Zula Forthrast

If you’ve been reading my blog you know that I’m starting a masters in computer science and I’m trepidatious about it. I’ve been trying to read up on the subject, but other than textbooks, I’m finding that most computer science reading lists include a bunch of sci-fi, which (along with computer games) really doesn’t interest me in the least. Which is why I was surprised when someone recommended a Sci-Fi novel to me because there was a character who he thought was a lot like me. I don’t see a lot of people like myself in books, especially not sci-fi. The book is Reamde, and the character is Zula Forthrast. An Eritrean orphan, adopted by a family in Idaho, with a degree in computer science and geology. She wears heavey-rimmed glasses and rocks a “hyperspace-librarian girl-geek” style. The book is really long, and seemed to be mostly about a MMORPGame so I opted to listen to the audio-book, trying to follow this interesting character and learn about the culture and science of computers along the way.

The author, Neal Stephenson, has written a lot about computer science, including an amazing essay on operating systems called ‘In the Beginning there was the Command Line.’ Like his essay, this books is jam-packed full of ideas about computers and where technology is headed. The plot got way too convoluted way too fast for me, but it was well-written enough that I was compelled to finish it.

After the brief introduction I was excited about this badass Zula, (and flattered that someone thought she was like me). But I ultimately felt like she was just another fetishized sci-fi girl, sprung from the brain of a man (there was particular episode involving a tampon that made me question whether any woman had even read the galley). I didn’t really get a chance to see her in action as a computer-geek before a convoluted plot whisked her off to China and then Canada on strange pretenses (I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that the reader had his work cutout for him with accents including, Irish, Welsh, Russian, Hungarian, British, Arabic and Chinese). All in all I’m glad that she exists as a character, but left the book ultimately disappointed by the execution of her character.

That’s not to say there wasn’t anything interesting about the book, like I said before, the book is chock full of knowledge. Zula was still an extremely interesting character, and there are some really interesting things about computers and gaming culture. Zula’s uncle Richard helped create a computer game called T’Rain. The game is unique for two reasons, one economic and one geographic. The economic one is that the game takes two distinct gaming cultures into account, the Western cultural paradigm, where consumers spend money to be entertained (real money becomes virtual money) and the Asian one, where people game for a living (virtual money becomes real money). The other thing that makes the game stand out is its geophysical accuracy, one of the other founders created the game mostly because he was tired of how inaccurate the landscapes were. This is where Zula comes in, working with the geophysics experts and game designers to make striking and realistic landscapes. These two characteristics make the game extremely profitable.

I glimpsed a slice of the gaming culture through this book. Most of which I found repulsive and uninteresting, but some parts I found intriguing. Throughout the book T’rain is undergoing a ‘War of Realignment,’ which the game’s fake historians are chronicling as they go. The origin myth was a fairly basic Good vs. Evil story, but overtime this shifted into a new-school (Forces of Brightness) vs. old-school (Earthtone Coalition) battle. It’s essentially aesthetic, someone posted a way to hack into the settings so you could give yourself a blue mowhawk, and many people decided change their characters to brighter colors, while originalists chose to keep the more old-school, traditional gaming look. In this way you can track people by their color palette, the gaming company hires a colorist to keep track of palette shift, who is wearing what, and what this means to the world. So fashion plays a surprisingly important role in this book.

I’d say the most prevalent narrator of the book is Richard Forthrast (Zula’s uncle), we spend more time in his head than anyone else’s. Like many older American men he has a few ex-wives. These women live on in his brain as a sort of conscience which he refers to as ‘the furious muses.’ They tell him to exercise (he does all his computer work on the elliptical machine), eat well, and do the right thing. Towards the end of the book he reaches a point where he needs to do something traditionally crazy, but the furious muses encourage him. I really related to the idea of your conscience telling you that you need to put your conscience aside for a minute.

Anyway, I don’t know if I can really recommend the book, some parts are great, some parts were awful, and it’s exceedingly long. But if you like this kind of thing, then you like this kind of thing (and you’ve probably already read it).