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...

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