Tag Archives: stephenson

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

seveneves

The moon mysteriously breaks into seven pieces, destroyed by a traveling black hole or some other unexplained anomaly.  At first everyone is just kind of puzzled, but not too concerned.  Then, after two of the pieces collide and one breaks, astronomers realize the implications of this unstable gravitational system.  The collisions will become more and more frequent, until in about two years there will be so many moon rock meteors entering the Earth’s atmosphere that ambient temperatures worldwide will rise to several hundred degrees.  This is what they call the “Hard Rain” and it is not good news for life on Earth.

The book has three parts – one during the preparation for the Hard Rain, the second during the Hard Rain and a few years after (until humanity gets to safety) and the final section about 5000 years in the future, just as mankind is starting to repopulate the stabilized Earth.  (I agree with reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere – part 3 is kind of weak; interesting “future history” and some cool mega-engineering projects wrought by our spacer descendants, but the storyline is pretty predictable and ho-hum.)

In its final two years, Earth puts together plans for a “Cloud Ark” of spacecraft, centered on the International Space Station, which will preserve humanity while everyone else dies.  Initially I thought it was odd to try escaping high velocity space rocks by going into space, but I guess it kind of makes sense: if you are directly hit by a bolide, whether on Earth or in a spacecraft, you are dead.  But, even if many bolides miss you directly, you still get toasted on the Earth due to atmospheric heating.  Too bad.  So space it is, where at least some of the “arks” will not get directly hit by a bolide.

Pretty soon after the hard rain starts, the ark kind of falls apart, thanks mainly to the interference and ignorance of the ex-President of the USA*. Annoyingly, she is still playing old world politics when the remnants of humanity need unity and the brains in charge in order to survive.  Most of the arks split off from the ISS lead and eventually run out of food and turn to cannibalism.  The ISS crew ends up seeking shelter in Cleft, the old core of the moon, a voyage which takes several years because orbits and mass. (I like Stephenson’s explainy-ness!  Really, I do.)

[* Julia Bliss Flaherty “JBF” – I felt she was modeled on Hillary Clinton, but a bit younger.  Two other characters had pretty clear real-world models: Dr. Doob, astronomer and “science popularizer” = Neil Tyson Degrasse; Sean Probst, .com billionaire turned space startup CEO = Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos.]

Once they finally reach the relative safety of Cleft, there are only eight survivors – all women.  Game over for humanity?  Not quite … luckily Moira, a certified genetics genius, is one of the eight and evidently reproduction is a piece of cake even with no males involved.  Happy day!  In about a fifteen minute pow-wow (eh, it’s only the future of humanity, no big deal), the gals decide to each genetically modify their offspring to introduce new traits.  (Hmmm… kind of just boosting the population might be in order before you start messing with that stuff, I think.  Also, hard to believe that someone didn’t keep on tinkering over the next several thousand years – why are there still only basically seven races after all that time?)

One of the eight is beyond child-bearing years, so that leaves seven progenitors to found their own races: Dinans (heroic), Ivyns (smart), Teclans (strong), Moirans (genetic shape shifters … told ya it was cool that she scored that 0.000000133% chance of being one of humanity’s survivors!), Aidans (sneaky and counterbalanced to each of the others – Aida was the head of the cannibal contingent), Camites (non-aggressive, so as to thrive in cramped space habitats.  Lame!) and Julians (manipulative schemers).

Well, in 5000 years the races are up to 3 billion population in a habitat ring around the equator.  Life is not too shabby.  Earth terraform has begun.  Humanity is divided more or less on the same lines as rebel arkers vs ISS, eg. Julians and Aidans “Red” vs everyone else = “Blue”.  Turns out there were other survivors of the Hard Rain besides the spacers.  Diggers – descendants of Dinah’s family of miners; Pingers – descendants of an underwater equivalent of the Space Ark, which took refuge in deep ocean trenches which never dried up – genetically engineered some fishy traits.  Loose end – an expedition to Mars that gets launched, but never talked about again.

Some final observations on technology.  Those on the ISS and in the Ark use cell phones, blogs, the internet, “Spacebook” … in 5000 years, they still haven’t gotten to our current state of gadgets, mainly from a choice to focus more on massive space infrastructure, but also from desire to avoid “Tav’s mistake” = wasting time with social media and etc.  But, then it is interesting that Blue’s “General” is a media-conscious reporter.  Winning battles is not so important as convincing people of the right “narrative.”

“The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson

DiamondAge

The Diamond Age is set a few hundred (?) years in the future, when mastery of nanotechnology has brought the world into a post-scarcity state.  Massive structures called the Feeds pull in raw materials, break them down to their molecular or atomic levels, then use these ingredients in matter compilers to create items on-demand.  Like 3D printers for anything, or like Star Trek’s replicator.  The catch is that, while Feed lines are ubiquitous, their bandwidth is not.  Only the wealthy tribes can afford massive and quick production of whatever they can dream up.  (Everyone else at least has food and shelter taken care of though, so that’s good.)

“Tribes?” you mutter?  Yes, the world’s governments have collapsed, and people have organized generally along lines of mutually shared values rather than nationality.  The story mainly takes place in and around Shanghai, but is concerned mostly with the Neo-Victorian “clave” (enclave).  The Vickys (a term they find offensive) reject the moral relativism of the 20th century and instead hearken back to the heyday of the British Empire of the 19th; indeed claiming that the carefully governed morality of that age and people is precisely what made it so great.

Alexander Chung-Suk Finkle-McGraw is a Neo-Victorian Equity Lord (one of those with a non-insignificant stake in controlling and maintaining the Feeds) who is dissatisfied with the life he sees ahead for his granddaughter.  He’s convinced that education fails to instill a certain “subversive” or creative / confident quality that is absolutely essential for innovation — something that the founders of a great endeavor certainly possess by definition, but something that is frequently missing from the second and following generations due to excessive conservatism and lack of real-world trial and testing.

So, Finkle-McGraw commissions a special book for his granddaughter, “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” from one of the greatest nanotechnological engineers of the day, John Percival Hackworth (“Hack”-er, get it?).  This is no ordinary book; it almost magically adapts to the reader and is designed to teach anything naturally and in-depth, while also forcing the reader to learn to solve problems and be self-reliant.  Kind of reminded me of Wikipedia crossed with a massive, personalized computer RPG.  A kind of weak part of the story is the link to and reliance on “ractors” (reactive actors), real people to provide voiceovers for the book’s stories.  The reason given, that a computer-generated voice could never be as realistic, is kind of lame … but maybe the uncanny valley will reign forever, who knows.

A copy of this book ends up in the hands of Nell, a girl among the (still) many poor and miserable denizens of this future world of wonders.  The parts where Nell is reading through the Primer are actually very charming — she has a pretty miserable and abusive real-world existence, but in the Primer she is a fairy tale Princess, and her friends there teach her things that actually help her overcome her real problems.  Nell becomes the ideal leader and innovator that Finkle-McGraw was hoping for, but the Primer didn’t seem to work for some others, so maybe some personal struggle somewhere is required?  (eg. Nell had to escape her life in the “projects.”)

Besides Nell’s stories, the overarching plot of the book was mediocre at best and really convoluted at worst.  There’s a civil war in China, reminiscent of the Boxer Rebellion and Opium Wars, only the “opium” now is technology and the Feeds.  Some want to replace them with “Seeds” which would more directly be controlled by the people.  They try to get there by sending (imprisoning?) Hackworth to the tribe of Drummers, who live in tubes under the ocean and engage in sexual orgies most of the time, and seem half-stoned the rest of the time…but apparently they are really utilizing some STD-like nanotech to become some kind of shared intelligence brain-powered computer.  Or something like that.

With a group like the Drummers in the story, it might be hard to believe, but this book actually made me think quite a bit about morality.  There’s a conversation between characters in the book about how the 20th century rejected the Victorians and basically anyone espousing absolute right and wrong — with moral relativism, the only sins are intolerance and hypocrisy.  But of course, one character contends, it is impossible to always live up to a strict moral code, so everyone is a hypocrite — yet that’s not the point:

The internal, and eternal, struggle between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of morality…determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.

In other words, moral ideals are just that … it’s ok to not be there yet, but it is important to be on the path!

A somewhat related quote, on culture and how some are better that others (*gasp*, totally non-PC, I know!):

There was a time when we believed that what a human mind could accomplish was determined by genetic factors.  Piffle, of course, but it looked convincing for many years, because distinctions between tribes were so evident.  Now we understand that it’s all cultural.  That, after all, is what a culture is — a group of people who share in common certain acquired traits…  Some cultures are prosperous; some are not.  Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not.  Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it.”

And finally a bit on education, continuing the thread from Finkle-McGraw’s concerns for his granddaughter:

The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts.  But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent.  The difference between stupid and intelligent people is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.  They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations — in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.


The Diamond Age is available from Amazon.

“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson

I really wanted to like it.  It’s got a funky future setting that is kind of interesting.  But the story is kind of a stretch, even for fiction.  Mainly due to the overarching impression I got that the author doesn’t really understand computers.  As you will see, that really impacts the whole storyline.  (Hmm, I sound really conceited here.  But I feel at least somewhat qualified to make such a statement.  I’ve designed a computer – yes, a very simple one; yes, as part of a class – but all the basic blocks were there.  Something about that activity just really makes it all click – computers aren’t some magical device, it is possible to go down through the layers all the way to the silicon to find out what’s going on; indeed some engineers some where at some time designed all those connections and processes.

But I have digressed, majorly.  My apologies.  Back to “Snow Crash.”)

My first beef is with the Metaverse.  This is “Snow Crash”‘s concept of everything Second Life wished it could be.  (Is Second Life still a thing in our day of Facebook et al?  [Me in 5 years: Is Facebook still a thing in our day of X et al?]  Arg, I did it again.  Sorry.)

So the Metaverse.  Think an MMO.  But the weird part is that the graphical quality of the avatars and sophistication of the virtual homes, clubs and places differs wildly.  Each “thing” in the Metaverse is only as high fidelity as the software algorithms the individual who owns that “thing” has bought or has coded themselves.  This is just really different weird.  Is each “thing” rendered separately on the user’s machine, then uploaded to a central server and propagated to all other users?  I guess you could do that if you had close to infinite internet bandwidth.  The whole virtual reality interface is kind of swept under the rug, too.  When Hiro (the main character is named “Hiro Protagonist”, hardy-har-har) runs or rides a motorcycle or sword fights in the Metaverse, what kind of user interface is he using in reality?  He’s got virtual reality goggles on, but I don’t remember any other description of how he’s “jacked in.”

That said, my criticisms of the Metaverse are kind of unfair.  This book was written in the late 80’s (published 1992) so it was anyone’s guess what the internet or virtual reality would become.  Stephenson probably got way, way closer than most.

But the whole central storyline about the Snow Crash virus is complete baloney.  Because we call a malicious software exploit a “virus”, the author decided that a computer virus was pretty much the same thing as a real virus that infects people.   No, no, no!  Besides crashing computer systems, Snow Crash is a information-vector virus that only programmers can get, by looking at a bitmap of binary code.  The bad guys then can spread the virus to non-programmers via blood transfusions.  Stephenson totally misunderstands the “virus” terminology in the computer sense.  His backstory is that the Sumerian Enki found out how to break an ancient (biological?) Metavirus’s control over humans, initiating the Tower of Babel confusion of languages (really a waking-up for humanity from Metavirus control).   The Metavirus has been rediscovered, and is being put to nefarious purposes.

Anyway, I’ve made it sound like I hated the book, but I really didn’t.  As I mentioned, the future setting is entertaining; although it is a depressing future for America.  The nation is broken into millions of “franchulates” – effectively each business is its own nation – and the remaining Feds are paranoid and obsessed with security.  Think Homeland Security gone wild, with weekly polygraph tests and constant monitoring for all pencil pushing employees.  Pizza delivery is handled by the Mafia, and all government functions have been privatized to an absurd degree.

One final oddity is that the dates in the book don’t really match up.  Hiro was born in 1972 and I’m sure he isn’t older than 40, so I’m guessing we’re in the 2002-2012 timeframe.   But the funkiness of fractured America and some of the technology (ie Rat Thing) seem to me like 50 year or 100 year stuff.  I think the author specified the the dates the way he did so that the fathers of both Hiro and Raven (his archenemy) could have known each other back in Japanese POW camp during WWII.

“Anathem” by Neal Stephenson

(Listened to on CD while commuting.)

Somewhere in a parallel universe is a world similar to Earth called Arbre.  Many thousands of years ago on Arbre, the “Terrible Events” (nuclear war, etc.) prompted a backlash against the those perceived as being responsible for such destruction.  Scientists and scholars were segregated into “concents” cut off from the rest of society and only allowed out to mingle once every year, decade, century, or millenium, depending on the Order.  The concents are kind of like monasteries, but exist for scientific rather than religious purposes.  The “Avout” (members of concents) use virtually no technology (part of the deal after the Terrible Events) so their theoretical work can’t easily endanger the world again.  (This scenario kind of reminds you of “A Canticle for Leibowitz” in a way, no?)  The story of Anathem is about a young Avout named Erasmus.

<SPOILERS AHEAD!>

Erasmus’s mentor, the astronomer Orolo, discovers a strange object in the sky.  After a loooong time, we (the readers) finally figure out it’s an alien ship.  After a much loooonger time, we figure out that they’re not really aliens; they are people from parallel universes (one of which is our own, although that is kind of a tangential, amusing point in the story).  There’s fear and confusion between the Arbreans and the Geometers (the “aliens”) that almost leads to mutual destruction.  But Erasmus and company save the day.  Oh and there’s a millenarian named Jadd who can travel between parallel universes somehow.  Kind of cool because he can choose how the future unfolds in a particular “narrative” by (ultimately) picking which random quantum states come about.  Yeah, a little hard to grasp.  Lots of discussion in this book on what it means to have parallel universes, and what it means to have them interact.

I did like the book.  I really liked the early part, when Erasmus was traveling around the world following after Orolo and nobody knew quite what the “aliens” were all about yet…lots of adventure and mystery.  The ending was good but not great; I guess I kind of feel that the whole Jadd-altering-parallel-universe-narratives thing was kind of a cop-out ending.

One big, big plot hole that I thought was unforgivable: How in the world did Orolo get to Eckba???