Wed
Aug 8 2012 3:00pm

Idea Porn? A Review of Neal Stephenson’s Some Remarks

A review of Some Remarks by Neal StephensonI expected to love Some Remarks, Neal Stephenson’s newest collection of essays and other writing, as a continuation of my love for his fiction. As it turns out, I did not. Some Remarks is typical of Stephenson’s writing within a non-fiction lens, and I found, to my surprise, that this isn’t precisely a good thing.

If you’re read a great deal of Stephenson, you’re probably familiar with a peculiar quirk of his literary style. Stephenson writes incredibly dense speculative fiction with a heavy emphasis on world-building through meticulous, subtle detail. He tends toward discovery-driven plots that cast off and recapture little threads of narrative, typically leading to a grand crescendo in which characters, ideas and technologies crash together. 

But inevitably, as the story is hurtling along down its various channels, Stephenson will put the narrative on pause at some point so that he can explain something to you. 

For his fiction this makes a lot of sense. Stephenson’s work is based in historical and philosophical ruminations; in the past ten years he’s written stories that relied heavily upon Sumerian mythology, cryptography, viral pathogens, memetics, codebreaking, metaphysics, WW2, natural philosophy, and game development, just to name a few. This means that at any given point in a Stephenson novel, the reader must have a working knowledge of at least three or more incredibly complicated fields of inquiry. We generally learn along with the characters; Stephenson’s characters spend a lot of time sitting and explaining things to one another.

In a nutshell, most of the essays in Some Remarks are entirely made up of explanation. If your interest in Stephenson is grounded in the complexity and brilliance of his ideas, you will probably enjoy this collection. If, however, you are like me, and you read Stephenson for his blend of story, character, world and theory, you will probably find Some Remarks ponderous. 

In one of the pieces, a college lecture from 2008, Stephenson concludes by saying that “[speculative fiction] does possess...intellectual disreputability and moral salaciousness. SF thrives because it is idea porn.” Not only is this a rather delightful way of explaining the genre, it’s also a fairly good description of this book. Some Remarks feels like a collection of Stephenson’s idea porn: various ruminations on unconnected topics carried through to conclusion in complex yet serviceable prose, with an underlying sense of passion and intensely gleeful geekery.

Some people ascribe to the idea that it’s interesting to hear a smart, articulate person talk about any topic that excites them. I agree, to a point, but only to a point. The first few pieces in Some Remarks bounce around, toying with various ideas that Stephenson feels are worth taking a few pages to explore. Topics include treadmill desks, the economics of being a writer, hacking, the Leibniz / Newton rivalry, the movie 300, and Star Wars. Stephenson has some interesting things to say about each of these topics, but nothing, to my mind, that is particularly riveting or revelatory. And unfortunately these pieces set the tone for the remainder of the collection. 

This is not to say that Some Remarks is entirely without interest. On the contrary, there are a fair number of ideas and pieces that are worth taking the time to read. The bulk of the book is taken up by a rambling but fascinating piece of long journalism on the nature of the physical connections, wires, that make up our digital networks. The piece was published in WIRED magazine and is written as an exploratory musing on information exchange and virtual locations that mirrors the author’s exploratory journey around the world to visit the sites of physical wires. 

Also included in the collection are two pieces of short fiction, Spew and The Great Simoleon Caper. Tellingly, I found these to be by far the most fun parts of the book. Stephenson’s idea porn is simply better with a story and characters attached.

This experience makes me think that my mistake was attempting to read the collection cover to cover. The book is potentially very well suited for a sort of casual browsing, hopping from one topic to another until you find something that sparks your fancy. If you haven’t read Stephenson before, this isn’t where I’d suggest you start. If you’ve read him before and you like his narratives, characters or worlds, I wouldn’t recommend this to you. But if you’ve read Stephenson before and you think his proliferation of ideas and theories is the best thing about his work, Some Remarks is for you.

 


Sara Eileen Hames tells stories, organizes people, and runs a magazine. Sometimes she works in start-up consulting, sometimes she works as a writer, and sometimes (rarely) she doesn’t work at all.

3 comments
Cat
1. Cat
Do you know your header is wrongly worded?
Cat
3. Liam R m L
This actually sounds tempting to me, but I also greatly enjoyed his extended essay "And in the beginning was the command line..." which is a rumination on the development of computer OSes, programming ethos (open source, etc), computer hardware and the corporate and cultural influences building around that. It's somewhat dated, sadly, having been written very shortly after Netscape went open-source and while BeOS was still in some contention for marketshare, and when Linux and other free-software *nix variants were scrabbling for toehold outside diehard geeks.

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