March 16, 2010

Why I Hate Neal Stephenson

I have been reading “The Diamond Age”, a book by Neal Stephenson over the last couple of weeks. I picked it up to supplement some of the other books I was reading, to make the nonfiction rest in my head while I percolated on those thoughts and ideas while I busied my ample readings with something fictional. This is not to say that fictional renderings of stories and events are less taxing than Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” or Engels’s “Condition of the Working Class in England.” The intellectual challenge and difference is something that gives balance to the reading; I consider this in line with all the periodicals I read in addition to books. I really was looking forward to reading this book, even if it has been sitting on my ‘to-read’ shelf since September. I picked it up, started the first thirty pages, and put it down in favor of a style manifesto first written in the seventies. I have eclectic reading habits, but I finished the style manifesto long ago when I just last night finished “The Diamond Age”.
I put down “The Diamond Age” initially for a reason I will discuss later, but right now, I want to gloss over the answer to the title of this piece. I hate Neal Stephenson. Now do not get me wrong, there are many authors I do not like. This dislike comes from my own judgment of the value of a writer’s works in comparison to their reputation. A metric such as this lends to highly subjective valuations, so I will not apply it to anything where there were rules and standards and consensus. Modernism and earlier are free from my dislike, those works just have to suffer the wrath of my indifference. My own post-modern evaluation can be applied to two writers whose works do not, in my opinion, match their own reputation. Many may disagree with me, but Don DeLillo falls here. I know I am supposed to like his works. He has mastered the world of critical success in the last 25 years, even while some of his contemporaries I enjoyed more such as Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis fell by the wayside. I gave DeLillo a fair chance. I have read three of his books on my own, after being assigned “The Body Artist” in college. The best recommendation of “The Body Artist” is that it is short. Like “Cosmopolis,” short and when I closed the back cover for the last time my biggest response was a shrug as I chased what the next title I should pull off my shelf. As a writer, this is not the response I want from my work. I doubt that DeLillo would think that this is the effect he has. My own let down was based on the reputation primarily of two of his books.
My own understanding of “White Noise” and “Underworld is as follows: These books will grab you by the hand at the party. After much searching through the vast uninhabited areas at the party, a quite, secluded place will be found. You will be thrown down onto a pile of stranger’s coats that scratch you on your back while your mouth is preoccupied with the hunger devouring you at the front. Your chest is scratched and your groin begins to heat like a radiator and the blood pools and you feel your pulse between your legs and it is getting faster. You find your belt being undone; it is your hand but you do not remember giving the signal from you head to your hand. A warm shiver of electric shock overwhelms you as a strange moisture envelopes your cock from the glans to the base and back again. You blackout in pleasure while your disembodied spirit hovers overhead watching waves of ecstasy wash over your face. You awake later with an alien mixture of shame and pride as you look around an empty house. I have had books do this to me. It’s always a pleasant surprise, and you go searching for that feeling over and over again and perhaps you fill that void and perhaps you will not but that tremble of ecstasy will always be different somehow, no matter who or what you find to fill the void. The problem is when your somewhat expecting this but only have marginal expectations for it happening. You nurse your beer in a corner and wait, chatting up those near you. I will tell you what happened for me. “White Noise” was at the party and told me some story about a barn. “Underworld” started out with the secluded place and the hungering of the mouth and then turned away and left. I found a quiet corner in an unfinished basement lit by a single under- powered bare bulb and had a silent wank and went home alone. I do not grudge the silent wank by any means, but when you are expecting to be washed away to nothingness by a wave of pure pleasure, the wank is a letdown. Other authors have put me in similar situations as DeLillo. I am aware that this is a tortured metaphor for an emotional and not a strictly analytical way to look at literature, but at this point in my career, I am reading fict-tation more for a physical, emotional reaction than for a philosophy or a reasoning of the world. Right now, I feel we have to encounter the world with the most concrete philosophy our abstract brains can muster. I want to be able to escape the world through literature. When all you give me is a silent wank, I will take it but I am too soon out in the world. I am not going to like you, but after a couple of these letdowns, I am not going to pursue you again, or if I do, my expectations will be muted. Even if you be a man of Infinite Jest, my later interviews may be brief for a reason.
A difference exists, to carry forward, between expecting fellatio and wanting fellatio. I think this is at the center of my hatred for Neal Stephenson. I hate his work because I am ready to give him all the love he needs and could want from no other, but I do not receive the love I want back from his works. I have had this in real life. I still harbor conflicted feelings for certain pixyish brunettes that I wanted to love. Wanted to, but not even a quite little wank in the corner. Just the covers draw you in, and the blurbs excite you about what is possible in a post-cyberpunk world of science fiction. How do we look at technology interacting with the world and how does that effect people and the stories we tell ourselves? How do you create a paradigm of the future based on the earth and not be overly dreamy about the stars in the sky? Can you improve on what it means to be a stranger in a strange land? I have read two books of Stevenson’s and I have found that for me the main concern is that he cannot and I am sitting here thinking of ways to resurrect Vonnegut. Not that some of the coming critiques could not apply to my second-favorite Hoosier, but Kurt made you smile. Neal is like the vapid girl at the party who is really hot and draws a lot of attention, but when you start to talk to her there is very little to recommend.
Enough of this metaphorical preface: I want to like Neal Stephenson because he is smart. There are too few smart people in this world. I do not want to be condescending, but you have only to look at the Gaussian distribution to realize that roughly half of all people are below average. You can go many places with this information, and the people who really embraced this fact were somewhat embarrassed that the Nazi’s took the ball and ran with it. Somewhere along the line, being of the elite became a bad thing. The people making up the vast center heap between 85-115 can look downhill to the left and fell pride and contempt towards those who take up resources because of their very position at their end. Those same people can look right and feel pride and contempt towards the right hand side of the distribution because of, I do not know what. I want to say jealousy but that is arrogant and condescending. I feel envy towards those to the right of me, but from where I look, the slope is flattening out. I was humbled a while back when a good friend reminded me that even in America if you’re in the top one half of one percent of all Americans there are one and a half million people at least as smart as you are. Humbling, but I think that is keeping pretty good company. Stephenson is obviously in this company. He likes and through the evidence of his texts is conversant in so many different academic subjects. Off the top of my head, I can talk about his visionary look at nanotechnology, the nature of the internet, computer programming, linguistics, eastern religion, the devolution of nationalism, the sociology of people gathering in groups, and other things that are not popping in my head without buzzing the texts for evidence. I want to like him because he is of the tribe.
I also want to like him because he can write action. I could not tell you what happened at the end of “Snow Crash,” and that fact may be a critique for my own reading skills or of Stephenson’s narrative technique. He was able to bring me into the world he created and make me want to know what happened next. I remember doing this, but not the exact words or situations presented. I have to give credit to a writer who is able to disappear into his (or her, but let us be honest, his) action. Many of the writers across genres that I read have some sort of trouble doing this. I do not read many of the mass-market writers who are successful, so I might be misplaced in my praise. I do not know of Patterson’s or Dan Brown’s skills in this area, but I’m thinking of some of the praised science fiction I’ve read and Stephenson’s action rushes over you like a wave and his peers are somewhat clunky. “Enders Game” or even “Neuromancer” drags in comparison to Stephenson. There are points in Gibson especially I can remember stopping and asking, “What?” I have told my students in writing classes that you should look at the paper again when you have trouble reading what you are writing. On some level for the whole novel I was awaiting for him to start pulling things together. Stephenson starts his action majesty in “Diamond Age,” but pulls back. I did not want him to.
With ten percent of the “Diamond Age” book left to read, my wife asked me how the book was, and marveled that despite my earlier complaints I was still reading the book. I was trying to think of a way to describe the work. I told her that I still was not sure of what the conflict was. I finished it recently, and I am still not sure. I do not want to get into too many specifics, but I think it centered on the identity of a character called “The Alchemist”. Overall, this book, as well as the previous book I read by Neal Stephenson, is a letdown from my admittedly high expectations. I think the center of my disappointment is that Neal Stephenson obviously has never had a conversation with a living human being. I have my suspicions that what we know as the output of Neal Stephenson is in fact a highly advanced software program that is given a concept and allowed to spin out a world based on the concept. I would create a clever anagram here for what his name actually stood for here but I do not have the intellectual energy. I spoke earlier of picking the book up and then soon laying it down for a reason. Many of the conversations between people are stilted. This I can understand. Reading in genre, even when you have high expectations, has some problems. It happens. Nevertheless, when you offload almost all your world building and exposition in the dialogue, it is difficult to read for anyone that has had ample reading experience outside of the genre. A writer does need to explain the world he is building to the audience. The more your world is like the contemporary world of your imagined readers, the less of a burden you have to explain to readers. In “Snow Crash,” as I remember, a complex reasoning had to be devised to show that language itself was a possible carrier for a computer-like virus that could infect and destroy the brain. This concept is developed in-depth in dialogue between two characters and I was reading it asking why the hell people would be having this conversation. I hate to call too much attention to info-dumping, but I recently read a collection of J. G. Ballard’s short fiction. In these little pieces he was able to create worlds at least as detailed as Stephenson does in his much larger books, and Ballard does it in a much more subtle manner. When I started reading “The Diamond Age,” and Stephenson introduces two characters who obviously will be important later in the novel and on their first meeting they are discussing what seem to be personal matters and deeply discussing philosophic standpoints, I wanted to close the book and beat it across the table yelling in syncopated rhythm “People do not talk like this! This is obviously character development! What the fuck happened to subtlety?” I did not do this. I just put the book down. Then I picked up a style manual to make sure I was not crazy. I am not convinced that he is human, but I still hate Neal Stephenson.
I hate Neal Stephenson because his work is too technologically driven. And too action driven. Now, the second of the two may be a complaint on many kinds of fiction, and even some history that I have read. There is too much focus on the things happening. I understand that this is just a preference of my own in regards to the stories I like to tell myself. I remember being a kid and flying around fake airplanes driving my micro machines on the back of the couch and up and over and around doorjambs and other pieces of the world I encountered on a daily level. It was much like the world I encounter now, but everything was taller. These actions were able to suffice for a while, but then I would have to people my stories with actual people. You see, reliance on the technology was a small material concern for a child, but a mature person has to grow and look for agency of some sort. Things are cool, but to drive a narrative you need characters that have needs and desires and make decisions. Even Pixar knows this; the cars in “Cars” are actually people. On the other hand, they are cars with a creepy anthropomorphizing done upon them. Either way you look at it, you have to see that the cars may be what draw your audience, but you have to realize there is a very human need for a story arc. We humans will place a narrative on anything, so it is less of a burden to the author to create that narrative for the reader. A caveat is that there have been some success at experimental pieces that might place the entire burden on the audience, but those authors are not populating the bestseller list. For example, here in the “Diamond Age,” the subtitle is “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.” The characters are superfluous as the focus is this magical book. Magical books are cool, but as plot devices. The Rowling book where a diary plays a big part is not called “Tom Riddle’s Diary.” It is called “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” I think that is the one at least. Books, here in the story and in real life are mediators of the story and not the story itself. I want to know about the characters that are interacting through the book: A precocious child; a top-flight engineer; an actress; a Confucian judge; a mad-scientist sort. They are all mapped out here on paper, but they do not jump out, because they lack inner conflict or outer conflict. They do not interact as people because the program we know as Neal Stephenson need some better programming, and he has no sense of narrative that people live.
For me, the best of the science fiction is that the characters could be living their conflicts in any time or place; the setting in these best cases is secondary in that it heightens the drama of the story. I could write a fairly analogous story to “The Diamond Age,” with a magical book but maybe a wise race of elves to replace the futuristic elements. The story is the limited sense of wonder you have being immersed in the admittedly imaginative world Stephenson creates. This is not enough, however. If you put a book like Slaughterhouse-Five next to “The Diamond Age,” you might see what I am talking about. The story Vonnegut writes works as a straight story. He has written the version straight. However, using genre features of the Science fiction realm allow Vonnegut to explore the story of his own wartime involvement in a much more poignant way. Here the genre improves the story, and we want to know about the life of Billy Pilgrim. It is memorable; just thinking about the book makes me want to revisit it again. The characters in Stephenson’s books do not make me want to spend time with them again. They move on their little lives with no real conflict that fits easily into a narrative structure, and then the book ends. This may be more naturalistic, but it does not make a compelling story.
I think, and hold out hope, that Stephenson can write a compelling story. He is a smart guy writing in a genre that I have long had positive emotions towards. He is fairly prolific and has written beyond the books I have critiqued here. These are his second and third novel as an independent writer. Perhaps I am being too harsh on him. I still want to like Neal Stephenson, but I have only given him two chances. Perhaps a third is in order. Has anyone read the books of his Baroque Cycle?