Neal Stephenson: Keep Killing My Plants

Neal Stephenson is great. His books are concrete block-dense worlds that are the physical embodiment of that snake that eats its own tail – they can swallow you whole even as you devour them. I’ve read the near-1,000 page novel Cryptonomicon at least 4 times since 2003, and each time I still get so engrossed that my house plants die.

I recently read the cleverly palindromic Seveneves and had my mind blown. So here’s my horribly incomplete & inadequate summary that some super fan will no doubt take issue with.

The basic premise from a layperson – asteroid strikes the moon, creating seven smaller moons. Nerd does math, showing Earth has ~22 months to launch a giant space-faring RV (bigger than this one) before all those mini-moons start colliding with each other & start a ‘white rain’ that will drown human society in tidal waves & steam. All countries of the earth unite to mount an exodus-capable vehicle, each with space for only 2 candidates from each country. They also take a bunch of samples of all living things & store it in a giant cooler for transport & eventual cloning. Once in space, everyone hangs out at an enlarged International Space Station, where there’s a lot of drama & shit starts to get real.

The moon thing & the nerd math take up the first act & get out of the way pretty quickly. He spends some time dealing with the emotional up-fuckery that happens when 0.0000001% of a population leave behind everyone else, though – which keeps it in the realm of human existence, rather than becoming just a space romp. Me likey.

The book’s second act is basically what I think Star Trek really should have been like – a bunch of humans float in space & are unsure, like, what the fuck is happening, and basically trust a baker’s dozen of experts, experts’  robots, experts’  open-source software, not to totally, like, end the whole fucking race with a fat-fingered 1 instead of a 0, or to accidentally create sentient AI. He actually explains the tech they need to rely on, and spends a lot of really interesting sections playing out the failed experiments, the dangers of deep space exposure… and I SWEAR, I think he helped me understand rotational inertia in zero-gravity six-dimensional space-time.

I know, right? Khan Academy it ain’t.

There’s also a Richard Branson-esque dude who, while the rest of civilization grapples with rudimentary interplanetary travel tech, just hops a ride on his own rocket into space to meet these other folks at the Space Station. He’s the most macho alpha-male type in the whole book, evidenced by his actions: he lands at the Space Station, spends all of 17 minutes getting opinions from the experts as to how to make humans space-capable, and then takes off again to the Kuiper Belt with just his two best buds, leaving the rest of humanity behind. He saunters into the story in spurs, and then… Neal basically sends him into space for half the book.

So he can prove his entire life’s work is valuable enough to accomplish a hyper-important mission: to get some ice.

Well played, Neal. On behalf of nerds who have no chance of birthing a unicorn & being able to afford our own rocket, we salute you. There are many, many people I would love to send to get ice.

By the end of that act, it’s down to seven ladies & their various approaches to the world, vying for… viability. Then the 3rd act totally fucks your brain by leaping forward several thousand years, and creates technologies and sciences that even Roddenberry & Lucas are reported as saying, “Whoa… that’s pretty cool.” He depicts a completely interstellar existence, in which humans spend all their resources manufacturing a ring of tiny bubbles suspended in space & fighting through their own class-warfare evolutions.

You know, just like all those poor schmucks from 4,000 years before, except now there’s no real reason for it because all the resources are limitless, and they’re LITERALLY just arguing over who’s nirvana is most morally corrupt/least likely to repeat the mistakes of human history.

Just by arguing about it, though, they kinda seal their doom to repeat them, in my view.

It’s a totally mind-blowing concept to begin with – and then the amount of detail & science that Neal puts into it is just incredible. He exposed me to heavily-researched concepts in astrophysics, women, materials science, mining, more women, fusion reactions, the difference between the Moon’s orbit (Moon Town), low-earth-orbit (Satellite Town), Mars (Snickers City), and then showed how everything beyond that literally cannot be reached AND returned from in a lifetime using today’s travel technologies. Even by women. Oh, and not to mention that the whole idea of the moon being hit by something big enough to shatter it into pieces IS COMPLETELY FEASIBLE and someone at NASA & the ISS is responsible for looking for those things every day. And that’s just the moon – there are an uncountable number of objects out there that could be big enough to ‘kill Earth’.

I KNOW, RIGHT?!?

Three things that have changed in my life as a result of reading this:
1) I’m now glad that Bruce Willis is not dead, and that Ben Affleck still has a career, and that nukes are still a thing. (Previously I was ambivalent about Mr. Willis, and very much anti-Affleck / anti-nuke.)
2) Elon Musk don’t look so batshit crazy now, does he? (BTW: kudos to him & the SpaceX gang for the vertical booster landing in Florida. It’s kinda a big deal.)
3) I’m open to reading things called “space operas”. Previously I was quite anti-opera of any sort: Italian, space, or soap – didn’t matter. But I am now solidly in the “I can learn from space operas so they must have some value” camp. We have our own t-shirts. They’re HYPERCOLOR, tie-dyed, and awesome.

I love books like this. Books that expose me to new concepts, and then back them up with the actual science from which they’re extrapolating. Books that create a just-outside-the-believable-spectrum world, show me how they think it would work, and explain why along the way.

Books that give me a great cop-out when asked why all our plants die. “It’s dead because I was too busy reading about the end of the Earth, MOM! Geeeez!”

Buy it or get it from your library (I know, who needs help finding a library? … well, millions of people still spending money on books, I guess. Although to be fair, I will soon procure my own copy of Seveneves in my very small home library. Right, Santa?)

What are you reading these days?

Steve Carell

It’s late on a Monday afternoon when I catch the train; I’ve got a great date night planned ahead of me – a quick dinner, a glass of wine, and two seats for a one-time-only show in New York. Except I’m the only one on this date, and my head is heavy with chagrin about how much I’m looking forward to this. My wife is not with me; she’s at home in NJ taking care of our 5-year-old daughter, and the show she convinced me to get tickets for starts in 2 hours.
How could I do this to her, you ask? Because she told me to.
Four days ago I’d gotten an email letting me know this show was going to happen, and that tickets would go on sale at 1pm on Thursday. At 1:05pm, I called, hoping I could still get two tickets; it went something like this:
Can I still get two tickets for Monday night’s taping?
“Sure, we can do that.”
Great! How much do they cost?
“Well, sir, each admission is granted for a donation of $100.00.”
Wait, what?
“We aren’t selling tickets, but we’re giving tickets to donors in exchange for their $100.00 tax-deductible donation.”
So… for a price of $100, I get a ticket?
“Yes sir.”
And that’s not selling tickets?
“Sir, would you like to make a tax-deductible donation or not? Other donors are waiting.”
… I’ll call back – I’m a little chagrined by this.
“Okay sir, keep in mind this is a very popular show & grants for admission are going fast.”
I appreciate that, but this is chagrinning.
As most real men do when chagrinned, I called my wife. I’m not entirely sure what this is about – a donation at a set level in exchange for entry? How many other arts institutions operate like this? I’m very comfortable in sliding scale & pay-what-you-will sorts of shows, but this was my first run-in with this type of potential moral turpitude in the arts, and I struggled long and hard with the ambiguous patronage.
I told her those details, combined with the difficulty of Monday night child care services & the time requirements – the ‘granted admission vouchers’ had to be picked up from Will Call at 6:15p – were all leading me to conclude that the costs of this whole thing were huge, and it would be hard for the benefits to outweigh them. What time could the sitter be there? Could we get into the city by 6? What about dinner? Do we have an accountant?
I was ready to bail. But Renee was committed to the idea of this event, and wasn’t about to let questionable write-offs stand in the way of a cool experience and a solid date night. So she convinced me to call back & exchange my patronage for admission vouchers.
But of course, the childcare plans we intended to make never materialized. In-laws unavailable, and since the show had no determinate endpoint, we can’t let the sitter be waiting around on us until midnight.
Damn! I knew it was a bad decision! See, honey? Too spontaneous. This lack of foresight & planning just cost us $200, and I’m certain I’ll have to explain our ‘donation’ on Form-1040WTF! It’s all your fault!
Because she’s awesome, instead of wailing the woes of our lives of parents & cursing the logistics of living in the suburbs, she gracefully, thoughtfully tells me, “You should still go. Call a friend & find a date. I’ll watch Kate.”
Because she’s awesome, I’m here on the train headed to Pace University to see the live taping of Inside The Actors Studio with Steve Carell as the guest.
Botched date night notwithstanding, I’m ecstatic about my dubious donation because Michael C. Scott is one of the best comedic characters I’ve seen on TV, because Stephen v. Steven was one of the best-executed sketches I’ve seen on cable, and because the same guy that played in both of those roles ALSO became the creepiest low-key psychopath rich guy I’ve ever seen on a screen in Foxcatcher. It’s my personal opinion he should have won the Best Actor Oscar; Keaton was also amazing in Birdman but in large part he was just Keaton, and while I didn’t see Theory of Everything & have no idea what Eddie Redmayne brought to life as Hawking – but I saw Steve Carell create a complete character with a lot of complexity in Foxcatcher, and I think they ended up giving weight to the more prominent physicality of Hawking.
In any case, for the range I’ve now seen Carell operate in, with such a high level of commitment, I don’t think there’s an actor out there that I’d rather attempt to emulate. So when life emailed me the opportunity to get inside his brain alongside James Lipton, I was in – shady ticket sales or not, I “donated” the money for two “grants of admission”. Charming date with my wife or not, I intended to make sure someone else got to enjoy that second grant.
On Saturday I emailed 18 of my (geographically) closest friends, certain I’d find a taker within hours & could continue trying to figure out where to grab dinner in the Financial District without having to buy sheep’s clothing. But out of 18 people asked, I only got five responses, and of those five, three people of not-insignificant means tell me that the donation of $100 was too rich for them. Two of them, from fellow actors, included the classic “saving my extra cash for Christmas gifts because I just quit my day job”, the urban “don’t have the extra benjamin lying around”, and the third (from a corporate bigwig at a firm of bigwigs that gets hired by lots of other bigwigs) was along the lines of “$100 is a lot of money to part with, no?” I assume the other 13 non-respondents had better plans already, because assuming they didn’t respond because they just don’t like me hurts more.
To my chagrin (which at this point in the story is at near-record levels), perhaps I valued this particular experience much higher than my peers. Saturday passed with no takers.
Was I out of line? Could I really not find a taker for such a unique opportunity to see a really cool dude talk to an older but almost as cool dude? (Lipton is one interesting cat; if you haven’t read Inside Inside yet, I highly recommend it.) HOW WAS NO ONE AS E