Entertaining asides and vistas of glorious revelation: Some general cool things Neal Stephenson does

I’m reading Anathem. (As it’s the number one New York Times Bestseller and number 65 on Amazon, it seems like I’m not the only one.) I can tell already that this is a book I’m going to be reading again and again, but meanwhile it’s long, and I’m not re-reading anything else to write about here until I’ve finished it.

So, I was thinking about what it is that Stephenson does so brilliantly, generally.

He’s ever so clever. In his early books, I sometimes wanted to say “OK, I can see you’re clever, now stop being so clever and sit down and have a cup of tea.” But he’s got over that problem, at least for me. He’s still very clever, but he’s become a lot wiser.

He’s better than anyone in the universe at handing out masses of information that look like entertaining asides and which are actually going to set up huge building blocks of a revelation which you then get to climb up and look out at the breathtaking vista spread out in front of you. Cryptonomicon would be the clearest example, but all of his books do this. He gets away with it because his writing is stuffed full of entertaining asides anyway.

He explains things wonderfully, sometimes directly but mostly with the characters explaining things to each other with terrific metaphors and ways of looking at things. His asides never stop the story, and they’re never unnecessary. Knowing that information is an essential part of what’s going on in his books. His books are structures for getting you up there, where you can see. When he wasn’t as good at it (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age) the weight of doing this would sometimes unbalance the weight of plot and the story would fall to a pile of glittering shards at the end. He’s fixed that problem, too.

Also, he’s brilliant at characters, at least male characters. I think he’s less successful with women. Most of his books have one female character, very competent and feisty, and who he’s clearly spent a lot of time and thought on. Any other women are just scenery. It would also be possible to argue that all his female focus characters from YT in Snow Crash right through to Eliza in the Baroque Cycle are essentially the same character. (No female POV characters in Anathem, it’s first person.) His male characters though are well distinguished and different and amazingly real. They feel like real people. Reading them talking and thinking about whatever is just like hanging out with real people doing that, except they’re more interesting than most people.

He’s not afraid to tackle big philosophical issues, and he does it in an appealingly geeky way. It’s not just how people and things network, it’s the nature of consciousness, the effability of the universe, Platonic Forms, the foundations of the Enlightenment. SF often goes at these things, because SF is one of the best crucibles for thought experiments, but it’s usually sugar-coated in a quite different way.

Stephenson has clearly put a lot of time and thought into this, and he goes at it head-on, building a structure throughout the plot so the reader can follow along when you get to the thorny issues. I really admire this. My general feeling is that it’s possible to get people to come along a couple of steps from where they are, but Stephenson gets readers way out there over the abyss. (He does it to me.) One of the ways he does this is to give extra help to people who don’t have the background without boring people who do. For instance, in Cryptonomicon there’s a character called Enoch Root. Later, there’s an email from root@eruditorum.org. The less you know about computers and root accounts, the faster you recognise this as Enoch Root. There’s a similar thing in Anathem where there’s a symbol on the cover that you either instantly recognise as an analemma or you don’t.

He’s also immensely readable. He has that thing where you read a sentence and you want to read the next sentence, you read a paragraph and you want to read the next paragraph, you read a chapter and you miss your stop on the metro.

He makes you think, and he makes you work at thinking, and he makes you have fun doing it. That’s unbeatable.

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