Monday, November 2, 2015

Names in SFF #10: Bobby Shaftoe

As part of an ongoing series, I'm thinking about the name "Bobby Shaftoe" from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.

Have you noticed that Neal Stephenson named every single character in Cryptonomicon after his and his friends' penises?

Bobby Shaftoe is a gung-ho (early adopter) WWII Marine Raider, one of the heroes of Neal Stephenson's maximalist epic Cryptonomicon. Cryptonomicon weaves together a large cast of characters across two eras, WWII and the (then) present day turn-of-the-21st-century. It's an edge-of-sf sprawler which shakes loose shades of Pynchon, Eco, Vonnegut, while also serving as a brio-and-panache popular intro to cryptography and to various STEM topics, in a way which I suspect nudged the evolution of cyberpunk into what it is today (that is, whenever it's not retro-cyberpunk): I mean, it nudged cyberpunk into the near future novum-lite Menippean satires of Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, and the later Sterling and especially Gibson.

I'm only one-eighth into it so far.

Bobby Shaftoe, by contrast, is in to his hilt:
Their bodies [Bobby Shaftoe's and Glory's] have spontaneously merged, like a pair of drops running together on a windowpane. If he [Bobby Shaftoe] is thinking anything at all, it is that his entire life has culminated in this moment. His [Bobby Shaftoe's] upbringing in Oconomowoc, high school prom night, deer hunting in the Upper Peninsula, Parris Island boot camp, all of the brawls and struggles in China, his duel with Sergeant Frick, they are wood behind the point of a spear [Bobby Shaftoe's].
Glory of course suggests morning glory and glory-hole as well as a saint's nimbus or halo, a very appropriate nexus for the prim-Catholic-schoolgirl-slash-succubus-fantasy wherein the character of Glory first is introduced.

Whereas you, Bobby Shaftoe, thou art a figure without an O, or nearly anyway. That name "Bobby Shaftoe" is a necromantically animated graffito priapus. It bobs and bobs. There is no mistaking the O sound at its end for the edge of another human presence: that is a naught, to which the (spear) Shaft- is merged, and which it all but obliterates. Yup, that O is a naught, a monosyllable which etymologically entwines naughtiness, wickedness, and especially, sifr, cipher, zero, nothingness; that O is naught but the scabbard in which the blade of Bobby Shaft- ceaselessly jiggles. Compare its "nothing" to this "nothing" (from that one scene where Hamlet and Ophelia more-or-less call each other cunts ("country matters" / "you are naught")):
That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs. 
What is, my lord? 
Bobby Shaftoe, Bobby Shaftoe, Bobby Shaftoe! Yeah, more like MENippean. More like MANYPENISean. Just in case we somehow miss the pervasive insistence that humping to and fro is what a boy does by his nature just as bobbing up and down is what a buoy does by its nature, Cryptonomicon even finds time to explicitly collapse these two images:
Shaftoe decides to tackle the challenge on hands and knees. Every so often, a big wave spanks him on the ass, rushes up between his legs orgasmically and washes his face.
Obviously it is unfair to gloss over that e. After all it's what Bobby Shaftoe has over and above his folk song namesake:
Bobby Shafto's gone to sea,
With siller buckles on his knee;
He'll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.  
Bobby Shafto's fat and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair,
He's ma' ain for ever mair,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.  
Bobby Shafto's getten a bairn,
For tae dandle in his airm;
In his airm, and on his knee,
Bobby Shafto loves me.
In some variants, that is: sometimes the song uses Shaftoe too. In some variants, by the way, combing is panning, as for gold. There's also a "Hey ho! Boy Shafto!" one which feels pertinent. 

Cryptonomicon's added e may suggest updating the anachronistic and usurping the obsolescent, as in eReader etc. Although this e has washed up on the wrong end of the word, suggesting, funnily enough, atavism: as in the phonetically redundant e that in many an oldere compocision apeereth. That is, the e of "þe olde shoppe."

Like his folk song namesake, Bobby Shaftoe goes to sea, and leaves a woman, and for all we know the stirrings of a bairn, behind him on the shore. Although whether we'll get Glory's perspective on things, or if that particular POV is obsolescent and/or dismissable in its newfangledness remains to be seen. There are a lot of pages ahead. To tell the truth I don't know what to say about the except that it bursts from the glans like a crystal of precum or gout doing double-duty as a [Shaf]toenail, "nail" as in "Reagan wants to turn tail and head back down to Hollywood and nail a starlet fast." You can "toe the line" and you used to be able to "toe the plank," so maybe you can toe the shaft too. Whatever: a nice big toe is entirely penile, is the point.

Glancing at a character list, I see Bobby Shaftoe joined by a couple other fairly sticky cocky names: Comstock, for instance; and I don't know how you feel about Kivistik (cf. stick), Günter (cf. gun), Wing (cf. wang), Rudy, Root (cf. rod). But Comstock for sure; think of the term cum stocking, or just Robert Herrick's "The Vine":
Such fleeting pleasures there I took
That with the fancy I awoke;
And found (ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a stock than like a vine.
And then there's that name Alan Turing. With a pathological fetishism that only imposes upon and mutilates its supposed obsession, the name Alan Turing fixates around the genitals, and particularly the penis, of the man Alan Turing. The name can even be construed as a sort of linguistic violence which faintly and distortedly and in an abject bungling fashion tries to convey the real chemical castration of the real Alan Turing, and the other violence of state actors who eventually perhaps drove him to suicide because he was gay or, just possibly, murdered him because he knew state secrets and was gay. The murmured under-phrase two ring insists, with cis-heteronormative prurience, on a double anal and vaginal penetrability, even as the phallic l shuffles inside the word anal and a long two ring blurts its homophobic horror at this imaginary objectifeminized effigy's lengthy ventral erection. It was only a couple of years ago he was pardoned. The recent film was a straightwash. So I guess everything's okay now.

Randy -- or any one of the novel's many ornery, ostentatiously flawed, underdogged heroes who sees the world through horseshit-and-son-of-a-bitch-tinted spectacles -- might call horseshit on my preceding cryptanalysis, just on the basis that "Alan Turing" is a name which existed in history and Cryptonomicon had no choice, or more precisely, no fucking choice, but to deal with this historically-given material. Randy, of course, means horny. There's also the wetness-housed hard prick of Pritchard Waterhouse, who's related to Randy in a way I haven't figured or have already forgotten. The point is that Cryptonomicon activates these associations, whether they were set up by history or by Stephenson. The namespace of Cryptonomicon is permeated by warm miasmas like the smegmal waft of an entire guys' locker room of a cryptographer castle as an overblown transformation sequence shuffles it into the Elvis-thrusting groin of a super robot.

The names of this 1/8 of a novel are just way too cocky.

*   *   *

UPDATE: Hmm! Perhaps "cocky" in the same sense as Root describes Bobby as "morphine-seeky"? (See Note 2).

*   *   *

The off-the-shelf defense is that the novel is true to the consciousness of each of its characters. The POV characters are all men, and they are military men and/or nerds.

It is worth scrutinizing, for instance, Randy's brush with Charlene and her vaguely-sketched feminism, and his head-on collision with Kivistick and his vaguely-sketched poststructuralist (?) criticisms of the early internet. Cryptonomicon was written, by the way, and is partly set, around the turn of the century. In these run-ins Randy is absolutely not an authorial mouthpiece: rather, gentle, affectionate fun is poked at Randy, embroidering him, disheveling him, making him unsympathetic in some ways, more sympathetic in others, rounding and enriching him as a character. Real novel stuff, all the way.

But "filtered" through Randy's "consciousness" or not, it is also still satire, with specific targets, with which it deals aptly or less aptly, justly or less justly, mercifully or less mercifully. I appreciate the satire on bad counterproductive feminist essentialism, and on exhaustingly hypocritical passive-aggressive struggle conducted under a pretext of openness and safety from aggression. Charlene perhaps suggests char or chaff, more-or-less useless material that just gets everywhere and makes a mess. But I can't help but think that Charlene is pretty much a straw-woman, an inauthentic and cherry-picked adversary.
Randy had ruined his relationship with Charlene by wanting to have kids. Kids raise issues. Charlene, like all of her friends, couldn't handle issues. Issues meant disagreement. Voicing disagreement was a form of conflict. Conflict, acted out openly and publicly, was a male mode of social interaction -- the foundation for patriarchal society which brought with it the usual litany of dreadful things. Regardless, Randy decided to get patriarchal with Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik.
What's nasty here isn't even so much the exaggerated, hard-line (extinctionist?) quasi-feminist philosophy espoused here; it's the world-weariness with which Randy relates it, as if it were, at least in Charlene's circles, a dominant and indomitable worldview. It's not just Charlene who thinks this way, Randy seems to imply, it's everybody. And wow, don't even bother trying to argue: nobody's gonna listen to you.

Is this just Randy's perspective? I don't really feel like it is. I feel like it's the book's perspective too.

The dinner table clash between Randy (who's sticking up for someone) and Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik (for whom everybody sticks up, and who tonight is sporting all the pomposity those three initials suggest), is seething with satirical potential. Particularly, it promises satire against those lossy humanistic critiques of positivist knowledge that are actually way more formulaic, blinkered and unreflexive than their targets. Perhaps there will be some discomfiting but thought-provoking sense of liberal arts discourse lacking robustness in the field?

But no. It turns out to be an oddly damp and dissatisfying and then, upon inspection, slightly gross episode. Partly that's because any skewering of pomposity is a hard sell from a novel that is so brilliantly pompous itself, a novel that clearly knows how to make pomposity work.

But mostly, it's because of the knights jousting for the wimpled princess. I find it a bit difficult to ferret out the standard nuances of the name Charlene, at least in a USian context. Suggestions? Is Charlene perhaps the most pretentious, busy-bodyish of that Cheryl, Sherry, Cherry, Sheree, Charlie, bunch? -- perhaps even with an ominous undertone of uppity redneck? Or perhaps here I'm just reading the character straight back into the name without tuning into any true relationship between the two. Is there anything of the big wild west there, and perhaps the cowboy as chevalier? Hmmm.

Charlene is also the feminine form of Charles, meaning man. Since she hasn't got a leg to stand on, which man she will lean on is presumably the main existential fact about Charlene. There is a faint implication of Charlemagne and by association chivalry, and perhaps of champion. Ah, there is the word share there, and perhaps the sense of Charlene as an indicator dial that leans left or right, trembling between two contesting forces.

What about the knights?

(War as Ex).

Well, as for Dr. G. E. B. Kivistick, I also don't get a lot from his name. Other than the obligatory crock-of-"cock of stik"-shit, I suppose we might sort of hear civvy in kivi: a civilian, someone eminently unsuitable to keynote a conference entitled War as Text. (Or eminently suitable, if you take the view that an event with that title is constitutionally incapable of playing host to any non-hooey cognitions whatsoever. You need a civilian to be the frontman for something as obviously stupid as War as Text). The G. E. B. might suggest Ursula le Guin's Ged, and a boss-fight with your nemesis who is a version of yourself, or gib, the chunks of ambient crimson flesh left behind when you blast its predictable AI to bits. Perhaps, given what quickly follows, the most convincing association is Gödel, Escher, Bach, and Hofstadter's braiding of mathematics with other forms of knowledge.

"How many on-ramps will connect the world's ghettos to the Information Superhighway?" asks Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik. Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik, who has prepared himself to talk about this very topic on television, not to mention "spent years sparring with really smart people over high table at Oxford" -- where he would have sat with the science and maths dons -- never even properly articulates, let alone evidences or defends, his main argument.

Whatever that argument is, it's obviously something about the digital divide, and if Kivistik had actually come out and said any of it, instead of trying to change the subject via smug versions of the wobbly slogans of some college freshman who, I think, has dozed through one lecture on Derrida ("this fork is a metaphor") and one on Foucault ("who decides what is bad?"), then it might have been something which we could have decided, with the benefit of hindsight, was pretty perceptive and prescient of Kivistick, and of Stephenson, given it's only 1999, or alternatively, interestingly wrong.

But Kivistick doesn't make even a half-decent argument. Kivistick evades, playing to his weaknesses, allowing Randy to skewer him for throwing around his reputation, whilst Randy is vacuously using argument from authority himself ("a number of Internet experts have written well-reasoned books"), and to humiliate him for a sensible commitment to the notion that all knowledge is embodied in particular knowers, by articulating the same commitment with a modicum more nuance ("if I have questions about the Internet, I will seek opinions from people who know about it"). Pretty soon Kivistik's voice merges with the babble of the academy (see note); perhaps that's why he didn't want to show any specialist knowledge, he was the avatar of all liberal arts all along!

And although I've no doubt that there are senior academics and public intellectuals who are every bit as stupid as Kivistik acts in this scene, especially if swilling with wine and some auto-metabolized concoction of grandiloquence, micro-specialization and contrarianism, I'm not sure why Cryptonomicon needed to place one in this role. It's a book with lots of clever people in it, many of whom teach or show or prove or disprove things to each other. One of the main advantages of a big roly-poly novel like this is that it can be seriously dialogic; you can generate a forum with a lot of various dissenting and incompatible voices, with complex interplay and powerful emergent properties. If you're writing a big roly-poly novel, you should seldom if ever try to sabotage any of these viewpoints: of course you'll have your favorites, but most of the time you just end up weakening them if you try to load the dice in their favor. That's your heuristic, and it's pretty basic: give everyone as much internal consistency and sympathetic motivation and argumentative oomph as you possibly can. Don't worry, bro, no matter how hard you try, we'll still know which ones are you: but you should try.

One way of looking at this anomaly is that there are bits about ideas and there are bits about shooting and bits about girls, and this is actually more a bit about shooting than it is about ideas, and actually fundamentally more a bit about girls than it is a bit about shooting: "Really he [Kivistick] was there to recruit Charlene, and really really (Randy suspected) to fuck her." Kivistick is Sir Given-a-Stick, the knight with the rubbish toy lance. He is Charlene's champion. Dispatching Kivistick's liberal arts perspective is really a sneaky and unpleasant way of discrediting how Charlene sees herself, Randy, and their relationship, without coming across all braying and overbearing and inadvertently self-betrayingly apophastic and just basically rigged and petty and bullying and boring.

Stephenson is, in a way which is becoming increasingly difficult to define or hold onto or even believe, one of my "favorite" genre authors. Never have I read 1/8 of a modern book so unabashedly in love with such a boringly debased and narrow version of masculinity and the navel-gaze-plus-male-gaze. (Plus naval gaze idk). Women are property, scenery, appendages, fantasies, context. Gnarled, abundant Rabelaisian Cryptonomicon is too smart to continue in this vein. This is the real deal. It is not faux-ambitious, not cod-sweeping, not a garrulous splurge that is nothing but a canvas for tech rants, fan service, and FPS scenario design ideas. It is not Bill O'Reilly looking up and memorizing obscure and sometimes archaic words with perfect commonplace synonyms with which to learnedify his speeches.

So I predict, at worst, strong female characters, hyper-competent women of an overcompensating kind: quasi-cyberpunk bad-asses whose neural jacks and diamond monofilament thumb-whips have been sublimated into personality features. That's the very worst, and I'm sure Cryptonomicon will do way, way better.

Let's hope so, else this son-of-a-bitch has come up with some real horseshit.

UPDATE: Spoiler alert. Getting there. Such ALOLs. Such grace. "The red coals of half a dozen I SHALL RETURN cigarettes leap upwards into the Huks' mouths as they free their hands for a light round of applause." Yet I am increasingly certain that this is a really basically stupid book. I just don't think you can pretend you can pretend you're affectionately mocking your characters for viewing women as badly designed sperm-removing witches for 1,000 pages without giving some slight hint that you yourself do not basically share this perspective. The predicted hyper-competent bad-ass kind of showed up in the form of America Shaftoe, although she has a little more of the Manic Pixie Crazy Fucking Bitch stock-type than I expected. And perhaps a little more of it than is strictly compatible with even the expected gee-shucks-I-know-I'm-a-lunkhead-but-I'd-go-shaft-to-toe-against-everything-that's-fucked-up-about-patriarchy-if-I-only-knew-how compensatory bro-portrayal of hyper-competent chickness. There is also a cunning and alert auntie who gets one over on Randy, but the whole bit with the aunties and the furniture was basically disgusting. #ShrewwGross. So it is worse than I predicted as a worse-case scenario, though there are still pages on the clock.

UPDATE: Spoiler alert. Nearly there. My bit about Bobby Shaftoe / Bobby Shafto and his bairn was prescient: Bobby is currently leading his ragtag group of fighters (and one cleric) through the Battle of Manilla in search of his son, whom he has never met. Glory has appeared again once, briefly. The POV character then had to be rendered unconscious to prevent Glory from saying or doing anything interesting. If Glory doesn't show up again I'm gonna lose my shit. Treatment of race, ethnicity, nation and civilization is a bit shallow and stupid btw. More later, perhaps!

UPDATE: Jesus fucking Christ.

SFF names #9: Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen
SFF names #8: Ged
SFF names #7: Shevek
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Elsewhere: on the internet, there's no such thing as a strawman.

*   *   *

Note: Here's the rest of that scene fwiw.

"Funny how all of the technocrats seem to be in favor of the Internet," Kivistik said cheerily, milking a few more laughs from the crowd.

"You have just made a statement that is demonstrably not true," Randy said, pleasantly enough. "A number of Internet experts have written well-reasoned books that are sharply critical of it."

Kivistik was finally getting pissed off. All the levity was gone.

"So," Randy continued, "to get back to where we started, the Information Superhighway is a bad metaphor for the Internet, because I say it is. There might be a thousand people on the planet who are as conversant with the Internet as I am. I know most of these people. None of them takes that metaphor seriously. Q.E.D."

"Oh. I see," Kivistik said, a little hotly. He had seen an opening. "So we should rely on the technocrats to tell us what to think, and how to think, about this technology."

The expressions of the others seemed to say that this was a telling blow, righteously struck.

"I'm not sure what a technocrat is," Randy said. "Am I a technocrat? I'm just a guy who went down to the bookstore and bought a couple of textbooks on TCP/IP, which is the underlying protocol of the Internet, and read them. And then I signed on to a computer, which anyone can do nowadays, and I messed around with it for a few years, and now I know all about it. Does that make me a technocrat?"

"You belonged to the technocratic elite even before you picked up that book," Kivistik said. "The ability to wade through a technical text, and to understand it, is a privilege. It is a privilege conferred by an education that is available only to members of an elite class. That's what I mean by technocrat."

"I went to a public school," Randy said. "And then I went to a state university. From that
point on, I was self-educated."

Charlene broke in. She had been giving Randy dirty looks ever since this started and he had been ignoring her. Now he was going to pay. "And your family?" Charlene asked frostily.

Randy took a deep breath, stifled the urge to sigh. "My father's an engineer. He teaches at a state college."

"And his father?"

"A mathematician."

Charlene raised her eyebrows. So did nearly everyone else at the table. Case closed. "I strenuously object to being labeled and pigeonholed and stereotyped as a technocrat," Randy said, deliberately using oppressed-person's language, maybe in an attempt to turn their weapons against them but more likely (he thinks, lying in bed at three A.M. in the Manila Hotel) out of an uncontrollable urge to be a prick. Some of them, out of habit, looked at him soberly; etiquette dictated that you give all sympathy to the oppressed.

Others gasped in outrage to hear these words coming from the lips of a known and convicted white male technocrat. "No one in my family has ever had much money or power," he said.

"I think that the point that Charlene's making is like this," said Tomas, one of their houseguests who had flown in from Prague with his wife Nina. He had now appointed himself conciliator. He paused long enough to exchange a warm look with Charlene.

"Just by virtue of coming from a scientific family, you are a member of a privileged elite. You're not aware of it--but members of privileged elites are rarely aware of their privileges."

Randy finished the thought. "Until people like you come along to explain to us how stupid, to say nothing of morally bankrupt, we are."

"The false consciousness Tomas is speaking of is exactly what makes entrenched power elites so entrenched," Charlene said.

"Well, I don't feel very entrenched," Randy said. "I've worked my ass off to get where I've gotten."

"A lot of people work hard all their lives and get nowhere," someone said accusingly. Look out! The sniping had begun.

"Well, I'm sorry I haven't had the good grace to get nowhere," Randy said, now feeling just a bit surly for the first time, "but I have found that if you work hard, educate yourself and keep your wits about you, you can find your way in this society."

"But that's straight out of some nineteenth-century Horatio Alger book," Tomas sputtered.

"So? Just because it's an old idea doesn't mean it's wrong." Randy said.

A small strike force of waitpersons had been forming up around the fringes of the table, arms laden with dishes, making eye contact with each other as they tried to decide when it was okay to break up the fight and serve dinner. One of them rewarded Randy with a platter carrying a wigwam devised from slabs of nearly raw tuna. The pro-consensus, anti-confrontation elements then seized control of the conversation and broke it up into numerous small clusters of people all vigorously agreeing with one another. Jon cast a watery look at Randy, as if to say, was it good for you too? Charlene was ignoring him intensely; she was caught up in a consensus cluster with Tomas. Nina kept trying to catch Randy's eye, but he studiously avoided this because he was afraid that she wanted to favor him with a smoldering come-hither look, and all Randy wanted to do right then was to go thither. Ten minutes later, his pager went off, and he looked down to see Avi's number on it.

Note 2:

Root talks about 'morphine seeky' as meaning possessing an inclination to seek morphine. In the same way, Bobby means he has an inclination to bob.

"I don't like the word 'addict' because it has terrible connotations," Root says one day, as they are sunning themselves on the afterdeck. "Instead of slapping a label on you, the Germans would describe you as 'Morphiumsüchtig.' The verb suchen means to seek. So that might be translated, loosely, as 'morphine seeky' or even more loosely as 'morphine seeking.' I prefer 'seeky' because it means that you have an inclination to seek morphine."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Shaftoe says.

"Well, suppose you have a roof with a hole in it. That means it is a leaky roof. It's leaky all the time--even if it's not raining at the moment. But it's only leaking when it happens to be raining. In the same way, morphine-seeky means that you always have this tendency to look for morphine, even if you are not looking for it at the moment. But I prefer both of them to 'addict,' because they are adjectives modifying Bobby Shaftoe instead of a noun that obliterates Bobby Shaftoe."

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