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Books : reviews

Neal Stephenson.
The Big U.
HarperCollins. 1984

Neal Stephenson.
Zodiac.
Bloomsbury. 1988

Neal Stephenson.
Snow Crash.
Bantam. 1992

rating : 2.5 : great stuff

It's all here: cyberspace, samurai swords, cyber viruses, and pizza delivery.

Neal Stephenson.
The Diamond Age.
Viking. 1995

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 1 October 2000

It's the nanotech future -- MCs (matter compilers) can make almost anything people want, and a global encrypted communication network keeps everyone untraceably in touch. Nation-states have dissolved, and people chose which phyle to join. The neo-Victorians are a phyle with a strict moral code, and one of their leaders want to make sure his granddaughter has every opportunity. So he commissions one of his nano-engineers to design a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer -- a "book" stuffed full of nanotech and pseudo-intelligence. But an illegal stolen copy falls into the hands of Nell, a young street kid. It has an amazing affect on her life, and on various people connected to her through it.

I'd been thinking about what could be in short supply if we had anything boxes, and Stephenson added "people you can trust" to my list of volume, good locations (I'd been thinking in terms of natural wonders, but good (good having various definitions, of course) neighborhoods would also count), your own time, and other people's attention.

-- Nancy Lebovitz , rasfw, 2000

Stephenson paints a vividly real picture of a nanotech future. The multitude of different phyles, with their different cultures; the MCs making everything from rice to buildings to motorised horses to coral islands; the nano-defence grids and toner wars; the design of nano-devices and rod-logic; the Mouse army -- there is loads of great detail, integrated into a very different, but believable, world, full of people who are completely at home with all this "magic". Stephenson definitely has an eye for this kind of detail.

All he could think about was the taste of the sauce. If the manifest of ingredients on the bottle had been legible, it would have read something like this:
     Water, blackstrap molasses, imported habanero peppers, salt, garlic, ginger, tomato puree, axle grease, real hickory smoke, snuff, butts of clove cigarettes, Guinness Stout fermentation dregs, uranium mill tailings, muffler cores, monosodium glutamate, nitrates, nitrites, nitrotes and nitrutes, nutrites, natrotes, powdered pork nose hairs, dynamite, activated charcoal, match-heads, used pipe cleaners, tar, nicotine, single-malt whiskey, smoked beef lymph nodes, autumn leaves, red fuming nitric acid, bituminous coal, fallout, printer's ink, laundry starch, drain cleaner, blue chrysotile asbestos, carrageenan, BHA, BHT, and natural flavorings.

The Primer is great (I wish I'd had one!) -- with its story telling, puzzles, and lessons. There are some nice scenes, and some laugh-out-loud moments. The description of its "fractal" structure is interesting -- with Nell delving deeper and deeper into some scenes, and rushing through others. (But the main reason for the Primer was to teach "subversion" -- and I'm not too sure how it does that.)

The plot itself is fascinating, weird, and exciting, as Nell grows up under the influence of the Primer, and various political events make the world around her slowly change, too. There are interesting scenes comparing and contrasting Confucian and neo-Victorian politeness protocols.

The ending is very abrupt, with some loose ends left flailing. But there is a satisfying convergence of the major threads, and it's a wonderfully illustrated journey getting there.

I don't understand why people have a problem with Stephenson's endings. They always seem perfectly adequate to

-- David T. Bilek , rasfw, Feb 2002

Neal Stephenson.
In the Beginning ... was the Command Line.
Avon. 1999

Neal Stephenson.
Anathem.
Atlantic. 2008

rating : 1.5 : unmissable
review : 13 December 2009

This is a gradually unfolding tale of philosophy, science, religion, Platonic idealism, alternate cosmological and cognitive theories, and much much more. It starts slowly (I think they are still winding the clock around page 100), but it gradually picks up pace, and slowly you realise that all that stuff that appeared to be merely decorative detail is actually crucial, several hundred pages later.

I'm not even going to try to overview the plot, because it would be one massive spoiler after another. Suffice it to say, it is a first person Narrative by Fraa Erasmus, a young avout at the Edharian math, and fid of Saunt Orolo. What, you don't know what those words mean? Well, hold on, because there's a lot more like that. But Stephenson leads you through it all, so that you know, or discover quite soon, what you need to know as the story progresses. And the cumulative effect helps you understand how different, and how not so different, this world is from our own. I know that all this "worldbling" has come in for criticism from some, but I think it is absolutely necessary for what Stephenson is doing here. And moreover, that's what (good) SF is all about: new, weird worlds that you have to think about, that you have to puzzle out. It's all about SF reading protocols. As James Gunn says: "the SF reader ... files this information away, confident that it is important information that will be explained". It is, and it is.

There are many lovely passages here, whether it's about explaining the maths of phase space, quantum physics, orbital mechanics, certain philosophies of cognition, Erasmus being hit by a large clue bat, whatever. Some of the fun is mapping the technical bits to what they are called in our world, but most is in following the slowly building world-picture that Stephenson is painting, the slow revelation of what he's really on about. It's slow not because there's unnecessary padding, it's slow because it's dense with meaning, dense with clues. There's a real plot here, it's as SFnal as you can get, and it has a real ending. This is Stephenson's best work yet.

It's not all philosophy lectures, of course. It is leavened throughout with Stephenson's trademark humour (which not everyone seems to get). One bit that really tickled me was when Erasmus is given a penance by the Warden Regulant. This is to memorise, and be examined on, the first five Chapters of the Book.

pp156-157. There was no point at all to the Book, which is what made it an especially dreaded form of penance. ... the contents of the Book had been crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless ... you had to master them just as thoroughly as, say, a student of quantum mechanics must know group theory. The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all of that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison infiltrate your brain to its very roots.

The very idea of the Book is fun. And there's that niggling suspicion that Stephenson just might be referring to the very book that you, the reader, are holding in your own hands at that moment. But if so, he's pulling your leg. The book is fun to read, thought provoking, illuminating, educative, and a marvellous paean to rationality. Oh, and I want to live in a math.

Neal Stephenson.
Reamde.
Atlantic. 2011

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 10 January 2014

Richard Forthrast, a multi-millionaire marijuana smuggler, has parlayed his wealth into an empire by developing T’Rain, a billion-dollar online role-playing game with legions of fans around the world.

But T’Rain’s success has also made it a target. Hackers have struck gold, unleashing REAMDE, a virus that encrypts a player’s electronic files and holds them for ransom. Unwittingly, this triggers a deadly war beyond the boundaries of the game’s virtual universe – and Richard is caught in the crossfire. Racing around the globe from the Pacific Northwest to China to the wilds of northern Idaho, Reamde traverses worlds virtual and real. Filled with unexpected twists and turns in which computer hackers and mobsters, entrepreneurs and religious fundamentalists face off in a battle for survival, Reamde is a brilliant refraction of the twenty-first century.

Richard Forthrast is an ex marijuana smuggler, and now millionaire owner of Corporation 9592 that markets the massively multiplayer online game T’Rain, a world with accurately depicted geology and a massively detailed backstory, designed to incorporate earnings from Chinese gold farmers. A member of his extended family, adopted niece Zula, is kidnapped when her boyfriend accidentally infects a Russian gangster’s computer with the REAMDE virus, T’Rain-based ransomware that has encrypted the wrong files this time. But when the Russian gangsters collide with Islamist jihadists while searching for the virus writers in China, being monitored by an MI6 covert ops agent, things rapidly spiral out of control into bloody violence.

Like Cryptonomicon, this 1000 page brick is a techno-thriller with an SF vibe (but a lot more gun-porn). It seems to simultaneously run at breakneck speed whilst the plot advances with glacial slowness, due to the typical Stephenson-esque crazy eye for detail. This detail is rendered with an SFnal style, describing all the “alien” cultures, from urban China, via Oxford colleges, to backwoods Idaho. Stephenson also manages to make several of the characters more sympathetic than you might at first believe possible.

And Stephenson has mastered endings. Unlike earlier offerings, this doesn’t merely stop; it has a conclusion. The conclusion isn’t totally satisfying – there seem to be copious loose ends left in T’Rain, and several small guns left hanging on real-world walls. But the overall story ends.

What is for me the best part is the way everyone’s “best laid plans” are thwarted by the others executing their own best laid plans. There is no easy linear progression of the hero: all the different arcs interact to scupper, or sometimes support, each character’s intentions. And most of the characters are competent – even the mad guys and the bad guys – which is so refreshing after the usual issues of plans not surviving scrutiny by a 4-year-old.

Definitely worth reading. And best use of a Love Actually DVD ever.

Neal Stephenson.
Some Remarks.
Atlantic Books. 2012

In this remarkable collection of Neal Stepheanson’s short writings – both fiction and non-fiction, as well as a new essay and an (extremely) short story created especially for this volume – Some Remarks gives us a fascinating and inventive view of the world in which we live.

Turning his ferocious curiosity to a wealth of subjects, Neal Stephenson ranges over topics as diverse as David Foster Wallace, the American college town, video games, classics-based sci-fi, the rise of geekdom, the mainstreaming of science fiction, the future of publishing and the origins of his novels. By turns witty and profound, critical and celebratory, Some Remarks is a dazzling body of work from an utterly unique writer,

Neal Stephenson.
Seveneves.
Borough Press. 2015

When a catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking type bomb, it triggers a feverish race against the inevitable. An ambitious plan is devised to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere…

Five thousand years later, the survivors’ progeny embark on another audacious journey into the unknown, to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

Neal Stephenson.
Cryptonomicon.
Arrow. 1999

rating : 1.5 : unmissable
review : 26 June 2004

Here we have a double tale of cryptography, charting the code-breakers of WWII, and some of their present-day descendents attempting to set up a data haven in an independent offshore kingdom. As the story progresses, these two strands become intertwined.

This might not technically be SF, but it's seemingly written as if it's SF. It is just brilliant, and is told with the same crazy attention to the minutest detail, and lunatic highlighting of the oddest points, that Stephenson lavishes on his SF tomes. He's equally happy meticulously describing how to eat breakfast cereal, the zeroes of the Reimann zeta function (complete with equations), how to fairly divide property that has both financial and sentimental value, the chaotic properties of whirlwinds, or the design of Japanese hotel bathrooms.

When he does get to the right floor, though, it is a bit posher than the wrong one was. Of course, the underlying structure of everything in England is posh. There is no in-between with these people. You have to walk a mile to find a telephone booth, but when you find it, it is built as if the senseless dynamiting of pay phones had been a serious problem at some time in the past. And a British mailbox can presumably stop a German tank. None of them have cars, but when they do, they are three-ton hand-built beasts. The concept of stamping out a whole lot of cars is unthinkable---there are certain procedures that have to be followed, Mr. Ford, such as the hand-brazing of radiators, the traditional whittling of the tyres from solid blocks of cahoutchouc.

The plot, while intruiging in itself, is really just a device on which to hang all these glorious details. But it's not a light frothy comedy -- Stephenson expends the same effort and care describing the horrible experiences and deaths of soldiers and civilians during the war. The whole thing is a fascinating glorious confection. And unlike most of his previous novels, which tend to stop suddenly, this actually ends (albeit suddenly).

Neal Stephenson.
Quicksilver.
Arrow. 2003

Neal Stephenson.
The Confusion.
Arrow. 2004

Neal Stephenson.
The System of the World.
2004

Erik Bear, Greg Bear, Joseph Brassey, E. D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo.
The Mongoliad Book One.
47North. 2012

Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, Nicole Galland, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, Cooper Moo.
The Mongoliad Book Two.
47North. 2012

Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, Nicole Galland, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, Cooper Moo.
The Mongoliad Book Three.
47North. 2013