A Young Geek’s Fancy Turns to…Science Fiction?

[originally published May 2005]

With all due respect to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, spring is the best time to plan your summer reading (besides, this magazine isn’t the place to explore the racier topics in his poem Locksley Hall). If you go to the beach in August without a couple of good, fat, books already researched and acquired, you risk spending your precious time in expensive resort bookstores, browsing among stacks of trashy titles, embarrassing yourself with plaintive requests to friends or relatives for books, or, even worse, reducing yourself to working your way through a stack of moldering Archie comics. Your reading time is too precious to waste—don’t become a poster geek for the Wasted Summer Reading Foundation!

Reading on the beach

A good summer book must meet several exacting requirements. It must be entertaining without being taxing — we’re on vacation here, so War and Peace won’t do. The book should be long, preferably very long — the number of hours we have at the beach is surprisingly large, and we don’t want to run out of book before we run out of vacation. Plus, a hefty tome is that much more useful for holding down a towel corner on a windy day at the beach. Although the story should be fun and engaging, it shouldn’t be a thrilling page-turner — we don’t want to be so compulsively enthralled that we can’t easily put it down when the lifeguard blows the whistle signaling that the day is over. It can’t be too controversial or steamy — we’ll be reading it out in the open in a family environment. Finally, the author should be a known and reliable quantity: it never pays to experiment on vacation with a new writer who might turn out to be a complete turkey, and even the most reliable book adviser can recommend a dud.

All the writers I describe here appeared in previous installments of Biblio Tech. All are well known and successful, and with one exception, Cryptonomicon, the books described here generally aren’t regarded as their best work, although they’re certainly well respected. In fact, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky both won Hugo awards for best novel, so we’re not talking about casual schlock.

Neocriminal power

William Gibson is justly famous for his Sprawl and Bridge novels and is credited with starting off the cyberpunk genre with his short story Johnny Mnemonic. When Pattern Recognition came out in 2003, however, the buzz was less than positive. “It’s not science fiction,” sniffed one of my cronies, “it’s just a whodunit.” So I put my copy aside, where it sat for a year or more until one weekend day when it finally became more attractive than going out in the rain to find something else.

As it turned out, my buddy was completely off the mark. The book is much more subtle than Gibson’s prior work, continuing a trend he started with the Bridge novels. Pattern Recognition retains hints of the old Gibson, particularly the flashes of dark neocriminal power that have become his virtual trademarks, but the viewpoint is different. Cayce Pollard isn’t the typical Gibson protagonist: she’s an upper-middle-class professional with an exotic specialty and a top-tier clientele. As it turns out, she’s tough, smart, and intuitive, and, naturally, her adventures take her into some very Gibsonian environments, but somehow the sense of an overwhelmingly evil world populated by vicious vermin with 23 chromosomes is absent.

Because of this as much as in spite of it, Pattern Recognition is one of my favorite Gibson novels. He no longer needs to whack me over the head with his creativity and vision; he’s content enough to develop it slowly and carefully, playing with interesting images and entertaining me. He introduces his concept of jet lag on the first page: “Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.” This whimsical imagery lets him set the story’s scene and atmosphere, but it also gives you an insight into the characters. Like us, they’re obsessed with constructing predictive models of the world around them, but they’re humorous enough to make fun of themselves.

The greatest generation

In Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson reveals himself as a writer capable of constructing a gripping epic novel. By deftly knitting a modern cyberthriller with a historical story about World War II that includes real people like Alan Turing as characters, Stephenson creates a tour de force. He manages to convey both the chaos and the excitement of the Allies’ intelligence efforts to hack the Enigma encryption system. Remarkably, he demystifies some of the 1940s-era intelligence processes without descending into mind-numbing detail. By the way, those of you traveling to the UK for your vacation should make an excursion to Bletchley Park, which is being restored as a museum, to see the now-declassified scenes of some of the action.

The book’s major thematic pillars include wartime efforts to cloak the Enigma breaks, a modern effort to create a data haven, and a search for a huge cache of gold buried in a deep maze of mines in the Philippines. The data haven is a legally, physically, and (bear with me, we don’t have a good word for this yet) network-ly secure place in which people can safely store data. A philosophical discussion early in the book argues that the data represent true value and that physical objects are only incidentally and transiently valuable.

Beyond the epic historical plot that incorporates complex elements of cryptography and intelligence, Stephenson also exhibits a delightfully quirky and vivid imagination. A description about the preparation and consumption of a bowl of cereal runs for several pages, and I still marvel at how he makes it fascinating (something I can’t possibly convince anyone who hasn’t read the story to believe). Similarly, he describes a titanic struggle between an oral surgeon and some particularly gnarly wisdom teeth, making it both memorable and readable. Of course, with more than 900 pages to work through, neither of these excursions amounts to much more than a flicker.

Group think

Each of Verner Vinge’s Hugo-award-winning novels — A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky — is an epic in itself. The two books represent two different stages in the life and times of a picaresque character named Pham Nuwen. In Fire, a transcendent AI threatens all sentient life in the galaxy, and the race is on to figure out a way to stop it. Vinge presents some very elegant models of physics that permit faster-than-light travel in certain parts of the galaxy, while forbidding it in others. This turns out to be a key characteristic of his universe, so he provides clever diagrams of the galaxy that explain how the speed limits vary with location. Galactic civilization communicates and shares information via netnews; current netizens will recognize the header syntax and posting style. It’s good to know that thousands of years from now creatures from a thousand systems will continue to obey the RFCs!

Elsewhere in Fire, Vinge introduces a race of group intelligences. Each “individual” in this race is made up of anywhere from four to eight vaguely dog-like organisms. Individually, they’re no brighter than dogs, but when four or more of them get close enough together, they can meld into a single “person” with higher-level capabilities (such as thought, tool manipulation, and so on). Vinge does a wonderful job exploring the implications of such a race of beings, including introducing two-way radios that let individuals dissociate themselves into “singletons” without losing consciousness. Numerous other biological oddities inhabit the story, from sentient trees to nasty little people with beautiful butterfly wings. Clearly, no brief review can do justice to the richness of the universe Vinge creates in A Fire upon the Deep.

In Deepness, Vinge returns to the same universe as in Fire, but 30,000 years earlier. The story focuses on Pham Nuwen, who had a less important role in Fire, but who occupies center stage here. Despite the continuity of Nuwen’s character, Deepness stands entirely independently of Fire. As the story begins, two interstellar expeditions arrive virtually simultaneously, seeking first contact with the spider-like inhabitants of an unusual planet. One is a Qeng Ho trading fleet and the other a fleet from a totalitarian civilization (the Emergents) that survives by brutal mind control. Terrible treason leads to the enslavement of the Qeng Ho by the Emergents, and the rest of the book describes the traders’ struggle to regain their freedom. The flashbacks from Nuwen’s life that Vinge interweaves into the story provide insight into the character’s personal history, explaining the struggles and conflicts that define the man.

Deepness also has some good insider jokes for geeks. At one point, Vinge describes how the computers that drive the Ramscoop starships, and essentially all other systems in daily life, have a calendar whose epoch is the instant of the first human landing on Earth’s moon. Nuwen’s research, however, reveals that this is a myth: the two dates are separated by almost six months. The first human landing on the moon was at 1:47 p.m. EDT on 20 July 1969; the epoch for Unix clocks, of course, is at 12:00 a.m. GMT on 1 January 1970. I guess this means that thousands of years from now, starships will run Unix on all of their systems. This then leads to a discussion of the inescapable fact that old software never dies, it just gets buried under layers of new software.

Each book is quite remarkable — few, if any, novels can boast that both the original and the sequel won the Hugo. Although both are quite different, they’re both worth reading.

Influential Works

Author Title Year of Original Publication
Vernor Vinge A Fire Upon The Deep 1992
Vernor Vinge A Deepness In The Sky 1999
Neal Stephenson Cryptonomicon 1999
William Gibson Pattern Recognition 2003
Neal Stephenson Quicksilver 2003
Neal Stephenson The Confusion 2004
Neal Stephenson The System of the World 2004

Conclusion

Ideally, I’ve helped you provide yourself with a happy summer vacation. This summer I’ll be reading Neal Stephenson’s recent offerings: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. I’ve read about a third of Quicksilver so far, and I’m looking forward to completing the 2,652 pages of the hardcover editions. I can’t review them for this article, of course, because I haven’t finished them, so watch for another possible installment of Biblio Tech this fall.

[Author’s note: Well, as of the republication of this article on my blog, I haven’t managed to finish Quicksilver, much less the rest of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.]

Published by

nygeek

Computer scientist born and raised in NYC and living here and raising my family. Working in high tech.

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