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For one thing, it’s 42,535 words long. This lets you know that you’re into Serious Business right there, before you even get started. Then comes the opening, torn straight from a 19th-century adventure novel and refracted through a cyberpunk prism: “In which the hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents…”

This is no accident. In “Mother Earth Mother Board,” Neal Stephenson aims to reveal the very physical underpinnings of the virtual world. He’s going to tell you the tale of how the postmodern world was wired together. This requires reaching back to Victorian England, and forward, just a little bit, into the future. Accordingly, the form mirrors the content. A bit of travelogue, a bit of pulp adventure novel, a bit of technothriller, a bit of postcyberpunk sci-fi.

Wired published “Mother Earth Mother Board” in December 1996. Yahoo! was 2 years old. Google did not yet exist. We were coming to the end of year two of the five-year dot-com boom. The Internet was called “cyberspace” and “the information superhighway.” eCommerce ruled the future to the point that we developed a derisive term of art for regular old (actually profitable) retail operations; they were “brick and mortar” stores (first use, 1992). The implication being that these were dangerously dated operations, tied as they were to the mundane world of atoms. The future lay in the exuberant exchange of weightless virtual wealth.

The dot-com world’s dangerously myopic narcissism was visible to those with the right kind of eyes, and “Mother Earth Mother Board” is 42,535 words of emergency optical surgery. Stephenson wants to show you that everything’s been done before, only crazier.

Everything that has occurred in Silicon Valley in the last couple of decades also occurred in the 1850s. Anyone who thinks that wild-ass high tech venture capitalism is a late-20th-century California phenomenon needs to read about the maniacs who built the first transatlantic cable projects (I recommend Arthur C. Clarke’s book “How the World Was One”). The only things that have changed since then are that the stakes have gotten smaller, the process more bureaucratized, and the personalities less interesting.

William Gibson has said that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Stephenson knows that the past is here, too, and it isn’t evenly distributed either. The article is a series of history lessons filtered through the gaze of science fiction.

A common criticism of sci-fi is that it is mostly about world-building and tends to fall down in terms of characters and plot. “Mother Earth Mother Board” takes that complaint and turns it into a feature. The plot is feeble, the people you meet are reduced to a pulpish two dimensions, but the world – oh, the world – is described in exquisite detail.

Here’s the plot of “Mother Earth Mother Board”: Neal Stephenson goes to a bunch of places and looks at infrastructure.

Stephenson hints at more. Early on in the article, we are treated to this teaser paragraph:

In the hopes of learning more about the modern business of really, really long wires, we spent much of the summer of 1996 in pursuits such as: being arrested by toothless, shotgun-toting Egyptian cops; getting pushed around by a drunken smuggler queen on a Thai train; vaulting over rustic gates to take emergency shits in isolated fields; being kept awake by groovy Eurotrash backpackers singing songs; blowing Saharan dust out of cameras; scraping equatorial mold out of fountain pens; stuffing faded banknotes into the palms of Egyptian service-industry professionals; trying to persuade non-English-speaking taxi drivers that we really did want to visit the beach even though it was pouring rain; and laundering clothes by showering in them. We still missed more than half the countries FLAG touches.

None of these events are ever mentioned again. Stephenson wants us to know that there are all of these incredibly interesting incidents that he could have written about instead of casually tossing them aside in favor of descriptions of the physical makeup of the wires, the methods used to string them across ocean, shore and land, and the murky convoluted history of international telecoms. The implication is clear: You should realize that all of these details are far more interesting than a Thai smuggler queen.

Stephenson builds a world as alien as any starship, as exotic as any underground lair. When it comes to setting, he’s never shy about gesturing toward the tropes of adventure fiction.

Lan Tao Island, like most other places where cables are landed, is a peculiar area, long home to smugglers and pirates. Some 30,000 people live here, mostly concentrated around Silvermine Bay on the island’s eastern end, where the ferries come in every hour or so from Hong Kong’s central district, carrying both islanders and tourists. The beaches are lovely, except for the sharks, and the interior of the island is mostly unspoiled parkland, popular among hikers. Hong Kong’s new airport is being built on reclaimed land attached to the north side of the island, and a monumental chain of bridges and tunnels is being constructed to connect it with the city. Other than tourist attractions, the island hosts a few oddities such as a prison, a Trappist monastery, a village on stilts, and the world’s largest outdoor bronze Buddha.

Cable trash, as these characters affectionately call themselves, shuttle back and forth between Tong Fuk and Silvermine Bay. They all stay at the same hotel and tend to spend their off hours at Papa Doc’s (no relation to the Haitian dictator), a beachfront bar run by expats (British) for expats (Australians, Americans, Brits, you name it). Papa Doc’s isn’t just for cable layers. It also meets the exacting specifications of exhausted hacker tourists. It’s the kind of joint that Humphrey Bogart would be running if he had washed ashore on Lan Tao in the mid-1990s wearing a nose ring instead of landing in Casablanca in the 1940s wearing a fedora.

But then he sticks the knife in. Just about every impossibly exotically described location comes with a GPS coordinate (the bar just mentioned is somewhere around (22° 15.745’ N, 114° 0.557’ E Silvermine Bay, Lan Tao Island, Hong Kong).

You, you smug cyber-intellectual, could go there if you wanted. You won’t, of course, but you could. And you should, really. The Internet isn’t a weightless abstract realm of pure numbers. It’s a place of heaving cable reels, fortified bunkers, and day labourers scrambling in the mud and dust.

In a time when hulking data centres are called “the cloud” and Manhattan’s real estate market is being twisted out of shape so that stock trading computers can sit closer to the Internet, this lesson is no less relevant. The details are a little old, but so much of the thing is history that this hardly matters. By refusing to adopt nearly every convention of a reported magazine narrative, from length to plot and complex characterization, Stephenson creates a gripping adventure story about the system as a whole. Form and content move as one, linking the future firmly to the past.

Set aside an afternoon.

“Mother Earth Mother Board” awaits.

Tim Maly (@doingitwrong) writes about cyborgs and architects at Quiet Babylon.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

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