Tag Archives | Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash | Neal Stephenson

The cover of Stephenson's Snow CrashTry to remember what it was like in 1992 (if you were even alive back then). Microsoft introduced Windows 3.1. IBM introduced the ThinkPad. Intel released the 486DX2 chip. Neal Stephenson published Snow Crash.

There’s something winsome about reading science fiction that was written before personal computing took off. At one point in the narrative, a media mogul has to stop to use a payphone. Admittedly he’s outraged, but the fact that there are still payphones to use remind the reader of the cultural distance a couple decades can make.

Snow Crash is a thrilling novel with a climax that continues for over one hundred pages. The thrills are balanced by the philosophical mystery at the heart of the narrative. Perhaps it’s my training as a theologian, but the way Stephenson brings Eden, Babel, Enki, Asherah, and Pentecostals together is fascinating.

Snow Crash is a riveting ride from start to finish. It is a testament to Stephenson’s insight and imagination that a twenty-five year old dystopian fiction novel can feel so unsettlingly real.

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam Books, 2008 (1992).

The System of the World

The cover of Stephenson's The System of the WorldI had two thoughts upon finishing this:

  1. Phew!
  2. I should read them again.

This third volume completes Neal Stephenson’s three volume, eight book, million+ word Baroque Cycle (alongside Quicksilver and The Confusion). The length and intricate detail of this epic makes the conclusion that much sweeter. Plot threads left dangling hundreds of thousands of words earlier suddenly return with one-armed vengeance!

This cycle can be appreciated on so many levels. The plot is gripping—especially in this third volume. The prose sucks you into the world of eighteenth century Europe. The philosophical debates are engaging. The characters feel as real as your neighbours.

The part that impressed me the most was a detailed theological debate between two characters in the eighth book. When the characters started to argue I began to worry. Theology is my discipline and I expected to find errors and omissions in Stephenson’s work. To my surprise, the author handled the minutiae of eighteenth century theology with great insight! This increased my confidence in the rest of his historical research.

The Baroque Cycle is historical fiction like no other. It is gripping literature at its finest. If you haven’t yet read it, I envy you. You’re in for a wild ride.

Stephenson, Neal. The System of the World. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.

Seveneves | Neal Stephenson

The cover of Stephenson's Seveneves“Five Thousand Years Later” (569).

Stephenson is no stranger to epic stories. Consider his three volume, eight book, 3,000 word Baroque Trilogy! Still, how do you write a unified story that hinges on the words, “five thousand years later”? Stephenson accomplishes it with style.

He begins the story with these words:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. (3)

The book tells the tale of what that explosion would entail and how humanity would respond in the ultimate survival situation.

Seveneves is a science-fiction book with a strong emphasis on science. Much of the sprawling page-count is devoted to explaining theoretical technology. Don’t let that dissuade you, though. Stephenson instructs in the context of the narrative without making the dialogue feeling forced or artificial.

This is simply the best science fiction book I have read in over a decade. (I don’t say that lightly either—I checked my archived reviews!) Seveneves is a page-turner with enough substance to hold the readers mind over many late nights.

—Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (New York: William Morrow, 2015).

The Confusion | Neal Stephenson

The cover of Stephenson's The ConfusionEpic doesn’t begin to describe it. The Confusion’s story-line literally circles the globe!

The Confusion is the second of three volumes in Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. I wrote about the first volume, Quicksilver almost a year ago. The final volume in my 3,000 page adventure is The System of the World.

This second volume contains Book 4: Bonanza which details Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe’s exploits as well as Book 5: The Juncto which follows Eliza. In the interest of making the plot less confusing, Stephenson con-fused book 4 and 5 so they followed the same chronology. It worked. The moment when these two books first cross paths was electrifying!

As with Quicksilver, the number of topics covered was very broad. The most interesting idea for me was the shift from a society where money equals the value of the gold or silver the ruler’s face is stamped on to a system where something of lesser value can stand in place of a greater amount. Today we take it for granted—the polymer $10 Canadian bill in my wallet is worth less than a cent in raw material, but it’s much more valuable. Imagine living in the generation that made that transition—this is precisely what Stephenson does.

The Confusion was less confusing and a good deal more compelling than Quicksilver. I eagerly await the final three books in The System of the World.

—Neal Stephenson, The Confusion (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004).

Quicksilver | Neal Stephenson

The cover of Stephenson's QuicksilverHow on earth can I review of a book as complicated as Quicksilver?

Let’s start with scope. This book is volume one of The Baroque Cycle which continues in The Confusion and The System of the World. As a whole, these three volumes consist of eight “books”—the first three of which are included in Quicksilver. Are you confused yet? (Just wait for the second volume—Stephenson alternates chapter by chapter between the two books in that volume!) The work as a whole is approximately 3,000 pages long.

The plot is as sprawling and complicated as you might expect. The story takes place in New England, (Old) England, and all across the rest of Europe. Stephenson wields a cast of character which take ten pages in the back of the book to list. Major players include both historical figures (Newton) and inventions (Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza).

The range of topics is immense. You’ll learn about alchemy, vivisection, gall stones, cryptography, world finance, religion, hanging, and court politics—as these things existed in the later 1600s.

I’ll be honest—I barely kept my head above water throughout this volume. It would have helped me immensely to know more about the history of that era before jumping into Quicksilver. There were pages clearly set up to be “a-ha” moments that were somewhat lost on me.

In the end, I kept reading because there’s something compelling about the way Stephenson writes. He incorporates belly-laugh humour into his novels like no one else. It was also interesting to experience 17th Century Europe through his prose. This well-researched book makes you feel like you’re a part of the era.

The details are fascinating. At one point a character muses about how the word “shop” is changing. What used to refer to the businesses which lined the street (i.e. the cheese shop) is transforming from a noun to a verb in certain circles. Now we don’t “go to a shop,” we “go shopping.”

As dense as these 1,000 pages were, I picked up volume two as soon as I finished the last page of Quicksilver. The intellectual workout continues!

—Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003).

Reamde | Neal Stephenson

  • Reamde: A Novel © 2011
  • William Morrow: HarperCollinsPublishers
  • 1044 pages

There’s a curious juxtaposition here. Thrillers are, by nature, fast-pace adventure stories. Neal Stephenson’s latest thriller is a 1000+ page behemoth! Stephenson managed to insert deep characterization into his thrill ride in such a way that a 5 minute gun-fight can span 100 gripping pages.

This story covers everything from Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games to Islamic Terrorists, American survivalists hosting gun-toting family reunions to Asian hackers, Russian Organized crime syndicates to MI6, with a weed trafficker thrown in for good measure. You won’t run out of plot lines to consider!

The role of fate or luck in Reamde was particularly interesting. Stephenson managed to wrangle unbelievably improbable events into line without the reader feeling the effects of deus ex machina. It’s spectacular to see how he ties every thread together in one epic conclusion.

There were a few moments in the book where the sense of urgency departed and the thought of 1000+ pages wore on me. In hindsight, that’s probably because the action sequences are that well written.

My previous experience with Stephenson was his Cryptonomicon. After Reamde, I’m hooked.

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