Monday, January 10, 2011

Neal Stephenson

Apropos of nothing. To those on the outside science-fiction books appear much of a muchness, but to the connoisseurs there are two main branches hard SF and soft SF. To differentiate a soft SF may have a group of people flitting about among the stars having adventures; a hard SF may have exactly the same thing but they utilise exotic matter wormholes that generate oscillating loops of space time etc. Soft SF simply uses a setting; hard SF tries to explain it.

From that you may concur that Neal Stephenson writes SF; not really but it's the only way I can really get across that what he does write is Hard Fiction, almost a fictionalised accounting of a textbook. As a result the contents of his books may be described as dense.

Now I have no problem with dense books, but in this case the density he exudes is exasperated by multiple characters in multiple settings jumbled together; sometimes with explanation sometimes without. As yet I've mentioned no specific books because this generality holds true for all the ones I've read by him.

Cryptonomicon is perhaps his most famous amongst a certain set and takes place in World War 2 and the modern day with characters in the previous era appearing as themselves or through their descendants in the latter era. The main thread of the story is information; in the World War the making and breaking of codes and ciphers. In the modern day the attempt to keep information secret and secure. It's only through re-reading that I've come to appreciate this book it's certainly not one you can just partake of in one sitting.

Cryptonomicon leads to a sort of prequel trilogy Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World which uses many of the ancestors in the previous book and is set post English Civil war. Although codes and ciphers do feature the main topic in this instance is economics and the shift between the old gold coin standard to the current IOU-esque system. Again one that needs re-reading, but in this instance the spread of the trilogy allows more room to breathe and to me this is more accessible than Cryptonomicon.

The Diamond Age seems to deal with nature/nurture yet I may be wrong as this is one I simply had difficulty getting my head around.

Snow Crash is a one-off and deals with computer systems, linguistics, and anarchic states and is my favourite of them all. As such if you feel the urge to delve into some more meatier books this is the one I'd start with and would be the one I lend to Bratus Major once he hits 16.


Dan H said...

I hated Snow Crash. The meatiness is good. The ideas-per-page ratio was great at the start but wears off somewhat over the course of the book. It felt like he changed his mind over the nature of the "franchulates" between chapters, too, but what really annoyed me was how much crap he talked all the way through. It was dire, and the obvious factual inaccuracies in places took all the intellectual value out of what might have been interesting discussions.

If you want hard, cyberpunk or post-cyberpunk SF with an eye on the present, Vinge's later work (post-post-singularity, as it were) is very worthwhile.

FlipC said...

I'll agree that Snow Crash did peter out a little towards the end, and that some of his concepts weren't accurate; but as a story I enjoyed it.

As for Vinge I've read, re-read, and enjoyed "The Peace War" and "Marooned in Realtime" in fact MiR was among one of the first SF books I ever read.