Andrey (azangru) wrote,
Andrey
azangru

I’ve been listening to Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or Dodge in Hell this last week, and am about a third in.

I am also disappointed.

It’s probably been theorized to death, but there are writers who use fiction as a vehicle to popularize certain ideas. In a fragment of memory I still have from my high school years, I had discovered Ivan Efremov’s Razor Blade, and was particularly impressed by a chapter where the protagonist was explaining the concept of beauty from the evolutionary standpoint. It so appealed to my naturalistic interests of the time that I praised that book to our literature teacher, saying (although not in so many words) that it was much more worth studying that all that inevitable lovey-dovey nonsense packed into our school curriculum. I remember the teacher being singularly unimpressed. I didn’t understand it then, but I started to understand at least part of the reason later.

Making a character deliver a lecture on the evolutionary underpinnings of human sense of beauty is using fiction as a means to educate the public. There’s a word for that kind of fiction: didactic. And another word: bo-ring.

There are writers who can write pretty good essays, but rather poor fiction, too tightly packed with their politics or technological knowledge (Cory Doctorow is one such example). Stephenson’s last novel is too much like that. Its characters spend too much time explaining to whoever is currently playing Watson technology of the present and possible technological developments of the future. I was slightly shocked to hear his characters explain to one another the concept of Pascal’s wager, or of Moore’s law; or spell out the acronym DDoS, or DB (in the computer sense). Things seem to happen for no apparent reason. A character is found crucified by actually being nailed, through his wrists, to a cross; and when he is rescued, Stephenson comments that when nails passed through his wrists, they just sort of moved wrist bones aside, and thus only damaged soft tissues (is this credible? will a nail in the wrist do that? I have no idea, but the previous anatomist in me is very confused and wants to know). Different characters said to each other "Okay, I’ll bite" four or five times already (do people say it that often?). The word miasma is introduced as one character’s personal reference to the internet ("but of course email was actually the least intrusive of all the ways the Miasma — as Richard referred to the Internet — has devised to bay for your attention"), but a chapter or two later all sorts of characters talk of "the Miasma" as if it has somehow become part of the common language.

All of this spoils the effect. I intend to keep listening (unless it becomes completely unbearable), but too often I drift away or catch myself thinking that it all sounds rather like a second-rate essay than a novel.

Which is a shame, because I thoroughly enjoyed his Reamde, fully experiencing the meaning of the word page-turner. Perhaps because it was his venture into a completely different genre.
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