Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cryptonomicon Breakdown

It's been a little while since I finished reading Cryptonomicon and about time I put down some thoughts on it here. It's a big and long book. I'll try to keep this short. And anyone interested can borrow this book from me at any time, unless someone else already is. I may mail it to you along with cookies if you ask nicely.

1. Science fiction novels of this sort might never be accepted by academic, "literary" folk. Not necessarily for reasons like those B. R. Myers suggests, and not just because such novels inspire political opinions far removed from those typical in academia. I really believe academics would look past that because Stephenson is an author with something to say and who is very influential with the drivers of the modern world (I'm not talking about "where the rubber hits the road", nor those navigating the route, I'm talking about the people mashing the gas and brakes, choosing the immediate direction through the tidy abstraction of the steering wheel). This particular novel drives them away by nakedly labeling academics as ninnies and frauds, yapping at the driver about the evils of internal combustion as he carries them to their destination. I hoped that an early confrontation between the hacker protagonist and some so-portrayed academics could serve more as a challenge to academia instead of a dismissal of it. Unfortunately Stephenson kept right on at the antagonism, using...

2. The story of Randy's love life. The whole thing makes no sense (Amy's knowledge of Randy's relationship history before chasing him to California is implausible, and that he's so impressed with her appearance at the airport, that he thinks her eagerness to do something for him is new after she's already chased him across the ocean to California is absurd) except as an allegory for the question of the hacker's role in society. The allegory here says that the hacker, when involved with academics, is out-of-place, unable to act out his true nature. When aligned with cutting-edge business he self-actualizes. That only in the pursuit of modern progress can the hacker truly be.

3. In the middle of the novel Stephenson portrays downtown Los Altos as the Feds break into the headquarters of a Valley tech company. I've been to Los Altos, and I've lived in Teh Valley. It ain't like that. Second Amendment-inspired libertarian techies don't parade around the streets with rifles, they mostly stay at home and post on Slashdot (or at most hang "Google Ron Paul" signs on highway overpasses at night). Government investigations of tech companies don't bring out crowds of dueling protesters and news reporters; Valley companies break the law so often and get caught at least often enough that neither event really registers. In fact, I don't think I ever saw that many people outside at once for any reason in Teh Valley, except on the freeways. The importance of physical and temporal concurrency is broken down by the increasing presence of the Internet in people's lives, and it's the techies (Teh Valley's defining population) that flock first from the streets to virtual worlds, leaving the emptiness and blandness of physical life (where the rubber hits the road) in Teh Valley.

4. The Enoch Root angle. Root apparently appears in other novels of the cycle during historical turning points, pushing basically in the direction of progress. Because of where he puts Root in this novel, set in the 90s, it's clear that Neal Stephenson believes that the universal availability of strong cryptography is vital for the narrative of perpetual progress to continue (maybe it's even safe to say he thinks it's a good thing). Cryptography allows people to keep secrets; crypto proponents, when explaining the importnance of this, often use the example of people trying to hide communications from repressive governments. But it's not just crypto that Enoch Root and all the "good" chracters of Cryptonomicon stand for. They're also establishing a new, fully-electronic, gold-backed, non-governmental currency. And the corporation they've formed to rule this new digital age is the very picture of the Valley tech company. It dodges taxes, hides information from its shareholders and the public at large, works towards its founders' sense of goodness. It is Google and Amazon (Amazon is in the real world the maker of markets, flattener of the long-tail), plus a physical infrastructure team, plus a small military wing. The new government of corporate feudalism, ruled by perfect competition. So Stephenson is making perhaps a highly anti-democratic statement.

Anti-democratic statements aren't necessarily wrong, of course. People frequently choose poorly for themselves. I frequently kick around the idea of rule by randomly-selected representatives, not so much because I think it's plausible, but because I think it highlights some of the flaws of our current republics and the ideas behind them, ideas that we so often take faithfully. The Epiphyte(2) Corporation, rulers of the post-end-of-Cryptonomicon world, enforce with the harshest intergalactic laws available (the laws of Really Tough Math) that collection of tax, other than bandwidth fees, is practically impossible, that people and governments can't spy en masse (though a few clever people can find information without breaking the codes), that their leaders and the leaders of their sibling tech companies will forever be able to hide from the prying eyes of democracy. They're dictators of their sector; happily, benevolent ones for now. As for later? There will be struggles and conflicts.

5. Conflict is a theme that runs through every Stephenson novel that I've read. That's a pretty vague theme, you might say. Well, how about this: they've all ended in the middle of violent struggle. The corporate wars and virtual swordfights of Snow Crash, global factional fighting in The Diamond Age, small-scale jungle combat in Cryptonomicon. Cryptonomicon's story of World War II, its central thesis made explicit in Enoch Root and Randy's conversations in jail, is the clearest statement that Stephenson basically believes in conflict. He believes that the right side (the progressive side) will eventually win if there is conflict. That without conflict societies lose their sense of what they believe in the first place and can't progress. Whether or not you believe that what I'm calling progress here is good, this is something that rings true to me: in a world of competitive civilizations, the progressive ones wipe out the others. We always worry that they (we) may wipe out themselves, too, just for the sake of completeness (ha, not really, actually just because we know no other way, or because there's still enough inequity and thus conflict to keep us fighting and thus progressing). This is a subject that I've got to do some reading on, because I'm sure Great Books have been written on the subject.

6. Enoch Root being an invincible magic man is, in my humble opinion, kind of lame. It might even undermine the theory of progress in conflict: if an invincible magic man is necessary to protect heroes and tilt conflicts, maybe conflict isn't inherently so directed as it's made out to be (one might also argue that in all of Stephenson's conflicts the good guys were going to win anyway, and some of the either implausible or supernatural stuff that happened was just there to give the Hiros (or Randys-and-Americas, as they may be) the happy endings they deserved). Root is, however, a Perl hacker, and has a cool email address, which redeems him.

Sorry, as usual, that this has run longer than I hoped, and that I thus don't have time to edit it tonight. And also that it basically makes no sense without reading the book. So you should read it! If you care about this kind of stuff.


Danielle in Iowa said...

I haven't read that particular Stephenson fare, but I always plan to! Random factoids - Stephenson spent his early childhood in C-U and then moved to Ames.

And I wish I could remember where I read this, but it was a commentary on the idea of post-partisanship in politics and how conflict a is necessary evil, but since I can't remember where that was from, that is a pretty useless comment.

Danielle in Iowa said...

Here we go: