Science Fiction

Intelligence at Work

Neal Stephenson's new book explores science fiction, underseas cables, Hong Kong, and the art of storytelling.


Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing, by Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 324 pages, $25.9

The term science fiction is often uttered with a condescending sneer: a domain of outlandish and unrealistic thinking. But Neal Stephenson, writing in his new collection Some Remarks, has a brighter view of the genre and the mind set behind it. Stephenson, author of such popular science fiction novels as Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, sees the genre as "intelligence at work." Fiction, he says, isn't good "unless it has interesting ideas in it."

The same might be said of compelling essays as well. Some Remarks, like the science fiction stories he praises, enriches our appreciation of Stephenson's fiction through his view of the real world.

The mix of essays, interviews, and fiction that comprise Stephenson's collection span the decades from the early 1990s through 2012. The author doesn't whitewash his own historical record: Some of his pieces, he warns, will come across as "dated or jejune." In a surprising twist, it's the fiction that shows its age the most. The two short stories in the collection, both from the mid-'90s, feel like they're mired in the clichés of cyberpunk, a subgenre that sputtered out years ago. In contrast, two Wired magazine essays of the same early 1990s vintage wear well.

The Wired articles are both travelogues. In "Mother Earth, Mother Board," Stephenson paints himself as a "hacker tourist," covering the globe to learn about networks and undersea cables. He's looking for answers to questions that initially seem arcane: how the cables are built and how they help network the world. Here, Stephenson the essayist turns out to be not so different from Stephenson the novelist. Novelists obsessively gather independent pieces of research from artifacts, images, conversations, and impressions, then rearrange and contextualize them to form a coherent narrative. In the Wired story, he covers topics ranging from Lord Kelvin's inventions to the problems with laying down thousands of miles of undersea cable, from interactions between monopolies and free enterprise to the relationship between governments and the experts who get the job done. The story has the same slow initial burn that characterizes many of his novels, with an impressive payoff.

"In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" finds Stephenson checking out southern Hong Kong shortly before the handover to China. Stephenson asks various Chinese technology workers what they think of the idea, popular in the west, that "economic modernization will lead to political reform." He is greeted primarily by incomprehension. Stephenson shows a cover of Wired with three Hanzi characters that supposedly mean "network," thinking the concept cool and geeky. He's shocked to discover that those three characters actually form the term used during the Cultural Revolution for the Red Guard's network of spies and informers.

"Mao Bell" ends on a downbeat note: Bringing China online will not bring freedom, Stephenson predicts, but greater control. In 1994, when he wrote the piece, Stephenson could not have foreseen the Great Firewall of China, or the ways Google would compromise its "do no evil" maxim just to do business in the country. On the other hand, Ai Weiwei and other contemporary Chinese dissidents have argued that the Internet is uncontrollable and eventually freedom will win, a view much closer to Wired's original meaning of network. If Stephenson revisited Shenzen today, nearly 20 years later, would his conclusions change?

Beyond the cultural interpretations of science fiction, Stephenson's topics range from the hazards of sitting down all day, to the clash of worldviews in Waco when government agents had their standoff with the Branch Davidians, to a midwestern college town's influence on the novelist David Foster Wallace. Together they offer a faithful historical record of an important writer's short fiction and nonfiction from the early 1990s through today. They showcase Stephenson's eye for detail, his ability to weave compelling stories from reams of research, and his excitement about the world of ideas. They illuminate the mind behind his fiction, and, I think, may spur new readers to discover his novels.

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  1. OT – not sure if this has been posted yet, but it confirms what many suspected.

    All 9 Empire State shooting victims hit by police

    1. What did someone here say? A hero risks his life to protect you, whereas police risk your life to protect themselves? They’ve gathered for themselves a monopoly on armed self-protection and this is what they do with it.

    2. Expect this to blow up in the MM in 5…4…3…

  2. I know this casts me here as a stranger in a strange land but I am no science fiction afficionado, having read maybe three sci-fi novels in my life. So it is with trepidation that I ask here why Cryptonomicon is called in the article a “science fiction novel”. It’s having been so described compelled me to look up some definitions and I have yet to find anything in those that correspond to anything I recall in that story. I know, NS writes science fiction and granted, Cryptonomicon is fiction and there is plenty of science in it but I’m pretty sure that that does not suffice. The mystery of Enoch Root’s death and “reanimation” in the P.I. fifty years later comes close to time travel or something but that’s as close as I can get and I really don’t think that isolated little wrinkle in the story warrants the appellation. So, I am puzzled as to why Cryptonomicon, extraordinary as it is, is anything more than a work of ordinary fiction.

    1. I agree.

      Wikipedia lists it as ‘speculative fiction’ which strikes me a rather weasely, but The Baroque Cycle as ‘historical fiction’ even though it has a few things that are fantastical.

      1. I loved The Baroque Cycle. It gave me a whole new appreciation for that era and how we are living in the world that Newton, et alia constructed for us. It could have been hokey, but I think Stephenson’s weaving of the Shaftoe/Root characters into the novels was well done, too, and provided some fly-on-the-wall, worm’s-eye-view of the events and trends of the time.

        1. Those were great books but they were heavy… so heavy in fact, I still haven’t finished them. They just got… long.

          1. couldn’t agree less. Reading NS is like running downhill with the wind at your back. Effortless and so much fun. As a kid I liked Ayn Rand. As an adult, I like NS.

      2. “Speculative fiction” is the academic term that encompasses all of science fiction, fantasy, and hybrid forms like Cryptonomican and The Baroque Cycle, and even magical realism.

    2. Cryptonomicon had the weakest, shittiest, and most disappointing ending I’ve seen out of a book in a long time. A true “that’s it?!?” moment.

      1. This is about 2/3rds of Stephenson’s books. “I got all the cool ideas in the book, now what?”

      2. Did they end up eating a deep dish pizza?

      3. I loved Cryptonimicon, but I agree, the ending left me with a “Huh” feeling.

      4. Snow crash had a pretty shitty end as well.

        I think he intends his endings to be anti-climatic or obvious.

        He is more of a “journey” then a “destination” writer.

    3. Some arguably science fiction novels, like some of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, are labeled as anything but. To make them more marketable to main stream readers I would guess.

  3. The thing about Stephenson is how much he’s matured as a writer. The guys got talent, but I think it also shows that a lot of it is hard work and practice. I had a rather obscure copy of his first book, The Big U, in college which I thought was pretty cool at the time in a science geeky way, but later on I realized it was quite sophomoric. Really hard to see that that writer would mature into someone who’d write The Baroque Cycle.

    1. Snow Crash was a bit overrated.

      I feel that one of his underrated novels is The Diamond Age.

      1. I thought Snow Crash brilliant and fun. Especially when you consider when it was written.

        1. To me, that says a lot about Stephenson’s “maturation” as a writer. His earlier stuff is readable and fun. There was very little that was “fun” in any sense about Cryptonomicon. I thought Cryptonomicon was mostly a slog, and I fear that he’s reached that point in his career where he’s untouchable by editors, at precisely the time he needs them most.

  4. I’ve linked to this before. It is closed now but look for this Neal Stephenson sword fighting game to come out in the future.

  5. Mao Bell” ends on a downbeat note: Bringing China online will not bring freedom, Stephenson predicts, but greater control

    Ah, one of the few fellow travelers that realize that proliferation an interconnected world can be used by the forces of tyranny as much as its used by the forces of freedom.

  6. He’s shocked to discover that those three characters actually form the term used during the Cultural Revolution for the Red Guard’s network of spies and informers

    When white folks present you with an image of Hanzi or Kanji characters that they purport to mean something deep and interesting, assume immediately that it means something completely different than what’s being presented.

  7. The NS endings don’t bother me at all. The joy of reading him is the journey. I wouldn’t mind if all his books just ended with “and later more stuff happened”. I once highlighted all the metaphors (similes?)he uses in Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash. They are absolutely hilarious.

    1. BTW, NS has got to be on here somewhere, which one of you fuckers is NS?

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