Saturday, December 24, 2011

Saturday Post, 12/24/2011

I suppose I should write this post before it gets any later and I run into Christmas Eve activities, and thus Christmas activities, and thus post Christmas activities, and thus not get to post until Tuesday.

Two books this week.

Neal Stephenson - Reamde

First up, this book took me a whole week to read. Clear some time if you want to read it. It's over 1000 pages long. 400 pages in, Stephenson introduces a new point of view character. a little over 500 pages in, Stephenson starts Part Two. The climax begins something like 150 pages from the end, and builds from there. What I'm saying is, this is a long book, and it builds slowly, but solidly.

Stephenson has made a name for himself by writing books that only geeks can love. Anathem is a thousand pages, deeply infused with mathematics and quantum mechanics. It has appendices, which are even more full of math. (It's also a great story - I don't really do math, and I loved it.) Cryptonomnicon (multi-hundreds of pages) features a scene in which the hero reprograms his laptop to blink its LED status lights in Morse code. The Baroque Cycle is three books long, each of them multi-hundreds of pages long, which include lengthy descriptions (among other things) of the process whereby phosphorous is made, as well as digressions discussing languages, physics, the nature of money, and all manner of other stuff which turn already meaty and complex books into door-stopping, toe-breaking tomes. Reamde is a tome - there's no getting around that - but this one is a little less geeky than some of his other works. No laptop programing sequences (although there is a bit where some of the people hack into a WiFi server to access some files), no discursive explanations of how language works, no complex math. There are, however, several scenes set entirely inside an MMORPG. They aren't as dense and geek-friendly as some of the bits in earlier works, but nor are they skippable.

The MMORPG elements concerned me going in - many many authors don't seem to get how online games actually work. There's a whole Cracked article about it - here - and I know I've complained about it before. Current game technologies don't allow the generation of the sort of immersive virtual reality that authors want from the games. At present, there is no way to "rob a bank" in a game, and no company currently employs people to take over NPCs when a player character asks complicated questions - most games I've seen use a pre-set dialog tree which limits you to a specific set of queries and responses. Either you take the quest or you don't, you can't actually have a conversation with a computer character. I think Stephenson dodges the worst elements of this.

That being said, he largely avoids the problem by defining very carefully what the game can and cannot do. He has the space - the book is over 1000 pages long - so he can say "the game is designed to do thus and so" and thus avoid someone saying "no game does thus and so." In particular, the use of money in the game seems to anticipate a potential next step in how games work - it's not outside of what's possible, it's just that noone is doing it. Still - remember that Cracked article? Stephenson does #2 from that list - a chase scene inside the game world - and makes it make logical sense. People on one side the Pacific need to talk to a person on the other side of the Pacific, and have no way of meeting him in person, and so must track him down in the game. The person on the other side of the Pacific can't simply log out, because if he does, he will lose some stuff he's worked hard to get (and which have real world value). I was watching for a slip, because I'd read the article before starting the book, and I think Stephenson does it pretty well.

Anyway, the game is only a small element of the book. The whole thing is about money (Stephenson is fascinated by money, I think - as a concept. What constitutes money? How does it work? How can it work differently? How will it work differently, now that we're playing with the internet and such?) and terrorism and very strong personalities clashing with each other in interesting and unpredictable ways.

Strong personalities - and deeply written characters (multi-hundreds of pages, you know) - are the other trademark of Stephenson's work, and this book is certainly no different. He uses his long books to very good effect, and presents really interesting characters who do things that are fun to read about. It's not hard to care about them. Which is what makes these monstrously long books a treat to read, even if you don't care about the math or the laptops, or the money, or whatever.

This books ranges all over, with big sequences in Portland, in various parts of China and the Philippines, in Western Canada, in Idaho, and all over the place. Terrorists feature heavily, as do hackers. There are lots of guns. There are some bikers who wear claymore swords on their backs. There's a troll. It's a spy story smooshed into a sci-fi/fantasy story, smooshed into a romance story, smooshed into an adventure story. The whole thing is a little unwieldy, but it works.

If you already like Neal Stephenson, you'll probably like this (although you might be disappointed that the characters from Cryptonomicon don't show up, even though they really ought to). If you like rollicking good yarns, you'll probably like this. If you like strong characters doing interesting things, you'll probably like this. If you like to watch stories unfold slowly, and characters get built up and built up and built up over many many pages, you'll definitely like this. But, if you fear long books, maybe give it a miss.

Devon Monk - Dead Iron

This book was a little lighter (ha!) than Stephenson. It's a steampunk western urban fantasy romance-y type thing. It features a werewolf bounty hunter, and an evil fairy type villain (truly mustache twirlish - nicely evil), a good witch, and some mysterious brothers who live in a silver mine.

The evil fairy is building a rail line across the United States. The brothers don't like him - there seems to be some history there. The werewolf sets out to find a lost boy. The witch sets out to avenge her dead husband. A pretty inventor girl (at the un-marry-able age of 17!) sets out to prove herself. Romance-y things happen off to the side. Magically infused steam-powered robots stomp around and blow things up. Magically infused steam-powered guns are used to devastating effect. The whole thing is a lot of fun, frankly.

It's a little deeper than that. The book does prompt some pondering about the nature of humanity, and the role of technology in our world.  Monk hasn't taken an urban fantasy western plot and thrown gears at it The steampunkishness is deeper than the brass and brown surface - does technology make us all the same, or can it be twisted to allow individuality. Still, it's not all THAT deep - a quick read, with some fun characters, and just enough depth to make it worth the effort. There will be a sequel, but this book does conclude with sufficient satisfaction to not spoil things.