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.

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Growing Up With Headphones May Not Damage Kids’ Hearing
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A study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery finds no increase in child and adolescent hearing loss despite a rise in headphone and earbud use.

"Hearing impairment in children is a major public health burden given its impact on early speech and language development, and subsequently on academic and workforce performance later in life," the authors write. "Even mild levels of hearing loss have been found to negatively affect educational outcomes and social functioning."

As portable music players continue to grow in popularity, parents, doctors, and researchers have begun to worry that all the music pouring directly into kids' ears could be damaging their health. It seems a reasonable enough concern, and some studies on American kids' hearing have identified more hearing loss.

To take a closer look, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected from 1988 to 2010. They reviewed records from 7036 kids and teens between the ages of 12 and 19, checking each participant's hearing tests against their exposure to noise.

As expected, the authors write, they did find a gradual increase in headphone use and other "recreational noise exposure." And they did see an uptick in hearing loss from 1988 to 2008 from 17 percent to 22.5 percent. But after that, the trend seemed to reverse, sinking all the way down to 15.2 percent—lower than 1988 levels. They also found no significant relationship between noise exposure and hearing loss.

The results were not uniform; some groups of kids were worse off than others. Participants who identified as nonwhite, and those of lower socioeconomic status, were more likely to have hearing problems, but the researchers can't say for sure why that is. "Ongoing monitoring of hearing loss in this population is necessary," they write, "to elucidate long-term trends and identify targets for intervention."

Before you go wild blasting music, we should mention that this study has some major limitations. Hearing loss and other data points were not measured the same way through the entire data collection period. Participants had to self-report things like hearing loss and health care use—elements that are routinely under-reported in surveys. As with just about any health research, more studies are still needed to confirm these findings.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.


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