neal stephenson

    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Books 2020, 7)

    I decided I needed something SF-y that I knew I’d enjoy: a reread, in other words. Something with spaceships. Prowling my shelves, this is what I came to. No spaceships, but fast skateboards and faster motorbikes, katanas and glass knives; and of course, the Metaverse.

    I was struck by how little of it I remembered, but it is something like 26 years since I read it (published 1992, so I’m guessing I read it in 94 or so).

    Hiro Protagonist, the fantastically-named hero, is a hacker.1 He’s also the greatest samurai swordsman alive, supposedly. And he’s delivering pizzas for the Mafia. Which fact is the first view we have of how the world – or at least America – has changed. There is almost no government, no laws; and everything is split up into ‘burbclaves’ and franchises, run by companies, churches, or criminal organisations.

    But there is the Metaverse. Nothing we have today is close to what it is like, but it’s what virtual reality wants to be, and maybe will be one day.

    The internet is everywhere (which of course wasn’t the case when it was written). Though phoneboxes still exist, and using them is one way to get into the Metaverse. And if you want mobile access, you have to ‘go gargoyle.’ Which is to say, wear your special goggles and carry a computer around with you, strapped to your body. There are mobile phones, but the conversion of them into pocket computers is not something that Stephenson foresaw. Or at least, not something he made use of here.

    The Ending

    I had the impression that everyone thought that early Stephenson had problems with endings. I mean, I had that impression myself, and have alluded to it here before. And I thought that this was one with a slightly weak ending.

    But it isn’t at all. The bit that I remembered – the climax that takes place in the Metaverse – comes at the end of a tense chase/fight sequence, and while it depicts a scene that might be anticlimactic for the people in-universe who witness it, it’s fully satisfying and sound to us, the readers. Then the last couple of chapters wind things up neatly back in the outer world.

    The criticism that might be levelled at it, especially in SF terms, is that we don’t see how the world has been changed by the events of the story. But I think that can easily be left to our imaginations.

    A genuine classic.

    1. Interesting to note that even programmers for the government are called ‘hackers’ here. In the positive sense, of course. ↩︎

    Reamde By Neal Stephenson (Books 2016, 13)

    It’s a page-turner, an engrossing thriller. I got through the 1040 pages in about a week of being on holiday in Greece (it would have taken me a lot longer at home, especially if I had been working).

    Its biggest flaw is exactly how much of a well-oiled machine it is, how beautifully, unreasonably jigsaw-like the pieces all fit together, so that all the players end up together at he right place at the right time for the denouement (which event itself takes up probably close to 200 pages). It’s a bit — no, extremely unlikely that all of the disparate characters could have come together just as they do.

    But by the time it’s clear they’re going to, we’re so engaged with them all that we want it to happen just like it does. It’s only when standing back afterwards (or to be fair, during breaks when in the course of reading) that you we think, “This is actually kind of preposterous.”

    But still, preposterous fun.

    The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson (books 2008, 19)

    This has been the third year in which I have read a volume of The Baroque Cycle over the summer. I loved the first, despite its dip after the first book. The second was slower - in fact suffering from classic middle-volume longeurs. I thoroughly enjoyed them both, though.

    This third volume is the best of the three. I enjoyed it so much that, towards the end (that is, in the last two-hundred-or-so pages) I found myself sometimes avoiding reading it, because I didn’t want it to be over.

    The focus is very much back with Daniel Waterhouse, where it started, which is good from my point of view. Jack Shaftoe and Eliza (Duchess of the preposterously named Qwghlm) are in there too, of course.

    And, it’s too damn long for me to write much more about it. If you’ve read the first two, you will, of course, want to read this. If you haven’t read any of them, you should.

    Book Notes 23: Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson

    So I finally start The Baroque Cycle; or you might say, I finally finish the first volume. I started reading this at a campsite in France while on holiday: that was back at the end of August. I finished it on the 9th of November. As I said not so long ago, I don't read that quickly these days (compared, say, to back when I was a student); but this has taken me ages. Which is not surprising, since it's 900 pages long.

    While I’ve been reading it I’ve also read 19, 20, 21 and 22, but they are all graphic novels, and quite short. As well as that I generally read parts of the Saturday Guardian; a few magazines (London Cyclist, Matrix and Vector, occasionally The New Statesman, or one of the Linux magazines); and of course, a rake of blogs. But apart from those, it’s just been this one steadily for about two and a half months. And there are two more volumes to go: each, I believe, of a similar length.

    None of which tells us anything about the content of the book, of course. It is an interesting exercise, apart from anything else: Stephenson cleverly educates us science geeks about history, by linking the doings of kings and lords with those of Isaac Newton and other luminaries of the Royal Society. Or so I first thought. But then I realised that simultaneously, or alternatively, it does the opposite: it teaches humanities geeks (who presumably can be expected to know about the history) something about the science of the time.

    More importantly, though, it’s a damn good story. The first third tells the first part of the story of Daniel Waterhouse, who is the son of a Puritan family that is expecting the apocalypse to come in 1666. Of course, with the Plague and the Great Fire, it seems like it is.

    Waterhouse is a Natural Philosopher, though (or scientist, as we would say). He goes to Cambridge, where he becomes the room-mate and friend of a hick from the country, one Isaac Newton.

    I was reading it at a roaring pace all through the first part, but for me it lagged suddenly when the second part started, and we are introduced to a new set of characters, principally a vagabond called Jack Shaftoe (he has a brother called Bob, but I don’t know whether he is meant to be anything to do with the song) and a young woman called Eliza who was a harem slave to the Turks, and whom Jack frees.

    The pace picks up again as we get to know these characters, and their peregrinations round the courts and battlefields of Europe mean that their paths eventually cross with Daniel and the other Royal Society members from part one. Which takes us to part three.

    Far too much happens to give even a summary here. There are the births of princes and the deaths of kings, war, conquest and betrayal. Almost most importantly of all, the early scientists are probing and extending their understanding of the workings of the universe (of ‘creation’ as they would term it).

    Most importantly of all, there are the lives of ordinary people going on against this backdrop

    It’s a fantastic work, and as the first part of a trilogy, it isn’t marred by Stephenson’s noted difficulty with endings. I look forward eagerly to reading the second and third volumes.

    I don’t know why it won SF awards, though: just being written by an SF author really isn’t enough to make a book SF.