Archive for June 2001

Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller by Neal Stephenson

19 June 2001
Categories: From the armchair

coverLife is full of little coincidences. I tend to believe that the more coincidences you notice while following a certain path, the better the likelihood that that path is the right one to follow. In other words, the world has a strange way of aligning itself into a coherent, integral whole just when you’re at one with it.

In a mundane way, I will take the following anecdote to mean that I was reading Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac at the right time in my life.

Zodiac is told from the first-person perspective of Sangamon Taylor, an environmental activist who fancies himself a “Toxic Spiderman” while most people, to his chagrin, call him “Granola James Bond.” S.T. likes to spend his time racing around Boston Harbor in an overpowered Zodiac inflatable raft, searching to uncover the latest industrial crime to pollute those already-despoiled waters. As a part of this pursuit, he has enlisted local lobstermen to provide him with any odd or deformed lobsters they catch, along with data on where they were caught. S.T. hopes to use these data to pinpoint toxic spills in the harbor and thereby to take down the large corporations responsible.

Recently my wife went to the latest travesty of Sprawl to inflict itself on the landscape, Costco, and bought a 12-pack of assorted flavours of Jones Soda. If you’re not familiar with Jones Soda, it’s a hip little upstart soda company from Canada with a collection of classic and/or funky flavours including cream soda, grape, and (no joke) blue bubble gum. Their kitschiest gimmick is that their labels sport photographs submitted by anyone and everyone, with subject matter that might be almost anything—I’ve seen landscapes, people on the beach, seals at the zoo, even a bowling alley where the #1 pin has been stood on its head. The labels are always changing, and always give credit to the submitter and their hometown.

One of the flavours in that 12-pack was Green Apple. It’s a frightful shade of neon green that you can really only get by mixing Yellow #5 and Blue #1. That said, it’s a surprisingly tasty soda with all-natural flavouring, a nice tart apple without being too sickly sweet.

Then I looked closely at the label, and discovered that while reading a book about toxic lobsters, I was drinking a toxic-waste-green soda bearing a picture of… cartoonishly caricatured giant stuffed lobsters!

Stephenson wrote Zodiac back in 1988, and in very minor ways the book dates itself. I was surprised that S.T. didn’t use GPS to pinpoint his position in the harbor, until I remembered that the first operational GPS satellite wasn’t launched until February 1989 and it would be several years before handheld receivers would be available to the public. In so many ways, though, this book is as timely now as it was then, and environmental catastrophe probably looms larger on the horizon now than it did then. Which makes it all the more scary.

The main plot of Zodiac has to do with Basco, Inc., a fictitious chemical company that creates, through one of its subsidiaries, a genetically altered bacterium that converts PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, nasty stuff) into harmless saltwater. They use these bacteria to cover up a PCB spill that they dumped years before and which recently began to leak. In a sense, this new “bug” is a helpful thing for the environment.

Now, big chemical companies use PCBs in a lot of their operations, and need to make large quantities of the stuff through a method that requires lots of expensive electrical power. Basco realizes that if it can create a bug that converts PCBs to saltwater, it can engineer one to perform the reverse process, thus allowing them to make PCBs out of readily available seawater, for cheap. Unfortunately, this bug gets loose, apparently through subterfuge, and enters the harbor. And unless S.T. and his compatriots can stop it, the new bug threatens to poison the entire harbor and, in the worst case, the entire world.

Zodiac is exciting and fast-paced, and full of Stephenson’s trademark: long rambling discussions rife with plot-significant technojargon. As a technogeek, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and as it reached a climax, with machine guns cracking and explosions tearing through the water, I found myself thinking, “this book would make a great movie.”

I have several trains of thought about that. One is that the book is awfully predictable. As soon as S.T. begins to talk about a bacterium that can convert PCBs to saltwater, I knew there’d be a bug that does the opposite. That’s why I don’t feel bad about mentioning it previously, because it’s not much of a spoiler. Of course, predictability does not stop most movies from being made.

The idea of a movie version of Zodiac immediately made me think of another author: Michael Crichton. Every Crichton book I’ve read (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Sphere) reads like nothing more than an extended screenplay treatment. (A ‘treatment,’ for those not familiar with film argot, is a short novelistic summary of a screenplay, usually used to sell that screenplay.) This seems to be more and more the case with Crichton from year to year: Sphere, especially, had no character development and I knew, just from reading it, that it would soon be made into a blockbuster movie with really cool special effects—and a piece of crap.

On the other hand, Stephenson has a sharp wit and attacks his subjects with a levity, vicious though it is, that Crichton lacks. After all, in the acknowledgements for Zodiac the author takes pride in the fact that a friend who read the rough draft said the main character is a total asshole; Neal says that’s how he knew he was on the right track.

Then I thought about Jurassic Park. In the book, the mathematician Malcolm (played in the film by Jeff Goldblum) is bitten by a dinosaur early on and spends the rest of the story in a feverish delirium, ranting at length about chaos theory, genetics, and the dangers of human hubris when playing with those things. Malcolm is the conscience of the book, and carries the entire crux of the message Crichton is trying to put forth. In the movie, however, Malcolm’s rant is reduced to perhaps one or two brief lines, and non sequiturs at that. The result: total Spielbergization, a Disney theme park of a movie.

That’s one of the biggest problems with movies today. No dialogue. If S.T.’s diatribes were cut, not only would the message of Zodiac be lost, but much of the necessary exposition and plot development would be lost too. The whole book would be reduced to a cool boat chase involving S.T.’s Zodiac and a high-speed Cigarette boat, and a lot of gunplay at the end.

I’m sure they’d cut out all the casual drug use, as well. For one, S.T.’s a big nitrous oxide user. He has a personal tenet he calls “Sangamon’s Principle” that essentially says simple molecules are better, because you never know what side effects more complicated compounds will have. Hence the affinity for N2O, which he huffs all the time. But then there’s also pot and LSD and ‘shroom use, and PCP (by the bad guys).

And finally, I doubt the city of Boston would want the kind of negative publicity this book engenders by describing Boston Harbor as one gigantic sewer, which like all major metropolitan waterways it is. The city would probably balk at having the movie shot there, even if it were made out to be some generic, unnamed major city, which might be difficult, because Stephenson uses so many well-known locations such as Fenway Park, Spectacle Island, and Harvard Square.

In fact, this brings up another point about Stephenson. His books almost demand accompanying maps because of his integral use of topology to tell his stories. The Diamond Age needs a map of Shanghai and environs in the late 21st Century. Cryptonomicon relies on a knowledge of modern-day Manila and Luzon. And Zodiac is constantly moving about on a real-world map of Boston. In fact, Stephenson’s description of the location of Basco’s main plant in Everett, Massachusetts, is so specific that I’d like to know what corporation really does own the land described. Then again, perhaps he changed the landscape just enough to avoid a potential lawsuit.

Okay, enough rambling. The upshot of Zodiac is this: it’s a quick, predictable, fun read. Good action movie potential, if there are any screenwriters left in Hollywood that are capable of writing dense, complicated, technically inclined dialogue. And enough environmental concerns to make one want to swear off lobsters forever. Except those on a bottle of Jones Soda.

(Zodiac has been nominated for inclusion on the Shut List.)

The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

12 June 2001
Categories: From the armchair

coverWith a writer as trailblazing as Neal Stephenson, it’s hard to know where to begin to describe The Diamond Age.

The story takes place sometime late in the 21st Century. Imagine if the near-term future of Snow Crash was carried forward by several decades through a nanotechnology revolution. As in Snow Crash, the world of The Diamond Age no longer contains governments per se. Nanotech has created a hierarchical society where those with a Source of nanotech elements, or control over the Feeds that transmit those elements, hold the power. At the same time, nanotech is so pervasive that every home contains a Matter Compiler to create common objects and simple food, and “mites,” microscopic airborne drones with myriad purposes, both benign and malignant, fill the air and are inhaled with every breath. “Toner wars,” so named because of the swirling clouds of dead mites that fill the air like the black dust of a photocopier, frequently rage between competing manufacturers. Even a simple sheet of paper is a “mediatron,” a computer-embedded system capable of receiving voice commands and displaying text, images, and moving pictures with the resolution of a high-definition television.

The story takes place in Shanghai and its environs, which like the rest of the world is divided up into “claves,” regions of common ethnic or economic heritage. High in the hills is the clave of Atlantis, where dwell the Neo-Victorians. (Queen Victoria II is their ruler, though England as a sovereign nation with physical borders no longer exists.) Much like the original Victorians, who reacted against the low morals of the age that preceded them, the Neo-Victorians have a strict code of conduct and morality. (This is perhaps a commentary on our society today and where we appear to be headed.) Once of these is John Hackworth, a professional artifex (nanotech engineer) of high skill and regard, who despite his talents is not a member of the nobility. Hackworth’s boss is an Equity Lord by the name of Finkle-McGraw. The Lord long ago gained his status by being a rebel and taking risks; he despairs to find that his children are not risk-takers and fears that his young granddaughter will never reach her potential in the schools of the establishment. Unable to interfere in her upbringing directly, Lord Finkle-McGraw commissions Hackworth to design A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive mediatronic book. The concept is that a Primer will bond itself to its owner, tailoring its stories to the young female reader, and providing tutorial lessons that she will find most interesting and useful to her unique situation. By giving this book to his granddaughter as a gift on her fourth birthday, Lord Finkle-McGraw will have an avenue with which to expose her to ideas and concepts the Neo-Victorians (including her parents) would find subversive and potentially dangerous, but which will almost certainly come in handy to her as she grows up.

Hackworth, who has a young daughter of his own, sees an opportunity to boost her out of the middle-class caste to which he has resigned himself. He steals a copy of the compiler code that would program a Matter Compiler to create the Primer (committing the theft through an ingenious use of nanotechnology, of course). He crosses into an unsavoury part of Shanghai to compile a Primer at an underground Source, but before he can return home with his daughter’s Primer, he is attacked by street thugs and robbed.

The contraband Primer winds up in the hands of Nell, yet another four-year-old girl who lives in a hell of destitution, ignorance, and physical abuse in a Shanghai tenement. The Primer bonds to Nell and quickly begins to teach her to read, and soon after, self-defence. Through the rest of The Diamond Age, we follow Nell as she grows to be an educated, intelligent, resourceful young woman, and we simultaneously read, with her, the adventures of Princess Nell, the protagonist in her Primer. Meanwhile, all around her, local and world events steadily crumble into anarchy and rebellion. The world needs a saviour, and it might just take the form of Princess Nell, as by the end of the book Nell and her fictitious alter-ego have become one and the same.

Neal Stephenson has created here, for the first time, a total-immersion reality. Cryptonomicon and Zodiac take place in the present day, and Snow Crash is so close in the future that its reality is barely one step removed from what we know today, and so is strangely familiar. The Diamond Age, on the other hand, finds us in a world totally transformed by nanotechnology. We are thrown head first into a world of claves, thetes, and ractives, Sources and Feeds, and only gradually does Stephenson reveal what those are. The ploy of using a character’s off-handed comment to explain a term, rather than frankly spelling it out in a descriptive paragraph, is effective in maintaining the sense of immersion, as if we’re part of this world and don’t need an explanation. Meanwhile, Stephenson’s penchant for using big words continues, often describing the most mundane action or event in the most entertainingly flowery language. But beyond all that, his words convey startling concepts for the future of technology, and simultaneously frightening and inspiring prophesies for human society.

The Diamond Age earned the 1996 Hugo award for best novel. For good reason. This was Neal Stephenson’s strongest effort to date, and well worth a read.