Wednesday, November 24, 2010

thoughts on andrew loeb

[Spoilers, but given how long and complex Cryptonomicon is, they shouldn't diminish future reading enjoyment.]

One of the most enigmatic characters in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is Andrew Loeb. The character pops up only occasionally throughout the sprawling epic narrative, always in connection with some extremely negative experience of the main characters. Unlike our heroes, we are never given access to the inner workings of Andrew Loeb, his motivations are never explained, and they are just as puzzling to the reader as they are to the primary characters in Stephenson's novel.

The interesting thing about Andrew Loeb is that he's not a self-interested, money-grubbing crook (like, for instance, my ex-landlords), although his actions do often take on this appearance. He sues Randy Waterhouse for the rights to software he's written (with the justification that the idea behind the software was based on Loeb's own research into the diet of hunter-gatherer societies). Many years later, he sues Randy's company at the instigation of high-powered corporate badguy "The Dentist." This frivolous law suit jeopardizes the benevolent, future-holocaust-preventing plans of our heroes. Finally, Loeb appears again in the novel's final scenes, sneaking through the jungle and shooting arrows at our protagonists as they attempt to recover stolen WWII Japanese gold.

Randy . . . looks upstream to see that a man is standing in the water about a dozen feet away from them. The man has a shaved head that is sunburned as red as a three-ball. He's wearing what used to be a decent enough business suit, which has practically become one with the jungle now: it is impregnated with red mud, which has made it so heavy that it pulls itself all out of shape as he totters to a standing position. . . . When he gets fully upright, Randy can see that his right leg terminates just below the knee, although the bare tibia and fibula stick out for a few inches. The bones are scorched and splintered. Andrew Loeb has fashioned a tourniquet from sticks and a hundred-dollar silk necktie that Randy's pretty sure he has seen in the windows of airport duty-free shops. This has throttled back the flow of blood from the end of his leg to a rate comparable to what you would see coming out a Mr. Coffee during its brew cycle. Once Andy has gotten himself fully upright, he smiles brightly and begins to move towards Randy . . . In his free hand he is carrying a great big knife: Bowie-sized, but with all of the extra spikes, saw blades, blood grooves, and other features that go into a really top-of-the-line fighting and survival knife. (892)

There are many different "evil" characters in Cryptonomicon, but Loeb's evil is qualitatively different from the rest. Loeb's motive is righteous indignation: he is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that his cause is just. And it is this very conviction that twists his actions towards evil.

Of course, Loeb is also a nutjob, but he is not a simple psychopath. It is Loeb's misguided sense of righteous indignation that drives his pathology, to allow him to do evil with the conviction that it is good.

Painted first as a luddite, Randy is surprised to discover that Loeb has an active internet presence. This turns out to be as a militant in favor of new ideology based on the concept of a hive mind: we are all one, there is no distinction between you and me. Of course, such a view can only aid and abet his rabid sense of self-righteousness. No longer is it only for his sake that he must act (sue, shoot arrows, whatever), but for all of us, because we are all one and our true morality is that of Andrew Loeb.

Certain features of Loeb are clearly modeled on the Unabomber, but in these post-9/11 times (the book was published in 1999), he takes on a much scarier cast by analogy with muslim extremists.

Just like Loeb, the scariest muslim extremist is the paradoxical fanatic. On the one hand, he purports to be absolutely convinced in a pre-medieval cultural system and moral code; not only that it is right for himself, but for all of us. On the other hand, in order to exercise this self-righteousness, he must embrace the technology of his enemies; technology only made possible by the very value system (Western individualistic capitalism and religious tolerance) he seeks to destroy.

Both Loeb and the fundamentalist terrorist allow their righteous indignation to eclipse their own value systems. They embrace the tools of their enemies precisely so they can end those enemies. Such an "ethos" is inherently self-contradictory. It can never survive in a vacuum, but depends upon defining itself in contrast to the other. Without an object of hate, an object against which the self-righteousness can be directed, there's nothing there, no constant moral or social core upon which to rest a peaceful life.

Of course, from the standpoint of those of us who just want to get on with our friggin lives (because we do have a value system that can support and motivate performing acts without them being directed in hatred against another), the scariest thing about Andrew Loeb is that the inherent paradoxical nature of his character precludes the very possibility of rational discourse. There is no reasoning with a terrorist who already embraces contradiction. This is because reason is founded upon the avoidance of contradictions. Once one embraces them, anything follows. No argument can sway, one has simply opted out of rational discourse.

This realization allows Randy and his compatriots to kill Andrew Loeb with clear consciences: a true them or us moment had been reached. And the same reasoning applies to the fanatical muslim extremist who embraces equivalent contradictions.

So, perhaps just this is the boundary of religious tolerance, the line in the sand to draw at the end of modern relativism: your way of life, your religion, your value system can be as radically different from mine as you like. And it deserves my tolerance. But once your value system ceases to remain coherent on its own terms, once it ceases to be a value system for you and becomes just a blanket "justification" of actions against me, then it really is us or them: me or you.


Anonymous said...

One of the amusing facets of the Loeb character and a good general comment on society: He was involved in the Bay Area Hivemind project, and was identified by a RIST number. (Relatively Independent Sub Totality) The hivemind project had already splintered into 7 or so different hivemind groups because they couldn't agree how RIST numbers should be assigned and calculated.

Anonymous said...

Honestly - Andrew Loeb was, without doubt, the greatest flaw in the novel. Stephenson was brilliant when he wrote Cryptonomicon, but he did such a bad job with Andy Loeb I've often wondered why.

Andrew made sense and worked well as the cause of Randy's first failed experience in business. It was tolerable (but lazy) when he featured in the raid against Novus Ordo Seclorum. It was completely ridiculous when he managed somehow to get to the jungle scene in exactly the right place and right time.

Andy, along with the digibomber (who was mentioned on multiple occasions but never, ever, explained or rationalised) simply failed to make adequate sense in the wonderfully complex and cohesive whole that was Cryptonomion.

At the time I thought it was editorial interferance ... that Neal was forced to cut down the novel and when he did so he pretty much removed any comprehensible detail about the digibomber and the, vitally necessary, explanation of HOW Andrew Loeb could have gotten into a perimeter closed by the professional and experienced military friends of Doug Shaftoe.

Having seen the deteroriation of his work since the masterpiece that was The Baroque Cycle - I fear that it was perhaps his own fault.