Victorian Cyberpunk

Photo by Peter Bennett
"Which path do you intend to take, Nell?" said the Constable, sounding very interested. "Conformity or rebellion?"

"Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded. They are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity."

---Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

NEAL STEPHENSON CAN FOOL YOU. HIS NOVELS are so much fun to read that it takes a while to realize how dead serious he is. He's been tagged a science-fiction writer, but outside hardcore SF circles, he is known mostly for his definitive treatments of certain buzzy pop-tech subjects: environmental direct action in Zodiac (1988), virtual reality in Snow Crash (1992), nanotechnology in The Diamond Age (1995), and the vexatious fields of data cryptography and e-cash in his new epic of modern techno history, Cryptonomicon.

But Stephenson's ambitions, and his reach, are a lot bigger than the pigeonholes he's been squeezed into. He writes fiction designed not so much to change the world, as to quietly shift the way people think about it, and about the forces that keep it moving -- or could bring it grinding to a halt. His themes carry over from book to book, and spill into the intervals in between. A lot of the spade work for Cryptonomicon was done while researching and writing two big stories for Wired magazine, "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" (on the Shenzen Special Economic Zone in China) and "Mother Earth Mother Board" (about laying fiber-optic cables in the Pacific, and other matters). Stephenson seems to relish every phase of the journey. He is fully prepared to be surprised and delighted, and at times horrified, by the stuff he comes across. That's what makes his writing so zestfully entertaining; there's a report of some breathless new discovery on almost every page. And like the big SF hits of the 1960s, Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune, Stephenson's work attempts to smuggle a few new concepts into the popular forebrain -- to download a relentless thought-virus.

Stephenson's breakthrough novel, Snow Crash, is famous for its depiction of the computer-generated alternative landscape called the Metaverse -- a three-dimensional shared virtual-reality environment with the tactility of real life. Movies like Dark City and The Matrix feed off Snow Crash, but the truly distinctive environments of the novel's near-future landscape aren't virtual at all. They are franchised semiautonomous nation-states, the Burbclaves and Franchulates, or distributed world governments like Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong, a metastasized fast-food chain whose global strip-mall franchises compose a sovereign nation. Above all there is the Raft, a sprawling, lawless, ad hoc island nation, the Sargasso Sea of shantytowns, created by accretion in the middle of the North Pacific, as refugee craft of all shapes and sizes organize spontaneously around the rusted hulk of the junked aircraft carrier Enterprise.

The trick in the book is that, as big as it gets in terms of action and settings, it is finally about something even bigger: a conspiracy to download viruses not just into computers and the VR realm, but into human brains. The chief conspirator, Stephenson suggests, is "like a cracker who breaks into a computer system, bypasses all the security precautions, and plugs himself into the core, enabling him to exert absolute control over the machine." The intrigue in Snow Crash centers on tracking down and deploying an ancient Sumarian incantation, "the nam-shub of Enki," that conditions minds to be reprogrammed. The central character, a punk pizza jockey and high-level VR designer named Hiro Protagonist (whose function and moniker are one), describes this succinctly as "the operating system of society." In context, the Metaverse is really a flashy subplot, a fictional Trojan horse for sneaking in Stephenson's more significant concerns, the ones he's been elaborating ever since.

In The Diamond Age, Stephenson seems to step out from behind the neon curtain. The skateboard/hacker/speed-metal trappings are gone, the tone much more earnest and analytical. This is a big fat mock-Victorian novel that extrapolates the Burbclave and Franchulate concepts into an even more radically evolved future. The agent of social mutation here is pervasive nanotechnology, the material-world analog of the hacker viruses in Snow Crash, submicroscopic fabricating machinery that can transform matter from within, rebuilding it atom by atom. Pride of place among the 'Claves belongs to the Neo-Victorians, sober, honorable and at times ponderous fellows who have turned to the past for guidance -- and, in the process, may have latched onto something fundamental. "Nell realized," Stephenson writes,


that it was precisely their emotional repression that made the Victorians the richest and most powerful people in the world. Their ability to submerge their feelings, far from pathological, was rather a kind of mystical art that gave them nearly magical power over Nature and over the more intuitive tribes.  


This is a hell of a note, coming from a guy who claims to have written Snow Crash "as [he] listened to a great deal of loud, relentless, depressing music." The soundtrack of The Diamond Age would sound a lot more like Edward Elgar.

THE DIAMOND AGE IS STILL SQUARELY IN THE TRADItion of speculative fiction. The huge new Cryptonomicon, however, is something else. A conspiracy thriller, it depicts an alternative vision of recent history swelling into the present. And I think Stephenson means every last word of it.

In the foreground, Cryptonomicon traces the growth of cryptography and code breaking from World War II to the present. The supporting cast includes key figures from the development of crypto systems and the digital computers that made them practical, notably Alan Turing, the computer pioneer who ran Britain's famed Enigma project and broke the Nazi's devilish codes. The heroes of the code wars of the 1940s are exactly that: men of valor who bound their skills to a world-saving cause. In alternating chapters, set in the present, a new generation of techno magi pursues a goal that is not so disinterested: to create a "datahaven" in Austronesia for encrypted financial transactions. This technology would enable a system of truly â untraceable e-cash, making it all but impossible for governments to control the flow of money and collect taxes. The crypto-rebels acknowledge, sadly, that awful people will exploit this resource to commit crimes, and some of these carpetbaggers make memorably horrid guest appearances in the novel. But the technology also will help to midwife a world that will never again need saving in the old sense, because no single private or governmental force can ever hope to control it. The fractal political landscape of Snow Crash seems to be just over the horizon.

For Cryptonomicon's Randy Waterhouse, the hacker-favorite computer system UNIX has become the "fundamental metaphor for just about everything." Stephenson's own dedication to that metaphor is evident in his longest nonfiction piece, "In the Beginning Was the Command Line." The essay is built around a distinction between the two dominant conventions for interacting with computers, the CLI or Command Line Interface (DOS, Linux) and the GUI, or Graphic User Interface (the Mac OS, Windows). For Stephenson, the distinction is technological, but also moral and perhaps even metaphysical. The CLI requires a lot more knowledge and more time and effort to master, but it also offers direct control over the things our machines are really doing down at the primary, binary level, where it's all just a mess of ones and zeroes. With GUI, on the other hand, we know less and less, and hand over more and more control to the system. The so-called "blinking 12 syndrome" (a reference to the eternally throbbing clock face on the VCR whose owner can't figure out how to set the time) expresses a truism of modern engineering: It is impossible to underestimate the cluelessness of the consumer.

IS THERE ANY HOPE FOR THE CLUELESS? As far back as Zodiac, Stephenson was complaining that "the ability to think rationally is pretty rare, even in prestigious universities. We're in the TV age now, and people think by linking images in their brains." In Cryptonomicon and "Command Line," the ability to think rationally has become the only significant class distinction, dividing the can-do Morlocks from the effete consumerist Eloi, here a sort of pampered underclass -- the social stratification of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine turned upside down. The notion that GUIs like the Mac and Windows desktops are democratizing the cyberworld by opening it up to the mentally flabby Eloi is a dangerous illusion, Stephenson implies, because all they're getting is a cutesy graphical approximation, a wholly inadequate substitute for the real thing. The only person with authentic power is still the guy who knows how the engine works.

Like the mining and transportation tycoons in Ayn Rand's novels, Stephenson's heroes could stall the entire global mechanism just by lifting the hood and yanking out a couple of wires. "[The] key realization," Stephenson wrote in Snow Crash, "was that there's no difference between modern culture and [ancient] Sumarian. We have a huge work force that is illiterate or alliterate and that relies on TV -- which is sort of an oral tradition. And we have a small, extremely literate power elite . . . who understand that information is power, and who control society because they have this semimystical ability to speak magical computer language."

It would be stretching a point to dub Cryptonomicon the Atlas Shrugged of cyberpunk. But the book does embody a comparable conviction that a mere handful of people now control "the motor of the world." As Stephenson notes in "Command Line," "The richest man in the world made his fortune from what? Railways? Shipping? Oil? No, operating systems." And once we get past the immediate consequences of these ideas, the implications are downright cosmic. The Morlocks of Silicon Valley may be plugged into larger forces than they realize. In "Command Line," pondering the mind-bending theories of physicist Lee Smolin (The Life of the Cosmos), Stephenson observes, "It's beginning to look as if, once you get below a certain size -- way below the level of quarks, down into the realm of string theory -- the universe can't be described very well by physics as it has been practiced since the days of Newton. If you look at a small enough scale, you see processes that look almost computational in nature."  

Although Neal Stephenson seems to relish the detritus of modern global pop culture, often making it both the subject and the raw material of his cascading fiction, he is clearly no fan of its effects on human beings. In "Command Line" he declares: "The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network-TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being . . .

"If you don't like having choices made for you," he concludes, "you should start making your own."


Neal Stephenson's personal home page: (includes "Why I Am a Bad Correspondent")

Official Cryptonomicon page: (Includes "In the Beginning Was the Command Line")

Time magazine short story "The Simolean Caper" (about e-cash):

Wired short story "Spew":

Wired article "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell":

Wired article "Mother Earth Mother Board":

Time magazine essay "Dreams and Nightmares of the Digital Age":

A fan page with some cool ideas about viruses:

And finally, an actual datahaven project:


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