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> Thoughts About Stephenson

Thoughts About Stephenson

For years now, I've had mixed feelings about Neal Stephenson's work. On the one hand, there was Snow Crash, which was completely amazing; on the other, there was Cryptonomicon, which was still pretty good, but not in the same league. But, I always wondered if I was missing something, because everyone else I talked to thought Cryptonomicon was clearly the better of the two.

Over the past few months, I've had a chance to come back and reconsider the problem. I just recently read Quicksilver—yes, I know The Confusion is out, but I haven't read it yet—and before that I re-read The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon. And, from all that, and from talking with folks, I've come to two conclusions that explain the mixed feelings.

Locally, Stephenson's writing is brilliant. I don't know what else I can say; if I knew why I liked it so much, maybe I'd be able to write like that myself. So, instead, I'll just give some examples … but first I should give the other conclusion.

The problem is with the global structure. Everything usually starts out well enough … there's some jumping around to introduce the various characters, but that's normal enough. But then the jumping around just keeps on coming, and becomes less and less plausible toward the end, as the loose ends are frantically tied up.

In other words, events in the story, like events in real life, are consistent with the past, but not predictable from it. Of course I don't like it when a story is entirely predictable, but I do like it when a story is about something, has some direction, so that I can anticipate what kinds of things might happen.

Even Snow Crash has some of the same problem, but at least it's moving in one direction most of the time. There's a mysterious thing; the characters investigate, and learn more about it; and then eventually there's a climactic battle. The End.

Besides those two conclusions, here's one other thought. There's a particular kind of silliness that Stephenson has. I'm not sure what the right name for it is … hyperbole, maybe. Anyway, it works for me, I like it. What's interesting is that the level of silliness varies a lot between books.

Snow Crash is pretty much continuous silliness from the first page (the Deliverator!).

Cryptonomicon is surprisingly serious, with the silliness showing up late and being restricted to things related to Qwghlm.

Quicksilver is almost exactly half serious, with Jack Shaftoe being the focus of silliness.

Unless I'm forgetting something, The Diamond Age isn't silly at all.

That reminds me of another thing I didn't like about Cryptonomicon: the sudden appearance of silliness late in the book was very jarring. I think the arrangement in Quicksilver is much better.

Also, speaking of silliness, I was quite surprised recently when a friend of mine found Snow Crash unreadable because of it. I guess not everyone likes silliness as much as I do.

Finally, here are the promised examples of locally brilliant writing. The first is one of my favorites from Cryptonomicon. I can tell I like it because I keep thinking of it at random times.

So he lumbers over, bends down, and makes a stirrup of his hands. She puts her foot into it and launches herself into the hammock, disappearing with a whoop and a giggle into his bulky nest of grey wool blankets. The hammock swings back and forth across the center of the chapel, like a censer dispersing a faint lavender scent.


“It's dreamy,” she says. Dreamily. Then, finally, she shifts. Waterhouse sees her little face peeking out over the edge, shrouded in the grey cowl of a blanket. “Ooh!” she screams, and flips flat on her back again.


He gazes up at the ceiling of the chapel through half-closed eyes and thanks God for having sent him what is obviously a German spy and an angel of mercy rolled into one adorable package.

The second, from Quicksilver, isn't a favorite, exactly, although I did like it a lot. I took note of it because I wanted to compare it to Understand as a description of what it would be like to really understand things.

Daniel saw in a way he'd never seen anything before: his mind was a homunculus squatting in the middle of his skull, peering out through good but imperfect telescopes and listening-horns, gathering observations that had been distorted along the way, as a lens put chromatic aberrations into all the light that passed through it. A man who peered out at the world through a telescope would assume that the aberration was real, that the stars actually looked like that—what false assumptions, then, had natural philosophers been making about the evidence of their senses, until last night? Sitting in the gaudy radiance of those windows hearing the organ play and the choir sing, his mind pleasantly intoxicated from exhaustion, Daniel experienced a faint echo of what it must be like, all the time, to be Isaac Newton: a permanent ongoing epiphany, an endless immersion in lurid radiance, a drowning in light, a ringing of cosmic harmonies in the ears.


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@ June (2004)