Thoughts after reading \"Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing\" by Neal Stephenson

layout: post published: true Date: 2012-09-02 Tags:

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Neal Stephenson is a master of exposition, and he's obviously quite fond of it. If you've read any of his fiction, you know what I mean: you can be in the middle of a story about a hacker with a samurai sword dealing with religious fanatics, and be dumped into a discourse on early human linguistics near Sumer. Or you might be reading about an isolated colony of monkish academics in a strange world, and one of them might take half a dozen pages to teach you about a variant of many-worlds quantum physics. To be fair, he usually manages to make it relevant to the story, though you may wonder if he's shaping the expositions around the story or the other way round. This sort of thing happens frequently enough that most readers either really love Stephenson's work or avoid it at all cost.

I happen to be in the "love it" category, in large part because Stephenson is often so enthusiastic about the topics he's writing about. It's quite obvious that he thinks Sumerian linguistics, code-breaking in World War II, or configuration spaces in physics are the coolest thing in the world, and while you're reading it's easy to believe him. And while he occasionally gets things wrong (and sometimes bends the facts to go along with a good story), most of the brain-dumps he drops into his fiction are genuinley interesting and fun to think about.

In other words, to use his terminology: he's not trying to educate the reader, he's just geeking out about something fun.

It also helps that he tends to write engaging stories around his interests. In The Baroque Cycle, he wrote a three-volume fictional series about science and politics in the era of Newton and Leibniz... and made it exciting and fun, while still not going too far off the rails of history.

So I was pretty excited when I found that Stephenson had recently published what seemed likely to be a book of his brain dumps: "Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing".

For the most part I was not disappointed, though I did decide that:

  • Neal Stephenson works much better in long form than in short form
  • I enjoy his work more when there's a larger story to tie things together, fictional or otherwise
  • He's a little obsessed with the split between the literary and science fiction book scenes... Which, to be fair, describes a lot of authors.

In particular, I noticed that the longer essays in the book worked better and felt less cramped than the shorter ones: Stephenson needs some room to stretch his writing legs.

By far the best essay in the book is the longest: a piece for Wired magazine called "Mother Earth, Motherboard", an account of the laying of the longest undersea cable in the world at the time. (This essay, incidentally, can be read for free on Wired's site.) It's somewhat of a travelogue, as it follows Stephenson on a round-the-world investigation of the cable's progress. It has an interesting cast of characters (the unusual engineers and specialists involved in laying the cable); an overarching plot in following Stephenson around the world; and frequent digressions into the history of undersea cables and data transmission, which also included quite the cast of characters. In other words, many of the good features of his novels.

Other enjoyable essays included Arsebestos, about how sitting is bad for the human body; In the Kingdom of Mao Bell, about the development of the telephone and data infrastructure in China in the 90s;  Metaphysics in the Royal Society 1715-2010, another view of the Newton-Leibniz conflict shown in The Baroque Cycle; and Stephenson's forward to David Foster Wallace's Everything and More, in which he talks about the unique culture of the Midwestern American College Town. 

There are also a couple of more-or-less interesting interviews, some less-interesting short stories, and some additional essays which didn't really signify enough for me to have anything interesting to say about them. 

On the whole an enjoyable read, and I'd recommend it for anyone who has gotten through Anathem or The Baroque Cycle and emerged happy; but for anyone else, I'd say to just read "Mother Earth, Motherboard".