31 January 2006

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

Going into this I have to admit that I am 100% hooked on Neal Stephenson. I think he's a bit younger than me and for that I'm thankful, for he may be around to write more books for a long time.

Snow Crash is far from his latest, but it's his latest for me. I've read a few of his others: Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. These are all excellent, as far as I am concerned. And so was Snow Crash, even if I may be so bold as to say that I can see the progress Mr. Stephenson has made since 1992 when he wrote this novel.

For a pretty good summary of Neal Stephenson's life and works so far, see Wikipedia.

As for Snow Crash, I'm glad to be an amateur critic. A professional wouldn't be able to take the time to read a 13-year-old book and then write about it in his column, he'd be too busy reading the latest stuff and forming opinions about it. But for me there are no such restrictions; as far as I know my readers are few (if any) and if they have come here to keep up on the latest trends in literature they are already sorely disappointed.

This was one of the most entertaining books I've ever read. Its vision of the near future (very near now, 13 years later) is provocative yet humorous enough to avoid extreme grimness.

Its protagonist, Hiro Protagonist (good heavens), is a hacker living in California in some undisclosed future year. He becomes aware that there is a very serious threat to both the "metaverse" and the real world from a virus called "Snow Crash," a reference to a blanked-out computer screen showing only what (in the old days of broadcast TV) used to be known as "snow."

In this whirlwind story he befriends a 15-year-old skateboard "Kourier" named YT, a street-wise young girl with an arsenal of high-tech weapons that she uses in pursuit of her profession -- which is basically delivering messages and packages by "pooning" vehicles and being towed at high speed through the maniacal jungle that California has become.

Other important characters include Uncle Enzo, head of the MAFIA; L. Bob Rife, televangelist and corporate emperor; Raven, an Aleut with a motorcycle, glass-tipped spears, and a nuclear warhead; Ky Nguyen, a bionically enhanced veteran of Vietnam; Da5id, friend and wealthy hacker who is injured by Snow Crash (it can crash both computers and programmers, as the latter have brains that have come to terms with digital language); and Juanita, Da5id's ex-wife, an object of Hiro's admiration and would-be affection, and religious mystic.

Did I use the word "whirlwind" already? Yes, I did. It was inevitable.

The story leads Hiro on a crazy chase, trying to run down and destroy L. Bob Rife and the evil virus that he's about to unleash on both the real and virtual worlds. Action takes place both in the "metaverse" (sort of a graphically-enhanced super-realistic Internet where people are represented by "Avatars," and interact with others according to how the metaverse code is written. NB: Hiro P. is one of the coders of the metaverse, an advantage not to be overlooked.) and in reality -- although the question is begged: which world is less real?

There is sword-fighting, love-making, motorcycle riding, and lots of heavy speculation about the significance of Sumerian myth and stories from the Old Testament as they might pertain to the present day. Hiro comes to the conclusion that the myth of Babel is really a story of salvation, when humans were freed from bondage to a type of machine language control that is never completely suppressed. It comes out at times in history as glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, as in the Pentecost, and Southern tent-revival meetings. Snow Crash is a virus written in this very old and powerful language, and it threatens to enslave the world, or at least California, to the whims of L. Bob Rife.

If you like computers and have ever thought about any of this stuff, read this book. If not, read it anyway. Stephenson is very habit-forming. His later stuff is nothing less than fascinating and I regret that I did not begin this project until I had read the abovementioned books. He is obviously very well-versed in all manner of history, and has given a lot of thought to the progress of humanity through the ages.

Thanks to William Lychack

My heartfelt thanks to Mr. William Lychack (author of The Wasp Eater, about which I wrote some inadequate words last year) for his very nice letter. He didn't even mention that I called him "John" in the title of that post. Please excuse the errors of the elderly, sir.

I am very gratified that what I wrote was pleasing to you, Mr. Lychack. Your book held me in its spell when I read it, and for that experience thanks are hard to express. When I find a book with characters that come alive in that way, that takes me into its atmosphere so completely and makes me care about what happens in its pages -- well, that is what I'm looking for when I read. The end of such a book always leaves me a little sad that I have to leave that paper world and search for another.

Furthermore I can't tell you how pleased I was that you actually read this little blog -- having been read by a "real writer" has gone irrevocably to my head and I shall be impossible to live with henceforth.

Please give us more, Mr. Lychack. And thank you, again.


09 January 2006

Therapy, by Jonathan Kellerman

The Alex Delaware series by Jonathan Kellerman has long been one of my favorites. Therapy, (2004) is a recent addition to the series.

Obviously I've missed one or two before this novel, as Alex Delaware is no longer with his lady of many adventures, Robin, the guitar-maker. Robin does appear briefly in the role of "ex," however, as does the bulldog, and the indispensable Milo Sturgis is still prominent in this story. Delaware's new lady, Allison Gwynn, is an interesting replacement. She is a teacher, a hospice volunteer, and a psychotherapist.

Alex Delaware is a child psychologist that over the years has formed a working relationship with the LAPD. Milo Sturgis is his good friend, and a homicide detective with the force. Together they become involved in the mysterious murder of two young people found in a parked car in the driveway of an uninhabited house.

The mystery is as good as any of the others that I remember. And so is the psychology. Another important character in this book is "Dr. Mary Lou Koppel," a psychotherapist who has a popular radio call-in show. Koppel once treated the young man who was found murdered in the car. The identity of the young woman found with him remains a mystery until much later in the book.

There's a tremendous amount of intrigue and plot-twisting in this thoroughly enjoyable book, and the resolution of "whodunit" is quite satisfying. Even more skillfully done, however, is the portrayal of all the characters. The relationship between Delaware and Sturgis is the foundation of all these stories, and here it is continued and well utilized. There are many psychologists involved, and a lot of "shop talk" that sounds very authentic to my ears. (I work in the mental health treatment industry, although I am not a therapist, I'm a computer geek.)

Delaware and Sturgis are involved in a complicated plot that takes us as far away as South Africa and Rwanda. They encounter some really surprising characters, and uncover very high-level corruption. I love stuff like this, and used to read Robert Ludlum just because of these type of plot twists. I finally gave up on Robert, though. He just wrote too much for me, I guess, and I couldn't keep up.

Jonathan Kellerman has never disappointed me in the past, and his record is perfect with this novel as far as I am concerned.