Short reviews: fiction

Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson)

Cryptonomicon is a hard novel to summarise. It is about World War II code-breakers and 1990s tech entrepreneurs, but also manages to concern itself with most other things as well.

I first read Cryptonomicon over two years ago. However, it is a massive book, and since it happens in the same universe as The Baroque Cycle, I assumed reading it again would reveal many new things. I was not wrong.

Neal Stephenson has a humorously extravagant (baroque?) writing style that is always entertaining to read, but in Cryptonomicon it is taken to an extreme. Stephenson turns mundane activities like writing a business plan, eating cereal, taking a car ride in the Philippines, and visiting a dentist into lengthy but hilarious tangents. Do they contribute to the plot? Who cares!

As this is a Neal Stephenson novel, certain vices will also be present. A printed version of the book, dropped from a bomber, would punch a hole through the deck of a Japanese warship. The plot meanders to an extent that puts most rivers to shame. And some things are just plain weird.

But overall, Cryptonomicon makes for a great read for anyone with the time to spare, and an interest in codebreaking, history, war, mathematics, the Internet, the financial industry, or technology.

Exhalation (Ted Chiang)

“Exhalation”, this short story collection’s titular work, is the greatest short story I have ever read. (You may read it online for free – and legally, as far as I can tell – here). The careful setup builds to a beautiful and intuitive analogy that make the philosophical points at the end hit hard.

Based on the strengths of “Exhalation” (the short story), I bought Exhalation (the short story collection). None of the other stories surpass “Exhalation”, though they are mostly good and sometimes excellent.

Reading a Ted Chiang story is like watching an eerily intricate machine in action, or listening to a Bach fugue: the feeling is one of orderliness and precision combined with an almost casual ease. The premise of each story is fundamentally a thought experiment; a “what-if” question knocks down one domino and the story follows its consequences all the way down the chain. Nothing is wasted or in excess, and the beats of the pacing come like metronome beats. In the best of the stories, these beats are almost undetectable at first, gradually building up into dawning revalation as the pieces fall together and the story reaches its climax.

Aside from “Exhalation”, there are two stories that stand out.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is a thoughtful exploration of the effect of the medium on what is seen as true (a topic that Neil Postman would feel right at home with). The story cleverly parallels the story of a person in an African village being introduced to literacy in the past, and a person in the future grappling with the consequences of technology that records everything people see. In a world of cautionary tales about technology stealing our identities, destroying our communities, or letting dinosaurs loose in the park, Chiang’s take on this issue is surprisingly forward-looking.

In “Omphalos” (an Ancient Greek word for “navel”, as in the expression “navel of the world”), the what-if question is: what if creationism were true, but humanity was a side-effect rather than the pinnacle of creation? The story is told in the form of prayers to god. Chiang takes the reader on a tour of what the scientific facts of this world look like: old trees with no growth rings in the middle, mummified people without navels, and so on, until finally a physics discovery, while confirming without doubt the existence of miracles, also leads inevitably to the conclusion that we are not the purpose of god’s creation. All this takes place in parallel with the emotional arc of the central character, which is told in a sympathetic and realistic manner.

Summerland (Hannu Rajaniemi)

The year is 1938. The Spanish Civil War rages on, Europe braces for war, Queen Victoria reigns from the afterlife, and the Soviets are merging souls into a godlike overmind, starting with Lenin’s.

In the alternative universe of Summerland, Marconi discovered more than he bargained for when working with radio transmission, and soon enough ectotanks and other supernatural weaponry were being deployed in World War I. Since then much of early-1900s spiritualism has been proven right.

Most significant is Summerland, an afterlife where souls can lodge themselves (provided they have a ticket) and even interact to a limited extent with the living.

In terms of plot, Summerland is a fairly straightforward spy novel. This is executed well (though my judgement may not be representative of those who know more about spy novels), but the premise is what makes Summerland special.

(Rajaniemi is best known for his far-future science fiction trilogy, which starts with The Quantum Thief; this is also recommended.)

The Curse of Chalion (Lois McMaster Bujold)

At the time of writing, the “Reception” section of the Wikipedia page for this book tells me nothing but “The book has received a number of reviews”.

This rather underwhelming (though doubtlessly accurate) statement does not do the book justice. The Curse of Chalion shines not through outstanding excellence in one respect, but rather by bringing a variety of good elements together: characters that feel like real people, an atmospheric setting, and above all a hard-to-pin-down tastefulness where nothing is in excess.

If I had to critique something, some of the turning points in the plot are rather deus ex machina. However, overall the book is a great example of fantasy built on literary merits rather than genre props, and makes for a very enjoyable story to get lost in.

(The introduction of the Wikipedia article, however, is little but a list of all the awards the book has won.)

Unsong (Scott Alexander)

In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth. For a while, everything was fine. Then Thamiel, the left hand of God, appears in the centre of the Earth and corrupts a third of the angelic host. A war begins between the angels and demons, in which the demons gain the upper hand. Their victory is averted only when the mathematically talented archangel Uriel initiates his backup plan: switching the world from running on divine light to running on mathematical laws. Angels and demons both are reduced to mere metaphors, and the world is saved.

Saved, that is, until humans get very good at harnessing those laws and send Apollo 8 on a trip around the moon in 1968. Unfortunately all space beyond the moon is simply an illusion to make the universe seem consistent with the physics that now reigns on Earth. Instead of looping around the moon, Apollo 8 crashes into the edge of the world, damaging the delicate celestial machinery that Uriel put into place to maintain his conversion.

Various glitches start to show up in the working of the world. Angels and demons begin returning: Uriel reappears in a hurricane in the Mexican Gulf, from where he plays the role of an overworked sysadmin issuing a constant stream of patches to prevent physics from crashing, while demons spring up from Lake Baikal and start invading Russia.

The backstory of Unsong, told in various short excerpts throughout the book, continues with a very clever account of how the world reacts to this turn of events. Cold War politicking continues; for example, at one point Henry Kissinger successfully convinces President Nixon to ally with Hell in order to keep the Russians in check.

The main plot line begins in 2017. In this universe, kabbalah works. In particular, it makes possible the discovery of Names of God – words which have magical powers, but whose distribution is controlled by strict copyright laws. The main character, Aaron Smith-Teller, is a gifted kabbalist, but works a low-paid job helping a company find Names: he reads potential Names off a computer screen all day long, and if he finds a Name, gives it over to the company. The process cannot be automated because computers lack a soul and hence can’t detect which words are Names, necessitating this sort of low-skill work.

Unsong is remarkable not just for its crazy premise, but for the consistency and ruthlessness of its internal logic (which characters do not fail to exploit). Imagine you stumble across a Name that grants souls to inanimate objects. What do you do? That’s obvious: use it on a computer, have it start searching for new Names at superhuman speed, sell the Names for profit, buy more computers, and continue in this vein until you have magic powers beyond your dreams and can take over the world. If the Bible is literally true, what is the overriding moral priority? Simple: end the existence of hell; countless people suffering eternal torture for vague reasons cannot be part of a just universe.

The central question that many of Unsong’s characters grapple with is the problem of theodicy: why would a good god create a world with so much evil? This question does not have direct relevance to our own world, but it leads to other interesting questions (as well as giving the author a chance to flaunt their ingenuity; the book actually has a plausible answer). Together with characters who are often both idealistic and ruthless – I’m particularly fond of Jalaketu West, AKA “The Comet King” – this makes the book a good exploration of many moral themes.

Be warned, though: Unsong is about a universe where words, rather than equations, are the building blocks of reality. This leads to a lot of perverse verbal ingenuity, including more puns than can possibly be healthy. If you don’t want to read about characters who protest at the World’s Fair by waving signs saying “No it isn’t!”, or how atheists also include a leviathan in their mythology by calling the whole world a giant fluke, stay away.

Unsong was published online, chapter by chapter. This means two things, one bad and one good. First, it is a bit less polished than a published novel might be. Second, you can read it for free online.

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