April 11, 2012

NSA Week: Wednesday

A friend recently re-read Moby-Dick and noted that, while it was great, some parts were as tedious as you might expect. "Suddenly," he said, "you'll find yourself reading 20 pages about whale oil." I laughed and realized that I was experiencing much the same thing with Reamde. It was fantastic, but the man likes his detail. Much of the novel is taken up with careful, leisurely descriptions of boat technology, keystrokes, shotgun architecture, and the like.

I'll admit to, about 60 percent of the way through, starting to skim these sections. But for the first half of the book, I really enjoyed them. There's a pleasure to be had in careful observation of the world when rendered by a skilled writer.

More than that, there are philosophical and literary underpinnings. Philosophically, Stephenson shows us that we are not powerless. His protagonists carom from one crisis to another, one untenable situation to another. But what makes this string of misfortunes bearable (and interesting) is that the characters never stop being actors in their destinies. When Zula is chained to a tree and surrounded by terrorists, she's always thinking:  Where am I? If I ran up that hill, what would happen? If I went downhill instead, what would happen? How far could I get before they'd realize I was gone? What are the chances someone will come along and discover us? And what are the chances that would do me any good?

Much of the detailed description in the book relates to the characters making just such calculations. They believe in the power of their owns minds. So Csongor sits down on the floor of his recently appropriated motorboat and looks at the fuel system. He doesn't know anything about boats or fuel systems, but he believes he can figure out how it works. Here's that passage:

"Marlon told Csongor about what Batu had said regarding the fuel gauge, or lack thereof, and so Csongor went down to the engine room and spent a while figuring out how the diesels worked, eventually identifying the fuel line and the pump that fed it. From this, plumbing led back through a bulkhead to a space mostly occupied by a pair of cylindrical tanks of impressive and reassuring size, each rather more than a meter in diameter and perhaps three meters long. Each had a fill pipe welded into its top. Csongor traced those up to a pair of fittings on the deck, which he guessed they would use whenever they pulled up to the nautical equivalent of a gas station. Shining his flashlight around that area, working out slowly in concentric circles, he finally found where they kept the dipstick: a piece of (inevitably) bamboo secured under the gunwale with bungee cords, ruled with felt-tip scribe marks and (to him) cryptic annotations. He called Yuxia down to help him interpret the marks, and then they opened one of the fuel fill hatches and shoved the bamboo pole down into it. Then he began pulling it out in a hand-over-hand movement, praying that he would feel cold wet diesel fuel on his palms. This did not happen, however, until the last few inches of the stick emerged. Yuxia read the nearest number marked on the pole. This meant nothing since they had no idea how quickly the diesels consumed fuel. But there was no ignoring the fact that it was the last number on the stick."

These passages work because there is a suspense to them. You feel the urgency on the characters' parts to find a way. Each section like this is a mini-thriller: you're pretty sure the hero will prevail, but how? And this relates to the literary value of these descriptions. I'm a mystery novel fan, and the appeal of the best mystery novels is the observation of a great mind at work, thinking its way through a morass of data and impressions, churning, churning. So it is here: you get the spectacle of thought, in all its glory.

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