T-Rain, and a girl named Zula: a reading of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde #amreading

Neil Stephenson 77f9262fbf.jpg

Every other thing that he had done for the company – networking with money launderers, stringing Ethernet cable, recruiting fantasy authors, managing Pluto – could be done better and more cheaply by someone who could be recruited by a state-of-the-art head-hunting firm. His role, in the end, had been reduced to this one thing: sitting in the corner of meeting rooms or lurking on corporate email lists, seeming not to pay attention, growing ever more restless and surly until he blurted something out that offended a lot of people and caused the company to change course. Only later did they see the shoals on which they would have run aground if not for Richard’s startling and grumpy intervention.”

Reamde is a tough, long, and interesting novel. I had to interrupt my reading several times during this year, and this made following the plot as hazardous as the story itself. I acquired Reamde initially as an e-book. The version I had was poorly edited, and after some four hundred pages I could no longer find my way through the various geographies and characters. Finally I purchased the paperback (in the Atlantic Books edition available in the UK.) This helped me to come back on tracks, as the good ones were getting deeper into serious trouble, and the bad ones were… getting more horrible than ever.
Richard Forthrast is a wealthy entrepreneur, and the soul at the core of T-Rain, a world-class multiplayer (MMORPG) game and metaverse, that transcends all predecessors. Richard is the head of the Forthrast clan, an expanded family of gun-totting characters who include his adopted niece, the beautiful Zula, a refugee from Erithrea. The world of T-Rain is, one day, disrupted by the double event of an internal war – the Wor – and the advent of what turns out to be a deadly virus, Reamde. The plot then develops into two parallel, but eventually convergent, lines: what happens in T-Rain, and what happens in “reality”: much of the book’s interest arises, in this reader’s view, from this double narrative, the journey in T-Rain, and the journey in this world, from Idaho to the Philippines, via China and various airfields and oil tankers, and back again, as Bilbo Baggins used to say. Both are rich in deadly traps, of the explosive and other varieties, such as magic spells.
A good first tier of the book is devoted to a description of T-Rain, its design, history and creators, a medley of British and US genial weirdos, recruited by, and under Richard’s influence. I must admit having lost the thread more than once (a fuller understanding would require a second reading, at least.) The real world’s thread centres on Zula and her companions, and their odyssey. For Reamde, the virus, cuts across the machinations of a criminal gang from the East, whose extortion racket is disrupted by the virus. The consequences of the gang’s brutal intervention, and a chance meeting with a bunch of jihadists, make up the second half of the novel, as the separate trails slowly converge back to the US-Canadian border, and Richard’s eagle nest.
There are hints of Snow Crash, Stephenson’s earlier novel that introduced a proto-virtual world, and multiple references to the world of hacking and virus developers. There are peripheral characters, some roughly inspired by the “war on terror”, and of course, the very nasty, and yet noble jihadist, the infamous Jones.
I only caught up with the female characters, all three of them, once I had acquired the paperback, having to backtrack through the 1044 pages! I think, now, that sometime I will re-read Reamde, when I have some uninterrupted three or four weeks of quiet vacation (maybe when we visit Seattle?) Stephenson lives in Seattle and his geographical knowledge of the region is evidently vast. I struggled with the trails through the mountainous area above Richard’s Schloss! A map would be as useful to the reader as it would be to Zula and her friends.
Reamde is, in turn, hilarious and tragic, a great read, and a milestone for Stephenson’s aficionados.

Photo: [By Ryan Somma – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ideonexus/6191024454, CC BY 2.0, Link]

My reading of Cryptonomicon

As a #writer, is #Facebook useful to me?

Au Pont de la Tournelle

Today, a very good friend of mine, in real life as well as in cyberspace, quitted her Facebook account, which she created in 2009. She said to me she no longer had time to keep her page up to date, even to the minimum level that would be of interest to her “friends”. And she added: “But of course, the real friends and I keep in touch, by writing – yes! oldfashion letters – and via our blogs, that are the right places for a genuine exchange of ideas.”

It makes sense to me. When I started using Facebook, it was an attempt to build up the main character in my first novel, and later on, to promote my work. It has been a mixed success. Quickly the character achieved a life of her own, and was never really dependent on social media for her development. From a writing and work promotion viewpoint, I have to admit having had close to zero contribution through the Facebook page I created for the novel. By comparison I found Twitter a far more effective tool, to meet other writers, keep up to date on news that interested me, and promote my work.

In truth, the real writer tool is the blog. There, it is possible to develop a meeting of minds, with genuinely interested readers, and people of common interests, who are willing to take the time to comment and follow. It’s give and take. There is nothing artificial in the development of such communities. Given the time it takes to keep up on social media, one has to be economical, and discerning. Has Facebook helped me in my development as a writer? The answer is, probably, very little, compared with the real progress made on the blogs, and, also compared with the source of inspiration and contacts I found via Twitter.

Is this then, conclusive? I have nothing against Facebook, it’s fun to use, but just appears, often, pointless. This is of course a very personal viewpoint, what does not work for me may well do marvels for others! Our main resource is time. So, maybe, it’s time to reconsider?

Against Evil

“And the hard part is that she knows better, knows that beneath the high-cap scumscapes created by the corporate order and celebrated in the media, there are depths where petty fraud becomes grave and often deadly sin.”

~ Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge

Silicon Alley For the past twenty years, that’s the time we have been sheltering in this little corner of damp suburbia, I have owned and used a wonderful little petrol-engine lawnmower. It does, in all seasons, a jolly good job of keeping our patch of grass tidy, even, at times, depending on the vagaries of this island’s weather, delightful.

The small engine was designed and built by a US engineering outfit in Milwaukee, and I guess “they” have long sold off, or been declared bankrupt. Their product is clean, does not leak oil, is wonderfully sober. Through the year I probably use a mere three or four litres of unleaded, sometimes much less. I love the sound of the engine, a low purr that does remind me of old American cars, with big, friendly, low revving eight cylinders disposed in V. Yet, it is a small engine.

When I cut the grass I think of the people, in Milwaukee, who built the engine, and I praise them, and their skills, wherever they now are. The same feeling overcomes me when I read a Thomas Pynchon novel: I know that this voice is more powerful that the thousands of followers of the “pensée unique” that clogs up the web, those writers and journalists who have long given up thinking for themselves, and respecting their public.

In a Pynchon novel there are several co-centric stories, and like Johann Sebastian Bach’s Art de la Fugue, it takes several readings, indeed a lifetime of reading, to discover them. The central character is on a journey, or, better, a quest. Along his or her progress, often halted by external events of great, if hidden, significance, or smaller anecdotes whose meaning may remain obscure, evil lurks. In “Against the Day”, and now, in “Bleeding Edge”, this evil has a clear profile: the late capitalistic neo-liberal conundrum, responsible for atrocities and destructions perpetrated world-wide, in the face of God and Mankind.

One of the book’s theses is that evil well precedes its latest avatars. The story follows Maxine Tarnow’s gumshoe and sexed-up mother of two, who’s investigating that rarity, in early 2001, out of the ruins of Silicon Alley, a technology company – hashlingrz – that is successful and growing, but also engaged in obscure, and well protected, big money transactions with the Middle-East. For the technology sector has crashed, in the so-called dot com collapse of 2000. This is a pivotal moment in US history: the cranked up Y2K fallacy, the Nasdaq equity dive, and now those rumours about all things Arabic, and the rise of Bush Jnr. Maxine’s work is part funded by Igor, an ex-Spetnatz soldier-turned-entrepreneur, whose soul found its road of Damascus, when his umbrella failed to open over Chechnya.

Soon, the boss of hashlingrz, Gabriel Ice, comes into sharp focus: double or triple agent, engaged in a series of capital manipulations for the benefit of shadowy Gulf’s secret armies, and protected by equally shadowy US agencies. This is September 8, 2001 and “the market” is playing with airlines shares, fact that Maxine’s found again ex-husband and commodity trader, Horst, does not fail to notice and explain to their kids, while masked men play with Stinger missiles and sniper rifles on the roofs of New-York.

Maxine, above all caring for her two boys, Ziggy and Otis, proceeds to meet one operative, Nick Windust, mercenary in the pay of evil, assassin, presumed torturer, and well-hung enough to attract more than Maxine’s fraud examiners’ professional interest. Indeed our hero gets seduced by Mr I-don’t-do-foreplay-Windust, one evening, in the sinister flat the said Windust occupies, in an equally sinister part of the City. For this is New-York City, just before the fall.

When the outrage comes, to no-one’s real surprise, Maxine is momentarily lost, in fear for her boys. She has discovered DeepArcher, a piece of code constructed by survivors of the crash, and finds for a short while some solace in its depth, before it goes “open-source”. This virtual world is not without reminding us of that proto-metaverse: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). So we have, at least, three stories: Maxine’s quest to uncover the truth about Mr Ice and his corporation, her infatuation for Windust – who will end up murdered by , presumably, his employers, and half eaten by wild dogs, and her reflections on 9/11 as viewed through the eyes of a true New-Yorker, who longs for the City of her childhood. Those reflections are enhanced by her travels through DeepArcher, the memories of her father, who is clear about what the Internet is, where it comes from, and where it is going: a tool – a toy? – of the Cold War, first designed to survive a nuclear blast, now magisterially transformed into instrument of manipulation and slavery, and a “chance” meeting with Windust’s once South-American wife, now strutting her stuff in US Academia.

Despite all, Maxine, who lost at some point her license of fraud examiner, manages to stay “on the honourable side of the ledger”.

As one of her friends says to her: “Guess I’m just a Yahoo! type of girl. Click in, click back out, nothing too far afield, nothing too… deep.”

One way to stay safe.

Talking about Maxine

Takahiro Shimatsu I haven’t finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and I will later adorn my Goodreads page with my conclusion. Suffice to say that Thomas Pynchon is, for this reader, one of the four vortices of the magic square, that which is at the heart of my love for contemporary American letters: Pynchon – Stephen King – Neal Stephenson – Bret Easton Ellis. Those guys are, to my mind,  America, through and through.

Re-reading Christian Lorentzen’s review of Bleeding Edge in the 26 September 2013 issue of the LRB, I found myself, a rare event, in some disagreement with the respected editor of the said LRB. Bleeding Edge is not, in my reading, “a period novel” about New-York City’s Silicon Alley, that is merely the backdrop. Bleeding Edge is, literary speaking, about the atrocity, about 9/11, in the same way as Gravity’s Rainbow is about the nazi weapons of reprisal, and their aftermath.

Pynchon’s genius, once again (as, in Gravity’s Rainbow, the surreal connection between Peenemünde and West Africa), is to link the Saudi-perpetrated-and-funded outrage with the preceding, less bloody, but no less potent, disaster: the collapse of the first corporate attempt to subjugate the Internet, known as the “*.com” bubble. The link – shadow of Stephenson’s Snow Crash – is DeepArcher, a “piece of code” that turns out to be a deep metaverse, malevolently seductive to the hero of the tale, Maxine Tarnow, fraud investigator by profession, and to survivors of the outrage. The book mentions a number of fraudulent plots, real or supposed, the main one being the subject of Maxine’s own quest for truth, about Gabriel Ice, corporate predator, pervert, double or triple agent, and purveyor of funds to shadowy Gulf’s paramilitaries.

Thus the novel skirts around the trinity: late capitalism – “War on Terror” and, finally – the Terrorists among us, bankrolled by successive US administrations (the “ben Ladin’s network” and its successors) and the Saudi’s evil empire. In the meantime we get the “period piece” about 2001, which could be described as the last year of innocence of the 21st century. Worse was to come.

Maxine, a hero for our time, is left, bemused, abused – on her own volition – but still kicking, incredibly.

I am taking my time to finish the book, and will write again. Incidentally, my definition of the atrocity, is my own, not Thomas Pynchon’s.

Related articles:

The Crying of September 11

The New American Way of War

Daily Prompt: New Internet Order

All the world’s countries have decided that the Internet itself needs a government. Your country asks you to run for Prime Minister of the ‘Net — do you accept? If so, what will your platform be?

Vint Cerf - 2010

I know that, for most of you, its true origin is a mystery: but please believe me, the past is the past, and, today it no longer matters that much secrecy surrounded its creation: for, now, it is ours, as its creators would have wanted.

Yes: ours, it belongs to us, the humble, the creators, the genuine people. And it is up to us to turn it into what we want, what we all want, and it may be helpful to all of us to remind ourselves of what that is.

Like Gaia, Mother Earth, the Net is alive. Our spirits animate the Net the way the world’s rivers, oceans and forests keep Gaia alive. We are its life blood: our thoughts, the books we write, the pictures we take, the music we weave, our dreams, flow through those canals, ever changing, enchanted, for ever keeping our minds awake, attentive, loving.

There can be no formal government of it, but careful attention, respect for the skills and courage of its keepers, readiness to fight and keep it free and clear of greed and distortion: like Gaia it is our property and we will defend its freedom, our freedom. For its enslavement would be ours, and this we will not tolerate.

So, the mission is clear: what we have to do is to preserve it, as mankind’s instrument of tolerance, freedom and respect. We will keep it free of interference, free of spies, free of weaponry: it is the ultimate demilitarised frontier, where mankind expresses itself, away from censors, dictators and demagogues. We will protect its inhabitants, of all ages and aspirations. We will keep evil from its shores.