2 The state of play

by Malcolm Redfellow

The norm here, once Malcolm gets into his stride, will be a running tally of three categories:

  • The read and shelved;
  • The failed and shelved;
  • The guilt pile (ones which might still go either way).

So, let’s have a first literary reveille, focusing entirely on the first of those categories, and setting a bench-mark from which this personal acount can develop.

The aim is not, on the whole, to “review”. Merely to record, in the hope that the occasional brick-bat and comment might provoke further thought … and further reading.

Read and shelved (late June 2011):

  • Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle in (fairly) rapid succession.

Now, come on, chaps! This is a major achievement, both in the composition, and in the reading. We are talking about over three thousand pages in total, and each tome has enough avoirdupois, even in paperback, to do serious damage to an carelessly-placed toe.

Quite what genre it all is, Malcolm remains as puzzled as most reviewers. The trilogy seems most often to be classified as “science fiction”, which rather misses the point.

Some years back Dr R.B.Myers broke off from his Korean studies to give the world his Reader’s Manifesto. That is sub-titled An attack on the growing pretentiousness in American literary prose. Come, come, dear Doctor: why be so narrowly nationalistic?

Myers has a list of rules for serious writers. Rule II is:

Sprawl. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but contemporary reviewers regard a short book as “a slender achievement.” So when in doubt, leave it in.

Alas! sprawl is not a modern ailment. It permeates through the early novel — when writers were paid by the page — and persists through the great writers of the nineteenth century — when a norm of publication was the fortnightly instalment. Does Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend need to be quite so long? Well, actually, in Malcolm’s view, yes. Since Myers definitely approves of Moby Dick, he seems a trifle ambiguous in his definition of sprawl.

So does Stephenson “sprawl”? Again, a not-guilty verdict should be given. The trilogy is, in fact, no fewer than eight separate “instalments” — some have appeared in their own right.

Confusion thrice confounded: Stephenson starts on Boston Common on October 12th, 1714, at 10:33:5a A.M. as Enoch Root encounters an example of American blunt, blank efficiency that’s admirable and disappointing at the same time — the hanging of a witch. Root, though, is looking for Doctor Waterhouse of The Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts.

And so we are on our way, back to Cromwell’s England of 1655 and retrospectively further still — including the execution of Charles I.

This was a casual find, in the local secondhand bookshop.

The sub-title is Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb: they Leo Szilard; Enrico Fermi; I.I.Rabi; Niels Bohr; Edward Teller; Ernest Lawrence; Arthur Compton; Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. VanDeMarkt eaches history at Annapolis, and has co-authored with Robert MacNamara and Clark Clifford — so has himself been close to power.

Malcolm has a couple of shelving-feet of books on the background to the development and use of the atomic bomb. This one is a different approach in that it is specifically biographical. Malcolm admits to an interest, bordering on fixation, in the enigma that was “Oppie”. Oppenheimer’s speech, on departing Los Alamos for the last time, is quoted at considerable length. On re-reading, it is apposite in defining why the bomb was first built in the United States, but less illuminating how Oppenheimer, the one-time pacifist, reconciled himself to its first use:

… there was probably no place in the world where the devlopment of atomic weapons would have a better chance of leading to a reasonable solution, and a smaller chance of leading to disaster, than within the United States.

Here Pandora’s box lies empty, except for the cringing figure of “hope”.

VanDeMark finishes with a modern conclusion, reflecting on the strategy of deterrence, which:

… has worked since World War II in the sense that there have been np wars among the major powers. The threat of mutual assured destuction has deterred this catastophic result, and to that extent, the “balance of terror” has turned out to be stable. This record reinforces the assumption that strategic issues and war in the nuclear age lend themselves to careful calculation and control.

Others might count the numerous and expensive “wars by proxy” between all “the major powers”.

It only takes one wing-nut to end that cosy arrangement. If we are to believe Ali Magoudi, who was French president Francois Mitterrand’s psychoanalyst from 1982 to 1993, Margaret Thatcher threatened to go nuclear against Argentina if the French military didn’t reveal the deactivation codes of Exocet missiles. Nukes certainly went to the South Atlantic, and one or more may have gone down with HMS Sheffield.

Well, that was inevitable.

Malcolm paid full shelf-price for this one, rather than wait the mail-order at discount.

In writing order, this precedes the Baroque Cycle. In chronology it belongs as an after-thought. Either way, it’s still a healthy wallop of dead tree.

It involves the parallel stories of two geeks, two generations apart: Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse involved in the breaking of war-time codes, and his grandson Randall “Randy” Lawrence Waterhouse, a coding genius of the 1990s. Yes, there is a further generation link (and other character connections) to the central character of the Baroque Cycle.

Stephenson is again mixing his fiction with factual characters.

Next: onward into July.