April 13, 2012

NSA Week: Friday

The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius coined the word "cosmopolitan" when he wrote, "I am a citizen of the universe." Stephenson is too. It's not just that his cast of characters comes from all over the world. It's that he does them the honor of treating all of them as fully realized people, distinguished by their individual backgrounds but relatable because of their common humanity.

I know . . .  "common humanity." But Stephenson doesn't treat them with a "deep inside we're all the same" homogeneity. Zula walked across Sudan as a child refugee before being adopted by American parents. Marlon scrabbled his way out of poverty in one of the only ways a young guy in Xiamen, China, could: by selling his gaming achievements to Westerners with more money than time on their hands. They are specific to their time and place.

Nonetheless, in every place and time, there are people who try and people who don't try. People who take the easy way and people who strategize. People consumed with their megalomania and people who want to be able to look themselves in the mirror the next day. And part of the plot of Reamde is the process of sorting out, across cultural and even language barriers, who in the world is like you.

It's great to read a fully realized novel where the cast of characters reflects the diversity of the world. Zula, the heroine who is African American. Csongor, the Hungarian romantic lead. Xuxia, the Chinese girl of ambition. And alongside them, Richard, the American gaming developer, and his brother, the Christian survivalist. No one fits in a predetermined slot. There are no square pegs, and no round holes. They are affected by their circumstances but defined by the content of their character.

One of my favorite passages in all literature is from the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan. The girl at the center of the novel, Briony, has been writing a play in which she plays the role of a princess, and the plot revolves around her own fantasies. Just at the brink of adolescence when the novel starts, she has a breakthrough watching her sister Cecilia out in the yard with a young man. She's thunderstruck by this thought: What if being Cecilia is just as vivid an experience as being Briony?

This realization, that others' reality is just as real as one's own, launches Briony into her maturity and her career as a novelist. It's what Stephenson does so well:  acknowledging that being one of 1 billion Chinese, or a mid-level Russian mobster, or a Hungarian IT guy is just as vivid an experience as being an American millionaire. It makes not just for a good novel but for an exciting world-view. You close the book cover, look out the window, and think, "What a fascinating place it is out there."

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