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DIY Neal Stephenson novel

Posted: 17 Jul 2020, 00:16
by thoreau
I just finished reading Cobweb, one of the novels that Neal Stephenson co-wrote with his uncle under the collective pseudonym "Stephen Bury." Having now read just about all of his novels except the Baroque Cycle, I think I have his tropes down. So, I present to you an outline of "Quintessential NS."

Cody Techman is an underachieving hacker. He was kicked out of the Philadelphia Institute of Technology after his freshman year as punishment for hacking the school's HR records. Since then he's spent his days working as the in-house IT and tech support guy for a furniture wholesaler, and his nights committing minor computer crimes against Philly Tech for fun. But their new security protocol, CAP, has made it much harder for him to get anywhere.

One day he discovers that his company is being used as a smuggling front for some obscure Central Asian drug ring, but the drug isn't being sent to street dealers, and it isn't anything widely known. It's a neurostimulant (NS) with mild hallucinogenic side effects, and it's mostly being shipped to top research universities and corporate labs. Meanwhile, his high school buddy Ted just wrapped up serving in Afghanistan with the Army Rangers and is now working security for a reclusive banker with interests in Central Asia.

The banker turns out to be from a tribe whom I will call the Knilash, loosely based on the Nuristani people of Afghanistan. They split off from the other ethnic groups of the region a few thousand years ago and went into the mountains to meditate with the aid of a plant that produces the drug now being smuggled. At some point they got involved in the silk and spice trades, working with different merchants pretty much all along the route from Peking to Constantinople.

When Alexander the Great invaded Afghanistan, he had a mathematician in his retinue, and after one night of consultation with the Knilash elders he defected to their side. The Knilash used their stimulant to get into a mental state where they could manage great feats of mathematics, and a few thousand years ago they worked out a crude form of public key cryptography, which they could use to ensure the authenticity of documents passing through many hands over long distances. They encoded the authentication data in geometrical patterns along the edges of the documents, so Knilash scribes were hired at pretty much every link along the Silk Road.

Anyway, somebody is killing the recipients of these drug shipments and destroying the drugs, and Techman and Ted are trying to figure it out. At some point Techman meets the beautiful C. Ada Pascuale, who has done freelance computer security work for the banker and also the university. It is love at first sight. She delivers most of the exposition about the Knilash. When she refers to them as Aryans, Cody is all "Wait, Nazis?" so she tells a story about how the Nazis tried to steal some Knilash encryption tools. They got very mad, and within two days every German agent in Asia had big identifying marks on his residence. Then they passed along info telling the Brits how to decode the stolen encryption tools (without telling them how to do it securely themselves). This forced the Nazis to use the more primitive Enigma scheme, which the Brits cracked. The Axis left the Knilash alone for the rest of the war.

The Knilash have decided to come down out of the mountains and get involved in quantum cryptography, partly because they fear it will undermine their main advantage as a civilization, and partly because they suspect that their drug produces a state of quantum coherence in neurons; they' want to gain the technology needed to test that hypothesis. The banker is funding research at several research universities where Knilash students and faculty are doing ground-breaking work. Some heroin dealer from a rival Afghan ethnic group is trying to stop this. Cody, Ted, and C Ada Pascuale have to stop the warlord before the DEA busts everyone.

Also, Cody Techman is a master at making waffles. It's how he charms Ada. It's one of the few things he's truly good at. At some point our trio is staying at a motel with one of those waffle makers as part of the breakfast buffet. He adds something to the batter, plays with the technique, and makes waffles that everyone except him regards as spectacular; he apologizes profusely for the poor quality. Then he delivers a long monologue on the shortcomings of motel waffle makers.

The ending is sudden and unsatisfying.

Re: DIY Neal Stephenson novel

Posted: 17 Jul 2020, 03:42
by Jake
thoreau wrote: 17 Jul 2020, 00:16So, I present to you an outline of "Quintessential NS."
I have read enough Stephenson to say two things:
1) This is an accurate summary of his work.
2) I would totally read this novel.

Re: DIY Neal Stephenson novel

Posted: 17 Jul 2020, 08:42
by Highway
I disagree with "the ending" being sudden. My impression of Neal Stephenson novels is that he can't actually end anything. Like you get past what appears to be the climax of the story, and then realize that there's 10% of the book left, and at first you wonder if something else is going to happen, but then it doesn't and it just keeps rambling on and on and on not really doing anything, not even wrapping up or giving you insight into the lives of the characters, just kind of going. Then it stops. So yeah, the part where it stops is sudden, but the ending of anything going on was actually 70 pages back and you just read this thing that was pointless.

This impression may have been far more reinforced by the Baroque Cycle which you say you haven't read, so might explain the difference in our impressions.

Re: DIY Neal Stephenson novel

Posted: 17 Jul 2020, 14:17
by thoreau
Upon further reflection, the programmer should be Ada C. Pascuale and her security protocol should be ACP. Before it's revealed to be a programmer's initials, Cody and Ted will debate whether it's a firearms reference and go into a tangent on pistol cartridges.

Re: DIY Neal Stephenson novel

Posted: 17 Jul 2020, 14:39
by JD
I would say that's pretty on point. You just have to be able to flesh each paragraph there out into around 150 pages in the final text.