Category: Verbiage

The Rereading: Hyperion

When asked to recommend some science fiction recently, I pulled a Hitchhiker’s Guide and summed up Hyperion as “Good Drama”. Indeed, my memory of it was that of a fabric of pseudo-babble soaked in and facilitating some remarkable characterization, gray morality, complex motivations and sporting an emotional range set to wideband. That, and frequent descriptions of the skies of various worlds (“lapiz-lazuli”, “hushed with emerald green”, “harsh golden hues”) with a frequency skirting the tiresome.

So it wasn’t too surprising to discover upon rereading it that I had no recollection of major plot twists that come in a tumble towards the end. But on reflection, Hyperion is good science fiction too. It’s a cosmopolitan look at one possible messy future for humankind, where world-building and the design of technology that are interesting in their own right instead serve to accentuate the callous, hubristic, fractious aspects of human nature. The drama is so poignant and the characters so interesting that the heady scent of strong personalities, convictions and causes simply overpowers the mild and vague aroma of wormholes, singularities, Hawking drives and AI collectives. (You, there–I see you wave your hands. It’s not semaphore, you know, just because you wave them.)

This is a book where, by the end, each of the six protagonists is at ideological odds with all the others, but shaped by experiences that are as relatable as they are sometimes bizarre. You really cannot bring yourself to disagree with any of the pilgrims. By the end, neither can they.

But wait–the twists. There aren’t as many as I might have led you to believe, and real resolutions are relegated to the rest of the Hyperion Cantos anyway, waiting in books I’m yet to read. Hyperion sets the stage but drops a hint or two, mostly by way of painting the Hegemony, the de facto collective ruling the web of worlds, as a miscible, opaque mix of a stumbling, blinded giant born of providence and a directed, malevolent plague guided by an invisible hand. To wit–no one is innocent, nothing is what it seems, and these two things might not even matter in the end.

Coming from the idea-fount school of science fiction (Accelerando, Snow Crash), Hyperion feels like a strange beast.

I remembered only the emotional beats of the story (stories?) and not their causes, only the dour mood of the doomed pilgrimage, resigned to hopelessness, that frames the novel and none of the complex politicking or its surprising outcomes. It’s the kind of book that I will forget and rediscover many times in the decades to come, I think. If you’ve ever felt the sense of loss that comes with being unable to rediscover your favorite imagined haunt for the first time, the elation of having your synapses rewired the way they were that one time you disappeared into the cosmos that book wove in your head, Hyperion is probably a solution. It might not be to your tastes (and wasn’t entirely to mine), but given the rich thematic overlaps that ensure you’ll miss at least some, you might get to rediscover it for the first time again.

Hyperion is a tale of strife, sadness, hope and resolve steeped in enough elements of science fiction to make it, despite its blatant twentieth century allusions, more than a retelling of a story of this age. This tale couldn’t exist anywhere but in its own weird kitchen-sink universe, and in that it fulfils the very promise of science fiction.

Snow Crash

So, Snow Crash, then.

It’s surprising how heavily the experience of consuming something can be skewed by the expectations you carry going into it. For all its acclaim and weight, for its status as a beacon of cyberpunk fiction, Snow Crash is run-of-the-mill wacky dytopian satire, visiting and ricocheting off several cyberpunk tropes too fast to allow any kind of coherence to develop.

But maybe that’s the point.

There isn’t much to the story. Here, let me sum it up in one sentence for you:
(Spoiler, obv. It’s safe to read from the image.)

Megalomaniac media mogul creates cult using a brain virus to take over the world but is foiled by enterprising hacker, spunky kid and rival conglomerates.

All right, there’s a little more to it. The explanation is that the “brain virus” exploits a flaw in the deepest constructs of the human brain, activating a failsafe that overrides all conscious thought (“snow crashes” the brain) and makes it susceptible to carefully administered low-level input, typically in the form of Glossolalia.

Enter a wobbly connection of this virus to the description of ancient Sumer, and its liberation from it by the hacker-priest Enki, who managed to reverse-engineer and lock out these lower levels of functioning of the human brain.

Propping up the above description is the concept of a “metavirus“, an entity that affects any sufficiently advanced system capable of computation by exploiting systemic flaws. A virus that can create and tailor viruses, floating freely across the cosmos. Again, a nebulous and sketchy idea. It was, to say the least, disappointing to not see a mention of Gödel’s undecidability theorem (hypothetically) applied to the human mind. That’s one hell of a hook. Or, perhaps, the concept of a meme, an old idea which described perfectly what Stephenson repeatedly swept under the umbrella term of virus.

It was intriguing, but it lacked any kind of hook, one foot in something known. The main plot was too hypothetical to provide any kind of food for thought. And boy, am I looking for food for thought on these things.

This has happened only once to me

It reminds me of Slouching Towards Bedlam, a fantastic horror themed piece of interactive fiction set in a mental asylum, with steampunk robots and an ominous sense of unspeakable horror. 1

Then there’s the concept the book is best known for. It’s hard for my generation to imagine what Stephenson’s Metaverse meant to the world back in 1992. When Second Life was launched, its creators envisioned it as their metaverse. They even borrowed the name “avatar” for virutal selves. Barring the advanced user interfaces, we’re there, pretty much. 2
It was the single most memorable idea in the book, the one thing you’ll never forget.

Everything except the substance of the thin main plot gets a mention on the back of the book. Mixed in there are large servings of virtual reality, Sumerian myth, neurolinguistics and swashbuckling. Hiro Protagonist gets only about half the attention his name demands. It makes sense. The book is about the wacky world of emasculated governments and of corporations and triads gone out of control. About the Metaverse, the alternate plane of existence that is in constant flux where hackers are demigods. About the bizarre tech, like quadriped dog-cyborg radioactive isotope driven watchmen rat things that dream perpetually of steak and frisbees, live in freon coolers and dash at supersonic speeds. About satire set in a free-for-all slugfest, an anarchy.

In the acknowledgments, Neal Stephenson mentions that this book was originally constructed as a graphic novel. That explains all the weirdness, really. It would have been a cracker of a graphic novel. I went into it expecting a wacky cyberpunk adventure with historical segues and insightful asides, a la Cryptonomicon. It turned out to be a long piece of amusing (sometimes hilarious) satire with a single gripping conceit and several half-baked ones. It packs a hefty punch; not the knuckle-popping crack of a worn, bandaged fist, but the fwump of a bright red glove-in-the-springbox.


  1. Of course, I have my references backwards. SLB came out just a few years ago, and had a very small audience.
     

  2. In time, too. Events in the book peg the timeline in the 2000s.
     

define:’d

Vol V, this time collated from searches across an increasingly unmanageable number of devices.

pleonastic (as opposed to terse)

acolyte

pusillanimous

inveigle

derailleur

spoor (trail of the hunted)

ersatz (in place of)

impieties

cavort

quotidian (think quota)

invidious

appellation

foible (flaw)

anodyne

rictus (think maw)

mewling

Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon is bat-shit crazy.

It’s compressed hyperbole described in such deadpan overtones you have no choice but to run with it. And boy, does it run. It runs a skein across generations and across genres, romping through at least one country every fifteen degrees in latitude, spanning descriptions of hacker culture, the origins and evolution of crypto, fantasy role-playing, the pacific in WW-II (culminating in General Douglas McArthur’s curb-stomping of the Nippons), Tolkienesque metaphors, Haiku, digs at venture-capitalism, mafia machinations, number theory, an irreverent deconstruction of Greek theology, treasure hunts for war gold, and the first ever digital computer with mercury columns in thirty-feet lead pipes serving as RAM.

There’s more of this, but Ares himself couldn’t drag me back to that tome in search of better examples.

If the outrageous awesomeness isn’t getting through to you, consider this: The lead characters are (i) A gung-ho marine in the hobby of reading Japanese poetry who runs halfway across the world engineering fake accidents for the Germans to discover, including ramming a battleship bow-first into the Norweigan ice shelf (ii) A UNIX system administrator who fools an entire battalion of high-tech eavesdroppers by reading text files by flashing the LEDs on his keyboard in Morse, and (iii) A clique of world war II mathematicians headed by Alan Mathison Turing. Yes, Alan Turing is a lead character in Cryptonomicon.

Cryptonomicon isn’t recommended reading. It’s the kind of reading required when you think the world is not crazy-awesome and need someone to bash in your ill-conceived preconceptions with a sledgehammer, which for me is admittedly most of the time.

define:’d

Several browser cache wipes later, this is all that remains define:’d.

Volume IV

Aboyne (…)

Anthology

Eugenic (It troubles me to see smarter nephews around.)

Exegesis

Gulag

Knaves (surprisingly, phonetically similar to naive)

Obscura (not a word.)

Oleaginous (cognate)

Petulant (campsite, insect bite)

Simulacrum (similar, not)

Cassandra (Aren’t we all?)

Nihil (-ism.)

Scion

Suzerain

Tenebrous (murky. No wit this time.)

Interesting side note: I encountered three of the above words in Anime fansubs. It’s a paradox of sorts- Terrible-to-mediocre translations with surprisingly precise obscure wording. I suppose Japanese is embedded far too deep in the context of its culture to lend itself to meaningful literal or semantic translation.

Tooling Around

It is instructive to compare the amount of time spent learning the tools of a trade to the time spent practising the trade; You’re almost certainly doing something wrong, in the short term, if the former is disproportionately longer than the latter.

Case in point? I spend over two months looking for the perfect blogging client, nitpicking things like keyboard shortcuts (and their absence, thereof), GTK dependency bloat and ‘Movable Type’ support. I don’t even have a movable type blog. The search for the ultimate blogging client has been more-or-less consummated, but at the expense of an indelible fallow period.

Initial Excitement Syndrome

My drive to learn the tools of general PC frippery far outweighs that to engage in the frippery itself- it’s the ultimate malaise. Two years on a Linux box have been witness to five desktop environments, six window managers, five (or more) terminal emulators, two text editors (yeah, Vi and Emacs), three content publishing systems (with little published content)- even three metadata taggers- and while we’re at it, several distros. It’s a wonder I got any work done.

A conservative estimate of the number of application keyboard shortcuts/commands I’ve memorized over the years (excluding Alt-Tabbing and other Windows keys) suggests a figure between six and eight hundred key combinations and commands. If that sounds unreal- here’s the Ratpoison (window manager) cheat sheet. That’s one of several.

The truly egregious excesses, though, have been the misadventures in the murky depth of scripting language hell. What began as a simple mass renaming requirement led to a whirlwind tour of Bash scripting, Sed, Perl, Scheme, Emacs-Lisp, Python, and for reasons baffling in retrospect, GNU-Octave and GNUplot. The Sisyphean task of writing the mass renaming script was carried out over a period of sixteen months, culminating in four lines of code, at the cost of losing the ability to code in one scripting language without involving the syntax of all of the above- a rosy state of affairs.

In the long term, versatility in fooling around might be a good thing- I haven’t been doing this long enough to become blindingly proficient at it- but clearly, taking sixteen months to rename three hundred files rips apart the threadbare argument.

No matter. A near perfect lightweight blogging client is now at hand, and fittingly enough, the inaugural post is a reflection on the tendency to value the tools over the trade.

A resolution of sorts, then. Fewer tools, more work.