We Are All Nerds: The Literary Works of Neal Stephenson
If you and I ever had a longer conversation, chances are that Neal Stephenson might have come up once or twice. As contemporary authors go, Neal’s books are by far the most enthralling on my long and ever-growing reading list. This post is primarily written for people that usually shy away from reading what they consider ‘science fiction’ literature because they consider it to be insufficiently serious or just plain weird.1 I hope to dispel some myths and whet your appetite for this type of books.
A Bit of Taxonomy
One thing I would like to get away with first: many authors believe that the term speculative fiction might be much more appropriate than science fiction. This term is chosen because it encompasses things like alternative histories or stories that are playing in our future but use essentially the same technology. A perfect example would be The Handmaid’s Tale. Nothing whatsoever in this great book is really about technology or progress; instead, Margaret Atwood paints a picture of a near-dystopian future, similar in technological prowess but highly dissimilar in terms of basic human rights and freedoms.
Speculative fiction is thus an umbrella term, born out of the necessity of encompassing more than the cliché ‘Look at all these great starships’ type of books.2 Since several of the works of Neal Stephenson defy a strict categorisation—more about this later—the classification as speculative fiction is apt.
Reasons for Reading Neal Stephenson
My main fascination with Neal’s works boil down to several reasons, which I will subsequently comment on briefly. Note that their ordering does not reflect their rating or relevance; indeed, your own reading taste might assign little to no relevance to certain aspects.
Being a maximalist writer, all of Neal’s books try to build a realistic world. Many things and aspects, such as technology and clothing, are described in meticulous detail, giving you an impression of depth. Just like you would expect from an excellent story-teller, not every detail is explained, mind you; in fact, the characters inhabiting the respective world often take the use of a certain technology for granted. However, Neal’s writing also makes use of the Infodump, meaning that you will learn a lot about certain things.
This is point of conflict for many readers, and you have to ask yourself whether you enjoy learning about, say, simple cryptographic protocols3 or sailing techniques.4 In any case, you can be sure that Neal did his homework—everything has been repeatedly checked for correctness and consistency.
Realistic extrapolation (up to a point)
Almost every book that takes places in the near-future features realistically-extrapolated technologies.5 Snow Crash (1992), for instance, features the metaverse. Cryptonomicon (1999) prominently features cryptocurrency. This extrapolation does not stop at technology; Neal’s books also point out potential political implications that are not too far-fetched. Here are some themes that come to my mind:
- The dangers of rampant capitalism.
- The increasing fragmentation of political opinions leading to societal divides.
- The reactions of governments to large crises.
Again, you might disagree with the specific direction Neal’s extrapolations take, but most of them are not really that far-fetched. Like any good work of literature, many of his works paint a satirised picture of the world, sometimes making use of hyperbole to get the point across.
All of this, however, is done without sounding preachy. You, i.e. the reader, get thrown into the world as it is and have to judge it for yourself.
Staying with the theme of not being preachy, I also find that Neal has a knack of describing realistic characters. By this, I mean that there are typically no direct conflicts in terms of good versus evil. While some of the books, such as REAMDE (sic), feature characters that are pretty much beyond our normal moral horizon and potentially way outside the Overton window, some of their actions may still surprise you in their decency. Even the antagonists of many works are described as full humans and reasons for their flaws are given. That is not to say that their behaviour is excused somehow, but every work tries very hard to explain to readers how certain characters ‘got that way.’
Seeing even the antagonists as fully-realised human beings with innate thoughts and drives makes the world that much more believable. Without adopting a postmodern ’there is no right or wrong’ position, Neal’s characters have their own agendas going and might not always live up to the standards of a hero or anti-hero.
This is in stark contrast to some of the more classical speculative fiction works, where the scientists remain objective and highly stoic even in the case of impending destruction, always coolly observing the world. Stephenson’s worlds are not populated predominantly by Heinleinian larger-than-life characters than can do anything,6 but by, well, normal people that are sometimes acting irrationally because they are afraid, cowards, or just confused. That is not to say that you will not find a bunch of geniuses or unfathomable characters in each book, but it will be possible to connect to them through their flaws.
Moreover, especially in Neal’s more recent books, characters are usually ranging from different walks of life. Thus, while technology still plays a large role in the books, not every character is part of the same technologist caste. This is very much in line with and old statement that Neal gave in talk, namely that ‘We Are All Geeks Now’.
A Taste Test: Which Books to Read?
Having waxed poetic on the writing style, I want to briefly give you a taste test of a selected subset of Neal’s works. I will not spoil you but try to give an interesting synopsis nonetheless, as well as a weirdness rating, which I calibrated using the tastes of my family, who typically enjoy reading historic fiction and Umberto Eco.
Synopsis: Pizza driver/sword artist/hacker saving the world from a (meta)virus. Features a fragmented and splintered United States, discussion on consciousness, philosophy of mind, and anthropology, as well as a large subplot involving the Mafia, now finally being franchised and officially recognised.
Weirdness rating: 5/5: The world is exceptionally weird and zany; social order has crumbled and most of the real estate has been divided up into Franchise Oriented Quasi-National Entities.
Synopsis: Explores the old theme of nature versus nurture. In a world that could move towards a post-scarcity society, how much of your future is being determined by your class and ethnicity? Part bildungsroman, this book prominently features the interactions of an AI and a little girl.
Weirdness rating: 4/5: Similar to Snow Crash7 at the beginning, the world is rather wacky for those unused to the benefits of nanotechnology. However, readers familiar with historic fiction might enjoy subsequent parts much more thanks to the Victorian phyle; moreover, the bildungsroman parts are heart-warming up to a certain point.
Synposis: Two tales interwoven across space and time. In the present universe, follow intrepid entrepreneurs trying to connect the world better and build a data-haven free from governmental interference. In the past, follow their ancestors trying to survive the Second World War by, among other things, cracking German encryption. Features a large degree of discussion on cryptography, what makes currency valuable, whether cryptocurrencies are the future, and how to find gold in the strangest places.
Weirdness rating: 2/5: As far as technology goes, there won’t be any surprises there. The characters are quite unique, though, and Alan Turing makes a surprise appearance. Personally, this is still my favourite of Neal’s books, and I revisit it every once in a while.
Synopsis: An epic tale spanning the late 17th and the early 18th century of our world. A time of upheaval—at least in Europe—but also the birth of modern science and modern banking. It is hard for me to mention all the different plots in these books; suffice it to say that Neal manages to intersperse more serious matters like The Glorious Revolution with comical diversions on vagabonds in Europe (and beyond). This is definitely a book for which the moniker speculative fiction is very apt: no special technology, just a somewhat alternative history of the world, comprising historic characters like Newton and Leibniz as well as fictional characters that interact with them.
Weirdness rating: 1/5: The undaunted reader familiar with historic novels will feel right at home here. One word of caution, though: these books are long; depending on your translation or edition, we are talking more than 2,000 pages. However, it is definitely worth the time investment, in particular if you are an avid reader of novels in this time period. Interestingly, some ancestors of the protagonists in Cryptonomicon appear here for the first time—if you first read The Baroque Cycle and then Cryptonomicon, you will feel right at home.
Synopsis: A world in which academia and the ‘worldly powers that be’ have parted ways for quite a while: academics are living in monastic communities and are only allowed contact in specific intervals with the ‘secular’ world. A cataclysmic event of worldwide importance forces both sides to work together. This tall tale also contains meditations on Platonism, learning, and—once again—nature versus nurture. Readers familiar with Hermann Hesse may think of The Glass Bead Game with a larger focus on how the two domains, i.e. science and the secular world, interact.
Weirdness rating: 3/5, verging on 4/5: The novel features a new language because of course it does. Technology is kept to minimum, given the vow of poverty of the protagonists. Readers will have to like speculations on the nature of reality, though. Interestingly, this work is in my opinion the one that differs the most from the others. The world described in Anathem feels slightly more alien to me than all the worlds in all other books.
Synopsis: Online game players try to make money by holding in-game currency hostage, similar to ransomware in our world. Through chance or fate, they interfere with the Russian mob and an Islamist cell, the latter of which are planning an attack on American soil. The game might play a large role in preventing the attack from happening.
Weirdness rating: 2/5: You have to like computer games, or at least not hate them altogether. Other than that, REAMDE follows an engaging thriller plot! You might find the different subplots to be a little bit over the top, but everything makes sense—and the characters even ‘lampshade’ the confluence of events that brought them together multiple times during the novel.
Synopsis: The moon breaks up and humanity is doomed. Against this very pessimistic end-of-the-world scenario, Neal manages to develop an epic of the attempts at surviving and thriving in outer space. Features astronauts from all nations and a lot of digressions on dynamics and physics—and that’s only the first part of the novel. The second part jumps a few centuries in time and shows you what humanity has become or, given the fact that this is a novel ostensibly playing in our universe, what humanity might become eventually.
Weirdness rating: 3/5 for the first part, 5/5 for the second one: Accepting the scenario for the first part requires some suspension of disbelief and a love for space travel. Definitely more in the speculative part of speculative fiction. The second part is apparently not to everyone’s liking since it may come across as your typical space opera. I can assure that this is not the case, and Neal instead just explores one potential future of humanity, but I also concede that this one might be harder to stomach for a first-time reader of this type of novel. That being said, it is a stand-alone novel, depicting a completely different cast of characters. If space is your thing, it might be a good idea to start your journey into Neal’s work with this one!
Synopsis: What if magic really worked and could be scientifically harnessed? What if the only people willing and able to help harness it would be a shadowy government organisation? What if witches could travel through time and change history? This whimsical and entertaining novel is all about the implications of time travel, magic, and, you might have guessed it, bureaucracy.
Weirdness rating: 2/5: I concede that one has to suspend one’s disbelief quite a lot to accept the magic. However, the rest is just such a lovely-crafted tale full of humour that I think will be appreciated even by readers that dislike this type of literature. Neal co-wrote this with Nicole Galland, and it shows: the book is much more accessible than his other works, and also features a female protagonist who is the main narrator for most of the story. I would recommend this to any first-time Neal Stephenson reader that is already familiar with more ‘fantastic’ literature.
Synopsis: A world in which the internet has finally ensured that echo chambers are the norm meets an afterlife simulation. Explores the ever-pertinent question of what makes our consciousness work and whether we are living in a simulation or not. Contains a retelling of many biblical stories; not a book for everyone, but I enjoyed it.
Weirdness rating: 3/5 for the first part, 4/5 for the second one: The fragmented world full of echo chambers might be all too familiar for us, but the ‘afterlife’ type of technology, coupled with genesis stories, is definitely more wacky than one might anticipate.
Synopsis: Earth is in the grip of climate change, but large governments are not really helping. A motley crew tries to take matters into their own hands by attempting to pull off a geoengineering project. How will governments of the world react when they find out that the project does not have evenly-distributed positive consequences?
Weirdness rating: 1/5: As far as technology goes, everything is more or less familiar. Neal extrapolated once again a very realistic state of the world, in which people are still trying to do the best they can to survive amidst a more dangerous climate. Again, this books contains a unique cast of characters and is not connected to previous works in the ‘Stephensonverse,’ so it might be an excellent start for first-time readers, too.
I hope this post served as a nice introduction into the wonderful world of Neal Stephenson’s works. Speculative fiction has evolved quite a lot over the past decades: it is not only a way to escape our troubled times but also a way to reflect deeply on the future we want to create. Beyond the superficial descriptions of technological prowess and tales of derring-do, these works enable us to understand ourselves and humanity a little bit better.
I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. Until next time!
Going out of my usual technophile bubble, not everyone enjoys reading tall tales of engineers and ‘hackers’ saving the world. ↩︎
I still enjoy reading those but I understand that you have to be ‘wired’ in a certain way to really like these type of stories. For many of us, the contemporary world is already interesting enough. ↩︎
Appearing in Cryptonomicon, a magnificent work connecting the fate of different families across space and time. More about that later! ↩︎
Appearing in the The Baroque Cycle, a true speculative fiction work playing in an earlier time, mixing real-world characters with invented ones. No strange technology here, by the way! ↩︎
The rather whimsical The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is probably an exception to the rule. However, it is pretty easy to suspend your disbelief here since the implications of the technology developed in the book are much more interesting than the actual scientific underpinnings. ↩︎
I am writing this as someone who still enjoys Heinlein’s works. This not a critique but just a way to delineate the works a little bit. ↩︎
There is in fact some speculation going on whether Diamond Age and Snow Crash are set in the same universe, the latter one preceding the former one. ↩︎