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November 6, 2008

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Retronomicon

Post-Anathem, I have had a mental itch to scratch regarding Neal Stephenson. How is it, I wondered, that the author of Zodiac--an eco-thriller that explicitly dealt with the environmental impacts of unrestricted capitalists--had ended up writing books that were so tedious, so plainly self-interested? And had Cryptonomicon, as I remembered, really been the turning point when I began to find him unreadable? I went back and flipped through the book to check myself.

It's worse than even I had thought.

First, and what's most striking given recent political events, Cryptonomicon reads now like a lengthy, pulped-up pamphlet from Ron Paul. In its fascination with electronic cash and the gold standard, the book was dated even at the time of writing (remember, Paypal made its debut only a few months after publication, and the bubble burst in Silicon Valley a year later). Like seemingly all libertarian fantasies, there's a lot of water, boats, and islands involved. Reading it critically, one is struck by the attempt to normalize some pretty wild ideologies, like tying Holocaust prevention to the possession of homemade automatic firearms. Pull back from the engaging spy-counterspy plot for even a second, and the whole thing starts to unravel, particularly since the dot-com bust has put a lot of its present-day speculation to death. Indeed, the WWII sections are still the strongest in the book, if only because they focus on a character who is not A) a self-indulgent technocrat or B) a particularly deep thinker.

But what I remember bothering me even as I read Cryptonomicon for the first time in college, is the dinner-party flashback in which he viciously burns a strawman of liberal arts and academia. In a novel that often goes out of its way to champion nerdiness (particularly the unexplainable romantic plotline, in which the tough-but-beautiful girl seems to fall for the protagonist through a courtship that bears no resemblance to human behavior), the dinner party stands out as a towering triumph of misplaced Mary Sue dialog.

To set the scene, Stephenson's main character, Randy, is initially in a relationship with Charlene, who is a caricature of a feminist shrew. A graduate student at a Berkeley-esque college, her character is established when she takes exception with Randy's beard, and turns it into a pretentious academic crusade:

She pulled down statistics on racial variation in beard growth. American Indians didn't grow beards, Asians hardly did, Africans were a special case because daily shaving gave them a painful skin condition. "The ability to grow heavy, full beards as a matter of choice appears to be a privilege accorded by nature solely to white males," she wrote.

Alarm bells, red lights, and screaming klaxons went off in Randy's mind when he happened across that phrase.

[...]

Charlene published the results of a survey she had organized, in which a few hundred women were asked for their opinions. Essentially all of them said that they preferred clean-shaven men to those who were either stubbly or bearded. In short order, Charlene proved that having a beard was just one element of a syndrome strongly correlated to racist and sexist attitudes, and to the pattern of emotional unavailability so often bemoaned by the female partners of white males, especially ones who were technologically oriented.

"The boundary between Self and Environment is a social construct. In Western cultures this boundary is supposed to be sharp and distinct. The beard is an outward symbol of that boundary, a distancing technique. To shave off the beard (or any body hair) is to symbolically annihilate the (essentially specious) boundary separating Self from Other . . ."

And so on. The paper was rapturously received by the peer reviewers and immediately accepted for publication in a major international journal.

Subtle. There's also a short paragraph about how Charlene doesn't want to have kids because they mean conflict, and "Conflict, acted out openly and publicly, was a male mode of social interaction--the foundation for patriarchal society which brought with it the usual litany of dreadful things." Having laid on the satire with a trowel, establishing Charlene as the kind of moral-relativist harpy that results when women leave the kitchen and start reading, Stephenson then gives her a male counterpart for Randy to verbally demolish. Dr. G.E.B. Kivistik is invited by Charlene to a dinner during a conference on "War as Text." Kivistik is portrayed as a know-it-all contrarian currently involved in a crusade against the Internet:
"How many slums will we bulldoze to build the Information Superhighway?" Kivistik said. This profundity was received with thoughtful nodding around the table.

Jon shifted in his chair as if Kivistik had just dropped an ice cube down his collar. "What does that mean?" he asked. Jon was smiling, trying not to be a conflict-oriented patriarchal hegemonist. Kivistik in response, raised his eyebrows and looked around at everyone else, as if to say Who invited this poor lightweight? Jon tried to dig himself out from his tactical error, as Randy closed his eyes and tried not to wince visibly. Kivistik had spent more years sparring with really smart people over high table at Oxford than Jon had been alive. "You don't have to bulldoze anything. There's nothing there to bulldoze," Jon pleaded.

"Very well, let me put it this way," Kivistik said magnanimously--he was not above dumbing down his material for the likes of Jon. "How many on-ramps will connect the world's ghettos to the Information Superhighway?"

Despite himself, Randy leaps to the Internet's defense, insisting that the "Information Superhighway" is a terrible metaphor, and using his UNIX nerd cred as authority to dictate which ideas are good or bad (as opposed to "the usual academician's ace in the hole: everything is relative, it's all just differing perspectives."). Kivistik, not without reason, points out that Randy gained that authority as a member of an elite, and as such should perhaps not be making decisions for everyone else. This is seen as a grave injustice:

"I strenuously object to being labeled and pigeonholed and stereotyped as a technocrat," Randy said, deliberately using oppressed-person's language, maybe in an attempt to turn their weapons against them but more likely (he thinks, lying in bed at three A.M. in the Manila Hotel) out of an uncontrollable urge to be a prick. Some of them, out of habit, looked at him soberly; etiquette dictated that you give all sympathy to the oppressed. Others gasped in outrage to hear these words coming from the lips of a known and convicted white male technocrat. "No one in my family has ever had much money or power," he said.

"I think that the point that Charlene's making is like this," said Tomas, one of their houseguests who had flown in from Prague with his wife Nina. He had now appointed himself conciliator. He paused long enough to exchange a warm look with Charlene. "Just by virtue of coming from a scientific family, you are a member of a privileged elite. You're not aware of it--but members of privileged elites are rarely aware of their privileges."

Randy finished the thought. "Until people like you come along to explain to us how stupid, to say nothing of morally bankrupt, we are."

Let's set aside the poor-little-white-male victimhood schtick for a second, since it's patently transparent. Look at Kivistik's original question, the one Randy derides so readily: How many onramps will connect the world's ghettos to the Information Superhighway? If you strip away the metaphor, all he's asking is "who's going to make sure the poor can also access the advantages that the Internet brings?" This isn't some far-fetched academic pretense: it's a classic question of the Digital Divide. Perhaps a superhighway is indeed a bad metaphor for this, although I think it actually works rather well. But to argue about the highway, instead of connectivity for the poor, is to miss Kivistik's point entirely.

And in a book written by an honest author, instead of one using his protagonist as a mouthpiece for radical cyber-selfishness, a professor from Yale would point that out. But Cryptonomicon is not that book, sadly. That the author is capable of writing these sentences himself, and then misinterpreting his own words, is a sign of a shocking lack of empathy with his characters. And yet, I get no sense that he's writing from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, since the same tone of self-congratulatory geekishness pervades the entire story. As a college student still trying to get a grasp on criticism, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Nowadays, I'm more and more convinced that this was the exact moment I started to sour on Stephenson.

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