PDA

View Full Version : The Neal Stephenson Appreciation Thread



mlcm
12-14-2007, 03:45 PM
Neal Stephenson

Who is he?

Who is he to me?

He's a science fiction author, although that may by up for debate. He's most famous for "Snowcrash", "Cryptonomicon" and The Baroque Cycle, which was three thousand pages of pure historical science fiction.

I was reading on BoingBoing, and I found Cory Doctorow's post on "Interface", which you can read here (http://www.boingboing.net/2007/12/10/interface-neal-steph.html). "Interface" is ostensibly about how a shadowly group controls a governor through means of hardware installed in his brain. But really, it's a damn good ripping yarn that's fairly suspenseful.

It has all the hallmarks of a good Stephenson novel: the technology, the fantastic prose that's funny and unique, and the slow-burn of the plot, where each individual piece of the puzzle is laid out meticulously for all of the audience to see.

My favourite Neal Stephenson would have to be "Snowcrash", a pure geekgasm of ninjas, hot chicks, virtual reality, Sumerian mythology and psycholinguistics, all wrapped up in an ahead-of-its-time thriller. It's like reading "Neuromancer" but without any angst at all.

After that, we have "Cryptonomicon" which is enjoyable for the absolute slow-burn of the plot and the technological details and humourous situations. Essentially, there's two stories happening, one in the present, one during World War 2. Both stories are about a huge cache of gold. Stephenson takes about a thousand pages to move that cache of gold from WW2 to the present, and it is fantastic.

Following that huge monster of a book, we have an even bigger tome: The Baroque Cycle. Spilt into three volumes, the Baroque Cycle is set during the time of Isaac Newton, and the publication of the Principia Mathematica. It also shows earlier generations of the characters featured in "Cryptonomicon" and it is a fantastic journey of random historical and linguistic and economic details. It's about money and about putting the gold from "Cryptonomicon" into the start position, where the WW2 characters will find it.
It's incredible for the small details (e.g. where the word "dollar" comes from, or how banks are invented) and for the larger details like Jack Shaftoe riding a horse through a party for French royalty.

Have you read Neal Stephenson? Let's discuss.

Perhaps spoilers for all books are acceptable after this post? Yes? No?

Agent Helix
12-14-2007, 04:29 PM
I honestly may not be able to make it through Quicksilver. I'm trying, but I've had to shelve it and read something that's pure fluff for now, because Eliza is writing coded letters to people.

leonaozaki
12-14-2007, 07:36 PM
Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite books. Not kidding.

I love all of his books that I've read -- the Baroque trilogy, Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, Diamond Age, and Zodiac-- but Cryptonomicon is still my favorite.

Oddly, Zodiac is probably next on my list. It's certainly got the most effective narrative of all of them.

rob

leonaozaki
12-14-2007, 07:36 PM
I honestly may not be able to make it through Quicksilver. I'm trying, but I've had to shelve it and read something that's pure fluff for now, because Eliza is writing coded letters to people.

Man, that was one of my favorite parts!

rob

Expletive Deleted
12-14-2007, 09:15 PM
I'll read anything he writes. Even his non-fiction is gold. Has anyone else read IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE COMMAND LINE, his take on the history of operating systems and their underlying metaphors? It's brilliant.

As for the Baroque Cycle . . . I have to admit, Eliza's storylines were my least favorite, too. Daniel's storylines were like catnip to my inner math/science nerd, and it's hard to dislike Jack's adventures. Eliza's wrangling with the various royals and the Hacklhebers had some occasionaly fun economic warfare, but the soap opera just bored me to tears.

My least favorites are probably INTERFACE and COBWEB. You can sort of see Stephenson's potential in there, but it's nowhere near fully realized.

mlcm
12-15-2007, 06:07 PM
Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite books. Not kidding.

I love all of his books that I've read -- the Baroque trilogy, Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, Diamond Age, and Zodiac-- but Cryptonomicon is still my favorite.

Oddly, Zodiac is probably next on my list. It's certainly got the most effective narrative of all of them.

rob

As much as I love Stephenson, Zodiac is the only one I haven't read yet. I always mean to, but then something comes along.

Aaron Kashtan
12-15-2007, 09:20 PM
I'll read anything he writes. Even his non-fiction is gold. Has anyone else read IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE COMMAND LINE, his take on the history of operating systems and their underlying metaphors? It's brilliant.

I read that for a course last year. It was interesting, if somewhat curmudgeonly.

Xevious
12-15-2007, 10:30 PM
I've only read cryptonomicon, I liked it but it'll be a while before I finish quicksilver. I got 100 pages into it and had to stop.

FanboyStranger
12-16-2007, 10:21 PM
Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle are among my favorite books of the past decade and certainly my favorite series (with only Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels coming close, "close" being measured in astronomical distances). What I love about Stephenson is his ability to weave complex concepts into his plots in a way that makes them very accessable without killing the momentum of the story or dumbing them down. It's a great gift. Also, unlike many authors who attempt this sort of macro-fiction, Stephenson is clearly not in love with the sound of his own prose, which is why these conceptually dense books read like page-turners. As much as I love Thomas Pynchon (who has mined similar historical territory in his last two novels Mason and Dixon and Against the Day), his dense prose and ever corkscrewing sentences require me to take my time and rest my eyes and brain; it's akin to showing off, in my opinion. Stephenson allows me to tear right through, which I appreciate.

mlcm
12-17-2007, 03:40 PM
For those that have finished the Baroque Cycle...

What did you think of the ending?

For me, it was a completely satisfying ending to a very long stretch of books. I can't say that I didn't see the ending coming a little, but even still, it was one of those perfect endings where all the pieces fit together. While the actual method of the ending, the elixir vitae, is a deus ex machina, the fact that it was introduced about 2000 pages before the climax makes me feel satisfied.

Shellhead
12-17-2007, 04:15 PM
Snowcrash was the over-the-top fun and adventure, and I really enjoyed it. The Diamond Age was very interesting. Cryptonomicon was also interesting, but too sprawling and decompressed. I tried to read Quicksilver, but it seemed to be everything that I didn't enjoy about Cryptonomicon, only taken to an extreme. I gave up around the 100-page mark, which is where I always stop when I'm not enjoying a book that I thought that I would enjoy.

FanboyStranger
12-17-2007, 09:07 PM
For those that have finished the Baroque Cycle...

What did you think of the ending?

For me, it was a completely satisfying ending to a very long stretch of books. I can't say that I didn't see the ending coming a little, but even still, it was one of those perfect endings where all the pieces fit together. While the actual method of the ending, the elixir vitae, is a deus ex machina, the fact that it was introduced about 2000 pages before the climax makes me feel satisfied.

It was a great picaresque ending to the great picaresque story of Jack Shaftoe, the revived King of the Vagabonds dining with his biggest fan, the King of France, upon the latter's yacht, reunited with Eliza at long last. But most of all, I wanted to immediately read the further adventures of those pesky Shaftoe boys and Tomba in the New World.

Fenris
12-18-2007, 11:52 PM
When I first read Snow Crash, I was delivering pizzas for a living. So it hooked me very effectively with the first scene, and then... well, it never unhooked.

I got as far as the end of The Confusion in the Baroque Cycle, and then... um. I've got the third book around here, somewhere, but it doesn't really demand to be read anytime soon. I loved it at the time, but that was years ago, and I have the nasty feeling that I'm going to have to reread the whole thing to remember what's going on.



Sometime when I have a month off, maybe!

Agent Helix
12-19-2007, 05:21 AM
Man, that was one of my favorite parts!

rob

I don't think it's bad but after six hundred pages, I wasn't quite ready for it. I'd loved the second section of the book so much, and the beginnings of Waterhouse as a political figure, that those letters were like hitting a brick wall for me. I just needed to put it down and get back to it. I'm reading some terrible Clive Cussler novel now, and I'm going to resume Quicksilver once I've finished that.

Shellhead
12-19-2007, 07:34 AM
I don't think it's bad but after six hundred pages, I wasn't quite ready for it. I'd loved the second section of the book so much, and the beginnings of Waterhouse as a political figure, that those letters were like hitting a brick wall for me. I just needed to put it down and get back to it. I'm reading some terrible Clive Cussler novel now, and I'm going to resume Quicksilver once I've finished that.

Clive Cussler novels are terrible. And yet I've enjoyed reading a few of them over the years anyway. Cussler just tosses realism out the window and delivers a few vivid characters and some exciting situations, all at the right pace to keep me reading. Neal Stephenson is a better writer, with much more interesting ideas, but I just wasn't enjoying Quicksilver. Stephenson kept getting distracted and wandering off on lengthy tangents. Or maybe they weren't tangents, and the whole trilogy would eventually have revealed its brilliance to me by the end. But I didn't make it that far.

Agent Helix
12-19-2007, 07:44 AM
I'm reading Cussler for now because, generally the only time I have to read is during my lunchbreak, and Quicksilver is a bit too heavy a book to just peck at for forty-five minutes here and there. I'm going to finish it over the holidays, when I'll have time to devote to it.

mlcm
12-19-2007, 08:02 AM
Clive Cussler novels are terrible. And yet I've enjoyed reading a few of them over the years anyway. Cussler just tosses realism out the window and delivers a few vivid characters and some exciting situations, all at the right pace to keep me reading. Neal Stephenson is a better writer, with much more interesting ideas, but I just wasn't enjoying Quicksilver. Stephenson kept getting distracted and wandering off on lengthy tangents. Or maybe they weren't tangents, and the whole trilogy would eventually have revealed its brilliance to me by the end. But I didn't make it that far.

Surprisingly, a lot of those tangents, not all of them, relate to the end, as they're pieces of the puzzle that Stephenson meticulously lays down. The Baroque Cycle is kind of like The Sandman series; the filler is actually the point.

Shellhead
12-19-2007, 01:46 PM
Surprisingly, a lot of those tangents, not all of them, relate to the end, as they're pieces of the puzzle that Stephenson meticulously lays down. The Baroque Cycle is kind of like The Sandman series; the filler is actually the point.

That's probably a great analogy. I bought every single issue of Sandman as they were published, but eventually I was just doing so out of habit, because it started to feel like the title character was irrelevant to the variety of short stories that Gaiman wanted to tell.

One of these days, I will go back and read the whole Sandman series from start to finish and see if it reads better that way. I probably still won't be satisfied, because there were frequent artist changes on Sandman. That's okay for a superhero book where everybody has colorful and distinctive costumes, but the more ordinary characters of Sandman will be harder to recognize when drawn by a variety of artists.

howyadoin
12-20-2007, 10:06 AM
I tried to read Quicksilver, but it seemed to be everything that I didn't enjoy about Cryptonomicon, only taken to an extreme. I gave up around the 100-page mark, which is where I always stop when I'm not enjoying a book that I thought that I would enjoy.I made it as far as 250 pages, and finally gave up hope of ever having anything interesting happen.

Expletive Deleted
12-20-2007, 09:21 PM
You don't find the history of calculus interesting?

Shame, Howy. Shame.

howyadoin
12-21-2007, 10:07 AM
You don't find the history of calculus interesting?

Shame, Howy. Shame.Well, the history of my personal involvement with calculus is definitely fraught with peril...

Agent Helix
12-21-2007, 10:14 AM
I think Quicksilver is an extraordinarily well written book, but I don't think I'd actively recommend it to anyone. At least anyone that doesn't ALREADY have a heavy interest in the English Restoration, and the history of modern scienctific principles. Basically, if you don't know who Robert Hooke is already, steer clear of it, because chances are you're not going to have much interest. It's such a niche prospect.

Matthew E
12-21-2007, 11:04 AM
I think Quicksilver is an extraordinarily well written book, but I don't think I'd actively recommend it to anyone. At least anyone that doesn't ALREADY have a heavy interest in the English Restoration, and the history of modern scienctific principles. Basically, if you don't know who Robert Hooke is already, steer clear of it, because chances are you're not going to have much interest. It's such a niche prospect.

...yeah. I mean. I didn't have a heavy interest in that stuff, but I'm willing to follow Stephenson wherever he goes. His writing made it interesting. And the only thing I knew about Robert Hooke was Hooke's Law (which basically explains how elasticity works).

There are two real points of the Baroque Cycle: it's an adventure story, and it's a travelogue of seventeenth/eighteenth century economics. Anytime Stephenson goes off on a tangent in these books, it's probably to show us something wild about what people had to go through to make money in those days.

I've read the whole series through three times, and I'm sure there are several more reads of it in my future.

mlcm
12-21-2007, 03:43 PM
I decided that I was going to re-read Cryptonomicon and so far, I think it's better the second time through, because I know what's happening and what's being set up, but I also can remember the details a lot better. What makes this book and the Baroque Cycle so impressive is the sheer amount of parallels and references to each other. Yes! Now I'm picking up on those.

And I agree... I didn't have much of an interest in Hooke or Newton or all the other people, but I was willing to follow Stephenson into whatever corner of the world he wanted to go.

I think a good microcosm for the Baroque Cycle, and Stephenson in general, is when Eliza has the children and people act out the economy with complex trading examples. Not only is it classic Stephenson infodump, but it's written in that same breathless long paragraph prose he always writes with. And it's about money. That's what Stephenson is really writing about with the Cycle and Cryptonomicon, it's all about money. How it is made, how does it work, how do we manipulate it.

Inkthinker
12-21-2007, 07:13 PM
I got through Quicksilver, but never read the others... more or less for the same reasons as others have stated (not a huge fan of mathematics to begin with anyhow).

I love Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Zodiac. But Cryptonomicon was a slog whenever he began to infodump on math and crytography, and the same happened with the Baroque.

I like Stephenson a lot, but he's got a bad habit of infodump. At the same time, I appreciate that he writes intelligent fiction for intelligent people... he can be challenging, but he's also rewarding.

I just wish I didn't periodically feel like I was in a college lecture while reading his novels.

Snow Crash will probably remain my favorite of the Stephenson books, at least until he writes another Hiro Protagonist novel. It's just because it's so damn entertaining... that first chapter is a picture-perfect example of how to grab your readers from word one, and even after the prose style shifts gears it holds onto you until the end.

mlcm
12-21-2007, 09:23 PM
I like Stephenson a lot, but he's got a bad habit of infodump. At the same time, I appreciate that he writes intelligent fiction for intelligent people... he can be challenging, but he's also rewarding.

I just wish I didn't periodically feel like I was in a college lecture while reading his novels.

Honestly, I don't think there's any other way for Stephenson to regale us with the sheer amount of info he throws at us. His infodumps are at least entertaining and often funny.

Fenris
12-22-2007, 11:40 PM
Okay, for anyone who's read the whole thing: Does Enoch Root ever get explained in any detail? Is he actually the same character as in Cryptonomicon?


Curious!

mlcm
12-23-2007, 07:09 AM
Yes. He's even older than what happens in The Baroque Cycle. He is explained in very implicit ways in the Baroque Cycle, as well as almost explicitly by the author himself.

Expletive Deleted
12-23-2007, 08:51 AM
Okay, for anyone who's read the whole thing: Does Enoch Root ever get explained in any detail? Is he actually the same character as in Cryptonomicon?It's never explicitly explained, as far as I recall, but the implication is that he uses King Solomon's gold (or an alchemical derivative thereof) to keep himself alive or resurrect himself upon his death.

howyadoin
12-23-2007, 11:54 AM
There are two real points of the Baroque Cycle: it's an adventure story...Well, how far do you have to read before the adventure starts to happen?

mlcm
12-23-2007, 12:41 PM
Well, how far do you have to read before the adventure starts to happen?

When Jack Shaftoe is introduced is when the "adventure" story starts.

Matthew E
12-23-2007, 05:53 PM
Basically. Although it's not like Daniel Waterhouse never has any adventures; that whole deal with Blackbeard in Massachusetts Bay is pretty freaking adventurous.

Expletive Deleted
12-23-2007, 07:09 PM
Well, how far do you have to read before the adventure starts to happen?About a third of the way through QUICKSILVER. Once Jack chases an ostrich into the Ottoman Emperor's harem and rescues a nubile Qwghlmian girl, the fun begins.

jabrams007
12-24-2007, 02:49 PM
I love, love, love Neal Stephenson. From the very first line of Snowcrash, I was hooked and ever since, I've eagerly gobbled up all his books.

On a personal note, I've found that Snowcrash and his early more "sci-fi" books, while still enjoyable, don't hold up on 2nd or even 3rd readings, while his more recent "historical sci-fi" books such as Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, hold up much better.

In this thread I've seen posts talking about all of his books except for The Big U. It's his first book, and while his writing style was pretty basic when he wrote it, I found the book absolutely hilarious and a perfect hyper-satire of college life. Anyone else read it? Thoughts?

Any word of a new novel?

I'm off to eat some Cap'n Crunch and ponder the perfect way to mix cereal with milk... ;)

Matthew E
12-24-2007, 05:08 PM
In this thread I've seen posts talking about all of his books except for The Big U. It's his first book, and while his writing style was pretty basic when he wrote it, I found the book absolutely hilarious and a perfect hyper-satire of college life. Anyone else read it? Thoughts?

I read it once, a long time ago, and don't remember much about it, other than that it was kind of all over the place.

Expletive Deleted
12-24-2007, 09:09 PM
In this thread I've seen posts talking about all of his books except for The Big U. It's his first book, and while his writing style was pretty basic when he wrote it, I found the book absolutely hilarious and a perfect hyper-satire of college life. Anyone else read it? Thoughts?The satire was a little too hyper for me. I could see what he was going for, but the over-the-topness of it left me cold.

leonaozaki
12-24-2007, 09:38 PM
I love, love, love Neal Stephenson. From the very first line of Snowcrash, I was hooked and ever since, I've eagerly gobbled up all his books.

On a personal note, I've found that Snowcrash and his early more "sci-fi" books, while still enjoyable, don't hold up on 2nd or even 3rd readings, while his more recent "historical sci-fi" books such as Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, hold up much better.



I agree that Snow Crash hasn't held up the way Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle have. I probably agree about The Diamond Age; as with Snow Crash I thought the first half was great and the second half just got...bizarre.

rob

Adam C
12-25-2007, 08:37 AM
I love Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Zodiac. But Cryptonomicon was a slog whenever he began to infodump on math and crytography, and the same happened with the Baroque.

Funny, I felt that Cryptonomicon did a far, far better job of incorporating the math and cryptography into the narrative than Snow Crash (which basically had long scenes of Hiro talking to an AI about religion, language, and reason which I found very interesting given my scholarly disposition but were basically one giant speed-bump on the narrative).

MichikoS
12-25-2007, 01:18 PM
In this thread I've seen posts talking about all of his books except for The Big U. It's his first book, and while his writing style was pretty basic when he wrote it, I found the book absolutely hilarious and a perfect hyper-satire of college life. Anyone else read it? Thoughts?
THE BIG U is hands-down my favorite modern novel, and right up there with CRYPTONOMICON in Stephenson's total oeuvre. Comparisons to Amis (Kingsley and Martin), J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut are entirely justified. THE BIG U's climactic final battle is simultaneously frightening, hilarious and surreal. I've never read anything quite like it, and I think it wildly successful in what it attempts. As a librarian, I'm always recommending this book to others as a neglected gem.

The Vintage original paperback edition was out of print for many years, and almost impossible to find outside of a library. It's been back in print for a while now, thank god. For a first novel, it's a hell of a novel, period. Believe it or not, germs and hints of all of Stephenson's subsequent novels can be found in THE BIG U. It's worth reading if for no other reason.

Right now, thanks to a timely reminder by BOING BOING's Cory Doctorow, I'm re-reading INTERFACE, which Stephenson published ten years after THE BIG U under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. It was actually co-written with his uncle, J. Frederick George (aka George Jewsbury) and again has many recognizable "Stephenson-isms" that would manifest in more developed forms later.

I am an unashamed and unflagging partisan for THE BIG U -- one of the funniest, most incisive, original, and enjoyable novels of the 20th century.

Michi