The Novels of Neal Stephenson (and Stephen Bury)

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Matt Hilliard

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Mar 23, 2002, 3:42:40 PM3/23/02
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Neal Stephenson is someone most people here have probably read. If
you haven't, go find yourself a copy of Snow Crash and see what you
think. As a rule, Stephenson's fiction is less serious in tone than
that of most authors, SF or otherwise, but he still covers some very
interesting conceptual ground. At his best his work is equal parts
speculative, satirical, and just plain funny. At his worst, well,
let's just start from the beginning with The Big U...

The Big U (1984, reprinted in 2001)

This was Stephenson's first published novel. It is a satirical look
at life at a huge university. It is absolutely dreadful, made worse
by the fact almost everyone reading it will be familiar with his great
later works and be expecting something that isn't painfully bad like
this book is. I know there's no accounting for taste, but this is
something I thought everyone could agree on. I was wrong, though.
It's gotten plenty of good reviews on Amazon.com. I read the original
version, though, so maybe it was fixed up for the reprint. Still,
there's a favorable review of the original from 1999 on Slashdot
(http://slashdot.org/books/99/10/02/1228218.shtml). Back in the late
90s there was a rumor Stephenson was buying up all the copies he could
find and destroying them. After reading a library copy I was willing
to help him. Then came the news it was being reprinted. Oh well.

Why is it bad? Stephenson has a few funny ideas here about the
interaction of various cliques...computer nerds, role playing game
obsessives, jocks, etc. etc. There are occasional flashes of the
talent he would later develop for witty narrative and humorous
situations. Sadly these are drowned in a story that is not funny
about unlikable characters which just gets worse and worse. If you
can reach the end of the book, you discover the whole thing seems to
have been an excuse to have these various stereotyped groups engage in
a firefight on the campus. Yes, a firefight, complete with machine
guns, a jury-rigged tank, and so forth. Reads like some sort of
adolescent day dream, for all the wrong reasons.

Only read if you want to see just how much Stephenson has improved.
In this sense it is probably good for aspiring authors. Not only was
a book of this...quality...published, but the author managed to become
good. There's hope for everyone.

Zodiac (1988)

Subtitled "an eco-thriller," this book's title is derived from a
high-speed inflatable boat the protagonist uses in his quest to save
the environment. The Captain Planet premise is rescued by
Stephenson's witty prose and fast-moving plot. In the four years
since The Big U was published Stephenson began to come into his own as
a writer, now able to hold the comic tone that was only briefly
visible in The Big U for the length of the novel. Some think this is
Stephenson's best work, but while it's well-written and interesting
the idea content is too low for my tastes. That said it is well worth
reading, and doesn't suffer from the ending difficulties that would
later plague Stephenson.

Snow Crash (1992)

The landmark book which brought Stephenson to the forefront of SF,
this is in my opinion and that of many others his best book. One of
the best depictions of virtual reality and the Internet since Vinge's
True Names. For once the "roller coaster ride" cliche is an apt
description. From the opening pizza delivery sequence, one of the
best opening scenes ever, Stephenson takes the reader on a whirlwind
tour of a future that takes every trend in America and the world and
extends them to their exaggerated limit. I suppose some people might
be put off by the present tense style, but I've personally never met
anyone who didn't have to keep reading after trying out the first 10
pages. One friend wouldn't even give me my book back (he later bought
me another copy).

Snow Crash is not without flaws though. In fact it has huge, glaring
flaws which would sink any other book, but Snow Crash remains
excellent in spite of them. The problems lie in the Sumerian
pseudo-mythology Stephenson builds the plot around. While it makes
for an interesting framework, the latter part of the book sags under
its own weight as it slows and manages to drag itself to the ending,
which is not as satisfying as I had hoped. With Snow Crash, however,
the pleasure comes from the journey, not the destination. Not to be
missed.

Interface (1993)

This was written by "Stephen Bury," a pseudonym for the writing team
of Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George, who I believe is
Stepheson's uncle. Together they wrote two mainstream (but still
borderline SF) technothrillers. The first, Interface, tells the story
of a politician who is wired to computers during the presidential race
to make the perfect candidate, someone who can see focus group results
about the speech he's making in real time and adjust things
accordingly, that sort of thing. If you like politics and SF, give it
a try. This is another Stephenson book I thought was betrayed by the
ending, though it has been long enough since I read it my specific
complaints have faded in my memory.

The Diamond Age (1995)

Technically in the same world as Snow Crash, this book is different in
setting, narrative features, technology, and just about everything
else. Where Snow Crash concentrated almost entirely on virtual
reality and its ramifications, Diamond Age concentrates almost
entirely on nanotechnology. I think it's a little nearsighted to
focus only on one facet of the future, but certainly these two books
are crammed as it is.

Diamond Age won the 1996 Hugo, and while I haven't looked carefully at
the other nominees I've always figured this was an apology to
Stephenson for Snow Crash's lack of official recognition. Like Snow
Crash, Diamond Age starts strong and falters towards the end. Unlike
Snow Crash, though, the ending is just too weak to be overlooked.
It's been a while since I read this but it seemed to me both
inexplicable and arbitrary. Nonetheless, Diamond Age is a good book
and if you liked Snow Crash, you should read it.

The Cobweb (1996)

This is the other Stephen Bury book. I haven't read this one--my
frustration with Interface's ending kept me from getting it.

Cryptonomicon (1999)

Both a triumph and a disappointment, for me at least. As a Snow Crash
reader who wanted more Stephenson and a better plot, I got exactly
that. A *lot* more Stephenson, as the book swells to near Clancy
proportions. Much more attention seems to have been paid this time
out to the plot and characters, resulting in by most measures the best
book Stephenson has yet produced. The dual narrative, half taking
place in World War II and half taking place in the very near future,
is well executed. As might be guessed from the title, the focus is on
cryptography, specifically about code-breaking efforts in World War II
and electronic transactions and data havens in modern day. Stephenson
really hits his stride with his prose, smoothly describing the story,
the settings (a Philippine friend of mine was very impressed by the
descriptions of Intramuros), and the science and practice of
cryptography. An appendix actually contains code for an algorithm
discussed in the book. An excellent book.

But still for me something of a disappointment. Cryptonomicon was
good, but the idea-filled landscapes of Snow Crash and Diamond Age is
replaced by the well-described but more mundane scenes of World War II
and the present. His main speculative area is data havens, but I
thought they were better treated in Sterling's Islands on the Net back
in 1988. Worst of all, from this perspective, Stephenson has said in
interviews Cryptonomicon is the first book in a series of stand-alone
books about the history of cryptography. It may be some time before
he returns to true SF.

Quicksilver (just kidding)

In Cryptonomicon-related interviews Stephenson said he was writing his
next book, Quicksilver, on paper with a fountain pen, sounding a
little like Cliff Stoll in Silicon Snake Oil. Maybe he should have
stuck with the keyboard, since despite interviews from two years ago
where he says he is nearly finished and amazon.co.uk fooling Slashdot
into thinking it was on the way
(http://slashdot.org/articles/02/02/03/042240.shtml -- amazon.co.uk
since has changed the listing to March 2003), it still is nowhere to
be seen. When my friends ask if I've heard anything about it, I
usually tell them Stephenson is too busy ghost-writing supermarket
romance novels to finish. Maybe he's given up on his cryptohistory
series idea and is going back to SF. Someone ought to track him down
and convince him to finish *something*, historical, mainstream, SF.
I'm sure he'll listen to Reason...

--
Matt Hilliard

Martin Wisse

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Mar 23, 2002, 7:22:29 PM3/23/02
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On Sat, 23 Mar 2002 15:42:40 -0500, Matt Hilliard <te...@test.com> wrote:

>Neal Stephenson is someone most people here have probably read. If
>you haven't, go find yourself a copy of Snow Crash and see what you
>think. As a rule, Stephenson's fiction is less serious in tone than
>that of most authors, SF or otherwise, but he still covers some very
>interesting conceptual ground. At his best his work is equal parts
>speculative, satirical, and just plain funny. At his worst, well,
>let's just start from the beginning with The Big U...

I think that with _Cryptonomicom_ we've seen Stephenson quantum jump up
a level as a writer.

>The Cobweb (1996)
>
>This is the other Stephen Bury book. I haven't read this one--my
>frustration with Interface's ending kept me from getting it.

Not science fiction at all, but a Tom Clancyish technothriller. Well
done, but not something you'll really regret not having read.

His non fiction is also worth reading btw: _In the Begging there was the
Command Line_ is an examination of operating systems and their relative
worth and very much a classic geek book. Also wrote two articles for
Wired: "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" is about modern day China, the other
one is a biiiiiig article about the laying of undersea cables, the
history and techniques of it. It's a measure of how well he writes that
he manages to make this interesting. All three pieces are available
online somewhere.

Martin Wisse
--
Oh, sure. We're a thriving commercial republic. What do you expect?
<...>
Civilization.
Pete McCutchen and Jo Walton, RASSEFF, talking about the US

David Cowie

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Mar 23, 2002, 8:31:19 PM3/23/02
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On Sunday 24 March 2002 00:22, Martin Wisse wrote:

>
> His non fiction is also worth reading btw: _In the Begging there was
> the Command Line_ is an examination of operating systems and their
> relative worth and very much a classic geek book. Also wrote two
> articles for Wired: "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" is about modern day
> China, the other one is a biiiiiig article about the laying of
> undersea cables, the history and techniques of it. It's a measure of
> how well he writes that he manages to make this interesting. All three
> pieces are available online somewhere.
>
> Martin Wisse

One can download _In the Beginning was the Command Line_ from
http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html
Don't know about the others. Also, IIRC _In the Beginning was the
Command Line_ is not so much about different OSes as about different
user interfaces - command line vs GUI.

--
David Cowie
There is no _spam in my address.

"You had to do WHAT with your seat?"

William Clifford

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Mar 24, 2002, 12:04:10 AM3/24/02
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In <a7ja93$lfq1n$1...@ID-105025.news.dfncis.de>,

While I like the overall message it seems to have about freedom and
responsibility when it comes to computer commentary and just about
anything else about the art of the essay, I think _In the Beginning..._
is almost total crap. But that's probably just me.

Stephenson has said in interviews that his preferred length is the novel
but there are three short stories floating around out there that I think
are worth mentioning.

_Spew_ is still online in Wired's archives. It's so ninties!

_The Great Simoleon Caper_ was published in _Time_ or _Newsweek_ or
somesuch. I don't remember it.

_Jipi's Day at the Office_ was published in _Fortune_ or _Forbes_ or
somesuch. It's a long way to the punchline. Good, but you can read John
Varley do it better in the story _Bagatelle_.

There are a couple of good interviews with him on Hotwired's archives
too. I'm going to bed and am too tired to conjure up URL's, sorry.
Goodnight everyone.

--
| William Clifford | wo...@yahoo.com | http://wobh.home.mindspring.com |
| "You pet people are so disturbing." |
| --http://www.metafilter.com/comments.mefi/15710 |

Karen Lofstrom

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Mar 24, 2002, 12:13:41 AM3/24/02
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>> "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" is about modern day
>> China, the other one is a biiiiiig article about the laying of
>> undersea cables, the history and techniques of it. It's a measure of
>> how well he writes that he manages to make this interesting. All three
>> pieces are available online somewhere.

These last two are in the Wired archives. I didn't think much of the
first, but looooove the second. I have it stored on my computer, along
with the Command Line piece.

--
Karen Lofstrom lofs...@lava.net
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
CLANK CLANK BANG THUMP BOOM

Andrei Kulakov

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Mar 24, 2002, 6:21:49 AM3/24/02
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In article <hnmp9u4ub9te51p3s...@4ax.com>, Matt Hilliard wrote:
> In Cryptonomicon-related interviews Stephenson said he was writing his
> next book, Quicksilver, on paper with a fountain pen, sounding a
>
That's kind of interesting - I recently also switched to a fountain pen
- for my diary. I find it much more satisfying. When I was growing up in
USSR they made us use them for homework, so it may be nostalgia, to
some extent.

Incidentally, I only read Snow Crash and I thought it had good parts in
it, especially the Sumer connection, but it didn't work as a whole at
all. For me, it wasn't a book, it was several chapters of a great book
mixed in with plenty more of a lousy one. I think this may very well be
the most uneven work I've seen, and I didn't like that one bit. I'd
seriously prefer an inferior work that would jam better with itself.

I dunno, it could also be my "modern SF sucks" schtick, I mean I try to
question my generalizations but I haven't read any SF after '70 or so
that I'd enjoy. It's often interesting but in a jarring way, like
Neuromancer or Snow Crash.

- Andrei

--
Cymbaline: intelligent learning mp3 player - python, linux, console.
get it at: cy.silmarill.org

Louann Miller

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Mar 24, 2002, 11:23:39 AM3/24/02
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On Sun, 24 Mar 2002 00:22:29 GMT, mwi...@ad-astra.demon.nl (Martin
Wisse) wrote:

>On Sat, 23 Mar 2002 15:42:40 -0500, Matt Hilliard <te...@test.com> wrote:

>>The Cobweb (1996)
>>
>>This is the other Stephen Bury book. I haven't read this one--my
>>frustration with Interface's ending kept me from getting it.
>
>Not science fiction at all, but a Tom Clancyish technothriller. Well
>done, but not something you'll really regret not having read.

It's a good read -- good loaner book for someone who resists the SF
label but might be able to handle SF content if it's presented right.
I re-read it over the winter and found the whole government
agencies/biological weapons/vaguely Middle Eastern terrorists trophe
had aged well.

Nancy Lebovitz

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Mar 24, 2002, 2:13:39 PM3/24/02
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In article <slrna9rd...@ak.silmarill.org>,
Andrei Kulakov <a...@silmarill.org> wrote:

>I dunno, it could also be my "modern SF sucks" schtick, I mean I try to
>question my generalizations but I haven't read any SF after '70 or so
>that I'd enjoy. It's often interesting but in a jarring way, like
>Neuromancer or Snow Crash.

What do you see as changing around '70? Have you tried Vinge or Egan?
--
Nancy Lebovitz na...@netaxs.com www.nancybuttons.com 100 new slogans

I want to move to theory. Everything works in theory.

David T. Bilek

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Mar 24, 2002, 3:39:50 PM3/24/02
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On Sun, 24 Mar 2002 11:21:49 GMT, Andrei Kulakov <a...@silmarill.org>
wrote:

>In article <hnmp9u4ub9te51p3s...@4ax.com>, Matt Hilliard wrote:
>> In Cryptonomicon-related interviews Stephenson said he was writing his
>> next book, Quicksilver, on paper with a fountain pen, sounding a
>>
>That's kind of interesting - I recently also switched to a fountain pen
>- for my diary. I find it much more satisfying. When I was growing up in
>USSR they made us use them for homework, so it may be nostalgia, to
>some extent.
>
>Incidentally, I only read Snow Crash and I thought it had good parts in
>it, especially the Sumer connection, but it didn't work as a whole at
>all. For me, it wasn't a book, it was several chapters of a great book
>mixed in with plenty more of a lousy one. I think this may very well be
>the most uneven work I've seen, and I didn't like that one bit. I'd
>seriously prefer an inferior work that would jam better with itself.
>

That's... odd. I thought _Snow Crash_ was plenty of chapters of a
great book mixed in with several chapters of a lousy one. The Sumer
stuff was the prime example of what I thought was crap.

>I dunno, it could also be my "modern SF sucks" schtick, I mean I try to
>question my generalizations but I haven't read any SF after '70 or so
>that I'd enjoy. It's often interesting but in a jarring way, like
>Neuromancer or Snow Crash.
>

I think this has more to do with you than with SF, because there is
more and better SF being published now than ever before. (Well, ok, I
think 2002 has been a bad year so far, but 3 months does not a
generalization make).

I mean, there are SF authors now that can write actual *characters*.
Wow, who'd have thunk it?

-David

Mark Jason Dominus

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Mar 24, 2002, 4:27:09 PM3/24/02
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In article <hnmp9u4ub9te51p3s...@4ax.com>,

Matt Hilliard <te...@test.com> wrote:
>The Big U (1984, reprinted in 2001)
>
>This was Stephenson's first published novel. It is a satirical look
>at life at a huge university. It is absolutely dreadful,

It was the only one of Stephenson's books that I liked. (I have not
yet read _Cryptonomicon_ or _Zodiac_.)

In _Snow Crash_ and _The Diamond Age_, I felt that Stephenson let the
plot run away from him. He introduced characters and macguffins that
were cool, but ultimately irrelevant. About halfway through _Snow
Crash_, I said "Geez, if he doesn't stop bringing in new stuff, he's
never going to finish dealing with the stuff he has." Three quarters
of the way through, I said "Geez, he's never going to be able to tie
up all these loose ends." And by the end of the book, that's what had
happened. There's a famous saying about how you mustn't roll a cannon
onto the stage in Act I unless you're planning to fire it in Act III.
_Snow Crash_ left more unfired cannons lying around the stage than any
book I can remember reading. There was a lot to like in both books,
but at the end I was left scratching my head, wondering what story had
been told.

_The Big U_, in contrast, is a lot tighter. It is the story of one
year at the U, from September to May, at the end of which **SPOILER**.
Stephenson brought a whole bunch of stuff on stage and used every bit
of it. The railgun was foreshadowed for the entire novel, and I said
to myself "If he doesn't use the damn railgun, I'm never reading
another one of his books." But he *did* get satisfactory use out of
the railgun. There were no extraneous characters who were abandoned
in the middle of the book with no explanation. The book had a
beginning, a middle and an end. If _Snow Crash_ had an end, I
couldn't find it.

>made worse by the fact almost everyone reading it will be familiar
>with his great later works and be expecting something that isn't
>painfully bad like this book is.

Well, if someone didn't find the book painfully bad, then they might
not feel that it suffered by comparison with his 'great' later works.
(Which in my opinion are overrated; that's another post for another
day.) So this is a non sequitur.

>I know there's no accounting for taste, but this is something I
>thought everyone could agree on.

There was no reason to have thought that, because almost all the
criticisms you have of _The Big U_ are quite personal.

Let's look at them:

>Why is it bad? A story that is not funny

Just because you didn't think it was funny doesn't mean that other
people will agree. Sometimes you can conclude that almost nobody
could possibly find it funny (for example, because it was derivative
or offensive) but I don't think any of those reasons apply it here.
It appears that you made a personal judgement ("I don't think it's
funny") and then extrapolated that to cover the entire universe.
("Therefore, it isn't funny, and nobody could possibly think it is
funny.")

I thought it was funny. I almost never laugh when I read a book. I
laughed when I read _The Big U_.

>about unlikable characters

Same thing here. You didn't like the characters, but that doesn't
mean that nobody will like them, and I don't know why you thought that
nobody would like them. What didn't you like about them? Did they
seem improbable? Did they behave irrationally? Could you give an
example? I thought the jerky college students mostly behaved like
jerky college students. When I was in college, several of the boys on
my hall decided to take up chewing tobacco; they then spat their chaws
into the hall water fountain and the floors of the showers, so that
everyone else could enjoy it as much as they did. They would have fit
right in at the Big U.

I liked the characters I was supposed to like and disliked the
characters I was supposed to dislike.

> which just gets worse and worse.

This doesn't even reach the level of criticism.

>If you can reach the end of the book, you discover the whole thing
>seems to have been an excuse to have these various stereotyped groups
>engage in a firefight on the campus. Yes, a firefight, complete with
>machine guns, a jury-rigged tank, and so forth. Reads like some sort
>of adolescent day dream, for all the wrong reasons.

Finally a substantive criticism!

__SPOILERS__

I don't have a very clear recollection of the book (I read it only
once, several years ago) but I seem to remember that some of the
groups involved in the final showdown were

(a) a gang of steam-tunnel-exploring geeks who have crossd
over into an alternate universe in which their bizarre
role-playing games are real,

(b) a pack of giant mutant sewer rats,

(c) the President of the University (who reminds me of a cross
between Mr. White from _You Bright and Risen Angels_ and
Rambo. Well, no, that doesn't quite capture the essence
of Septimus Severus Krupp. I don't know what to say
except that he's an original.)

(d) dorm inhabitants who have reverted to a Jaynesean
bicameral mind mentality,

(e) malevolent Slavic dwarves bent on constructing an atomic
bomb, and

(f) bats.

There are a lot of criticisms you could make of this book, but I don't
think "stereotyped groups engage in firefight" is one of them.
Fireight, yes. Stereotped groups? How many novels have you read that
involve a pack of bicameral college students whose god is an electric
fan? Maybe the giant mutant sewer rats are old-hat. I saw them as
more of an homage.

I don't think that the book was just an excuse for the firefight. The
book builds towards the firefight in the same way that any book builds
towards its climactic scene. But the firefight isn't the only reason
for the book to exist. It has a theme, which is that the architecture
of the Big U influences the behavior of its inhabitants, and because
architecture is horrible, it makes the inhabitants horrible. The
theme is developed, with many examples: The U is insular and
inward-looking, so the inhabitants become selfish and arrogant. The U
itself is made of identical parts in precisely artificial geometric
arrangements, so the inhabitants lose their individuality and become
mobs. The U is impersonal and imhuman, so the inhabitants become
cruel and inhumane.

There's a lot of commentary on the relationship between the U and its
inhabitants with the people who live in the surrounding neighborhood.
Having grown up near Columbia University, I found this to be incisive.

There are many details of people being incidentally and unthinkingly
screwed over by bureaucracy, very much in the style of the movie
_Brazil_, or Douglas Adams' game _Bureaucracy. (_The Big U_ predates
both.) I thought that the scene at the very beginning that introduced
Sarah Johnson was an excellent satire of the casually destructive
nature of bureaucratic screwups. I was strongly reminded of the
conclusion I came to when I was trying to register for summer classes
at Columbia: Absolutely everything is implicitly forbidden, and the
only way to get anything is to make an appointment to get special
permission from the Dean.

Another part of the book that stands out in my mind is the section
dealing with the pettiness and stupidity of student (and all)
government. I felt like I'd been waiting a long time to read that.

I don't know what to say about 'adolescent day dream', since I haven't
read it recently enough to remember the tone. But I don't think that
many adolescent daydreams are as bizarre and surprising as this one was.

In the future, I think your reviews might be more useful if you would
avoid statements like "It was absolutely dreadful", which don't really
tell anyone anything except that Hilliard thought it was dreadful.

--
Mark Jason Dominus m...@plover.com
Philadelphia Excursions Mailing List: http://www.plover.com/~mjd/excursions/

Matt Hilliard

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Mar 24, 2002, 5:01:41 PM3/24/02
to
On Sun, 24 Mar 2002 21:27:09 +0000 (UTC), m...@plover.com (Mark Jason
Dominus) wrote:

>In article <hnmp9u4ub9te51p3s...@4ax.com>,
>Matt Hilliard <te...@test.com> wrote:
>>The Big U (1984, reprinted in 2001)
>>
>>This was Stephenson's first published novel. It is a satirical look
>>at life at a huge university. It is absolutely dreadful,
>
>It was the only one of Stephenson's books that I liked. (I have not
>yet read _Cryptonomicon_ or _Zodiac_.)

I'm going to begin my response with the end of yours.

>In the future, I think your reviews might be more useful if you would
>avoid statements like "It was absolutely dreadful", which don't really
>tell anyone anything except that Hilliard thought it was dreadful.

This was not a formal review, though I admit it was approaching the
length of one. In the past Novels of... posts by James Nicholl and
others, often the description of the book is, "Bounced off this one
both times I tried it" with no explanation as to why. I thought The
Big U is dreadful, and while I stated that in absolute terms any
review post has an implicit "In my opinion" going along with it. When
Nicholl said "This is where the rot sets in" about Brin's Startide
Rising, I accept that's his opinion (I really, really liked Startide
Rising). This means I don't take Nicholl's reviews of other books as
recommendations for myself, but I do enjoy reading what he says to see
other viewpoints.

One of the reasons I was so excoriating was because I wanted to hear
from someone who liked the book.

>>I know there's no accounting for taste, but this is something I
>>thought everyone could agree on.
>
>There was no reason to have thought that, because almost all the
>criticisms you have of _The Big U_ are quite personal.

All right, fair enough, but you didn't bother to print the fact I did
indeed point out I'd seen positive, some very positive, reviews of it.
Just because criticism is personal doesn't invalidate it, it just
means you need to examine the viewpoints of the reviewer, in this case
me, and see if we're on the same page. For instance, I think The BIg
U was not well-written. I know some people who would assert that this
sort of statement can be made objectively, but I disagree, and your
disagreement on this score underlines this. That doesn't mean I
shouldn't say if I think it isn't well-written.

Oh well. Glad some people like The Big U. You ought to give
Cryptonomicon a try. It doesn't have a lot of the flaws in Snow Crash
and Diamond Age you complain about (and I did as well, to a lesser
extent).

Matt Hilliard
De gustibus non est disputandum

Christopher K Davis

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Mar 24, 2002, 11:16:47 PM3/24/02
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Mark Jason Dominus <m...@plover.com> writes:

> (c) the President of the University (who reminds me of a cross
> between Mr. White from _You Bright and Risen Angels_ and
> Rambo. Well, no, that doesn't quite capture the essence
> of Septimus Severus Krupp. I don't know what to say
> except that he's an original.)

Or perhaps he isn't.

http://www.bu.edu/philo/faculty/silber.html

--
Christopher Davis * <ckd...@ckdhr.com> * <URL:http://www.ckdhr.com/ckd/>
Put location information in your DNS! <URL:http://www.ckdhr.com/dns-loc/>
Bill, n. 2. A writing binding the signer [...] to pay [...]
Gates, n. 4. The places which command the entrances or access [...]

Elf Sternberg

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Mar 25, 2002, 1:24:14 PM3/25/02
to
In article <hnmp9u4ub9te51p3s...@4ax.com>
Matt Hilliard <te...@test.com> writes:

>Snow Crash (1992)
>
>The landmark book which brought Stephenson to the forefront of SF,
>this is in my opinion and that of many others his best book. One of
>the best depictions of virtual reality and the Internet since Vinge's
>True Names. For once the "roller coaster ride" cliche is an apt
>description. From the opening pizza delivery sequence, one of the

>best opening scenes ever...

I have to dissent on this remark. I found the opening scene so
completely over the top that I had to skip it completely, read a spoiler
about it to see that all it did was introduce our Hiro Protagonist, er
hero-protagonist, and proceed from there. I hadet the opening scene.
It convinced me that I was reading another post-Gibsonite who thought
that writing should have all the depth of a disco ball-- so long as it
was flashy, nobody would notice. When I finally did go back and read
the first chapter I appreciated it for what it was, but it was so
distinctly different from the rest of the book-- a book which
demonstrated that Stephenson actually had a brain-- that I find it an
unforgivable chunk of tripe in an otherwise well-written novel.

Elf

--
Elf M. Sternberg, Immanentizing the Eschaton since 1988
http://www.drizzle.com/~elf/ (under construction)

Promiscuity, done right, is an inherently nerdlike pursuit that
requires discipline, practice and forethought. -- Tracy Quan

They swash! They buckle! New stories at:
http://www.drizzle.com/~elf/bloodybeth/

David Cowie

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Mar 25, 2002, 3:20:15 PM3/25/02
to
When discussing Stephenson, people often complain about the endings of
his novels. I've read _The Diamond Age_ and _Snow Crash_ two or three
times each, and I can't remember anything bad about the endings. Err,
actually, I can't remember the endings _at_ _all_. Is "not memorable"
one of the faults complained about?

William December Starr

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Mar 25, 2002, 4:04:06 PM3/25/02
to
In article <a7jna5$qeg$3...@mochi.lava.net>,
lofs...@lava.net (Karen Lofstrom) said:

>>> "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" is about modern day China, the other
>>> one is a biiiiiig article about the laying of undersea cables, the
>>> history and techniques of it. It's a measure of how well he writes
>>> that he manages to make this interesting. All three pieces are
>>> available online somewhere.

> These last two are in the Wired archives. I didn't think much of the
> first, but looooove the second. I have it stored on my computer,
> along with the Command Line piece.

Does anybody have the URLs handy for the "Mao Bell" and cable pieces?

(Command Line" is at <http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html>.)

-- William December Starr <wds...@panix.com>

David Cowie

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Mar 25, 2002, 4:32:00 PM3/25/02
to
On Monday 25 March 2002 21:04, William December Starr wrote:

>
> Does anybody have the URLs handy for the "Mao Bell" and cable pieces?
>

Mao Bell can be found here:
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.02/mao.bell_pr.html

and the cables can be found here:
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.12/ffglass_pr.html

(both are the printer-friendly versions, which are on one page instead
of 2 (mao) and 56 (cable)).

John S. Novak, III

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Mar 25, 2002, 6:47:19 PM3/25/02
to
In article <1017080652.696275@yasure>, Elf Sternberg wrote:

> I have to dissent on this remark. I found the opening scene so
> completely over the top that I had to skip it completely, read a spoiler
> about it to see that all it did was introduce our Hiro Protagonist, er
> hero-protagonist, and proceed from there. I hadet the opening scene.
> It convinced me that I was reading another post-Gibsonite who thought
> that writing should have all the depth of a disco ball-- so long as it
> was flashy, nobody would notice.

Um.
I believe it was satirizing that exact notion.

> When I finally did go back and read
> the first chapter I appreciated it for what it was,

...Was that what you appreciated it for?


--
John S. Novak, III j...@cegt201.bradley.edu
The Humblest Man on the Net

John S. Novak, III

unread,
Mar 25, 2002, 6:48:48 PM3/25/02
to
In article <a7o0pj$mr3qh$2...@ID-105025.news.dfncis.de>, David Cowie wrote:
> When discussing Stephenson, people often complain about the endings of
> his novels. I've read _The Diamond Age_ and _Snow Crash_ two or three
> times each, and I can't remember anything bad about the endings. Err,
> actually, I can't remember the endings _at_ _all_. Is "not memorable"
> one of the faults complained about?

My complaint is that they often don't stop, so much as... end.
Abruptly.

Cryptonomicon was better, in this regard, but that was when I expected
the next volume to be an exploration of the effects of data havens in
general, ie, an actual sequel. As opposed to what I think is going to
actually happen-- a more or less unrelated book in a different time
period with few or no characters in common.

David T. Bilek

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Mar 25, 2002, 6:55:14 PM3/25/02
to
On 25 Mar 2002 23:48:48 GMT, j...@concentric.net (John S. Novak, III)
wrote:

I'd wager Enoch Root will appear, but that's just a guess.

-David

Elf Sternberg

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Mar 26, 2002, 12:02:07 PM3/26/02
to
In article <a7ocu6$mq78k$2...@ID-100778.news.dfncis.de>
j...@concentric.net (John S. Novak, III) writes:

>In article <1017080652.696275@yasure>, Elf Sternberg wrote:
>
>> I have to dissent on this remark. I found the opening scene so
>> completely over the top that I had to skip it completely, read a spoiler
>> about it to see that all it did was introduce our Hiro Protagonist, er

>> hero-protagonist, and proceed from there. I hated the opening scene.


>> It convinced me that I was reading another post-Gibsonite who thought
>> that writing should have all the depth of a disco ball-- so long as it
>> was flashy, nobody would notice.

>I believe it was satirizing that exact notion.

If that was the case, it did a damn poor job. That was my main
point: the first chapter is a serious roadblock to anyone hoping to read
a book with a brain. It doesn't communicate that that's what you're
getting at all, and it required some serious word-of-mouth lobbying by
friends I trust to convince me that the book did, indeed, have a brain.

>> When I finally did go back and read
>> the first chapter I appreciated it for what it was,

>...Was that what you appreciated it for?

For the skill with which it was written. I still think it's
more of a roadblock than an invitation.

William December Starr

unread,
Mar 26, 2002, 4:33:20 PM3/26/02
to
In article <a7o506$n3ras$1...@ID-105025.news.dfncis.de>,
David Cowie <david_co...@lineone.net> said:

>> Does anybody have the URLs handy for the "Mao Bell" and cable
>> pieces?
>
> Mao Bell can be found here:
> http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.02/mao.bell_pr.html
>
> and the cables can be found here:
> http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.12/ffglass_pr.html

Thanks.

John Schilling

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Mar 26, 2002, 4:34:03 PM3/26/02
to
j...@concentric.net (John S. Novak, III) writes:

>In article <a7o0pj$mr3qh$2...@ID-105025.news.dfncis.de>, David Cowie wrote:
>> When discussing Stephenson, people often complain about the endings of
>> his novels. I've read _The Diamond Age_ and _Snow Crash_ two or three
>> times each, and I can't remember anything bad about the endings. Err,
>> actually, I can't remember the endings _at_ _all_. Is "not memorable"
>> one of the faults complained about?

>My complaint is that they often don't stop, so much as... end.
>Abruptly.

>Cryptonomicon was better, in this regard, but that was when I expected
>the next volume to be an exploration of the effects of data havens in
>general, ie, an actual sequel.

IOW, the ending is acceptable so long as it is not actually the ending.

I can buy that. The "ending" to _Cryptonomicon_, as it stands, is
roughly equivilant to "ending" _The Lord of the Rings_ midway through
_The Two Towers_. Rohan has been liberated, Saruman has been defeated,
and Frodo got to Mordor sure enough, so the story's over, right?


>As opposed to what I think is going to actually happen-- a more or less
>unrelated book in a different time period with few or no characters in
>common.

And I expect I would enjoy that book. But I am exceedingly reluctant to
read it, until the actual sequel/conclusion to _Cryptonomicon_ is in hand.


--
*John Schilling * "Anything worth doing, *
*Member:AIAA,NRA,ACLU,SAS,LP * is worth doing for money" *
*Chief Scientist & General Partner * -13th Rule of Acquisition *
*White Elephant Research, LLC * "There is no substitute *
*schi...@spock.usc.edu * for success" *
*661-951-9107 or 661-275-6795 * -58th Rule of Acquisition *


John S. Novak, III

unread,
Mar 26, 2002, 8:53:19 PM3/26/02
to
In article <a7qpgb$4g1$1...@spock.usc.edu>, John Schilling wrote:

>>My complaint is that they often don't stop, so much as... end.
>>Abruptly.

>>Cryptonomicon was better, in this regard, but that was when I expected
>>the next volume to be an exploration of the effects of data havens in
>>general, ie, an actual sequel.

> IOW, the ending is acceptable so long as it is not actually the ending.

Not.... exactly, but close.
I thought it had a better ending than anything prior I'd read, and I
thought it had the appropriate amount of closure for an installment
that would be picked up later.

I had sort of hoped that the next volume would pick up some five years
later, or so, and follow up on the themes raised in this book about
data havens, etc, and perhaps follow a split narrative focussing on
the other character whose name escapes me.

Scott Beeler

unread,
Mar 26, 2002, 9:02:02 PM3/26/02
to
Matt Hilliard <te...@test.com> wrote:

> The Big U (1984, reprinted in 2001)
>
> This was Stephenson's first published novel. It is a satirical look
> at life at a huge university. It is absolutely dreadful, made worse
> by the fact almost everyone reading it will be familiar with his great
> later works and be expecting something that isn't painfully bad like
> this book is. I know there's no accounting for taste, but this is
> something I thought everyone could agree on. I was wrong, though.

Yep, this is definitely one on which our opinions differ. I really
like it. I do find it very (often darkly) funny, about a few sane
people struggling in an otherwise mad environment. As with
_Cryptonomicon_ it takes ostensibly real-world characters and groups
into over-the-top oddball-ness. It is kind of silly in places, but
quite entertaining pretty much throughout, I think.

> Zodiac (1988)
>
> Subtitled "an eco-thriller," this book's title is derived from a
> high-speed inflatable boat the protagonist uses in his quest to save
> the environment. The Captain Planet premise is rescued by
> Stephenson's witty prose and fast-moving plot. In the four years
> since The Big U was published Stephenson began to come into his own as
> a writer, now able to hold the comic tone that was only briefly
> visible in The Big U for the length of the novel. Some think this is
> Stephenson's best work, but while it's well-written and interesting
> the idea content is too low for my tastes. That said it is well worth
> reading, and doesn't suffer from the ending difficulties that would
> later plague Stephenson.

Yeah, it's probably the most straightforward of his books. Not as
full of invention, but smoothly written. And has an ending, as you
say. Good, but not great.

> Interface (1993)
>
> This was written by "Stephen Bury," a pseudonym for the writing team
> of Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George, who I believe is
> Stepheson's uncle. Together they wrote two mainstream (but still
> borderline SF) technothrillers. The first, Interface, tells the story
> of a politician who is wired to computers during the presidential race
> to make the perfect candidate, someone who can see focus group results
> about the speech he's making in real time and adjust things
> accordingly, that sort of thing. If you like politics and SF, give it
> a try. This is another Stephenson book I thought was betrayed by the
> ending, though it has been long enough since I read it my specific
> complaints have faded in my memory.

Hmm. I guess we definitely see things different then. I really
enjoyed the book and thought that the ending was probably his best.
The different threads all come together in very dramatic and fitting
fashion IMO.

> Cryptonomicon (1999)
>
> Both a triumph and a disappointment, for me at least. As a Snow Crash
> reader who wanted more Stephenson and a better plot, I got exactly
> that. A *lot* more Stephenson, as the book swells to near Clancy
> proportions. Much more attention seems to have been paid this time
> out to the plot and characters, resulting in by most measures the best
> book Stephenson has yet produced. The dual narrative, half taking
> place in World War II and half taking place in the very near future,
> is well executed.

Yes, I think this is his best prose, and the plotting is much better
than tDA and somewhat better than SC. It's not really *tightly
plotted* -- there's so many more diversions and changes in direction
than _Zodiac_ or _Interface_, say -- but it moves the book in the
right directions and gets the characters behaving realistically,
unlike the meltdown at the end of tDA.

> But still for me something of a disappointment. Cryptonomicon was
> good, but the idea-filled landscapes of Snow Crash and Diamond Age is
> replaced by the well-described but more mundane scenes of World War II
> and the present.

I don't mind this at all. The content is quite interesting to me,
though non-SFnal. And we still get plenty of Stephensonian oddballs
and quirky subcultures and asides (Randy's "Cap'n Crunch" routine is
great), though they're plausibly real-world.

It's probably my favorite. _Interface_ and _Snow Crash_ aren't far
behind, though.

--
Scott C. Beeler scott...@home.com

P. Korda

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Mar 26, 2002, 11:45:46 PM3/26/02
to
In article <a7r8me$ngi3d$3...@ID-100778.news.dfncis.de>,
John S. Novak, III <j...@cegt201.bradley.edu> wrote:

[Stephenson's ending problem, as applied to _Cryptonomicon_]

>Not.... exactly, but close.
>I thought it had a better ending than anything prior I'd read, and I
>thought it had the appropriate amount of closure for an installment
>that would be picked up later.

I think that the better sense of closure comes from the split
narrative. The modern-day tale provides an "ending" to the WWII
story. If you consider the WWII story in and of itself, it ends
terribly, in typical Stephenson fashion. But, in the
modern/near-future story, we find out what became of all the WWII
characters, what happenned to the gold, and so forth, so you feel more
like you got an ending.

The modern-day story, of course, also stops abruptly. So, you have two
narratives, and one ending, unlike most of his work which has one
narrative and no ending.

>I had sort of hoped that the next volume would pick up some five years
>later, or so, and follow up on the themes raised in this book about
>data havens, etc, and perhaps follow a split narrative focussing on
>the other character whose name escapes me.

I'm happy it's not. I didn't find any of the modern-day characters
particularly interesting. I sure wouldn't want to read a whole 'nother
book about them.


--
Pam Korda
kor2 @ midway.uchicago.edu
Home Page: http://home.uchicago.edu/~kor2/
Book Log: http://home.uchicago.edu/~kor2/booklog/

John S. Novak, III

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Mar 27, 2002, 12:20:25 AM3/27/02
to
In article <_7co8.107$s4.1...@news.uchicago.edu>, P. Korda wrote:

>>Not.... exactly, but close.
>>I thought it had a better ending than anything prior I'd read, and I
>>thought it had the appropriate amount of closure for an installment
>>that would be picked up later.

> I think that the better sense of closure comes from the split
> narrative. The modern-day tale provides an "ending" to the WWII
> story. If you consider the WWII story in and of itself, it ends
> terribly, in typical Stephenson fashion. But, in the
> modern/near-future story, we find out what became of all the WWII
> characters, what happenned to the gold, and so forth, so you feel more
> like you got an ending.

There is something to that.
Although he does seem to be missing an ending, by your analysis....

>>I had sort of hoped that the next volume would pick up some five years
>>later, or so, and follow up on the themes raised in this book about
>>data havens, etc, and perhaps follow a split narrative focussing on
>>the other character whose name escapes me.

> I'm happy it's not. I didn't find any of the modern-day characters
> particularly interesting. I sure wouldn't want to read a whole 'nother
> book about them.

Well, while I liked Randy, I think I'd about enough of him and enough
of his family. I'm definitely glad I'm not getting another book Randy
the Daring Geek and his weird Grandpa who wavers between autistic and
inhumanly perspicacious as the narrative requires.

But I thought there enough a sense of history behind Avi (kept wanting
to say Ari) that I'd have enjoyed reading about it. And there would
seem to be an interesting parallel to be drawn behind, say, data havens
on the one hand, and Nazi gold in Swiss bank accounts after World War
II on the other.

Tastes, as they say, vary.

(Although I note that to make sure it was Avi and not Ari, I had to
thumb to a random section in the book to confirm. And the temptation
to just keep reading was strong. So many books, so little time.)

--

John S. Novak, III j...@cegt201.bradley.edu

Doug Palmer

unread,
Mar 27, 2002, 5:49:22 AM3/27/02
to
On Tue, 26 Mar 2002 05:24:14 +1100, Elf Sternberg wrote:


>>Snow Crash (1992)

> I have to dissent on this remark. I found the opening scene so
> completely over the top that I had to skip it completely,

I thought it was one of the funniest things I'd read for ages. In a book
that was full of things that made me laugh myself silly.

It probably says a lot about the inbuilt degeneration mechanisms of
cyberpunk that it's even remotely possible to take the opening scene
seriously.

--
Doug Palmer http://www.charvolant.org/~doug do...@charvolant.org

Serg

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Mar 27, 2002, 9:19:29 AM3/27/02
to
schi...@spock.usc.edu (John Schilling) wrote in message news:<a7qpgb$4g1$1...@spock.usc.edu>...

> j...@concentric.net (John S. Novak, III) writes:

> >Cryptonomicon was better, in this regard, but that was when I expected
> >the next volume to be an exploration of the effects of data havens in
> >general, ie, an actual sequel.
>
> IOW, the ending is acceptable so long as it is not actually the ending.
>
> I can buy that. The "ending" to _Cryptonomicon_, as it stands, is
> roughly equivilant to "ending" _The Lord of the Rings_ midway through
> _The Two Towers_. Rohan has been liberated, Saruman has been defeated,
> and Frodo got to Mordor sure enough, so the story's over, right?
>
Hmm, with digital heaven idea compromised by 9/11 it would be more
like the end of the first book - Gandalf is dead and future is pretty
dark. What could be second part about - Delta force storming
datastorage facility and escaping protagonists go in hiding ? Or
second attempt after 50 years ?

John Schilling

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Mar 27, 2002, 6:26:17 PM3/27/02
to
ser...@yahoo.com (Serg) writes:


9/11 has not turned out to be the boogeyman cyber-libertarians might have
feared; Delta Force is *not* going around storming data havens, and they
aren't going to.

Yes, "Cryptonomicon" has its Sauron, but the name isn't Delta it is Dentist.
*That* is going to be an interesting fight, and no, it wasn't resolved in
that little skirmish at the end of the first book. And there's more to come
afterwards, before the heroes have fulfilled their quest. So far, all they
have is a bunch of gold, and that's just the beginning.

Sean O'Hara

unread,
Mar 28, 2002, 12:03:15 AM3/28/02
to
"John S. Novak, III" wrote:
>
> Well, while I liked Randy, I think I'd about enough of him and enough
> of his family. I'm definitely glad I'm not getting another book Randy
> the Daring Geek and his weird Grandpa who wavers between autistic and
> inhumanly perspicacious as the narrative requires.
>
What about "Randy and Immortal Enoch Strike Back," in which our
heros must travel to Hollywood to stop Ron Howard from making an
insipid biopic based upon the elder Waterhouse's life?

--
Sean O’Hara
“I'll be damned if I'm going to be upstaged by a Mouseketeer,”
-- Sarah Jessica Parker on Britney Spears

Joe Bernstein

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Apr 1, 2002, 2:08:21 PM4/1/02
to
In article <a7jna5$qeg$3...@mochi.lava.net>,
Karen Lofstrom <lofs...@lava.net> wrote:

> >> "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" is about modern day
> >> China, the other one is a biiiiiig article about the laying of
> >> undersea cables, the history and techniques of it.

> These last two are in the Wired archives. I didn't think much of the
> first, but looooove the second. I have it stored on my computer, along
> with the Command Line piece.

I've only ever bought two issues of <Wired>, and one of 'em I bought
for that article. (The other was their cover story about the WELL.)

I don't regret it at all, and from someone who is *not* accustomed to
paying significant money for reading material, and is flatly
contemptuous of <Wired> by and large, that says a lot.

Joe Bernstein
much relieved from the original post to see that I'm not alone after
all in my reactions to <Snow Crash>, obSFnally

PS There was one more <Wired> story that greatly impressed me, though
I didn't buy the issue; in 1996 somebody did a piece on Bill Clinton
and the Bill of Rights that actually wound up changing my vote.
Otherwise, <Wired> was always a guilty pleasure for me of the
rubbernecking at car crashes variety.

--
Joe Bernstein, writer j...@sfbooks.com
<http://these-survive.postilion.org/>

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