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What to Learn from Neal Stephenson

As a writer, there is an inherent risk in reading. It’s a risk you must take, of course, and risk you couldn’t avoid taking anyway, since all writers start as readers and remain such. The risk is reading a novel (or story or poem or screenplay or whatever) that you simultaneously love and realize that you, yourself, could never ever write it yourself. It is a moment that is both inspiring and disheartening; you see, with a clarity that is often unobtainable, the sheer heights you must scale to stand shoulder to shoulder with your would-be peers. If you’re like me, a book like that can put you in a writing tailspin for a week or more as you try to parse out how the author did it and what the magnitude of their achievement means for your own work.

Let's not get in to his *fantastic* facial hair, either. Seriously, I would kill to be able to grow that beard.

Let’s not get in to his *fantastic* facial hair, either. Seriously, I would kill to be able to grow that beard.

There are a couple authors who do that to me. Ursula K LeGuin, for instance, has an easy, elegant prose style that I can’t quite wrap my head around. Margaret Atwood builds characters so real that it seems impossible that they don’t truly exist. Most consistently in my adulthood, though, the single author that has managed to flabbergast me most often has been, without a doubt, Neal Stephenson.

Now, I don’t intend to make this post all gushy and fanboyish, because in all honestly I am not a gusher or a fanboy over Mr. Stephenson. His books, as impressive as they are, aren’t flawless paradigms of narrative prose. They sometimes have pacing issues, sometimes they seem to end at odd points, and there are moments where Stephenson’s hyper-cool style lead the plot on tangents that, while fun, also seem to dilute the narrative power of the work. That said, they are still a million times better than anything I am likely to write, so who cares what I think?

The feeling you get reading a Stephenson novel is that you are in the hands of a storyteller both infinitely hip and monumentally intelligent. He manages to make Sumerian myth gel with futuristic motorcycle races all while actually educating you about the basic framework of computer science. If the purpose of reading fiction is to be transported into other places and other lives, reading a book like Cryptonomicon or The Confusion is like buying a ticket on Magellan’s first cruise round the world – it might take you years to complete, but oh the places you’ll go! The sheer density of information is overwhelming; the tangents glow as brightly as the main storyline, the secondary characters evoke your senses as much as the protagonist until, eventually, you have difficulty telling whose story this is and what it’s about. Weirdly, amazingly enough, though, you don’t care.

I’ve read five of Stephenson’s books; I find myself constantly recommending them to people. They baffle me at the same time as they impress me. How is this possible? How can a five-hundred page book that goes on innumerable tangents and deals with a half-dozen seemingly unconnected characters still be fun on every single page? How (and why) does he condense so much information about the real world into a single volume, even when very little of it seems essential to the plot? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out.

My Technology in Literature class is about to embark upon Snow Crash, Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic. Though they are bemoaning its great length, I know they’ll love it anyway (even if they don’t finish it). This will be my fourth or fifth time reading the book, and each time I’ve been able to unpack more and more of the dense story and apply it to a kind of thematic framework. It’s fascinating and so unlike so much other science fiction out there. What have I learned from it as a writer? Well, a lot of different things; a lot about how to weave humor into narrative, a lot about how to manipulate style to reflect character voice without speaking first person, a lot about how to show rather than tell. Most importantly, though, is this central lesson:

I will never write a book like Neal Stephenson does, and that is okay. That, ultimately, is the point. Neither I nor anybody else should tear themselves down over the achievements of another writer, because this isn’t ultimately a competition. We are joining a conversation in which writers like Neal Stephenson are part. Should we bring our A-game? Hell yes, but even more important than bringing our A-game, we should also remember to bring ourselves. So be like Stephenson; be your own original.

Speculative Literature’s Best Duels

I don’t know about you, but I love a good duel. The hero and the villain (or, perhaps the hero and anti-hero, or two villains, or what-have-you) facing off, one-on-one. It’s been done thousands of times and, yet, there are still so very many ways to make it fresh, to get us on the edges of our seats, hearts in our throats, waiting to see how and if our favorite characters will make it through alive. Love it. So, for this post I’ve decided to list off my top five favorite duels in scifi/fantasy literature. first, some stipulations:

Duels Not Battles: Duels are events of single combat (or nearly so). Big battles where it’s one guy against many or two big groups of people having a free-for-all don’t count.

Books Only: This is a list of duels present in books. No movies, no graphic novels, no video games, no television series. Books. The first guy who comments ‘but what about Vader/Skywalker in Empire!’ gets a giant, metaphysical dope-slap. Yes, yes – that duel was iconic. Heck, it’s probably why I love duels in the first place. It isn’t, though, what I’m talking about here.

Gotcha? Okay, let’s go:

#5: Rand al’Thor Vs High Lord Turak and (later) Ba’alzamon At Toman Head

Book: The Great Hunt, Book 2 of the Wheel of Time Series

Author: Robert Jordan

Among the interminable tales of badassery that is The Wheel of Time, there is that first time – that very first time – you realized that Rand al’Thor is, in fact, a stupendous badass and likely only to become moreso. Up until Rand crosses swords with Turak, he’s been toting around a heron-mark blade, which marks him as a blademaster. Thing is, though, he isn’t. He sucks, actually. For the first two books, Rand is, essentially, living a lie. We, the readers, are worried about him. I mean, sooner or later, his luck is going to run out and he’s actually going to have to tussle with a serious swordsman. Then he’s screwed, right?

So then Turak draws his own heron-mark blade, except we know he’s earned it. A collective ‘oh shit’ moment ensues. Will Rand’s training with Lan be enough? Jordan then treats us with a vivid swordfight told in metaphor, essentially – the descriptions of all the moves Rand’s been taught by Lan – and he wins! But that’s not enough! Then he has to fight, essentially, Satan Himself in a damned duel. Seriously, it’s awesome! What’s more, everybody else sees it and knows it’s awesome, too. Yay! This, of course, is only the beginning for Rand, but what a start, right?

#4: Bilbo Baggins Vs Gollum Beneath The Misty Mountains

Book: The Hobbit

Author: JRR Tolkien

Not all duels are fought with weapons. This one ranks as one of my favorite duels of wits ever: Bilbo, lost, alone, stuck in the dark, finds himself accosted by the sinister and creepy Gollum in his underground hideaway. They engage in a game of riddles, with the stakes being Bilbo’s escape or his being devoured by the hungry Gollum. Thinking outside the box, Bilbo wins by simply exploiting the rules of the game: “What is in my pocket?” Brilliant. Unexpected. Wonderful.

Well played, little guy. Well played.

#3: Paul Muad’Dib Atreides Vs Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen on Arrakis

Book: Dune

Author: Frank Herbert

This duel is as much dance as fight. Everything in Paul’s long quest leads to this, and all the political ambitions of the galaxy are wrapped up in it. Tricks within tricks, feints within feints, treacheries over treacheries. Paul’s eventual victory is fitting, given that it, itself, is a trick within a trick. “I will not say it!” tells Feyd-Rautha that Paul knows, but that Paul need not use. It is still enough; death on Arrakis is often sudden.

#2: Bronn Vs Some Knight of the Vale at The Eyrie

Book: A Game of Thrones

Author: George RR Martin

Martin’s successful and expansive series involves a number of memorable fights, but this is, perhaps, the most memorable for me. First off, if you don’t love Tyrion Lannister above all other characters in that series, there is something wrong with you. So, when Fly-Off-The-Handle Catelyn Stark hauls the little guy off into the Eyrie on a bunch of nonsense charges and he finds himself faced with the lunatic Lysa Arryn, we feel pretty bad for the guy. His trial by combat looks pretty damned hopeless, but then here comes Bronn, the mercenary. Standing up for the little guy (and for his own paycheck, no doubt), so good for him.

But wait, Bronn’s not wearing any armor? Huh? What? Oh no! But…oooohhhh. I get it. Smooth, Bronn. Smooth.

#1: Dappa (w/Otto Van Hoek) Vs Sir Charles White (w/Woodruff) at Tower Hill, London

Book: The System of the World, Book 3 of the Baroque Cycle

Author: Neal Stephenson

What’s better than a former slave dueling a former slave owner/present day bigot on the field of honor? A former slave and former sailor/pirate hunter dueling a bigot and swordsman with cannons. Yes, cannons; it’s a cannon duel. Suddenly, smarty-pants swordsman/bigot needs to know math to kill his enemy, the supposedly ‘inferior’ African man who has been taunting him for years now. Yes. Yes and yes.

This was among the most amazing, hilarious, wonderful, and satisfying duels I’ve ever read. I really can’t think of any that top it at the moment. It is worth wading through the umpteen thousand pages of the Baroque Cycle just to get here. Trust me.
Well those are mine. What are yours? I’m curious to hear.

Anyone for Recreational Essay Writing?

I just finished my syllabus for my Technology in Literature elective this coming semester. Students will have to write two short research papers and, just for fun, I thought I’d post the assignment here and see what folks think of it. Heck, if you like, go ahead and write the papers (don’t you dare send it to me to grade, though–I’ve got enough of that already). Anyway, here we go:

The overall focus of this course is the portrayal of science and technology in literature and how those portrayals illuminate the concerns and hopes of humans living in a certain era. It tells us a lot about how they thought, what they believed, and also can tell us some things about how we have changed, if at all, from those times. In class we will be discussing certain individual works from certain time periods and analyzing them closely, but we won’t be able to fully explore everything. Your task, in two short research papers, is to expand upon our class discussions and deepen your understanding of one or several of the works we are studying, bringing in outside sources and other contemporary works to develop a unique and compelling thesis regarding the cultural and, perhaps, even scientific significance of your chosen work.

 Accordingly, your precise topic is left to your discretion. I will provide suggestions below, but you needn’t be bound by them—if you can come up with a different topic that interests you more, please explore that. In general, however, you are writing an in-depth literary analysis of one or more works from either the first half (for paper 1) or the second half (for paper 2) of the twentieth century. All papers should incorporate at least 6 sources (including the primary sources), be 6-8 pages in length (approximately 1700-2400 words), feature double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font, have numbered pages, stapled, with a works cited page in MLA format. A rough draft for each paper is allowable, but is strictly optional. If you wish to receive your rough draft back in time to make revisions for your final draft, be certain to submit it a week or more prior to the due date. Papers may be handed in at any time during the semester up until the due date. Late work is not accepted.

 Topic Suggestions

Paper 1 (pre-1960)

  • How did the idea of British world supremacy influence HG Wells’ Time Machine?
  • Is The Time Machine  racist? If so, why and how? How is it related to Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”?
  • How does Asimov’s opinion of the Soviet Union affect the themes inherent in Foundation?
  • Does the Galactic Empire in Foundation symbolize Ancient Rome? If so, why does Asimov choose Rome as the analog? If not, what does it symbolize instead and why?
  • Is Heinlein aware of the fascist undertones to his society in Starship Troopers? What is his attitude towards fascism as depicted in the book? How does it differ, if at all, from the kind of fascism demonstrated by the Nazis in 1940s-era Germany?

 Paper 2 (post-1960)

  • Gibson’s depiction of cyberspace in Neuromancer represents a kind of ‘wild frontier’, in a sense (Case is a ‘cowboy’, those who operate in the matrix are apart from society, etc.). What is the meaning of this metaphor? Where does Gibson think the ‘matrix’ (what we now know as the Internet) will lead us?
  • Explain and explore the role of religion and spirituality in Neuromancer. What does it mean? Why does Gibson include it?
  • In Snow Crash, why does Stephenson choose to use the Mafia as protagonists and how does this differ from other late-20th century depictions of the mob and why?
  • What is the symbolic significance of Hiro and Raven’s shared heritage in Snow Crash? What, if anything, is Stephenson trying to say about the future of America?
  • In Banks’ Culture, he shows us a ‘perfect’ symbiosis between man and machine. How does Banks choose to portray this symbiosis? Why?
  • Explore the significance of gender roles in The Player of Games and how does this parallel the changing understanding of those roles in late 20th century Western culture.

Well, enjoy!

ACRONYM (A Crazy Rant of No Yuseful Meaning)

My friend, David Fisher, posted this on Facebook recently:

Nerd Question: If you were a part of an supergroup or evil organization whose name was a word acronym, what would be more important to you… the coolness of the acronym or the selection of words used that created that acronym?

In other words, would it bother you to be a part of SPECTRE, even though Blofeld had to actually create an organization named ‘SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’ just to get the acronym to work right? Or to be a member of the ‘Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division’ so that you could say you were a part of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

This is an interesting question, especially if you are in the habit of writing science fiction or devising science fiction worlds. It even intersects with the broader question in sci-fi/fantasy of ‘how do you name things?’

Ultimately, all acronyms and, by extension, all names come down to aesthetics. Doing it well is as much poetry as anything else, but it’s very focused poetry – you really only have a handful or, possibly, a single word to convey the mood and tone of the organization, character, or place. Writers obsess over such things and I’d like to think that scifi/fantasy authors obsess over them even more.

I’m wrong, of course. Consider the long list of poorly named things and places throughout speculative fiction. One of my favorites is the character Pug the Sorcerer from Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga. Now, in the start of the series, Pug’s humble name fit his humble origins. However, later on, when he became The Sorcerer and the main power-broker, wiseman, and general savior of all humankind, calling him ‘Pug’ was a bit underwhelming. Likewise I might include most of the human or drone characters named in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels – Flere-Imsaho? Chamlis Amalkney? Urgh – I can’t even pronounce them, let alone allow them to work on my mind in any kind of poetic or emotional sense.

That is, by the way, what names ought to do in fiction or, heck, in real life. They should capture the imagination somehow. Do you know why names like John and David and Elizabeth have lasted so long? It isn’t because they’re boring – it’s because they mean something. They have resonance with the human experience. They wield a kind of poetic inertia. You can feel the name. There are people who look like Susan’s instead of Katies, or Katies that are better called Katherine or Kate. There’s a kid in one of my classes who’s named Nolan but whom, for reasons beyond logical dissection, I feel like calling Calvin. This, of course, is of minor annoyance to Calvin, who is also in my class. He, however, looks like a Calvin, so I never mess up his name.

Writers of spec-fic should pay particular attention to the names of everything, not just their characters or their organizations. They are creating a world and appending to it a phonetic canon of acceptable sounds and meanings. Not only should that place be new and alien, but it should also be relatable enough to our own world to allow the reader to get a fix on it. Consider the master, Tolkien: Gondor, Mordor, Rohan, Rivendell, Hobbiton, Galadriel, Balrog, Sauron, Minas Morgul, Gollum. Tolkien was a linguist; he knew how these things worked. He was well aware of how these things felt in our mouths and would sit in our minds. It isn’t only those who have read the books that can feel what that list of names mean – it’s anyone who’s a native speaker of English. They’re connected to something in ‘the deep structures of our brain’, to borrow Neal Stephenson’s phrase from Snow Crash (wherein, by the way, he has characters named Hiro Protagonist, Vitaly Chernobyl, Raven, and L Bob Rife).

So, when you’ve got some guy pulling names out of his ass just to have something on the page (Asimov comes to mind, who had simply god-awful names in his sci-fi books), it takes something away from the experience. To come back to the initial quandary as introduced by my friend Fisher, I don’t really fault SPECTRE, since it’s a wonderful name for the organization. I’d have preferred the acronym to make sense, too, but sometimes you can’t have everything. I’d rather Ian Flemming did that than come up with something more realistic but less wonderful. Telling stories isn’t always about realism, folks – it’s about conveying truth. That can require a little bit of fudging here and there.