Random Blatherings, 10/09/04

Some thoughts that in themselves don’t merit a full entry:

* So, here’s the basic line coming out of the debate, so far as I can tell: George Bush neither drooled on himself nor shook like a palsied chimpanzee, and was actually reasonably composed, so he wins (and by “wins” we mean to say it’s a draw, since Kerry apparently did just fine, too). Talk about the soft bigotry of lowered expectations. Also, and feel free to call me a snob here, but I want more from a president than that he didn’t soil himself live on television. If a victory can be derived simply from not embarrassing one’s self, it’s time to explore new metrics of victory.

In response to yesterday’s venting about Kerry, a couple of people noted in the comment thread that it’s in the media’s self-interest to make it appear the contests are close right down to the wire; therefore unless Dubya really did absolutely lose it, last night’s pundit spin would be charitable no matter what. On reflection this has probably got truth to it, although I’m not entirely sure just how much the punditry out there realized it’s trained itself to do this sort of thing; they do it as automatically as a short order cook flips a burger.


* I went out and bought The System of the World Thursday, thus completing my purchase of Neal Stephenson’s entire Baroque Cycle, but I have to admit that I haven’t the slightest idea when I’m going to get around to reading the whole damn thing. I started Quicksilver not long after it came out, and was about 200 pages in when I realized that I’d basically read an entire novel’s worth of nothing but set-up; I put it down and haven’t picked it up since. Someone informed me that it does pick up somewhere around page 400, and I know I like Stephenson’s writing in a general sense, so I planned to get back to it, and bought The Confusion and The System of the World on the basic faith that I would eventually settle down with them. But, jeez. 3,000 pages, and 400 pages to get things going. I just don’t know. Especially since I’ve picked up Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is not small book in itself (730-odd pages), but at least is its own thing. We’ll have to see if I get to the Baroque Cycle sometime before I hit 40.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been using the Baroque Cycle books for: Doorstops. Yes, really. Look, if you’re going to write a book big enough to stop a door, don’t be surprised if that’s what someone uses them for.

* On the tech geek front — where the hell is my DSL? All my modem fixin’s were supposed to be here on Thursday, and now here it is, not Thursday, and I am still DSLess. This crap is beginning to piss me off.

Also on the tech geek tip: I ordered Half-Life 2 today through gamemaker Valve’s “Steam” online download function, not only to get that game but because one of the packages also offers the games in Valve’s archive, including the original Half-Life. I have half life on disc, of course, but it’s so old now that my current computer just laughs at me when I ask it to run the game; it’s like it won’t lower itself to play a game designed to be played on Windows 98. The only problem I can see with the Steam delivery is that it appears to download the game a map at a time, and that’s not necessarily a good thing when you have a balky satellite connection. All the more reason for me to have my DSL now, damn it.

18 Comments on “Random Blatherings, 10/09/04”

  1. On Stephenson — I bought Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver, and Confusion as ebooks for my smartphone, and heartily recommend the non-doorstop method. Much easier to read a 1,000 page book when you can carry it around on your belt clip.

    I thought Crypto was a mind-blowing book, and was ready to gobble up the Baroque series — but they’ve been a bit disappointing. They’re great books, but I went into them expecting to see questions answered from Crypto. Instead, he’s covering a lot of other ground and only hinting at what led me to buy these books. It’s not that I’m not enjoying them — but I do find myself racing through the text at times hoping to get to the “meat” I was looking for. Then I find it’s not written yet, and I’m none too sure it’ll be in System — maybe I have to wait for the next trilogy.

    Anyway, System is definitely on the purchase list, but as I’m currently on book 1 of the complete works of Mark Twain, I’m doubting it’ll be before 2005.

  2. Still can’t get into Quicksilver. I had to put down Cryptonomicon, as well. I’m looking for the Stephenson that grabbed me with the very first line of Snow Crash, and kept up a good pace the entire time. Diamond Age and Zodiac were both pretty good as well, but his newer books just leave me flat.

    400 pages to get going you say? Being a horribly slow reader, I have to say that’s 400 exciting pages I could be reading of another book.

  3. I don’t know how or why, but phone companies have an almost supernatural ability to srew up anything that is not a simple phone line. (Which would include DSL.)

  4. Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite books of all time. I don’t remember the 200 pages of set-up, but it has been a while since I read it, so that might have something to do with it–but they are great books, and cover huge expanses.

    One thing that some people I’ve talked to haven’t liked is that Snow Crash and Crypto (and the Baroque cycle after it) are very different styles of books. Crypto is much more slowly paced and more complex–it has 3.5 or 4 plot lines that have to converge (to Snow Crash’s one), and the action doesn’t come until later. But that’s just my take.

  5. I’ve carried “Quicksilver” across the United States five times this year. I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing it three more times before the year is out.

    It barely qualifies as checked baggage.

  6. I’d say Quicksilver really got going around page 600 or so, not page 400. Your mileage etc.

    I have The Confusion sitting on my reading pile, and the spousal unit will plunk The System of the World down there as soon as he’s finished with it. Oof.

  7. Book One of “Quicksilver,” the part that takes place in London and Boston, was pretty slow. And yet, in its own way, interesting. One note of personal interest for me: I lived in Boston for a year and a half, so it was fun to see a different view of places I am familiar with.

    “Book Two,” “King of the Vagabonds” starts out more interesting,” with Jack Shaftoe and the Shaftoe family. But it too bogs down–too much Adventure in a novel can become as dull as too much exposition.

    I’m now on page 480, and I still can’t say that the novel has grabbed me. I put it aside for days at a time. I read another novel in about two or three days last week, during a break from “Quicksilver.”

    And yet, when I decide I want to just give up on “Quicksilver,” I find myself drawn back into it again, to read a page or two and put it aside a few days.

    At this rate, with 3,000 pages of story, I’m going to be reading the Baroque Cycle for a long, long time.

    By the way, the book I read while taking a break from “Quicksilver” was “Dugan Under Ground,” third volume of Tom De Haven’s Derby Dugan trilogy. Highly recommended, and very different from the Stephenson. For one thing: contemporary, mainstream fiction rather than historical fiction viewed through an sf lens.

  8. Charlie Stross writes:

    “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is, I am informed, the first volume of a trilogy …”

    Ha! Well, I hear that it took her 10 years to write this one. At that rate, I can handle a trilogy.

  9. YMMV; but my advice would be, find the time. And fter a certain point, whether 400 pages or whatever, the time will find itself.

    I blasted through the first two, can’t wait for the third. (I live outside the US, though — far outside — so I will have to wait, at least a bit longer.)

    If you really can’t get started? Skip straight to _The Confusion_. Oddly enough, you don’t miss much by reading the middle of the trilogy first, and a lot of readers are reporting that the second book is a lot more accessible. My wife is one — she read _Confusion_ and loved it, but still hasn’t been able to break into _Quicksilver_.

    Mind, you do have to read _Quicksilver_ sometime. You really do. If nothing else, it has one of the most… viscerally moving… final scenes of any book ever. Literally stopped my breath. But yeah, you do have to read the preceding 200 pages or so for it to work. (And for that one guy in the back who’s starting to mumble that the final scene is not that great because you know that ****** is going to live through it… Arrgh! That’s the point!)

    Anyhow, they really are quite good. Slow, yeah, but not in a “god this needed an editor” sort of way. Deliberately slow, in a way that’s rather gone out of style in recent decades. But they worked for me.

    Doug M.

  10. Having read 2.5 books of the Baroque Cycle, I would have to say that its an entirely different thing from Cryptonomicon, despite some superficial character similarities. As far as I’m concerned, all four books perfectly capture the feel of their time period and their characters.

    Crytonomicon reads like the (well written, edited, with the boring bits removed) internal monologue of the Bubble-era sysadmin—which is good since thats basically what it is. The Baroque cycle on the other hand reads like something from a different century to an extent—it reads more like Jane Austen than anything else I can name, but thats mostly because my knowledge of 17-18th century British authors is pretty limted (I know, Austen is 18th-19th, but she’s about as close as I can get offhand). Personally, I think the books are incredibly amusing, but in more of a “playing with the style” sort of way (where the style is really more Swashbuckler than anything else) rather than the basically snarky cube-farm humor of Cryptonomicon.

    I think that’ll be off-putting for some people. Personally, I like reading different books and don’t mind exploration of style. If I did mind, I’d just read Dan Brown books or something.

  11. I read to about page 500 in Quicksilver and will surely pick it up again at some point — whether that point is subsequent to my retirement 30 years from now remains to be seen. I like it, but it’s a hard slog for someone who holds down a full-time job. Were I still a college student, I would have long since finished the third volume and be clamoring for more.

  12. I didn’t watch the Friday debate because I had ‘other priorities,’ but I taped it and watched it Saturday.

    Bush *was* better in this debate. In the first debate he was weird (wired?) to the point where there was almost something wrong. In this debate he seemed more like a normal politician, if there is such a thing.

    Kerry, fine. Bush, grumpy. Repeatedly Bush would make a cheap little dig at Kerry and would pause for laughs that didn’t come. I think playing to partisan houses has affected his timing. He thought he could snicker “tax and spend liberal” and people would boo.

    Highlights – Kerry “The military wins the war, the President wins the peace.”

    Bush – (on personal mistakes) He allowed that some future historian may say he made a mistake, and he *does* admit some of his appointments (selections for office) were mistakes, but he won’t name the people to save them embarrasment.

    He could not state out loud a single mistake, even one of those phoney “I work too hard” mistakes we all use in job interviews. I found this very weird.

    Black helicopter land – When talking about appointing Supreme Court judges Bush referenced Dred Scott. I was like WTF? Turns out Dred Scott is code for Rove v Wade. Kewl. Leet speak for politics.

  13. On the Internet connection front – a neighbour recently started working for the city government doing census stuff and other oddities. Because she lives in a remote area with bad ‘net access, they paid to give her a direct dish feed from the city’s office to her house (a LOS dish up on a big tower). So now she’s got high speed. How cool is that?? Maybe you should consider getting a part time government job, John…

  14. America seems to like to elect happy warriors as president. People perceived as scolds and nags, like Howard Dean and Jimmy Carter, go down. Smilin’ Ron Reagan and FDR with that jaunty cigarette holder are the two most popular presidents in living memory.

    In that respect, both presidential debates are home-run victories for Kerry. He was (as the Bush campaign reminds us) a champion debater in college. He loves debate like Bush loves a cold martini and a noseful of Bolivian marching powder, and it shows in his body langauge. Watch him as Bush is speaking–he’s turned his entire body into ear and brain, sitting poised, and, when Bush says something that Kerry thinks he can score points off of, he gets this little smile and makes a note to himself.

  15. Re: Quicksilver & Baroque etc

    I read some author saying something about “tight” novels. I don’t remember precisely what they said… but novels are kind of like movies these days. There are people who are REALLY devoted to whatever is in the book, and don’t care how much their bladder hurts 3.5 hours later. [Intentionally mixed] Other people would go for the story if it were trimmed down and tight. Other people don’t like the story.

    Stephenson got off the tight-editing boat after The Diamond Age. But, for me personally, the prose flow itself is entertaining enough even when the story isn’t moving. And when the story isn’t moving it’s usually ’cause he’s saying something INTERESTING. At least to me… I guess it’s a good thing to have a curiosity arc that dovetails with the author’s.

    That doesn’t stop me from my basic review of Quicksilver which is, “It’s 3 books, the 2nd of which is good, the first of which is okay, and I could do without the 3rd.” Which doesn’t stop me from really adoring The Confusion (currently rereading it, while The System of the World takes on flavor on my self).

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