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.