Seveneves

“Hi,” the man’s voice said, somewhat breathlessly. The mic squawked and, presumably, he adjusted it. I couldn’t see him, but if he looked like most of the crowd, he was young, white, and thin, wearing trendy but understated metrosexual work clothes – think BBC’s Sherlock, if you haven’t seen Bay Area fashion lately. The speaker took a deep breath and plunged into his question.

“Do you think Jesus Christ was a post-Singularity human from an alternate dimension?”

Silence. Everyone transferred their attention to the man standing on the small dais at the front of the room. A decade or two older than most of the crowd, he wore a sleeveless vest and cargo khakis bulging with the modern traveler’s toolkit of electronics. His head was shaved, offsetting the somewhat villainous grey-and-black goatee he wore.

“In the Multiverse, anything is possible,” he replied smoothly. This was hardly the weirdest question he’d faced.

The crowd – a hundred plus? I’m terrible at off the cuff estimation – cackled. This was what we’d come for. Event delivers.

***

I’m a huge Neal Stephenson fangirl. Orion was almost named after a character from Cryptonomicon, and I can quote entire scenes from his books. I know far more than the average American does about World War II codebreaking, the origins of the stock market, tessellations, and currencies. So when I heard that he was doing a book signing in San Francisco, I had to go, four-month-old or no four-month-old.

My bibliophile friends may disown me for admitting this, but I’d never been to a book signing before. I’ll buy books all day long, but deliberately standing in a crowd is, like, the opposite of books. I’m slightly agoraphobic and introverted and honestly the whole thing sounds pretty terrible.

But. Neal Stephenson! The one living author I would go stand in line for!

So G got to hang out with his son solo, and I put on a fancy bra and a t-shirt (the stay at home nursing equivalent of black tie, I tell you) and headed over to the city with my battered, beloved copy of Crypto tucked in my bag in the hopes that he’d sign “outside” books too. 

Stephenson has had the “New York Times bestseller” logo on his books for fifteen years, but he had never gotten the top-tier launch treatment before. Over the years I’ve ended up on various official email lists and social media notification groups, and they all combined to alert me about the new book launch. That’s what they’re supposed to do.

But his publisher, Harper Collins, put up a shiny new web page too. And bought an endless stream of Facebook ads. And prodded the author into a 12-city book tour. It’s much more publicity than I’m used to seeing about my favorite sci-fi author.

And when I looked around at the crowd at the signing, I realized why: Stephenson isn’t considered a sci-fi author anymore. I was dressed like a new-mom slob in a writer nerd tee (yes, Aarene – I wore the Metaphors be with you shirt!) and I was by far the worst-dressed attendee. There was one traditional, old-fashioned nerd couple – utilikilt, buckled boots, waist length ponytails on both, tee shirt from a con – but everybody else was very much “tech professional.” I was reading my e-copy of the book on my phone before the author came out, and I saw a few others intently staring at their screens, but most of the audience hadn’t even started the book. (It had been out for two whole days, FWIW.)

So Neal Stephenson, of all the possible sci-fi authors, has gone mainstream.

*It’s sevenev.es, and of course it doesn’t show up very highly in google rankings. I had to go dig it out of my email! This is why print publishing is dying, you bozos. 

***

For once in my life, I thought up a good question on the fly. When the mic came around to me, I said, “So years ago I read in an interview that you wrote the Baroque Cycle longhand.”

“I did,” he said. (Neal Stephenson, that is. Said. To me!)

“I was wondering if you ever went back to a word processor, and if writing that much longhand changed your workflow?” (See? I told you it was a pretty good question!)

“So I wrote the Baroque Cycle and Anathem in longhand, with a quill pen, then after I’d done the first pass of editing, I typed them into Emacs.” The audience, which had murmured “oooh” at the thought of writing over a million words on paper, exploded into applause – Emacs is a very, very old school Unix editor.

“For Reamde and Seveneves, I wrote in Scrivener.” More applause. Scrivener is what I use to write when I’m on the laptop – I’ve run a couple hundred thousand words through it.

“Writing is a process for me. I found that overall, I’m just as fast writing longhand. There’s a bottleneck where the words go down on paper, but that just means you’re spending more time thinking about them as you’re writing them, and it ends up being just as fast for me.”

I nodded. Not that it was, like, a real one on one conversation, but now that I’m writing it up on my own blog I can pretend. That’s fascinating, Neal – I’ve noticed the same thing! I don’t write longhand, but I do spend a ton of time thinking about what I want to write, mulling over my phrasing and the order of ideas and the general topic, before I finally get to thumb-type the post on my phone while I nurse Orion.

“Each of my books has its own process and setting where I write it, and I usually move on afterwards. After Reamde, I built a library to write the next book in, but I ended up not using it and writing Seveneves instead. I need to go back and use that library and write the book I intended to write next.”

You know you’re a writer if you read that paragraph and think, “Damn. I wish I had a library to write in. Oh well, I’d just get sidetracked looking at cat gifs anyway.”

***

I’d read a much more recent interview with Stephenson, which of course I can’t be bothered to find because I’m thumb-typing this on my phone, where he talked about how recent science fiction is, to put it bluntly, disappointing the world. Golden Age stuff – think early Heinlein – was all about rockets into the solar system, and asteroid mining, and colonies on Ganymede. Sci-fi that came out when I was growing up was already moving away from that – there was a shift toward FTL (faster-than-light travel) as a fundamental plot device.

There are some extremely entertaining themes that can only be explored with FTL as a premise – you cannot have a thrilling space dogfight at realistic speeds. And FTL gives writers other worlds, and it gives them large enough time scales to talk about the Singularity and beyond – it’s great! But Stephenson’s point was that it turns science fiction into fantasy.

A good story sucks you in and lets you imagine yourself in the world the author’s created. But the difference between a lunar colony and a post-Singularity FTL seedship really is “maybe in five decades” versus “maybe in five millennia.” Near-future sci-fi has the power to inspire kids to bring about that future.

However, I’d just come off of a several month-long search for good sci-fi set in our own solar system, and all I could think was, “but that shit is boring, dude.” Compared to Iain Banks’ or Peter Hamilton’s sprawling – and yes, fine, fantastical – space operas, some drama about asteroid miners seems like small potatoes indeed.

And then I read Seveneves, and I wished I’d had some institutional support to actually teach me real math, and I wish I’d gone to engineering school instead of wasting a lot of time and money in the humanities.

So! Spoilers and discussion of themes below the cut. Click on, or read the book and come back later. (I just installed the WordPress app, so I can approve and write comments easily on my phone, so I will hopefully be a lot more interactive here!)

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I watch the ripples change their size

A couple days ago* Becky Bean posted The Definition of Hell for Each Personality Type on Facebook.

I scrolled down and read the definition of hell for my personality type and thought, “Wow, that happens to me several times a week, and it’s not even cringe-worthy.”

I read some of the other personal hells, and a couple of them sounded worse. Hmm. I googled around for a personality test that didn’t require a big time commitment or my email address. I’m terrible at overthinking these things, but I plowed through it as fast as possible and was shocked when I got my result: almost orthogonally different from what I thought I “was.” (Seriously, I’m so not an extrovert. But I fake it really well!)

The new personal hell sounded pretty awful, actually.

*I have no idea how long ago it really was. Babies really mess with one’s sense of time.

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When I was pregnant, my main fear – aside from getting C-sectioned (“gutted like a pithed fish!” I screamed to my husband at one point, when he’d innocently asked why I was so opposed to the idea) – was changing. Losing my identity. Losing something special that made me me, and turning into, I don’t know, someone who had nothing to talk about except the baby’s poop. (Green is not a euphemism.)

The easy thing to say is that I was worried about turning into someone who didn’t have the same goals as 2014 Funder, but that’s not entirely true. I was worried about going soft. So when I found this post, it really resonated with me.

Parenting books promising to save our sleep (and tame our toddlers) and the yummy mummy movement have something in common. Both contemporary trends capitalise on women’s fear of motherhood. Or that’s what I think, anyway. As a second-time parent there is something now peculiar to me about how frightened we all are of the transforming effect of motherhood. Why are we so afraid of losing control, of being softened, of giving in, of being affected, of changing?

The thing that’s surprised me the most isn’t that I’ve changed, it’s that I’m not even upset about having changed. It seems like I should be scared of how fast my identity has shifted, but I’m not, because whoever I am today is me more than whoever I was last year.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but feelings never do.IMG_5862

My parents think people are immutable.

“People don’t change,” my dad would sigh. It was one of his favorite maxims, always accompanying some story about one of my parents’ musician friends getting a DUI or getting thrown out of their girlfriends’ houses or something. Once a fuckup, always a fuckup. Nervous, high-strung types were always going to fidget and fret. Politicians, current or retired, would always greet you with a big smile and an even bigger handshake.

I believed it, too, the way that only a little kid who hears something over and over can believe something. You are who you are, and whether you try to change or not, you’re always going to be the same.

It took years – more than a decade, actually – for me to let go of the “people don’t change” idea. I flamed out hard in my teenage years, and once I’d started to fail at school, I labeled myself a total fuckup and just spiraled on down. Even after I started to repair my life, I had a really hard time accepting that I wasn’t a klutz, depressed, alcoholic, lazy, etc.

I’m not sure why I was surprised that my personality type wasn’t what I thought. Duh, Funder.IMG_5914

More from that post about the softness of motherhood:

And yet listening to first-time parents sometimes all you will hear is their burning determination to not be altered by motherhood; to make their babies fit into their lives (lest they be duped into doing it the other way around). This baby will sleep peacefully through dinner parties and know how to behave appropriately in restaurants. This baby will listen to our music, and in fact will prefer our music to nursery rhymes. This baby will not disrupt our lives. This baby will not control us. Another theme among first-time parents, and surely related to the first, is the disturbing unreasonableness of our babies. We are overcome by babies that feed for too long or too often; babies who sleep too little or too lightly; babies who want to be carried too much; babies who are too fussy; babies who cry too much; babies who don’t like car trips, strollers, automated swing seats; babies who won’t be left alone. Babies out of control. Babies who seem to be demanding that a stand be taken against their tyranny. These babies drive us mad. They drive us to responses and decisions we need to justify. It was us or them. Someone or something had to break.

The thing that I’m trying to keep in mind is that Orion isn’t an unreasonable little tyrant. He’s a baby. He’s a needy, whiny, fussy little baby, and none of those words should be pejorative. He’s immature. Babies need their parents (or “primary caretakers,” whatever) and they have no capacity for being patient about it. There’s no in between with Orion – he’s completely delighted or completely falling apart.

(That’s not entirely true anymore. As he’s getting older, he’s getting a little more patient, but I can’t take it for granted.)IMG_5947

think maybe he had reflux when he was tiny, because he really couldn’t sleep if he was lying down. We didn’t take it personally. He wasn’t trying to ruin our lives or rage against our authority. He was uncomfortable and the only way he could express it was by crying. So one of us held him, propped against our chest, while he slept, every time he slept. Sometimes I despaired of ever getting to lie down horizontally again, but I figured he’d eventually grow out of it. And he did, magically, at about three months. One night he fussed and fidgeted in my arms, and I laid him down on his back, and he slept pretty good. The next night he fussed and wanted to be held, and it turned out he was getting sick with a cold – but I had a feeling that it was the last night he’d want to sleep on my chest, and it was.

All of the unendurable stuff really does end, if you just hang in there. Babies change. People change. It’s good to change.

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Dixie has a new dun servant and not a scratch on her beautiful hide. She came right up for an apple, then sauntered away with the rest of the herd.

Requited love

The other day I was laying in bed crying because, basically, I can’t have everything at once without compromising and I won’t compromise. Orion was napping beside me. He woke up and saw me crying and his face just broke. Before I could even plaster on a smile, he was bawling. I snatched him up, patted him on the back, and leapt up. He wailed while I started pacing around singing, and he didn’t stop til halfway through one of my crappy renditions of “Tangled Up In Blue.”*

When Orion saw my sad face and started crying, I realized for the first time that he *loves* me. I know, that sounds ridiculous, but I didn’t know he was able to love yet.IMG_5615

Newborns are such little bundles of id. I don’t they even have a sense of self, much less the ability to love. But at some point little infant Orion turned into small baby Orion, who smiles because I’m smiling at him. I thought he was just a happy baby… but he’s happy, at least partially, because I’m so delighted to spend time with him.

Realizing that he loves me made everything that was off-kilter in my head slot back into place, at least temporarily. It’s gonna go wrong again; that’s the nature of being human – but for now, I’m content.

And I figured a few things out. I crave feelings like I crave sunlight. I’ve been feeding that – monster? muse? selfish desire? I don’t know – with wholesome physical activity for years. Running, further and further. Riding, faster and longer. Weightlifting. Yoga, looking for that perfection of movement that would make me feel strong and whole.

Before the exercise, it was drugs. I don’t have a Where Are They Now addiction-redemption story so I don’t talk about my 20s much. I did party drugs til they weren’t fun anymore and then stopped. No real lessons learned, other than “do not do LSD if your head’s in a weird place.”

I knew that having a baby would be hard because it would cut me off from every single coping mechanism I’ve ever found. No drugs or drinking or gym time or trail running or even half-days on the trail with my horse. I’d forgotten why I started chasing all those endorphins to begin with. I just knew it would be hard.

Without a physical outlet, I get stuck in my head, full of regrets about the past and worries and plans for the future. It took a while, but I finally figured something out: dwelling on regrets and fears, turning them over and over like agates getting worn smooth in a rock tumbler, that gives my brain the emotional fix it’s looking for.

I already know how to acknowledge a fear and then set it aside, and I’ve started the same practice with negative memories. Just let it go. Think of something good to counterbalance the bad. And just hang on. Every day’s easier and more fun. In a few days I’ll be able to break in that jogging stroller and go back to my number-one coping mechanism. Soon enough we’ll be camping and hiking together, and I’ll feel okay sneaking off to ride again.

In the meantime, I’ve put Dixie out to pasture, literally. I moved her from her stall-only barn in the hills to a cheap pasture board situation further east. She will love having an extended vacation. Orion will love having my undivided attention. Me? I cried when I loaded her up and dragged all my tack boxes out of Piedmont Stables, but I know I made the right decision, and I’m feeling pretty peaceful now.IMG_5614

*G says Bob Dylan is too depressing to subject a baby to, but I keep at it. I know all the words to all the verses, which is a major plus, and even I can sing better than Dylan, which helps my ego.