I was immediately disappointed to see the author(s) "Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland." Usually when a successful author starts taking on a co-author, it means he is retiring and the quality goes down substantially (see the farce Griffin's successor made of his thriller series in my post "New Town Woes" slightly over a year ago; Tom Clancy's successor had the same problem). Female authors (and male authors emulating them) write for a different audience than me. I knew all that a year ago (see "Feminazi Coming-of-Age" last year). This book reads like Galland was the primary author -- essentially ghosting for Stephenson, but adding her feminine values -- and even writing in the first-person of the obligatory (smartest person) female lead (two of them), but he did some first-person inserts from the male perspective. It's definitely post-modern, and if you believe that nonsense you might like it.
The gutter language and hostility against religion is somewhat subdued
compared to the two of his earlier novels I previously read, but this is
another time-travel thing based on the unscientific atheist "multiverse"
alternative explanation for the fact that the universe we live in is fine-tuned
for human habitation, which makes no sense at all apart from a God Who
designed it that way. Even the atheists recognize that religion is very
significant in all of history except the last hundred years or so, so our
female character is not quite as hostile to it when speaking to people
she visits in the past. Or perhaps Galland is not personally as hostile
to religion as Stephenson; I'm not about to read some of her past novels
to find out.
Like all but the most careful of novels, and certainly like Stephenson's previous efforts, there are the usual clutter of scientific and cultural blunders, plus a literary mistake not entirely the authors' fault: Throughout the first 20% of the book the main characters coyly tease the reader about the identity of words behind the title acronym, which suspense the publisher totally destroyed by giving it away on the dust jacket blurb, which I usually read first to see if I even want to waste time on this book. Well, in this case I already knew I wanted to read it, but habits die hard.
Pretty much all novels written in the last two decades must toe the Political Correctness (but demonstrably nonsense) line that women are in every way superior to -- but especially smarter than -- men, and this is no exception: the lead heroine (but not her complementary hero, who is nothing more than a military hack) has a PhD, in ancient languages. However neither author has much knowledge or experience in that field, and it shows. A large part of her contribution is in the form of a handwritten letter from 1851 where she seems to be marooned, and which she will presumably hide away to be found by some modern, so that the full story of the Department of Diachronic Operations can be told after her death in the past. Throughout the text she carefully strikes out vulgar and modern slang terms, replacing them with proper Victorian vocabulary, but her efforts are patchy. She also seems unaware of the fact that the original New Testament was written in Greek, not Latin, and that good Catholic grandparents would not be excusing her from Catechism (not Sunday School) for reading the Bible at all.
Fairly early in the story it becomes clear that the main plot line is about the disappearance of magic as it is replaced by science, so this is not really a spoiler. On page 18 (out of 742) the totally sexist remark is made that "witches [the practitioners of magic] ... were all women." I guess the feminazis were not about to give an inch of ground to warlocks (male witches) or sorcerers or wizards.
A substantial portion of the text consists in the letters from the most accomplished witch (in London) to her mother back in Ireland. The letters are in the most contrived ungrammatical English OSV (object-subject-verb) sentence order, which is certainly not true of 16th century English (as an example of which we have the entire King James Bible), nor (according to Google, no link because everything is encrypted and not public) Irish Gaelic. The only example we moderns hear of that odd word order is in Yoda of Star Wars, and the authors of this book obviously did no research, but merely chose Yoda's sentence order because it sounds odd. Perhaps they were too lazy (or anti-religious) to learn the rather simple rules of Elizabethan English from the KJV Bible, something I was able to do as a child because I cannot memorize Bible verses, but did successfully reconstruct the general sense in the grammar I learned. For me it made reading that part of the book grating and uncomfortable. It didn't help that she used neologisms like "whatever power keeps humanity and its many mechanical servants humming..." blissfully unaware that "humming" is a modern metaphor derived from the fact that those (modern electric) machines we hear all our life hum when they are running. Later in the same letter (p.547) she remarks about a Viking brought forward in time, "Surely he's not so evolved as we, in that it's obsessed he is with gold and such..." Get a grip! The concept of "evolve" as an expression of progress and higher intellect was not invented until 1859, 256 years after the date on the letter, and did not enter common (non-scientist) vocabulary until the Darwinist religion became mandatory teaching in American public schools a century later. People like Stephenson and Galland, both born after Darwinism became the established religion of the country, cannot be expected to know that without careful research. I believe I mentioned a couple years ago how much harder it is to write accurate "Historical Fiction" than it is to invent fantasy.
As noted in my remarks on his previous novels, Stephenson is clearly a geek, but not overly skillful at it. Concerning the super-secure computers he (and his organization) uses, the lead guy Tristan says "Graphical user interfaces introduce security holes that can be exploited by black hat hackers. Shiny Hat is safe against that kind of malware, but the user interface is spartan." That's the kind of thing a geek might say about unix (Linux), but it's demonstrably false. Back when there was such a thing as a MacOS (not OSX), one study found that there were six known security flaws in the Mac, something under 50 in Windows, but closer to 150 known security flaws in BSD, the most robust of all unixes (and also the unix that OSX is built on). The safety of the Mac was based on the language it was written in (Pascal, not C) and the fact that there was no underlying command line for malware to seize control of. All that safety is gone now, but the geeks generally have no clue. Anyway fifteen pages later, Tristan rotates his super-secure computer so that the first-person lead can see the "icons" (read: graphical user interface) on the screen.
On page 31, Tristan says "I'll be honest with you: as a physicist, I
am a hack. I majored in it, yes, but I was never employed in
that capacity. But if you cut me, I still bleed physicist blood." Change "physics" to "math" and that's me. But not Stephenson, not even physics. On page 95, "the liquid helium would cloak the inner cavity of the ODEC [the time machine] inside a seamless jacket of matter, all of which was in the same quantum state." Except there was a door to the inner cavity so people could get in and out, and the doorframe was solid material, not liquid helium, so that "seamless jacket of matter" was not seamless. Fiction.
The authors do have a sense of humor, and like most left-wing bigots, they hate the military, so (Tristan excepted) all their Bad Guys -- that's Bad GUYS, only one female military person, despite that they carefully used gender-neutral terminology to refer to them -- are military. They poked fun at the goofy politically correct terminology those government bureaucrats foisted off on the otherwise free-thinking scientists (Tristan and heroine Melissande) who started up the operation. Because "witch" sounded sexist -- duh! -- they were obliged to refer to them as MUONs [Multiple-Universe Operations Navigators] pronounced "moo-on" as if that would be less offensive. They threw a Halloween party every year, and "the diversity policy regs" forbade any family members or "SOs" from wearing pointy hats or carrying brooms, so two of the witches that had been brought forward in time came with pointy hats and brooms, much to the consternation of the "DOSECOPs" [for DOdo SECurity OPerators] but pronounced "dose cops" not "doe-seek-ops". Stuff like that.
Bottom line: Unless you have a social reason for reading this book,
don't waste your time on it. There's better sci-fi and better Stephenson.
Instead I am still annoyed by his cavalier handling of religion. I guess he's exposing to his readers the mind of geeks ("hackers") who program the virtual universe that is the alternate playground of his main characters. Without exception (other than myself) in my experience nobody understands both technology and religion. The techies have all bought into the Darwinian lie -- which is tacitly, but incorrectly, affirmed by the religionists -- that "science" contradicts religion. When you dig down and examine the primary data (see "Biological Evolution: Did It Happen?") it turns out the Darwinists are merely promoting another religion (defined as "believing what you know ain't so").
Anyway, he has his Librarian bot explaining the atheist perspective (but of course he doesn't call it that, it's just the "facts") on the rise of religions like Judaism, and because I care about Truth, I need to investigate the claims. Especially considering that the proportion of liars I have found inside the churches is not substantially lower than outside. The professionals feel the need to protect their jobs, preachers and Darwinists alike, and truth is less important than money in most people's thinking. Not being one of them is a large part of why I have had no significant gainful employment for the last 12 years.
As far as I know, we do not have any written copies of the Old Testament physically older than the Dead Sea scrolls (earliest maybe a hundred years "BCE" meaning "Before the Christ Event" although the atheists prefer different words for the initials, so to deprecate specifically the Christianity religion -- they don't rename the Roman and Norse and pagan god-names in our calendar, only the Christian). Anyway, the point is, we do not have any physical evidence that the Old Testament was written by the named authors. The New Testament is a different story, we have fragments of copies less than a half century after the Apostles gave it their blessing, and those copies came from distant locations, with no evidence of tampering. Considering those epistles even the atheists do not challenge as evidence, the Resurrection was affirmed in writing (which we have good copies of) less than a couple decades after the event -- certainly not enough time for the alleged alterations cited in Stephenson's story. Those early New Testament records quote Jesus as giving absolute authority (and thus also authenticity) to the Old Testament. Given also his Resurrection, he has the right to make such claims, and that is why I can accept it. It all stands or falls with the person of Jesus Christ: in the words of C.S.Lewis, he had to be either a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord of the universe.
Maybe some day God will allow us to find an early copy or fragment of Genesis or Deuteronomy. Until then we need to be content with the fact that no parts of Scripture have ever been found inconsistent with what the scientists and the archeologists turn up -- except the dates, but would you trust pottery styles? It's probably the same circular reasoning that plagues the Darwinists. No criticism of the Bible ever survives more than a hundred years, they all get demolished by better science and then replaced by new ignorant criticisms.
OK, I gave it due diligence, and the Christian religion still stands.
It was like a novel, several apparently unconnected threads suddenly coming together in unexpected ways. That happens all the time in modern novels, so I need to stumble halfway through them in confusion before I can figure out how the novelist sees them as related. Snow Crash (mentioned last week) was no exception, only in my real-life case it was one of the threads...
But they studiously avoid any mention of the elephant in the room, like it isn't there. Stephenson had the same problem in Snow Crash, although more obliquely. The elephant is religion.
The problem is that computers operate by working through a set of rules (called a "program" or "computer code"). Artificially Intelligent computer programs have a very large number of rules, most these days programmed not explicitly line by line, but implicitly by giving the computer explicit rules (code) for deciding which rules to give priority based on working through a bunch of experiences that either get rewarded or punished. So (except for the core code) the rules are implicitly programmed by the choice of experiences and the quality of reward. We do that to children, but the built-in "code" in children is far more complex than anything we have yet been able to design into our robots. The programmers -- optimists, all of us -- think we are getting close, but they haven't got a clue.
... Here comes the elephant: Religion solves this problem with a different kind of rule -- it's still a "rule" but at a totally different level -- the Golden Rule (GR) invites each participant to imagine themselves in the other person's situation, and then to choose an outcome that you'd want if you were them. Not many of us do that, but even the atheists know about it. The trouble is, it's a religious rule. Because it is central to the teaching of Jesus (who got it right out of the middle of the Torah, [Lev.19]), and because Christianity has invaded the entire western half of the globe, our half of the globe is incredibly wealthy. The rest of the world sees that wealth, and sometimes tries to play catch-up by stealing the values without really understanding where they came from, and they fail. Christianity took over Russia a thousand years ago, but it became a formality, not a way of life as Jesus taught it, so people forgot the value system. Russia is now a third-world country with a fading memory of greatness. It's worse in "NAMEStan" (North Africa, Middle East, and a bunch of 'Stans), because Christianity was pushed out a few centuries earlier, and the replacement religion does not make the GR central in their teaching.
Why does this matter? Because the GR invites us to empathize with the other persons involved. How can a computer empathize with a person? It is not a person, it has never experienced the pain of failure nor the joy of success and approval. People can empathize with their pets, because dogs and cats show almost-human emotions, they get hungry and angry, and even seem ashamed when caught in the act of what is forbidden. We have done those things, and maybe the pet doesn't think exactly like a human, but it looks a lot more like it than the robot only following rules. The robot cannot think for itself until it has a "self" to think for. Nevermind what the atheists claim, God gave us that "self" and we are the robot's god. The robot will never think as clearly and deeply as we do, any more than we can be expected to think God's thoughts. I get a tiny hint of it when I program, but oh so tiny (see my "Me & My Computer" video).
Neal Stephenson is a programmer -- not hard-core like me, but he understands how it works. Like (almost) all geeks, he does not understand religion, so he invented this virus metaphor to explain why people are attracted to what he sees as fraud. It's a cute idea, but it basically ignores the elephant in the room. So the world he imagines is dystopic, "red in tooth and claw" -- oh wait, that's a Darwinist line, in Stephenson's mind but not in his book. The hero (unimaginatively named "Hiro," a Japanese name that sounds the same) is stranded in a raft in the middle of the ocean, having been rescued from a boat that the Bad Guys blew up and sank. His rescuer offered no altruism, he was hoping to do a hostage swap. Ships and boats sail by, see that there is nothing to steal, and keep on going. Stephenson has Hiro wishing those passing lookers would do a GR kind of thing, but Stephenson does not even have the vocabulary to describe it in those terms. The elephant is as invisible as Hiro is able to make himself in his virtual world (because he's a hacker = programmer, and can do those kinds of things).
Stephenson clearly understands what kind of world we would live in with no religious GR, he just doesn't understand why what we live in today is not that... We have 300+ years of "Christian" values -- basically the GR -- saturating the culture. The gas tank is empty and we're running on the fumes, but it's still sooo much better than those other parts of the world where nobody has seen Christian virtue next door and across the street in a thousand years.