Mstation Book Reviews
pre Dec 04 reviews are here
Fri, 01 Apr 2005
Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver, Arrow
This has been out in hardback for a while now but the paperback version is comparitively new.
One of my favourite fiction books was Cryptonomicon by this same author. It had a wonderful blend of scholarship, yarn spinning, and geeky references. Would Quicksilver measure up?
It's certainly got a lot of praise from other reviewers but for me it was a disappointment. There is a big yarn ... heh heh, Big Yarn or Big Yawn ... sorry, couldn't resist that. Anyway, there are also lots of historical references to do with the birth of the sciences and also references to the commonplaces of the day. There is a lot of scholarship here.
In the history there is danger. Cromwell's Roundheads and their followers are the decent folk and the King Chas's and Cavaliers are vicious and overdressed and, oh dear, influenced heavily by what was considered at the time the highlight of European civilisation -- the France of Louis XIV. This sort of thing is a background attitude and I'm sure regular readers will make "heh heh" noises and head off for freedom fries.
Of course puritanism was as great a scourge as any other non-humanist ism and ole Cromwell got chucked out as he was a tyrant. He did do good things of course but the tide was flowing toward free religious (or lack of it) expression. Could the climate of questioning have existed under different conditions? Yes, it did and had done for hundreds of years.
That aside I think there are too many digressions here, historically interesting though they might be. Nine hundred pages could have been half that. It wouldn't have been as much fun to write though.
McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto, Harvard University Press
This book was initially greeted with some excitement which turned to dismay when it was found that the prose was a little on the obfuscated side for most people. It is not a particularly easy read but then who said it had to be?
People who are resolutely against dumbing down will find themselves automatically defending the book but when you've used up all your initial energy on that front, you might still find it a little annoying.
Part of the problem seems to be a child of an urge to be a little bit timeless and not be boxed between say Xbox2 and 3, for example. Another is given by the first clue in the book -- a dedication to the author Kathy Acker (Blood and Guts in High School amongst others). She wote dystopic, disconnected stories in what some people have called unreadable prose. Oh well.
Not that this is disconnected. It has a completely logical flow through the arguments it professes. Ok here's a completely random quote, from paragragh 153 as it happens ..."In the overdeveloped world, the total transformation of nature does more than complete the disappearance of nature as nature and lead to its return as the representation of what desire lacks."
So the people expecting to be told to hack their iPods and games consoles to make a better world, and the reasons for why, find themselves in an unaccustomed place, floating above what they want to see, which has become a blurry thing.
What it's really about is to be found in the large and useful "writings" section at the back of the book (paragragh 072 as it ...) in which he says "If A Hacker Ethic (referring to the book The Hacker Ethic by Pekka Himanen) seeks to resurrect the spirit of Max Weber, then A Hacker Manifesto offers a crypto-Marxist response."
Aha! Crypto-fascists will turn red (the color of the book) but most others, disatisfied with feral capitalism, laws for the rich, and the mindless the-market-will-sort-it-out mob, will find the ideas at least worth a look but they will have to work hard to fully appreciate what's on offer.
It's a nice little production done in red cloth hardback with black plates and white lettering. The paper and print is also nice and it has handy (or presumptious, according to your feeling) numbering of the paragraghs. It'll look just great alongside your hardback set of Donald Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming.