CLOSE

Neal Stephenson's Latest: REAMDE

It takes guts to title your blockbuster novel using an intentional misspelling. But fortunately for readers, Neal Stephenson has guts, a killer story, and -- for the first time since Cryptonomicon -- a thriller I can thoroughly recommend to any reader, not just the King Dorks of the crowd. Expect to see REAMDE enjoyed by regular human beings on airplanes, in coffee shops, and in geek-dens (the hive-like underground warrens where computer programmers go to sleep). I can only begin to tell you how exciting this is. The book comes out today (September 20, 2011) and is, as we speak, in a bookstore near you. Or, if you're not near a bookstore, there are links at the bottom of this article to some internet-based retailers who would love to get you a physical or virtual copy right away.

Note: this review is intended to be spoiler-free. I do discuss the book, but don't give away anything that isn't in the promo materials. If you want to be utterly devoid of context, here's the tl;dr version: buy it and block out a solid three days to work your way through it. If you liked Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, Anathem or The Diamond Age you will freak out with joy about this book. If you don't know what I'm talking about, frankly you might still enjoy this thing -- do you like rip-roaring tales of adventure, told by a smart guy, involving the technical aspects of guns, planes, boats, computers, and more guns? I thought you did. So let's get into things.

Let's Go Back to 1992

In 1992, Neal Stephenson made waves with Snow Crash, a smart cyberpunk thriller featuring the aptly named "Hiro Protagonist." Although Snow Crash was his third novel, it was Stephenson's first work that put him on the map, immediately elevating him into the pantheon of godlike sci-fi writers who could do no wrong (this status lasted until about halfway through the first volume of The Baroque Cycle, at which point many frustrated readers simply gave up). I read Snow Crash in 1996, and proceeded to devour everything the man ever published (including the pseudonymous "Stephen Bury" novels, which are fun techno/political thrillers). Since the mid-90's, my life has been punctuated by long periods of delay, waiting for Stephenson's latest work. I do things around the edges (you know, jobs and stuff), but mainly I'm just waiting for the next book.

A Series of Obsessions

Stephenson, from 1992 through now, has developed and written about a series of intellectual interests that appear to the reader as obsessions. These obsessions have appeared over and over in his work, and in REAMDE we have a book touching on each. If I may catalogue them:

Currency: the notion of currency (not "money"), the creation and destruction of value, and currency flows appear throughout Cryptonomicon and even more in The Baroque Cycle. In REAMDE, several characters are involved in a MacGuffin-ish plot involving currency flows. This plot serves to set the story in motion, then quickly drops into the background as characters come forth and bring us to some other obsessions, to wit:

Technology: Stephenson seems to be interested in the notion of technology specific to a given culture and time period. This is notable because while he is clearly a geek, he doesn't seem to give a damn whether he's geeking out about computers, guns, swords, winches, boats, air travel, horseshoes, chemistry, rope, you name it. In REAMDE (set roughly in the "present day"), we see technology across cultures and circumstances. Without spoiling anything, I'll also note that gun enthusiasts will have a lot to dig into. Those who know next to nothing about firearms (ahem, like myself) will enjoy the education offered by this novel (for example, "red: you're dead" for the red dot often visible when the safety on a firearm is disengaged). I found myself quite interested in the detailed mechanics of firearms and their management, transport, firing, and reloading -- that's not something that has interested me in the past. It takes a geek to explain why something is interesting to another geek.

Cultural Differences: It's no secret that Stephenson likes to write large, sprawling books involving characters who speak different languages and live in wholly different situations. But in this one, I smelled an interesting undercurrent that extended beyond the now-typical international angle of his work. The new work (again, without giving anything away) has to do with a cultural divide within the US (some might call this the Red State/Blue State divide, though that seems a vast oversimplification to any Cultural Differences Geek). This novel includes Seattle tech geeks wearing utili-kilts as well as people in RVs camping in WalMart parking lots, and attempts to get into the heads of both. Well done, Stephenson.

Family Ties: In past works we've seen cross-generational plot lines, sometimes spanning generations and even hundreds of years. Remember the scene in Cryptonomicon when the family divides up Randy's grandmother's worldly possessions by placing them on vectors of monetary and sentimental value and applies a knapsack algorithm to solve the problem? You're in for much more of that kind of thing in REAMDE. Don't worry, you don't have to care about math to enjoy it -- though it might help to have a passing interest in grizzly bears.

Time, Geology, & Geography: While Anathem was most obviously influenced by Stephenson's involvement with The Long Now Foundation (and thus spans, or at least considers, immense stretches of time), REAMDE takes place over just three weeks -- but we see Stephenson's innate interest in deep time when he describes geological landforms. Every time we see a new bit of land (a mountain, a bay, and so on), Stephenson introduces it with an eye towards its geological origins. It's like the man can't see a hill without thinking about the process that formed the hill somewhere in deep prehistory. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that there's an in-story reason for characters to have this level of geological awareness, though this is one clear moment where Stephenson peeks through to reveal his own interests.

So What?

With REAMDE we have a very smart page-turner -- a global chess game expertly played, switching perspectives among something like eight main points of view with the deftness we expect from this old master of new sci-fi. And to be clear, there's nothing "sci-fi" in this book (no aliens, no speculative technology, and nothing non-contemporary); but it's fiction in which characters confront tons of interesting problems with scientific and technological solutions, and a sort of geeky enthusiasm about the details of those solutions that belies the author's interest in sci-fi. What I mean to say is: you will like this book, but so will Tom Clancy-reading sales execs flying Business Class. Somehow Stephenson has written a book that's true to his intellectual level, but he's kept it accessible. Expect it to be a major bestseller, and expect to feel sad when it ends and you must wait three years for the next one (which might be, who knows, about clocks or something). Perhaps during the wait you can go read Stephenson's essay on cable-laying, or his other fine work from the 90's and before. (Though to be frank, The Big U was kind of a letdown; you should probably skip that one.)

On Length and Weight

Stephenson's recent work has routinely spanned well into multiple kilopages, much to the frustration of the aforementioned Baroque Cycle quitters. I'm happy to report that REAMDE just barely exceeds 1 kilopage, however the hardcover is exceedingly hefty, weighing in just shy of 3 pounds -- making it heavier than some laptops in my office. Plan accordingly if you're going to take this thing on vacation or even out of the house. Note that you can also use it for home defense (at close range) or as a structural member in minor construction projects. For this reason, you might consider an ebook for this one. If you can handle the weight (and the lovely rough-hewn paper edges), pick up a paper copy starting today (September 20, 2011) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Powell's (signed!).

Blogger Disclosure

I received an Advance Reader Edition of the book at my request, but no compensation for reading or reviewing the book. It was quite a thrill to get an early look at Stephenson's next work, and I hope to keep checking out more ragged-right paperback previews in the future. (Ahem, take note, PR folks.) In the bookstore links above, the Amazon ones are affiliate links that kick back a small percentage if you buy the book through them. If you'd rather not kick some pennies my way, here are non-affiliate Amazon links for the hardcover and the Kindle edition. I hope you enjoy REAMDE as much as I did.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
arrow
History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
arrow
Space
Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios