Book review: Acts of the Apostles, by John Sundman

Acts of the Apostes

A megalomaniac IT billionaire with messianic delusions and access to high-tech nano- and bio- technology threatens the very soul of humanity: our free will.

The number of the beast is a floating point processor

Set in the late 90’s, discount Acts of the Apostles is the tale of a computer chip designer & a software developer who suddenly finds themselves involved a conspiracy involving Gulf War syndrome, recipe SCUD missiles, viagra 60mg Saddam Hussein and the CIA. It also features computer chips with a mysterious bug, a Java-like computer language with peculiar limitations, nano-powered DNA manipulation, high-tech startup mergers, a ghost in the machine and a large cast of sexy female IT professionals.

John Sundman is a man possessed by a dystopian vision of bio-technology Armageddon and a keen sense for paranoid conspiracies. His novel describes a world on the brink of radical transformation through technology and man’s infinite lust for power.

Of course, there’s plenty of action, sex and humor, but the book also carries a dire warning about the dangers of hacking the human machine. i like to picture Sundman as a biblical prophet of old, standing at the city gate, half-naked under a lice-infested hair shirt, waiting for someone to make eye contact. Shaking bits of half-eaten locusts and spittle from his ragged beard, he harangues passersby with apocalyptic tales of high-tech doomsday, nano-beasts and biotech antichrists bent on world domination; peppering his rants with techno-babble and sharp witticisms. Sure he can be goofy and weird at times, but ignore him at your own risk!

Quoth the bio-hacker

I found the book funny and highly quotable. I was also impressed by the authentic feel of his descriptions of computer geeks and the IT industry in general. Here is a sample to whet your appetite:

  • “Todd, in his arrogance, had built very little debug time into the schedule.”
  • “Once upon a time, he would have said the meaning in his life came from taking part in the redefinition human nature.”
  • “Maybe relying on common sense & logic had been a mistake. This guy needed yelling at.”
  • “The Bonehead Computer Museum; Open Midnight to Midnight – Monday Thru Sunday and by appointment. Donations welcome.”
  • “It was good getting back home in Massachusetts, where things were allowed to get old.”
  • “The back of the device, in particular, looked like an electronic bird’s nest that had been sneezed upon.”
  • “Kali’s a hag. Just look at those saggy tits. Shiva’s tits are like Teri Hatcher’s: big and firm.”
  • “Silicon & DNA were the same thing: devices that shunted in different paths to create new information structures.”
  • “Prissy net fetishists took great offense when binary nonsense clogged up space on a discussion board, but on the Internet nobody knows if you’re a dog and you can post binaries anywhere you want.”
  • “Built into the Kali, hidden among its nearly three hundred thousand AND gates, OR gates , NANDs and NORs, was the secret recipe for making the chip upon Nick’s soul and life depended.”

A non-linear trilogy

Acts of the Apostles is book “blue” of Mind Over Matter, an ambitious three-volume work that share similar themes, characters and settings. Because these books can be read in any order, they are not numbered but instead marked by color.

  • Acts of the Apostles (Mind over Matter volume blue)
    • A techno-thriller about the abuse of nano and bio-technology.
  • Cheap Complex Devices (Mind over Matter volume red)
    • A rambling monologue supposedly written by a computer (or a mind in a vat, or a swarm of bees, or a man shot in the head and connected to a computer). The story is kind of a slow motion reboot, a person coming out of a dream, an entity that is coming to sanity, wholeness, self-awareness.
  • The Pains (Mind over Matter volume black)
    • An illustrated 1984-type dystopian featuring alternate-universe version of some key characters from Acts of the Apostles. Also included: cryogenically-preserved severed human heads and Ronald Reagan.

Each novel is told in a distinctive style and focuses on different, sometimes conflicting, point of views on the events depicted. The most conventional novel by far is Acts of the Apostles, which is told as a straightforward techno-thriller in the mold of Michael Crichton or Robert Ludlum. Fans of Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon will certainly enjoy John’s quirky and techno-savvy novel (see my of review of Cryptonomicon).

The other novels get a lot weirder with their self-referential meta-fiction, stream of consciousness rants and alternate universes.

As an example of the complex relationship between each book in the trilogy, the introduction of Cheap Complex Devices (which represents almost half of the book) claims that “Bees”, the main story of the book, is the result of a contest for computer-generated fiction. Apparently, Acts of the Apostles would be the lost manuscript from another entry in this contest but was stolen and ineptly edited by an ex-security guard. It claims that the large number of sexy women in the story and their improbable lust for an otherwise average-looking computer chip designer, as well as its many typos and cringe-inducing passages, would be proof of the theft the book and its unwelcome alterations by a lesser literary mind.

According to the author, although there are many literary references in John’s work, the main inspirations come from Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher Bach and I Am a Strange Loop; Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine; Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire; and The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck. These are not your typical pop-corn blockbuster fodder but instead deeply philosophical treatises about the nature of consciousness and humanity’s relationship with technology. Readers interested in an intellectually stimulating read will be well advised to dip their mind into Sundman’s literary pools of madness and wisdom as well as to peruse its thematic precursors.

Adventures in self-publishing

Through sheer endurance and determination, Sundman has become a self-publishing icon of his own right. Despite the support of an agent at an early point of his writing career, he did not manage to find a publisher for his work so he resorted to self-publishing Acts of the Apostles in 1999. This was half a decade before self-publishing tools like lulu.com became widely available.

Nowadays, print-on-demand services make it much easier to get a book printed and, theoretically, in the hands of avid readers. Any self-deluded hack with access to the Internet can now package strings of semi-random characters together, slap a cheap clipart picture on its cover and call it a book at virtually no costs (BTW, did I mention my self-published French novel, “La Boue”?), John had to do this the hard way, with actual printers, inventory, debts and boxes of books to lug around the country.

Acts of the Apostles, mostly sold by hand and through mail-order, gained critical success, including raving reviews by geek icons Cory Doctorow and Jefferey Zeldman. Commercial success, however, was elusive and mostly constrained by John’s own capacity to manually shove books into the faces of prospective consumers in various trade shows (as depicted in this detailed logistical account form the author).

Thankfully, John has now secured a contract with a publisher and is now revising his novel for publication of Acts of the Apostles sometimes in 2011. Let’s hope this opportunity will enable the book to reach the wider audience it deserves!

Links

Book review: Cryptonomicon, by Neil Stephenson

A geek-a-liscious literary experience

It’s World War II and the allies have cracked the encryption of a major Axis communication codes. How can they act without revealing their access to this precious intelligence? Detachment 2702, malady a rag-tag group of soldiers and intelligence agents, human enhancement is dispatched to create believable (and hilarious) alibis to justify why German and Japanese convoys keep getting sunk.

It’s the late ’90s and the grand-children of two Detachment 2702 members are part of an IT start-up venture in the Philippines. The discovery of a sunken WWII German submarine filled with gold leads to a set of encrypted punched cards that may contain the location of an even bigger Japanese war treasure hoard.

This genre defying novel is in fact a mashup of many stories: a WWII spy action, clinic a harrowing death camp escape, a modern-day treasure hunt yarn, a philosophical mathematics treatise and a high-finance techno thriller. All of these narratives are tied together with a profound insight into geek culture and an unrestricted glee for hyperbole of hysterical proportions.

One of its many themes is the invention of the digital computer, with particular attention to its use in cryptology (encryption), communication and currency. The word “Cryptonomicon” itself refers to a fictional book summarizing mankind’s knowledge of cryptography and cryptanalysis.

Stephenson has a knack for explaining complex concepts in the most entertaining way. For instance, he’ll use graphs and formulas to describe absolutely ludicrous situations as a means to illustrate some of his more abstract themes. He will also often segue into seemingly unrelated side-stories, such as a letter to Penthouse about furniture and stockings or the tale of a wisdom tooth removal from hell. Far from being annoying, these are some of the most entertaining aspects of the book.

Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite novels of all time. Reading this 1,100 pages behemoth has become an almost-yearly ritual for me. The reason I come back to this book over and over again is because of the sheer density and enjoyability of its material. Every reading brings a smile to my face and sheds new light into its many concepts and plot points.

Beyond History

Neil Stephenson, previously known for high-tech, high-concept science-fiction novels such as Snow Crash (virtual worlds) and The Diamond Age (nanotechnology), chose the historical fiction genre for this crazy chimera of a novel. Notable historical figures featured in Cryptonomicon are: Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan. We also encounter names that have the ring of familiarity such as Electrical Till Company (ETC), a reference to IBM (Idea Business Machines), a WIRED-like TURING magazine and a scrappy Finnish open-source operating system called “Finux”.

A cornucopia of themes

I will now simply list some of the themes covered in Cryptonomicon. Hopefully, this should give you an idea of the relentless fountain of craziness and though-provoking substance of this most unusual book:

  • What is encryption and why it’s so important;
  • Cracking an encryption code
  • The autistic-like nature of nerds and geeks;
  • Start-ups, NDA’s and business plans;
  • Pen-and-paper vs computer and card-based role-playing games;
  • The impact of horniness on concentration and the relative merits of self-administered relief;
  • Information theory and all the ways that information can leak our of a communication channel;
  • Mastering UNIX and TCP/IP;
  • Customizing a Linux-like fictional operating system to its core;
  • Building a digital computer using pipes and sound;
  • Encrypting messages using a deck of playing cards
  • Setting up a data haven;
  • Creating an electronic currency;
  • The social etiquette of the military;
  • The difference between Athena and Ares, the two gods of War from Greek mythology, and how this relates to WWII;
  • The optimal way to eat a bowl of Capt’n Crunch breakfast cereals;
  • The effectiveness of publishing encryption schemes vs keeping them secret;
  • Using anonymizer proxy services to protect your anonymity;
  • Using Zeta functions to generate pseudo-random numbers;
  • Eavesdropping on the contents of a computer display by detecting its electromagnetic emissions (Van Eck phreaking);
  • Using character classes from the Lord of The Ring as a way to categorize people;
  • Genocides and mass murders;
  • The logistics of digging a hidden treasure hoard in a mountain using slave labor;
  • Libertarian paranoia and gun culture;
  • And more, more, more!!!

Relevancy

When Stephenson published Cryptonomicon in 1999, the Web had reached mainstream status and was just starting to impact the life of everyone. Windows NT and 95 were still widely used and cell-phones with worldwide coverage were an oddity. How well has this novel aged and is it still relevant today?

Most of the forward-looking tech stuff has since become old news. However, the adventure is still thrilling, the jokes still gut-splitting and its insight are still significant.

Overall, I would still recommend it to anyone passionate about WWII, computers and Big Ideas as well as to anyone interested in learning more about the puzzling psychology of geeks and nerds.

Prequels

Following Cryptonomicon, Stephenson wrote a prequel of a sort to this story. Published in three back-breaking 1,500+ pages volumes, this “Baroque Trilogy” (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) is set in the 17th century and deals with the same dominant themes of Cryptonomicon (currency, computers, treasure hunts, etc.). Its main protagonists include famous Historical figures, such as Isaac Newton and Louis XIV, as well as ancestors of many Cryptonomicon characters and a mysterious, long-lived Alchemist.

While its tone doesn’t attempts to be as consistently comic as Cryptonomicon, the Baroque trilogy is a hugely entertaining follow-up. If you enjoy diving deep into witty, meandering, though-provoking stories, these ones are for you!

Links

Photo sources: Flickr and uboatarchive.net

“Jipi and the Paranoid Chip” is a science fiction short story by Neal Stephenson that appeared in Forbes Magazine’s July 7, 1997 issue. It is part of the Baroque Cycle/ Cryptonomicon universe.