Monday, September 23, 2013


So I've had two books sitting on my shelf for a while that I finally got around to reading in the past couple weeks. Both are by authors I hold in pretty high regard: Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. Both came out of the "cyberpunk" movement, Gibson with the seminal Neuromancer and Stephenson with Snow Crash. Both have since moved on.

Stephenson's book is called Anathem. He finished it a couple years ago (he's since written another called Reamde, which I haven't read yet) and it was a high concept story about communication (how language changes), knowledge and its conveyance (how it affects society and the perceptions both of those who have it and those who don't), and world-realization (particle theory about conjoined but different universes and how observation makes them split.) Most of his books have been like that. He's always thinking in a very large manner. The trick is that he does that with characters that are still human, with a pace that keeps you turning the pages (albeit occasionally bogged down in theory), and with some memorable turns of phrase. He's had problems with endings before, in that his grandiose ideas resist being succinctly ended, but I think he pulled it off well in this one.

Gibson's is called Pattern Recognition. It's been out for a decade and many critics regard it as his finest work (he's written two more, Spook Country and Zero History, which I also have yet to get to.) It's explicitly about modern society and how technology and advertising tends to shift cultural tides before people are even aware that they're in the water. It's told in Gibson's hyper-cynical and bleak tone, but his writing, unlike Stephenson's, isn't about conveying a grand idea(s) so much as it is a slow presentation of said ideas while every sentence becomes an expression unto itself. His writing is the closest I've ever seen to the idea of "lyrical." The story is an exercise in description of the environs surrounding his characters and how they interact with them and how they interact with the emotions generated by them.

They're (obviously) very different approaches and, as much as I am forever indebted to Gibson for blowing my mind in 1984 with Case, Molly, and Wintermute, I've come to appreciate Stephenson's style more; likely because I'm another one of those "grand idea" guys, but also possibly because I don't see myself ever being able to accomplish the type of rhythm that Gibson pulls off. Have I tried? Occasionally. But that kind of texture seems to be the province of writers superior to me. Is it because most of what I turn out is generally crap? Quite possible.

On that note, I was out with the trivia team last week and the guy running the session was playing some solid music. One track was Tom Waits' Goin' Out West and it got me into listening to Bone Machine again over the past few days. Hearing Earth Died Screaming for the first time in a few years dovetailed nicely with a neo-concept I've had in my head for a while and I put down the first few hundred words of it but, as with all things that I start, I'm not quite sure it will be worth the effort of finishing (i.e. it's all crap.) I think it lacks both the grand idea and the textural lyricism. At this point, it's safe to wonder whether I'll finish anything simply because I'll hold it to a standard that I may never be able to achieve.

Why did I wait so long to read these two books by two of my favorite authors? I'd like to say that's just how things turn out sometimes, but I've read many, many other books in the intervening years. Is it because I didn't want to be confronted again with work that I can't even approach, much less match? That certainly wasn't foremost on my mind, but it would make me into a typical Gibson character...

Monday, September 2, 2013

The art of letters

I'm a technological enthusiast. While not as quite as much a gadget-freak as my friend, Chris (who quickly obtains the latest phone/tablet/computer or other such enhancement to something he frequently already owns), I'm fond of moving forward, as it were. One of the ways we've all moved forward is in forms of communication, such as the one I'm using here. The US Postal Service, once the envy of the world, is now crumbling under this change. Who needs to write letters when one can email or text or blog or Skype or Vine or Tweet or whatever other method will emerge in the coming years? (Yes, olfactory communication (aka Smell-o-vision) is still on the minds of some people...)

I'm well into a novel at the moment by one of my favorite writers, Neal Stephenson. He actually published it a few years ago and I've had it sitting in my "to read" pile until last week. It's a very complex tale about communication, language, knowledge, and the roots of ideas and how they're transmitted. At one point, the lead character inquires if there will be some way to send a letter while they're traveling. His companion asks if he's writing "to a girl" and he admits that he is. When he stammers about what he should say, since their travel is taking him away from the woman in question, he's told that he shouldn't bother with the detail of what he's doing and where he's going. Instead, he should just tell her what he feels for her. Even in the fairly advanced setting of the novel, these people are in a situation where he's actually going to have to write a letter with a pen and a pad of paper. But that is, of course, the best way to pursue the advice that he's been given.

Modern communications can be dismissed easily. It takes seconds to text and, if one receives it, a response takes seconds, as well. Communication is constant and therefore ephemeral. While it's certainly more convenient and can carry its own level of intensity because it's everpresent and easily conducted, I think it tends to lose the gravitas that a handwritten letter once held because the latter could easily take hours to write and then days or weeks or even months to reach its destination. The effort in comparison to the modern 2-minute Gmail experience is different by multiple orders of magnitude. When one sat down to convey a message of importance, to let someone separated by miles or oceans know one's most heartfelt thoughts, it had to be conveyed with a certain level of ferocity and elaboration. Ideas had to be spelled out at length, both as a way to convey the feeling and to demonstrate its intensity. No emoticons or icons or hashtags could be used to elaborate upon (or cover up) the emotions involved. Only words.

Did she know that a certain scent reminded you of her and that moment put a twist into your gut until it passed? If not, you'd have to spell it out (quite literally) and she would only know weeks from now, when that moment was distant (until it happened again.) Did she know that you watched the sunset because it brought forth a memory of the sun shining through her hair as she looked back at you with an affection that you didn't know existed in the world to that point? You'd have to tell her and hope that perhaps she remembered the same moment. That world wasn't captured in rapid-fire moments of thumb-typed affirmations that soon get lost in the flurry of other signals, real and imagined. It had to be crafted over time and longed for with an energy that could either keep one moving through the days or make them agony until that separation was ended.

I'm not trying to say that the proliferation of communication and its ease have made relationships less passionate or that modern forms can't be used to convey those same ideas. But there's a difference. My friend, Leca, mentioned a text to me a few months ago that she'd gotten from her (now) husband, Kevin. It mentioned that she had looked especially beautiful that morning as she'd left for work. A mutual friend of ours had an immediate reaction: "Awwww. He's trying to get some." Maybe that's true or maybe he was being absolutely genuine with this thoughts. But if one had to set pen to paper and wait even just days for a response, would it be interpreted so casually or would it carry the weight of those supposedly more "genuine" impressions?

Of course, every time I try to think about writing something like that, my words veer into the archaic and Shakespearean, which makes it sound even less "genuine" than a simple text. The other advantage of this change in communication habits and styles is that my handwriting is god-awful, so I'm not sure anyone that I wrote to with a pen would be able to read it, outdated language or no. But I wonder if those ideas and gestures aren't being muted by the constant stream of contact we currently swim in and if it behooves us to take more time with matters that used to require strength simply to write down.