The single best joke in Woody Allen’s canon can be found in 1980’s Stardust Memories, in which the fans coming up to his director character to say how much liked his “early, funny” movies. The joke was Allen’s way of not just jabbing at his own pretensions, but also to signal his frustration with the limitations of the creative box he had put himself into and that his appreciators seemed intent to sit heavily on the lid of. The joke was ultimately on those imagined fans because even though it was no fun to sit through Allen’s earlier Ingmar Bergman/Federico Fellini-aping work, eventually he broke out into a richer idiom that allowed him to toggle between satire, drama, and gags. There’s no Crimes and Misdemeanors without Allen getting through Interiors first.
If the end result was a similar creative chrysalis, it would be easier to take Neal Stephenson’s stiff-necked pre- and post-apocalyptic imaginarium of a novel Seveneves. It’s not that this novel doesn’t have scope or ambition. That wouldn’t be a fair assessment of a nearly 900-page work that starts with the line “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason” and ends several millennia later when the human race has been reconstituted along seven distinctly unique genetic strains battling amongst themselves while figuring out how to recolonize Earth. But what it doesn’t have is humor. This is especially disappointing when talking about a novelist like Stephenson, who unlike Allen (whose works tend to come out stamped “serious” or “funny” with no in-between) could always use comedy of a particularly deadpan vibe to grease the wheels of his data-heavy plots.
We are now over 30 years away from Stephenson’s first stab at alternate world-building, The Big U. But it seems even further. That messy splat of a sophomoric freshman novel hurled terrorist splinter cells and nuclear waste into a madcap satire on university life that included ruminations on Julian Jaynes and pitch-perfect renderings of the role-gamer mentality. Rough-hewn and self-impressed, it isn’t a book that aged well. One can see why the author was okay with it being out of print for awhile, particularly after he published novels that still showboated but were more confident about it.
In the 1990s, Stephenson looked like the best thing to happen to science fiction since William Gibson blew things open with Neuromancer the previous decade. Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) tangled with big ideas like the onset of the Web and nanotechnology years before they entered the popular nomenclature and knocked them into dramatic shape with humor and pop-culture savvy. Here’s the famous opening of Snow Crash, establishing the character of one Hiro Protagonist, a master of samurai sword usage, hacking, and near-future high-speed pizza delivery:
The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.
It’s all there, particularly Stephenson’s sinuous interweaving of technospeak (gleaned, unlike so many current-era genre writers, from actual technical know-how) into his slashing slacker-era snark patter. Sure, the book gets high on its own supply of over-oxygenated wordplay well before the conclusion.
The Diamond Age, albeit a more mature book that decanted a similarly smart-ass vintage into finer china, is much the same. Take this passages that describes what happens after the establishment of Feed, a worldwide nanotech system that can create just about anything anybody wants, anytime:
The company was thinking hard about things Chinese, trying to one-up the Nipponese, who had already figured out a way to generate passable rice (five different varieties, yet!) direct from Feed, bypassing the whole paddy/coolie rat race, enabling two billion peasants to hang up their conical hats and get into some serious leisure time — and don’t think for one moment that the Nipponese didn’t already have some suggestions for what they might do with it.
Too self-aware by half, perhaps. But damn if you don’t go back to those books again and again, paging through those high-wire riffs, laughing and awestruck by not just the humor, but Stephenson’s ability to channel the gestalt of a time and place that hasn’t even occurred yet.
That gonzo energy courses through even his lesser earlier works, like Zodiac, a goofy eco-warrior suspense novel, and the technothrillers he published under his Stephen Bury pen name. As for the Baroque Cycle — that elephantine historical trilogy set in late-17th- and early-18th-century Europe — it was punishingly dense stuff that pulled back on literary pyrotechnics and doesn’t lend itself as much to re-readings. But still, threaded as it was with fascinating sidebars on an fraught collisions of religion, politics, and science, and haunted with conspiratorial darkness, it reads almost like a less-gossipy precursor to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books.
All of this roundabout summing-up is a means of avoiding the stubborn truth about Seveneves. After a welcome semi-return to form with Stephenson’s overlong but still larkish thriller Reamde in 2011, Stephenson’s first big science fiction effort since 2008’s Anathem is a joyless heap of jargon. Its astounding leaps of imagination and eagerness to ignore most of the narrative conventions of the genres it’s toying with ultimately come to naught. There are few if any laughs, less than zero memorable characters, and not much high-altitude wordplay.
What the book has in spades is great big slabs of idea-mongering and world-building of the sort that Stephenson normally leavens with sprightly characters and wiseacre dialogue. At first, it’s actually not much of a problem. Stephenson begins things in classic time-zone-jumping disaster-novel mode. After the moon is smashed into a cloud of fragments by an unknown entity, the scientific community comes together in record time to inform its leaders that very shortly that debris will descend on the Earth in a fiery cloud. They call it “the Hard Rain” and say that it will destroy everything. So in the manner of classic, can-do hard sci-fi, everyone gets busy figuring out how to get as many humans up into a semi-sustainable orbit before the surface is turned into a Hieronymus Bosch-ian hell.
It’s a good start, somewhere between the hard sci-fi typified by Greg Bear and the grittier disaster sci-fi of Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer (without the quasi-white supremacism), tinged with the occasional hint of killer-comet narratives like Deep Impact; only there’s no Téa Leoni tearfully awaiting death by tsunami. The scientists race to figure out how to build out the already-manned space station into a kind of Earth 2 and to surround it with as many jury-rigged “arklet” capsules for fleeing humans, while the politicians try to break the bad news to the people of the Earth. The closest thing to a hero in the book is Stephenson’s Neil deGrasse Tyson stand-in, charming, popular TV scientist Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris (aka “Doob”), who muses how he would break the news:
Look, everybody dies. Of the seven billion people now living on Earth, basically all will be dead a hundred years from now — most a lot sooner. No one wants to die, but most calmly accept that it’s going to happen.
That strain of no-chaser non-emotionalism runs throughout the book, particularly once the story gets narrowed down to the astronauts and selected non-astronaut smart people busy putting together their post-Hard Rain plan in orbit. At that point, the Earth-bound action recedes quickly (as it will when seen from space) and we’re left with white-boarding and bickering amongst a bunch of engineers.
There isn’t anything wrong with all this, of course. Certain corners of sci-fi have long been reserved for those comfortable (as they must be to read Seveneves) wading through pages and pages of flat dialogue about controlled burns, orbital arcs, “bolides,” ham radio frequencies, Lagrange points, and the finer points of genetic engineering. It can feel at times like the sort of thing engineers might like to read when sitting in the break room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in between grouching about how the goobers at NASA always miscalculate their parabolas.
The sad thing here is that once Stephenson’s idea factory truly takes off in the last quarter or so of the novel, most readers will have given up. The characters, bland when not just plain unpleasant, will have long since blurred together. Even then, after Seveneves takes its bold leap millennia into the future when humanity has reformed itself along more quasi-scientific and Isaac Asimovian lines, Stephenson can’t ever kick his narrative into high gear. More critically, he never engages with the deeper philosophical entanglements of the fascinating scenarios he keeps uncorking: ringworlds, designer races, the impossibility of humanity ever leaving the near-orbit of Earth no matter how advanced our technology. Too much sci-fi has been ground down into series work these days. We need big thinkers, bold ideas, brave writers. This should have been it. A heavier editorial hand might have done the trick.
But, per Allen, maybe this is a necessary step in Stephenson’s writerly arc. Seveneves might be what had to be written before he could embark on another kind of writing. Maybe his Match Point is still to come.
On the evening of Christmas 1992 I lay on the floor sobbing and screaming “HE KILLED ME!” repeatedly. I was referring to a game of Mario Brothers that my brothers were playing, having received it that morning. (I do maintain that my brother killed me in an underhanded manner — that being pausing the game when I was mid-jump, resulting in my inevitable fall into the chasm when the game was unpaused — and he did it was because I was winning.) That’s the last time I played a video game.
Nevertheless, I like listening to people talk about video games. Not those conversations about who scored a sick no-scope head shot, or which character’s passive ability allows them to farm the most efficiently, mind you, but about why video games can be meaningful and why they matter. That is exactly why I read Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell, who has an interesting grasp on both the purposeful and the harmful side of habitual gaming. I went to a party where my friend gave a presentation on video games, how they’ve shaped his relationship with his brothers and how the hours he spends playing them make him feel content. Then I read Reamde by Neal Stephenson, which blurred the line between what happens in-game and what happens in the real world in a fascinating way, before it abruptly stopped and did less fascinating things. I like observing the way video games give their players epic purpose on a manageable scale.
When I came across You by Austin Grossman, the newest addition to video game literature, I was intrigued. Grossman is the author of 2007’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, and an experienced game developer. You is the story of four friends – Darren, Simon, Lisa, and Russell – who begin designing games in high school and start Black Arts Studios together. Darren is the charismatic leader, Simon is the aloof genius, Lisa is socially awkward but brilliant, and Russell is the one who thought he was above it all. When the rest of them went to UMass together he went to Dartmouth and then law school. At the beginning of the book, he has dropped out of law school and been hired as a game designer at the company that made his high school buddies rich and famous.
You is not subtle about the fact that video games are a metaphor for life, and this is what I liked best about it. During his job interview at Black Arts, they ask Russell to describe his ultimate game, and he is flummoxed. What is the ultimate game? A game that is both immersive and fulfilling? What will make him happy? What kind of man does he want to be? With the high-stakes hero’s journey laid out on the table in the first chapter, Grossman has 400 pages to explore every possible way the video game production process parallels Russell’s life. What it lacks in nuance it makes up for in genuine energy. You get the feeling Grossman has been wanting to talk about video games in this way for a long, long time.
As Grossman has firsthand experience of producing a game from concept to shipping, he’s usually in one of two modes: explaining the logistics of video game production or showing how deeply you can read into them. Sometimes he just sounds like he’s bragging about how hard and awesome his job is, such as: “It was like we had all the problems of shooting a movie while simultaneously inventing a completely new kind of movie camera and writing the story for a bunch of actors who weren’t even going to follow the script.”
The book is at its best when the two modes work for each other, when the logistics of playing a video game dovetail into what he’s saying about the vagaries of adult life. As Russell plays his way through the Black Arts catalogue, he observes the following: “It’s only when you finish the entire damned Realms of Gold III and start on the next one that you see one of the deep truths of the WAFFLE engine. Because when you type rogiv.exe, you get the prompt Import rogiii.dat?”
Those two sentences express something vital to Russell’s journey, the way he has moved from one path to another in life without ever really starting over, and they also unlock the plot mystery brewing at Black Ats, and they do it in language I wouldn’t have understood when I started the book. It’s video game language, and Grossman wrote a terrific book with it.