On The Virtues Of Perfect Timing

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Jonathan Evans

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Apr 18, 1995, 3:00:00 AM4/18/95
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There are no spoilers in this post.

Last weekend I dropped by the World's Biggest Bookstore (which, incidentally,
isn't) in Toronto to see what was new and available. Among the books which
fell into my sweaty little hands were _Permutation City_ by Greg Egan and
_The Diamond Age_ by Neal Stephenson, arguably the two most significant sf
releases of the last twelve months. More to the point, I got the very last
copy of each; hence the title of this point.

The two make an interesting contrast. _PC_ is classic science fiction,
Literature Of Ideas; characterization and even story take a back seat to Mr.
Egan's truly mind-beggaring concepts. _TDA_ is literature *with* ideas; it
has no shortage of the latter, but Stephenson's view is focussed clearly on
his characters. He is aided in this by being a better "tactical" writer than
Mr. Egan - i.e. better at actually sticking verbs and nouns and adjectives on
the page in lively and interesting ways. Which is not to imply that Mr. Egan
is anything but competent.

It is perhaps instructive to compare _Permutation City_ to _A Fire Upon The
Deep_. Neither Egan nor Vernor Vinge is an unusually skilled prose stylist;
like Philip K. Dick, they're just good enough to keep the words out of the way
of the story. Both _aFUTD_ and _PC_ are about extraordinary, even visionary,
concepts; both open up new mental territories. Both are flawed works, but
works of near-genius.

I should mention that I understand Mr. Vinge believes that his Singularity -
the point at which massive technological advances become incomprehensible to
us - is inevitable; and so in _Marooned In Realtime_ and _A Fire Upon The
Deep_, he uses tricks such as the Zones to avoid Singularity, which of course
we could not describe or even conceive of...

but in _Permutation City_, Greg Egan describes a Singularity.

Anything else would be a spoiler. Let me summarize:
Buy it. Read it.


_The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer_, by Neal Stephenson,
is better than _Permutation City_.

Let me be clear. After you have finished reading this post, you are instructed
to quietly log off your computer, find the nearest accessible means of
transportation (whether or not belongs to you) and get thee to a bookstore
which has the work in question. If business or scholarly concerns impede
your progress, quit your job or drop out. Be sure to travel armed with enough
coin of the realm to pay for it; it would be unjust not to give Mr. Stephenson
his due. After you have bought the book, find a quiet and well-lit hole
somewhere and read it.

Let me also add that it is not a *perfect* book. It has its flaws, chief of
which is an awfully rough transitional eighty-page section in the middle. (A
problem also in Mr. Stephenson's _Snow Crash_, which was structured as follows:
adrenaline burn - slow glop of Ancient Sumerian exposition - adrenaline burn).

But it is a wonderful book. Extraordinary. Fascinating, Hilarious and
heartbreaking, inspirational and terrifying. It has something to *say* -
about education and intelligence, cultures and memes, subversity and the
future.

It is *not* _Snow Crash_ redux. Even the writing style is different; instead
of _SC_'s frenetic "faster-faster-MORE!" pace, _The Diamond Age_ builds slowly
and inevitably, plot threads weaving together with patience and inevitability.
It is not cyberpunk (though the first twenty pages may fool you into mistakenly
believing so). There is no Metaverse. Instead there are mites and Feeds,
phyles and ractors, and unforgettable characters; Nell. John Percival
Hackworth. Dr. X. Miranda. Judge Fang. Carl Hollywood.

Buy it. Read it. And while you're at it, do the same with _Permutation City_.

Books like these two do not arrive very often, and more's the pity.

Jon


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