Monday, November 06, 2006

Both ways are simple-minded--they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity

Wherein perhaps this can also be a companion piece to reader_iam's post on Telling Truth

XWL is linking to Instapundit and me over Neal Stephenson quotes. Frankly, I'm a bit depressed. Most of these Stephenson quotes are not only because I find them interesting, but also because they often help illuminate certain aspects of current events. By now I would hope everyone has consumed at least some of the Stephenson oeuvre. Then earlier, someone -- I'm looking at you ahistoricality -- admits to not being entirely convinced that Stephenson is worth reading. Some things should be kept to yourself or at least not admitted here.

Back to the links. XWL mentions an earlier post of his about Cryptonmicon. Interestingly, because that post predates my Immodest Proposalreading, the other day I almost quoted from the same Yamamoto section that he references. As well as a slightly earlier section when Goto Dengo realizes that the Americans have created a new weapon in the middle of the war. Both Dengo and Yamamoto realize "adaptibility" is a uniquely American concept and is why the Japanese will lose. Adaptibility is a frequent theme throughout the works of Stephenson. Bringing up another common theme, Instapundit writes: Stephenson's position as a moral thinker is underrated.. Oh, I agree. Even Zodiac has its moments of moral decisionmaking. Cobweb is also an excellent choice for morality choices combined with the fear and inertia of government bodies to take moral risks. I'll quote from it tomorrow.

Then there's the Diamond Age. I find the ending completely frustrating and the purpose of the Drummers opaque. But the Diamond Age is frequently Stephenson's most emotionally resonant novel. There are scenes of great beauty and sadness. Here's hoping you enjoy these examples of adaptibility and morality. If not, please keep it to yourself.

First some background:
  • After the fall of Nation-states, populations reorganized themselves along cultural lines not always in line with geography. It is possible that after tiring of one "phyle" a person may decide to apply for membership to another.
  • M.C. refers to "matter compiler." While access to it may be limited by class or monetary status, it will basically create anything you can think of.
  • Vickys live in New Atlantis, a very rich and powerful anglo phyle that simulates the manners of the Victorian age.

In this excerpt -- actually two scrunched together; the first sets up the second -- Nell, our hero, who at age five has lived a very hard life, but has survived in large part due to her heroic but doomed brother Harv, learns that not all phyles have the same goals or purpose. Also one of Stephenson's greatest pithy punchlines.
"We make things," the woman said, as if this provided a nearly perfect and sufficient explanation of the phyle called Dovetail.
"Brad makes horseshoes. But Brad's the exception because mostly he provides services relating to horses. Doesn't he, Eggshell?" the woman added for the mare's benefit. "That's why he had to live down in the L.T. for a while, because there was disagreement as to whether grooms, butlers, and other service providers fit in with Dovetail's charter. But we had a vote and decided to let them in. This is boring you, isn't it? My name's Rita, and I make paper."
"You mean, in the M.C.?"
This seemed like an obvious question to Nell, but Rita was surprised to hear it and eventually laughed it off. "I'll show you later. But what I was getting at is that, unlike where you've been living, everything here at Dovetail was made by hand. We have a few matter compilers here. But if we want a chair, say, one of our craftsmen will put it together out of wood, just like in ancient times."
"Why don't you just compile it?" Harv said. "The M.C. can make wood."
"It can make fake wood," Rita said, "but some people don't like fake things."
"Why don't you like fake things?" Nell asked.
Rita smiled at her. "It's not just us. It's them," she said, pointing up the mountain toward the belt of high trees that separated Dovetail from New Atlantis territory.


"Why do the Vickys have such a big clave?" Nell asked.
"Don't ever call them Vickys," Rita said.
"It's a word that people who don't like them use to describe them in kind of a bad, unfriendly way," Rita said.
"Like a pejorative term?" Nell said.
Rita laughed, more nervous than amused. "Exactly."
"Why do the Atlantans have such a big clave?"
"Well, each phyle has a different way, and some ways are better suited to making money than others, so some have a lot of territory and others don't."
"What do you mean, a different way?"
"To make money you have to work hard-to live your life in a certain way. The Atlantans all live that way, it's part of their culture. The Nipponese too. So the Nipponese and the Atlantans have as much money as all the other phyles put together."
"Why aren't you an Atlantan?"
"Because I don't want to live that way. All the people in Dovetail like to make beautiful things. To us, the things that the Atlantans do– dressing up in these kinds of clothes, spending years and years in school-are irrelevant. Those pursuits wouldn't help us make beautiful things, you see. I'd rather just wear my blue jeans and make paper."
"But the M.C. can make paper," Nell said.
"Not the kind that the Atlantans like."
"But you make money from your paper only because the Atlantans make money from working hard," Nell said.
Rita's face turned red and she said nothing for a little while. Then, in a tight voice, she said, "Nell, you should ask your book the meaning of the word discretion."

Constable Moore speaks wise words to Nell:
"Nell," the Constable continued, indicating through his tone of voice that the lesson was concluding, "the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people-and this is true whether or not they are well-educated-is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations-in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.
"In your Primer you have a resource that will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent. That comes from life. Your life up to this point has given you all of the experience you need to be intelligent, but you have to think about those experiences. If you don't think about them, you'll be psychologically unwell. If you do think about them, you will become not merely educated but intelligent, and then, a few years down the road, you will probably give me cause to wish I were several decades younger."
The Constable turned and walked back into his house, leaving Nell alone in the garden, pondering the meaning of that last statement. She supposed it was the sort of thing she might understand later, when she had become intelligent.

Miss Matheson explains the reasons behind a pointless aspect of the school curriculum. For the Snow Crash fans, there is a very brief allusion (not in this quoted section) that has lead to much speculation that Miss Matheson is Y.T.
"It's a wonderful thing to be clever, and you should never think otherwise, and you should never stop being that way. But what you learn, as you get older, is that there are a few billion other people in the world all trying to be clever at the same time, and whatever you do with your life will certainly be lost-swallowed up in the ocean-unless you are doing it along with like-minded people who will remember your contributions and carry them forward. That is why the world is divided into tribes. There are many Lesser phyles and three Great ones. "What are the Great ones?"
"New Atlantis," Nell began.
"Nippon," said Fiona.
"Han," they concluded together.
"That is correct," Miss Matheson said. "We traditionally include Han in the list because of its immense size and age-even though it has lately been crippled by intestine discord. And some would include Hindustan, while others would view it as a riotously diverse collection of microtribes sintered together according to some formula we don't get.
"Now, there was a time when we believed that what a human mind could accomplish was determined by genetic factors. Piffle, of course, but it looked convincing for many years, because distinctions between tribes were so evident. Now we understand that it's all cultural. That, after all, is what a culture is-a group of people who share in common certain acquired traits.
"Information technology has freed cultures from the necessity of owning particular bits of land in order to propagate; now we can live anywhere. The Common Economic Protocol specifies how this is to be arranged.
"Some cultures are prosperous; some are not. Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not. Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it. The only thing they have in common is that if they do not propagate, they will be swallowed up by others. All they have built up will be torn down; all they have accomplished will be forgotten; all they have learned and written will be scattered to the wind. In the old days it was easy to remember this because of the constant necessity of border defence. Nowadays, it is all too easily forgotten.
"New Atlantis, like many tribes, propagates itself largely through education. That is the raison d'être of this Academy. Here you develop your bodies through exercise and dance, and your minds by doing projects. And then you go to Miss Stricken's class.
"What is the point of Miss Stricken's class? Anyone? Please speak up. You can't get in trouble, no matter what you say."
Nell said, after some dithering, "I'm not sure that it has any point." Fiona just watched her saying it and smiled sadly.
Miss Matheson smiled. "You are not far off the mark. Miss Stricken's phase of the curriculum comes perilously close to being without any real substance. Why do we bother with it, then?"
"I can't imagine," Nell said.
"When I was a child, I took a karate class," Miss Matheson said, astonishingly. "Dropped out after a few weeks. Couldn't stand it. I thought that the sensei would teach me how to defend myself when I was out on my skateboard. But the first thing he did was have me sweep the floor. Then he told me that if I wanted to defend myself, I should buy a gun. I came back the next week and he had me sweep the floor again. All I ever did was sweep. Now, what was the point of that?"
"To teach you humility and self-discipline," Nell said. She had learned this from Dojo long ago.
"Precisely. Which are moral qualities. It is upon moral qualities that a society is ultimately founded. All the prosperity and technological sophistication in the world is of no use without that foundation-we learned this in the late twentieth century, when it became unfashionable to teach these things."
"But how can you say it's moral?" said Fiona. "Miss Stricken isn't moral. She's so cruel."
"Miss Stricken is not someone I would invite to dinner at my house. I would not hire her as a governess for my children. Her methods are not my methods. But people like her are indispensable.
"It is the hardest thing in the world to make educated Westerners pull together," Miss Matheson went on. "That is the job of people like Miss Stricken. We must forgive them their imperfections. She is like an avatar-do you children know about avatars? She is the physical embodiment of a principle. That principle is that outside the comfortable and welldefended borders of our phyle is a hard world that will come and hurt us if we are not careful. It is not an easy job to have. We must all feel sorry for Miss Stricken."
They brought sheaves of foxgloves, violet and magenta, back to the school and set them in vases in each classroom, leaving an especially large bouquet in Miss Stricken's office. Then they took tea with Miss Matheson, and then they each went home.
Nell could not bring herself to agree with what Miss Matheson had said; but she found that, after this conversation, everything became easy. She had the neo-Victorians all figured out now. The society had miraculously transmutated into an orderly system, like the simple computers they programmed in the school. Now that Nell knew all of the rules, she could make it do anything she wanted.

An older Nell remembers a conversation:
Nell did not imagine that Constable Moore wanted to get into a detailed discussion of recent events, so she changed the subject. "I think I have finally worked out what you were trying to tell me, years ago, about being intelligent," she said.
The Constable brightened all at once. "Pleased to hear it."
"The Vickys have an elaborate code of morals and conduct. It grew out of the moral squalor of an earlier generation, just as the original Victorians were preceded by the Georgians and the Regency. The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code– but their children believe it for entirely different reasons."
"They believe it," the Constable said, "because they have been indoctrinated to believe it."
"Yes. Some of them never challenge it– they grow up to be smallminded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel– as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw."
"Which path do you intend to take, Nell?" said the Constable, sounding very interested. "Conformity or rebellion?"
"Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded– they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity."
"Ah! Excellent!" the Constable exclaimed. As punctuation, he slapped the ground with his free hand, sending up a shower of sparks and transmitting a powerful shock through the ground to Nell's feet.
"I suspect that Lord Finkle-McGraw, being an intelligent man, sees through all of the hypocrisy in his society, but upholds its principles anyway, because that is what is best in the long run. And I suspect that he has been worrying about how best to inculcate this stance in young people who cannot understand, as he does, its historical antecedents– which might explain why he has taken an interest in me. The Primer may have been Finkle-McGraw's idea to begin with-a first attempt to go about this systematically."
"The Duke plays his cards close," Constable Moore said, "and so I cannot say whether your suppositions are correct. But I will admit it hangs together nicely."
"Thank you."
"What do you intend to do with yourself, now that you have pieced all of this together? A few more years' education and polishing will place you in a position to take the Oath."
"I am, of course, aware that I have favorable prospects in the Atlantan phyle," Nell said, "but I do not think that it would be fitting for me to take the straight and narrow path. I am going to China now to seek my fortune."


Blogger Ahistoricality said...

It's entirely possible that I will never read Stephenson as long as you're giving me the juicy bits....

Seriously, though, I need to read something new soon, once I finish my Murakami stack. And the new Gaimans.... consider it on the list.

11/06/2006 01:57:00 PM  

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