All reviews copyright 1984-2019 Evelyn C. Leeper.
INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN CENTRAL AMERICA, CHIAPAS AND YUCATAN by John L. Stephens (illustrated by Frederick Catherwood):
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/19/2019]
INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN CENTRAL AMERICA, CHIAPAS AND YUCATAN by John L. Stephens (illustrated by Frederick Catherwood, two volumes, ISBNs 978-0-486-22404-6 and 978-0-486-22405-3) was an obvious book to read after JUNGLE OF STONE (reviewed in the 03/01/19 issue).
In Stephens's day, these ruins were known to the local inhabitants, but there were only rumors and vague hints outside of the region. "It is impossible to describe the interest with which I explored these ruins. The ground was entirely new; there were no guide- books or guides; the whole was a virgin soil. ... The beauty of the sculpture, the solemn stillness of the place, ..., the desolation of the city, and the mystery that hung over it, all created an interest higher, if possible, than I had ever felt among the ruins of the Old World."
As you can tell, Stephens manages to convey some of the "sense of wonder" he feels in seeing these ruins. At Copan, he wrote, "We sat down on the very edge of the wall, and strove in vain to penetrate the mystery by which we were surrounded. Who were the people that built this city? In the ruined cities of Egypt, even in the long-lost Petra, the stranger knows the story of the people whose vestiges are around him? America, say historians, was peopled by savages; but savages never reared these structures, savages never carved these stones. We asked the Indians who made them, and their dull answer was, 'Quien sabe?' 'who knows?'"
But Stephens goes on to speculate about what race built the cities, not quite accepting the idea that it was that same race who had no idea it was their own ancestors. I can't help but think that had Stephens known the truth, he would have said something like Carl Denham did in KING KONG (1933): "Built so long ago that the people who live there now have slipped back, forgotten the high civilization that built it." In part, this is because Stephens still seemed to believe in the "young earth"; he writes of the Pacific Ocean at one point, "The sound was grand and solemn, giving a strong impression of the immensity of those waters, which had been rolling from the creation, for more than five thousand years, unknown to civilized man." It's hard to come up with a timescale for the rise and fall of a complex civilization in the Americas that is consistent with all the events of the Bible, and of known history.
Stephens speaks of "buying" Copan for $50, but it is clear that he at most leased it. For starters, he made this transaction not with the owner of the land (the government of Guatemala), but with someone who was merely leasing the land. And the lease still had three years to run at $80 a year, so why would it be sold for less than a single year's lease? Stephens's plan was to remove some of the "idols" (as he called the pillars and other carvings and take them back to New York to form the basis of a "great national museum of American antiquities." And his justification for this? "Very soon their existence would become known and their value appreciated, and the friends of science and the arts in Europe would get possession of them. They belonged of right to us, and, though we did not know how soon we might be kicked our ourselves, I resolved that ours theu should be..." Stephens's suggestion that they might be kicked out could mean that he realized that the people of Honduras might see visitors from the United States in the same way Stephens saw Europeans, but it also reflected the political upheaval in Honduras at the time that might get all foreigners of any occupation ejected.
Stephens seems to consider the commercial value of everything he sees, though sometimes his writing permits an interpretation of irony: "At home this volcano would be a forune; with a good hotel on top, a railing round to keep children from falling in, a zigzag staircase down the sides, and a glass of iced lemonade at the bottom. Cataracts are good property with people who know how to turn them to account. Niagara and Trenton Falls pay well, and the owners of volcanoes in Central America might make money out of them by furnishing facilities to travellers."
I wrote in my review of JUNGLE OF STONE about the inaccurate drawings and descriptions that preceded Stephens and Catherwood. In this book Stephens quotes one, writing, "Huarros, the historian of Guatimala, says, 'Rancisco de Fuentes, who wrote the Chronicles of the Kingdom of Guatimala, assures us that in his time, that is, in the year 1700, the great curcus of Copan still remained entire. ... At the bases of these pyramids were figures, both male and female, of very excellent sculpture, which then retained the colours they had been enamelled with, and, what was not less remarkable, the whole of them were habited *in the Castilian costume*. ... [Also] figures of men, likewise represented in *Spanish habits*, with hose,and ruff around the neck, sword, cap, and short cloak.'" [emphasis by Stephens] Needless to say, the pre-Columbian Maya did not carve figures dressed as Spaniards.
In addition to all the writings about the ruins, Stephens writes at great length about the geography of the areas he is traveling through (he was, after all, hoping to promote a canal across the isthmus), and also about the civil war/revolution in which he found himself caught up.
To order the two volumes of Incidents Of Travel In Central America, Chiapas And Yucatan from amazon.com, click here for Volume I and here for Volume II.
THE DIAMOND AGE by Neal Stephenson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/28/2005]
Neal Stephenson's THE DIAMOND AGE was this month's science fiction discussion group selection. This was chosen because we all loved SNOW CRASH by Stephenson, but THE DIAMOND AGE was not nearly as popular. Several people did not (could not?) finish it, and of those who did, only one liked it. The main problem people had in the reading was a combination of the sheer number of new words or concepts thrown at the reader, and the oft-times purposeful copying of ornate Victorian prose. As a sample of the words, here's a list from just the first short chapter: mod parlor, aero, 'sites, yuks, theezed, phased, acoustical array, meedfeed, mediaglyphics, cine panes, racting grid, mediatron, yuvree, decapped, electrostun, Cripplers, and Hellfires. Yes, some can be decoded from context, but having to do so this frequently resulting in a very "un-smooth" reading experience. (A later Stephenson novel, CRYPTONOMICRON, is more readable, but then I found the same problems with his "Baroque Cycle" as with THE DIAMOND AGE. There is not a clear chronological progression here in Stephenson's style.)
To order The Diamond Age from amazon.com, click here.
QUIKSILVER by Neal Stephenson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/22/2007]
This is not a review, but a warning: I had bought the hardcover of Neal Stephenson's QUICKSILVER ("Volume 1 of The Baroque Cycle") (ISBN-10 0-060-59308-3, ISBN-13 978-0-060-59308-7 for the equivalent trade paperback) a while ago, but it was very big and hard to hold. So when at a library book sale I saw a copy of QUICKSILVER ("The Baroque Cycle #1") in mass-market paperback (ISBN-13 978-0-06-083316-9, ISBN-10 0-06-083316-5) that was much more compact, I picked it up. Well, the reason that it is much more compact is that it is only a third of the hardcover! The trilogy (in hardcover and trade paperback) is being released as eight separate books in mass market paperback. One bizarre side effect of this is that it will cost considerably more to buy the entire story in mass market ($63.92) than in trade paperback ($47.80). I paid only fifty cents for this abomination, and I suppose I can use it as an easy-to-carry way to start the series, but this sort of marketing is downright sleazy.
To order the complete copy of Quicksilver from amazon.com, click here.
SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/01/2016]
I had given up on SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (ISBN 978-0-062-19037-6) after about a hundred pages, because I just didn't want to slog through another 750 pages to finish the book. Then a friend recommended it, so I decided to keep going, though I did decide to skim the "hard-science" parts. (For starters, I find it difficult to picture the various structures that Stephenson is describing. They say a picture is worth a thousand words--the problem is that authors often think that a thousand words is a good substitute for a picture.) [Spoilers ahead.] SEVENEVES has been described as "Stapledonian", but in my opinion it spends too much time in the near-future and not enough in distant time to qualify. It is, however, in the current sub-genre of "Humans try to do large engineering projects in space and bad stuff happens." Now, in general, novels or movies in which everyone dies are not considered marketable. So sometimes the humans manage to overcome the problems without everyone dying and at the end are on an upswing--this would be termed success (e.g., THE MARTIAN, INTERSTELLAR). But sometimes the humans barely pull through and the results are in some sense failures (e.g. AURORA). I would put SEVENEVES in the latter category. Almost everything that is tried is either a fraud or a failure, and one is indeed reminded of Olaf Stapledon (who in LAST AND FIRST MEN has the human population of First Men drop at one point to two women and one man), as well as Kurt Vonnegut's GALAPAGOS. At least Stephenson understands the need for a certain level of genetic diversity. I did find one (possible) error early on, though not in the science: "She was forty-two years old, which made her the youngest president of the United States, edging out J.F.K. by a year." Actually, if one is measuring in whole years, she would be tied with Theodore Roosevelt, who was forty-two when he became President. Kennedy was the youngest person elected as President. (To be precise, Roosevelt was 42 years, 10 months, and 18 days when he became President; Kennedy was 43 years, 7 months, and 22 days.) While Stephenson is not specific as to when this statement is being made, internal evidence indicates it is probably the summer of her first year in office. Therefore, she would be about five months older than when she took office, so she may well have been younger than Roosevelt, but that is not the way Stephenson phrases it. Yeah, I know--picky, picky. I would have liked SEVENEVES a lot better if it had had less engineering, orbital mechanics, and physics detail. Even without expanding the other aspects, there would have been enough for a good-sized novel.
To order Seveneves from amazon.com, click here.
SNOW CRASH by Neal Stephenson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/03/2004]
Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH (ISBN 0-553-56261-4) is a favorite of mine (and it still is, in spite of the quibbles I will make in this column).
The writing is utterly enthralling. The main character is named Hiroaki Protagonist, but always called "Hiro". The second lead is nick-named "Y.T." (for "Yours Truly"). This is a hint as to the sort of word-play Stephenson goes in for. He also looks far-fetched (a.k.a. creative) similes and metaphors. For example, the first paragraph says, "The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category. . . . His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest."
It is sometimes hard to follow everything, because Stephenson also delights in acronyms. He does explain them--once. So on page 176, we find out about the Executive Branch General Operational Command (EBGOC). Then a hundred pages later, he's talking about "EBGOC" and you're desperately trying to remember what it stands for. It is a lot like real life.
There is, of course, a certain irony in that the main characters are concerned over viruses (memes) that control people, but the world they live in is already full of them--franchises for everything, including nations,etc. And Stephenson notices this, and acknowledges this (pages 190-191).
I love the discussions with the Librarian about ancient Sumer and other cultures, but I think Stephenson is wrong when (on page 229) the Deuteronomists are described as working to get the Jews to read the book instead of going to the temple (so as to avoid viruses). The problem with this is that the general theory is that the "reading the book" was formulated as a response to what to do after the Babylonian Conquest when the temple was destroyed, the people exiled, and sacrifices were no longer possible, reversing the order of Stephenson's cause and effect.
There are parts that are just sloppy writing (or copy-editing). For example, on page 50, Y. T. negotiates a $750 billion bribe to be taken to a particular jail, on page 146 Stephenson describes "street people pushing wheelbarrows piled high with dripping clots of million- and billion-dollar bills that they have raked up out of storm sewers." and on page 243 someone says that Y.T.'s skateboard probably cost $100 trillion. But on page 175, Y. T. thinks she "has great stuff to tell Hiro now. Great intel on Uncle Enzo. People would pay millions for it." Later on (pages 394 and 409) it becomes clearer than there may be two different kinds of dollars being talking about, but it still seems careless.
There are also several typos of "it's" for "its", on page 140 we find "Catonese" for "Cantonese", and on page 184 a comma where a semi-colon is called for.
However, as I said at the start, I love this book, and it is only because I have read it several times (as well as listening to the abridged audiobook) that I notice some of these things. This is highly recommended.
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/06/2011]
When does SNOW CRASH by Neal Stephenson (ISBN 0-553-56261-4) take place? It was published in 1992, but assuming it is a straightforward future setting leads to problems.
For example, Hiro's father was born in 1928, and Hiro was born in his "late middle age." If that means around 50, then Hiro was born in 1978. Hiro seems to be about 30, so that would make it 2008. L. Bob Rife was born in 1948, so he would be 60 in 2008, and Uncle Enzo would be about the same.
But Rife bought the U.S.S. Enterprise after General Jim's Defense System and Admiral Bob's Global Security were formed, and it has been drifting around for at least two years. Given a history that matched ours until 1992, there just doesn't seem enough time to privatize the military, not to mention to set up all the burbclaves and FOQNEs.
There are also complaints about how some of Y.T.'s weaponry violates Newton's Third Law of Motion, as well as other technical complaints. And then there are the objections to the racial and ethnic stereotypes, the unlikelihood of some of the organizations, and so on.
The problem, I think, is that people are trying to apply realistic rules to a satire. No one complains about ANIMAL FARM by saying that the animals in it display stereotypes. No one complains that the insect in THE METAMORPHOSIS is impossible because of the square-cube law. No one complains that the idea of visiting the worlds of classic literature in THE EYRE AFFAIR is contrary to science. (For that matter, hardly anyone complains when we have faster-than-light travel in science fiction.) It's called willing suspension of disbelief. Is the world Stephenson describes in SNOW CRASH plausible? No, not in its detail. But as a "heightening" of trends in our world to provide social commentary, it works just fine. We don't have the Enforcers and The Cops, but we do have private security companies. We don't have burbclaves but we do have gated HOAs. We don't have "You have a friend in the Family" ads for the Mafia, but we do have the Yakuza providing disaster relief in Japan. We don't have the Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates, but we do have any number of similar religious organizations.
To order Snow Crash from amazon.com, click here.
SOME REMARKS by Neal Stephenson:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/19/2013]
SOME REMARKS by Neal Stephenson (ISBN 978-0-06-202443-5) is a mixed bag of essays: some good, some incomprehensible. A must-read for Stephenson fans, though perhaps not a must-buy.
To order Some Remarks from amazon.com, click here.