Neal Stephenson writes science fiction, but it’s a different kind of science and a different kind of fiction. But no matter — it’s all good. And, he’s also the owner of the best author goatee in the business.
Zodiac, billed as “an eco-thriller,” is a strange and innovative combination of detective noir, science fiction, and thriller. Sangamon Taylor is trying to find the source of a toxic chemical sludge so that he can uncover a conspiracy of polluters who are in turn trying to frame him as an ecoterrorist. There’s action, suspense, and a good deal of humor.
Snow Crash is a virtual reality cyberthriller, set in the near, dystopian future. The main character, Hiro Protagonist, delivers pizza for the mob in “meatspace” and is a sword-wielding ronin-like warrior in the cyberworld of the Metaverse. A narcotic-like virus (or a virus-like narcotic) dubbed “snow crash” is infecting avatars in the Metaverse with effects in the real world. It’s up to Hiro to sort things out with his side-kick Y.T., a skateboarding 15-year-old girl. And that’s just the beginning. Among other things, Snow Crash is a biting satire of American corporate culture.
Cryptonomicon is a split, but intertwined narrative of code-breaking at Bletchley Park during World War II and some of their present-day descendants using information technology and cryptography to set up a data haven in a sultanate somewhere in Southeast Asia. This book marks Stephenson’s shift toward a form of historical science fiction that combines historical events, the history of science, and a fast-paced, but still very geeky story.
If Cryptonomicon is Stephenson’s first foray into historical science fiction, the Baroque Cycle — comprised of eight novels published as three books: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World — is his magnum opus. In some ways, the entire series is a prequel to Cryptonomicon; some of the characters are the ancestors of those in the earlier novel. But this series is also an epic of the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Europe, and shot through with politics, science, the politics of science, and a good deal more. There are scientists, alchemists, politicians, pirates, soldiers, nobleman, slaves, and damn near everything else you can think of. I’ve already read the cycle twice through, and will certainly read it again, hopefully soon.
In Anathem, Stephenson once again shifts gears. Instead of a work of historical science fiction, Anathem truly deserves the name of speculative fiction — though there’s still plenty of science. I’ve not read Anathem yet (despite the recommendations from my wife), so here’s a description from Stephenson’s website:
Fraa Erasmas is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside “saecular” world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent’s walls. Three times during history’s darkest epochs violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet the avout have always managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity even more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. And Erasmas has no fear of the outside—the Extramuros—for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.
Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs prepare to venture beyond the concent’s gates—at the same time opening them wide to welcome the curious “extras” in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmas eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn’t seen since he was “collected.” But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.
Powerful unforeseen forces jeopardize the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramuros—a threat that only an unsteady alliance of saecular and avout can oppose—as, one by one, Erasmas and his colleagues, teachers, and friends are summoned forth from the safety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster. Suddenly burdened with a staggering responsibility, Erasmas finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of his world—as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of the planet…and beyond.
Perhaps I should get around to reading Anathem sooner than later. Maybe on the next Do Nothing But Read Day.
This is one of my favorite ruminations about the state of digital culture. Stephenson rants about modern operating systems and why they still hadn’t (at the time) managed to eclipse the command line interface of the ‘nix-like systems. It’s a bit dated now, especially given that it was written before the advent of Mac OS X, which Stephenson himself embraced with open arms — but it’s still worth reading as a commentary on how we think about computers and software and digital world in which we spend so much time.