Tag: Neal

First Steps: Cyberpunk

Posted August 17, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in First Steps / 0 Comments

literary stepsFirst Steps is a new segment that was inspired by the Literary Exploration Reading Challenge. Each week or two, we look at books from different themes, genres or maybe authors and suggest some that are worth trying. Not necessarily all easy to read books but the ones that are worth the time and effort. My goal is to have First Steps guide you to some great books in places you don’t normally venture to.

Cyberpunk is a genre I have found many people struggle with, especially in the Literary Exploration Reading Challenge. I’m not sure if this is a lack of recommendations or they just not sure what this genre is all about. Cyberpunk is a futuristic world that focuses on “high tech and low life[s]” (according to What is cyberpunk? From Cyberpunked: Journal of Science, Technology, & Society 2009). Think post-industrial dystopian worlds with advanced technology and cybernetics; science fiction normally with a touch of thriller, mystery or pulp.

Movie examples would include Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Tron, The Matrix and Surrogates. On TV think Dark Angel or Dollhouse and in video games there are heaps of examples but the best two are; Deus Ex or Watch Dogs. This is a genre that is almost dying out, technology advancement has been accepted by most and often used in science fiction or dystopian novels, but it does leave behind a couple of new sub genres; steampunk and dieselpunk.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

This book is big but lots of fun; it follows two protagonists hunting down a virus in the not so distant future. A world where the United States has yielded most of its power to private organizations and entrepreneurs. Everything has been franchised, from armies, highways to even suburbs.


Daemon by Daniel Suarez

Technology controls almost everything in our modern world, from remote entry on our cars and the flight controls of our airplanes to the movements of the entire world economy. But what if some computer designer has been planting a dormant daemon in everything that he creates that will take full control of everything connected to a computer when he dies.


Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

In the twenty-fifth century, technology has advanced so much that human personalities can be digitally stored on what is known as a Stack. These stacks can be downloaded into new bodies or sleeves, so when you die your stack can be stored indefinitely and you can be resleeved and continue living. Death is impossible, or is it?


Neuromancer by William Gibson

This is a seminal cyberpunk novel by the legend himself; William Gibson. The first novel to ever win the “Triple crown” in science fiction (winning the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award). This follows the story of a low-level hustler, hacker and thief in the dystopian underworld of Chiba City, Japan.


When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

A new kind of killer roams the streets of the Arab ghettos of Budayeen, a madman whose bootlegged personality cartridges range from a sinister James Bond to a sadistic disemboweler named Khan. The unique blend of Middle Eastern culture and religion and cyberpunk noir makes this highly recommended.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Posted June 26, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Speculative Fiction, Thriller / 0 Comments

Snow Crash by Neal StephensonTitle: Snow Crash (Goodreads)
Author: Neal Stephenson
Published: Bantam Press, 1992
Pages: 440
Genres: Speculative Fiction, Thriller
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

In a time in the not so distance future where the federal government of the United States has yielded most of its power to private organizations and entrepreneurs, franchising individual sovereignty reigns supreme. Merchant armies complete national defence, highway companies compete for drivers and the mafia own the pizza delivery game. Hiro Protagonist, “Last of the freelance hackers and greatest swordfighter in the world”, finds himself without his pizza delivery job when a young skateboard “Kourier” named Y.T. tries to hitch a ride on his vehicle. Leading them on a grand scale adventure trying to uncover just what exactly Snow Crash is.

Like all of Neal Stephenson books, you can expect this one to cover subjects like  history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, and philosophy, all while keeping to his cyberpunk thriller style. He says this book was named after the early mac software failure mode:

“When the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set—a ‘snow crash’”

His goal, was to take the reader on a “full tour of Sumerian culture, a fully instantiated anarcho-capitalist society, and a virtual meta-society patronized by financial, social, and intellectual elites.” Snow Crash is a pseudo-narcotic or is it something far worse; Hiro and Y.T (short for Yours Truly) slowly discover that it is in fact a computer virus capable of infecting the brains of careless hackers in the Metaverse (the successor to the internet) and a mind altering virus in reality.

One of the things I liked most about Snow Crash was the fact that Neal Stephenson showed us how to write a kick ass teenage girl protagonist. Young Adult novels like to use a strong teenaged girl as a main character but few of them really know how to make her great; most are just Katniss clones. While Y.T’s narrative wasn’t as focused as that of Hiro, it was more of a pleasure to read, she seemed to accomplish the most in the entire book and she did it her own way without compromising her character. Sure, she did manage to get into some trouble and make some bad choices but she’s human, I expect them to struggle and fall and recover from their mistakes.

While this was a fun and exciting novel there are some things that I just didn’t like; firstly each ethical group portrayed the stereotypical extreme.  The mafia, the rednecks from New South Africa, the Pentecostals, Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong and so on, all felt very much like the cliché versions of these cultures and Stephenson played on the stereotypes a little too heavily. I know they were only minor plot arcs but it still felt like it was overdone. The most interesting people in the book are the ones living outside their cultural and ethnic groups; Hiro, Y.T and Raven.

Then there is my biggest problem with the book, which is a similar problem I had with Reamde and that is I feel like Neal Stephenson turns some chapters into a Wikipedia articles just to give us all the interesting information he has on a subject he is exploring. In this book it is every time the librarian talks, there is heaps and heaps of interesting, and sometimes irrelevant, information and the way Stephenson tried to stops it become and wall of text is the awkward attempt to make it sound like a conversation. Hiro keeps interrupting the librarian’s information with very simplified reiteration, agreements and metaphors, I found it incredible annoying.

Overall this was a fast paced cyber thriller with some weird and unusual tangents and twists. Stephenson has some interesting ideas about the future of the world but for some reason I never feel a strong connection to his books. I think I prefer William Gibson’s style and take on the future cyber world but can’t fault Stephenson for what he does. Not that I’ve read many books from this author and there are plenty more I want to read, maybe I just feel like he over simplifies and draws his novels out a little too much.

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

Posted May 12, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Pulp / 0 Comments

The Last Good Kiss by James CrumleyTitle: The Last Good Kiss (Goodreads)
Author: James Crumley
Series: C.W. Sughrue #1
Published: Vintage, 1978
Pages: 244
Genres: Pulp
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

James Crumley’s private investigator CW Sughrue finds himself searching for a runaway young woman, missing for ten years. But this is not how it started out; he was hired by a woman to find her ex-husband, Abraham Trahearne before he drinks himself to death. A confrontation in the bar that results in Trahearne being injured in hospital puts Sughrue in a position to look for this missing woman.

This hard-boiled novel is told in a way I don’t think has been done enough in a pulp crime novel. A parallel narrative exploring the problematic relationship between Sughrue and the wandering alcoholic novelist, and the three femme fatales in Trahearne’s life, just to make things more complex. Apart from that, you have the usual elements that make up a hard-boiled novel; alcohol, money, love, sex, power and violence.

Somehow James Crumley has a refreshing voice for this genre; I’m not sure if it is just that I’ve not read enough hard-boiled novels set in the seventies or there is something else there. I would put Crumley somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson; he doesn’t have the plotting skills and wit that Chandler has but he isn’t as violent and philosophical as Thompson. The narrative, while in a first person point of view, manages to switch between making the reader feel like they are in the same room trying to piece this mystery together, and then all of a sudden you are inside CW Sughrue head reading all his thoughts, emotions and memories. This isn’t easy to do but Crumley does this so seamlessly that you don’t really notice it happening. This narrative, mixed with the cynicism and low regard to society is what I think makes this book so refreshing.

This novel deals a lot with sex; Sughrue’s personal integrity and professional ethics are corrupted by the sexual desire towards Catherine; a desire she uses to manipulate him. Trahearne hasn’t been able to be creative because of his sexual desire with Melinda and his attraction towards his mother. Then there is Betty Sue, who just has a sexual desire towards everyone in the book. It’s important to know at the core of this books portrayal of sexual desire is the cynical belief that such corruption is unavoidable and even inevitable.

The Last Good Kiss also deals with the idea of identity and trying to escape your past, but ultimately realising you can’t run. Betty Sue hides her true self between layers of masks and other identities; she is running from her sexually exploitative time in San Francisco but it all comes back in the end. Trahearne can’t escape his infidelities, alcoholism and his ex-wife’s fury. All of them fail to realise that the past defines the present. Their mistakes in the past do not have to define their future but helps them grow; this book just ends up being a twisted celebration of life’s obstacles shaping our personality.

Admittedly I found myself being bored in parts of this book and wanting to skim read, but I persevered and found some interesting elements that stopped this from being a generic crime novel. CW Sughrue, is an alcoholic ex-army officer turned private investigator and that dark past is what makes me want to keep reading the series, just to discover what he is running from.  The Last Good Kiss has been described as the most influential crime novel of the last 50 years, influencing people like Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and even Neal Stephenson; that alone is an impressive reason to check this book out. While I think I prefer Jim Thompson for style and message, James Crumley is an author I plan to explore more of.

For The Win by Cory Doctorow

Posted May 1, 2012 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Young Adult / 0 Comments

For The Win by Cory DoctorowTitle: For The Win (Goodreads)
Author: Cory Doctorow
Published: Tor, 2010
Pages: 480
Genres: Young Adult
My Copy: Audiobook

Buy: Amazon (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

I’m not sure if I’ve just read a novel or had a lesson in economics. Cory Doctorow’s dystopian novel For the Win tells the story of the exploitation of an online role playing game’s economy. In the running of what could be classed as electronic sweatshops throughout Asia, gold farmers suffer from very poor work conditions in the effort to mine gold and find virtual treasure to sell to first world customers. The novel has a typical ‘unite and rise against authority to improve our lifestyle’ plot but add a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) this book makes for some interesting concepts. While this book is a book about slave labour, gangsters and forming a revolution, this book also dives into the world of global finance in a very educational way.

This book reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s novel Reamde, in the sense that it explores the world of gaming from the perspective of gold farming. While Stephenson focused on all the aspects of creating a MMORPG for the purposes of gold farming and money laundering, For the Win focuses on the concept of the in-game financial system and how fragile global economy can be. The author floods the book with many different financial theories and uses the games economy to help the reader understand just how global finances work. While this novel focuses on the in-game aspects of economics, the theories taught are very real.

Like Reamde, For the Win made me thing of an aspect of gaming that I never released existed. While Reamde hired a geologist to create the world of T’Rain’s mining system; For the Win had an economist working for the game developers. This book was a real eye opener while still making a great story. To begin with I had trouble keeping up with all the characters Doctorow tried to introduce, characters from USA, India and China; but slowly I started to get a feel for which character was which. I don’t think Cory Doctorow spent enough time exploring his characters, I felt like I only got a glimpse of each character and I would have liked more. For the Win is a book for gamers, but non-gamers might also enjoy the thrilling ride this takes the reader on. It is more than just a lesson in economics and it is more than a novel about unionising Gold Farming. While very predictable this ended up being a great read.

Reamde and my Fears of Large Novels

Posted February 15, 2012 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature, Thriller / 5 Comments

reamdeI don’t normally read books that are over 1000 pages and after reading Reamde, I’m a little reluctant to read something this big again. Not that there was anything wrong with this book; but sitting at over 1100 pages, it was a big task chipping away through this book. Neal Stephenson provides a story full of nerdism, thrills and a lot of action, dipping into aspects of organised crime and terrorism. My first thought of this book was the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) game that this book is based around; every aspect of this game is covered in this book. It takes all the aspects he liked about World of Warcraft and gave it a face lift, threw out all the parts he didn’t like, even going to the extent of making the world geographically accurate for people interested in mining. But the underlining reason for T’Rain, is the gold farming market; while Blizzard tries to crack down on farming, this game is based around a potential money laundry scheme. While T’Rain was created for sinister reasons, the creation of the game and the employee of popular fantasy writers turned the game into a huge success. Just reading about this game made me want to play it. This game serves as a background for the main plot in Reamde.

While there is a lot happening in Reamde, the main plot is centred around a virus, which encrypts files and hold them for ransom for T’Rain gold. This virus affects a computer containing sensitive documents of the Russian Mob, who do not wish to pay the ransom but set out to hunt down the people behind the virus and make an example of them. Along the way many people become involved including the T’Rain founder, a T’Rain employee, some Chinese gold farmers/hackers, a Russian mercenary, a Hungarian hacker, the CIA, MI6 and some international terrorists.

While I enjoyed the ride that Reamde took me on, I can’t help thinking that there is a lot of fat that needs to be trimmed. I’m not sure if being a bestselling author Neal Stephenson had the freedom to fatten this book up, or the editors didn’t do a good job, or they intentionally left the book this long; but I think that this book could haveeasily been turned into a 700-800 page novel without losing any of the plot. While this book was really enjoyable for a nerd like me, I still can’t help but wonder; does it need to be this big?

Which brings me to the point of this blog post; do you find big novels daunting? I know some people prefer a longer novel, because they are not ready to leave a world so quickly; it’s possible these people are fast readers or not so easily distracted. I often think that I tend to get bored with the world, often wishing for it to end. This could be because I’m easily distracted, or because I’m impatient and want to move onto a new book; I often procrastinate reading by reading another book. I’m just curious how people view large novels; would you prefer them or do you try to avoid them? In the past I think I would avoid them, often dreading reading books that are more the 600 pages but I’ve come to the realisation that I can’t put them off for too long. My to-read pile is growing at an alarming pace and the amount of larger novels are making me feel a little uneasy.

In the past I think my average novel is about 280-300 pages long (thank goodness for pulp novels and their need to wrap up in under 300 pages) but I’ve had to push myself to tackle some of the bigger novels. There are too many classics that need to be read and there are a few recent releases that seem to be critically acclaimed that I’ve got my eye on. Personally my reading goal is 100 books a year but maybe next year I should focus on a page count instead of trying to push myself to read 100 books. Please let me know your thoughts of larger novels; I would love to know the pros and cons of them.