Retroactive destruction

There are some novels that are truly magnificent, that remain with you for years and at times influence who you are. Most authors, having written such novels, are wise enough to leave their works alone and move on to something else. A few authors will embark on writing a sequel.

A few sequels match or even excel their first book (Vernor Vinge’s novels are the classic example). Most sequels are merely good, or merely bad. However, there is a special breed of sequels that are so awfully, soul-destroying terrible that not only do they waste your time and money, but they manage to retroactively poison your appreciation of the first novel.

It’s as if they reach back in time to when your read the first novel and infect all the happy memories that you associated it with. Previously, I’d only heard of one such set of sequels that were so bad that I’d be told never to read them (the Endymion books, in case you were wondering). Today, I was unfortunate enough to read the sequel to ‘Against The Fall Of Night’ (aka ‘The City And The Stars’) by Arthur C Clarke, called ‘Beyond The Fall Of Night‘.

Clarke didn’t actually write ‘Beyond…’; instead, he farmed out the job to Greg Benford, who is otherwise a very competent author. For some inexplicable reason, Benford managed to botch it up so badly that the sequel is entirely pointless, and as an added bonus, it practically defecates on the the beautiful universe and characters that Clarke built up in his first novel. It’s that bad. And I wish that I’d never read it.

Donnie Darko

I saw Donnie Darko on Saturday; it’s a teen/SF/thriller/dark comedy movie, and not necessarily in that order. I thought it was very entertaining – there were some great lines in the school scenes, the music and direction was well done and overall the acting was good.

It’s interesting how Donnie Darko turned out. Usually there’s a fairly good delination between films that make sense, and films that don’t make sense. I have no problem with films that don’t make sense, as long as they at least implicitly admit it (e.g. XXX); and of course I can’t complain about films that do make sense, even if you have to think about them for a while (e.g. Memento).

Donnie Darko falls in the middle; it doesn’t have any huge, gaping plot holes which leave you cursing the writers, but it has more than its fair share of ambiguities and problems which defy giving the film’s plot any less than (say) two or three rock solid interpretations. As it turns out, the creators of Donnie Darko didn’t have a single interpretation of the plot either, which they admitted, so that isn’t so bad.

But anyway – it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s just been released in the UK, mostly to arts cinemas, and you can get it on the DVD in the US.

Spiritng Neal Stephenson Away

Yesterday was a busy day for me; it began with meeting a friend from London, and then a talk by the ever-elusive Neal Stephenson. We progressed on to a spot of Laserquest, had dinner, and finished with watching ‘Spirited Away’. Since there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I’m making this a ‘massive’ entry.

Meeting up with Lal (the aforementioned London friend) went quite well until we were ensnared by the siren call of Waterstones. Lal, bedazzled by their 3 for 2 offers, proceeded to buy Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, both by Neal Stephenson, in addition to the copy of Cryptonomicon that he’d brought with him. I volunteered to buy the books for him in case there was a student discount, but apparently Waterstones have stopped doing that sort of thing (probably because of people like me).

A hundred metres further down the road, we ducked into Galloway and Porter, my favourite seconds bookstore. Galloway and Porter has an almost universal effect on heavy readers of any genre; they’ll walk in, and exclaim that this didn’t look like a second-hand bookstore, because everything was in good condition. Then they’ll find several books that they’ve bought within the last year being sold significantly cheaper than what they paid. Once that stage has passed, they’ll proceed to a Terminator-like state, they methodically scan the titles of every single book present to see if they are worth buying for �1 or �2 – this usually requires quite a bit of mental rejigging, since you’re used to paying at least �6 for a book. In book calculus, does this mean that a book one-third the quality of a book you would buy for �6 be worth paying �2 for, or is book quality perhaps a logarithmic scale? Such questions keep the best thinkers of Cambridge awake at nights…

After we left Galloway and Porter, Lal dropped his bags off in my room, and we went out to meet Rich, who’d be joining us for the Neal Stephenson lecture. We found Rich on the Trinity backs (the ‘back’ of Trinity College, next to the river, also confusingly called the ‘backs’) and went to the lecture.

Now, Stephenson’s lecture was the second of a weekly six-part lecture series, and the first lecture was by George Dyson, which I wrote about earlier. I think only about ten students turned up to that talk, meaning that we were outnumbered by the dozen or so fellows present. I assumed that this would be the same for Stephenson’s lecture – granted, Stephenson is a world-famous bestselling science fiction author, but Trinity had done (perhaps deliberately) such a poor job of publicising the talks that I felt it wouldn’t make any difference.

I was wrong – someone on the Cambridge University Science Fiction Society (of which I am not a member) had posted a note about Stephenson’s talk to their mailing list. As a result, the place was full by the time we got there. Not wanting to sit at the back of the room, we grabbed a few chairs and proceeded right to the front, along with a few glasses of wine for good measure.

Stephenson was looking particularly (and some might say, unusually) respectable, what with the nice suit and the neatly tied ponytail. When the room had become sufficiently packed, the lecture series organiser introduced Stephenson’s talk, on ‘Newton/Leibniz’ and Stephenson warned us about the length and esoteric nature of his lecture. If we wanted to leave, we were told, he wouldn’t be offended.

Neal Stephenson looking respectable after the lecture

I didn’t take notes for the lecture, so I won’t be able to go into detail about its content.

Stephenson started off by giving us a quick overview of the Newton/Leibniz controversy; these two people developed calculus seemingly independently in the 17th century, and sparked off a huge argument about who developed it first. The short answer is that Newton was first, and the long answer would include how Leibniz also contributed much to our use of calculus today, including the integral and differential notation.

But that’s not what Stephenson wanted to talk about – that story has been dealt with by many scientific historians. Instead, he took us on a typically Stephenson-like meandering of thoughts and facts relating to why this argument developed in the first place, what the historical context was, and the personalities of Newton and Leibniz.

As I said, I’m not prepared to go into detail because I’d inevitably make a dreadful hash of it. Suffice to say that Stephenson had done his homework, plus that of many others, and that if I could find any fault with his lecture, it was that he spent perhaps a little too much time reading directly from 17th century texts.

If you’re familiar with Stephenson’s writing, you’d expect his lecture to have some wonderful and bizarre tangents in them that defied all imagination. You wouldn’t be disappointed. For several minutes he talked about how some scholar (John Wilkins) tried to create a new language using only a few thousand words that he deemed essential; he placed these words into a matrix, and people would refer to them by their co-ordinates within the matrix. In the course of creating this language (and the book about it) he had to compose the world’s most comprehensive list of organisms at that time.

This posed a problem; he was implicitly casting doubt on the veracity of Noah’s Ark by saying that there were so many animals in the world, and this was not a good idea at all in the religious climate of the time. So Wilkins decided to go and explain exactly how, with the use of diagrams, all of these animals would fit into Noah’s Ark. Wilkins listed a number of tricks he could have used to do this, namely the ‘six cubits equals one cubit’ trick, and the ‘all animals were vegetarians before the Ark’ trick, and then delcared that he didn’t want to use any of them.

It appeared that Wilkins succeeded, although he did have to fit about 1800 sheep into the Ark as food for all the carnivores.

Naturally, I completely forget why Stephenson got onto this, although there’s a strong possibility that a good explanation simply does not exist – you just can’t be sure with Stephenson. Another of his short tangents involved comparing the Jedi Knights to the Knights Templar, which I think you’ll agree is much more straightforward.

Anyway, the rest of the lecture swirled around alchemy, myths of secret societies, universal libraries, theories of the nature of the universe, monads, and other such things. Thus it is not surprising that Stephenson overran his alloted time by an impressive 30 minutes. Due to this, there were only two questions asked. The first was whether Stephenson considered himself a dualist or a materialist; Stephenson replied saying that much of the materialist argument is based on the brain being a Turing machine, which he is not so sure about, and so he’s a skeptic.

The second question, asked by myself, addressed what I believed to be the burning issue of the night:

“Can you tell us about your next book?” I said. After the room burst into laughter, I added, in an effort to appear on-topic, “Is it related to what you’ve been talking about this evening?”

I already knew a little about his next book, but it’s always fun asking. Stephenson told us that it would be set in the 17th century, which was a great time because it had all these mathematical and cryptographical shenanigans going on (which was the subject of his lecture), plus it also had real life pirates, plenty of swashbuckling, and swordfights galore. What more could you ask for? The book will also visit people such as Newton, Leibniz, the Royal Society in London, and I imagine the royal intrigue going on at the time.

The lecture organiser helpfully added that the book would be called ‘Quicksilver’. Stephenson then added that his publicist would have killed him for not mentioning the name of the book, and that it was coming out in August.

Most people left after that and maybe a dozen people hovered around the front of the room evidently wanting to talk to Stephenson, probably for book signings – but none of them wanting to be first. I didn’t really want to go first, because I thought I might talk to him for a while and it wasn’t fair to keep other people waiting. However, this didn’t seem to work so after Stephenson told the President of the Science Fiction Society that he, alas, could not present a talk to them because he was leaving tomorrow, Lal and I had a brief chat with him about his website, which screams ‘Don’t talk to me’ to all visitors, and his time in Europe visiting Versailles.

“Was that for research?” asked Lal.

“Yeah, for ‘research’,” replied Stephenson, with audible quotation marks, and then went on to talk about how authors get to have lots of fun researching things.

There was a bit of a chat about doing publicity for new books, and I executed a shameful segue by saying, “Well, if you want to get back into practice for signing books, why not start now?” as I whipped out my copy of Cryptonomicon. He agreed, in good grace, and wrote a little message at the front:

“To Adrian. Thank you for staying awake through my talk, Neal S.”

Lal also had his three books signed, although he didn’t get a message. We later theorised that this was probably because he didn’t manage to stay awake through the talk.

I did ask Stephenson whether he was doing anything that night, in an unlikely effort to get him to come out with us, but unfortunately he suspected that plans had already been made for him by Trinity College; undoubtedly true, although we berated ourselves afterwards for not having pretended to be the ‘Trinity College Welcoming Committee’ and kidnapping him.

I’m going to skip over Laserquest now, since this account has already gotten too long and you probably don’t want to hear about it anyway. Neither will I talk about dinner, which we had at a nice Italian restaurant with another of my friends, Zizhen; instead I’m going to talk about the film ‘Spirited Away’ that we saw afterwards.

Spirited Away‘ is Japan’s most successful film ever, and could be superficially described as a children’s anime fantasy. Its producer, Hayao Miyazaki, commands such respect among the Japanese that they look forward to his new films with the same kind of expectation (if not more) that we have for the next Harry Potter book.

You might think, as a friend of mine confessed, that you don’t want to watch a cartoon movie. Maybe you really don’t. But if you miss ‘Spirited Away’, which should be released in the UK next year, you’ll be missing one of the most magnificent and wonderful films ever made. It has meticulously crafted and beautiful artwork along with a sensitive score; and of course, the story is enchanting; it’s about a young girl who has to save her parents and make her way in a strange and fantastic world.

What I loved about Spirited Away was the way in which they really utilised the power of animation. Several scenes were literally breathtaking, and unlike the identical Disney movies we’ve had in recent years, Miyazaki didn’t simply use animals – he created all sorts of strange creatures that morphed and shapeshifted.

When I left the cinema (actually, it was a college film society, but anyway) I saw that everyone was smiling. It was one of those movies that really delighted you; it wasn’t what I’d simply call a feel-good movie, and it was darker than most Disney movies, although certainly not as dark as Miyazaki’s other great work, ‘Princess Mononoke‘. The story and setting was much more adventurous than most movies these days as well, with a rich universe that had some excellent concepts that progress far further than the ‘dwarfs and elves’ that seem to characterise most other fantasy movies.

I intend to buy the score of the movie, and also the DVD when it is released – it’s just one of those movies that I really have to own.

And that’s about it for me, I’m not going to write any more now since I have to leave for the lab and do some programming. I might add some stuff later though.

Dead Air

I just finished reading Iain Banks’ new (non-SF) novel Dead Air. I finished it in less than 24 hours; it’s one of those books that reads very easily, unlike most of his other novels.

Dead Air was certainly entertaining enough and I never became bored, but as many others have noted, it doesn’t have much of a plot and nothing really starts happening until the very end. I’m feeling insufficiently moved by the book to say that if you haven’t bought it already, you might as well wait until the paperback is released. Compared to his other more powerful novels such as The Player of Games or Use of Weapons, Dead Air feels much lighter and inconsequential – entertaining, but nothing beyond that.

Fast Times at Fairmont High

Ack! Vernor Vinge has done it again! His Hugo award-winning novella Fast Times at Fairmont High is not merely an excellent story (what else would you expect from the Vingester?) but it throws out some wonderful ideas about the future of entertainment and the singularity.

The quality of SF writing has increased drastically recently, in my opinion, but I don’t think that the generation of truly new ideas is any faster than it ever was before. Although it’s not the central point of Vinge’s novella, his idea that entertainment companies will merely provide the ‘seeds’ for movie properties and let everyone else create the content and be actors is not something that I’ve heard before – and certainly not articulated as well as he puts it.

I was lucky enough to get Fast Times for free while it was still a Hugo nominee – now you have to pay to download it – but it’s definitely worth reading. Alternatively, you could wait for it to come out in one of the Dozois SF collections later on this year – I can’t see how it could be excluded (except for silly legal reasons).

Princess Bride

Just finished reading The Princess Bride. What a wonderful book! Extremely funny, romantic, adventurous, dashing, with enough sorrow and cynicism to balance it out. I don’t think I’ve read a fantasy story like it anywhere else. It makes me wonder whether this type of story can be adapted for alternate reality games/mmoes. I suspect that it would be difficult, but it’d also be very very fun.

Into the Woods

Saw a truly wonderful musical at Oxford called Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. The first half is a medley of various fairy tale characters including Jack and Beanstalk, Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella, brought all together by a quest by the baker and his wife. It’s a traditional musical first half with fun songs and has plenty of inside jokes that adults will appreciate.

The second half is far darker and more realistic (well, as realistic as you can get in a musical) with characters being killed and strife all over the place. Although the moral of the story is layered on a little thick at times, it’s still a great change from most lighthearted musicals you see these days. Plus, the songs are still great. I just ordered a used CD of the songs from Amazon (my first experience with ordering used goods from them). Anyone here seen the musical before?

The Years of Rice and Salt

Finished The Years of Rice and Salt. As usual, it’s up to Kim Stanley Robinson’s high standards. I’m not going to review the book here, as Salon has already got an excellent review. What I want to do is to talk about my impressions of the book.

Firstly, it’s not for everyone, and it is something of a departure from KSR’s usual SF-ish novels, at least from a superficial viewpoint. There are parts of the novel which seem a little neglected or even unbelievable (e.g. it really would not have been possible for the black death to have wiped out 99% of Europe, anthrax or no anthrax). And KSR still has his usual vice of utopianism (though we do love him for it) which shows itself in the last few chapters and bogs the novel down in long, dense political discussions which can get frankly boring.

Now that I’ve summarised pretty much everything that I didn’t like about the book, I hope you realise that if that’s all that was wrong, the rest must be pretty damn good. It is. KSR is at his best writing short stories and looking at the development of characters in changing circumstances, and this is what the novel is all about. Some readers will find the concept of reincarnating main characters to be unacceptably foreign, but I put this down to an lack of familiarity with non-western literature. I read one review which said, “This is nothing like a Turtledove novel!” (another alternate history writer). Well, of course not! If it was, what would be the point of writing it?

KSR makes his books very accessible; while he doesn’t shy away from using whatever language he wants to express himself, he doesn’t use long words just to show off his vocabulary. This is a typical KSR trait, and readers of his work will spot a whole load of his other (good) characteristics.

Anyway, I recommend that you read the Salon review to find out what the novel is about, and if you find it even mildly intriguing, go and buy the book. You’ll learn a hell of a lot about Islamic, Indian and Chinese culture, and you’ll have a great time reading it.