pageok
pageok
pageok
Apropos Admiral Yamamoto:

All this talk of Admiral Yamamoto of course reminds me of one of my favorite novels, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and of one of my favorite passages from that novel, a passage written in Admiral Yamamoto's voice and set just before his death. I stress that this is not relevant to my argument about Justice Stevens and his reflections -- it's just what my cranial database always brings up when I see "Yamamoto."

To those Army fuckheads, [the decision not to deliver the declaration of war until after the Pearl Harbor attack] is nothing -- just a typo, happens all the time. Isoroku Yamamoto has given up on trying to make them understand that the Americans are grudge-holders on a level that is inconceivable to the Nipponese, who learn to swallow their pride before they learn to swallow solid food. Even if he could get Tojo and his mob of shabby, ignorant thugs to comprehend how pissed off the Americans are, they'd laugh it off. What're they going to do about it? Throw a pie in your face, like the Three Stooges? Ha, ha, ha! Pass the sake and bring me another comfort girl!

Isoroku Yamamoto spent a lot of time playing poker with Yanks during his years in the States, smoking like a chimney to deaden the scent of their appalling aftershave. The Yanks are laughably rude and uncultured, of course; this hardly constitutes a sharp observation. Yamamoto, by contrast, attained some genuine insight as a side-effect of being robbed blind by Yanks at the poker table, realizing that the big freckled louts could be dreadfully cunning. Crude and stupid would be okay -- perfectly understandable, in fact.

But crude and clever is intolerable; this is what makes those red headed ape men extra double super loathsome. Yamamoto is still trying to drill the notion into the heads of his [Army] partners in the big Nipponese scheme to conquer everything between Karachi and Denver.... Come on guys, Yamamoto keeps telling them, the world is not just a big Nanjing. But they don't get it. If Yamamoto were running things, he'd make a rule: each Army officer would have to take some time out from bayoneting Neolithic savages in the jungle, go out on the wide Pacific in a ship, and swap 16-inch shells with an American task force for a while. Then maybe, they'd understand they're in a real scrap here.

This is what Yamamoto thinks about, shortly before sunrise, as he clambers onto his Mitsubishi G4M bomber in Rabaul, the scabbard of his sword whacking against the frame of the narrow door. The Yanks call this type of plane "Betty," an effeminatizing gesture that really irks him. Then again, the Yanks name even their own planes after women, and paint naked ladies on their sacred instruments of war! If they had samurai swords, Americans would probably decorate the blades with nail polish....

They are approaching the Imperial Navy airbase at Bougainville, right on schedule, at 9:35. A shadow passes overhead and Yamamoto glances up to see the silhouette of an escort, way out of position, dangerously close to them. Who is that idiot? Then the green island and the blue ocean rotate into view as his pilot puts the Betty into a power dive....

They enter the jungle in level flight, and Yamamoto is astonished how far they go before hitting anything big. Then the plane is bludgeoned wide open by mahogany trunks, like baseball bats striking a wounded sparrow, and he knows it's over.... As his seat tears loose from the broken dome and launches into space, he grips his sword, unwilling to disgrace himself by dropping his sacred weapon, blessed by the emepror, even in this last instant of his life....

He realizes something: The Americans must have done the impossible: broken all of their codes. That explains Midway, it explains the Bismarck Sea, Hollandia, everything. It especially explains why Yamamoto -- who ought to be sipping green tea and practicing calligraphy in a misty garden -- is, in point of fact, on fire and hurtling through the jungle at a hundred miles per hour in a chair, closely pursued by tons of flaming junk. He must get word out! The codes must all be changed! This is what he is thinking when he flies head-on into a hundred-foot-tall Octomelis sumatrana.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Apropos Admiral Yamamoto:
  2. Odd Connection to the Death Penalty:
Hoosier:
"Apropos Admiral Yamamoto"

Wasn't that a Styx song back in the early '80s?
10.31.2007 5:14am
VincentPaul (mail):
EV,
Thank you. I'll soon be reading Cryptonomicon.
10.31.2007 6:39am
Skyler (mail) (www):
Dreadful writing.
10.31.2007 7:18am
Ted Frank (www):
I'm glad that I wasn't the only one who thought "I don't remember seeing Justice Stevens in Cryptonomicon" when I first saw the controversy over his remarks.
10.31.2007 8:09am
Gilles de Rais (mail):
I'm with Skyler. When did Stephen King become the sytlistic standard meter?
10.31.2007 9:05am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Awesome. I was wondering how long it would take you to post that. That was the first thing that popped into my head also. Cryptonomicon has replaced Tora Tora Tora as my brain's default referent for Yamamoto.

Beg to differ, Skyler, it's great writing. Or did you intend "dreadful writing" just to mean "I didn't care for it"?
10.31.2007 10:02am
NJ (mail):
[de Rais] 2003
10.31.2007 10:03am
Adam J:
Gilles de Rais - If you're going to criticize other writing, I'd suggest making sure you don't misspell a word while doing so.
10.31.2007 10:26am
Adam J:
Although I must admit "extra double super loathsome" does come across as a bit juvenile and out of character.
10.31.2007 10:29am
Kent's Imperative (mail) (www):
Reverberations of Yamamoto

The fine folks over at the Volokh Conspiracy have provided the intelligence studies field with yet another interesting angle for consideration when discussing decision-making in the SIGINT environment....

...This is not an abstract question of historical interest. Every day in the Long War, intelligence professionals seek to find and identify enemies which in their own way are no less cleverly dangerous than Yamamoto....
10.31.2007 10:30am
Waldensian (mail):
Interestingly, the U.S. flew repeated missions in the same area after the downing of Y's plane, in an effort to demonstrate that the shootdown had simply been from a routine patrol, rather than the result of breaking a code. Apparently it worked.
10.31.2007 10:43am
Very Poor Reader (mail):
The quote from Cryptonomicon is funny and all, but how, exactly is it relevant to the discussion of Stevens's views on the death penalty?
10.31.2007 10:50am
Nick P.:
Waldensian:
Interestingly, the U.S. flew repeated missions in the same area after the downing of Y's plane, in an effort to demonstrate that the shootdown had simply been from a routine patrol, rather than the result of breaking a code.

A significant sub-plot in Cryptonomicon

Prof. Volokh:
The Yamamoto scene is great, but I think my favorite bits in Cryptonomicon are the Cap'n Crunch scene and Randy's email to his colleagues re: his jungle trip. Oh yeah, and Ronald Reagan's interview with Bobby Shaftoe.
10.31.2007 10:50am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Adam J: that's a satire of common Japanese pop culture talk. That's why it's funny to have Yamamoto thinking that way.
10.31.2007 10:57am
Phil Hunt (mail) (www):
Good bit of writing, that. I've no idea where Skyler and Gilles de Rais are coming from.
10.31.2007 10:57am
Bretzky (mail):

He must get word out! The codes must all be changed! This is what he is thinking when he flies head-on into a hundred-foot-tall Octomelis sumatrana.

I believe his last thought was actually: Holy fleurking schnit!
10.31.2007 11:01am
JWR (mail):
I cast my vote firmly in favor of "dreadful writing." The prose conjures up Tom Clancy.
10.31.2007 11:05am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Dreadful how? What exactly does that mean?
10.31.2007 11:09am
pete (mail) (www):
I say if you have not actually had a novel published, then you have no moral authority to criticize someone else's writing.
10.31.2007 11:11am
Houston Lawyer:
One of the pleasures of reading blogs is the random cool stuff that people post. Keep them coming.
10.31.2007 11:14am
Dan Weber (www):
As I was reading that, I couldn't help but think that Yamamoto's feelings about what the Japanese should learn about foreign sensibilities before engaging them in war is a lesson that Americans should also learn themselves.

"What? You mean the world is not just a big Los Angeles?"
10.31.2007 11:16am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
My objection is different from pete's. First of all, it's not clear why someone with published non-fiction shouldn't be able to criticize someone else's writing. And more generally, I don't think one has to be a practitioner of an art form to have critical standards for the art form. But my objection is that people seem to default to "X is bad writing" when what they really mean is "I didn't care for X" or "X wasn't emotionally compelling to me" and don't actually have an articulable definition of "bad writing."
10.31.2007 11:17am
kevin r (mail):
I love Cryptonomicon. One of my favorite books. I think my favorite passage is Avi's "generic business plan", though I also love Randy's family graphing the furniture, as well as the parts Nick P. mentioned.

It also reads absolutely nothing like Tom Clancy (aside from both being kind of long, I guess), so I'm not sure where that's coming from. (I've actually never read anything by Stephen King, so I can't speak to that comparison.)
10.31.2007 11:19am
Ivan (mail) (www):
I think they should feel free to criticize Stephenson's (or anyone's) writing, but what they're saying isn't criticism. "Dreadful writing" doesn't mean anything. Why is it dreadful? And referencing Clancy as "dreadful" doesn't make one sound erudite, just elitist. What qualities are there that make it dreadful? My guess is the answer would be that it's 'unpolished,' but that's one of Stephenson's virtues. Why do we need polished writing to hear the voices in someone's head? If they bothered to read the book, they would find that Stephenson is great at varying the voice to fit the situation. But snap judgments are easier to make, and fortunately the only people hurt are those making them, if it stops them from reading Cryptonomicon. Maybe Eugene should post an excerpt from Randy's letter to Epiphyte Corp. so the criticizers can feel even more superior to Stephenson.
10.31.2007 11:24am
M.E.Butler (mail):
Re Dan Weber:

A more appropriate analogy for Americans would be:

"What? You mean the world is not just a big Grenada?"

Re: Waldensian

Your comment points up a difficulty the U.S. and Britain faced in WW2. With the successful breaking of enemy codes, how much of the information could we use without tipping off the enemy (both the Germans and the Japanese) that we were "reading their mail." Thus the additional missions after Yamamoto was killed to mask the specific intelligence that enabled us to get him.
10.31.2007 11:36am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
The views of Yamamoto as expressed in this fiction are, IMO, what an American senior officer in the same situation would be thinking.
And since we understand that, we think it's funny, in the we're-screwed sense of "funny".
I expect Yamamoto thought differently, being from a different culture and all.
Anyway, a good piece and darkly humorous.
10.31.2007 11:37am
Random3 (mail):
Cryptonomicon is a fabulous book. There are so many wonderful insights into human nature in that book - I think it is a masterpiece. My only difficulty with it is the frequent tangents he takes off into hard-core mathematics to explain various aspects of cryptology and cryptography. Those sections were a little thick (and I'm a former crypto guy), but they could easily be glossed over without distracting from the plot.
10.31.2007 11:37am
Wombat:
Cryptonomicon is my favorite novel, but my especially beloved bit is this line:

They will either make you rich or kill you, like something straight out of a Joseph Campbell footnote.

Not only is it painfully funny to anyone who has ever worked his way through, say, Occidental Mythology, but it references Stephenson's apparent personal history with Campbell's theories:

Snow Crash: No mention whatsoever of Campbell, despite relevant subject matter.
Diamond Age: Stephenson has started to work through Campbell's material; Archetypes mentioned offhandedly in a conversation between Finkle-McGraw and Hackworth early on.
Cryptonomicon: Stephenson has worked through Campbell's theories (see quote!)- and thoroughly rejected them.

This rejection is a major component of the jailhouse chat between Root and Randy. Paraphrasing said chat, Stephenson believes that any similarities between godheads are because human experiences will lead to the same conclusions, not because there is any universal divine truth that all cultures reference. E.g. every culture that has their unstoppable warrior king in gleaming armor felled by some scrawny schlub with a crossbow will associate technology with trickery, not because there is some actual divine Loki that the culture echoed.

Cryptonomicon is also filled with references (pre-references?) to material in the later written Baroque cycle, from the medicine Root gives to Amy to the Samurai swords offhandedly mentioned in someone's trunk.
10.31.2007 11:46am
Grange95 (mail):
Cryptonomicon is a great read, perfect for a couple of long flights or a few days by a pool in Vegas. Not sure that Justice Stevens has read it, however ... though Justice Scalia seems the type who might pick it up out of curiosity.
10.31.2007 11:49am
Skyler (mail) (www):
Why dreadful? I thought it was obvious, but let me add a bit more in the way of reasoning.

1. The fourth word is "fuckheads" when it is purportedly the thoughts of a Japanese man. I seriously doubt that "fuckhead" is a word in Japanese and thus the author purposely chose a very vulgar term with little meaning for the purpose of making this man appear like a 20 year old man today in America.

2. But the big reason is that he describes the man's death, and then has the last thought going through his mind the one thought that is the point of the author's book. I'm willing to allow an author the leeway to say what a man's thoughts are, but this is too far. I'd venture to say that there is no one on this planet who, hurling from a burning aircraft, takes the time to express to himself that some arcane code has been broken. It's preposterous.

Thus, the writing is dreadful.
10.31.2007 12:26pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Skyler. I once told a joke to an engineer. Can't remember it now. He screwed up his face for a moment's calculation and then looked at me with what seemed to be a kind of accusatory stare.
"You can't get that many people into a car!"
10.31.2007 12:30pm
Andrew Janssen (mail):

Why dreadful? I thought it was obvious, but let me add a bit more in the way of reasoning.


Which only makes it obvious that a) you've missed the point of the passage, and b) you've never read the whole novel.
10.31.2007 12:31pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
"I seriously doubt that "fuckhead" is a word in Japanese"
O RLY? The entire passage consists of non-Japanese words. That's because the book is in English. I'm sure Japanese has words that, for them, are roughly analogous.
10.31.2007 12:35pm
Steve:
Cryptonomicon was a really enjoyable romp.
10.31.2007 12:44pm
ramster (mail):
When I think of Yamamoto, I'm reminded of this poem he wrote.

Today, as chief
Of the sea guardians
Of the land of the dawn,
Awed I gaze up
At the rising sun.
10.31.2007 12:46pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
Well, I'm an engineer. And unlike lawyers, I understand logic. And what makes writing dreadful.
10.31.2007 12:50pm
Bob Tern (mail):
Huh. And as a lawyer and an engineer (we didn't all take political science as undergrads) I'd like to point out that lawyers have to understand and use logic fairly often.

And you've yet to refute the argument that you consider this passage dreadful writing because you don't like it. So much for your vaunted logic. It may be inaccurate. It may not be polished. Yet it can still be great writing. Do you understand that the two are different?
10.31.2007 12:56pm
Random Commenter:
"Well, I'm an engineer."

Richard Aubrey owes me a keyboard.

Fantastic read. The Reagan interview of Bobby Shaftoe is still what tickles me the most.
10.31.2007 1:01pm
ed (mail) (www):
Hmmmm.

"I say if you have not actually had a novel published, then you have no moral authority to criticize someone else's writing."

Is this the beginning of the "chickenauthor" meme?
10.31.2007 1:01pm
Kent G. Budge (mail) (www):
Yes, it's dreadful writing. But still pretty funny.

Like Java. Neat concept, hamhanded implementation.
10.31.2007 1:09pm
NaG (mail):
Sorry, Skyler, but you're simply wrong. Your two examples of the purported "dreadful writing" are based wholly in a demand for perfect realism out of a fictional depiction, and have nothing to do with the creativity, vividness, and entertainment quality of the writing itself. By your standards, all sci-fi is "dreadful" because the stories depend on some small suspension of disbelief. Obviously, this is wrong.
10.31.2007 1:12pm
Nick P.:

Heh. Found some of the Reagan bit online. Curiously, the same epithet shows up.

Ronald Reagan has a stack of three-by-five cards in his lap. He skids up a new one: "What advice do you, as the youngest American fighting man ever to win both the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, have for any young Marines on their way to Guadalcanal?"
Shaftoe doesn't have to think very long. The memories are still as fresh as last night's eleventh nightmare: ten plucky Nips in a suicide charge!
"Just kill the one with the sword first."
"Ah," Reagan says, raising his waxed and penciled eye-brows, and cocking his pompadour in Shaftoe's direction.
"Smarrrrt - you target them because they're officers, right?"
"No, fuckhead!" Shaftoe yells. "You kill 'em because they've got fucking swords! You ever had anyone running at you waving a fucking sword?"
10.31.2007 1:16pm
CEB:
I didn't like Crytonomicon. The writing style was a bit too clever, which I can deal with, but there were far too many meanderings and loose ends. I think it would have benefited greatly by being cut to about half its length.
10.31.2007 1:25pm
JB:
I liked Cryptonomicon. As a person with a lot of random knowledge, I love reading works by people with more random knowledge than I have, who throw it all in there.

Now that I think about it, I liked Cryptonomicon for reasons similar to why I like this blog.
10.31.2007 1:31pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Random. I got a million of 'em. Stories, not keyboards.

But it's easy as hell to predict.....oh, crap, everybody's looking at me. Should elderly men be giggling?
10.31.2007 1:40pm
The Cabbage:
Stephenson might turn out to be another Jules Verne. Certainly, he's the front-runner for that title after the rise of Second Life. It's entirely possible that western civilization will wake up in 300 years ago realize that its living in the Diamond Age.
10.31.2007 1:47pm
hattio1:
Hmmm,
I like this blog, like JB, but I never managed to get through cryptonomicon and drug my way through Snow Crash because it came so highly recommended by a good friend who's recommendations are usually spot on. I can't stand Stephenson's style. But I wouldn't necessarily call it dreadful writing.
10.31.2007 1:48pm
Cal H:
Very interesting bit of writing, I think I'll have to get my hands on a copy of Crytonomicon. As a matter of historical fact however, Yamamoto was dead before the plane went down. I believe the Japanese report was that he was struck by at least one 50 caliber slug in the strafing run prior to the crash.
10.31.2007 2:01pm
TerrencePhilip:
that's a great excerpt EV but it makes me wonder- did you take the trouble of typing all that out yourself? What a chore!
10.31.2007 2:06pm
Anderson (mail):
The prose conjures up Tom Clancy.

Obviously written by someone who has never read a paragraph by Clancy. I mean, what cluelessness.

but there were far too many meanderings and loose ends

And Mozart -- too many notes, right?
10.31.2007 2:10pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
My comment "unlike lawyers" above is out of line, rude, and I don't stand by it at all. Sorry for being grumpy.
10.31.2007 2:13pm
Bill Woods (mail):
EV: To those Army fuckheads, [the decision not to deliver the declaration of war until after the Pearl Harbor attack] is nothing -- just a typo, happens all the time.

Nitpick: It wasn't a "decision", it was a screwup. The message was supposed to have been delivered before the bombing started, but the embassy staff couldn't get the message translated in time.

...And yeah, the mention of killing Yamamoto brought Cryptonomicon to my mind too.
10.31.2007 2:15pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
NaG, you're trying to make an invalid point. There is no such thing as writing that is dreadful because of some empirical test.

Writing is a matter of conveying an idea with the intent of having a desired impact. If the writer's intent was to make me believe that he could reasonably portray the thoughts of Yamamoto moments before his death, he failed miserably.

I guess if this was all a farce, making fun of Yamamoto in a Monty Python way that his last thought was of a code being broken, then it was effective. I haven't read the book, never even heard of it, but from the comments here it doesn't appear to have been his aim.

If you think it's believable that Yamamoto's last thoughts were to explain the fact that he was dying in a fireball because of a code being broken, then you may not think the writing is dreadful. Good for you. I never said you had to agree with the assertion that the writing is dreadful.
10.31.2007 2:19pm
CEB:
And Mozart -- too many notes, right?

Bad example; Mozart's music was miraculously efficient. A better comparison would be to Wagner. To borrow Rossini's (I think) quote, Cryptonomicon has great passages, but awful hundred-page stretches.
10.31.2007 2:23pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
CEB: "Cryptonomicon has great passages, but awful hundred-page stretches."
Translation: CEB didn't like parts of Cryptonomicon.

Skyler: "you may not think the writing is dreadful. Good for you. I never said you had to agree with the assertion that the writing is dreadful"

De gustibus non disputandum est, that's true. But the expression "I don't care for X" has "I" for a subject, which is why there's no fact of the matter, one may like it and another may not. But "X is written badly" has "X" for a subject, and makes an objective claim about properties of X. You can't make that assertion without some criteria of judgement, some standard of assessment. Analogy: you may not like sushi, but that doesn't mean this piece of sushi is bad.
10.31.2007 2:36pm
NaG (mail):
Skyler: Look, dude, YOU were the one applying an empirical test to determine whether the writing was "dreadful" or not. Not me.

"If the writer's intent was to make me believe that he could reasonably portray the thoughts of Yamamoto moments before his death, he failed miserably." Did the passage read like a history textbook to you? It's a sci-fi book. Fiction. Entertainment. It's not Michener. I don't think there's a desert world out there populated by giant sandworms ruled by the Harkonnens, but that doesn't make "Dune" a "dreadfully-written" book.
10.31.2007 2:44pm
Waldensian (mail):

As a matter of historical fact however, Yamamoto was dead before the plane went down. I believe the Japanese report was that he was struck by at least one 50 caliber slug in the strafing run prior to the crash.

Ouch. Hard to catch a .50 round and not snuff it. Another reason John Browning kicks Mitt Romney's butt in the "my favorite Mormon" contest.
10.31.2007 2:45pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
This is absurd and I won't respond further except to say that one need not put a personal pronoun in front of an opinion when the statement cannot be taken as factual.

Someone wanted the reasons for my opinion. I didn't say they were empirical evidence.

Opinions are like rear ends, they all stink.
10.31.2007 2:50pm
Thomas_Holsinger:
When Yamamoto was a relatively junior admiral, he attended a pre-war joint Army-Navy conference in which he sat next to a General named Tojo. THAT Tojo.

When Tojo stood to give a long rant, Yamamoto surrepticiously pulled Tojo's chair back a fair distance. Tojo finished the rant and sat back down hard, only to do a great pratfall due to the absence of the chair he expected.

Japanese politics of the day was real hardball so the IJN immediately assigned Yamamoto to sea duty to protect him from Army assassins.
10.31.2007 2:52pm
Piano_JAM (mail):
I just bid on a copy on ebay. There is an original signed by the author out there also. I look forward to the 1,182 pages.
10.31.2007 3:03pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
Pete: That was pretty funny.

Aeon J. Skoble:

Joke ----------> x

Your head ---> O

:^)

- Alaska Jack
10.31.2007 3:20pm
luagha:
If you think Cryptonomicon is long and possessed of too many digressions, I suggest you dare not essay The Baroque Cycle.
10.31.2007 3:22pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
There was no contextual clue that would indicate it was a joke, but in the interests of flame-retardation, I'll apologize for having missed it anyway.
10.31.2007 3:24pm
kevin r (mail):
Man, I loved Cryptonomicon, and even I had a hard time getting into the Baroque Cycle. (Liked it once I finally got into it, though.)
10.31.2007 4:01pm
The Cabbage:
CEB, wouldn't Richard Strauss be the best example?
10.31.2007 4:05pm
abu hamza:
I bet I'd like that book based on the excerpt. Love the scientific name for whatever he wipes out on. That's totally kind of tom Wolfe and I am totally into his lengthy tomes full of twenty paragraph descriptions of some athletes trapezius major and the use of descriptive body language instead of dialogue to drive the scene's action.
10.31.2007 4:14pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
Thought Zodiac was clever, and Snowcrash memorably so (the Terminator/Robocop influenced introductory pizza delivery scene by itself was worth the price of the read). I loved "Command Line".

Though I loved the "generic biz plan complete with SEC-required disclosures" of Cryptonomicon (I'm suprised it hasn't been previously quoted here at length), I thought some of the longer digressions got to be a bit much, and by the time of the Baroque trilogy, I was beginning to think "Too clever by half!"

Not "dreadful"; just "working too hard". But, as observed, gustibus non. . .
10.31.2007 4:45pm
Hoosier:
Written by Tom Clancey, wouldn't it go more like this:

To those Army fuckheads, [the decision not to deliver the declaration of war until after the Pearl Harbor attack] is nothing -- just a typo, happens all the time. Isoroku Yamamoto has given up on trying to make them understand much of anything. He had been at Harvard. The Army bums had all been to Georgetown, and studied with Prof. Walsh--Had to Irish with that name. Even if he could get Tojo and his mob of shabby, Jesuit-educated thugs to comprehend how pissed off the Americans are, they'd laugh it off. He re-cinched the gold-buckled strap on his well-oiled seal-skin boots; boots that were engineered to keep out both freezing gusts of ice-wind that blew accross Siberia's flat, empty expanse, as well as the warm monsoonal rains of that part of French Indochina that's west of the Mekong Delata on the South China Sea, but still east of the part that borders on the Gulf of Thailand. (The part you've never heard of, but which is in my new atalas that's really great but I left at my niece's house.)

The dark brown curve of the boot over his toes jutted out of the flat expanse of the plane floor as if it were a really small Ayers Rock, which the indigenous peoples call Uluru. Looking out at the wing, he saw the engines, each with 380hp, four-bladed-propeller design that had been based on an earlier model that the Brits once had used on cargo aircraft, shipping Gurnsey Cheeses to . . .
10.31.2007 4:48pm
PersonFromPorlock:
pete:

I say if you have not actually had a novel published, then you have no moral authority to criticize someone else's writing.

I go even further: if you have published a novel and it's told in the present tense ("They enter the jungle in level flight....") you don't even have the moral authority to talk.
10.31.2007 4:57pm
John McCall (mail):
Bill Woods: you're thinking of the formal withdrawal from negotiations, which was meant to arrive before the attack. It was a long document, though, which is part of why the Japanese embassy was so slow to decrypt it.

The actual declaration of war was about two lines long and arrived about ten hours too late.
10.31.2007 5:18pm
John Stephens (mail):
Let's simplify this. Did it (Cryptonomicon) sell well? Yes? Then it's good writing. The sole valid criterion for judging fiction is whether or not people will pay to read it. Everything else is just a nice bonus.
10.31.2007 5:23pm
K Parker (mail):
Waldensian,

Isn't JMB everyone's favorite Mormon? Or do we have to qualify it a bit (e.g. "every Jacksonian's favorite Mormon" or something?)

Tom Holsinger,

Have you got a cite for that? There's a retired navy person I'd like to pass this on to, but really I'd like something better for attestation than, "I read this in a blog comment."

Hoosier,

Now you owe me a keyboard! Plus some monitor cleaning fluid...
10.31.2007 5:41pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
Aeon J. Skoble:

Didn't mean to sound like a jerk. In another thread, someone used a variant of that line on Eugene, saying something to the effect of "you've never done such-and-such, so how dare you criticize it". I think Pete was making a wry joke alluding to that.

- AJ
10.31.2007 5:54pm
Random Commenter:
"He re-cinched the gold-buckled strap on his well-oiled seal-skin boots; boots that were engineered to keep out both freezing gusts of ice-wind that blew accross Siberia's flat, empty expanse, as well as the warm monsoonal rains of that part of French Indochina that's west of the Mekong Delata on the South China Sea, but still east of the part that borders on the Gulf of Thailand."

This has the makings of a pretty good Bulwer-Lytton entry.
10.31.2007 6:07pm
Kevin P. (mail):

If you think Cryptonomicon is long and possessed of too many digressions, I suggest you dare not essay The Baroque Cycle.

Agreed. I loved Cryptonomicon and inspired by it, I borrowed The Baroque Cycle from the library. After struggling through 200 pages, I gave up and returned it.
10.31.2007 6:50pm
Phutatorius (www):
That's the second-best chapter in English literature. Here's the best:

http://www.tristramshandyweb.it/testo/vol4/v4ch27.html
10.31.2007 7:04pm
Morat20 (mail):
For the record, the second two books of the Baroque cycle were much easier to get through. Took me two tries to get through Quicksilver.

And Jesus, the end of Quicksilver -- certain surgeries in the era before anesthetic should not be contemplated while eating.
10.31.2007 7:47pm
Ace:
I love Cryptonomicon - my favorite Stephenson book by far. I particularly enjoy Bobby Shaftoe's view of McArthur and his desire to kill Marines, and Randy at the dinner table (with Christine and the academics, at the beginning).
10.31.2007 8:08pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
I too think the Baroque Cycle went a bit far... Rococo perhaps, with ornamentation for the sake of ornamentation.

But Cryptonomicon and other Stephenson novels like Snow Crash are simply wonderful.

But then, I--as, I suspect, at least one other commenter here--find Thomas Pynchon novels to be the epitome of American 20th C. literature.
10.31.2007 9:43pm
michael (mail) (www):
When Tojo stood to give a long rant, Yamamoto surreptitiously pulled Tojo's chair back a fair distance. Tojo finished the rant and sat back down hard, only to do a great pratfall due to the absence of the chair he expected.

Thomas (above), are you for sure? This seems inconsistent with Japanese formal public politeness.
11.1.2007 1:53am
Arvin (mail) (www):
You know, I'm not sure why it's so hard to believe that Yamamoto was thinking about his codes being broken when he died. I mean, obviously no one knows, but he's an Admiral. He's not supposed to die, or get shot down. Isn't it possible that as an intelligent person, he had a realization as he was hurtling towards death of WHY he was hurtling towards death? Or that he was thinking about it in a moment of incredulity (how could this have happened? Why am I about to die?)?

I mean, sure, it's also possible he was just thinking, oh shit, I'm on fire, but he's also an Admiral, trained to think about what's going on, even in the face of huge amounts of risk and danger. So I don't find that part implausible.
11.1.2007 2:01am
Syd Henderson (mail):
Cryptonomicon had two of my biggest laughs in literature:

(1) There is a acene where the children of a matriarch are dividing up the family assets. They do it in a perfectly logical mathematical manner that is totally absurd and makes sense both.

(2) The revelation of the nature of Lawrence Waterhouse's code-breaking computer.

The first volume of the Baroque Trilogy is pretty good, but the series as a whole is really bloated and takes a lot of effort to read. I now know more about the recoinage of the late 17th and early 18th century than I ever wanted to know, and my life is no richer as a result.

It does have good views of the reigns of Charles II and Louis XIV, I really like the portraits of Gottfried Leibniz, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton. The lifting of the 1683 seige of Vienna is nicely done and introduces us to Eliza, one of the best characters in the series.
11.1.2007 2:02am
Avatar (mail):
As a matter of fact, Japanese does NOT have an equivalent term to "fuckhead". Not that they're short on scatological terms or that they don't have a dozen pronouns with various shades of politeness and/or enmity, but... they never really got down with the whole cursing thing. There's no "words you can't say" on Japanese TV. And even when they are cursing, they don't use terms for copulation to do it; "fuck" as an obscene concept doesn't work for Japan.

But Stephenson knows that. He's written plenty of Japanese perspectives before, some in that very book; if they're not totally authentic, they're pretty close. So when we get a window into Yamamoto's thought processes, which are portrayed as nothing like the "normal" Japanese thought process... well, the entire point was that it was Yamamoto, who really did think differently (and, leaving aside his opinions of American aftershave, really did have a respect for the US that wasn't shared by his military peers.)

So in a way it's an affectation, sure, but it's also a big neon-lit clue that someone who was different from his peers in some respects might be different from them in others. And if Yamamoto was different because he was partially "Americanized", well, there you go.
11.1.2007 2:36am
abw (www):
I'm disappointed in many of the comments here.

Unless you've written a novel, you shouldn't criticize authors.

Unless you've written classical music, you shouldn't criticize composers.

And unless you've commented on a blog, you shouldn't criticize commenters.
11.1.2007 3:03am
Ursus Maritimus:

He must get word out! The codes must all be changed! This is what he is thinking when he flies head-on into a hundred-foot-tall Octomelis sumatrana.


Assuming he recognized the planes attacking his as land-based, and know about their range to realize they are at the very bleeding edge of their range, that is.

Otherwise it is more likely to be "What rotten luck to be here just as an American carrier raid attacks the base! Wonder how they got their carriers so close without anyone noticing?"
11.1.2007 9:11am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Ursus.
P38s were only land-based. And he'd know where the land bases were.
A carrier raid that deep into Japanese territory would have been unlikely. If he had thought that, his last thoughts would be, what an opportunity to sink a dozen US ships.
Or, oh, shit.
11.1.2007 9:20am
Sean Healy (mail) (www):
It's dreadful because of uneconomical, redundant phrasing ("in point of fact"), adolescent showiness ("Octomelis sumatrana"), cliched imagery ("sipping green tea and practicing calligraphy in a misty garden"), incoherent ("like baseball bats striking a wounded sparrow") or hackneyed ("smoking like a chimney") similes, missed descriptive opportunities ("closely pursued by tons of flaming junk") and a general lack of balance, rhythm, elegance, freshness, pacing or any other characteristic of good prose. But because Stephenson writes 100mph overheated, overlong books, bloggers with a high opinion of their own intelligence feel flattered by getting to the end in one piece. God, it's worse than prog rock.
11.1.2007 10:14am
markm (mail):
Not only were P38's highly recognizable and always land-based, but they had twin props, and there were no twin-prop carrier airplanes in WWII. If Yamamoto saw his attackers at all, he would have recognized that, and he would have known the geography and fighter ranges well enough to understand that if he was seeing land-based fighters, they were operating at extreme range.


John McCall (mail):
Bill Woods: you're thinking of the formal withdrawal from negotiations, which was meant to arrive before the attack. It was a long document, though, which is part of why the Japanese embassy was so slow to decrypt it.

The actual declaration of war was about two lines long and arrived about ten hours too late.

True, but when the Navy codebreakers decrypted the "withdrawal from negotiations", they had no doubt that it meant war - and together with the instructions to deliver the document at exactly 2:00 PM in Washington, they knew to within a half hour when the war would start. What they didn't know was where. The time was dawn in Honolulu, or the middle of the night in Manila, and in another case of fighting the last war, they considered a repeat of the 1905 night-time attack by small surface ships armed with torpedos and guns to be very likely (in Manila on US ships or in Singapore on the British fleet), but a carrier or other attack on Pearl Harbor to be nearly impossible.

Then after decoding the message, about three hours were lost in tracking down an admiral who could authorize sending out warnings based on it. That left barely time enough for ships to get steam up - but while everything to the west was warned ASAP, atmospheric conditions made Pearl Harbor hard to reach by radio, and it doesn't sound like anyone was concerned with seeing that a timely warning got through.

After all, Pearl Harbor's defenders were tasked with maintaining air patrols 500 miles out and 360 degrees around the islands, and those would have picked up any approaching carrier force the night before - and, since his predecessor had been fired for complaining about it, General Short wasn't complaining about the lack of resources at his disposal. He only had enough long range aircraft to cover about 150 degrees, and the Japanese consuls in Hawaii were free to observe the patrols leaving and returning, and wire back the patrol pattern, so the carriers knew how to go around the northwestern limits. (But that was supposed to be OK because there were no ports to refuel out there, and the Japanese were an inferior race who couldn't figure out things like how to run hoses between ships and refuel at sea...)
11.1.2007 10:30am
Gilles de Rais (mail):
Seconds to what Sean Haley, in a very elegant and succinct manner, said. Oh, and sorry for the misspelling in my last post--all hooks and whatnot.
11.1.2007 11:18am
Kevin R (mail):
Once again, people equating "X is dreadful" with "I didn't like X".

I didn't realize all prose was subject to the taste of Sean Haley. I'll be sure to consult you next time I come across some writing and would like to know if it's good or not.
11.1.2007 1:49pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
markm:
Not only were P-38s twin-engined, they had a double fuselage, which made them more recognizable than any other airplane in WW2. There's a good picture here. If Yamamoto saw one of the interceptors, however briefly, he knew they were P-38s, and therefore land-based, and therefore at the very limits of their range, and therefore that he had been betrayed either by a secret agent or (much more likely) a broken code. It would not have taken more than a few seconds for an intelligent military man to make all those connections, even if already on fire.
11.1.2007 2:17pm
Lugo:
Let's simplify this. Did it (Cryptonomicon) sell well? Yes? Then it's good writing. The sole valid criterion for judging fiction is whether or not people will pay to read it. Everything else is just a nice bonus.

Uhhhh, so by that logic, Tim LaHaye, Danielle Steel, Sidney Sheldon, and Judith Krantz are "good writing". Indeed, they must be much better writers than Stephenson, since they sold so many more books than him.

Nahhhh, I'm willing to go so far as to say that there are other, better criteria for judging writing than how well it sells.

I thought Cryptonomicon badly needed a ruthless editor. The multi-page exposition on eating breakfast cereal was but one example of the sheer self-indulgence in this book.
11.1.2007 3:01pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
"The multi-page exposition on eating breakfast cereal was but one example of the sheer self-indulgence in this book."

Self-indulgent how? It's not a memoir. That passage, and the ones like it, are typically cited by people who liked the book as an example of what they liked about it. E.g., it's funny, it's clever, it's an exaggerated look at a relatively common experience. If that and all the passages like it had been edited out, the book would be much _less_ successful. If you didn't appreciate those passages, there's nothing for us to argue about: de gustibus etc. But saying it's bad writing is to segue from what you find amusing or charming (or not) to some objective badness of writing that way. That's a non-sequitur.

Let me say though that I would not endorse the idea that having sold well is evidence of it being good. That commits the same fallacy in the opposite direction.
11.1.2007 3:20pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
Eating cereal and killing Yamamoto? Sheesh. I think my dreadful comment is more appropriate than I even imagined. I won't be putting that book on my wish list.
11.1.2007 4:51pm
Hoosier:
Kevin R.: "Once again, people equating "X is dreadful" with "I didn't like X". " Yep. It's a useful distinction. I assume that all the buzz about Joyce's "Ulysses" and "Finnegan's Wake" is based on some value in the books. But "I don't like them." The same goes for Faulkner. And Philip K. Dick, who had some intriguing stories, but who, from my point of view, was not much of a stylist. Doesn't mean his writing isn't good. Just that I don't see it.
11.1.2007 5:13pm
Hoosier:
Sean Healy: "God, it's worse than prog rock." Hahahahahahaha!

If anyone does not know what you mean, they can now go to Youtube and type in "Emerson, Lake and Palmer." All will then be revealed.
11.1.2007 5:14pm
Hamilton-Lovecraft (mail):
It's dreadful because of uneconomical, redundant phrasing ("in point of fact"), adolescent showiness ("Octomelis sumatrana"), cliched imagery ("sipping green tea and practicing calligraphy in a misty garden"), incoherent ("like baseball bats striking a wounded sparrow") or hackneyed ("smoking like a chimney") similes, missed descriptive opportunities ("closely pursued by tons of flaming junk") and a general lack of balance, rhythm, elegance, freshness, pacing or any other characteristic of good prose.


The overall incongrous westernness of Stephenson's Yamamoto's voice is intentional, not accidental, and part of his writing style -- a cultural translation to match the linguistic translation. Use of "sipping green tea and practicing calligraphy" is self-conscious and intentional allusion to the cliche, lacking only the ;-) winky face. The lack of balance, elegance, etc. is also fairly intentional; he's making a Rube Goldberg machine of language, like certain other modern authors do, and when he does several pages on the optimal way to eat Cap'n Crunch cereal, or a paragraph on inferring the ingredients of a bottle of steak sauce from the taste, the intent for the reader to laugh aloud at the ridiculousness, not to swoon at the crystalline brilliance, of the prose.
11.1.2007 8:07pm
Xmas (mail) (www):
Really, Stephenson is really just following in the footsteps of Douglas Adams. Both like to have fun with words and language, they entertain with absurdities.
11.2.2007 2:39am
Lugo:
The overall incongrous westernness of Stephenson's Yamamoto's voice is intentional, not accidental, and part of his writing style -- a cultural translation to match the linguistic translation. Use of "sipping green tea and practicing calligraphy" is self-conscious and intentional allusion to the cliche, lacking only the ;-) winky face. The lack of balance, elegance, etc. is also fairly intentional; he's making a Rube Goldberg machine of language, like certain other modern authors do, and when he does several pages on the optimal way to eat Cap'n Crunch cereal, or a paragraph on inferring the ingredients of a bottle of steak sauce from the taste, the intent for the reader to laugh aloud at the ridiculousness, not to swoon at the crystalline brilliance, of the prose.

This is reminiscent of Republican efforts to explain that various Bush administration fiascos were not really fiascos, because if you understand the Secret Master Plan, it all really makes sense, and apparent incompetence is actually fiendishly clever manipulation...

Sometimes clunky, undisciplined prose is just clunky undisciplined prose.
11.2.2007 11:07am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
markm Ref yrs of Nov. 1, 9:30.
Thanks for the description of the P38. I keep forgetting there are a few among us who couldn't tell a Lightning from a Hellcat from a Thunderbolt.
Hence, in the current venue, my statement was meaningless.
11.2.2007 11:18am
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
The P-38 was so recognizable that Big Joe Turner could refer to the shape in a blues song. Describing a buxom woman in "Jumpin' the Blues" (late '40s), he sings "She's got a double fuselage, she's built like a P38, she'll bring you in on time, boys she's never late."
11.2.2007 11:43am
SocratesAbroad (mail):
I personally have no thoughts on Cryptonomicon since I've never heard of it and don't read much nonfiction.

As someone familiar with Japan and Japanese, though, I would stress that the passage (and most noticeably the swearing) sounds entirely out-of-character for any Japanese, even one portrayed as vastly different from other Japanese.

[Suffice it to say that I had a long explanation with Japanese curse words and their English equivalents, but the comment checker keeps eating it. Boiled down, you don't curse in Japanese, you 1) speak less politely or 2) you use schoolyard taunts of "idiot" or "fool." The only exception is Yakuza, who no one of proper breeding or station would purposefully emulate]
11.2.2007 11:52am
SocratesAbroad (mail):

There's no "words you can't say" on Japanese TV.

That's actually false.
(Eng. trans. mine)

What are 'Prohibited Terms in Broadcasting" (Broadcasting Code)?
Words offensive to public order and decency like discriminatory language and expletives in TV and radio broadcasts.
There is no list of prohibited terms in broadcasting common to both industries. Restrictions are self-imposed using the determination of the broadcaster or producer, so the concept of "Prohibited Terms in Broadcasting" does not exist. Enforcement is also a voluntary decision of the individual broadcaster.
11.2.2007 12:01pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Dr. Weevil,

That was in the days of a shared culture.
I recall Sid Caesar teaching Nanette Fabray to drive.
"If you want to turn left, turn the wheel left. If you want to turn right, turn the wheel right. If you want to climb, pull...." Winces and wipes his forehead.
Everybody knew about that. Ex-pilots and gunners and maintenance guys and navigators and ....all around you.

Bob Cummings' sitcom made a bit of his being a b25 pilot, which is either true or came from a Twilight Zone episode where he played one.

And in Bye Bye Birdie, the girlfriend's mother is saying that the Elvis character is "only eighteen", to which the father replies, "I was eighteen when I was in WW II".

Which everybody could identify with.

Today....kind of worrisome.
11.2.2007 12:58pm
bobby B (mail):
I read Crypto, moved on to the B Cycle, read Crypto again and got more out of it, read the B Cycle again and started to understand more of the undercurrent, read it again and understood even more, read Snow Crash and the Diamond Age and an awful non-fiction about operating systems that was almost painful and then read Diamond Age again, and Crypto and the BC . . .

Make fun of his grammer or his style or his prose or his spelling or . . . whatever . . . but NS writes the most goddam intelligent, demanding, intricate and entertaining books I have found, with the side benefit that the guy must know just about everything about just about everything (or must, at least, research The Complete History of The World for each book.) The side comments about navigating in the 14th century followed by the details of making gunpowder from scratch followed by cryptology followed by details of how masters used pigments followed by cogent explanations of rather impenetrable mathematical concepts followed by mapmaking lore followed by . . .

Good? Bad? Dunno. I loved them. Still do.
11.2.2007 6:42pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
bobby B,

If you only ever read that one book over and over again, it's easy to see why you'd think that author "must know just about everything about just about everything." :)
11.2.2007 8:04pm
Alaska Jack (mail):

The overall incongrous westernness of Stephenson's Yamamoto's voice (...)

This is reminiscent of Republican efforts to explain that various Bush administration fiascos were not really fiascos, because if you understand the Secret Master Plan, it all really makes sense, and apparent incompetence is actually fiendishly clever manipulation...

Sometimes clunky, undisciplined prose is just clunky undisciplined prose.


Wow, talk about clunky ...

- Alaska Jack
11.3.2007 10:43pm