Technical translators get to read an awful lot of really bad writing, to the extent that we tend to enjoy good writing, even if the content isn’t particularly great: an annual report skilfully made rather than cobbled together out of clichés in order to mislead shareholders, a mission statement which is not a copy of every other mission statement in the sector in question, or a technical specification which actually explains things clearly, are rarities we almost treasure. When good writing comes together with interesting content, we find it quite sexy. And when good writing and interesting content is amusing as well, it makes our hearts leap.
The Mental Floss feed I run on the Around the Net page led me to discover the American writer Neal Stephenson. Apparently, he’s something of a geek cult figure and has been The New York Times‘ #1 top-selling author, so you almost certainly know about him already, in which case you can put this down to another case of old Uncle John finding out about modern novelties like biros or cell phones and stop reading. But I’m quite excited (in an entirely platonic way, you understand). You can tell: this is my first blog post in eons.
The Mental Floss article is a review by house blogger Chris Higgins (who also writes damn well) of Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Reamde (sic). This seems well worth reading, but where the review really did it for me, was a) enumerating Stephenson’s ‘obsessions’: currency (not money, currency); technology; cultural differences; family ties; and time, geology, & geography (grouped just so), and b) linking to an old Wired article of his. If I tell you that the last book I really fell head-over-heels in love with was Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and that the Wired article, called Mother Earth Mother Board, was 56 (no less, cub’s honour) riveting (and I mean that) pages about (get this) transcontinental cable-laying, you’ll understand that I felt stirred, as if meeting a kindred mind.
Written in 1996, the Wired article, though verging on brilliant, was decidedly outdated, for fifteen years is an eternity in the world of technology – the telecom wars were a recent occurrence if not ongoing, racks were not standard-sized, he feels it necessary to write out ‘graphical user interfaces’ in full, and a long etc. So I longed for something more contemporary, and fortunately Wikipedia led me to a Slate article called Space Stasis. I was not disappointed. Though Stephenson has evidently learned something about time-management efficiency and Space Stasis is only three pages long, it has the same qualities as Mother Earth Mother Board: it is funny, interesting, informative, immensely intelligent, has an original thesis, and the qualities of the intervening characters are skilfully and sympathetically drawn. In short, much like Bill Bryson, just a tad more geekish.
Stephenson has been writing fiction and mostly technology-related non-fiction for over twenty years, and been acclaimed to the point that it is extremely embarrassing for me to be discovering him at this late stage. Oh well. Evidently, this time, he has felt the desire to garner some serious revenue, for Reamde is an international thriller with all sorts of up-to-date attention grabbers (the hero is a tech entrepeneur, the villains are hackers or government agencies…), and a thick one (what Chris Higgins calls “1 kilopages”), destined to be stocked by every airport book stall in the world, and retailing at $35 – I’d say it should gross mega-if-not-tetramillions without counting e-book downloads and film rights* and tilt Neal Stephenson’s bank balance so far in the black he should never have to think about money again. Except as currency, an obsession being an obsession, after all.
An e-book will probably be my own choice, a reader being, precisely, third on my shopping list for this week, after groceries and a digital SLR camera. It’s a toss-up between a Kindle and a Nook at the moment, according to the advice of the ‘Configurator’ at Top-Ten Reviews – if only deciding which camera were as simple. Any recommendations on either? Do leave a comment if you have one, or if you have anything to say about Neal Stephenson or his works.
*Though there’s a YouTube video of him talking about why his books have never been filmed – basically, they’re too long.
Neal Stephenson talks about his new novel, Reamde:
This is a manifesto, or countermanifesto. It’s Spain-specific, because it is addressed to the Spanish government, but its concerns are general. Here’s the background: the other day, a group of slightly famous Spanish musicians, egged on (I imagine) by the SGAE (Spain’s royalty-collection agency), held a kind of demo and issued their manifesto demanding, among other things, an end to free downloads of music in Internet. As there were a number of local (Spain-level) celebrities there, it made the news. The Spanish government responded by pointing out that the white paper for its new Law on Sustainable Economy contained provisions which would, for example, make it possible to close down web sites offering P2P links and so on, without a court order. The Spanish Internet community, which theretofore had not really given a fig about the Law on Sustainable Economy (or was to all intents and purposes ignorant of its existence), rose up as un hombre and shouted “Foul!” Now another manifesto has been issued by “a group of journalists, bloggers, webmasters, and Internet creators and professionals.” It has been published by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of websites and blogs, and this is it:
“Manifesto: In Defence of Fundamental Rights in Internet
“Because the White Paper for the Law on Sustainable Economy includes changes to legislation affecting the free exercise of freedom of speech, the right to information, and the right to access to culture via Internet, we Internet creators, professionals, users, bloggers and journalists express our firm opposition to the project, and declare that…
“1.- Copyright cannot be held to be above fundamental civic rights, such as the right to privacy, security, the presumption of innocence, access to the legal system, and free speech.
“2.- The suspension of fundamental rights is and should continue to be exclusively the competence of the judiciary. Not a single closure without a court sentence. Contrary to the stipulations of Article 20.5 of the [Spanish] constitution, this white paper places the power to block the access of Spanish citizens to any web page in the hands of a non-judicial institution, an organization belonging to the Ministry of Culture.
“3.- The new legislation will create legal uncertainty throughout the Spanish technological sector, to the detriment of one of the few fields of development and with a future in our economy, obstructing the creation of businesses, hindering free competition and slowing down the country’s international expansion.
“4.- The new legislation proposed threatens new creators and hinders cultural creation. With Internet and technological progress, the creation and publication of all kinds of contents has become far more democratic, as they no longer originate prevalently from traditional cultural sectors but from a host of different sources.
“5.- Authors, like all workers, have the right to earn a living from their work with new creative ideas, business models and activities related with their creations. Attempting to use legislative changes to sustain an obsolete sector which is unable to adapt to this new environment is neither fair nor realistic. If their business model is based on the control of copies of their works and this is not possible in Internet without the violation of fundamental rights, they should look for a different model.
“6.- We consider that, to survive, cultural industries need modern, effective, credible and accesible alternatives which meet new social uses, instead of restrictions as disproportionate as ineffectual for the purpose they say they are pursuing.
“7.- Internet must function freely and without political interference backed by sectors which seek to perpetuate obsolete business models and make it impossible for human knowledge to remain free.
“8.- We demand that the Government guarantees by law the neutrality of the Net in Spain in the face of any pressure that may be exercised, as a framework for the realistic future development of a sustainable economy.
“9.- We propose a real reform of the intellectual property right orientated towards its purpose: to return knowledge to society, encourage the public domain and restrict abuses by collection agencies.
“10.- In a democracy, laws and changes to them must be approved after an adequate public debate and all the parties involved having previously been consulted. It is not acceptable for legislative changes affecting fundamental rights to be made in a secondary law dealing with a different matter.
“This manifesto, written jointly by several authors, belongs to all and to none. If you want to join, spread it over Internet.”