Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Neal Stephenson

Eliot asked me about Neal Stephenson, and I would love to go on about this author. I read Snow Crash probably a year or two after I finished my master's degree and loved it. I'd been reading Douglas Coupland and William Gibson. Somewhere I read a description about SC that described the setting as follows: in the future, there are only two classes of people—those who work in the computer industry, and those who deliver their pizza.

I was hooked.

Now, that synopsis wasn't really all that SC was about. What I find compelling now is that the idea of a computer virus affecting the real world is not nearly as fantastic now as it was then. Nowadays we expect that a virus will delete everything from our hard drive, make crank calls to our ex-spouses, run up tabs at our favorite bars (not to mention our accounts at Barnes and Noble), and maybe call and tell our parents on us.

After reading Snow Crash and The Diamond Age I spent quite a bit of time trying to track down Zodiac (which I found somewhat quickly) and The Big U (which was out of print until a couple of years ago). Read 'em. Mostly loved 'em (except for The Big U, which was more a like).

And then Cryptonomicon came out. Stephenson went from being someone who produced a good sci-fi yarn to someone who wrote literature. Some might consider me old fashioned for making a distinction. So be it.

Unfortunately, I haven't read much of Stephenson's work since Quicksilver. I have reread The Diamond Age recently, which was easily one of my favorites early on. However, on rereading, I found much I didn't care for—mostly thematic. I still love the concept of Diamond Age, but somewhere in the depths with the drummers, I get a bit queasy.

I have Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code on a shelf sandwiched between Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver on one side and Thomas Pynchon's Vineland on the other. Needless to say, DVC doesn't belong there. Frankly, the only reason it's on the shelf is to encourage discussion. My copy of The Da Vinci Hoax is supposed to be next to it, but that's still packed away in my wife's office things following our move. What I can say is that Stephenson belongs next to Pynchon.

I wrote my thesis on Vineland, and I read every novel and short story by Pynchon as well as every scrap of literary criticism about his work leading and following the publication of Vineland. I liked the novel, but it was clearly not the best of his work to that point. I think Mason and Dixon is the best novel Pynchon has published.

And I think Quicksilver is better. Or I guess I should say, Stephenson's novels from Cryptonomicron forward are better than Pynchon's works. Stephenson demonstrates a mastery of technique that exceeds Pynchon, while exhibiting a thematic breadth easily equal to the famously reclusive polymath. Possessing the latter alone would be enough, but Stephenson has gone beyond. Stylistically, Stephenson reads better as a youngish author than Pynchon. Mason & Dixon outdistances Pynchon's previous novels in its emotional depth. Some critics might consider that elusive element to be "sentimentality," but that, I'm afraid, has more to do with the coarsening of our culture than the softening of Pynchon's heart. Pynchon developed a novel with heart. Stephenson, I believe, started with heart first.

Stephenson's latest works have heart, and they still manage the Pynchonian penchant for conspiracy, by no means any less developed than the reclusive master. Cryptonomicron compels because of its human story as well as its techno-cryptological intrigue. Quicksilver reveals the same impulses with a sort of pre-"Steam Punk" twist. All Baroque intrigue, all the time. What more could a geek like me ask?

That said, I wasn't comfortable with Quicksilver. I don't think any Catholic or orthodox western Christian could be as it it exposes the ugliness of the Reformation era. However, I do intend to follow up with the rest of the Baroque Cycle. In what I have seen of these latest works, Stephenson goes well beyond the genre of Sci Fi and produces something timeless.

Technorati tags: Neal Stephenson
Post a Comment