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

#Diary of a #Writer – December 11

Pythagoras, SamosToday’s is a bright, frosty morning, perfect for writing. Sol, already near its zenith, is about to turn around the corner of the house, and for a couple hours the garden and my desk will be lit by the subdued colours of a clear winter sky. Small patches of frost-free grass appear along the hedge…

Characters and scenes are slowly falling into place, the novel has made more progress in the past two weeks than in the previous four months. The Angel helped a lot: one should never neglect one’s Angel. And I have been asking myself about this: if someone – deity, daemon or superior aliens (superior as in “wiser” than us and more experienced – “ancient” maybe) – is observing us, what do “they” see? What do they think of the way “we” persecute the weak, the poor, the lost, the other species – how we torture our world, incinerate cities, molest women and children, murder people with drones or other assassins, etc…? The liars of the politicians, the cowardice of the media, the greed of the powerful? What does it mean to “them”? How do “they” judge us, if at all? It may be that one day, a lovely winter day like this, we will get the answer we deserve to those questions. In the meantime is it right to make this a matter of fiction?

Turning the page, as this is only one of the many questions writers should ask themselves, I am simply happy the way things are going, as writing goes. A way was found to link the past to the present, actual or imagined, to marry reality to the dream, and the story feels the better for it – or at least I hope it will, to the readers. The books I have most admired are those that allow the reader some freedom of interpretation of one of the pivotal characters. For example in The Stand, Mother Abagail. She sees and never judges, and she appears powerless, and yet… In Snow Crash, Y.T., the kourier, Hiros’ not so secret love and guardian. So I have latched on one of those, and her character is developing well. There is a degree of ambiguity as to where her loyalty – or patience – lies, that is how long she’s prepared to witness the misbehaviour of the rest of us. The other characters are taking notice, fortunately for them and for the story, they will soon get out of themselves and their parochial prejudices, and see the light. So will I.

There is a lot of material to edit, some of which will be moved to the bin, as it should. How far am I to have a complete draft? Please note I did not write “first draft” since whatever there is has already been edited and rewritten at least twice! At this point I cannot predict, possibly till the summer, who knows! I am in no hurry to complete, but I want to make progress. The opposite is demotivating!

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 14 – M is for Masculus

Building where Stendhal dictated "la Char...

Building where Stendhal dictated "la Chartreuse de Parme" in 1839 : 8, rue de Caumartin, 9th arrond. Français : Immeuble où Stendhal a dicté "la Chartreuse de Parme" en 1839 : 8, rue de Caumartin, 9e arr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

masculus, mascula, masculum: male/masculine, proper to males; manly/virile

Reflecting on male characters… What influences us now in the development of a character? For a fiction writer the credibility of a character is important is it not? At least for the sort of fiction this writer fancies doing: fantastic maybe, but still anchored in real life. The speculation is about circumstances and events: those can be extraordinary, once in a decade, once in a century, or even more far-fetched. But good fantastic arises from the ordinary. And the characters must be credible. It is about you, reader, ultimately, you are the central character.  But I am diverging.

If you are male, a male reader, what do you expect from a male character? And what if you are a female reader? What makes an attractive male character you may be tempted, or, better still, compelled, to identify with? And how has this evolved over time, say, since Stendhal wrote “La Chartreuse de Parme”? For example, James Bond belonged to the fantasy world of Ian Fleming, and probably drew more than one trait from the rat bag of more or less secret agents he must have known in the 40’s-50’s. But was Bond credible? Maybe he was for contemporary readers. How about Hiro Protagonist in Snow Crash (1992)? Can you believe in a sword-fighter/hacker/pizza-delivery-boy? But few readers would really believe in or identify with those characters surely? Did they a decade ago, twenty, thirty years ago? Strangely enough, still in Snow Crash, 15 year-old YT  – the Kourier – is, for this ageing male reader, a more realistic human being (says a lot about this writer’s prejudices?)

What has “realism” got to do with a character’s gender? I happen to believe it has, but can’t pin down why exactly. Is “credibility” be equated with “realism”? Another wild guess: the male gender – as characters and perhaps reality go – has become highly undifferentiated, so that male characters have tended to slide into stereotypes: the heart-of-steel ninja, the ageing benevolent geezer, the serial killer, the lost writer? Is there a maleness “trend” in fictional characters?

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)

#AtoZChallenge: April 9 – H is for hacker

April 9: Hacker

Hackers“It is by poking about inside current technology that hackers get ideas for the next generation. No thanks, intellectual homeowners may say, we don’t need any outside help. But they’re wrong. The next generation of computer technology has often—perhaps more often than not—been developed by outsiders.” – Paul Graham

continue

A place for hackers and thinkers

A place for hackers and thinkers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)