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In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
Neal Stephenson
Avon Books, 151 pages

In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's background shows clearly in his writing. He was born in Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency (NSA), and grew up in a family that included biochemistry, physics, and electrical engineering professors. His own studies included physics and geography.

Stephenson is the author of Zodiac, Snow Crash, and the Hugo award-winning The Diamond Age. He also writes with his uncle J. Frederick George under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. Stephenson currently lives in the Seattle area with his family.

Cryptonomicon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Interview: Neal Stephenson
SF Site Review: Cryptonomicon
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Diamond Age
Neal Stephenson Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Peter D. Tillman

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In the Beginning... Was the Command Line is an amusing guide to the whole dos/mac/windows/unix/gnu/linux/beos soap opera, for the perplexed. Highly recommended.

Stephenson opens with a neat analogy -- computer operating systems companies as auto manufacturers:

"...Eventually the big dealership came out with a full-fledged car: a colossal station wagon (Windows 95). It had all the aesthetic appeal of a Soviet worker housing block, it leaked oil and blew gaskets, and it was an enormous success..."
Compare this to the Linux guys, "a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field." Here's their sales pitch:
Hacker with bullhorn: "Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks! It is invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles an hour while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!"

Prospective station wagon buyer: "I know what you say is true...but...er...I don't know how to maintain a tank!"

Bullhorn: "But if you accept one of our free tanks we will send volunteers to your house to fix it for free while you sleep!"

Buyer: "Stay away from my house, you freak!!"

This is a very entertaining book. It's aimed at the Unix-literate (whose ranks certainly don't include me), but anyone who's messed about with computers will find some goodies. Like Microsloth technical "support" -- Our Hero is attempting to install Windows NT 4.0 :
"The installation program simply stopped in the middle, with no error messages. I went to the Microsoft Support website and tried to perform a search for existing help documents that would address my problem. The search engine was completely nonfunctional; it did nothing at all. It did not even give me a message telling me that it was not working...

So I created a new Microsoft support account, then logged on to submit the incident. I supplied my product ID number when asked, and then began to follow the instructions on a series of help screens... I was never able to submit my bug report, because the series of linked web pages that I was filling out eventually led me to a completely blank page: a dead end. So I went back and clicked on the buttons for "phone support" and eventually was given a Microsoft telephone number. When I dialed this number I got a series of piercing beeps and a recorded message from the phone company saying "We're sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed..."

"Technical writers" are usually in the same league as "military intelligence," but Stephenson is one of our best writers in any genre. Don't miss this one. Highly recommended.

And you should also read Stephenson's wonderful 1996 essay on undersea cables, "Mother Earth, Mother Board" in Wired magazine. Personally, I enjoyed these two essays more than his massive (900+ pages) new novel, Cryptonomicon. 1

This appears to be exactly the same text that Stephenson posted online in early 1999. It's nice to have it available as a book, but it's still available free. 2 Unfortunately, in porting his text to print, the publishers failed to add either a table of contents or an index (bad, bad Avon!) -- a major inconvenience, which I worked around by downloading a searchable copy. Saved retyping all these cool quotes, too.


1 Cryptonomicon could have used some serious blue-pencil editing. Unfortunately, when the author's name gets bigger print on the cover than the title, elephantiasis is seldom far behind.

2 At Cryptonomicon, the author's "official" website, and elsewhere around the web.

Copyright © 2000 by Peter D. Tillman

Pete Tillman has been reading SF for better than 40 years now. He reviews SF -- and other books -- for Usenet, "Under the Covers", Infinity-Plus, Dark Planet, and SF Site. He's a mineral exploration geologist based in Arizona. More of his reviews are posted at www.silcom.com/~manatee/reviewer.html#tillman .


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