ijones writes "Codex, by Lev Grossman, is a novel about the advancement of basic, every-day technology. It reflects upon computer game technologies of the present day and upon the book-production technologies of previous centuries. Grossman links them together with obvious affection and in interesting and mysterious ways." Read on for the rest of Jones' review.
Codex is a fun book, compelling enough to keep me reading even when I was occasionally sick of the characters. The book can be especially fun for a Slashdot reader when it refers to open-source software, but I didn't find Grossman's breadth and depth of nerd knowledge to be particularly satisfying.
The story and style of this book may remind you of The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, because it's also about a search for an old thing through a maze of clues. The writing style is similar too, clearly aimed straight at the popular market, but lacking in the chapter-ending cliff-hangers of The Da Vinci Code. If you enjoyed that book, I recommend picking up Codex, though it's not as powerful a page-turner. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, even though the snobbish part of me thought it was pretty silly. Snobbery has rarely kept me from enjoying something, though, and I liked Codex as well.
Codex is interesting and fun to read, but has a lot of weak points. I liked the female supporting character in many ways, but hardly liked the main character at all. I very much enjoyed the stories-within-the-story, and the low-tech and high-tech elements weaving back and forth. Read on if you don't mind minor SPOILERS.
Codex takes place in present day New York. Edward, the main character, is a guy with a great job who finds himself compelled to deeply change his lifestyle and behavior for reasons he cannot himself understand. In fact, Grossman doesn't ever quite manage to endow his characters with believable motivations, one of the major faults of this book. The reader knows what Edward's motivations are, since Grossman tells us, but I never found them very convincing. Edward is often inexplicably compelled to do things that he doesn't want to do, and gets drawn into situations that most people could easily walk away from.
Edward is also a very unlikable character. Even the other characters in the story dislike him, and point it out frequently. It's easy to see their point; the reader is left with the feeling that there's not much to like. This makes it a bit hard to get into his character, and though Edward makes some progress throughout the book, it isn't nearly enough.
Open-source software, and in particular an inexplicably compelling game called MOMUS, is featured throughout the plot, but it is not actually central to the story. The central story is about the search for a codex, which can perhaps be found in a family library that Edward has been manipulated into organizing.
The sense of immersion in new things is part the charm of Codex. I may not really believe that a man like Edward would get drawn into a computer game and a library with such complete abandon, but I'm glad that he did. Codex itself can draw the reader in at times, and I took several train rides where I didn't want to reach my destination because I wanted to keep reading.
While Grossman writes about nerds and open-source software, he doesn't write like someone who has ever been a part of it. He doesn't write about software the way Neal Stephenson does. Grossman writes about software as though he had some good ideas, and a friend or editor who knows about computers to keep him from getting it too badly wrong. That said, there are a few very annoying bits for us nerds. A scene where the main character enters the wild and strange world of a LAN party would have been almost bearable if it weren't for the secret handshake. At another point, a hacker tells Edward that he needs to get in touch with a super-hacker, but "He won't accept [your e-mail]. Your crypto isn't good enough." As if cryptography were an 31337 skill that some possess and some do not. Edward already knows how to use software, and he is a reasonably intelligent guy. I'm sure he could learn to encrypt an email.
Despite these weaknesses, Codex is a good read. It's creative, interesting, and occasionally suspenseful. It's the kind of book that you can get through pretty quickly, and though you may not be completely satisfied at the end, you will probably spend some time thinking about some of the Grossman's ideas.
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