Friday, August 23, 2013

returning to Neal Stephenson

I read The Diamond Age (19950 and enjoyed it, then promptly forgot most of it. I read Snow Crash (1992) and enjoyed it very much indeed, and even retained a bit of it. And then I read the Baroque Cycle – Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World (2003-4) – and was blown away by Stephenson's crazy recreation of the 17th century, this crazy pivotal moment when alchemy turns into chemistry, when all of our modernity is a-borning. Not that the Cycle isn't too long; like everything Stephenson writes, it's immensely detailed, full of a – well – baroque proliferation of details & factoids. But it sprawls in quite an agreeable manner, or at least its sprawl somehow agrees with me.

I picked up a copy of NS's next novel, Anathem (2008), not too long after the paperback was released (& the hardcover remaindered). And it defeated me, at least twice. The novum, that differentium that set the novel's work apart from our "mundane" world, was just to hard to wrap my mind around. So I made a couple of starts, got maybe 75 pages in, and laid the brick-like volume aside.

And then the other week I happened on a copy of Stephenson's latest novel, Reamde (2011). And on a lark bought it. And started reading it, almost absently, only to find myself drawn head over heels into one of those "gripping" "action" stories. Yes, it's too long, by maybe 300 pages; sure, there's too much loving detail; and ultimately, there isn't enough of the conceptual quirkiness that I like about NS. But boy Reamde is a readable book. And what's not to love? A Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game that has found a way to actually harness and monetize gold farmers; a Chinese virus that ("REAMDE") that preys on players; Jihadist terrorists; Russian mafiosi; strangely likeable Christian survivalists; a cast of thousands.

At any rate, it sent me back to Anathem, and this time I stuck it out. By the time I was 150 pages in, I was loving it. By the time I'd slogged thru the entire 900+ volume, however, I was feeling pretty ambivalent. Ben – my Stephenson-reading buddy, with whom I talk thru the books on occasion – felt that there was too much philosophical talking over the course of the book. Indeed, the book's action (which takes its own sweet time getting off the ground) is repeatedly broken by long philosophical discussions, modeled quite obviously on Plato's Dialogues. (In fact, Stephenson includes as an appendix three "Calcas," or dialogic, graphed calculations, one of which is pinched directly from the Meno.) Now the philosophical discussions do indeed bear upon the convoluted plot of the novel, so they're not entirely extraneous: but they do indeed go on...

But my ambivalence wasn't quite that there was too much jaw and not enough event in Anathem. The amount of event, of actual action, in the end seemed about right. And while I was initially impatient with the philosophical disquisitions, by the end I found I was wishing for more of them, and at greater length. Stephenson seemed to rein himself in all too often – right when his characters were at the point where a discussion of Platonic Forms or something similar was about to break into something altogether profound, he'd break off the dialogue, and the next chapter would be something else altogether. One of two (or both of two) things was happening: 1) NS, a marvelous storyteller with a penchant for sidetracks, was consciously reining himself in before his readers went to sleep, jerking them back to some actual eventage; or 2) NS, very excited about philosophy but not a trained philosopher, was breaking off his dialogues before he got in over his head and embarrassed himself.

So I guess my disappointment in Anathem – which is still a pretty excellent book, better than Reamde or Diamond Age, not quite as great as the Baroque Cycle – is that the dialogues don't go on long or far enough, and that their ideas aren't quite as integrated into the conceptual structure of the novel as much as they should be.


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