t even turn in.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that if you had told me, fifteen or ten or five or even two years ago, that I would one day spend a good portion of my morning commute engrossed by a multi-page breakdown of modular arithmetic, and come out of the experience possessed of significant understanding, I would have laughed in your face. But this is exactly what happened in the course of reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a book so erudite, so fascinating and so unexpectedly funny that I really think Stephenson could write about nearly anything and achieve much the same results.

There are three main plot strands, set in two different time periods. Beginning in the Second World War, we’re introduced to Bobby Shaftoe, a US Marine stationed in the Pacific whose raw intelligence is channeled into being an exceptional soldier and tactician, and Lawrence Waterhouse, whose mathematical genius is apparent from a very young age. Waterhouse spends a year of his university career at Princeton, where he meets Alan Turing, with whom he is friends for the rest of his life (one of the great joys of the book is the dialogue that Stephenson gives these two). He finishes university and joins the US Navy, and is in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bomb it and the war, for the Americans, begins. Sixty years into the future, Waterhouse’s grandson Randy gets involved in a company that wants to establish a data haven in a small Southeast Asian country, and needs the help of Shaftoe’s descendants to do it. Throw a pile of Nazi war gold into the mix, and we’re deep in techno-thriller territory.

Stephenson’s virtues as a novelist are essentially twofold. The first of these is his ability to explain mathematical and computing concepts thoroughly, comprehensibly, and without being patronizing. This is an unspeakably difficult combination, but if you want the very definition of “writing for the intelligent layperson”, that’s what he does. The narrative voice at these points is patient, methodical, reasoned, and conversational. Here, for instance, is the beginning of a three-page exposition on a technique known as Van Eck phreaking:

The way that the computer talks to you is not by controlling the screen directly but rather by manipulating the bits contained in the buffer, secure in the knowledge that other subsystems inside the machine handle the drudge work of pipelining that information onto the actual, physical screen. Sixty to eighty times a second, the video system says shit! time to refresh the screen again, and goes to the beginning of the screen buffer—which is just a particular hunk of memory, remember—and it reads the first few bytes, which dictate what color the pixel in the upper left-hand corner is supposed to be. This information is sent on down the line to whatever is actually refreshing the screen, whether it’s a scanning electron beam or some laptop-style system for directly controlling the pixels. Then the next few bytes are read, typically for the pixel just to the right of that first one, and so on all the way to the right edge of the screen.

It’s impossible to read this and not be nodding your head, going, “Uh huh, okay, that all makes sense,” and then before you know it the man has gotten onto square waves and you’re like “Gosh, this makes sense too!” Ordinarily I am deeply anti-info-dumping in novels,  but I loved it in Cryptonomicon; the book sounds like this because a lot of its characters do, too, or at least you get the impression that they would, if you asked them to sit down and explain these things.

Stephenson’s other major novelistic gift, which you may have gathered a bit of from the above passage, is that he is very funny. It’s a dry, witty sort of humour, but it’s constant, and it makes the act of reading the book a continual pleasure. It’s about serious things and clever people, and part of the delight of that is recognizing how much of cleverness is the ability to play, to pretend, to be un-serious. The narration also maintains a lightly knowing touch on the way that nerds relate to each other: their emotional peculiarities and their ability to focus intensely. Here, for instance, Turing and Waterhouse in the early days of their friendship:

One day a couple of weeks later, as the two of them sat by a running stream in the woods above the Delaware Gap, Alan made some kind of an outlandish proposal to Lawrence involving penises. It required a great deal of methodical explanation, which Alan delivered with lots of blushing and stuttering. He was ever so polite, and several times emphasized that he was acutely aware that not everyone in the world was interested in this sort of thing.

Lawrence decided that he was probably one of those people.

Alan seemed vastly impressed that Lawrence had paused to think about it at all and apologized for putting him out. They went directly back to a discussion of computing machines, and their friendship continued unchanged.

Or, for another fine example of nerdy objectivism made humorous simply by being observed:

Later, he was to decide that Andrew’s life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.

“Fractally weird”! Who doesn’t know someone who is fractally weird, eh? What a brilliant idea, and what a way of expressing it.

It’s not all fun and games, however. Bobby Shaftoe’s plotline, in particular, becomes more and more fraught with violence and horror; he’s a Marine in the South Pacific just as the war with Germany ends and the war with Japan steps up. General MacArthur makes an appearance, and is sketched with more nuance than you might think; he’s clearly a lunatic, but a lunatic whose own internal logic is coherent. The sack of Manila, on the other hand, is unrelentingly horrible, and reading descriptions of it was sickening. Stephenson is to be commended for his clear-eyedness; just because he’s writing a novel that, in some sections, qualifies as picaresque, doesn’t mean he’s flippant about the horror or the trauma of war.

At over nine hundred pages, there are inevitable lapses in control; particularly near the end, it was difficult to keep all of the connections across the decades clear in my head, and some of the coincidences involved in connecting characters do seem a bit…well…strained, if you think about them too hard. But you don’t, because the book is galloping ahead at full speed the entire time, throwing off quips and asides, and you’re too busy having fun gathering those. After Cryptonomicon, Stephenson wrote three books which are collectively known as the Baroque Cycle and which feature Shaftoes and Waterhouses of yore, in the feverish atmosphere of political and technological acceleration which characterized eighteenth-century Europe. This happens to be my literary period of choice, so I am definitely going to find and read them; I’d read Stephenson’s shopping list, if I knew that it would give me another fix of that warm, ironic, sharply observant, utterly humane voice.

Of Games and Books: Now Play This at Somerset House

I don’t generally write about things that aren’t books, or book-related, here. That is, after all, my wheelhouse, and this has been an explicitly book-review-and-literary-chat site since the spring. Surprising as it may seem, however, I do other things too, and quite often they relate back in some form to literary concerns: narrative, story structure, style and elegance, determining the truth of a situation.

One of the things I have started to do is try and learn how to code, which can be deeply frustrating, but also deeply rewarding. Oddly, although my brain was engaged throughout my three-year degree, it was not engaged in at all the same way as coding forces it to engage. I wasn’t not thinking as an undergraduate, but I was not thinking like this. This kind of thinking is something I can almost feel. You know when people talk about being able to see the cogs turning in someone’s head? I expect if you looked at me while I was working through the basics of binary, or while I was trying to get the syntax of a regular expression right, that’s sort of what you’d see.

Relevant to coding, amongst other things, is the whole idea of games, playing, exploration. The beauty of games is that you don’t need to have spent a childhood glued to an Xbox, or even a particularly deep knowledge of mathematics or logic, to be able to appreciate them and to get some idea of the systems behind them. This weekend, Somerset House  was hosting a three-day exhibition called Now Play This, which was entirely devoted to games of all descriptions. The Chaos and I got a half-day pass (in actuality we spent about an hour and a half there, but at £5 I would say it was entirely worth it) and, on Saturday, went.

As far as I can tell, there are basically two types of games: the type where you can win, and want to, and the type where winning is incidental, if not impossible. Traditional board games fall into the former category—Monopoly, for instance, and chess, and so on—as do parlour games like Charades. (I would also argue that a subset I like to call Teenage Party Games—Spin the Bottle, Truth or Dare, Never Have I Ever—falls into this category, although in some of these, winning is losing.) There were plenty of traditional, winnable games on offer at Now Play This: a whole room was devoted to board games, while in another there was an enormous table maze and a set-up involving a strip of LED lights and a control toggle, which you could bounce back and forth in order to advance your little green light and defeat the oncoming enemy red lights. There were also a couple of traditional, winnable video games, including one called Sagittarius which involved trying to use the gravitational pull exerted by planets to propel your weapon and shoot your opponent. If we’re honest, though, I’ve always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with traditional games. This is partly because I’m both very competitive and very impatient. I wish I were a natural chess player, but I can’t think five moves ahead. I want to just win already. The only game I ever really enjoy, come Christmas time, is Charades, and mostly that’s because I’m good at guessing. (Being forced to act in Charades, by contrast, is hellish.)

What’s really fascinating, then, is the second type of game, the type that you’re not necessarily trying to win, and where winning might not be the purpose of the exercise at all. Now Play This excelled in demonstrating these sorts of games. Many of them are designed in order to force you (or rather, encourage you) to explore an environment, whether it be the one you’re currently in or the one that the game places you in. In the first room we entered, for instance, there was a set of headphones and a small Nintendo handheld control. Depending on how you moved the control—speed, direction, and so on—different soundscapes would emanate from the headphones. The game itself, I think, was flawed in its implementation: the sounds weren’t easily differentiable, there didn’t seem to be very many of them, and the connection between your movements and the sounds being produced was unclear in practice. In theory, though, it’s obviously fascinating: you get to explore the geography of a place that doesn’t exist in the realm of the visual. It’s a completely different take on how we occupy space.

In another room, there was a two-person tent, with a projector inside that was throwing lights onto the tent’s ceiling. We crawled in, after waiting for the two people currently occupying it to crawl out, and found a MIDI controller. Using its sliders and buttons, it transpired, changed the pattern, orientation, and speed of the light designs being projected onto the ceiling. It’s a terribly simple idea, but it has almost infinite possibilities in terms of variation. It doesn’t look like a game in the traditional sense of the word, but what it does is get you to learn some basic behaviours—slide this slider up and the colour changes; slide this one down and you alter the design—and then use that creatively to alter your environment. You have the potential to alter your environment radically, if you choose. I didn’t realize this fully until a young man with a lip ring crawled into the tent between us, apparently undeterred by the limited space (this is one of the other great things about Now Play This: you make quite a few temporary friends). While I had been content with the sliders, assuming that the other buttons would have been disabled, he hit the controller’s Record button, then Pause, then begin twirling a few dials. Instantly, more interesting things began to happen. You learn as you play, then, not to assume that you know the parameters of a game before you’ve tried them.

One of the best aspects of the exhibition was a room with small index cards, on which was printed the challenge “Can you design a game that you can explain in 128 characters?”* There were pens scattered about the table. People had taken up the challenge with alacrity, both in person and online; there were printouts of tweeted responses to this question pinned to the wall. Games, I discovered while looking at them, don’t have to be complicated. It seems as though the opposite is primarily true: the simpler something is, at least to begin with, the more you can do with it. (The best instance of this is the glorious invention of Calvinball, from the late and lamented comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Calvinball is distinguished by having no rules, or rather, by having rules which you make up on the spot and alter at will. There is a ball involved; other than that, anything goes.) It is also evident that games are sometimes not easily distinguishable from behaviours more readily associated with pathological instability. One of the suggested games, for instance, involved determining which cardinal direction—north, south, east, or west—was the most dangerous, and then spending an entire day endeavouring to keep at least one object between you and your chosen horizon. “A window doesn’t count,” the designer noted. I spent a moment imagining this game, and concluded that, for the right player, it could quickly become an all-out obsession.

11947862_10204876154039610_5556384717864210513_oThis explains, I suppose, why people who think about maths and infinity and game environments do often become a little unhinged. (Either that, or they already are.) Games can be a kind of controlled experiment in altering your state of mind; a mental illness, in some senses, is a game that you can’t stop playing. I am thinking in particular of what happened to me when I lived alone for two months in Oxford; in order to keep some level of structure, I began to obsessively plan out a daily schedule, including strict times of day at which I was permitted to eat, read, shower, and go to sleep. If I deviated from this schedule by more than about five minutes at a time, I became anxious and stressed. To begin with, it looked very much like a game; by the end, it was driving me mad.

Since I am still, of course, a book person, my immediate response to this has been to read around it. I already have James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games; I’d also like to read more around Alan Turing, one of whose major papers I read a few months ago (understood about 30% of it, which means there’s nowhere to go but up), and while we’re on the subject of play, codes, and code breaking, I bought Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon today. (I was in Hatchards. I was, sadly, escorted out before I could throw all of my money over the counter.)

Oh, and I’ll keep you all up to date on the progress of my quest to code. You may be pleased to know that I sorted out the regular expression, in the end.

*The Chaos, in grand style, responded to this by writing, “Can you design a game that you can implement in 128 characters?”