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
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
iStock
iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios