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3/5. So the moon blows up. I mention this in passing, which I feel is appropriate, because in this book the moon blows up due to the actions of some presumably alien unknown agent, and this book gives negative fucks about the who or the why. Whatever, handwave, let's follow the admittedly harrowing adventures of the few thousand surviving humans who escape into space, and then skip ahead five thousand years to their descendants coming back.

Yikes. A goodreads friend said that this book is what happens when you send an engineer to do an anthropologist's job, which is bang on. Basically . . . oh Neal Stephenson NO.

It's always telling what an author insists on getting right and what he doesn't give a fuck about. Neal Stephenson really, really, really wants you to know that he thought long and hard about orbital mechanics and – it appears – did a decent amount of back-of-the-napkin math to back up his made up technological innovations here.

On the list of things he can not be bothered to have basic facts on? Women's bodies. Which is a telling oversight for a book which is greatly concerned with how to rebuild the human population from a tiny remnant containing only a very few women. According to this book, how fertility preservation science works is a man and a woman have sex, she gets pregnant, and the embryo (and all zillion branches of the trophoblast and placenta? Apparently?) are, like, scraped out of her and flash frozen. Apparently he never bothered learning what the V in IVF stands for. Also according to this book, post menopausal women cannot bear children. This is (1) incorrect – of course they can, just not with their own eggs; and (2) presented as fact in a situation where there are literally less than 10 human wombs in existence, and everyone desperately needs to start making babies. Except apparently the menopausal woman? Even though they are all using advanced reproductive technology to get pregnant? And it makes zero sense not to ask her to gestate embryos with someone else's genetics? But oh wait that would have required knowing about lady things.

So there you have Neal Stephenson. By god the science behind some made up technology had better be right, but don't bother him with women's business.

And don't get me started on – okay, if I really get going on the last third of the book, we will be here all day. Can I do this briefly? Because it's worth doing, it really is.

The first two thirds of this book are gripping extreme survival porn. Like, really gripping. Full of amazing female friendship and adventure and bravery and sacrifice. See that 3/5 up there? That's the first two-thirds. And yeah, the human emotion part is really slipshod, but okay, whatever, we're too busy talking about how you move a megaton ice comet around, so okay.

And then we jump ahead five thousand years to – and I'm not spoiling this, it's on the jacket copy – a time when seven new "races" of humanity have propagated. And there's a whole lot of authorsplaining about this, and I was like 'blah blah blah, can we go back to the space adventures?' until Stephenson authorsplained that in this future, racism doesn't exist anymore.

*Record scratch*.

The entire last third of the book is an exercise in racism. On the Watsonian level, every. Single. Character spends 90% of their social energy on categorizing everyone by race, explaining each tiny behavior and quirk as racially based (down to posture, personality, conversational style, everything). The joke I made was that it had suddenly turned into Divergent in space. The not funny part is none of these people are allowed to be people: they are all, to every nuance, racial types. And on the Doylist level, you know what these new races are defined by?

Yeah. Awkward. They're defined by specifically twenty-first century racial stereotypes. Like the descendants of the Asian woman are all focused on intelligence and achievement. And the descendants of the Muslim woman value being quiet and helpful and invisibly accommodating, like servant wives.

But there's no more racism, don't you know.

In future, he really needs to stick with the duct-tape-spit-and-hope space survival, and not touch sociology ever, ever, ever, ever again. To say nothing of race relations, JFC.
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Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, #1)Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A long, meandering, Europe-trotting historical which alternates stretches of ponderous natural philosophy with stretches of hilarious piratical shenanigans, to somewhat dubious effect. I enjoyed this, the way you enjoy a book that you read in 100 page chunks over the span of a year, and it's worth noting that I could do that since there's very little throughline. But the thing is.

The thing is, Stephenson made a conscious choice to mix his oodles of historical research with a modern prose sensibility. Which is fine, since it's not like the novel as we understand it – and as Stephenson writes it – was actually invented yet when this book is set. But his particular modern prose sensibility is basically a transcription of the stylings of an overeducated hipster douche kicking back in a hipster douche bar, telling his hipster douche friends about that time he got lost on vacation and nearly died of malaria, but the entire point of the story is to be arch and ironic and detached about the whole thing, because let's be honest, nothing bad could truly ever happen to this hipster douche, that just isn't how the world works and he knows it. I mean, he's a funny dude! He tells a great story! But there's a very fine line.

Basically, somewhere around page 700, right about where a couple of characters were observing a rape and contemplating their imminent enslavement and death, and all they did was make arch, detached, hipster douche comments to each other about it, just as every other character had done on every other occasion from the wrenching to the banal to the sublime, right about then was when I thought oh come on, a single moment of genuineness wouldn't kill you.

Except this is Stephenson, so actually . . . it might.




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Some Remarks: Essays and Other WritingSome Remarks: Essays and Other Writing by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Neal Stephenson existed to me entirely through his novels before, since he doesn't have any of the modern authorial infrastructure – no twitter, no blog, no Goodreads, etc. And apparently I had come to a number of conclusions about him based entirely on his books, which is one of those things we like to pretend we don't do, but, I mean, come on. I figured this out when I was trudging through the opening salvos of this book and thought, ug, what a fucking asshole, with a complete lack of surprise. So I ran an informal poll of some of my friends who have also read and greatly enjoyed his books (all women, come to think of it) along the not at all respondent-biasing lines of "Neal Stephenson, gut check, asshole or not asshole?" and got 100% "asshole" back without hesitation. Yeah. We all do it. It's just funny when we come to the same conclusion.

Anyway, this was really rocky. I dug the fiction, because even when he's writing about stuff I'm tired of hearing about (monetary systems) he's just so damn snappy and hilarious. And the (excerpts?) from the long piece on the fiendishly mad engineering endeavor of laying transoceanic cables were fascinating.

But the shorter nonfiction pieces. Save me. In the intro he puts an "I own this" stamp on everything by explaining it's a curated collection, it's the stuff he basically still stands by. So okay. He stands by the reductionist and defensive and obnoxious commentary on geek culture. I could write 500 more words on this, but suffice it to say he uses a lot of "we geeks all know" and "we geeks all feel," type of rhetorical gestures, and I? Yeah, I'm a queer disabled geek and I am really, really not in his "we all." And he stands by the way he never met a criticism rooted in the portrayal of people of color (or the lack thereof) in art that he actually understood and didn't have something snide to say about. And he stands by all the rhetorical us versus them cultural game-playing and the lecturing and the general obnoxiousness laid thick enough to make me want to argue with him when I totally agreed with something he was saying.

So basically I will never ever read his nonfiction again, and on the bizarre chance he ever gets a twitter, I'm blocking it instantly. But the fiction and I will still probably get on like gangbusters.




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There, [personal profile] treewishes, are you happy now?

ReamdeReamde by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


You can learn a lot from a Neal Stephenson book. He’s that kind of dude. World War II cryptographics, currency systems, network key encryption, pianos – at the end of one of his thousand pagers, I always know more than I did when I started.



From this book, I learned that Neal Stephenson would like a movie deal, please.



I kid, I kid. Mostly. This is, in fact, a ridiculously engaging transnational techno thriller (not specfic), with that Stephensonian touch for the hilarious, and a gentle, affectionate mockery for everyone from the hipster urban geeks to the ultra-religious survivalist types. The last two hundred pages is one long, tongue-in-cheek joke at the expense of a particular stripe of American conservative post-terror mindset, but it's not at all scathing. There’s a lot of mockery to go around, actually. It’s one of those books that’s a silly, improbable summer blockbuster by way of making fun of silly, improbable summer blockbusters, but it does it with so much zeal and fucking cheek, I just went sure, okay and rolled with it.



I’m pretty sure this is the sort of thing you write to chill out. If you’re the sort of dude who writes a thousand pages to chill out. Which, let’s be honest, Stephenson clearly is. It’s a grand good time, and geeky, and gleeful. But it’s ultimately insubstantial. The sort of book that sustains itself while it’s happening (…and happening …and happening) but that starts to lose some vim on reflection.



It’s no Cryptonomicon, is what I’m saying. But it'd make a pretty good action flick.



Oh, and he still can’t stick a fucking ending. He knows he’s supposed to have one now, at least there’s that?





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Snow Crash Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Oh Neal Stephenson, never change. Because who else writes occasionally hilarious punkified SF with a swordsman hacker and a skateboarder saving the world from mind control memes, I ask you?

Wait, no, you can change in a few ways. You can write better endings, which I realize you've been working on in subsequent books. Because this book does not actually end, it just sprints face-first into a brick wall. It's about as pretty as you think it is. Youch. You can also write better romantic relationships, because that one made my eyes water in the really not good way. You can get funnier, which I say only because I know that you have since 1992, because this book is funny, but you have some rough timing and there's something a bit off-center about the delivery here that you have a better handle on in Cryptonomicon, say.

You don't really have to work on your computers, because the way you wrote about programming and hacking in 1992 is so fundamental and universal that it still makes perfect sense. And the really weird thing is that you don't have to work on tightening up your books, because this one was pretty tight by your sprawling, vast standards. This book had sort of a through line, and you didn't toss much out that you didn't pick up again later. And the really weird thing is? It didn't work for you as well as the enormous flood of your later books. Who else can say that, either?

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Cryptonomicon Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Yowza. A story about a World War II cryptographer, a marine, a Japanese engineer, and fifty years later a software entrepreneur whose work turns out to depend on all of theirs.

Tremendously long and convoluted, with a plot that, well. See, it's quite silly in places, particularly the end, but that really doesn't matter because the point of this book is not the plot. This is one of those books where you just hang on and enjoy the journey through 1100 pages of math, and phreaking, and structural engineering, and military tactics, and academia, and electronic currencies, and I could go on. The whole thing is delivered in that straight-faced absurdist style Stephenson can do until the cows come home. What I'm saying is it's a ridiculous, enormous, wandery book with no real oomph to the through line and a lot of extra baggage, but I enjoyed the hell out of every page. Even the ones that hurt to read, and there were a few of those. The shameless glee with which this book flings itself down and just rolls around in its own piles of geekiness is infectious, and the way it's sad and hilarious and tragic just adds spice.

Ooh. That was nice. A big commitment, but yeah, that was nice.

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The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (Bantam Spectra Book) The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
In a nanotechnified future, where the geography of nation states has been replaced by cultural societies bound by technology, a neo-Victorian engineer in China develops a subversive toy for young girls. It's a highly advanced form of interactive fiction, and the old fairytale story within the primer alternates with the political and technological upheaval of the outside world.



Brilliantly creative, fun and moving in places, but ultimately disappointing. The last fifth or so was rushed and distant, and the whole thing – self-determination and life narratives and everything else – never actually came together. Also, for all its female protagonist, this is one of those books about female self-determination that is actually 75% by volume men talking about female self-determination, if you know what I mean. And I would have appreciated a counterpoint to a lot of the cultural absolutism we got – a lot of westerners are x and easterners are y. And and and.



I'm glad I read his excellent Anathem first – it brings all the clever and the fun stylism, and also actually delivers in the end.




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Anathem

Apr. 1st, 2009 12:40 am
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Anathem Anathem by Neal Stephenson


My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
Okay, so I think this is what you get if you take a slim young adult book about a bunch of extremely geeky teenagers who end up saving the world, and grow it up into a 900 page doorstop about quantum mechanical polycosmic theory, but keep the sense of humor exactly the same.



Yeah, that was pretty fun, if long and a bit wandery. Monks in space! Volcanoes! And it's all pleasantly alternate reality in an unsubtle 'holding up a mirror' way that was shockingly not annoying.



Yeah, the resolution is a bit of a let-down – I called the climax a few hundred pages out, for one thing. And for another, I like my quantum mechanical skiffy to actually boggle me intellectually, rather than mildly bemuse, but what can you do.




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