Neal Stephenson opens the introduction to his stimulating and highly readable new collection by saying that publishers always reassure him that “I have reached the stage in my life and career where it is not only possible, but advisable, to release a compilation of what are drolly referred to as my ‘shorter’ works.” I will borrow that observation and flip it around from the reviewer’s perspective.
Neal Stephenson has reached the point in his career and public reputation where any review of one of his new books is almost superfluous to its sales potential, for two reasons. His fans are legion and eager and omnivorous for whatever he writes; and Stephenson’s proven track record for producing high-quality, uniquely informative and entertaining idiosyncratic prose is unbroken, thus inspiring unconditional, pre-assumed reader confidence. Given these parameters, what’s a reviewer to do when faced with a new Stephenson volume? Oh, a fair amount of valid work for us journalistic scribblers remains, I think. I can tell you what’s in the book, point out how individual pieces exemplify Stephenson’s virtues (and his few vices), and generally try to place him in the context of modern SF and within his own oeuvre. Not unworthy critical targets.
First off, contents. The book offers pretty much all of Stephenson’s major nonfiction from as far back as 1993. Given that Snow Crash, the book that really launched Stephenson into the stratosphere, came out in 1992, this essentially covers his whole career. He’s chosen not to include In the Beginning…Was the Command Line, published separately in a volume of 160 pages. But he does fold in “Mother Earth, Mother Board,” his brilliant piece on the global telecommunications network he did for Wired, which weighs in at nearly 120 pages. Additionally, he gives us two actual stories, and an amusing fragment of a third. A couple of items fresh to this volume appear. All of these published essays have been lightly massaged, with the exception of “In the Kingdom of Mao Bell,” which survives only as excerpts.
Reading these pieces provides not only the immediate intellectual pleasures associated with their varied topics and themes, lucidly explored by the author, but also allows us to see anew the qualities that make Stephenson so interesting.
First comes the off-kilter, contrarian, unexpected angle of attack he brings to worldly and literary matters. This is evident right from the first piece, “Arsebestos,” which is about Stephenson’s decision to do his daily work while using a treadmill. The essay ends with his vision of liberated cube farm workers strolling through the landscape while they work, vaguely reminiscent only of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 ending. It’s a jaw-dropping utopian notion you won’t see elsewhere in SF, showing how Stephenson continues to find fresh outcomes from intensive reconsiderations of realworld trends and old SF tropes.
Another aspect of Stephenson’s on-page persona (and his meatspace presentation, as I can confirm after seeing him speak this year at MIT) is his humor and humility. With all his vast accomplishments, he remains down-to-earth and jokily self-denigrating.
Stephenson’s ability to “geek out,” to delve deeply and widely into the things that interest him is on display as well. In the interview he did with the netizens of Slashdot, someone asked him the old chestnut about why SF writers don’t get respected in the literary world. I’ve answered that one myself in 100 words or less. Stephenson’s explanation starts back with Gutenberg, goes on for several pages, and ends up creating a new critical terminology and apparatus for all types of fiction.
Sometimes a little of this goes a long way. His piece on Newton and Leibniz, “Metaphysics in the Royal Society, 1715-2010” had a certain eye-glazing jargon-laced intensity to it. But even then, you get engaged watching Stephenson self-educate himself. Ultimately, you can’t resist his impulses to share his excitement with the rest of us.
The book’s penultimate piece is “Innovation Starvation,” which caused some stir when it appeared online last year. In this essay, Stephenson takes SF to task for failing its core mission of presenting uplifting visions of the possible. Putting his money where his mouth is, Stephenson has funded a foundation and magazine to do just that. We thus observe another quality of this outsized, nonpareil writer: a determination and capacity to Get Stuff Done outside the intangible world of letters.
When I was reviewing Reamde, Stephenson’s great new techno-thriller, I identified our hero Richard Forthrast with Stephenson himself, and zeroed in on this characterization: “[Richard’s behavior] was probably rooted in a belief that had been inculcated in him from the get-go: that there was an objective reality, which all people worth talking to could observe and understand, and that there was no point in arguing about anything that could be so observed and so understood…. When a thunderstorm was headed your way across the prairie, you took the washing down from the line and closed the windows. It wasn’t necessary to have a meeting about it. The sales force didn’t have to get involved.”
That, I think, is Neal Stephenson in a nutshell: engaged mightily with the world, and taking us along for the ride.