This week’s book review is a survey of Neal Stephenson‘s work. I’ve lately been on a kick of re-reading all our Neal Stephenson books, partly prompted by tigtog‘s rave review of SnowCrash. Tigtog’s rave was mostly about one of the main characters, YT (a sexy intelligent kick-ass woman), a variant of whom appears surprisingly often (surprising for cyber-punk, which often only has women as sex interests for the male protagonists) in Stephenson’s novels.
SnowCrash is Stephenson’s most famous seriously sci-fi work, and probably one of only two that actually fits the cyberpunk description. It’s a fun romp through a dysfunctional future as imagined in the late early 90s – its descriptions of virtual reality, and the internet (the metaverse) are pretty impressive for something written so long ago. As seems to happen with about half of Stephenson’s books, his research is too obvious for me (he is obsessed with linguistics, and while it’s interesting, it got a bit turgid after a while). But this book established Stephenson as a major cyberpunk author to rival William Gibson, although Gibson has stayed much closer to the genre since.
My favourite in the properly science fiction description, by a long way, is The Diamond Age. This is further into the future, and although full of technological imaginings, the most interesting thing about the book is Stephenson’s imagining the way in which different societies might deliberately organise themselves – with the strongest part of this being his ode to Victorian English culture and why it makes sense. Although the ending is incredibly weak (it seems as if he just lost interest, and tied up the knots – probably was rich enough to avoid proper editing), 98% of the book is great and thought provoking.
Cyrptomnicom, to me, again shows signs of lack of editing. While Stephenson’s writing is enjoyable, this book suffers with too much of the research being on the surface. My brother, who writes software for a living, loved this book. For me, who left serious mathematics behind about twenty years ago, the stuff about cryptoanalysis became a chore after a while.
But the best, by far, of Stephenson, is the Baroque Cycle trilogy. This is a tour de force of three volumes set in the late 17th and early 18th century, with Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, and many other key scientists (Huygens, Franklin, Hookes, etc etc) as key, human characters. It is an incredibly human story with two main characters – Eliza and Jack – both from humble beginnings, who dance in and out of European scientific, economic and political history gaily and with penache.
Although, just as in all his other books, Stephenson has clearly done a mammoth amount of research, in this case, the research helps, rather than hinders the plot and character development. After reading these books, actual history of the period is disappointing – you’ve already read all the facts, and the story isn’t written as well.
In my re-read, I’ve become a confirmed Stephenson junkie (I do have all his other books, but this review was already too long). His strengths – great characters, very funny dialogue, and interesting ideas; weaknesses – over use of research (sometimes) and very weak endings when he seems to get sick of the book. But the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, and I’ve enjoyed the re-read.
Tangent: An interesting discussion on book snobbery on Larvatus Prodeo has Neal Stephenson talking about how literary authors don’t take him seriously because he’s made too much money.