When I went to college nothing was computerized. I had a friend who regularly went out to Cal Tech and would sit at his kitchen table for hours pouring over thick stacks of printer paper. Computers were at Cal Tech and Shakespeare was at the UC. By the early 1970s I was working with computers, mostly for data communications and data analysis. A little more than five years my technological experiences went from my first electric typewriter to programming the then mighty IBM 360. What a combination: steeped in poetry and drama yet being paid to conduct traffic studies and coordinate message switching activities in the telecommunications industry.
The result of my Janus-faced career was a jaundiced eye cast over any imaginative fiction that tried to impress the rubes with the latest flash and theory. I say “imaginative fiction” because I need to differentiate it from science fiction, which is boring. The situation has improved today but I remember all those bad movies when the computer screen displayed characters four inches high and the guys breaking into the computer room could always operate the console intuitively without making a mistake. My two favorites were when Scotty spoke into the mouse on an ancient Macintosh computer and when the alien invaders were destroyed on Independence Day by a computer virus which was inserted into the alien computers with the command, UPLOAD VIRUS. One novel I really tried to accept was Galetea 2.0 which retold the Pygmalian story wrapped in some rather imaginative technology. Ultimately, however, the lack of connection to the real world of technology (even if speculative future technology) left me with a touch of disappointment.
I have had numerous disappointments with the fictional approaches to technology through the years. So when I started reading Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge, I was wary. Even the title caused me concern: when I was working, we always wanted our technology to be “leading-edge” but not so far out that our welfare would be endangered: anything on the bleeding-edge was to be avoided.
At first I was concerned that Pynchon was just out of touch with his technology: he seemed to be flashing a lot of old, long surpassed tech gear: how could he be so foolish to try and pass off something as ludicrous as trying to bringdown a huge technology company with a clamshell MacBook in lime green? Hey, I had one of those: it’s still in the garage and it still works but it is a miracle that it does. The one thing I remember about it was how slow it was compared to what I am using today.
But there is a reason, presumably, for the out-of-date technology: the novel covers the period around the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Back then an iBook was only a little out of date.
Still, Pynchon mixes historical technology with concepts that are even now still being developed (or even only being imagined). What the novel most closely reflects is a cross between a Kinsey Millhone novel, the Apple Red Book, and Lost In Space. It’s fun, flip, and generally entertaining; Pynchon seems to have done a lot of research but includes too many gee-whiz moments to be believable in the end. Unfortunately, if I score this novel I have to deduct points for the author throwing in two many extraneous themes (from being Jewish to the Russian mafia) and for taking over 400 pages to build up the story and then tossing off the resolution in only a few pages at the end.
I suspect Pynchon took a bit more care researching this novel than he did with his previous disaster, Inherent Vice, but ultimately I must conclude that Pynchon is publishing to make money. His recent novels are barely good enough for an author of Pynchon’s stature and he might even be tarnishing his halo. But people will continue to buy his books and be pleased by his writing. I suppose it’s a fool’s errand to hope for something better.
Thomas Pynchon is well known as a reclusive author, despite his appearances on The Simpsons. In 1974 he won the Nation Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow. Wikipedia shows that Pynchon has quite a body of writing, but his novels are the best known:
- V. (1963)
- The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
- Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
- Vineland (1990)
- Mason & Dixon (1997)
- Against the Day (2006)
- Inherent Vice (2009)
- Bleeding Edge (2013)