I just finished the latest 900 page monster from Neal Stephenson. There may be some slight spoilers in this review, but probably nothing the dust jacket doesn’t say and it might also help make the reading more interesting. This review has turned out much longer than I expected, but if long form reading isn’t your thing, Neal Stephenson is not for you. I am a huge fan and I will always read everything this guy writes, but I have to say, I probably won’t recommend this particular book to people who are not committed fans. The reviews at the world’s largest bookstore, for example, seem rather disappointed. They basically all say stuff like, "Long time fan but, meh."

I wonder if some of the imagery went over people’s heads. For example, there’s a main character named Elmo Shepherd. Funny name right? Well, he turns into the ruler of an afterlife kind of place and they call him "El", you know, the word for god in Hebrew. And "Shepherd"? That lays it on a bit thick as I read it. And there is all kinds of religious and mythological and linguistic symbolism dripping from the pages. But do people care? Do they even get it? Having carefully read Genesis (et al), I understood a lot of it and I didn’t get the feeling that this was a style I really would like to see way more of. A lot of the dialog and prose was styled after religious texts which may not really be the best way to win popularity contests or make easy reading. My typical pace for a Stephenson book is around 250 pages a day but this one was about a quarter of that.

For me, it was worth reading and thought provoking even though I came away pretty sure the premise was faulty. Still, this was a mixed bag and there were some nice gems. As with Seveneves, Neal roughly split the book into a few main sections each with different settings and plot arcs.

I can be a cranky personality to be sure, but Neal’s frustration and rage at the modern American Idiocracy was so itellectually brutal that I can tell that he, like a lot of people, definitely needs a hug. Remember back when I figuratively kick the State of Indiana in their collective testicles for being disgusting hypocrites? (Any Hoosier reading this knows what I mean and that I’m obviously not talking about them and other people who possess sufficient literacy to actually read the Bible.) Ya, well, Neal goes on a similar rampage against his heartland boyhood home (Iowa) that makes my disgust seem quite jolly.

He actually fictionalizes a Libertarian "utopia" which is called Ameristan, exactly as if the Taiban live there. Exactly. It is populated by charactures of absurd Murican batshit insanity that would be ridiculous if it were not for the fact that we’re already half way there.

Throughout this section I couldn’t help but hum to myself this little hilarious song I composed.

Well I read Mr S wrote about her.
Well I heard ole Neal put her down.
Well I hope Neal Stephenson will remember,
Ameristani man don’t need him around anyhow.

(You know the tune — go ahead, "turn it up".)

Now throw in the major symbolism of part three — the God character, El, throws down the diety, Dodge/Egdod, to a place pre-industrial Christian simpletons might imagine Hell to be like. This parallels a famous character of the Bible who is cast down by God from "Heaven". Here Neal attempts full castration of Ameristanis, for Dodge, the main character who is actually the good guy hero, is basically Satan. Alrighty then.

I will say that if there is anything that can make me sympathetic to the Ameristani view that coastal elites are tedious swine, it is reading about rich people. Ug. I’m completely with Teddy Roosevelt who said…

I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life; I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.

I wish Neal would return to writing about underdogs who prevail despite their lot in life (e.g. Snowcrash, Zodiac, etc.). Writing about a guy lucky enough to make a living in the video game world is not helping me care. The fact that he’s also a billionaire who literally succeeds Yahweh makes me even more apathetic. Is this like one of those deals where Hollywood can’t make interesting movies because of (among other reasons) Chinese pressure? Maybe Neal can’t portray the richest man in the world as a villain because that guy is a personal friend of Neal’s and/or owns the world’s largest bookstore.

Despite the problems, reading this was not at all unenjoyable. My favorite memorable thing is the word "miasma" which Stephenson uses as an oh so perfect drop in replacement for "internet". I’m totally using that from now on. Another one is "din" to describe the flood of email and notifications clamoring for your attention. Another brilliant linguistic insight: the prose subtly asks the reader to consider the semantics of the modern "Submit" button. Chapeau, Neal. Nice.

In some places I felt the futurology was a little off. For example in this passage which I otherwise agreed with and loved, "Pete lowered the phone into the sweet spot of his reading spectacles and wrestled fruitlessly with its UI, which had been terrible twenty years ago." Really? We’re going to use these crap phones for 20 more years? Ya, probably; I guess we’re cursed for a long time. Sigh.

A character refers to a place like a "digital North Korea", I guess referring to the fact that North Korea is poor and poorly lit. But if this is set in the future, that’s making a big assumption about how tenaciously that country will cling to dim backwardness. Again, could happen.

Another character had a house key. Come on now. I have digital locks on my house now. Remember, house keys are utterly obsolete. Now!

The vague futurology with respect to autonomous vehicles is probably deliberate. This on page 518.

"Anyway, the era of the awesomely huge gleaming luxury crossover SUV was coming to an end. Like Tolkien’s elves fading away and going into the west, they were dissolving into the used market as many families were downsizing their fleets in favor of ride-sharing services, and then fully autonomous vehicles that were owned by no one and everyone."

And when I read this, I was wondering about the composition of this "used market" — who wanted such obsolete tech? Whatever.

I was, however, encouraged to see (on p572) autonomous watercraft get some love — one character moves to a houseboat on a lake and, "When she was really in a hurry she could do the commute in a robot boat or robot car." Yea! I am making that happen personally!

Speaking of things I do professionally, one of the main characters is hired and given an HR category of "Weird Stuff"; I totally get it because that is exactly the department I must work in.

I was delighted when one of the tech savvy computer nerd characters does (on p457) exactly what I’ve been saying that fictional elite hackers should occasionally do for true realism: she refers to a man page! Man pages will never die!

hackers.png

All that stuff is the warm up. The real meat of the story is the tech nerd dream of uploading one’s brain into a computer and achieving immortality. For the record, I personally am not one of those tech nerds. And one of the main reasons I am not is because I’m just too aware of the problems. For me it’d be no less sensible to want to transmogrify myself into a sentient hovercraft full of eels. Nope don’t want that either, but we can all see that’s probably a foolishly unrealistic goal.

Neal is no dummy and ironically the best criticism of the book’s major premise is found right in the book. I was thinking about this exact problem right up until I read it described quite well on page 336.

Or at least [the mind-body problem] had seemed like a hot topic to some there who had never taken an introductory philosophy course. Late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century neurologists who had thought about, and done empirical research on, how the brain actually worked had tended toward the conclusion that there was no mind-body problem. The whole notion was devoid of meaning. The mind couldn’t be separated from the body. The whole nervous system, all the way down to the toes, had to be studied and understood as a whole — and you couldn’t even stop there, since the functions of that system were modulated by chemicals produced in places like the gut and transmitted through the blood. The bacteria living in your tummy — which weren’t even part of you, being completely distinct biological organisms — were effectively a part of your brain. According to these neurologists, the whole notion of scanning brains taken from severed heads had been — for lack of a better term — wrongheaded to begin with.

Nice pun there at the end, Neal, but hey, what about that? I didn’t notice this major flaw ever really getting resolved. I had to just flip a "fiction override" switch in my brain at that point and carry on with disbelief sufficiently suspended.

Although that quote only hints at philosophical problems, those are definitely troublesome too. For example the afterlife basically consists of starting anew in a brain structured like the one you had while alive, but entirely ignorant of earthly life. If your brain contains memories, why would scanning selectively omit your personal identity? And then, philosophically, what’s the point of that exercise? It is functionally a twin of you, not you. Maybe some intuitions and know-how were preserved, but memories of the old world are strangely absent. If you are not going to persist, really, why bother? You know what else is a lot like you but is not you, yet often persists after your death? Progeny. Much easier.

Ok, fine. If heaven is distinct but inspired by residual ideas and imagery lurking in people’s brains when they die, why are there not more things like special forces commandos or orcs or droids or Lego minifigs or porn stars or television sets or soft drinks or automobiles, etc. Surely that stuff is weighted into people’s neural networks just as much as the Game Of Thrones imagery which seems to dominate the afterlife’s decor. Come on, let’s be real — if the brain scan picked up anything, all inhabitants of the afterlife simulation would be in constant anguish until they could be admiring and fondling a telephone.

An even bigger problem I had is that I never quite understood exactly how this brain simulation morphed into a simulation of a space shared by many brain simulations, a different data structure created initially by the first of the simulated brains. So did the necessarily exacting reproduction of the brain spontaneously start to do double duty as a platform for hosting a very complex virtual world model? Let me tell you, those things are very different! Achieving them by chance (i.e. without explicit programming) seems very unlikely. Waving the magic wand of "quantum computing" seems pretty tepid. Might as well also throw in some string theory to tie that plot together.

One thing that seemed to go completely unexplored (but feel free to chat about it at your next philosophy club meeting — free of charge) was the question of how would people’s attitudes change about the afterlife when they were presented with a plausible system for preserving human brain processes indefinitely? It sure would rob the vague normal religion mumbo jumbo of a lot of its charm. I think it would be very hard to even pretend to care about a deceased relative’s "real" soul off in "real" heaven when you can plainly see their technology-enabled soul doing the stuff they used to do when they were alive (i.e. staring at their telephone).

The final problem I’ll mention is one that seemed a pretty serious plot defect. Even if people lost their clear memories of their personal identities when their brains were scanned and simulated, why would the "real" world maintainers of the system not want to communicate with the dead? We know they can visualize the dead "soul" activities so they must know where some of those qubits are in the computing systems. Just inject some interesting Easter eggs for the citizens of heaven to find. Eventually one character manages to do this but in a really oblique overly complex way. Why not just spell something out on the ground with rocks and see if some of the Heavenites remember how to read?

And then there was the end section which was a grand D&D-style quest with lots of sword fighting and mana magic. Uh huh. I don’t mind that genre, so fine. While I was reading that I kept fondly thinking about a really good book I read that was actually quite similar but way, way better. One of my favorite novels ever in fact. Same high quality writing. Same middle ages knight fight stuff. The most epic questing ever. Cool characters (one unforgettably named "Mountain of Skulls" — how cool is that?). Superb complex intrigue. No dopey deus ex machina Hogwarts magic. And an incredible alternate universe spin on actual fascinating real history. That book was the Mongoliad, written by Neal and his pals. Damn Neal, you’re a tough act to follow! But if anyone can surpass Neal Stephenson, it is Neal Stephenson — I’ll keep giving him a chance to do that for as long as he’s willing to try.