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Neal Stephenson

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Okay. I know very little about Neal Stephenson beyond seeing his name pop up in the press now and again, one friend's suggestion that I read ANATHEM as soon as I possibly can, and what little his Wikipedia page has to offer. It's my guess that some of you folks have read his work and have a better handle on his preoccupations. Is Stephenson an author I should pursue? It would seem that his books are often something of a challenging read, and I want to be sure they're worth the work if I'm going to be giving them a look.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I've read multiple Stephenson books (not all, yet). I love him, and can probably say he's one of my five favorite writers, living or dead.

That said, Stephenson is not for everyone. In Stephensonian fashion, I'll make a list about some of his quirks:

  • He loves to go on tangents. I cannot stress this enough. There was a chapter in Cryptonomicon that focused on a character's perfected method on eating Cap'n Crunch. I thought it was brilliant. Many don't.
  • He loves to play with the English language, especially in his historically rooted fiction.
  • He's often criticized for having terrible conclusions to his novels. Without spoiling anything, they often go out with a whimper (which doesn't bother some, but many don't like this).
  • He loves loves loves certain themes and ideas: currency, non-geographic nation states, the history of information technology, cryptology, language. And he really likes ridiculous action scenes.
  • He loves to use crazy metaphors, sometimes to the point that it makes the situation more muddled (but usually pretty amusing).
  • His novels are usually too goofy to be straight drama, but too heavy to be humor. It was hard for me to get around this at first. Now I chuckle continuously through his stuff, though it's technically not humorous fiction per se.

So, I think he great. And he blurs genres, which I appreciate. I'm halfway through his mammoth 3000 page Baroque Cycle, and it's historical fiction-pulpy action-science fiction (as in, it deals with ideas) hybrid that puts over-the-top pirate action next to a 20+ page sequence where a character illustrates how bills of exchange work by way of masque.

Or, maybe one way to put it: Stephenson writes huge, entertaining adventure novels that focus seriously on things like philosophy, Alchemy and data piracy.

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Sounds outrageous and bizarre. I'm in.

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Ditto what Jason said. Though I haven't ever made it all the way through the Baroque. Got sidetracked by Songs of Ice and Fire.

I would add that despite what its detractors say, Snow Crash remains one of the monumental feats of science fiction imagineering. The novel came at the tail end of the cyberpunk party proper, but Stephenson's then fresh perspective on representing potential future digital realities still reads well.

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Judging from your tastes (as I've seen them on A&F), you'll probably dig him, Ryan.

Just a few thoughts. Snow Crash is a great place to start, since it gives you a good idea of his strengths & weaknesses as an author (he has no qualms with creating a character to be used solely as a fountain of expository dialogue). Plus, it's wacky cyberpunk fun, and kind of foreshadows some technological and sociopolitical things that've happened in the past decade. Cryptonomicon is a huge book, but a blast. It shifts between a set of characters in the Second World War and their descendants circa 1999. And there's a lot of code-breaking. (And graphs, since one character tends to think in graphs.) I'd recommend saving the Baroque Cycle 'til later; it's fantastic, but calling it 'daunting' is an understatement. I haven't read Ananthem yet, but some say it's a tough (but good) read. And the closest thing he's done to straight sci-fi.

The Diamond Age, though, is arguably his best, though; it's an incredibly loose chronological follow-up to Snow Crash, and the main plot is just wonderful (and wonderfully interesting). Its adoption of Dickensian literary tropes and using them in a post-cyberpunk/neo-Victorian way is excellent.

Ditto what Jason said. Though I haven't ever made it all the way through the Baroque. Got sidetracked by Songs of Ice and Fire.

Oddly enough, I'm reading both right now!

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Oddly enough, I'm reading both right now!

That is the book equivalent of watching Run Lola Run and Amores Perros at the same time. Bravo.

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Judging from your tastes (as I've seen them on A&F), you'll probably dig him, Ryan.

Judging by your description of Stephenson's works, I'd have to agree. I love me some mad ambition, and it sounds like Stephenson's works are full of it.

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I'll be the minority report here. I read Snow Crash, and although there were fun moments, on the whole I was underwhelmed. Plotting and pacing were not the problems (I had no complaints with either), but characters were too thin to grab my interest, and I'll admit his depictions of violence (Remember the bamboo spear? I wish I didn't) and sex (ultra-evil villain seduces teenage heroine! with graphic detail) turned me way, way off.

Edited by David Smedberg

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Count me in as a Neal Stephenson fan. I loved Cryptonomicon and Anathem, and listening to Snow Crash and The Diamond Age on tape helped me get through a couple of marathon driving trips. His novels certainly appeal to an niche audience, but for anyone who likes both math and 900-page novels, he's a fascinating read. I like him because he's like no one I've ever read. And having a background in math and information technology, I find his puzzles and graphs and rabbit trails to be entertaining diversions.

In Anathem in particular, I was drawn into this unique world he built, monasticism built on math principles that goes into sci-fi. Granted, you really have to love this world, because if you don't get hooked on its intricacies, then the book will be a tough go. But Neal is such a good world-builder that I'm willing to forgive him his plot deficiencies.

I still have yet to tackle the Baroque Cycle, though. It's just a matter of I'll be ready to make the leap into such a voluminous enterprise. I feel like I'll be jumping to three Cryptonomicoms back to back, and I'll need to make sure I'm in the right frame of mind (not to mention having a lot of free time).

Edited by Crow

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Here are Alan Jacobs' thoughts on ANATHEM.

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I've kicked off my Stephenson reading with QUICKSILVER, the start of the Baroque Cycle. Others have advised me against doing this--the Baroque Cycle, is, after all, massive--but I'm enjoying QUICKSILVER so far. I flirted with starting ANATHEM, but I found the first chapter so disorienting that I decided to hold off.

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I would add that despite what its detractors say, Snow Crash remains one of the monumental feats of science fiction imagineering. The novel came at the tail end of the cyberpunk party proper, but Stephenson's then fresh perspective on representing potential future digital realities still reads well.

I'm genuinely enjoying it so far (unlike QUICKSILVER, which I found to be a bit of a slog). I love SNOW CRASH's insane, almost Gilliam-esque sense of humor and whimsy.

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Took a graduate-level seminar on sci-fi literature once, and, even in a room full of lit majors, only TWO of us were actually able to finish The Diamond Age on time. :)

Great novel, though.

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I'm genuinely enjoying it so far (unlike QUICKSILVER, which I found to be a bit of a slog). I love SNOW CRASH's insane, almost Gilliam-esque sense of humor and whimsy.

Gotta say that Stephenson's sense of humor works in a natural progression, of sorts...I read his novels in chronological order, and I think the Baroque Cycle worked because of that (especially after The Diamond Age). Still, I'd say Cryptonomicon might be your best bet for your next Stephenson fix. :)

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Good thing, 'cause I own that one.

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Traded in a couple of books for a used Snow Crash - look forward to starting it after the holidays...

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This will be long, but here is the draft of an essay that I wrote on spec but never got picked up. I will plop it here because it is largely inspired by REAMDE, and some here may find it interesting:

Distributing the Future in Recent Science Fiction

Every day, millions of people log in, select characters, and embark on quests in massively-multiplayer online games (MMOs). Some of these games, like World of Warcraft and Eve Online, have role-playing elements which allow players to craft individualized characters over the course of time. Players can be characterized by genders, races, ethical orientations, and even by Martinesque personal narratives that develop as different feats are accomplished in game. In the case of Warcraft, this story-boarding can require years of fishing in virtual lakes, mining nodes of glimmering adamantite, and developing in-game relationships with fellow dwarves, druids, and orcs to slay the fire-breathing Princes of ornate dungeons.

This time factor is a defining characteristic of the experience, often made palatable only by the immersive grandeur and detail of these virtual worlds. Any MMO has a built-in time sink feature that is typically referred to as “grinding.” Certain materials have to be collected, hordes of wild boars have to be slaughtered for experience points, and powerful weapons have to be won or crafted in order to unlock the more difficult areas of these worlds. But players with full time jobs or other responsibilities don’t often have this kind of spare time available, which has given birth to an industry we call “gold-farming.”

If you don’t have enough time to collect currency or items in game, you can just use Paypal to buy items from other brokers. According to a number of recent exposes in Wired Magazine, New York Times, and The Guardian, these brokers mass items and currency by employing hordes of young players in countries like China and Vietnam to play lengthy shifts for as low as a few dollars a day. With around 11 million subscribers to Warcraft alone, the profit margins are large enough to net the industry an estimated 300 million dollars a year. That gleaming level 85 sword your Troll warrior has just unsheathed was most probably farmed by a teenager being paid 200 dollars a month to sit in a gloomy sweatshop for the bulk of a day, seven days a week.

This disparity between the current economy of virtual currencies and the real-world conditions that make these exchanges possible is a driving thematic concern for three recent novels about the future of online gaming culture. We have come a long way from the shimmering abstraction that was Gibson’s coinage of “cyberspace” as a label for a fundamentally new concept of human interaction. In its place stand a few different ways of conceiving the near future of this industry. Cory Doctorow’s young adult novel For The Win is the kind of book Emile Zola may have written about this issue, chronicling the plight of the gold-farmers through a labor revolt. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One depicts an evolved MMO as the last battle ground between protest and corporate greed. And finally, Stephenson’s REAMDE puts a Chinese gold-farming crew at the center of an action thriller. In their own way, each of these novels pivots on the way virtual currencies have overtaken the online gaming experience, posing this current reality as an incubator for future economic and political trends.

Cory Doctorow is an old hand at writing stories about alternative currencies. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom introduced us to whuffie as a sci-fi approximation of reputation as a bankable asset. The Makers depicts a world in which the means of production shifts to printers that can make three dimensional objects. And For The Win centers on the plight of young gold-farmers in India and China. In this near future, eight of the world’s largest twenty economies exist within virtual gaming spaces, many of which are the property of conglomerates like Coca-Cola. At the bottom of this economic heap are sweat shops of kids tasked by Dickensian slum lords with massing virtual goods for resale. Overseeing the balance of these markets are guys like Connor Prikkel, who has a certain mercenary genius for predicting and moderating the exchange of goods.

Doctorow reportedly spent months in southeast Asia observing similar conditions before writing the book, and out of this experience springs a young Chinese girl with a pirate radio broadcast. Her call for fellow gold-farmers to lock arms erupts across Mumbai, Singapore, and South China, lead by characters like the 15 year old General Robotwalla. True to its 1920s Wobbly labor movement analogy, scabs, Pinkertons, and martyrs to the cause fill out the ranks of numerous subplots, which eventually converge on a narrative exposition of the moral realities that underlie the economics of gold-farming. In For The Win, Doctorow rejects the common projection of virtual gaming and economic spaces as some sort of transnational utopia, but as a space in which an even more virulent form of economic injustice may appear. True to the spirit of protest that infuses Doctorow’s writing, these kids discover that the market which has held them captive is a game much like the one they have been playing online all their lives.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which looks at online gaming from a different angle, may well be the Huck Finn of contemporary nerd culture. It underscores why the pixellated bushes of the original Zelda, or the hypnotic scrolling of Asteroids elicit not just affection from those who grew up beating these games, but something closer to allegiance. Set in 2044, Cline’s take on the virtual world begins with a rich recluse named Halliday telling the world in his video will that he has left clues to the location of his considerable fortune hidden throughout the global virtual village he created in a game called Oasis. Oasis has become the networked reality that a vast majority of the world uses for every conceivable purpose from business to education. Earth’s natural resources are depleted, there are no jobs, and many people live in mobile homes welded on top of each other in teetering stacks. Oasis has become mankind’s final refuge, and the best one can hope for is proximity to a high speed connection to the game.

Ready Player One revolves around a school boy named Wade’s attempt to find this hidden treasure, which has become a global phenomena. He spends his day jacked into OASIS by hiding out in an empty van at the base of a pile of cars through which he has threaded an antenna. The catch is that Halliday was an avid fan of 1980s culture, from the most obscure possible Atari game trivia to Echo and the Bunnymen music videos to Dungeons and Dragon manuals, and all of his clues are embedded in this esoterica that people like Wade have spent years mastering. If you don’t have half of Better of Dead memorized, you may miss a few of Cline’s inside jokes. By the time this story begins, the world’s interest in the hunt has dwindled to a few thousand committed explorers. When Wade discovers the answer to the first clue, the race is on.

Because it is so steeped in the lore of 80s gaming and culture, Ready Player One may feel inaccessible to some readers. But it vividly articulates the future growth of virtual currency and business as the result of various seeds being planted in current gaming culture. The nostalgia for the simpler 80’s felt in Ready Player One has an ideological vibe, forcing us to witness the fact that computer games aren’t really just about gaming anymore.

Neal Stephenson’s recent REAMDE picks up where Cline leaves off. Richard Forthrast is the pioneer of an MMO called T’Rain that has even superseded World of Warcraft in market share, in part because of the way it has linked its virtual economy with real-world cash transaction. This has given rise to an industry of full-time gold farmers which are analogous to the thousands that currently occupy Asian sweat shops. But when a group of enterprising Chinese youths construct a virus that holds player information from their hard drive for ransom in T’Rain currency, this carefully balanced economy begins to fall apart. This sets off a 1,000 page action romp that ties together the Russian mafia, the FBI, Chinese hackers, MI6, Islamic jihadists, and a scattershot array of other characters. It is alarming similar to the narrative construction of many computer games I have played, shuffling from action sequence to action sequence linked by thin plot turns.

Surprisingly for Stephenson, this is a fairly boilerplate page turner. Initially, I missed the historical vision of his previous fiction. But in hindsight, this is part of his point. For Stephenson, virtual currency and its real-world injustices are fallout from the present mainstreaming of gaming culture. He no longer needs to create a world like that of Snow Crash to envision the ethics of future technology. A mere two decades later, the present provides sufficient material.

We tend to think of gaming culture as entertainment or a marginal community with its own colorful codes and languages. And this is true, of course, as these novels are brimming with the vibrancy of this community at its best. But the idea linking these three recent novels is that the emerging virtual worlds represented by online gaming are not disconnected from reality - they are in fact often based on oppressive forms of it. This is not to say that we need to respond to the movement of currency and commerce to virtual platforms with a Luddite grimace. We live in a post-Jobs world where our hand-held devices not only manage our finances, but link us to real-time conversation about things happening all around us. It is hard to imagine Occupy Wall Street being anything other than a quickly fading protest without the collaborative energy inherent to the Twitter and Facebook accounts that have nationalized its appeal and provided alternative access to the protest than typical media outlets.

Because increased connectivity takes us so many directions, these novels describe a very complicated world. We are certainly headed toward these very vibrant and instantaneous forms of community and collaboration. But currency and commerce are soon to follow, and MMOs have long recognized economics as a game that can be reduplicated in virtual contexts with the same success that obtains in real life. If these novels are to be believed, similar injustices that we deal with in our real-world economies will not vanish in the transition. William Gibson has often quipped, “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.” At this point, even distribution does not even seem to be on the table.

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Great read, M. Leary. Out of curiosity, are you familiar with Bitcoin?

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Neal Stephenson currently has a Kickstarter project...for a realistic sword-fighting video game named CLANG.

Is it right for Stephenson, given his popularity and success, to ask for money via Kickstarter?

That said, in many ways a well-off, very successful, and very well-known science fiction novelist raising $500,000 to build a video game engine seems very far from the high-flying promises of the crowdfunding world. After all, Stephenson could easily pay for this out of pocket or get a bank to loan him the money. He's the reverse of someone who needs access to the democratic power of social finance. And yet realistically, it's almost the ideal crowfunding pitch. Who better to raise funds on this basis than someone who's already famous? It just so happens that "famous" and "already has a lot of money" are often pretty closely correlated.

That being said, I think the idea for Clang is pretty cool.

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Great read, M. Leary. Out of curiosity, are you familiar with Bitcoin?

Thanks, Darryl (apparently an editor didn't agree!). I am familiar with bitcoins, but was unaware until recently that they were used in more than mail order drug transactions. I heard a radio program about vendors in NYC and a few other places accepting them as tender. But the program also covered the dramatic crash in Bitcoin value. Have you used them?

Neal Stephenson currently has a Kickstarter project...for a realistic sword-fighting video game named CLANG.

Is it right for Stephenson, given his popularity and success, to ask for money via Kickstarter?

That said, in many ways a well-off, very successful, and very well-known science fiction novelist raising $500,000 to build a video game engine seems very far from the high-flying promises of the crowdfunding world. After all, Stephenson could easily pay for this out of pocket or get a bank to loan him the money. He's the reverse of someone who needs access to the democratic power of social finance. And yet realistically, it's almost the ideal crowfunding pitch. Who better to raise funds on this basis than someone who's already famous? It just so happens that "famous" and "already has a lot of money" are often pretty closely correlated.

That being said, I think the idea for Clang is pretty cool.

And all that being said: "We are building a framework that can be expanded as far and as deeply as possible." Reading the description of Clang which is merging crowd-sourced fiction, elements of extended play rpg, and the next wave of video game controlling - is this not a description of a post-WoW world?

Edited by M. Leary

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Yeah, Michael...your article was great.

Jason, I've been thinking about some of the things you brought up for quite some time. I'm wrapping up an article I'm writing for the Curator on Kickstarter and board games and while it doesn't necessarily touch on well-known people drawing in funds with their clout, this is stuff that's been on the brain a lot recently.

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Great read, M. Leary. Out of curiosity, are you familiar with Bitcoin?

Thanks, Darryl (apparently an editor didn't agree!). I am familiar with bitcoins, but was unaware until recently that they were used in more than mail order drug transactions. I heard a radio program about vendors in NYC and a few other places accepting them as tender. But the program also covered the dramatic crash in Bitcoin value. Have you used them?

I haven't used them, but I am very fascinated by the idea. I'm no economics geek, but I do think the idea of an accepted online currency is an important one - even if I haven't worked out how or why just yet. As far as I'm aware Bitcoin is the first serious attempt at creating such an economy. But then there are these other fascinating relationships between online platforms and real world currency that we see in WoW and Second Life; even the lesser known social media influence (influence being a very tricky word in this case) scoring platform Empire Avenue, which has created a kind of stock market and currency in which to trade.

The darker elements such as the WoW sweatshops and the black-market elements of Bitcoin (see Silk Road) are both tragic and extremely innovative at the same time. This creates an interesting moral paradox: can progressive ideas be embraced when developed for and used initially by corrupt entities?

I've actually never read any Stephenson, Gibson or Doctorow, but I really ought to bump them up on my reading list.

Might as well link to our threads on World of Warcraft and Second Life here.

Edited by Darryl A. Armstrong

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I just picked up Doctorow's For The Win, which deals with online gaming and gold-farming. I thought Little Brother was pretty enjoyable, so I'm looking forward to it.

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