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Anathem – a new novel by Neal Stephenson November 26, 2008

Posted by ce9999 in Novels.
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A brief foray into an older medium: Books!

Last weekend, out of boredom, I stopped at a corporate book-vending unit (aka “bookstore”) for a quick look around. Among other things, I checked out the sci fi section. I still check this section every time I go there, even though the state of sci fi book publishing, at least in a corporate store like this, has gotten so sad that it’s hardly worth the effort anymore.

Surprisingly, I did see something of interest this time. Neal Stephenson had apparently published a new novel a couple of months ago, and only now was I first seeing it. Had it been that long since I’d stopped by? Or was it just that the store was lax about getting it in stock?

Either way, there it was. Anathem was the title. I picked up a copy. Hefty, about 900 pages. This didn’t surprise me, given some of Stephenson’s other work. I took a peek at the dustjacket blurb. As I read, my eyebrows began to rise a bit, then a bit more, and as I got closer to the end of the blurb I began to run out of forehead! There were lots of made-up words, just casually bandied about, and the fact that they were used in the dustjacket blurb was pretty unusual. Typically, publishers will attempt to make a blurb fairly generic, so as to avoid scaring off any potential readers. Here, though, they were putting all of this odd, made-up language on flagrant display. Why? I supposed that the novel itself consisted of some very hard-core worldbuilding, and the words were intended to tease potential readers.

I was suitably teased. I sat down on a bench and took a look inside.

The book began with a brief dictionary definition of the word “Anathem”, which made even less sense than the dustjacket blurb. I began to recall my first reading of Dune, where, for much of the story, I had to laboriously refer to the glossary in the back to figure out what was being talked about. By the time I was done, my paperback copy looked like it had been read three or four times! I took a peek at the back pages of Anathem to see if there was a glossary. There was some explanatory stuff at the end, quite a lot of it, in fact, but the end sections were also titled with strange, made-up terms. Clearly, the book was constructed in as immersive a fashion as the author could possibly devise. That could be a good thing, if it worked, or it could mean disaster. Or exasperating boredom.

I turned the page. There was a table of contents, which offered some clarity on what was going on at the end of the book. The appendices were quite helpfully labeled “appendices”—in plain, 21st century English—even though each individual appendix was strangely named. There was also a “note to the reader” right at the beginning. Oooo, good. I took a look at it. It was fairly short, explained some basic stuff about the setting, and offered some very minimal pronounciation tips. The majority of the “note” consisted of a timeline, summarizing the 6000 years leading up to the events in the story. Wait—6000 years of backstory?!?!? Oy. Stephenson really doesn’t do anything halfway, does he? :)

I flipped to the beginning of the first chapter. I must admit, I was having some pretty serious doubts by then. The idea of the book, and what I’d seen of it so far, reminded me of books I’d read by Gene Wolfe. I realize that a lot of people really enjoy Wolfe’s novels, and that some even consider him to be the best American writer currently alive, but I found myself frustrated while reading them. I eventually gave up on them entirely, in spite of being quite impressed at the level of worldbuilding detail. I was really torn, too—I think I finished four or five of them before finally throwing in the towel.

The first few pages of Anathem, though, didn’t strike me as frustrating at all. They were in Stephenson’s characteristic style, which is not at all like Wolfe’s, and even more surprising, I found it fairly easy to understand what was going on. Remember that old skill we were all supposed to learn in school, the ability to discern the meaning of a word through context? It’s totally essential to be able to utilize that skill while reading a book like this, but a big part of being able to use it rests on the question of how well the context defines the strange words. That is the writer’s responsibility. As a reader, if the context doesn’t tell you what you need to know, there isn’t a lot you can do about it. It seemed like Stephenson did a pretty good job—better than Frank Herbert did with Dune, actually, judging by the first few pages. I didn’t have to refer to the appendices at all to understand what was going on.

I forced myself to put the book down after about five or seven pages. I was starting to get drawn into it, and I didn’t want to spend $30.00 on a book that day. There’s a good chance I’ll grab a copy from the library, though, if they have it. They probably do.

(But first, I’ve decided to take another stab at Stephenson’s earlier, huger work, The Baroque Cycle. THIS time, I’m not going to allow myself to get sidetracked after only 200 pages. I’ve heard that things really get going in the second book, so perhaps the first book is something akin to a 900-page-long prologue? Hmmm. Why can’t he just get to the point? On the other hand, one of the things I really enjoyed about some of his other books were the interesting digressions. Some of the ones in The Diamond Age were especially enjoyable. So the idea is for me to just sit back, read, soak it all up, and trust that the author knows what he’s doing.

I’m also curious to puzzle out the Cryptonomicon connection. There is clearly a connection between the two works. Is the connection is simply incidental and gratuituous, or is it integral to the story? I’m really looking forward to finding out. And if I enjoy it enough, maybe I’ll end up buying a copy of this new book!)

Heroes: WTF??? November 20, 2008

Posted by ce9999 in Heroes.
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I’m not the only person who seems to be having difficulty with the current (3rd) season of Heroes. A couple of weeks ago, a couple of the show’s producers/writers got canned by NBC, in response, apparently, to massive complaints about the show. Well, hopefully whatever further action is taken by NBC will eventually improve things, but for the time being, the episodes we’re seeing this fall (or spring, for southern hemisphere folks) were finished while the old writing/production team was still in place.

So what the hell is going on, anyway? This is perhaps the broadest question that comes to mind when I caught up with the latest two episodes a few nights ago. I’ve decided that there is too much going on for me to gain any benefit from watching the show every week. It seems to work better when I can watch at least two episodes back-to-back, and I suspect four would be better…the problem there, of course, is that doing so would require waiting a month or more between viewings. As is, waiting two weeks is bad enough. I am not sure if it helps me more to have more material presented at once, or hurts due to the increased time since the previous installment. Perhaps what I need to do is go back and rewatch the entire season so far! I’ll probably do that once the “Villians” storyline is completed anyway—I always seem to enjoy a show more when I can watch multiple episodes at once.

In any case, the biggest bugaboo for me on the show right now is the “two Peters” question. At any given time, I find myself not really knowing which Peter I am looking at. At first, it was easy to tell the two Peters apart, but as the Peter storyline has progressed, somehow I’ve gotten confused to the point that even the facial scars don’t help me anymore. Which leads to another question which really bugs the hell out of me, namely HOW exactly did “future-Peter” get those scars? Wouldn’t the healing power he got from Claire have healed them? Obviously it would have, so that means future-Peter didn’t have that power. But that raises the further question of why future-Peter didn’t have that power, when present-Peter does. (Or did, since he now doesn’t.) Is future-Peter a direct causal descendant of the events that are currently happening? Or is he a direct causal descendant of no-longer-existing events, meaning the scar happened in a future that is no longer possible? Or what?

There’s also the question of the missing-in-action characters. Ali Larter’s previous characters are apparantly dead now, and all the New Orleans characters, I guess, are not going to be reappearing. Are they? And where is Maya? I can’t even remember what happened to her now—did bug-Mohinder wrap her up in one of those cocoon thingees? Or wait—did Papa Petrelli suck her evil power out of her? I can’t even remember. She does seem to be gone now, though. Claire’s flying boyfriend (West Rosen) from season two appears to be MIA as well, which is too bad. They took him out of the picture right when I was just starting to like him. On the other hand, would he have served any useful purpose by continuing to be on the show? All he was good for, at first, was looking sympathetically at Claire. That was annoying. In fact, he sort of reminded me of that annoying boyfriend guy from the first season of Alias (who annoyed me so much that I stopped watching the show). What saved West from going down that path, though, was when him and HRG started kicking some butt. He seems to be gone now, though. Oh well.

On the other hand, there is a positive note in that Sparky (Kristen Bell) is still around. I know, her name is really “Elle.” But I can’t understand why some character on the show hasn’t figured out that “Sparky” would be a perfect nickname for her. It would be amusing. :) I also find myself liking the transformation in Sylar this season. Having him continue to be an unabashed villain would have been a rerun of where he was in season one, and what would have been the point of that? I understand that a lot of fans have been displeased by him turning into a sort-of good guy, but frankly I think it makes his character much more interesting because, you know, he could revert back to his old self at any time. He’s still scary and dangerous, he’s just acting nice at the moment. You never know when he might decide that all this redemption stuff is just not worth it, and that he’d much rather get back to slicing people’s skulls off. :)

A character who I am more confused by, for now at least, is HRG. His shifting, back-and-forth morality would be challenging enough, but when we also see him in year-old flashbacks it makes it even more complicated. I continually have to re-ask myself the question of whether I like this guy or not, and that’s kind of irritating. I think the main problem is that, like a lot of the characters on the show, he’s not getting enough screentime to maintain character continuity, and it happens to be more confusing with him because of the complexity of his character.

Well. Hopefully some of these issues will be addressed in the second half of this season. We’re already coming up on the end of the “Villains” story, only two more episodes on that, as far as I know. How on earth they are going to resolve all this is beyond me. I am not even entirely sure what all needs to be resolved. Papa Petrelli needs to be gotten rid of, obviously, but beyond that, what else? Does Peter get his powers back? Will “the formula” be destroyed? Does Mohinder get to be a regular human being again, or is he going to be stuck in semi-insect form from now on? Is Hiro Nakamura going to remain a perpetual 10-year-old now? Perhaps most importantly, which characters are going to get killed? You know they’re going to have to get rid of some of them, because there are just too many of them for the writers to manage. So, who’s going to get offed? Whichever way they go with that question, I find myself dreading the inevitable deaths.