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Sci-Fi Books Media Book Reviews

Codex 44

Posted by timothy
from the pig-latin dept.
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
author Lev Grossman
pages 348
publisher Harcourt
rating 6
reviewer Isaac Jones
ISBN 0151010668
summary A novel, "Part thriller, part literary history"

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.


You can purchase Codex from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Codex

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  • You know, DIVX 6 just came out. That kicks this book's @ss!
  • by curtisk (191737) * on Friday June 17, 2005 @02:55PM (#12845659) Homepage Journal
    That was the most bipolar review I think I've ever read.

    Codex is a fun book, compelling enough to keep me reading even when I was occasionally sick of the characters.
    Codex is interesting and fun to read, but has a lot of weak points.
    etc.

    Summary: I LOVE IT, I HATE IT! ABSOLUTELY!

    • Is there any book in existence that contains an accurate, engaging, engrossing, serious, mature, entertaining story involving hackers?

      Usually these things use the same old tired plot. "Powerful entity (NSA, Mob, Illuminati) has an unbreakable code. Speed HaX0r has discovered how to break the code, and powerful entity wants is 133t ass dead. To survive, he must find his lost brother, HaX0r X, and together face down the greatest threat to freedom ever known."

      Every hacker story I've ever read has something s
  • Got this book last weekend at a garage sale for US$.50. Worth every penny, especially considering the ending is a total letdown.
  • Objective? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by scmason (574559)
    "While Grossman writes about nerds and open-source software, he doesn't write like someone who has ever been a part of it."

    Isn't that the mark of a good writer/journalist, that they can disassociate themselves from an onject/event/movement and discuss it objectively?

  • Does it end with the end of the world caused by a new variant of Netsky?
  • If we like books other than sci-fi or tech books, does that mean that we're going to have our geek licenses revoked?

    Sometimes when I talk to other technologically-oriented people, I feel like I'm the only one that likes regular literature. Am I the only one?

    >sobs uncontrollably
  • To be fair (Score:2, Funny)

    by damiam (409504)
    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.

    The guy might have sent his message ROT13ed or something.

    • Soooo he reads his email, decides the crypto isn't good enough and reverts back in time telling himself not to read it.

      I do this all the time, I just don't know it as my future self leaves me post it notes on my monitor.

      Oddly, my writing never resembles my own... so I suspect it's very far in the future so I must have a lot of work to do very soon.
    • To be really 1337, I use quadruple rot13.
  • "Grossman links them together with obvious affection and in interesting and mysterious ways."

    I totally know what the submitter means... it's like when I put the grocery bags on our kitchen counter at home--with obvious affection.

    Sorry... couldn't resist. The phrase "with obvious affection" just makes it abundantly clear that the submitter was intending to write a book review and is blessed with obvious affection for the concept of book reviews.

    Sounds like a good, if somewhat bad book though! %)

  • From TFR:


    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.

    Honestly, do we really need another badly written techno-1337 thriller? After all, we all saw Hackers [imdb.com], di

  • This came out last March. I read it over a year ago. Why is Slashdot reviewing old fiction? Would it review year-old technical books as if they were new?
  • by PCM2 (4486) on Friday June 17, 2005 @03:34PM (#12846149) Homepage
    The reviewer himself says that technology, open source, and so forth isn't really central to the story. And he's right, so it's odd to see everybody focusing so much on that.

    Codex isn't a techno-thriller. Really, when I read it my immediate reaction was that it was part of this strange subgenre that seems to have popped up in "literary" fiction these days, namely suspense thrillers about books. I guess it's only natural, considering that the size of the reading populus seems to be ever-shrinking, that authors would eventually start writing fiction that involves characters who are more like today's readers -- in other words, people who are really into books.

    Other books along these lines, off the top of my head, might include The Club Dumas [amazon.com] by Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Shadow of the Wind [amazon.com] by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, or The Rule of Four [amazon.com] by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Tomason. I haven't read the last one but either of the first two is probably better than Codex, even though The Club Dumas has a notoriously frustrating ending.

  • I just happened to read this a few days ago. Basically it's well envisioned and intentioned, but at the end just not worth the time. The characters are flat, the story sounds interesting at first, but gets trite very quickly, and then just doesn't go anywhere.

    I don't think the constant Dan Brown comparisons are fair though - it's bad, but not that bad.

    Find it on Amazon and go straight to the "customers also bought" section - almost everything in there is better. I read Arthur Phillips' The Egyptologist (

  • by wintermute42 (710554) on Friday June 17, 2005 @07:58PM (#12848281) Homepage

    When it comes to matters of taste you can't say that someone is wrong. Someone may think that gold and red velvet wall paper is the height of interior design. I think that it is ghastly, something only Elton John could love. But my opinion is no more valid that the person who loves the wall paper.

    I thought that the review was far too kind to Codex. I thought that Codex was a terrible book. The characters were wooden and the plot was predictable and empty. Yes there was some open source software, but it really did nothing for the plot. As others have noted, when it comes to mysteries/thrillers involving rare books, Perez-Reverte's Club Dumas is much better (the movie made from Club Dumas, the Ninth Gate directed by Polanski is also excellent).

    It is worth nothing that not only is the author of Codex a poor writer, he's a weasel too. He wrote an article in Salon about how he cooked his score on Amazon for his previous novel ( The Terrors of the Amazon [salon.com]). He appeared to do this for Codex as well. There were a number of rave reviews by people who had never reviewed a book before on Amazon. Sure everyone writes their first review at sometime. But here is an admitted forger with a bunch of suspecious reviews.

    My advice is that if you must read Codex, get it from the library. If you really must buy it, purchase the book used. But life is short and there are so many other good books. I recommend that you read something else.

    • I was also thinking of his Salon article about Amazon; do you think that he might be the one who submitted the article to Slashdot? Sure, this review isn't as gushing as the reviews he gave to his earlier work, but perhaps he's learning the art of self-reviewing as well, and thinks a false review that gives a B+ will be more believable than one that gives an A+? Anything to push some more copies of the book, right? It's the only reason I can come up with that it would be submitted this late after publica
      • I suppose that it is possible that Mr. Grossman could have submitted the review, but it does not seem to have his style. It was too much like a "geek" review. Also, you've got to be pretty desperate for sales to be scraping the slash-dot barrel. I would guess that the tastes on slash-dot run to science fiction,thrillers and science and technology books.

        I actually purchased a copy of Codex as a result of a good review in the New York Times or perhaps The San Jose Mercury News. It turns out that Gross

  • But does it talk about the development of books from scroll/scrolls to codex/codices?

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