A reading of Seveneves

Seveneves, a novel by Neal Stephenson

 

From times immemorial, we have dreamed about it, painted it on caves walls, written fiction and speculations, prayed for it not to happen: it is mankind’s common nightmare, Armageddon, the end of our world, the end of our species. Will it be caused by our own misbehaviour, a punishment from our creator, our poisoning of the Earth, our Mother, or a nuclear holocaust? Neal Stephenson’s novel tells the story, of Armageddon from Space, from an unknown source, by an unknown “Agent”. This book, perhaps his best work to-date, is an uncompromising account of our destruction, down to, literally, a dwindling group of survivors, pitiful remnants of a once arrogant civilisation, ours, now hiding in tin cans orbiting the once beautiful planet. The story is, also, of a possible rebirth, couched in such a way as making the reader wonder: has this happened before? For, in some ways, haven’t we been there: the fire from the sky, the flight, the long terror, the survival of the few?

The description of the destruction of the old Earth by the “Hard Rain”, and of the hopeless, harrowing, and ultimately pathetic struggle of those, chosen to escape to Space, occupies the first and larger part of the novel. We learn of the heroic sacrifices of a few, of human nature, once again, leading to disaster after disaster. The males of the species are wiped out, leaving to the seven Eves the final decisions as to the future of humanity. This prepares the reader for the rebirth, the renewal of mankind from the shelter of the asteroid where the Eves have found refuge.

The second part of the book has a distinctly Arthur C-Clarkian flavour to it, as we sweep through five thousand years of post Zero history: mankind lives mostly on a ring of spatial habitats orbiting the Earth; the “New-Earth” is being seeded with recreated creatures and plants; the descendants of the seven Eves, from whose genes the two billions of “Spacers” derive from, have developed separate cultures, in each of the seven genomes legated by the Eves. This is a world of partial segregation between “races”, where orbital mechanics, robotics and genetics dominate science. The description of the “Cradle” reminded me of the “Fountains of Paradise“, but this legacy is not acknowledged in Stephenson’s notes, so it must be an association of ideas. This world is evidently very different (but very classical in terms of the science fiction literature) from ours, and yet the same old rivalries have reappeared (Blue versus Red).

The reader, after a long journey, is left with many unanswered questions. Stephenson, like Clarke before him, holds the human female as more adapted to the conditions of Space: better able to cope with cramped living conditions, isolation and solitude, biologically superior. The novel shows that the decisions made at the Council of the Seven Eves, to fundamentally conduct a differentiated genetics-enabled rebirth of mankind, initially through parthenogenesis, endure after five millennia. As the Spacers come to meet some of the “rootstock” survivors on the surface of New Earth, will they be considered as alien mutants, cowards who abandoned ship,  and unwelcome intruders, or a curiosity from Space? As we remain baffled by the “Purpose”, the nature of the Agent likewise remains veiled in mystery: judgement of God, random micro blackhole, or, simply, destiny?

Seveneves is a fantastic read, from end to finish. The world Stephenson created, its appeal and at the same time repulsive logic, will stay with us forever. So will the Seven.

 

Sound #DailyPrompt #WritersWednesday

The Prompt

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For some days I have been deep in Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, perhaps one of the most daunting reads of the past decade. I intend to review the novel on my Goodreads page, but for now, suffice to say that sounds have a role in that astounding saga of the end, and rebirth, of mankind. Space is silent, but not those tiny cramped tins, where survivors hide waiting for death… And then…

The source of the dappled light, as she now saw, was sunlight sparkling from waves on the lake below, shooting rays through the branches of trees, perhaps a hundred meters down the slope from her, that were beginning to stir in the morning breeze, making soft noises, as when a sleeping lover exhales.

The light of the sun, the sound of waves, violin notes in the evening air… The symphony of Peace.

Image: “Seveneves: the end and beginning of life on Earth”, The Seattle Times

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

An Aut to Fraa Stephenson, author of Anathem

Anathem: (1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, which since the time of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy (hence the Fluccish word Anthem meaning a song of great emotional resonance, esp. one that inspires listeners to sing along). Note: this sense is archaic, and used only in a ritual context where it is unlikely to be confused with the much more commonly used sense 2. (2) In New Orth, an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas). See Throwback.

— the dictionary, 4th edition, A.R. 3000

My name is fraa Arturus the Laterran, tenner at the concent of Saunt Orolo. Ma family was on the Daban Urnud, and after the Second Reconstitution opted to join a colony of Laterrans on Arbre. Those folkes were later the builders of the shrine of Saunt Lise at Ecba. I was collected some thirty years after the founding of the concent by Saunt Erasmas (the Second) and Saunt Ala,  on the site of the launch pad rodded by the Geometers during that short war. By the time of my arrival it was no longer the original timber construction but a magnificent stone building, or rather walled town, almost rivalling the concent of Saunt Tredegarth in its splendour. Aged twenty at the time of my Eliger, I elected and was admitted to the Edharian Math of this concent. You can imagine my joy and pride then: following the steps of Saunt Orolo and Saunt Erasmas! Not a small feat for a descendant of poor Laterran farmers…

Saunt Lise on Ecba This is an important Apert for me as, for the first time in ten years, I am now leaving my concent, for a few years, to retrace, in reverse, the journey of Saunt Orolo, from this concent and over the northern waste, all the way to the concent of Saunt Edhar, for the pilgrimage of a lifetime. I will stop at Ecba to kneel at Saunt Lise’s shrine, visit the new Temple of Orithena, rereading the Dialog of Saunt Orolo and Saunt Erasmas, where they discuss quantum theorics, worldtracks and Saunt Grod’s Machines. On the long journey I will see again the terrible images of the sacrifice of the Valers, the poignant speelie of the return of their coffins and that of Saunt Lise, listen to the Anathem, and to the glorious aunt celebrating the Perelithian Liaison of then Fraa Erasmas and Suur Ala… I will meditate on the mysteries of the Hylean Flow and of the Mathic world that inspired Fraa Stephenson to write this immortal narrative of Fraa Erasmas’s quest.

Daily Prompt: The Interview

Interview your favorite fictional character.

Honoré welcomes Fraa Erasmas, in direct from the Concent of Saunt Edhar on Arbre.

Anathem, a novel Q ~ Fraa Erasmas, let me say first how moving it is for me to meet you, at last, and be in a position to ask you questions that have not left me since I read the story of the Convox…

A ~ Ah, yes, I assume you’re referring to the Geometers Convox?

Q ~ Indeed, and the long journey you and Fraa Orolo undertook after being evoked… But let me ask you first: are you pleased with the way you fraas and suurs of the Edharian math behaved during the whole period?

A ~ We, in the mathic orders, have an understandable loyalty to our respective concents, and for us Edharians this has a special significance. As you know ours was one of the three Inviolates…

Q ~ Indeed, and I pray for Saunt Edhar to continue to protect your brethrens, I mean the fraas and suurs of your order, fraa Erasmas. May I ask you how suur Ala now is?

A ~ Oh, Earth people have a direct way… You obviously know of our liaison, and how distraught I was when the suur I – how do you say that?, loved? – was evoked. My ancestor, Erasmas, who founded the metatheorics branch named Complex Protism would have explained this to you better than me, his 37th century namesake ever could… But fraa Ala is fine and is due to deliver our baby in a few weeks time…

Q ~ Congratulations to both of you fraa Erasmas. May I ask what happened with fraa Jaad, the Thousander?

A ~ I understand fraa Jaad is alive and well, and is pursuing his studies of HTW in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, our concent.

Q ~ I have never quite understood how was resolved the… long Dialog about cosmi and Hemm configuration Space?

A ~ Oh, you got as far as that? Not bad for a scribbler of the old Earth then! No, really, don’t blush.  As a Tenner I have to say that I doubt that you have the theorics – sorry, you’d say mathematics – to grasp any of it. But then you will have to excuse me, I have to be back before Provener! Nice meeting you Honoré. I enjoyed our… small Dialog… Good bye

Q~ Good bye fraa Erasmas, Saunt Edhar bless you!

Inspired by Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Cryptonomicon: Das Messer sitzt mir an der Kehle…

 …The knife is at my throat… As Günter Bischoff, the best U-Boat skipper of the Kriegsmarine, lies dying, in 1945, in the hull of his submarine, off the shore of Manilla, he reflects on what could have been: “…It was a nice conspiracy while it lasted…”

Cryptonomicon, published in 1999, is Neal Stephenson‘s second triumphal novel, after Snow Crash (1992), and before Anathem (2008) and Reamde (2010) and a host of other fictional and non fictional work. The book is full of tightly woven conspiracies, revolving around the two main characters of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, organ player of genius, cryptography magician, friend of Alan Turing and Rudolph, “Rudy”, von Hacklheber, and Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe of the US Marine Corps, survivor of Pearl Harbour and Guadalcanal, war hero, and their respective grand children, Randall, “Randy”, Lawrence Waterhouse and America, “Amy”, Shaftoe. The conspiracies themselves center on the battle for deciphering the German and Japanese secret codes (Lawrence and Bobby) and recovering the gold hidden in the Philippines by the Japanese Imperial army (Randy and Amy). In between, the reader travels from Princeton, where, before the war breaks out, Lawrence, Alan Turing and Rudy discuss what will be known as the Turing machine, the proto digital computer, to the streets of Shanghai as the Japanese armies invade China, to the Pacific battles, the North African theater of war, England, Bletchley Park, the North Atlantic U-boat battles, Sweden, Manilla and the jungle of the Luzon peninsula. Those locations are the stages for the two projects that span the lives of the protagonists: the victorious conquest of the mysterious Arethusa code designed by Rudy for the sake of his WWII conspiracy, and the “Crypt”, an ambitious plan to create a data haven and the first all-electronic currency – Randy’s and his friend Avi’s project. In the midst of Arethusa-encoded messages lies the secret of the Japanese gold, hidden by Goto Dengo, mining engineer extraordinaire and scarred war veteran, protégé of General of the Army Douglas McArthur, last employer of Bobby Shaftoe.

At the end of the war Bobby dies a hero’s death, and is buried surrounded by his friends. Lawrence, loyal to his friends to the end, refuse to submit to a brilliant future as employee of the newly created NSA, and declines the offer of the sinister Colonel Earl Comstock, homophobe and rabid anti-communist. Of course Randy and Amy will get the gold, all those decades later, with Goto’s help.

Cryptonomicon is a complex, enchanting novel, whose characters live long in the reader’s mind once the book is closed. On one hand it is a monument to the genius of Alan Turing, and through Lawrence’s friendship with Alan – and Rudy – we sense all the absurdity of war and the sheer distortion of their genius, long after they are gone. On the other hand, as Snow Crash invented the “Metaverse” and predicted accurately the rise of virtual reality, the Cryptonomicon sets out the emerging picture of the rivalries between states and the new owners of infrastructures, the owners of navies and NSA’s, pitted against the new owners of the old telephone networks and their modern extensions: a subject for the 21st century.

On Solitaire and Bruce Schneier

Neal’s next venture!

I love this badge: #Liebster Award!

 

 I blushed last night when I realised Damian had nominated me for this most challenging of award: the Liebster – love the name too. Damian “makes things up and writes them down” at The Gray Pen, which makes at least the two of us (smile), and admits “to write about the spooky things that go bump in the night”… Did he say also he was “digging the blog”? I am wondering what creepy things will come crawling out of that!

Damian received his badge from Maeve at Wings and Waters and I thank both of them, humbly. So, dear reader, I must invite you first of all to visit the blogs of those two writers – if you are not already acquainted. To fulfil my obligations as recipient I am answering Damian’s searching questions, before setting out some of my own. Incidentally WordPress says there are just under 200 followers of this blog, but I confess I do not know if those are all subscribers!

1. How long do you typically write per day?

Variable, it must be around three or four hours on average, but there days “sans”!

2. Name the books that have influenced your writing.

In no particular order: Stephen King’s “On Writing”, Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, Jonathan Littell’s “Les Bienveillantes”, Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, James Ellroy’s “The Cold Six Thousand”… And of course French writers the list of which is too long for this blog!

3. Are you a Genre writer, literary, or both?

No idea! As you do Damian, things creep out and I write them down…

4. Are you into self-publishing or traditional?

I am nowhere yet, but my dear friend Gillian (but she did change her name!) is threatening publication of my short stories “Helena“. Qui vivra verra…

5. Do you ever have problems harming your characters? Explain.

There is a BDSM streak in some of my writing so I must be “hurting” someone from time to time, but then “they” are willing. 

6. Do you like to plot or do you like to just jump into the page?

I do both, depends on the day, whether the sun shines or not, and my mood.

7. How many drafts do you write before you stop?

On my main piece of work, The Page – hahaha – I haven’t stopped editing yet. I use Scrivener and keep everything. Incidentally, this blog is very much my “lab”, where I try things out, invent new characters, and mess around!

8. What’s your proudest moment as a writer?

For me this is a difficult question: I had several moments of elation, perhaps it was when Gillian said she was considering publishing Helena. But then I write for pleasure, and there were others, such when I discovered the boat named Arrakis (still on the bench!)

9. How old were you when you began to write?

I was at primary school (year 6 UK), and was told off to do graffiti in my workbook! I never stopped.

10. In your opinion, can the craft of writing be taught?

I dunno, but Joanne has a lot to say about that.

11. Aren’t you glad I’m done asking questions?

You could have asked the ones below!

Questions of my own:

  1. Which existing fictional character would you wish to have created yourself?
  2. How important is it for you to be recognised as a writer (for example by being published in the traditional sense)?
  3. Is there a location – geographical or fictional – that you favour in your writing, both as inspiration and “best place where to write”?
  4. If you had the choice would you adopt writing as your central activity, as opposed to other bread and butter work? (please think carefully on this one!)
  5. Have you ever fallen in love with a character you created?
  6. What is the most important event of your lifetime, that is as influence on you as a writer?
  7. Has evil any place in your writing?
  8. What is your view on “Flash Fiction”, fad, useless exercise, helpful, …?
  9. If you could commission a book cover from an artist – past or present – who would that be (painter or photographer)?
  10. Do you have a favourite anthem?
  11. Is there a different question you would have wished me to ask?

My nominees (not sure about “subscribers” though!):

Joanne at http://joannegphillips.wordpress.com/

Ash at http://ashnfinn.wordpress.com/

Ciara at http://ciaraballintyne.com/index.html

Roxy at http://www.roxyfreeman.com/

Procrastinatress at http://themindssky.wordpress.com/

… And now, as Damian said, “once you’ve posted your answers, comment on this post with your post link so I can keep up with the answers!”

 

 

#AtoZChallenge: April 24 – U is for “Ultra”

Ultra was the designation adopted by British military intelligence in June 1941 for wartime signals intelligence obtained by breaking high-level encrypted enemy radio and teleprinter communications at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park.”

The deciphering of messages generated by the enemy’s Enigma machines for land and naval forces was, by all accounts, a decisive factor of the Allied victory in Western Europe. By the end of the war “Ultra” designated the entire body of intelligence gathered from Axis forces’ radio and teleprinter emissions.

The successful development of the method and procedures leading to the breaking of ciphered communications was largely due to the mathematical analytical work of a small group of Polish, British and American scientists and engineers led by the mathematician Alan Turing. Turing is widely considered as the father of computer science and Artificial Intelligence.

GCHQ – the British government communications HQ – released Alan Turing’s code breaking theoretical papers in April 2012 from a 70-year old highly restricted classification.

The story of WWII code breaking inspired Neal Stephenson’s novel “Cryptonomicon”.

Alan Turing Statue at Bletchley Park - geograp...

Alan Turing Statue at Bletchley Park - geograph.org.uk - 1591025 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Page

Chapters One and Two are out! I’m grateful for comments from readers and writers… This is “work in progress”, an unfinished novel which is still evolving, with characters running away, doing their own things!

The virtual locations, Berlin and then the “Mindless Island” are in Metaverses (respectively Twinity, renamed Tarsus, and SL) but also, in the background, in the “Street”, invented all those years back (1992) by Neal Stephenson, an author I much admired. You can see some of the (real life) places Sarah and Julian love here. There is a picture of Jane, Julian’s sister, in her SL avatar here. Enjoy!

A montage showing author Neal Stephenson and f...

A montage showing author Neal Stephenson and four historical characters from his book series The Baroque Cycle: (counterclockwise from top left) Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Electress Sophia of Hanover and William of Orange (Photo credit: Wikipedia)