Tag Archives: Neal Stephenson

The Hiro and the Failure: thoughts on Snow Crash and Timmy Failure

I recently finished reading two books virtually simultaneously. I would like to claim that this is because I’m an incredibly dedicated reader with amazing time management skills, but actually I cheated. One of them was an audio book. Which, while we’re on the subject, is it appropriate to tell people you’re “reading” an audio book? It feels like a lie, but the absolute truth feels clunky and awkward to explain.

ANYHOO.

Book one was Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis.  It is a book with pictures. It is a book for children. It is amazing.

Book two was Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It is a seminal work of science fiction with high action mixed in with history, philosophy, and comparative religion. It is…okay.

Now at this point I’m thinking I sound kind of shallow, but hear me out. Because you know what Timmy Failure had that Snow Crash didn’t? A polar bear named Total.* No wait, I’m sorry. What I meant to say was, “internal conflict and character development.”

In Snow Crash Hiro Protagonist is trying to save the world from an virus that infects your mind. In Timmy Failure, our eponymous (I love that word) hero is trying to get back his mom’s Segway which he was not supposed to be riding around before his mom finds out he’s lost it.

Now here’s the thing. In Snow Crash, that’s it. That little snippet I just gave you encapsulates the entire plot in a nutshell. None of the characters, and I mean none, ever have to deal with any kind of internal conflict, never have to overcome any personal failings. It’s all swords cutting people’s heads off and Gatling gun duels, interspersed with long conversations about Sumerian mythology and hacking. Which is fine as far as it goes. I really did like the bits with the mythology, and it was nice to have the spoonful of fictional sugar to help them go down. But in the end the story had very little depth.

In the case of Timmy Failure however, there was nothing but depth. Timmy claims he does not live up to his last name. Timmy lies. In fact his detective agency doesn’t actually solve any of the cases he’s given in the book. But the charm of the story is in the layers, in the way we see the world through Timmy’s eyes.

Timmy Failure is an entirely unreliable narrator, because he’s seeing the world through a egotistical, child-sized lens. Through that lens we see the troubles his mom is having with the bills, and how she’s dating a guy who’s a bit of douche in the hopes of bringing some stability back into her and Timmy’s lives. We see how Timmy’s nemesis is really just a girl who wants her dad to spend more time with her.

In other words, the story is about more than what the story is about.

Is Snow Crash a bad book? No. But it’s utterly flat. It makes the mistake of thinking that what the readers really care about is whether or not the world is saved.

Screw the world. Let it burn. What readers really care about is personal. It’s the inner journey that brings power to the story. Without that, all you have is spectacle.

 

*Seriously, how hard would it be to have a polar bear in a book named Snow Crash? Talk about your missed opportunities.

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Bizzaro Book Review: Reamde by Neal Stephenson

I struggled for quite some time trying to figure out how to start this review. And I do mean struggled. There were unicorns involved. You don’t want to know.

The problem I face is that while some books are door stoppers, Reamde is closer to being an actual door, and there is much to both love and hate in its vast pantheon of pages. So for the sake of simplicity I’m going to start with the beginning. Not the opening scene, mind you, I’m talking about the first thing you’ll see when you lay eyes on this book. The cover.

Now do my eyes deceive me or does that word there were the title should be say Reamde? It does? So would it then be a safe assumption to believe that something called Reamde is going to be central to the plot of the book? Yes, I thought so too.

But. It. Isn’t. (Due to the sad limitations of typography you’re going to have to imagine me saying this through clenched teeth.)

Reamde, a computer virus designed to infect a World of Warcraft-style game call T’rain is a complete MacGuffin. It’s like a flint that lights the story’s fire, but does not ever actually become part of that fire.

Now normally I wouldn’t mind this so much. But in a sense Reamde is for me an emblem of the biggest problem with the whole book.

See, Neal Stephenson has a niche of sorts. He’s a writer for geeks. There is nothing at all wrong with this. But because he has begun his career as a keeper of the keys to literary nerdvana I imagine he feels some pressure to continue playing to that audience as much as he can. Which is the only reason I can fathom for his insistence on including large portions of his book to detailing the workings and operations of a computer game that has nothing to do with the actual story.

And I’m not talking about a few throwaway references here and there. I’m talking  about nearly a third of a thousand-plus-page book being devoted to something that never advances the story one iota. And the frustrating thing is that because of the bulk of time given to the T’rain/Reamde plotline, it feels like its going to matter. It feels important.

I was ready for it to be important. My writing brain was doing all kinds of geeking out wondering how Neal Stephenson was going to tie all this together at the end. And then he didn’t. Instead after hundreds of pages devoted to T’rain, the whole thread finally peters out with one of the characters actually saying, “Well, that was a colossal waste of time.”

Which is a shame, because if you push aside all that nonsense about digital terrain creation and using gaming for airport security there is a really good book in there. It’s got gangsters and hackers and terrorists; it’s got spies and Russian security consultants and gun nuts so far right-wing that the Tea Party wouldn’t know what to do with them. It’s got twists like you wouldn’t believe, cliff hangers that will leave you gasping for breath, and and the coolest bad guy this side of Darth Vader.

In short, this is a fat book with a skinny book inside trying to get out. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Just take my advice and skip over anything at all related to T’rain; it’s nothing more than a long and treacherous path that leads to a dead end in a valley without a view.

Building on the Bones, or: Why Structure Doesn’t Have to be Boring

[The following post contains references to STORY STRUCTURE. This concept is known to the State of California to cause people’s heads to explode. But who cares what California thinks anyway? Hippies.]

You know what’s fun? Watching movies after you’ve learned about three-act struture. Specifically the bit about the first plot point appearing at exactly twenty-five percent of the running time. It’s like magic. Try it sometime. Look up the total running time of the movie, divide by four, then sit back and wait for the midden to hit the windmill. It never fails.

You’ll be able to amaze your friends and family. Pretty soon they’ll be so amazed by your seemingly-psychic ability to predict the path of the movie they’ll have stopped watching movies with you entirely. Those brave enough to stick it out will remark in wonder, “Are you going to do this for every movie we watch?”

Okay, so maybe this isn’t the best way to endear yourself to your friends. But understanding structure is vitally important to composing long-form fiction of any kind.

However structure can be a bit of a brier patch when you’re first wading into it. For instance you might be tempted to say to yourself, “The first twenty-five percent of the book is spent on this boring ‘getting to know you’ crap? What kind of snooze-fest do you want me to write?”

Well, today I thought I’d share an example from a book I’ve been reading recently that follows the formula of structure to perfection and yet showcases the amazing amount of latitude afforded us writers within the confines of what structure dictates.

The book in question is Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. If you have even passed by this book in the store or at the library chances are you had to fight just to escape the gravitational pull generated by the sheer mass of the thing. Weighing in at over a thousand pages it’s easily the longest book I’ve read since the time I decided that Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations might make for an entertaining afternoon browse.

If you’re like me at this point you’re wondering, how in the heck is anyone going to spend two hundred and fifty pages just on setup? Surely when you’re writing a book this long you can skip ahead to the good stuff right?

And for a while it seems like that’s exactly what Stephenson has done. By somewhere around page one hundred we already have a bona fide bad guy on the scene and our heroes are off on a high stakes adventure. But then, just as you’re settling into the flow of the story, at almost exactly the two-hundred-and-fifty page mark everything is turned on its head. The placeholder bad-guy is unceremoniously killed off and the real Big Boss Troublemaker enters the narrative.

Right. On. Schedule.

It is only then that we learn that all the stuff with the hackers, the Russian Mafia, the ex-military security consultants, all of it was 100% pure unfiltered setup for the “real” conflict. And it wasn’t boring.

The takeaway here is that just because structure dictates that the first quarter of the book should be dedicated to setting up the story, that doesn’t mean that it has to be a total snooze-fest. It can and should have conflict. It can even have bad guys. You’re just not allowed to introduce the bad guy until that magical twenty-five percent mark.

There’s lots more I could say here, but the  main point I’m trying to make is that the three act structure is more flexible than it appears at first glance. I understand why writers balk at the concept of being “constrained” by structure, but for me learning these principles has been a altogether liberating experience. And whether I’m watching a movie or reading a book, it’s always fascinating to see how so many stories work within these basic principles.

With InBoCoLuCy (International Book Composing Lunar Cycle) just around the corner I think my fellow authors would be well served to have the fundamentals of structure at least knocking around somewhere in the back of our heads as we wade into the sea of words.

Don’t let structure tie you down. Let it set you free.