Same rules apply: below the jump, there will be spoilers up to, but not beyond, the section entitled “Conspiracy.” For next week, let’s read up to the section called “Golgotha.” Previous installments in this discussion appear here, here, and here. And away we go…
I’ve said before that this is a novel about evolution. I think more precisely it’s about two moments: one where the world becomes a much smaller place to a few people, an accidental Elect, privileged and cursed by the experiences of war; and the second when technological developments have made the world even smaller to a group of nerds and visionaries, and are about to shrink it for everyone else. There’s something of the age of exploration to all of these developments, enhanced, I think, by the convergence of people and events in the Phillipines, off in the blue latitudes. Even in an easily circumnavigable world, Randy still feels the shiver of strangeness that comes from distance:
Asian news always has this edge of the fantastic to it, but it’s all dead serious, no nods or winks anywhere. Now he’s watching a story about a nervous system disease that people in New Guinea come down with as a consequence of eating other people’s brains. Just your basic cannibal story. No wonder so many Americans come here on business and never really go home again—it’s like stepping into the pages of Classics Comics.
One of the things I enjoyed about this section of the book is how Stephenson maps out the different kinds of explorers, and the hierarchies between them. To start in the present, or at least closer-to-present day, Randy, the boundary-pushing software engineer, finds himself entranced by Amy Shaftoe, who isn’t even necessarily excited by the things she does that make Randy find her exciting:
Some time ago, Randy gave up pretending that he was not completely fascinated with Amy Shaftoe. This is not exactly the same thing as being in love with her, but it has quite a few things in common with that. He always had a weird, sick fascination with women who smoked and drank a lot. Amy does neither, but her complete disregard of modern skin-cancer precautions puts her in the same category: people too busy leading their lives to worry about extending their life expectancy. In any case, he has a desperate craving to know what Amy’s dream is. For a while he thought it was treasure-hunting in the South China Sea. This she definitely enjoys, but he is not sure if it gives her satisfaction entire.
Aurora Taal is an explorer in reverse, someone who “has lived in Boston, Washington, and London, and seen it all, and come back to live in Manila anyway,” is globalized enough not to find the first world a priori compelling, who knows that living in the Wild East is no barrier to outshining places and people who think of themselves as civilized. Prag is the same way, though he’d returned home changed by contact with people like Randy and Avi: ”The virus of irony is as widespread in California as herpes, and once you’re infected with it, it lives in your brain forever. A man like Prag can come home, throw away his Nikes, and pray to Mecca five times a day, but he can never eradicate it from his system.”
In the age in which Randy lives, there are a lot more people who are capable of exploration and attainment, in many more categories. ”Divers have mastered a large body of occult knowledge,” he reflects at one point. “That explains their general resemblance to hackers, albeit physically fit hackers.” The accomplishments of their forebears have made more of the world known, and given more people the skills to make the world knowable. Not that stumbling onto the unknown is any less exciting or compelling in this blazing modern age, as Randy learns from Doug when they discover a sunken German treasure submarine:
‘Why do you say it’s a good time to smoke?’ ‘To fix it in your memory. To mark it.’ Doug tears his gaze from the horizon and looks at Randy searchingly, almost beseeching him to understand. ‘This is one of the most important moments in your life. Nothing will ever be the same. We might get rich. We might get killed. We might just have an adventure or learn something. But we have been changed. We are standing close to the Heraclitean fire, feeling its heat on our faces.’ He produces a flaring safety match from his cupped palms like a magician, and holds it up before Randy’s eyes, and Randy puffs the cigar alive, staring into the flame.
Lawrence and Bobby’s era has its own taxonomy of explorers. There are people who are simply convinced of their own exceptionalism, like Mrs. McTeague, who is certain that her children “grew from the brightest and most beautiful children ever born into the finest adults who walk the earth except for the King of England, The General, and Lord Mountbatten.” There are people like Bobby Shaftoe, who have been elevated by experience. At home, Bobby might have simply been a quite outstanding specimen of American manhood, but bouncing across the world, into circumstances unprecedented before the world started tearing itself apart, Shaftoe became extraordinary by thriving, by getting addicted to morphine, by surviving the lizards, by loving Glory, by accepting that the world as he knows it includes men like Lawrence Waterhouse and Enoch Root. There are people like Douglas McArthur, who understand themselves to be, and make it clear to others around them, that they are an updated model of a certain kind of historical figure, engineered for this particular upheaval:
The major continues. ‘See, we’ve gone over the watershed line of this war. We won Midway. We won North Africa. Stalingrad. The Battle of the Atlantic. Everything changes when you go over the watershed line. The rivers all flow a different direction. It’s as if the force of gravity itself has changed and is now working in our favor. We’ve adjusted to that. Marshall and Churchill and all those others are still stuck in an obsolete mentality. They are defenders. But The General is not a defender. As a matter of fact, just between you and me, The General is lousy on defense, as he demonstrated in the Philippines. The General is a conqueror.
And then there are men like Lawrence Waterhouse, who exist outside the frameworks that men like Bobby Shaftoe (and probably Douglas McArthur) use to divide up and render comprehensible the world. Lawrence Waterhouse is the shape of things to come, a member of a fraternity of men whose minds work in an exceedingly particular way that the rest of us will reroute ourselves to at least partially understand, but that is, at the time, “a clearance that is rarer, harder to come by, and more mysterious than Ultra Mega.” Seeing the world that way, daring to look beyond the horizon, to sail off the understood map, is alienating even for men like Lawrence who see its rightness:
The last time he was in California, before Pearl Harbor, he was no different from all of those guys on the pier—just a little smarter, with a knack for numbers and music. But now he understands the war in a way that they never will. He is still wearing the same uniform, but only as a disguise. He believes now that the war, as those guys understand it, is every bit as fictional as the war movies being turned out across town in Hollywood.
And it’s a mark of Bobby Shaftoe’s extraordinariness that even though he fits neatly into the categories that explained the whole world to him before the war began, that he can see that there’s something beyond what he knew to be the end of the universe, even if unlike Lawrence, he can’t quite see the details:
The Second World War has led him into all sorts of uncouth behavior, and there don’t seem to be any grandpas lurking in the trenches with doubled belts; no consequences at all for the wicked, in fact. Maybe that will change in a couple of years, if the Germans and the Nips lose the war. But that reckoning will be so great and terrible that Shaftoe’s glance at Bischoff’s letter will probably go unnoticed.
So what’s the reckoning that’s coming? Beyond the atom bomb and the reestablishment of the world’s geographical boundaries and balance of power, what is the fruit that Randy and Amy are reaping from the resowing of the world’s orchards with different crops?