Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Technical literature


I just read Charles Yu’s review of Neal Stephenson’s new novel Seveneves (after reading the novel itself), a story that begins with the moon being suddenly disintegrated by a mysterious force, and goes downhill from there. Yu  writes

The skill with which this is all carried out is also a liability. Stephenson is so fluid a writer, so adept at the particular thing he does, that he can get away with very long stretches of what’s frequently referred to as “infodumps” but what I prefer to call “techsposition”: an amalgam of technical geekery and plotty exposition, fused into one substance, a material Stephenson has seemingly perfected… The amount of context required to understand any given passage, its lingo and conceptual background prerequisites, is astounding — resulting, at times, in sentences like this:

“A new niksht had been formed, just at the place where the whip was attached to the hebel, and was beginning to accelerate ‘forward,’ accelerating the flivver to the velocity it would need to accomplish the rest of the mission.”

… The challenge of writing a novel in which some of the most important entities are rocks is that some of the most important entities are rocks.

This doesn’t look very good. But you might make similar comments about other, more generally esteemed, novels. For instance,

The amount of context required to understand any given passage, its lingo and conceptual background prerequisites, is astounding — resulting, at times, in passages like this:

“The lower subdivided part, called the junk, is one immense honeycomb of oil, formed by the crossing and recrossing, into ten thousand infiltrated cells, of tough elastic white fibres throughout its whole extent. The upper part, known as the Case, may be regarded as the great Heidelburgh Tun of the Sperm Whale.”

The challenge of writing a novel in which some of the most important entities are whales is that some of the most important entities are whales.

That is, indeed, how many 19th century readers appraised Moby Dick. With greater familiarity, critics came to understand that technical detail is essential to a story of human struggle with nature. Nature doesn’t care about our passions and ambitions, or any of our self-aggrandisement, except as these are manifested physically. So it is with Seveneves, whose characters strut upon a vast stage of human striving, conflict and desire, but their lofty thoughts and speeches can seem ridiculous when put up against the hard facts of orbital mechanics and inertia that brook no persuasion. The very weight of detail communicates the ponderous physical law that the characters need to contend with, a heroic age where Odysseus needs to retire to his tent to spend days calculating,

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