Jonathan Lethem imagines not so much an apocalypse, but a kind of slow pause of most (but not all) advanced technologies, he calls “The Arrest”. Dukes and Bagg find the scenario fascinating and are not much troubled by the lack of a scientific explanation. Bagg IS troubled by the first sentence, (an important one) and Dukes wonders if our protagonist will manage to do a thing (anything!) in the book’s second half.
In the second half of Goon Squad, many of the characters end up…surprisingly OK, especially when you consider their struggles and self-destructive capacity displayed in the first half. Bagg and Dukes talk about whether the happy-ish outcomes are earned, and meditate on Proust’s epigram about memory. They wonder if the opposite of time as a ravager would be “Time, The Accepted Force that Propels Our Life Forward for Better or Worse?”
Play along with Dukes and Bagg as we play Neal Stephenson Bingo. We find that the final third does pick up a bit, with Goto Dengo’s story in particular providing a satisfying character arc. There are moments of DENSE AND BEAUTIFUL PROSE and descriptions of MATH EMBODIED, but we also find that too often, PLOT IS GREATER THAN CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, leaving both UMBs a bit frustrated (and many characters suddenly dead).
Dukes and Bagg wonder about the length of the middle section of the book, which as far as they can tell, only establishes one major plot point. And they wonder at the stakes of the novel? Who cares if a couple of comfortably well off tech guys find some old gold? But Stephenson’s insight into the little told impacts of technological development during the War remains impressive. What if the Germans HAD developed a “Rocket Sub?”
Bagg and Dukes are…a little tired of Neal Stephenson, but our two codebreaking huffduff operators soldier on into Stephenson’s large 1999 novel Cryptonomicon. Haiku-composing marines, lots of math via bicycle chains and other analog metaphors, passive-aggressive academic tracts about beards, and Stephenson’s solving of an earlier problem of his: simply write two books but connect them via plot.
Dukes and Bagg talk scruffiness and the virtues of whiskers more broadly. Then they complain about Stephenson’s propensity to want to write three books into every book, his tendency to orphan MacGuffin’s and the challenge of sorting out whether the reader’s disorientation is intended, or the result of sloppiness. But for it all, the UMBs agree this is Stephenson’s most ambitious and thoughtful work of this career thus far.
We hit pause on recapping, and talk the intersection of education and technology with a genuine educational technologist, Professor Justin Reich (and the man who introduced Dukes + Bagg). Justin considers Stephenson’s take on the ancient debate about whether education resembles “filling a pail” or “kindling a flame” and notes his preoccupation with the probabilistic nature of education tech.
Bagg proposes Dukes would live in Dovetail in this scenario, and the UMBs set off to untangle this ambitious and elaborate neo-nano-steampunk plot. We note Stephenson’s obsessions with chaos v. order, hypocrisy v. moral relativism, and his love for characters whose ethnicity and racial identity are surprisingly matched.
After blowing off steam about the pronunciation of “Natick” in the audio book, Dukes and Bagg reflect on the challenges of reigning in Stephenson’s “firehose of talent” and speculate about which of the three (or four) possible ending climaxes should have been chosen for this book.
Chris and Jesse try to figure out where Zodiac sits in the upper-middlebrow spectrum. Dukes wishes he could have commuted around Chicago a la Sangamon Taylor, Stephenson’s protagonist, and we discuss whether the dorking is premature or not. We ask “do camel crickets leap at your face?”
Bagg and Dukes dive into the second half of Highsmith’s “mystery in reverse.” They discuss whether it should have been harder for Tom to get away with murder and how Tom’s rationalizations can feel too realistic.
Chris and Jesse talk salt pigs and the Queen Mary ocean liner before getting down to business, diving into Patricia Highsmith’s disturbing and keenly crafted 1955 novel. They discuss the difference between a hero and a protagonist, Highsmith’s ability to describe self-deception, and whether there is something at all likable about Tom Ripley.
Chris and Jesse pick up mostly where we left off (although “leaving off” suggests we’re keeping track of what we’re doing—spoiler alert: we’re not), as Hiro and Y.T. infiltrate the decommissioned USS Enterprise (the aircraft carrier, that is—all you trekkies put your hearts back in your chest cavities), searching for the Nam Shub of Enki and trying to get anyone to listen to Reason.
Released in 1992, Snow Crash is Neal Stephenson’s second major novel, but certainly his first breakaway hit. Snow Crash follows the exploits of Hiro Protagonist (yes, you read that right) and his partner Y.T., as they try to save the world from an “infocalypse,” delving into the differences and similarities between viruses biological, spiritual, and informational.
Upper Middle Brow launches TOMORROW! Yes, that’s right, tomorrow, November 22nd, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash with our very first episode. We’re excited, and we hope you are, too. Our trailer is below, and you can also find it where you download or listen to all fine podcasts. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you tomorrow.