Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Quick and confused

It's Neal Stephenson day at Salon. And pretty much everywhere.

Confusion has just come out, and I haven't even read Quicksilver yet. For the time-being it's too big and expensive. For the all the anticipation of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, the enthusiasm for Quicksilver fizzled out fairly quickly.

(The more I heard about it, the more I thought it might bore me as much as did Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, which I was reading when Quicksilver was released.)

In sum, Salon's review of Confusion tells us it's excessive and fun:

Plunge away! "The Confusion" finally does start to connect the dots, and where "Quicksilver" bogged down, "The Confusion" leaps nimbly forward.

Over at Rake's Progress, Stephenson is being taken to task over his statement that: "In arty lit, it's become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se."

Hmmm. There's not enough coffee for me to deal with this. I read sci-fi (not a lot, but some), and what I read, I tend to love, for the ideas, not because the books are well-written with a fine sense of character. Arty lit? what's that? Some of it is in fact dreadfully boring.

I've only just skimmed through Salon's interview with Stephenson, and will set it aside for a closer reading on the weekend. One thing that did jump out at me was his reference to Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error (a really great read, by the way), which springs from a case study of Phineas Gage, who survived an iron spike through the head.

Damasio is arguing that one of the innate faculties of our brain is that we can envision a wide range of possible scenarios and then sort through them very quickly not by logic but through a kind of process of the emotions.

This is not accurate. We tend to set up the traditional dichotomy in terms of rational and emotional, but Damasio is quite clear that the not-rational aspect at play is more a social behaviour, part learned, part instinct, which, yes, has some emotional elements but also has its own logic. That is, I think Stephenson is arguing against a duality that scientists themselves do not actually embrace. (In the end, we all agree that the rational and emotional are complex and intertwined.)

Maud Newton points to an interview at Wired News in which Stephenson proclaims cyberpunk "over."

Man, I loved Snowcrash.
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