I find myself torn between three and four stars here. The roman à clef aspect was a piquing curiosity, but also made me a bit uneasy. And the journal-I find myself torn between three and four stars here. The roman à clef aspect was a piquing curiosity, but also made me a bit uneasy. And the journal-as-novel style is something I've always found... tedious. Nevertheless, stories about spies and spying are always a bit exciting; and this one excited my Cold War Nostalgia, no less.
Early on, the narrative seemed to thrash around in time, which I found somewhat disorienting--was our narrator (Maskell) talking about events in his recent past? distant past? childhood? This was made further frustrating by the fact that Maskell introduced several characters in rapid succession, and at least half of them go by nicknames. I should not gripe--considering the parade of characters I'm willing to tolerate in books such as Infinite Jest, then a half-dozen nicknamed spies ought to be a cakewalk. Nevertheless: tediously ambiguous, but without convincing me that it was important to become confused and bewildered.
What stuck with me most strongly as I finished the book were three things:
(1) That I owe it to myself to brush up on my art history, and to take a good long look at Poussin and his Death of Seneca while I'm at it. This artist and this particular painting figure so prominently in the story that it must serve as... synecdoche? or else some other kind of metaphoric proxy. But I'll be damned if I have fully realized it.
(2) I almost feel as though Banville piles as much onto Maskell as he possibly can--going out of his way to present him as "abject". Maskell is queer and an adulterer, and before that he is a 30+ year old virgin; he is a socialist, but one that won't get his hands dirty; he is a sycophantic royalist; he is a traitor, guilty of treason; ultimately, he is also a coward and a suicide. All of these things add up to a man that we should despise (regardless of whether the reader is heteronormatively situated or not), regardless of his charm. This can be unsettling, but it also seems like a cheap trick on Banville's part; a victim of his own choice of roman à clef?
(3) Maskell's escapade into Bavaria. Delightful. I half expected him to turn up in a pub crawl with Tyrone Slothrop, and was a bit disappointed when that did not come to pass.
• Fun science fiction "heist" story. My friend likened it to Neuromancer ("...but only because of theyUntil I get around to any kind of real review:
• Fun science fiction "heist" story. My friend likened it to Neuromancer ("...but only because of they're both science fiction heist stories") but I thought it was more like The Sting with lasers.
• It's Banks, but it's not a "Culture" novel. I haven't read enough of his Culture novels to know if this is a good thing or not. Golter (the main planet in the story) is said in the text to be more/less "orphaned" -- as though it's simply too far for interstellar travel to be possible. (Which is like: "...O...K...?")
• More fun than good. Which is not to say it is "bad", but in saying "good" we sometimes imply that something is not "great". Which is not what I mean. Not exactly. This book is fun.
• Is Sharrow one of those ultimate Mary-Sue characters or what? Born into wealth and nobility? And then rejecting that nobility out of rebellion? Being born into prophecy? Attractive? Smart? Sharp as a whip? Good with a gun (in more ways than one)? And/but: Sharrow is part of the reason that the story is so fun...
• What is it with Iain M. Banks and cousins? You know what I'm talking about? You know what I'm talking about. ...more
Think of it like a space operatic warm-up for Dhalgren? Love the circularity to it, the whole simplex-complex-multiplex lens that he uses to cast thThink of it like a space operatic warm-up for Dhalgren? Love the circularity to it, the whole simplex-complex-multiplex lens that he uses to cast the whole story....more
It is difficult to say for certain if the five-star review will withstand a second reading--but we won't know that until I subject myself to it that sIt is difficult to say for certain if the five-star review will withstand a second reading--but we won't know that until I subject myself to it that second time. Fortunately for me, it has gone back to its "last in line" position for at least a little while.
First, the obvious stuff: this is the kind of novel that makes "Top N" lists of all kinds (formal and less so) and is widely regarded as a masterpiece among postmodern masterpieces. It's transgressive in a number of different ways--fucking with sexuality; history and modernity and futurism; politics and anarchy; mysticism and science; u.s.w.--all on its celebratory-romping exploration of annihilation on every possible scale. It's surreal and impenetrable and referential and still somehow an engaging read. But as I look back over my notes, I'm struck by a few of my own status updates:
Inappropriate analogies: Pynchon is like Neal Stephenson channelling Kurt Vonnegut doing an impression of George Orwell after having dinner with Philip K. Dick.
Last night I dreamed that Slothrop was at a party with Bobby Shaftoe, both of them hitting on Juliana Frink.
"It's like Neal Stephenson was writing a remix of Dhalgren for a class taught by Kurt Vonnegut?"
Well that last bit read like it was written by a horny college sophomore that just got introduced to absurdism.
And the emergent theme of my own reading experience was definitely an academic or collegient one. The kind of book where an upper-division English class of like 6 or 7 students sits around in a circle wanking over its references and allusions and going on at great length about its influence on other, more recent works. And this isn't necessarily a Bad Thing--this is part of what Gravity's Rainbow Intends to Be. But given how I am so quick to compare it (in my mind at least) to Infinite Jest, therein lies an important difference--Infinite Jest may be surreal and absurd and referential and seemingly impenetrable, but it is also colloquial and demotic in a way that Gravity's Rainbow is not. But this is an unfair comparison.
So then... what's with the five-star review? Because despite its impermeable nature, this novel--however dense, however exclusive--really does seem to accomplish what it sets out to discuss, and from every angle I could think of. And though much of it was lost on me (as a reader's guide was recommended to me, so do I recommend one to you), there is a gripping and tangled enough tale in here to keep one engaged with the prose and its narrative. (A prurient nature helps, too.)
**spoiler alert** I think it's very easy to have mixed (but very strong) feelings about Dune. Thus follows two reviews in one (with minor spoiler aler**spoiler alert** I think it's very easy to have mixed (but very strong) feelings about Dune. Thus follows two reviews in one (with minor spoiler alerts):
Fawning: ("It's a science fiction classic!") ★★★★★
"Unique... I know of nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings."
Indeed, there seems to be nothing else in the science fiction corpus quite like Dune. An epic in every sense of the word--a scope so vast and a background so rich that Frank Herbert felt it necessary to give us a glossary and a series of appendices. The text is rife with all manner of allusions, riddled with sub-plots and suggestions and intimations of a profound and magnificent history (both real and imagined) of which we will receive only a taste. And through it all, the riveting tale of Paul-Muad'Dib Atreides--the messianic figure whose journey into the echelons of manhood and leadership propels us headlong through this fascinating universe.
And coming into this story for the first time in 2010--some 45 years after its initial publication--you can quickly and easily see how it has influenced so much of what came after it. Reading it, I was struck by how much it reminded me of so many of my favorite science fiction milieus from over the years. The feuding noble houses reminded me instantly of the BattleTech franchise--the Succession Wars and the complex alliances and rivalries (the combatants are even referred to as "Houses"). The demi-medievalism brought to mind images from Star Wars--an empire with all of its pageantry, right down to the glamour of fencing. The ecological concerns suggest the work of Margaret Atwood or Ben Bova--what with all of the world-making and unmaking and the lens that shows how the world makes the men, even as the men make the world. And subtle hints in the galaxy-spanning religiousness that bring to mind Hyperion and A Fire Upon the Deep--the consecrated orders (monastic or merely apparently so) and incantations and mythology and an ear toward histories ancient and unknowable.
And in so many ways, this is the science fiction fan's perfect vision of escapist literature. The rise of a mighty warrior in a legendary high-stakes saga where his will is put to the test by insurmountable foes and yet he emerges triumphant.
But let down: ("Perhaps epic in scope but...") ★★★☆☆
But perhaps that's just it. Even if the novel withstands the test after forty-five years and remains as canon Epic Sci-Fi; and even if you acknowledge the strength of its influence on Everything That Came Afterward; and even if you agree with these points and think favorably of the novel (as I do) you might also find that you'd wished it was more... complex? subtle? nuanced? For all the dramatic tension, there is never any doubt of how things will end. There is never any question--not even from that first chapter--that Paul Atreides will (despite his earliest assertions to the contrary) come to wear the mantle of the Kwisatz Haderach, that he will become the mythical Lisan Al-Gaib. Even when fate is testing him, you can sense that the tragedies are more for your benefit as the reader than they are formative experiences for Paul; there is an armature of a plot with the young hero's arrival, with the tragic events that plummet him into his questing and wandering, and with the climactic reversal that leads to his messianic ascendance. But through all of these trials and tribulations, Paul is always so... confident--there is never a moment's doubt from him. He is a classic übermensch--pre-destined to greatness and he knows it and even when he denies it, he is still wrapped up in the mythology that surrounds him. And as a consequence... Paul is almost boring. Constantly tapping into his latent prescience to tell us what will happen next (and being right); constantly getting embroiled in hand-to-hand combat and winning; constantly inspiring the men and women around him to rally to his cause... Even when there is dissent, the dissent is in his favor--the Fremen challenging him to challenge Stilgar for command of the tribes. (And of course, this too ends just as we would predict.)
And that is just the bits about Paul--that is not even to attempt to dissect what goes on there w/r/t/ the class system, or women and other issues of gender and sexuality.
But... and there's that but again: but it is an enjoyable read and one that is fantastically imaginative and fully-realized. It has earned a lasting place in the science fiction corpus with good reason--and I am actually a little happy that it took me so long to get around to this one.
**spoiler alert** Borderline 3, but going with 4 because there's enough I did like; and what I did like, I liked a lot. I would like to circle back on**spoiler alert** Borderline 3, but going with 4 because there's enough I did like; and what I did like, I liked a lot. I would like to circle back on a "real" review sometime in the near future but for now, a couple of quick notes:
* I love the premise. I love the set up. But the story waxes and wanes between moving bewilderingly fast and then just tediously plodding along. I remember being struck with the polar crossing and thinking back to when Hiro (in Snow Crash) was headed to Alaska and there's that one chapter that literally ends with the line "The rest was just a chase scene." So there's that. * ...but there's also lots of fascinating flashes of big ideas. Little big ideas, big big ideas -- big ideas of all kinds. * I love the idea of the maths, of cloistered monasteries for academic living. * The glossary. Sigh. So many mixed feelings about that. * But the notion of the polycosm and the slow unfolding toward that in the story was pretty great....more
IMPRESSIONS: * long-ish; but not so long-ish that I would have been unable to finish in the 3 weeks that I had this out from the library * not head-longIMPRESSIONS: * long-ish; but not so long-ish that I would have been unable to finish in the 3 weeks that I had this out from the library * not head-long surreal like Hard-Boiled Wonderland...; kept expecting something more like that * takes a while to warm up (I thought); fits and starts * expect to return to this one in a few weeks (months?) to polish it off...more
Though Snow Crash will probably remain my all-time favorite Neal Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon might take the crown as his best.[†:] As I write thThough Snow Crash will probably remain my all-time favorite Neal Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon might take the crown as his best.[†:] As I write this review, I wrapping up my third reading of this novel.
BRIEF ASIDE REGARDING THE TIMING OF THIS THIRD READING: It is probably worth noting my mental state when I cracked the spine on this one for the third time. Stephenson's Anathem had just come out and I could not quite bring myself to drop the cash on the hardcover. But I was overwhelmed with the urge to read some Stephenson. Given the the brutalizing that the U.S. economy was taking (according to the news) right about this time, it therefore seemed apropos to read something that involved economics, crypto, currency, libertarianism (and flaws of same), and safety/security.
END OF ASIDE AND RETURN TO REVIEW THAT IS REALLY MORE LIKE A BUNCH OF RANDOM DISCONNECTED OBSERVATIONS:Cryptonomicon manages to do a good job of not feeling terribly dated even nine years after its release. The cutting-edge laptops in the narrative still seem pretty fancy; the issues all continue to feel pertinent and relevant; the only thing that seems to set it in a particular time is an off-hand reference to "the Power Rangers" pretty late in the story.
It holds together well all these years later and is a great exemplar of Stephenson's hyperbolic style and how well he wields that style for explanatory power as well as humor.
What Stephenson does masterfully here is to create an interesting story for nerds (esp. crypto nerds) that has a thinly veiled coming-of-age sub-text lathered onto a character that we (at first) don't think needs any maturation.
I am talking (of course) about Randy.
If you don't figure this out by the time you get to the "Pulse" chapter then you have some explaining to do. We (the readers, the nerds) are thinking that Randy is a grown-up because we (1; as grown-ups) identify with him at the outset and (2) he has all the trappings of a grown-up such as (a) a beard, (b) a girlfriend of 10 years, (c) a business plan, etc. But the Randy we start with is little more than a bearded child running away from his commitments (i.e., his career as a university sysadmin and his relationship with Charlene (though, given the circumstances described in the prose, citing the latter is probably not fair to Randy) to play with his friends (e.g., Avi, Tom Howard) and their toys (e.g., high-tech laptops, GPS receivers). We get the first hint that this late-stage coming-of-age is going on when Randy shaves off his beard to discover a grown-ups face underneath. From there it's a pretty steady sleight-of-hand unfolding through the narrative which is really quite rewarding. (Hence taking the crown as Stephenson's best.)
Granted, there's so much more going on in the novel than just Randy; we could also consider Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe, Goto Dengo, or Enoch Root[‡:]. But Randy is probably the best place to center.
------ † = At the time of this writing, there is a pretty broad swath of Stephenson unread by Y.T., namely all three in the Baroque Cycle and the brand new Anathem.
‡ = Root in particular fascinates me because (if what I've heard is true an he does in fact appear in Stephenson's Baroque Cycle) he seems to share a few traits in common with Tolkien's Gandalf (doubly interesting because Stephenson's Randy calls Root a "Wizard" in the Tolkien sense), Weis/Hickman's Fizban, Arthur Miller's "Old Jew", etc. I'm thinking that there is a whole taxonomy of characters to explore here of which Root is one.
Original off-the-cuff review from when I first joined Goodreads:
Imagine (if you will) an attempt to capture the whole of human experience in a semi-plOriginal off-the-cuff review from when I first joined Goodreads:
Imagine (if you will) an attempt to capture the whole of human experience in a semi-plausible all-too-near future North America. Now imagine that the attempt works. And it does a pretty good job of getting a good cross-section and eviscerating it (it is a cross-section, after all) in all of its banal humanity.
The physical weight of this novel can be a bit intimidating. Most folks don't feel this ambitious when it comes to their pleasure reading. Which is too bad, really. Because if you just take your time, you'll find yourself well-rewarded.
But yeah, you've got to be prepared to take a joke.
The book that launched Gibson into the scifi pantheon -- and not without good reason.
This seminal work of speculative fiction captures the futureshockThe book that launched Gibson into the scifi pantheon -- and not without good reason.
This seminal work of speculative fiction captures the futureshock of its era (c. 1984) in such boldly present and startlingly prescient ways that it's almost hard to imagine literature of the late-80s and onward without this book.
Though Gibson's later work is more mature and more well-rounded, Neuromancer captures the thirst of the scifi authors of its time -- yearning to break-free of the space operas and get all PKD on the rest of our futures. It's a sordid, unique dystopia  that Gibson penned for us here: two parts pulp, one part hallucinogenic head-trip, a dash of political poison.
I wish I was old enough to appreciate it (well, read it at all) when it came out but I don't regret my temporal misplacement. Reading it now, you get a quaint Cold War nostalgia and still shudder in fear at how we were a stronger wall in Berlin away from this kind of story as a reality.
---  Though Gibson has been quoted as saying that his work is only dystopian "if you’re some middle-class person from the Midwest." (interview in Paris Review No. 197, link)
--- SIDE NOTE: Has anyone else stopped to consider how the opening line is changed by the advent of digital television broadcasting?...more