Friday, July 13, 2012

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Time was, when there was a new book by Neal Stephenson sitting on my shelf it wouldn’t have taken nine months to get around to reading it.  I still consider Stephenson both an astounding and infuriating author, especially lately, but like most people I know who read Stephenson (which comprises quite a large percentage of the people I know, actually) I sort of feel like he’s lost something lately.  Strangely, there seems to be a pretty big divergence of opinion as to when that happened.  There are some who disregard everything he’s written since Snow Crash as overwritten self-indulgence.  Others draw the line elsewhere.  If you asked my opinion, I’d say that Cryptonomicon is the best thing he wrote, that The Baroque Cycle came very close to being unreadable in spots, and that Anathem was somewhat disappointing overall but in smaller significant ways a hopeful return to form.  So, that’s essentially where I’m coming from.  But even among the ones I didn’t like that much, there’s always been enough good stuff among the dross to generally justify the time spent reading them.

But enough about these other books.  Why not just dive right into this one?  In a word – typography.  Right there on the cover, his name is so big it takes up three damn lines.  Really, go to Amazon and look at it.


Isn’t that ominous?  Did he insist in his contract that he get that font size?  Is that what the publisher wanted?  I’m pretty sure he’s not a huge asshole like this lettering suggests, or at least I’d like to hope that.  He’s proven somewhat resistant to editing lately, is this a bad sign?  This is what I was thinking of, and also how I didn’t really think Anathem was that great, and so I’ve been reading all sorts of other stuff first before finally deciding to suck it up and just get it over with already.  Perhaps not the best frame of mind to approach anything, but hey, these 1,042 pages won’t read themselves.

In general, I enjoyed it.  It’s got some actually quite thrilling setpieces, a good number of enjoyable character moments, exotic locales, and a few of the classic Stephenson digressions.  That said, it’s much less of an idea book than some of his other works, being more along the lines of a standard techno-thriller that anyone could write.  And during the long process of reading, you’ll have a lot of time to think about all the incredibly stupid crap that the characters are doing and so you’ll have to not just suspend your disbelief but construct an elaborate truss system just to keep it from collapsing in on itself.

Why do I say this?  Well, the first indication of how it’s going to go is the very first chapter at the Forthrast family reunion, where we’re introduced to Richard Forthrast and Zula Forthrast, his adoptive niece (originally from Eritrea).  At first, Richard doesn’t recognize Zula, which seems odd, since you’d think that the only person of African descent at this Iowa farm would be noticeable anyway, but Richard justifies this in his mind by thinking that he hasn’t seen her in quite some time.  But then he somehow knows her personality quirks and skills very well, and then later on you find out that he did some pretty dramatic stuff in the past for her benefit, and will proceed to do some really dramatic stuff over the course of the novel.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  Richard is the black sheep of the family – sort of – since he was a draft dodger who turned his familiarity with Canada into an early career smuggling drugs alongside California motorcycle gangs, and from there turned to increasingly gray-market businesses until he found himself the head of a Fortune 500 game company which makes a competitor to World of Warcraft called T’Rain.  He’s worth about $600 million.  You’d think a guy like that would probably be welcomed by the rest of his extended family, but they’re not 100% sold on his past.  Well, that’s reasonably sensible.  Unlike many of Stephenson’s other protagonists and despite owning a game company, Richard’s not a hacker or even really any sort of geek.  He’s more of a big picture guy; when he needs something done he finds someone who is good at it and pays them to do it.  His skill is really in figuring out what needs to be done, or at least recognizing what will be profitable to do, and then arranging things.  He’s the backbone of the story and probably the most consistent character.

When I say “consistent”, what I mean is that what we’re told about the characters and what the characters actually do doesn’t always match up, occasionally spectacularly.  For instance, the aforementioned Zula has a boyfriend named Peter, who basically kicks off the story by wanting to clear some debts so that he can ask Zula to move in with or marry him.  The way he does this is by stealing a bunch of credit card information by using a security hole he finds through his work as a computer security consultant and selling it to a Russian organized crime syndicate.  Unfortunately his contact’s computer becomes infected with the REAMDE virus, which is a form of ransomware – i.e. it encrypts your files until you pay the virus writer.  Before you know it Zula and Peter have been kidnapped by the Russian mafia and illegally taken to China, where the mob boss hopes to find and kill the virus writer for revenge (or something).  Unfortunately the virus writer lives right under a terrorist cell and Zula ends up kidnapped by the terrorists instead.

What are the odds, right?

Zula herself is actually pretty cool and interesting, but suffers from a little bit of that character inconsistency.  She’s often said (especially at the beginning) to have crying fits, which given her situation is pretty reasonable, but she’s also sort of a badass and doesn’t really seem to let it get her down too much.  She’s also got kind of a bizarre magnetic appeal that’s even made note of within the story, but doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense as to why people she’s just met would be willing to risk their lives and whatnot for her.  Or why the Russians and then the terrorists don’t just kill her.  Sorry Zula, but it would have made more sense for them to do that.

It’s not just that, you end up asking yourself, “why would [character x] do that” quite a lot.  Like the mob boss at the beginning, there were a lot of easier ways for him to try to go about getting his files back than the kidnapping/illegal border crossing which he doesn’t even try.  The other characters openly speculate that he’s lost his mind, which I guess is supposed to be the in-story justification, but he appears to be functioning at a high enough level otherwise that it doesn’t make sense.  His enforcer Sokolov is a traditional Stephenson badass who gets a lot of great lines and is generally awesome, but at the same time I was pretty sure the narrative wants me to think he is cool and admirable, which I don’t, seeing as how he kills people for a crime syndicate.  This, in my view, is a pretty contemptible way to make a living.  (In fairness, he does state that this was an unusual job and he doesn’t plan to take another like it again, but still.)

There’s actually another bit of fundamental problem with REAMDE (the virus, not the novel), which in true Stephenson digression fashion I’ll just go into here.  There are a couple of issues with ransomware, the first one notably being that you’re already coming from a position of distrust since you’re an asshole who has hijacked someone’s computers, and you are now wanting to get them to send you money.  Obviously you can’t just ask for it to be sent to your house, since there’s a pretty large spectrum of things that can happen to you.  At a minimum, the cops can come there and bust you.  As a maximum I guess a team of hit men can come try to kill you, and in that case they may also ask you some questions with a lead pipe first.  The virus writer here (let’s call him Marlon, since that is his name) has come up with a plan to try to avoid this, by requesting that the ransom be paid in untraceable virtual currency within the game of T’Rain.  You’re just supposed to go there and drop the money in a certain part of the virtual world, and then Marlon or one of his associates will come along and pick it up.  Since anyone can theoretically do this, he figures he specifically won’t get caught, and since he’s only asking for about $75 he also figures that it won’t attract that much high-level attention.  But since anyone can pick up the ransom, how exactly is Marlon going to give people the encryption keys to give their stuff back?  Are we on the honor system here if someone says they paid the money and then somebody else got it, which actually is going on at the time?  As far as I can tell there isn’t any mechanism for him to actually honor the ransom.  That in itself isn’t terribly awful, since Marlon has already proven himself to be kind of a dick by doing this anyway, but if there’s no way for him to give people their files back, then why is anyone actually paying the ransom money?  I think word would get around pretty fast that it’s a lost cause.

Let’s also talk about the terrorist leader, Abdallah Jones.  He’s a suave and pretty scary villain, but he’s basically Jason Voorhees in this book.  Since he’s the main bad dude you’re pretty sure he can survive anything and everything until the thrilling action climax.  He also has this uncanny ability to pick up the phone and get more henchmen anywhere in the world, including the US and Canada.  This ability doesn’t make much sense either if you really think about it.  I’m not saying that there aren’t any sleeper jihadists in North America, because I’m sure that there are, but they’re also a fantastically valuable resource to any terror group.  It doesn’t really make any sense that they’d risk these guys to go drive around with Jones in some cars without a particular objective in mind, since at that point they don’t actually have a plan.  It’s just that there needs to be a big confrontation at the end and so Jones needs to have enough men to make it interesting.  If it’s just him then he gets pulled over by the RCMP at a gas station or something and then we stop at maybe page 600.  We also don’t really get a sense of what his grievances are or why he’s doing this stuff.  Some of the Chinese terrorists, you can kind of see where they are coming from in terms of economic oppression, but a lot of the North American sleepers are basically cartoons.  They may as well be shooting range targets.

Now I’ve been going along for some time and haven’t even really gotten that deeply into all the characters and action in this book.  I think there’s a fierce and hard 500 page thriller in here that would simply move so fast that you wouldn’t have time to think about all this stuff, but at the same time I’m not sure if I’d really want to read that book over this one.  There were stretches of The Baroque Cycle and Anathem where I was reading and I was thinking, man, do I have to keep doing this really?  In this one I was occasionally laughing at how ludicrous the scenarios were, but there’s some classic Stephenson going on here, and I was basically enjoying myself anyway.  The man’s got style when he wants to use it.  In short he’s done something completely unnecessary but in an entertaining way.  I don’t know if I’d read this again, but it is by no means a failure, and I shouldn’t have been afraid to start in the first place.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Mirage by Matt Ruff

I’ve written before about Matt Ruff here; his Bad Monkeys is a genre-bending mind screw that tries to make a couple of points about the nature of good and evil while he’s at it, and I’m also a big fan of Sewer, Gas, & Electric, a somewhat goofy SF romp by way of a critique of Atlas Shrugs.  He’s a unique voice and although he’s certainly not prolific, each of his works so far has been at least interesting and memorable.  That said, I think he’s not for everyone.  For a while I was recommending Sewer, Gas, & Electric to anyone that I could catch and who would listen to me, but it had a pretty wide miss/hit ratio.  It’s unapologetically weird and bizarre, and Ruff isn’t above making a point through some borderline offensive material.  Some people liked it, other people whose opinions I respect thought it was just too silly.

Ruff takes that trend to a whole new level here.  I don’t even know where he can find pants with balls like that, frankly.  I liked this, actually more or less the whole way through, but it’s certainly not for everybody.

So here’s the general idea.  The world here isn’t the world that we know; most of the Middle Eastern and North African states formed the United Arab States long ago, while what we know as the United States ended up as a patchwork of feuding fundamentalist tribes and kingdoms.  It was the UAS that fought alongside the Russian Orthodox Empire to defeat Hitler, although the subsequent creation of the nation of Israel in parts of defeated Germany has led to decades of strife between Christians and Jews.  There was also a first Gulf War in the Gulf of Mexico after LBJ, dictator of America (comprised of some seventeen unspecified states) invaded the kingdom of Louisiana and threatened the oilfields of the Evangelical Republic of Texas.  So when Christian terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in Baghdad on November 9, 2001, the UAS end up invading America even though the crusaders were carrying Texas passports.

Parody?  Sort of.  It would be low-hanging fruit to just make these parallels and call it a day, and Ruff is more sophisticated than that.  A lot of this world is populated by fictional versions of real people; Saddam Hussein is a crime boss, Muammar Gaddafi helped create the Internet, James Baker still works for George H.W. Bush, still the President (of Texas) – even Natalie Portman is a famous actress (but didn’t find it necessary to take a stage name).  You have to think, in a world this different from ours, these people couldn’t possibly exist and have any of the same personality traits that they do in real life.  Also, a lot of the cultural touchstones of the UAS are Western conceptions of the Middle East, rather than what you’d expect would really develop; there’s a lot of Arabian Nights stuff going on here.  And so it becomes quickly apparent that there is something funny going on.

Some of the Christian terrorists have memorabilia of a world very different from theirs – a world where it was the United States that was the most powerful nation and ended up invading Iraq.  And more and more people are having dreaming fits of an entirely different world where they have different lives.  By the time the magic shows up, you’re pretty much ready.

Ruff is the son of a minister, and running through his work is a deep distrust of fundamentalism of all kinds.  There are certain types of people in the world who are not satisfied by living “right” themselves; these people insist that everyone else must also live “right”.  But as George Orwell pointed out in 1984, if you’re trying to make sure that someone else is bending to your will and not just doing what they want, the only way to be sure is if they’re suffering.  So this type of fundamentalist we’re talking about, they look askance at happiness (it could be unauthorized!) and smile at human misery, as long as it’s compelling whatever life choices the fundamentalist thinks are correct and proper.

I mention this because Osama bin Laden is a major character in this book.  I’d hesitate to describe him as the villain, although he is villainous.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s the mindset of bin Laden that’s the villain in this book, since it’s something that he carries around with him no matter what world he’s in.  As in our world, he’s the prodigal scion of a rich Saudi family, but unlike in our world he returned home and became a powerful Senator of the strongest nation on earth.  You’d think he’d be happy that the UAS is powerful, that its people are by and large contented and rich, that Islam is a de facto requirement for any advancement in the society that matters.  But no.  Too much backsliding, too much materialism, too much tolerance of infidels and blasphemy.  He’d be perfectly happy to increase the misery in the world so long as it leads people to do what he believes God wants.

There are lots of other people speaking for God in this novel, but the person who’s actually got the magic powers disclaims knowledge of what exactly God is up to or why.

In any event, it would have been really easy to take one of two opposing tracks in a novel like this.  You could show this world and have it be a total paradise, thereby showing how ignorant and terrible the Western world is, and how everyone would be better off without Western influence.  Or you could have this world be a total shithole, showing how backwards and barbaric the Islamic world is, and say, see, there’s no way these people could ever govern themselves, they should thank God every day for the civilizing influence of the West.  Ruff avoids both, for the most part, although he does take some kind of cheap shots at various real-life American political figures.  He also tends to throw in characters for what I believe is simply shock value at times.  Nonetheless, the UAS is good in some ways and bad in other ways, and in both circumstances entirely human.

The main protagonist, Mustafa al-Baghdadi, is an officer in the UAS’ War on Drugs (primarily imported whiskey), and surprisingly three-dimensional and complex, and he’s effectively used to throw some of our own moral lapses and successes into sharp relief.  This starts as something of a police procedural, wherein Mustafa is trying to figure out who's behind various plots and why Saddam Hussein wants a mysterious artifact.  He's got two officers along with him who have their own moral dilemmas and are, in many ways, as well-developed as he is.  One of the most moving parts of the novel for me came when Mustafa has to deal with the apparent betrayal of one of his officers, an old friend.

In many ways the crux of the novel comes when Mustafa is told – by someone who should probably know – that he’s a sinner, but not the only sinner and surely not the worst.  But of course guys like him are the ones who struggle with ethical dilemmas while the actual worst sinners either think they’re on the side of the angels or simply don’t care, and do what they want.  So is it possible for good to prevail in a world like this, or like ours?  Mustafa doesn’t know, and neither does Ruff, and neither do I for that matter, and in this novel as in real life you just have to keep going and do the best you can.