I started Reamde the other day; it’s my official end-of-semester treat. After not too many pages, I started thinking “Gee, I have no interest in WoW, but I kinda wish T’Rain was real.” Then I recalled that it does exist, for all intents and purposes, and is called EVE, and I specifically eschewed EVE because it sounded suspiciously like work.
It is perhaps worth noting that The Baroque Cycle made me regret my lack of insight into and attention to calculus. I had taken it for two semesters my freshman year—with a professor I thought was pretty good, and who was in fact the reason some math folks picked that major—so this wasn’t a question of lack of exposure. I didn’t actually want to be a mathematician, any more than I want to be a hardcore gamer. But Stephenson hits a good balance of story and character. The stories are about ideas (that SF cliché); the characters archetypes (more importantly, personally familiar archetypes) with enough detail to seem individual and plausible, but not so much that they actually become the focus of the book. The line between character and narrator is thin; I’ve never worried about any of Stephenson’s characters, but I like going along for the ride.
The point? Fiction as content delivery device and/or social hack. It’s not an original idea—it is, in fact, getting talked about a fair bit of late, especially in the context of character diversity in YA*—but I’ve been thinking about it more of late. A while back I talked about the usefulness† of fiction, and this is another example.
* It’s sort of funny. My impression of random online discussions was that they used to be pretty firmly anti-“agenda” in writing, with a focus on art rather than craft and an assumption that a compromised origin (e.g. writing for pay or to advance a particular cause) would lead to an inferior product. Now authors are being more openly political. Maybe it’s the technology: it’s easier, and often expected, to be in touch with the (real and potential) fan base; authors who want to say something other than “wrote 500 words, fed the cat” will necessarily range farther afield into personal and political topics; social media has encouraged a sense of openness, and privacy has become a matter of performance.
† In my head “useful” and “worthwhile” are different animals. The latter is more of an art-for-art’s-sake sort of thing (but without troubling over distinctions between “art,” “Art,” “craft,” etc.) A book doesn’t have to justify its existence: somebody invested the effort to write it, somebody read it and took away something, and those things are worthwhile. (So yes, even “The Eye of Argon” is a worthwhile human endeavor.) Usefulness is more slippery and, therefore, a bit more interesting to gabble on about in this forum. (And come to think of it, one could make an argument for the usefulness of “The Eye of Argon,” too….)