Archive for cyberpunk literature

Diamond age

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by xi'an

Here is the one before last of my vacation reads! As obvious from several earlier posts, I am a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s books. e.g. Snow Crash is one of my preferred cyberpunk books (along with Neuromancer), and I consider Stephenson’s approach to the genre deeper and more scientific than Gibson‘s. So when in Lancaster I picked the Diamond Age, I was quite excited to have discovered an overlooked volume of his’! The more because the story was partly taking place in Shanghai. Alas, I am rather disappointed by the result. Indeed, the book does not read well: the “suspension of disbelief” does not operate.

The Diamond Age brims with (too many???) brilliant techno-societal ideas, colourful characters, literary references, and exciting settings, but the plot dries out much too quickly. The universe Stephenson depicts is a mix of cyberpunk centred on nanotechnologies and of steampunk with Victorian codes and attitudes. (In a sense, the Diamond Age is Dickens mixed with Gibson and van Gulik.) One of the great ideas in the Diamond Age is the “primer” that educates the central character, Nell, who has been neglected by her alcoholic mother. It is a quite compelling concept, the one of an interactive book backed by an AI and by real actors that turn Nell into a real scientist (the part about Turing machines is quite good) and cryptographer, as well as teach Chinese orphans (although it does not work so well in the latter case because of the lack of real actors).  The fact that the level of the story remains one of a fairy tale while Nell is growing up and maturing is a bit of a disappointment. What really put me off, though, half the book read, is the appearance of the Dreamers, an “unnecessary and monstrously tacky underwater sex cult” that doomed my “suspension of disbelief” for the rest of the book… (The criticisms are mostly positive, though.)


Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by xi'an

One colleague of mine in Dauphine gave me Anathem to read a few weeks ago. I had seen it in a bookstore once and planned to read it, so this was a perfect opportunity. I read through it slowly at first and then with more and more eagerness as the story built on, spending a fair chunk of the past evenings (and Metro rides) into finishing it. Anathem is a wonderful book, especially for mathematicians, and while it could still qualify as a science-fiction book, it blurs the frontiers between the genres of science-fiction, speculative fiction, documentary writings and epistemology… Just imagine any other sci’fi’ book being reviewed in Nature! Still, the book was awarded the 2009 Locus SF Award. So it has true sci’fi’ characteristics, including Clarke-ian bouts of space opera with a Rama-like vessel popping out of nowhere. But this is not the main feature that makes Anathem so unique and fascinating.

“The Adrakhonic theorem, which stated that the square of a right triangle hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides…” (p. 128)

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Spook Country

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , on September 27, 2009 by xi'an

Say,” he said to Brown who was looking at his phone as if he wished he knew a way to torture it, “this NSA data-mining thing…”

When I attended MaxEnt 2009 in Oxford, I bought William Gibson‘s Spook Country at thHelsinki central railway statione university bookstore as it was on sale for $5… I have read it during the past week, finishing it this morning in the 5:30 bus to Helsinki airport, and I am quite disappointed. (Incidentally, I visited yesterday the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa bookstore in Helsinki and found there an incredibly well-provided fantasy section—in English—that beats by far the major chains in England!) I love Gibson‘s early cyber-punk books and I can still remember the excitement of reading Neuromancer for the first time, while I was completing my thesis.

“We have been buying into data mining at Blue Ant.”

The style was very innovative, sharp and tense, with this then-novel use of existing brands to shorten the descriptions, and the story was gripping, with insights of what would become the cyberspace. Even the later Virtual Light had fascinating findings, like its delivery cyclist and its recycling of the Golden Gate Bridge into a squatter community.

“What does Chombo…do?” “It implements finite difference methods for the solution of partial differential equations, on block structured, adaptively refined rectangular grids.”

In my opinion, Spook Country is over-exploiting the same stylistic lines as those earlier books with very short chapters, an abundance of brands (Apple at the forefront!), a central role of technology and virtual reality, and three characterial threads interweaved. However, the story does not click in. There are too many improbable coincidences and the characters are definitely caricatural, while reminding me of the previous books: the female artist drawn into investigation for lack of money, the geek computer genius, the woodoo inspired ninja-like thug, the tough CIA spook, the media executive with unlimited wealth… Without going into spoilers, the plot is fairly thin, with those three different groups chasing after the same container, and obviously ending up together. The technological inventivity of the previous novels has disappeared as well—the above quote about Chombo is taken verbatim from the Berkeley Lab website!—, which may explain why William Gibson does not intend to continue writing sci’-fi’ novels.

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