Saturday, September 09, 2006

Establishing Shots

Given the vast number of Things I Am Supposed To Be Doing, multiplied by the even vaster number of Books I Should Really Read, there's absolutely no excuse whatsoever for me starting to read Cryptonomicon *again*.

But somehow it sneaked itself into my bag yesterday, and seeing as extra high security at Stansted meant that I could only take 'essential items' on to the Perpignan flight, I thought I'd better demonstrate its essentialness by actually reading it, otherwise I might have been carted off at gunpoint by sexy French army chicks for flouting the Geneva Convention, or something.

And by crikey, Cryptonomicon is a brilliant book, isn't it? Not really because of the subject matter, although I'm more than happy with anything that involves Alan Turing and encryption techniques and data havens and what have you. And certainly not because of the plot, which meanders in labyrinthine and prolix fashion for 908 pages, before Stephenson attempts to resolve it all in the final page and half, as is his wont.

Nooo, what's great about Cryptonomicon is its fantastic use of the English language. Now Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and my top mate Bruce Sterling usually all get lumped together as the founding fathers of cyberpunk, but while Gibson and Sterling are both disappointingly ham-fisted and arrhythmic in their use of English (even though they have great ideas), Stephenson is a brilliantly fluid and clever and erudite and witty writer.

And having reminded myself of just how brilliant the opening paragraph of the book proper is, I thought I might write a little post (this one) about my favourite Character Establishing Scenarios in Literature. Then I remembered that I don't have any favourite Character Establishing Scenarios in Literature, because:

a) I don't read all that much literature these days,

b) I never remember any of the literature I *have* read, and anyway most of it was all in foreign, and

c) I know that the minute I come up with a list, all of the terribly well-read people who read this blog (that's you lot) will come up with a Much Better List, causing me to plunge into a slough of shame, humiliation and self-doubt.

But I still wanted to reproduce the opening para of Cryptonomicon, because it's a fantastic Character Establishing Scenario, even if I will concede that it probably isn’t the best one available in the entire corpus of Literature ever written ever.

This is how it goes:

Let’s set the existence-of-God issue aside for a later volume, and just stipulate that in some way, self-replicating organisms came into existence on this planet and immediately began trying to get rid of each other, either by spamming their environments with rough copies of themselves, or by more direct means which hardly need to be belabored. Most of them failed, and their genetic legacy was erased from the universe forever, but a few found some way to survive and to propagate. After about three billion years of this sometimes zany, frequently tedious fugue of carnality and carnage, Godfrey Waterhouse IV was born, in Murdo, South Dakota, to Blanche, the wife of a Congregational preacher named Bunyan Waterhouse.

Now doesn't that have everything you could possibly wish for from an opening paragraph of a novel: macro-scale geekiness, a pleasing mixture of registers, references to computery things, nice phrases like 'tedious fugue of carnality', and an excellent undercurrent of silliness?

God, how I love Neal Stephenson.

Then I was going to go on to quote the opening parry of Cold Comfort Farm, as another great Character Establishing Scenario in Literature, and I was half thinking about citing the opening sentence of Great Expectations as another, only I couldn't remember either of them, and don't have the books here.

And then I got ambitious, and thought that I could challenge you to write your own Great Literary Character Establishing Scenario, which in turn led me to recall that I inadvertently wrote my own back in June, thus:

Ever since that time I was tear-gassed in Park Lane amid the burning cars, I've quite fancied myself as an urban guerrilla, a lone fugitive from justice, an off-world outlaw cruising the meatspaces and metaverses of West London armed only with a samurai sword and a copy of Elle Decoration.

But then I thought that that would be a bit too much like hard work for you, dear readers, and a bit too much like blowing my own trumpet for me.

So I didn't.

Did I?


realdoc said...

I'm reading Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy at the moment which features Daniel Waterhouse and is set during the restoration. The first volume (Quicksilver) features lots about Isaac Newton, is also labyrinthine and 900+ pages. Curiously I found it in the science fiction section of Waterstones. I suppose it is a fiction about scientists but I wouldn't say it was a scifi book at all.
Anyway back to my point, in Quicksilver one of the characters has written a book called Cryptonomicon so I wonder if this counts as a book establishing book.
I haven't read Cryptonomicon but if it's about codes and features Alan Turing I'm off to the bookshop.

patroclus said...

Yes, Waterstone's insists on classifying Neal Stephenson as sci-fi, which is just wrong. Quicksilver is ace, or at least the half of it I read was, and it's now sitting forlornly by my bed here in France waiting for me to read the other half, while The Confusion is serving as a handy doorstop back in London. I haven't done anything productive with The System of the World at all. Cryptonomicon, meanwhile, remains the Greatest Novel of All Time in my humble opinion, although Wyndham marked it down precisely because it's (mainly) about codes and features Alan Turing.

The books in the Baroque Trilogy are all prequels in that they feature the forebears (Waterhouses and Shaftoes) of the characters in Cryptonomicon, which is itself set in two different time periods - probably best to see the labyrinthine Neal Stephenson Wiki for notes, dissections and tangents.

patroclus said...

Although if sci-fi is indeed 'fiction about science', well, that would be quite right actually. Sorry about that, Waterstone's - as you were.

james henry said...

Ah but there are definite SF elements to both Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Trilogy (characters apparently over three hundred years old, giant lizards, imaginary countries, magic gold) that made it, as we call this sort of thing in the bookselling world, 'A Bugger To Shelve'.

And I want you to get on with your anti-chicklit novel about being tear-gassed in Park Lane. Once you've sorted out the internet.

patroclus said...

Well, sorting out the internet could take some time - at least long enough for Waterstone's to create an 'anti-chicklit' section especially for my mythical novel, which will have no plot, no sex and lots of really long words.

Bestseller list ahoy, then.

I thought the giant lizard was real - like a komodo dragon? Although I think I saw some of those in Mochima, actually, and they weren't *that* giant. And I'm quite small. So it probably wasn't the same thing at all.

james henry said...

Oh, it could be actually - maybe it's just on the edge of being mythical, which would take it into cryptozoology. Possibly I was overthinking it...

patroclus said...

*notes the word 'cryptozoology' for use in mythical anti-chicklit novel*

cello said...

Damn you patroclus. You know some of us can't resist a challenge...

"Tightly-laced gardening boots, stout corsetry and stern principles had always kept cello physically restrained. But in her head she hid floaty clouds of gaudy gauziness, whispers of vanilla, kisses of petals and ecstasies of violins. This, however, was not her only secret..."

Molly Bloom said...

I am doing this out of character and in my own thoughts...

Oh God, where does one character begin and the other end?

The laughing lights above her, her thoughts in the darting, whizzing place she called home of the heart. She looked up to the sky and wished only to be in that place forever, the birdwing flight of it, so beautiful...

patroclus said...

Excellent work cello and Molly, although I am wondering a bit now about cello's other secret. Is it anything to do with David Tennant?

Oo, this is like a splendid parlour game. Everyone sits round a dinner table (in Islington, probably) and writes a Character Establishing Paragraph about themself, then someone reads them all out and people have to guess who's who.

Hmph, but that's no good when I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere in the south of France with not even a broadband connection to relieve the monotony of being Isolated from the Hive Mind.

I have just had a very nice pain au chocolat, though, so it's not all bad.

the whales said...

The samurai sword give you away, Patroclus. Aren't you Hiro Protagonist really?

I'm going to the character establishing paragraph too. As soon as i've finished daydreaming about something else.

the whales said...

ps - i worked in a bookshop for a while years ago. I always thought the sci-fi section would be better labelled 'Novels of Ideas'.

patroclus said...

Aren't we all Hiro Protagonist really, Whales?

Apart from that Girl With A One-Track Mind. She probably isn't.

Very much looking forward to your Character Establishing Paragraph, and also if someone knows a proper (ideally Greek) word to describe such a paragraph, I would be very happy to hear it.

Spinsterella said...

Hello P - I loved your CEP.

If I picked up a novel with that as its opening paragraph I'd certainly read on.

But that Neal Stephenson one has given me a very sore head..

patroclus said...

Thanks Spin - the trouble is I have no idea how it would continue. Unless I just assembled a novel from bits of this blog (and its comments) cobbled together by some random book-of-the-blog generator software.

...ooh, there's an idea! Now all I have to do is hack into Microsoft's 'Summarise' (or more likely 'Summarize') feature, change its algorithms, run it across this blog, and hey presto - 900 pages of fractal Stephensonesque meanderings with some bits about whipped chocolate kittens and fancy underwear thrown in to appease the chicklit brigade. Woo! That'll be one in the eye for Rudy Rucker's 'metanovel'.

*goes to lie down*

wv: tozepoy - and look, Blogger's word verification algorithm has supplied me with a marvellous title! All hail thee, random generator software!

*goes to lie down again*

Lorna said...

The Victorians refered to Sci-Fi as 'Speculative Fiction', which is possibly a better categorisation. It's much less restrictive and more inclusive, anyway. Good old Victorians.

I wrote about a particularly bizarre speculative novel for the PhD, which a sort pre-Darwin version of The Palent of the Apes, set in the South Pacific. Odd, very odd. No CEPs, sadly, although I'd be very tempted to reconstruct one. "The taxdermist eyed the surrounding apes warily: would they realise he was no monkey himself, but rather a man dressed in the skin of a mandrill?" etc etc.

entropy said...

I still remember a GCSE English text book that posited if you could take the science out of the fiction (real or speculative science) and leave the story unscathed then it was not really *science* fiction.

It had a scary story about a grey squishy alien ball (Ruul?) collecting specimens of a specfic mass. Ring any bells with anyone?

Wyndham said...

I can never remember whether you have read Cryptonomicon or not - you've always seemed to be a bit vague about it, or maybe you were talking about another Stephenson, so thanks for finally clearing that up once and for all. Strangely enough, I keep thinking I should read Quicksilver - it winks at me everytime I go into Waterstones. Poissibly because Quicksilver was always one of my favourite characters from Marvel Comics with his double forelock and nifty sky blue costume decoarated with a lightning motif. It's as good a reason as any to read it, I guess. Plus, Crypto etc was very good indeed. I'll take a long running jump at it by reading some more very thin books.

patroclus said...

Ooh, you should really read Quicksilver, W. It's fantastic, and Alan Turing isn't in it. I have no explanation for why I've never managed to get further than halfway through, apart from a suspicion that I might be suffering from adult ADHD. I've definitely read Cryptonomicon, though, at least twice. I just can't remember anything at all about the plot.

Lorna: what was it called? I suppose that these days, Speculative Fiction would be stuff like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Even though it pretends not to be fiction. Which reminds me, I've got a particularly foolish book downstairs that tries to claim a small chipped eggcup is the Holy Grail. Might dig that one out again.

extemporanea said...

Hah! Comrade! I am a hopeless Neal Stephenson fangirl, but I also haven't been able to get more than a few chapters into Quicksilver, mostly because all the in-jokes about historical scientists were going right over my head. I feel better now.

Tamburlaine said...

Managed to get through "Quicksilver" and "The Confusion", but am getting very bogged down with "The System of the World", which I've started reading twice. Perhaps I need to go back to Egypt so that I can finish it.

I lent "Snow Crash" out, and there's now little chance of getting it back before Christmas, so I'm tempted to buy another copy so I can read it again. Also have read "Cryptonomicon": because of its several-stranded plot line, I found it uneven going, with Randy Waterhouse's plot strand being the least interesting.

The other Stephenson I've read is "Cobweb", which was great fun.