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April 21, 2005


One of my favorite images from Snow Crash was how they took a recidivist violent criminal and tatooed "Poor Impulse Control" on his forehead. It was supposed to be a warning; he turned it into a validation.

And the whole meme thing! Snow Crash was the first time I encountered the concept. Since evolutionary pattern-seeking is one of my hobbie-horses, I was astounded and delighted to find out there was a whole theory dealing with one aspect of it.

Diamond Age, for some reason, didn't send me right away. I had to reread it to really appreciate it. In some ways, I see it as Stephenson's attempt to break out of the 'cyberpunk' mold that Snow Crash had some critics and readers trying to stick him in.

What I most treasure about Stephenson is, he's one of those really, really rare writers whose work demands a lot of intelligence on the part of his readers.

I'll need to reread the Baroque Cycle to get everything out of it. I usually don't have trouble rereading books. I read my favorites once just for the plot, again to concentrate on character development and interaction, and at least one more time for the peripheral stuff that gives the story its heft. But rereading the Baroque Cycle means rereading about, what, 2500 pages?... I'm just not sure I have the energy :)

I've been chatting around about Stephenson with my colleagues in 18th-century studies. The verdict is mixed. They tend to love love love the Diamond Age and are a bit more suspicious of the Baroque Cycle. Me, I love the Baroque Cycle.

Stephenson has always had trouble containing his plots. Snow Crash is a brilliant novel with ideas that have had a lasting influence, but the finale is a mess. Same goes for the Diamond Age, to a certain extent. Crytonomicon was the most carefully plotted, and I felt that it suffered some from its rigidity--but then I only read it once and intend to give it a second go-through now that others whose opinions I respect have raved about it.

But the Baroque cycle abandons novellistic plotting, and I for one love it. There's an exuberant what-the-f*ck to the narrative structure: yeah, I'll put a travelogue in the middle of a psychological thriller in the middle of a realist drama, so what of it?

And what's even cooler about this crazed genre-mixing is realizing that Stephenson is actually reworking the kinds of writing that were going on at the time: Jack's implausible piratical adventures in Madagascar and India are not only reworkings of contemporary legends, they are written (more broadly and satirically, mind you) in the broadsheet style of pirate picaresques.

Stephenson's best creation in the Baroque Cycle is Daniel Waterhouse, though. Eliza and Jack are much flashier, but Daniel represents the real engine of the Enlightenment, as well as its pathos. Daniel recognizes himself as a second-tier thinker. He can understand the insights of the first tier, but he will always be a step behind the real innovators. Yet he continues his work, much of which is derivative but yet needs to be worked out to its practical conclusions and applications. Stephenson captures this sensation of being in the presence of genius beautifully--and his revision of the Puritan legacy for a popular audience is also moving.

But I agree with you, Slartibarfast: it won't be for all readers.

"Until a man is 25 he still thinks, every so often, that, given the right circumstances, he could be the baddest M-F on the face of the earth"

- Snow Crash (quoting from memory)

I liked Stephenson's earlier works. But good God he needs an aggressive editor. Crypto showed a dangerous tendency to wordiness (see the page and a half description of eating Capt'n Crunch) and that was confirmed with the Baroque Cycle. I never made it past the first third of the first book.

I did like Crypto even if it got distracted at times. But I simply could not get through Quicksilver. Snow Crash and Diamond Age, on the other hand, I enjoyed immensely.

The thing that bothers me with Crypto is that it seems like he realized that he needed to end it after 900 pages with a sort of deus ex machina involving gold and explosions. But otherwise it was quite good. I loved Shaftoe's adventures in a sushi bar and the enigma stuff. A fun read, but great literature? Not so much.

I am also going to abuse my commenting priviledges to pimp one of my top three books: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Executive summary: Hilarity ensues when Satan comes to 1930s Moscow. I really cannot recommend this book enough.

fledermaus -

a) the end of cryptonomicon
I have gone round and round with people about this one - considering all the book's disparate themes led to the discovery of the gold and the explication of Goto Dengo's escape machine, I found the ending immensely satisfying. Everyone always say that it left so much in the air, but I always ask - what? Via mathematics, Waterhouse reaches through time to commune with his grandfather, and this, along with the combined offices of three generations of the Family Shaftoe, the gold is found! Ari's anti-holocaust currency will exist! Goto Dengo completes his harrowing, incredible circle! And it all comes together in a volcanic flowing rush of fire and molten gold! What else could you want? For my part, I didn't really need to read a hundred page description of a horde of japanese construction workers damming the stream, recovering the gold from the stream and the collapsed chamber, loading it into a fleet of heavy trucks, and hauling the melted ore over to the vault. Great literature? So much. My 0.02, anyway.

b) Master and Margarita
Amen. Amen amen amen amen amen amen amen. If you haven't read it, read it. If you've read it, read it again.

Good stuff. Zodiac is a fairly decent read also. I agree with whoever said Stephenson needs an aggresive editor. The Baroque Cycle was incredibly wordy (too much so I thought) and I found myself skimming sometimes.

I would also recommend books by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson if you enjoy Stephensons work. I consider the three to be the "holy trinity" so to speak of the cyberpunk movement.

I'll have to check it out, Die Fledermaus and st.

Being completely outdone by the commenters wasn't quite the embarrassment I had imagined. Doing Stephenson justice would have required quite a bit different of an approach, though, and the stream of consciousness was...well, too much of a riptide.

Another Crypto passage that I particularly enjoyed was, if I'm remembering correctly, about Randy Waterhouse as a badass MF, as evidenced by his being a descendent of millions of generations of badass MFs. I'm going to have to buy the book, again. I think this'd be my third copy.

Cryptonomicon is one of my all-time favorite books, but I simply couldn't make it through the first book in the Baroque Cycle.

One of my favorite things about Stephenson is his gift for unusual metaphors. His description of the boxes of Cap'n Crunch is simply genius. I had real trouble keeping myself from laughing constantly while reading--not so much as when reading Good Omens, but pretty close.

I think there are two passages that take the cake, though. One is the Epiphyte Business Plan. The other is Waterhouse in the room full of Navy crypto people, trying to explain his breakthrough. The lead-up is good enough, but I lose it every time Waterhouse starts to explain the fundamentals of this breakthrough:

"Dr. Turing, of Cambridge University, has pointed out that bobbadah bobbadah hoe daddy yanga langa furjeezama bing jingle oh yeah," or words to that effect.

My favorite description was encountered within seconds of opening Snow Crash (my first Stephenson read) wherein he described the engine of the Deliverator as containing enough power to put a pound of bacon into lunar orbit.

Slarti -
What are you trying to pull? Neal Stephenson didn't write "The Phantom Tollbooth." That was your assignment. You've got homework to do, young man! Quit procrastinating.

I thought I had read all of Stephenson's stuff, but somehow missed "Diamond Age" and am just reading that now, a little slow to get into, but it's really starting to take off.

For those who enjoy Stephenson, let me recommend Robertson Davies. The humor is even a shade drier, but the narrative skills are awesome and there is a catalog that will keep you busy for quite a while. "World of Wonders" is a good place to start.

I heard that Tom Clancy killed off all the book editors. :-)

For those who enjoy Stephenson, let me recommend Robertson Davies.

I wouldn't have made the link, but now that you have, I'd say the same.

Don't forget his most excellent essay, "In the Beginning Was the Command Line." Read the whole thing here:


His observations about the primacy of text are just priceless.

Oh, yay!

After about three billion years of this sometimes zany, frequently tedious fugue of carnality and carnage, Godfrey Waterhouse IV was born, in Murdo, South Dakota, to Blanche, the wife of a Congregational preacher named Bunyan Waterhouse. Like every other creature on the face of the earth, Godfrey was, by birthright, a stupendous badass, albeit in the somewhat narrow technical sense that he could trace his ancestry back up a long line of slightly less highly evolved stupendous badasses to that first self-replicating gizmo--which, given the number and variety of its descendants, might justifiably be described as the most stupendous badass of all time. Everyone and everything that wasn't a stupendous badass was dead.

As nightmarishly lethal, memetically programmed death-machines went, these were the nicest you could ever hope to meet.

That's a great passage. Which book is it from? I haven't read any of Stephenson's stuff, but if he writes like that I might have to check him out.

Cryptonomicon, tony.

I swear, the Phantom Tollbooth still beckons. Question is, do I do it before or after the wood floor goes down in the master bedroom?

Maybe I should rephrase. The notion of laying wood in the master bedroom is probably a little too close to the edge of decorum.

I just checked the posting rules. Punnish innuendo is not forbidden.

st -

hmmmm I really hadn't fully considered it from the "full circle" angle. And good point about the 100 pages on the logistics of moving several tons of gold. Now that I think about it its been a couple of years since I read it, might make for a good spring read.

I still think he has gotten too wordy and this began in crypo and was carried to absurd lengths in Baroque Cycle.

Anyone who finds the Baroque Cycle too wordy hasn't read any literature written before Hemingway. Describing a world that is unfamiliar to a reader is perhaps the most difficult task that a writer can have. How do you edit description and not leave some necessary element out. Read Conan Doyle, HG Wells, or Helen Keller if you think Stephenson needs a better editor.
And if you want to read perfect English literature written in this century, read Patrick O'Brian for both his erudite and descriptive prose.

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