In the Beginning...Was the Command Line

( 16 )

Overview

This is "the Word" — one man's word, certainly — about the art (and artifice) of the state of our computer-centric existence. And considering that the "one man" is Neal Stephenson, "the hacker Hemingway" (Newsweek) — acclaimed novelist, pragmatist, seer, nerd-friendly philosopher, and nationally bestselling author of groundbreaking literary works (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, etc., etc.) — the word is well worth hearing. Mostly well-reasoned examination and partial rant, Stephenson's In the Beginning... was the ...

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In the Beginning...Was the Command Line

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Overview

This is "the Word" — one man's word, certainly — about the art (and artifice) of the state of our computer-centric existence. And considering that the "one man" is Neal Stephenson, "the hacker Hemingway" (Newsweek) — acclaimed novelist, pragmatist, seer, nerd-friendly philosopher, and nationally bestselling author of groundbreaking literary works (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, etc., etc.) — the word is well worth hearing. Mostly well-reasoned examination and partial rant, Stephenson's In the Beginning... was the Command Line is a thoughtful, irreverent, hilarious treatise on the cyber-culture past and present; on operating system tyrannies and downloaded popular revolutions; on the Internet, Disney World, Big Bangs, not to mention the meaning of life itself.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
A challenge to an icon-obsessed culture that increasingly is interposing a graphical computer interface between people and the physical world.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
In the network world of the silicon samurai Stephenson is a big-time wizard.
USA Today
A powerful voice of the cyber age.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
In the network world of the silicon samurai Stephenson is a big-time.
Seattle Weekly
Stephenson is a literary visionary of the technological future.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380815937
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/28/1999
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 690,078
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.36 (d)

Meet the Author

Neal  Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is the author of Reamde, Anathem; the three-volume historical epic the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World); Cryptonomicon; The Diamond Age; Snow Crash, which was named one of Time magazine's top one hundred all-time best English-language novels; and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

Biography

In Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash, human beings can immerse themselves in a computer-generated universe, and computer viruses can infect human bodies. This blurring of the boundaries between silicon and flesh seems characteristic of Stephenson, a writer whose interests in technology and engineering are inseparable from his skills as a storyteller.

Here is a novelist who talks about the "data management problem" of writing a historical novel, and who apologizes for not responding to fan mail by explaining that he has an "irremediable numerical imbalance between outgoing and incoming bandwidth."

Indeed, Stephenson seems to have a computer metaphor for almost every aspect of the writing life, even when he's not using a computer to write. He wrote the manuscript for Quicksilver in longhand, using a fountain pen. With this slower method of putting words to paper, he explained in an interview with Tech Central Station, "It's like when you're writing, there's a kind of buffer in your head where the next sentence sits while you're outputting the last one."

"Paper," Stephenson adds, is "a really good technology."

As the author of Snow Crash, Stephenson became a cult hero to cyberpunk fans and an inspiration to Silicon Valley start-ups. His Metaverse was the Internet as cutting-edge carnival, a freewheeling digital universe where a pizza-delivery driver could become a samurai warrior. "This is cyberpunk as it ought to be, and almost never is," wrote David Barrett in New Scientist.

Stephenson followed Snow Crash with The Diamond Age, which Publishers Weekly described as "simultaneously SF, fantasy and a masterful political thriller." Stephenson then broke out of the science fiction genre with Cryptonomicon, a 928-page doorstop of a book that drew comparisons to Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Cryptonomicon interweaves two cryptography-themed plots, one set in the 1990s and the other during World War II. "What cyberculture needs right now is not another science-fiction novel but its first great historical novel, and Cryptonomicon is it: an intimate genealogical portrait of the 20th century's computer geeks, great and small, and of the technosocial landscape they have more and less knowingly shaped," wrote Julian Dibbell in The Village Voice.

Hefty though it is, Cryptonomicon is a quick read compared to Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which begins with Quicksilver and continues in two more volumes, The Confusion and The System of the World.

In Quicksilver, a historical novel set in the 17th century, Stephenson explores many of the roots of modern science, mixing meditations on calculus, chemistry and cryptography with a cast of oddball characters (and many of the real-life historical figures, including Isaac Newton, turn out to be very odd indeed).

"At first it feels like Stephenson is flaunting how much time he spent at the library, but the lure of the next wisecracking history lesson becomes the most compelling reason to keep going," wrote Slate reviewer Paul Boutin.

So how did Stephenson manage all that historical data?

"I started with a bunch of notebooks, just composition books, in which I would write notes down in chronological order as I read a particular book, or what have you," he explained in an interview on his publisher's Web site.

"Those are always there, and I can go back to them and look stuff up even when it's otherwise lost. Then, I've got timelines and timetables showing what happens when in the story. I've spent a while monkeying around with three ring binders, in which I glue pages here and there trying to figure out how to sequence things. It's a big mess. It's a big pile of stationery. Many trips to the office supply store, and many failed attempts. But in the end, as long as you can keep it in your head, that's the easiest way to manage something like this. You can move things around inside your head more easily than you can shuffle papers or cross things out on a page and rewrite them."

The three-pound processor inside the author's head, as it turns out, is a really good technology.

Good To Know

Stephenson comes from a family of scientists: His father is a professor of electrical engineering, and his mother worked in a biochemistry lab. Both his grandfathers were science professors. Stephenson himself majored in geography at Boston University, because the geography department "had the coolest computers."

Stephenson co-wrote two political thrillers, Interface and The Cobweb, under the pseudonym Stephen Bury with his uncle George Jewsbury (whose own nom de plume is J. Frederick George). "The whole idea was that 'Stephen Bury' would be a successful thriller writer and subsidize my pathetic career under the name Neal Stephenson," he told Locus magazine. "It ended up going the other way. I would guess most of the people who have bought the Stephen Bury books have done so because they know I've written them. It just goes to show there's no point in trying to plan your career."

In the Beginning... Was the Command Line, Stephenson's book-length essay on computer operating systems, complains that graphical user interfaces distort the user's understanding of computer operations. On his current Web site, Stephenson dubs the essay "badly obsolete" and notes: "For the last couple of years I have been a Mac OX user almost exclusively."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Stephen Bury (co-author pseudonym, with J. Frederick George)
    2. Hometown:
      Seattle, Washington
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 31, 1959
    2. Place of Birth:
      Fort Meade, Maryland
    1. Education:
      B.A., Boston University, 1981
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

In the Beginning...was the Command Line

About twenty years ago Jobs and Wozniak, the founders of Apple, came up with the very strange idea of selling information-processing machines for use in the home. The business took off, and its founders made a lot of money and received the credit they deserved for being daring visionaries. But around the same time, Bill Gates and Paul Allen came up with an idea even stranger and more fantastical: selling computer operating systems. This was much weirder than the idea of Jobs and Wozniak. A computer at least had some sort of physical reality to it. It came in a box, you could open it up and plug it in and watch lights blink. An operating system had no tangible incarnation at all. It arrived on a disk, of course, but the disk was, in effect, nothing more than the box that the Operating System (OS) came in. The product itself was a very long string of ones and zeroes that, when properly installed and coddled, gave you the ability to manipulate other very long strings of ones and zeroes. Even those few who actually understood what a computer operating system was were apt to think of it as a fantastically arcane engineering prodigy, like a breeder reactor or a U-2 spy plane, and not something that could ever be (in the parlance of high tech) "productized."

Yet now the company that Gates and Allen founded is selling operating systems like Gillette sells razor blades. New releases of operating systems are launched as if they were Hollywood blockbusters, with celebrity endorsements, talk show appearances, and world tours. The market for them is vast enough that people worry about whether it has been monopolized by one company. Even theleast technically minded people in our society now have at least a hazy idea of what operating systems do; what is more, they have strong opinions about their relative merits. It is commonly understood, even by technically unsophisticated computer users, that if you have a piece of software that works on your Macintosh, and you move it over onto a Windows machine, it will not run. That this would, in fact, be a laughable and idiotic mistake, like nailing horseshoes to the tires of a Buick.

A person who went into a coma before Microsoft was founded, and woke up now, could pick up this morning's New York Times and understand everything in it -- almost:

.................

Item: the richest man in the world made his fortune from -- what? Railways? Shipping? Oil? No, operating systems. Item: the Department of Justice has tackled Microsoft's supposed OS monopoly with legal tools that were invented to restrain the power of nineteenth-century robber barons. Item: a woman friend of mine recently told me that she'd broken off a (hitherto) stimulating exchange of e-mail with a young man. At first he had seemed like such an intelligent and interesting guy, she said, but then, "he started going all PC-versus-Mac on me."

.................

What the hell is going on here? And does the operating system business have a future, or only a past? Here is my view, which is entirely subjective; but since I have spent a fair amount of time not only using, but programming, Macintoshes, Windows machines, Linux boxes, and the BeOS, perhaps it is not so ill-informed as to be completely worthless. This is a subjective essay, more review than research paper, and so it might seem unfair or biased compared to the technical reviews you can find in PC magazines. But ever since the Mac came out, our operating systems have been based on metaphors, and anything with metaphors in it is fair game as far as I'm concerned.

In the Beginning...was the Command Line. Copyright © by Neal Stephenson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2000

    Still Laughing

    I started reading this book after dinner with no intentions of finishing it that same night. As it ended up, I couldn't put the book down until I had read the whole thing. Laughing out loud at some parts of the book!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2000

    More than Meets the Eye

    This was an excellent read. I am already a Stephenson fan, and I was delighted to read this essay. It covers more than the cover hints at, including social values and world views pertaining to the whole OS battle and society in general. I love the humor, the analogies, and the overall style of this deeply engaging book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2000

    Strange and passionate rant on computers and society

    A great, steaming, meme-laden frontal lobe dump about Operating Systems, GUIs, Morlocks, popular culture, cars, Hole Hawg power drills, and why LINUX is like an Egyptian taxi ride. This extended essay first appeared on the web. It may still be there, free for the reading. But I like the idea of a bound, printed copy; it's easier to carry and lend around.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2010

    Dumb...

    ...Not the book. The fact that this book is free on Neal's site.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2005

    Insightful and hilarious!

    Neal Stephenson's essay was hilarious and hard for me to put down. I absorbed every bit of it. Definitely a book I will re-read!

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