Hugh Reviews Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

Or, more precisely: Hugh Reviews the Critique of Institutionalised Education in Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

a-young-ladies-illustrated-primer-copyI’ve recently been listening to this podcast on politics and science fiction by Courtney Brown (featuring various of his students).* In the class on Diamond Age, one important point seems to be constantly on the edge of the discussion, never quite breaking through. The discussion centres, understandably enough, on the Primer, the value systems and institutions of the various phyles, and the personalities of Nell, Elizabeth, and Fiona. Much is made of the differences in the education received by the three girls and the Mouse Army, but what seems to be to be one the central ideas of the novel is always tantalisingly beyond reach.

Very early in the novel Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw have a conversation in which Finkle-McGraw asserts that the Neo Victorian phyle’s brightest citizens have come exclusively from outside it, having been raised in other, less disciplined phyles and taken the oath as adults.** He decries the educational institutions of his phyle as being incapable of raising children to reach their full potential. He speaks, euphemistically, of life being ‘interesting’. ‘Full of adversity’ is what he means. This is why the Primer is created in the first place; it’s an attempt to create a mechanism whereby a child can be raised simultaneously within a culture and outside of it. And, of course, it doesn’t work.

A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

The only girl (leaving aside the Mouse Army for the moment) who truly exemplifies the desired outcomes of the Primer is Nell, who lives the first few years of her life outside of the Neo Victorian phyle, in a position of extreme adversity. Even when she is adopted by the Vickies, her life is far from average; she remains an introverted outsider, cultivating only a few close relationships, all of them with individuals who’s worldviews (and lives in general) Finkle-MGraw would no-doubt describe as ‘interesting’. In short, she isn’t raised within the institutions that the Primer was intended to side step. Elizabeth and Fiona both have experiences more benign than Nell’s. Fiona, certainly experiences her share of adversity, albeit packaged in the repressed bubble-wrap of the Neo Victorians, and her father ensures that she develops a worldview a little more complex than the average Vicky teenager, but the Primer is not quite as central in her life as it is in Nell’s, and this tells in the end. Of course the personality differences play their part, as does the variability of the ractors backing the Primer, but this is all dealt with pretty clearly in the novel itself.

The lack of ractors behind the Primers of the Mouse Army is also a point made clear in the novel, and it is, in itself, an analogy for the cultural institutions with which the work is largely concerned. Courtney Brown’s discussion group deals well with the individualist/collectivist differences between Western and Eastern culture, so I won’t go into that except to say that both Nell and the Mouse Army attain, in a culturally dependent way, the ultimate benefit of the Primer; Nell leads an interesting life to become a strong and capable individual and the Mouse Army experience a rigorously homogenised upbringing to become a perfectly integrated collective. It takes both successes to form their breakaway new phyle. What is note-worthy throughout is that in all cases the primer serves an amplifying function by facilitating a more efficient transmission of the institutional memes of each phyle. It is dependent upon, not independent of, the wider upbringing each girl receives. This is diametrically opposed to Finkle-McGraw’s original intent.

What Stephenson seems to be saying is that learning happens inside memetic institutions and that it can’t be removed from those institutions without the learner actually being removed (physically, socially, philosophically) from those institutions, in which case the learning occurs inside a whole other set of institutions. In this way, the strength of Nell’s position is due to (beside any personality- and intellect-based advantages) the experience of living within multiple social institutions, each imposing their own shadow on the learning she receives both from the Primer and from the larger world around her.

* I recommend it, by the way, to anyone particularly interested in either field.

** This idea is revisited later in the story when Carl Hollywood joins the phyle.

Concept-map image source: Dr Beat A Schwendimann


Hugh Reviews Snuff by Terry Pratchett

In 1994 I discovered Terry Pratchett’s debut Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic. The story of an inept wizard living on a flat world supported on the backs of four elephants, themselves traversing the void on the back of a giant space turtle, held a carny-house mirror up to the world of fantasy (of which I was fairly enamoured at the time), and sometimes reality itself, leaving me breathless (and occasionally a tad damp) with laughter. I quickly caught up to Pratchett’s publishing schedule and over the intervening years I have read around 90% of his output, which is no mean feat; the man is prolific like a fox. I’ve had a few favourites in that time and I’ve read most of his books multiple times including one that I’ve read eight times (Reaper Man, if you’re curious), but eventually a certain subset started to stand out. Pratchett has a handful of main characters that he has followed through multiple books (and a wealth of supporting characters that pop up here, there, and everywhere) and Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch soon became, if not my favourite character, the lead character in my favourite books. I’ve eagerly awaited new Vimes books over the years, so I was quite excited recently when I saw Snuff on the shelves.

For the uninitiated, Sam Vimes is an anti-authoritarian copper so street-wise he could easily be a criminal, were it not for his utterly unshakeable moral compass. Think Dirty Harry meets Nixon’s good twin (Nixon was so comprehensively evil he could only have been someone’s evil twin, and that twin would have been a shining light of purity). Over a number of books, Vimes chases thieves and murderers around the city and eventually beyond it. His policing frequently strays into the realms of international diplomacy, despite his best efforts. Snuff finds him on holiday in the country, completely out of his comfort zone, what with the general lack of night-time city noise and people stabbing each other and throwing each other’s corpses in the river. Or onto the river, anyway. Happily, this state of affairs rapidly and predictably degenerates into a murder investigation with a side helping of righteous rage over some extreme racial vilification.

“[Harry King] was a scallywag, a chancer, a ruthless fighter and a dangerous driver of bargains over the speed limit. Since all of this was a bit of a mouthful, he was referred to as a successful business man”

Pratchett has traditionally done a few things really well. His meat and potatoes, as it were, are wit and satire; he has a way with words and particularly a way of presenting everyday events and institutions so as to make them seem completely absurd. Early on, a lot of the satire was focused on the tropes of fantasy stories but increasingly Pratchett turned his warped perspective on physics, philosophy, mythology, and the everyday. One of the best examples of this treatment are Pratchett’s characters, most of whom are walking archetypes. This might bother some people but personally, I love it; they are by no means cardboard cutouts, just a little more tightly themed than, perhaps, the next character. Over the decades that he’s been writing, Pratchett has also become a pretty dab hand at weaving a gripping and, perhaps more importantly, entertaining, story. And Snuff is certainly an entertaining story but it doesn’t go above and beyond in the way that I have come to expect.

The sad truth is that Terry Pratchett is a writer in decline. Personally, I suspect he peaked sometime around Thud (also a Vimes book), a good few book back. Snuff progresses a bit too linearly and fails to really put much challenge in Vimes’ way, the supporting characters (normally so strong in these stories) are a bit lack-lustre, and there are definitely points where the writing is not quite as coherent as one might hope. For all that, it is a thoroughly entertaining read, but you probably have to be a Vimes fan already. And by fan, I possibly mean addict. That said, damn, Vimes is the man! I certainly enjoyed this book and it picked up at the end but there is a pile of Pratchett books as long as my arm that I will reread, possibly multiple times, before I ever come back to it.

The Verdict: Not so much Vimes, as the slightly sinister shadow Vimes makes on the wall of the cave. 3 murderous holidays in the country out of 5.

Hugh Reviews Better Than Sex by Hunter S Thompson

In 1972, two years after his ‘Freak Power’ campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County was derailed by a rare moment of non-partisan hand-holding by the Democrats and the GOP, Hunter S Thompson penned what is probably his best work, Fear & Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. The work was originally serialised in Rolling Stone, a magazine whose relationship with Thompson had been launched by his aforementioned run at the sheriff’s office. The primary mobilising impetus for the epic undertaking that was a year on the campaign trail with Senator George McGovern was Thompson’s burning rancour for Richard Nixon, whom he considered to be evil in a fashion so fundamental as to be best understood in religious terms. Twenty years later, a slightly lesser malignance toward George Bush Senior and his Predecessor Ronald Reagan spurred Thompson into action again. This mini-Nixon, however, was not hateful enough to actually get the good Doctor out of his home and onto the trail; he covered the campaign via mojo-wire from his Woody Creek HQ based upon observation of cable TV and the feverish delirium that was the inside of his own head.

Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie Trapped Like a Rat in Mr Bill’s Neighbourhood is a fragmented collage of press-clippings and deranged personal correspondence penned by the gonzo journalist and sequenced by a pack of rabid starfish. (Each starfish had an item pinned to it; the pages appear in the order in which the starfish died). Thompson is perhaps most famous as the father of gonzo journalism, where the writer becomes so involved in the subject matter as to become the central figure in the story, and this book is a shining example of that process. Better Than Sex probably ends up this way because Bill Clinton was such a wet blanket. Hunter thoroughly disliked Clinton, as he had no sense of humour and was an overly political animal. The only reason Thompson got on board and lent his support to the Clinton campaign was that he couldn’t stomach another four years of Bush. Thompson had to become the central figure in this work or it would have been eye-achingly boring.

            Now, I am a huge fan of the Doctor’s work, largely as a result of his inimitable style. I would probably read his shopping lists were they made available to me. He is one of a small number of writers whose word-sequencing wizardry makes any topic enjoyable. That said, his coverage of the ’72 campaign was also full of information and wove a fascinating story. When I finished it I felt genuinely edified to have read it. Better Than Sex, not so much. It’s fun, but it’s also the first of Thompson’s works that I’ve found easy to put down, even in the middle of a chapter. It gets so lost in the Hunter S Thompson-ness of itself that it forgets to take you on a journey and point out the sights along the way. This is quite possibly due to the fact that unlike the ’72 effort it was never a cohesive series of articles, just a selection of loosely themed ravings.  I’d definitely recommend it to a Thompson fan if running low on other material, but if you’re not as addicted to his work as I am, stick to the classics.

The verdict: It’s still Hunter S Thompson, but it lacks the meat of some of his other work. 3 ludicrously obscene faxes to Ed Turner out of 5.

Hugh Reviews Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

There are things we know without really having experienced; they are part of the background on which our lives are painted. There are words we know, and perhaps use, but cannot strictly define. There are names we’ve heard without really having an appreciation for why they exist in the popular vocabulary. For a long time the name Ray Bradbury was one of these things in my life; I knew he was an author of science fiction (my poison of choice for many years) and that he was highly regarded. Last year I felt a desire to correct this situation at a time that happened to coincide with a heavy erosion of my ‘to read’ pile.

The thing that struck me most immediately about Fahrenheit 451 was the way in which the whole idea of the story seemed to spring from the simple word play of a fireman lighting fires instead of putting them out; every other aspect of the setting could very well have been simply an exploration of the question, “In what world does such a person exist?” This is a deliciously strong vector for a story to evolve along and it keeps good company; The Hobbit was similarly a story that evolved from a simple word play.

Next, I was struck, as I often am when reading older science fiction, by the colour of the technology; at once wonderously surreal and curiously outmoded. Like many works of its era the world of Fahrenheit 451 seems a world of the middle of last century and it reads, now, more like an alternate past than an alternate future.

And then the telling social commentary began to hit home. The insights of Clarisse into the inanities that occupy peoples’ thoughts and their conversation, the extreme emotional investment in passive media, and Montag’s raw frustration at a world that has lied to him until the lies become the only truth that is available all left me feeling exposed and vulnerable; so much of the society presented in this book is uncomfortably familiar. All the elements of modern society that are broken and malicious and soul-destroying are reflected straight back off the page. And the fact that the book is fifty years old and these same issues clearly existed then in more-or-less the same form adds a layer of squirm to the mix. This book affected me emotionally in ways that a lot of science fiction doesn’t.

Fahrenheit 451 is a cutting analysis of a society that has wilfully buggered itself inside out and become the antithesis of everything good that humanity is capable of. And what is most scathing is the focus on the role of the individual in the perpetration of this evil on a large scale. There are no faceless governments and corporations that can hide behind their façade of weasel-words and claim to be free of the responsibilities of morality; there are only the people that make up these organisations, all of whom make a conscious choice at some point in their lives to abandon their ethics and give themselves over wholesale to the collective impoverishment of humanity.

And shining like a lighthouse in the middle of this godawful misery is the story of the belated coming of age of a middle-aged man.  Guy Montag’s perspective is blown open by the simple act of human interaction and he is left gaping, confused, and scared in a world he suddenly doesn’t recognise. And just possibly, amidst the murder and rape of history and smuggling away in the night of the only good people left in the world, against all the odds and despite his most desperate fuck-ups, he may just emerge from this situation a better person.

RIP Ray Bradbury.

Hugh Reviews The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan

I don’t really read fantasy books any more, having overdosed on that particular saccharine pleasure in my youth, but a few years ago one of my favourite speculative fiction authors (in fact one of my favourite authors full-stop) released The Steel Remains, described by Joe Abercrombie as not so much twisting the cliches of fantasy as taking an axe to them and then setting them on fire, which, along with the name-brand recommendation, piqued my interest enough to cough up $25 and the eight-or-so hours it would take to read.

It was… alright. The quote from senior Abercrombie was perhaps a bit generous, what it really did was twist the cliches of fantasy. It did it well, it cannot be denied, but it was really just that; a twist on a tired and flagging genre.  There were a couple of interesting ideas in there and the elder races were definitely a worthy alternative to the usual, but it lacked a lot that all of Morgan’s previous books had.

I didn’t even realise at the time that it was intended to be the first of a trilogy, but in retrospect it’s hard to imagine how I could have been that naive. The sequel came out a few months back and I bought it despite my lukewarm reaction to the first book, because, well, it’s a trilogy, and I’ve started it now, and I’m going to have to finish it no matter how painful that proves, and, hey, maybe the sequel will be better.

It’s not.

The characters are just as interesting as they were the first time around (reasonably so), the ideas are only a little less dark and creepy, and the panache that typified Morgan’s spec-fic works is still absent. This tale could’ve been written by anyone, it’s lacking the Morganness that drew me to his works in the first place. I’m a bit over half-way through at the moment and I get the feeling it’s going to be one of those stories where you spend the whole book waiting for it to actually start. Iain M Banks does this a lot as does the entire Chinese film industry: all beginning, tiny bit of end as an afterthought, no middle. The middle is the meat! This kind of story is like a sandwich with no filling; it’s just two bits of bread! Now maybe the second half of the book is going to blow me away but it seems pretty unlikely.

Perhaps part of the problem with fantasy is that it tends to (but doesn’t necessarily have to) demand a certain story be told, and we’re pretty sick of hearing that story, as a bunch to curmudgeonly responses to Avatar proved, so we try to twist it, generally succeeding only in removing what was good about it in the first place. Morgan’s previous books have told ‘whodunnit’ stories, war stories, and ‘entropic-tumble-from-grace’ stories, all through the filter of futuristic societies and ideas, this was a big part of their success. Even without the cool technologies and the disquieting images of dystopian futures, these stories would have been great stories, you could have read the same story set in the modern day world, and it would have been awesome. The same cannot be said for his fantasy; if you stripped away the Dwenda and the Kiriath and all the other funny names and the subtle magic you would be left with… well, pretty much nothing.

Sadly I am in invested in this now, and it seems likely that when the next sequel comes out I will go and buy it and I will take the time to read it and then I will put it on my bookshelf next to The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands, where they will remain neatly whole but untouched until I feel the need to upset a teenage niece or nephew who’s discovered fantasy writing. My advice to you would be to avoid this whole franchise, go read the Altered Carbon trilogy or Market Forces or Thirteen, and hope, like me that Morgan returns to writing bleeding-edge spec-fic when he’s done with this little misadventure.

Edit: Debrief

Well I finished it the other day, and I need to make an adjustment or two and provide final thoughts. The style really warms up in the last 1/4 of the book, ringing much truer to the Richard Morgan I know, so I’ve adjusted the breakdown accordingly. My main gripe with this book, that the whole book is spent setting up a story that never happens, remains and was in fact reenforced by the latter part of this book. It’s like the first sequel to a film where the second sequel is already written so the first is used purely as a foundation for the plot of the second. Based on this, the wrap up to this trilogy will hopefully have a more interesting plot (a genuine fantasy quest/adventure tale) than the books leading up to it, and perhaps it will be a stronger book for that, but given the performance so far, I’m not holding my breath.

Verdict: Seriously, do not bother. 2 superfluously gay main characters out of 5.

The Breakdown (explanation)

Characters: 3/5
Story: 3/5
Plot: 2/5
Style: 3.5/5
Ideas: 3/5