The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

“He Was A Very Nice Boy…He Used To Write Science Fiction”

Posted on | October 31, 2014 | 32 Comments

— by Wombat-socho

I am speaking, of course, about Neal Stephenson, who after two unsuccessful novels broke out with the wildly successful Snow Crash, a wild tale about hackers, feudal corporatism, an Aleutian with a nuke, and a girl and her dog. He followed that up with the even more complex and fascinating The Diamond Age…and then there was Cryptonomicon. Cryptonomicon was an outstanding book that jumped back and forth between World War II and the present, with cryptography tying it all together, but whatever it was, it sure wasn’t science fiction, and it didn’t really fit in the technothriller genre box either. It was still popular with science fiction fans, and a lot of other folks bought it too. The Baroque Cycle departed even further from SF, being a three-part historical novel set in the 17th and 18th centuries. Stephenson insists that it’s SF due to some mysterious events that take place and the novels’ concentration on technology, cryptology and numismatics, but he may be the only person that believes this. With the exception of the monumentally boring Anathem -the first piece of writing by Stephenson I had to push myself to finish, hoping he’d pull a rabbit out of the hat and make the dull, boring book exciting at last- he’s avoided the genre lately in favor of historical novels co-written with a squad of other folks (The Mongoliad) or mainstream novels that, like Cryptonomicon, have a lot to do with the Internet and the people that use it, whether they’re MMORPG magnates, fantasy novelists, or deranged Russian mafiosi. I am speaking, of course, of Reamde, which resembles its predecessor Cryptonomicon quite a bit but doesn’t have nearly as much annoying and obtrusive mathematical equations interrupting the narrative.

I like Stephenson’s writing quite a bit; his non-fiction pieces are every bit as interesting as his fiction, and I think I’d pay to pick up a collection of them. One of the things I like about his writing is that for somebody who grew up in academia (admittedly, the engineering and science side) Stephenson exchanged his disdain for middle-class working folks for serious respect, and you can see this very clearly if you compare the “meshbacks” in Snow Crash to the Forthrasts in Reamde. It’s not something you see a lot of in mainstream fiction these days, and it deserves kudos. As for The Mongoliad, I have finished the first three volumes and am probably going to pick up the rest as they become available at the county library. It’s historical fiction that diverges from actual history somewhat in its explanation of the death of Ogedai Khan and the abrupt cessation of the Mongol invasion of Europe; its depiction of the brief reign of Pope Celestine IV also plays fast and loose with history. Still, they are entertaining books, and despite the contributions of the other authors (including Greg Bear) the Mongoliad comes off as a Neal Stephenson novel, with attention paid to the fine details of combat and characters alike.

On the non-fiction side of the house, I finished Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light, which covers World War II in Western Europe from 1944-45, and in its own way is every bit as bloody and gore-spattered as Stephenson’s tales of the Mongol invasion. Being a sometime student of military history and a wargamer, I was conscious in an academic way of the staggering casualties and materiel losses involved in the reconquest of Europe and the fall of the Third Reich, but Atkinson’s book brought it all home in a way that no previous history had before. Atkinson quotes dozens, possibly hundreds of soldiers, sailors and airmen who did not survive the war, and spares nothing in his account of the grisly battles from Normandy Beach through the Hurtgen Forest and into the concentration camps. I don’t know if I’ll ever re-read it, but it was definitely worth reading once.

At the moment, I’m splitting my attention between two books: Bill James’ Popular Crime, which is a fascinating book about infamous crimes, the criminals who commit them (or were convicted of them; not always the same thing) and the times in which they occurred. James first rose to public notice as a student of baseball, the coiner of the word “sabermetrics” to describe that study, and the author of several books on the subject, including the fascinating Historical Baseball Abstract, but lately he’s been branching out into other matters that interest him, and he’s very much worth your time. The other book is an old favorite, Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Two-Ocean War, a condensation of his epic fifteen-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, which is without question the best-written and most enjoyable of the four official military histories published by the U.S. Armed Forces. Neither are available in Kindle format, unfortunately, but at $3.96 for a used hardback copy, The Two-Ocean War is an absolute steal.

Inadvertently omitted from last week’s book post, was David Drake and S.M. Stirling’s Hope Rearmed, the second volume in the third reissue by Baen of the Raj Whitehall novels. This time the series has been republished in three two-book collections, with The Chosen (best described as Raj Whitehall and Center vs. the Draka) added to round out the original five novels. Same books, of course, but it looks like someone at Baen went through and removed the more numerous annoying typos that infested the first two editions. Worth picking up if you don’t have either of the first two editions on hand.

Joe’s Garage Acts I II & III


32 Responses to ““He Was A Very Nice Boy…He Used To Write Science Fiction””

  1. M. Thompson
    October 31st, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

    I have my grandfather’s early printing of “The Two Ocean War”. No, you guys can’t have a copy. That one will be an heirloom.

    If your looking for something that’s between true crime and Lovecraftian, horror try Blaine Pardoe’s “Virginia Creeper” on the Kindle. Everyman writer gets himself into an old evil.

  2. K-Bob
    October 31st, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    I liked the first part of Cryptonomicon. But when it focused on the guy who lost his dingus in the war, as he tramped through the world with a courtesan/whatever, I just got too bored to continue.

    Did the book pick up after that? Is it worth finishing?

  3. RKae
    October 31st, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

    I don’t read sci-fi (unless it’s really old, like Edgar Rice Burroughs)…

    …but if that headline was a deliberate riff on Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage,” then I love you!

  4. Fail Burton
    October 31st, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

    Couldn’t hack Snow Crash. It read like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who were at the height of their film popularity at the time. I can enjoy something like Vampirella or Creepy as much as the next guy, but even I’d balk at seeing that stuff declared Pulitzer territory.

    I don’t like what I call “cleverprose” and the ironical irony ironicalness of everything. I don’t like the huge influx of alt-history either. To me that’s a failure of the imagination and another example of the redneckization of SFF. It’s B.J. and the Bear stuff.

    SFF fans used to laugh at trash like the Wonder Woman, Hulk and Buck Rogers TV shows. Now they dote on that crap cuz FX. Pacific Rim was probably one of the all-time worst screen plays in SFF history and made millions cuz FX. In truth the Japanese film King Kong Escapes from the ’60s was a more interesting and free-wheeling story – but no FX. Plus it was also redneckery. P. Rim was redneckery on top of redneckery with a redneck cherry on top. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea looks like Shakespeare or Alfred Bester in comparison, and even Voyage was redneckery.

    It’s notable that all the stuff core fans loved in the mid-’60s was almost completely ignored by Hollywood in the following 2 decades. There was no Conan on that horizon until the redneck version arrived with a body-builder. In other words it never arrived. The same thing was true with SF films in the ’50s. They completely ignored SF literature.

    I’m not surprised core SF is pushing conformists like John Scalzi and Ann Leckie. They’re the SF equivalent of Kiss. It’s like pushing the startling new idea of aliens on alien worlds written by Sister Margaret from a convent. I’m looking forward to a show titled “The Final and Irretrievable Death of Dr. Who.” SF won’t recover until rednecks lose interest and it’s thrown back into a ghetto where everyone laughs at it. Then, devoid of feminist ideology and nuns who don’t like to be snickered at, it can recover.

  5. Anchovy
    October 31st, 2014 @ 9:21 pm

    I like Stephenson but the best way to read him is not all at one time. Part way through any of his books, but especially the long ones, set it aside and read something else for a while and then go back.

  6. bnonny
    October 31st, 2014 @ 10:05 pm

    I picked up a nice copy of Cryptonomicon in a thrift store, having heard it was highly regarded, but after several attempts, just couldn’t get into it. I figure I probably missed something in my reading of the book, but it bored me from the get-go.

  7. Wombat_socho
    October 31st, 2014 @ 11:16 pm

    You’re thinking of the Baroque Cycle. Nobody gets their wang shot off in Cryptonomicon, but the chapter on the death of Admiral Yamamoto is hilarious.

  8. Wombat_socho
    October 31st, 2014 @ 11:16 pm

    Why yes, yes it was. 🙂

  9. Wombat_socho
    October 31st, 2014 @ 11:17 pm

    Not everything pleases everyone. I write about what I like, and occasionally to warn others about horrible crap.

  10. Wombat_socho
    October 31st, 2014 @ 11:19 pm

    While I personally found Snow Crash highly entertaining, the irony is a bit much sometimes. There’s a lot less of it in Stephenson’s later books.

  11. Wombat_socho
    October 31st, 2014 @ 11:20 pm

    I’ve very nearly worn out the copy I inherited from my father (the covers are starting to come off) and may be investing in a “new” copy once I’m in permanent quarters out west next year.

  12. bigfire
    October 31st, 2014 @ 11:28 pm

    If you want challenging science fiction, try John C. Wright’s Count to Eschaton sequences. First 3 out of 6 books are out starting with Count to A Trillion. Science fiction with big ideas. Wright doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

  13. Wombat_socho
    October 31st, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

    I am impatiently awaiting the sequel to The Judge of Ages.

  14. K-Bob
    October 31st, 2014 @ 11:32 pm

    Whoops! You’re correct. I remember liking Cryptonomicon, now that you’ve reset the needle into the groove. (except the strange, Ayn Rand-like need to preach, albeit focused on how often the main character “walks the dog”)

    My question stands, though. Is the Baroque Cycle worth getting back into?

  15. Wombat_socho
    October 31st, 2014 @ 11:34 pm

    I thought it was okay. Not as good as Cryptonomicon or Reamde, but it was okay.I guess it depends on how much you like historical fiction written as if it was SF.

  16. K-Bob
    October 31st, 2014 @ 11:42 pm

    I actually enjoyed Stephenson’s portrayals of Newton and Hooke, and the odd ventures before it switched over to The King of the Vagabonds (more prompting of the memory from Weakypedia) I should give it another go.

  17. Anchovy
    November 1st, 2014 @ 12:20 am

    No one has benefited more from the invention of e-readers like Kindle than authors like Stephenson who write 1,000 plus page books. Can you imagine reading the large print version of Cryptnomicom in bed with tired old arthritic hands?

    Good thing that, as I age, I have evolved a tummy that helps support large heavy books.

  18. Fail Burton
    November 1st, 2014 @ 2:46 am

    True. Last summer I looked at the top 100 in SFF at Amazon and not one single name was from the core SFF community. Jack McDevitt, Alistair Reynolds and Peter Hamilton roll along and the core doesn’t even mention them. No transgendered terms.

    My issue is today I seem to have my choice between mostly hyper-cleverprose, Ancillary Boredom arty stuff or stuff that sits on the surface but isn’t particularly compelling like Honor Harrington. Hamilton and McDevitt sit on the surface but they can be damn clever, ala The Mote in God’s Eye-clever. There’s just not enough of them.

    There’s no successors to Jack Vance, James H. Schmitz, Walter Miller, Zelazny, early Niven or even John Varley. It’s either too much or not enough. It’s just me I guess but that’s my beef.

  19. Fail Burton
    November 1st, 2014 @ 3:06 am

    In the 70s I was at a party and I took off the disco music playing on the record player and put on “Billy the Mountain.” People got really angry. hahahaha.

  20. Fail Burton
    November 1st, 2014 @ 3:13 am

    I like Morrison and have had that for years. It’s good as an overview but not as up to date or specific as something like the series of books written years ago about the Pacific War by Edwin P Hoyt. That stuff is great. So is the PB about the operational history of destroyers in WW II. Can’t remember the official name or author who edited it. It’s top-heavy on the Pacific War.

  21. Chris Smith
    November 1st, 2014 @ 9:18 am

    I actually liked Anathem, Stephenson has fun with words and language. Snow Crash is good if you are familiar with the Cyberpunk books of Gibson and Sterling. Snow Crash is a…not quite parody, more of a comedic tweak of the Cyberpunk stories. I had just gone through a binge of the Sterling and Gibson books when I picked up Snow Crash, so the characters and story elements Stephenson was having fun with were still fresh in my head.

    Diamond Age has been my favorite book so far. Though the ending got a bit sloppy. He doesn’t like to waste time in his stories on characters that aren’t vital to the story, no wasted threads. Therefore, the climatic end involves everyone! It wouldn’t harm him to leave a sloppy loose end. 🙂

  22. M. Thompson
    November 1st, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

    Due to security requirements, he couldn’t include things like crypto efforts.

    However, “The Two Ocean War” has a treatment of the interwar treaty system the muti volume set lacks.

  23. Wombat_socho
    November 1st, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

    I would say John C. Wright does a good job of writing Vance/Zelazny-type SF. Schmitz was a unique talent, and I don’t know that anyone does SF quite like he did.

  24. Wombat_socho
    November 1st, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

    That’s my take on Snow Crash as well – Gibson/Sterling cyberpunk as presented by Mel Brooks.

  25. K-Bob
    November 1st, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

    The thing is, a lot of the furniture in Snow Crash has become reality. So he gets monster props for that.

    Also, one thing I like about it is his vision for post-Obama America (SWIDT?). Namely, a sort of relatively-peaceful breakup of the US (and Canada) into a fairly Libertarian real-itopia, where some parts are still “Fed World,” some are private citizenships (I love the idea of Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong), and some are tribal/anarcho territory. And of course, the Mafia delivers pizza.

    But the Metaverse is more accurate in his stories than many of the period (the book came out 22 years ago). It conforms more to the real potentials involved in “cyberspace” than many predecessors did.

    But one thing amazed me about it: the first two readings were for fun. The third reading I paid more attention to the actual baseline plot: the potential ability to hack the human brain. I then looked up some of the literature Stephenson was influenced by, and I gotta tell you, I had a few sleepless nights over that stuff.

  26. K-Bob
    November 1st, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

    Boy, does that resonate with me. I feel like there is an entire generation who think of Iron Man and Batman as “old movie series,” and know nothing of the idea of the comic book.

    And of course, SF movies are like poetry: if you assume 85% or so totally sucks, you’ll be close to the basic reality. I think it was heroic of Peter Jackson to do what he did for the Tolkien stories, but I just don’t think Asimov’s Foundation series (to grab just one out of a hat) would translate to film.

    Look what they did to “I Robot.”

  27. K-Bob
    November 1st, 2014 @ 3:15 pm

    Wombat: I know this would take a while to cobble together, but would it be possible to add a sidebar link to the Wombat-i-verse of books discussed?

    A link to a page of links would do, for a start. I think it would be an excellent resource.

  28. ib1netmon
    November 1st, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    I think Anathem was worth it. Just barely. A heavy plod, but worth it.

    The ending just exploded with all the latent ideas that were obliquely referred to in the first 2/3 of the novel, and opened up gigantic vistas which removed the obscuration of the ideas embedded in the first part of the novel. Brilliant, as usual, but the pearl was paid for dearly.

  29. Daniel Freeman
    November 1st, 2014 @ 10:30 pm

    The Foundation series would need the Battlestar Galactica treatment.

  30. Fail Burton
    November 2nd, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    Or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Get it? They’re teenagers but also ninjas and mutant turtles. The Copper Age of SF will feature Girl Wood Oyster Eagles…

    …and cotton armor. And they deliver plate glass windows…

    …from a blimp that runs on cockiness fumes.

  31. K-Bob
    November 2nd, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

    I’m not sure it would fit inside that. As a similar example, I was impressed with the Smallville series, overall. They did about the best job one could do in that medium of covering the many decades of lore about Superman.

    Even so, you felt throughout, the overall sparseness of it. And it had a ten-season run to squeeze it all in.

    But now that you mention it, a Doctor Who style treatment might work. After all, the special effects would only need to be equal to about 1975 video technology.


  32. bigfire
    November 3rd, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

    The Architect of Aeons should be in store in 5 months. The fifth book The Vindication of Man seem to have been written, and he’s probably working on the final book, Count to Infinity.