A dilemna about prisoners
December 15, 2011 4:48 PM   Subscribe

In fiction, an adolescent girl is imprisoned, and can only communicate with a mysterious fellow prisoner she's never met. They can only communicate in code, a plausible code that teaches the girl how to encode information into her world's predominant technology.

This is two books I've read, actually. "Glory Season" by David Brin features a plucky protagonist imprisoned and an unknown prisoner passes her a gameboard that plays Conway's Life, a competitive variant of which happens to be the most popular game on the planet.

In “The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer," Neal Stephenson presents an adolescent girl who studies the primer, which is a kind of computerized interactive book that contains a puzzle she must pass. In it, the girl learns binary code because the communicative prisoner lowers to her cell a long chain in which each link has an on-off switch. After she makes her switch-changes to the links/bits, the chain is hauled back up by an unseen mechanism.

Both books were written, IIRC, in the mid-90s, plausibly at the same time, and while I don't discount that the authors knew each other, nor do I think either stole from the other, and I've always wondered if this scene or these elements came from a common source-- some Socratic speculation or some third book I've never read, some collective unconscious thing I've never noticed. Does this ring a bell?
posted by Sunburnt to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Not an answer, but I'd be looking at mid-80s through mid-90s cyberpunk gestalt as the common element. If you put yourself through a cyberpunk movie and anime binge, you'll come across recurring themes of encryption, memory, human identity in the context of an increasingly mechanized and digital world, and the integration or transformation of human mind and self into that world. Sometimes I think that in a lot of cases that came from authors/creators simply looking at concepts such as "memory". "code", "intelligence" "reality" and trying to mesh the traditional human uses of those concepts with their computing derivatives. In other words, a focus on the buzz words first created the key elements of the genre, and then (in a way) became the sum of the genre. Either that or you can blame it all on Bladerunner and William Gibson.
posted by Ahab at 5:22 PM on December 15, 2011

Oops. Another key element in the whole cyberpunk zeitgeist was evolution to the post-human. Ie in a post modern world based around digital existence, what do humans become? An adolescent girl or young woman is the perfect choice for the key protagonist in that. She's the mediator between a masculine world of technology and terminals, and a virtual world based within the mind/machine. But there's also the possibility of her ultimately breeding. As early eg.s, in Bladerunner, it's Rachael and Deckard flying off to form a new race, or any of Gibson's kick-ass mechanically/digitally enhanced women. As later eg.s, perhaps Lain in Serial Experiments Lain, or those weird pointy eared creatures in Elven Lied.
posted by Ahab at 5:43 PM on December 15, 2011

Best answer: Neil Stephenson also has the Solitaire encryption algorithm, which Bruce Schneier invented for him to use in Cryptonomicon. One more data point.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:04 PM on December 15, 2011

Response by poster: Ah, good points, Ahab. In addition to the kick-ass Molly Millions, Neuromancer had Lady 3Jane, who had her own strange prison-like youthful existence and education according to the strange dictates of her clone family. I should give the Sprawl trilogy a re-read.

I'm glad you are getting what I'm asking-- the elements are so close as to have had some common influence, I think, or else they coincidentally extracted something from the cyberpunk (or post-) zeitgeist-- that's exactly what I was thinking.
posted by Sunburnt at 6:08 PM on December 15, 2011

Response by poster: qxntpqbbbqxl, duh, of course-- I didn't think of that, but that's exactly what went on; Randall Waterhouse obviously isn't an an adolescent girl, but all the other pieces fit. It's easy to forget, after reading that book, that Waterhouse and Root hadn't met until they were imprisoned in adjoining cells.

On the other hand, the solitaire code didn't exist to educate Waterhouse, while the young ladies of the other sources were being educated in both encoding and encryption.
posted by Sunburnt at 6:13 PM on December 15, 2011

Best answer: I wondered if this was going to be a "what book am I thinking of?" question and was prepared to answer Glory Season... but in response to Ahab's thoughts, I'll note that Glory Season is anything but a cyberpunk novel. And while certainly the gestalt, as Ahab puts it, may have affected Brin's thinking, much of the book centers around the extremely unusual breeding cycle the planet's modified humans have chosen for themselves, rather than issues related to memory.

What that section of Glory Season did remind me of was Arthur Koestler's chilling Darkness at Noon:
Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, a man in his fifties, had been one of the leading figures in the Bolshevik revolution, and has been active in supporting Communist parties in other countries. As such, he was revered amongst Communist officials. During a purge of the Communist Party, however, Rubashov is roused in the middle of the night and arrested. This brings back memories of his previous arrest in Germany, when he was tortured under interrogation. He is taken to a new prison and placed in a cell.

Despite efforts to keep the prisoners isolated from each other, the men communicate through tapping on the pipes between the cells. He makes contact with another prisoner, identified throughout as No. 402, a counter-revolutionary who supported the reign of the Czar. After initial unsatisfactory contact with No. 402, the two men form a friendship of sorts, with No. 402 keeping Rubashov abreast of developments in the prison and Rubashov entertaining No. 402 with stories of his sexual exploits.
I wonder if Brin had read that at any point before he wrote Glory Season.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:13 PM on December 15, 2011

Best answer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tap_code
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:57 AM on December 16, 2011

BTW, I think it's true that Stephenson was part-way through writing "REAMDE" when he heard that Cory Doctorow was writing his own book about gold-farming ("For The Win," I believe), and it has been posited that this is the cause of "REAMDE"s wrenching turn halfway through from egghead economics/gaming book to rock 'em, sock 'em thriller.

In other words, it wouldn't be the first time!
posted by wenestvedt at 1:17 PM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

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