Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume 1 by Michael Stutz (2011)

I got a copy of Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume 1 by Michael Stutz (2011) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Somehow, its algorithm looked into my past and realized that I was once a modemer and that parts of this novel might click with me.

Stutz gives us the story of Raymond Valentine, his childhood, his family, his hobbies, his life, and the impact that the new-on-the-scene home computer had on all of them. Volume one starts us at the beginning, with a young Raymond fascinated by telephones, experimenting with chemicals, and immersing himself in books. Soon video games and then home computers hit the scene, and Raymond knows he must have one. He fills notebooks with practice programs before he ever gets a computer of his own, and once he does his friend's parents are asking him for help and advice. And then he gets his modem hooked up. And after hours of phreaking the system to get the codes to make free long-distance calls, the world's BBSs are his and he is no longer the geeky guy at school with no friends, instead he is The Wanderer with lots of friends and secrets, online.

I was certainly no mega-geek, but my family got a Commodore VIC-20 in the early 80s and my sisters and I spent a lot of time carefully typing in programs to get a little ball to bounce around the TV screen and playing shareware games from audio cassettes (I distinctly remember being fascinated by one that analyzed your biorhythms even though I had no idea what a biorhythm even was). Later I moved on to text based adventure games (Go left. Get trunk. Look trunk. Get key. Syntax error.), then Prodigy, and then, when I was about 15, I discovered it: modeming.

There was a local BBS in Lincoln, where I am from, called Cyberspace. It had ten lines, which meant 10 people could be on at once. You could chat live with the other people who were online or read and contribute to discussion boards. They also had some basic games, and a once a week live trivia that was hard to get into since the lines would all fill up. My handle was Omar (named after Omar and the Howlers, but mostly because I thought the name was funny). It kind of hid the fact that I was a girl, which sometimes worked to my advantage. By the time I was 16 a bunch of Cyberspace modemers would get together for midnight coffee on Saturday nights. We got kicked out of two different Perkins restaurants, and eventually moved to a rather shitty diner by the airport and later a late-night cool coffee shop downtown. I was working at a Barnes and Noble at the time and I'd get off at midnight and head straight to modemer coffee. I was in heaven -- all these people were friendly and fun and nothing like the people in my high school or my family. I was one of the only women and by far the youngest person, but I'd usually go with a good male friend who was a couple years older than me and I never had anything wildly inappropriate happen. When Stutz described Raymond's feelings of belonging and knowing something that his friends at school didn't know, I knew exactly what he meant.

However, while Stutz can bring back the era and write some compelling characters, he often gets lost in a lyrical narrative style that does not do his novel any favors:

The men we knew so many years ago as boys are far away. With a hand we wave to nothing but the wind, our cries have been deserted by the deaf, the blind will never see; a lion sleeps in gloom and there is a wounded whale plunging far below the ocean depths. (p. 169).

There was a change and it was sensed in confounding, unspoken ways: it was in the steady tick of time, it was in a speck of tockled time that ticked, and it was in the scattered moments that formed the broken sediment of ages -- the little things that slipped away, and sunk, and had drifted down into the rimings of a dark and deeper past. (p. 203)

In fact, the first chapter of the book is pages and pages of this lyrical style and I almost had to put the whole thing down. I'm glad I persevered, because there is a lot of good here, but I wish that Stutz had had an editor that would call him on his poetic prose and get him to tone it down a notch.

One other quibble: Raymond grows up in a state called Sohola, which is obviously Ohio (a teacher even refers to shooting of protesting students at "Sohola's Duke State University"). I don't have any idea why Stutz made up a fake state name when the rest of the book takes place in reality, and none of the other states have fake names.

Still, if you can get past a sprinkling of purple prose, this book is worth checking out if you have some memories of life before the World Wide Web. Not strongly recommended, but it did help scratch an itch I didn't even know I had...

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