During the past 6 months, I’ve been reading a lot of enormous novels—in excess of 600 pages—and really enjoying them. Most of these have been series but I’ve just recently finished two standalone books of 600+ (Perdido Street Station by China Miéville) to 1100+ (Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson) pages and, though they are quite dissimilar, I’ve been considering them in relation to one another.
I’ve counted Stephenson among my favorite authors for a while despite only really liking about 50% of what I’ve read by him. It seems that his greatest strength is, at times, also his downfall. Stephenson’s novels are frequently described as infodumps [example 1] [example 2] [example 3], and these can be a ton of fun whether the material feels esoteric, as in the case of my favorite of his novels Anathem, reiterative, as in his genre redefining Snow Crash, or inapplicable, as with Reamde, to the reader. I really enjoy diving into the insane detail he provides as both background for the story and instruction for all manner of geeks. However, when something in the story isn’t working, the infodump makes an already problematic story that much more of a slough to read. Best example here is probably Reamde, which really held me for about 500 pages before the thriller became entirely too predictable for a reader of few thrillers. At that point, spending 25 pages diving into a single topic made the novel difficult to pick up and entirely too easy to put down.
After Reamde, I was a little jaded in going back to Stephenson’s older novels. When I tried Cryptonomicon for the first time, I dropped it around 2/3rd completed. That seems a bit later to abandon, but for a novel of that size, there were still about 400 pages remaining and I just couldn’t see a reason to stick around. That was about 9 months ago and in the meantime, as I said, I’ve been reading quite a few enormous novels and something called me back.
I was not drawn to Perdido Street Station for the same reason. About 20 months ago, I read Embassytown and was quite honestly blown away by the magnificent exploration of symbolic language and Miéville’s ability to integrate that into a compelling story without distraction. Since then, I’ve been wanting to dive into another of his books. Sadly, his work is underrepresented at my local libraries and used bookstores and I only recently picked up a MMP of Perdido. In between the two novels, I became enamored with Miéville as a critical writer and personage in SFF, so when I got my hands on Perdido, I had a hard time not laying the book I was already reading aside.
I should say that while I do not harbor any animosity towards fantasy, neither do I have any affinity for it. This is completely inexplicable to me, to be honest. I can say with some verve that I am not interested in the Tolkien-branch of high fantasy, but I have absolutely torn through the first four Song of Ice and Fire novels in the past three months and the only reason I haven’t started Dance with Dragons is my wish to hold it until February to meter out my anticipation while waiting for HBO’s Game of Thrones to finish the third novel.
Thanks to Miéville, I believe I am beginning to see what has kept me away from fantasy. I don’t mean to insinuate that Miéville is the only fantasy writer that can really pull me in, but his blending of new and old conventions and his respect for the in-world limitations of a fantasy story make me likely to recommend Perdido to a wide variety of readers.
As I say, these novels are not terribly similar. Both authors have dabbled in similar genres and tropes, though not in the stories at hand. These works are, again, quite expansive but Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon clocks in at nearly double the length of Perdido. But the attention to seemingly insignificant detail is something I see as shared between the two. Done right, the absolutely staggering amount of information imparted by these kinds of novels can be enchanting and, honestly, addictive.
In Perdido, the main focus of attention is given to describing the circumstances, situations, inhabitants, politics, architecture, and moods of New Crobuzon, a major city in the Bas-Lag world (to which Miéville has twice returned in non-sequential novels). Bas-Lag is a world filled with numerous sentient and sapient races, steampunk-like technology, a scientifically misunderstood form of magic referred to as thaumaturgy, toyed up physics, and a great deal of institutional corruption. Having finished the 623 page novel, I have the feeling as though I have spent a semester abroad studying in New Crobuzon and now wish to explain at great and aggravating length why others should follow. Though, since the novel is 13 years old, I’ve hardly blazed a new trail. The plot is intriguing and pulls one through the story at a steady and reliable pace, but what really enthralls the read of this novel is the detail of Miéville’s imagined city. This was only my second of his fiction works, but I can certainly count myself a Miéville fan, now and forever.
The exhaustive detail in Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is much less to do with the world of the novel and far more to do with its ideas. The reader is privy to the amazing depth of Stephenson’s research into cryptography, cryptology, and World War II history. The novel switches between numerous POVs spanning from the end of the 1930s to just ahead of the novel’s 2002 publication date. As with all of his novels, it serves the dual function of telling an intricate story and expounding the reference work worth of knowledge on its primary subjects.
I’m coming to realize that I really love these kinds of expansive novels with unimaginably intricate world building more and more. The insular novels of the mind and the sparce novels of modernity and 1970’s social SF are still important to me and they will likely bare a greater resemblance to my own writing for the foreseeable future, but nothing draws me in quite as these huge, detailed and idea saturated stories can.
I highly recommend both of these novels, though for a Stephenson newbie, I might warn you to start with Snow Crash or, if unintimidated by math, the superb Anathem.
I have a few half-baked ideas for blogs posts—and the intention of reviewing the fantastic Perdido Street Station by China Mieville once I’ve finished it—but I think I’ll pass them over to relate my Movember plans.
I think it’s been sometime since I’ve lamented my inability to grow proper facial hair, i.e.:
Just beautiful, ain’t he?
Unlike Mr. Offerman, the men of my family do not grown beards that demand respect. Rather, our facial hair tends to elicit cacophonies of awws. So rather than sporting the beard I have so wanted for years, I shave daily.
Why, if it is necessary that I shave daily, do I not possess the ability to grow a beard? Dunno. Cruel fortuna? I grow a progressively less pitiful mustache, though that progress had roughly the same outlook as marriage equality in Mississippi, a piddling little goatee, and the thinnest sideburns imaginable.
A few months back, I insisted to my girlfriend that she really did not want to see my facial hair in its glory. To be fair, I’ve never seen it, but I can imagine. After some playful discussion, I told her I would participate in Movember, my acceptance based on the idea that sad facial hair is probably even more likely to generate prostate cancer awareness than a Whitman might.
But now Movember is here and my patchy awfulness is bugging me and I keep plucking at it when I read and I just know that, a day or two more, and I’m going to look pretty dang bad.
That said, I’m thinking I might start taking progress shots. Same face, same time, every day? If they really show what I think they will, I’ll probably even post them here. Thoughts?
What could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing and everything. “The Counselor” is a uniquely and almost impossibly bad movie precisely because the talented and laurel-bedecked people behind it made exactly the movie they wanted to. Nobody gets to blame the budget for this one, or inexperience, or technical ineptitude.
Alright, this is hyperbolic for humor’s sake but even so dead on the money. Before, I said I was processing and I think I finally realized what I was processing: the inconceivable idea that McCarthy’s first straight-to-theater screenplay didn’t blow me away.
Still, if you’re a McCarthy fan, I’d say give it a watch. Matinee, dollar theater, inevitable Amazon Prime stream, something, but give it a view. If for no other reason than Bardem’s hilarious relation of the car sex story.
PSA: If you think you might have caused even a minor accident, you have no business going about your day until you are absolutely certain that all is well.
In the two years following my sixteenth birthday, I was the cause of too many car accidents. Honestly, more than one is too many, but I caused a few more than two.
These were generally caused by recklessness, in which case I was the only vehicle involved (I cracked a rim on one occasion and completely totally a truck on another), or poor attention, as when I rear ended two people in two incidents on the same stretch of road in six days.
That last bit was not my proudest week.
Despite being involved in a few accidents since, I have not caused any since just before I turned eighteen. Some of the accidents since that time have been a good deal worse than others, such as the time a teenaged boy rode his bike out in front of my car on a pitch black road at one am. (That was a particularly powerful moment in my life) Others have been minor but frustrating nevertheless.
Suffice it to say I have been in way too many.
And so I am thrilled to avoid one, even by a hair’s breadth.
Yesterday, I only narrowly avoided a third—and very likely catastrophic—collision in my one year old car.
(I have been rear ended twice in the last year. FEH!)
I live with friends in a Central Texas suburb just far enough away from major off-freeway attractions that two-direction feeder roads makes some kind of ridiculous sense. This means in order for me to merge on or cut off the freeway, I have to (1) look to make sure drivers on the feeder have yielded the right-of-way and (2) pray to the asphalt gods that my split-second assessment is correct and that person had, in fact, yielded to me.
Yesterday, s/he had not.
S/he came very nearly to a stop but decided to chance it! Hooray!
I was already completely into his/her lane before I realized s/he must have gunned it in an idiotic attempt to shave seconds off his/her commute.
With a sedan barreling at the side of the car containing my lady and my best friend, I veered hard left for just a moment to get clear of this jerk-ass before righting the steering wheel a nanosecond too late to avoid a nice, partially controlled drift down the pebbled-lined left bank of the on-ramp.
Thankfully, I suppose, I have been here before. My correction was drastic but called for. We straightened for a moment long enough to shoot across the actual road and transition into a drift going to opposite direction. My foot was poised on the accelerator the whole time, tapping just enough to keep forward momentum and avoid the counter-intuitive temptation to step on the brake.
With a final correction, I came to a stop far to the right side of the on-ramp still at least a couple of hundred feet from the freeway proper.
Fast heart rates abounded.
I glanced quickly at my disheveled but safe passengers before checking to see if the impetuous ass had stopped, but evidently s/he did not think us worth his/her time and s/he took off.
I jumped from the vehicle, scanned as quickly as I could to make sure I still had the appropriate number of functional tires, and jumped back into chase the once-ass, now complete piece of garbage back up the incomprehensible two-way feeder.
With a couple of fervent hand waves at the people who protested my retrograde maneuver away from the freeway, I sped up the hill to find…no one. S/he hightailed it with no lack of efficiency and disappeared among many undoubtedly better and more thoughtful drivers.
No visible damage, thank goodness, though Eva could definitely use a wash with special attention paid to her grass-encrusted tires. I thought, as I got up to highway speeds a couple of minutes later, that I felt a slight buffet from the tires but this morning noticed nothing.
My loved ones were safe, I felt proud of my driving skills, and off we went to see The Counselor solely on the merit of its writing credit.
I’d love to review it but, to be quite honest, I think I need days to stew and a second viewing. We shall see.
It took me two paragraphs of the Times story to come to a one-word evaluation of the study: Hogwash.
Book View Cafe has another take on the “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov” article I mentioned a couple of weeks back. Rather than take umbrage with the idea of canon and loaded terms, Moore takes the study on as well-intentioned bad science.
I adore the show RadioLab. Have for years now. It is among the few audio programs that begs to be revisited in the future both near and far. If you don’t listen, you must.
But wait, let me have a word first.
In addition to their regular program, the podcast of RadioLab includes shorter episodes devoted to a smaller topic or single story. The other day, I was running about and listening to their latest short (Quicksaaaand!) and as often happens from listening to the show, I had a minor epiphany.
I have this anxiety in regards to writing longer works which I have expressed to some extent before. I will start with a bare-bones outline and elaborate, but what is it that is actually coming out and what are the elements that I’m blind to but which my reader might possibly see?
Quicksand, it’s said in the episode, has often been employed as a device that expresses our anxiety over exploration and the unknown. Dragons, Krakens, and Yeti are often put at the edges of the map for just the same reason; they are the unspoken, unknowable fears that lurk just beyond what we know.
I often wonder what unconscious worry or concern is eking into my writing without conscious knowledge. In a way, this is akin the being able to do justice to the work you’re crafting in a sentence or two. I’ve heard the advice that nothing that can be so boiled down is worth writing and the completely contrary advice to craft your elevator pitch. It might just be what captures someone. The inability to boil down a large work into a couple of sentences isn’t quite what plagues me, but it seems near enough.
I want to know the unconscious conceit at the center of the novel, the worry that makes the human drama universal. Why are these elements featured prominently and others not. What made me choose to do X rather than Y? Being unable to answer those questions is what gives me this anxiety.
Or rather gave. I think I know what has led me to make many, if not all, of the minor and major plotting and character decisions in the story I’ve been working on these past 4 months. My greater concern, that which plagues me away from the keyboard and that which will surely weave itself through the tale, is the obscene lack of transparency in the structures that make up and control so many aspects of our lives.
As an American, I have spent the last couple of weeks reeling at the unmitigated gale with which our government was held hostage on purely political groups. Hundreds of thousands furloughed, a salmonella outbreak allowed to spread unchecked, cancer patients left high and dry all for a legislative report card. It’s absolutely sickening and even as I can describe it, I could not hope to explain our way out of it.
This is the greatest single point of aggravation and hopelessness on my mind these days and, thanks in part to RadioLab’s latest short, I know what’s driving the smallest and more concealed wheels in the creative machine.