Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Neal Stephenson knows how to party

I'm currently rereading The Diamond Age, a science fiction novel from Neal Stephenson, the author of Snow Crash. But unlike that novel, The Diamond Age isn't cyberpunk. It's almost steampunk - if steampunk could take place in the future. The clockwork and gears here spin inside nanotech devices.

Now, even when I read this novel for the first time, the scene below struck me as something I really ought to blog about. Unfortunately, I just never got around to it. But now that I'm rereading the book, I have the perfect opportunity to correct past laziness.

Here's all you need to know going into this passage. A guy named Hackworth has been taken in by a weird sort-of-tribe known as the Drummers. We don't know much about them at this point in the novel except that they have a hive mind and seem to exist in a perpetual trance. That's pretty obvious in this scene, which builds from a weird, slow ceremony into a bizarre and slightly hilarious orgy. I'm cutting it short to preserve the feel-good-MC vibe:
     In a cavernous dark space lit by many small fires, a young woman, probably not much more than a girl, stands on a pedestal named except for an elaborate paint job, or maybe it is a total-body mediatronic tattoo. A crown of leafy branches is twined around her head, and she has thick, voluminous hair spreading to her knees. She is clutching a bouquet of roses to her breast, the thorns indenting her flesh. Many people, perhaps thousands, surround her, drumming madly, sometimes chanting and singing.
     Into the space between the girl and the watchers, a couple of dozen men are introduced. Some come running out of their own accord, some look as if they've been pushed, some wander in as if they've been walking down the street (stark naked) and gone in the wrong door. Some are Asian, some European, some African. Some have to be prodded by frenzied celebrants who charge out of the crowd and shove them here and there. Eventually they form a circle around the girl, and then the drumming builds to a deafening crescendo, speeds up until it devolves into a rhythmic hailstorm, and then suddenly, instantly, stops.
     Someone says something in a high, purposeful, ululating voice. Hackworth can't understand what this person is saying. Then there is a single massive drumbeat. More wailing. Another drumbeat. Again. The third drummer establishes a ponderous rhythm. This goes on for awhile, the beat slowly speeding up. After a certain point the wailer no longer stops between beats, he begins to weave his rap through the bars in a sort of counterpoint. The ring of men standing around the girl begin to dance in a very simple shuffling motion, one way and then the other way around the girl. Hackworth notes that all of them have erections, sheathed in brightly colored mediatronic condoms--rubbers that actually make their own light so that the bobbing boners look like so many cyalume wands dancing through the air.
     The drumbeats and the dancing speed up very slowly. The erections tell Hackworth why this is taking so long. He's watching foreplay here. After half an hour or so, the excitement, phallic and otherwise, is unbearable. The beat is now a notch faster than your basic pulse rate, lots of other beats and counterrhythms woven through it, and the chanting of the individual singer has become a wild semi-organized choral phenomenon. At some point,after seemingly nothing has happened for half an hour, everything happens at once. The drumming and chanting explode to a new, impossible level of intensity. The dancers reach down, grip the flaccid reservoir tips of their radioactive condoms, stretch them out. Someone runs out with a knife and cuts the tips of the condoms in a freakish parody of circumcision, exposing the glans of each man's penis. The girl moves for the first time, tossing her bouquet up in the air like a bride making her move toward the limo; the roses fountain, spinning end over end, and come down individually among the dancers, who snatch them out of the air, scrabble for them on the floor, whatever. The girl faints, or something, falling backward, arms out, and is caught by several of the dancers, who hoist her body up over their heads and parade her around the circle for awhile, like a crucified body just crowbarred off of the tree. She ends up flat on her back on the ground, and one of the dancers is between her legs, and in a very few thrusts he has finished. A couple of others grab his arms and yank him out of there before he's even had a chance to tell her he'll still love her in the morning, and another one is in there, and he doesn't take very long either--all this foreplay has got these guys in hair-trigger mode. The dancers manage to rotate through in a few minutes. Hackworth can't see the girl, who's completely hidden, but she's not struggling, as far as he can tell, and they don't seem to be holding her down. Toward the end, smoke or steam or something begins to spiral up from the middle of the orgy. The last participant grimaces even more than the average person who's having an orgasm, and yanks himself back from the woman, grabbing his dick and hopping up and down and hollering in what looks like pain. That's the signal for all of the dancers to jump back away from the woman, who is now kind of hard to make out, just a fuzzy motionless package wrapped in steam.
If this scene piques your interest, I do recommend The Diamond Age as a whole. I learned the hard way that Neal Stephenson isn't always as interesting as he thinks he is (For instance, once I got a bit of distance from Anathem, I decided I didn't care for it after all - and don't even get me started on The Baroque Cycle). But The Diamond Age is a great read. It's not as much fun as Snow Crash, but it has appealing characters and plenty of adventure that carry you all the way to the finish. There's no MC apart from the Drummers, who have only a few critical scenes; but the book itself should be interesting for anyone who appreciates SF and world-building. Stephenson has dreamed up a pretty unique future here.

Oh, and one last note: the image at the top came from Vizerskaya. If you reuse it, be sure to give her credit.

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