Neal Stephenson's Writing

An author that I've really gotten into over the past year is Neal Stephenson. His writing is hard to classify, ranging from futuristic hard sci-fi to historical fiction, but has some common themes such as information theory.

So far, I've read Stephenson's novels Anathem, Cryptonomicon, and started The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, & The System of the World). Of these, I'd rate Anathem as my favourite. It starts off quite slow because he really takes time to flesh out the imagined world, but later on he takes full advantage of that foundation to really make you think.

Stephenson's writing is very descriptive. In older books that I've read, such as Les Misérables or The Brothers Karamazov, this kind of slow pace makes them hard to get through, but in modern language and dealing with concepts that are more relatable to me, as Stephenson does, it makes things interesting.

In fact, I'd say he's at his best making complex mathematical or scientific concepts come to life—not in a dry textbook manner, but with poetry and wonder. In this excerpt from Cryptonomicon (p. 772-774), Randy Waterhouse, the modern-day grandson of a WWII code-breaker, is watching the wind swirl through a snowy parking lot in Idaho:

Randy spent plenty of time chasing and carrying out experiments on dust devils while walking to and from school, to the point of getting bounced off the grille of a shrieking Buick once when he chased a roughly shopping-cart-sized one into the street in an attempt to climb into the center of it. He knew that they were both fragile and tenacious. You could stomp down on one of them and sometimes it would just dodge your foot, or swirl around it, and keep going. Other times, like if you tried to catch one in your hands, it would vanish—but then you'd look up and see another one just like it twenty feet away, running away from you. The whole concept of matter spontaneously organizing itself into grotesquely improbable and yet indisputably self-perpetuating and fairly robust systems sort of gave Randy the willies later on, when he began to learn about physics.
A case in point would be the parking lot of Waterhouse House, which is normally filled with cars and therefore a complete wind-killer. You aren't going to see dust devils at the downwind edge of a full parking lot, just a generalized seepage of dead and decayed wind. But it is Christmas break and there are all of three cars parked in this space, which doubles as a football-overflow and hence is about the size of an artillery practice range. The asphalt is dead-monitor-screen grey. A volatile gas of ice swirls across it as freely as a sheen of fuel on warm water, except where it strikes the icy sarcophagi of these three abandoned vehicles, which have evidently been sitting in this otherwise empty lot for a couple of weeks now, since all of the other cars went away on Christmas break. Each car has become the first cause of a system of wakes and standing vortices that extends downstream for hundreds of yards. The wind here is a glinting abrasive thing, a perpetual, face-shredding, eyeball-poking tendency in the fabric of spacetime, inhabited by vast platinum-blond arcs of fire that are centered on the low winter sun. Crystalline water is suspended in it all the time, is why: shards of ice that are smaller than snowflakes—probably just individual legs of snowflakes that have been sheared off and borne into the air as the wind snapped and rattled over the crests of Canadian snow-dunes. Once airborne, they stay airborne unless they find themselves ducted into some pocket of dead air: the eye of a vortex or the still boundary layer of a dead car's parking lot wake. And so over the weeks the vortices and standing waves have become visible, like three-dimensional virtual-reality renderings of themselves.

Besides wishing I could write like that (!), I find this passage near-perfect for how it fits into the narrative (the idea of the patterns left behind from complex activity or communication meshes with the WWII cryptography portions of the novel; a similar scene set on a beach in Los Angeles during WWII is on pages 551ff.). This is just a sample of how Stephenson melds math and science concepts seamlessly into his plots.

On a random tangent, this scene reminds me of the Rosgen technique of stream restoration that works with the natural tendency of rivers.

I also have to say that Cryptonomicon, although it was written in 1999, was a very relevant read in 2013 due to developments and news related to Bitcoin.

Right now, as mentioned, I'm reading The Baroque Cycle. It's been especially interesting because at the same time I've been reading non-fiction historical books that cover over-lapping or adjacent time periods. The Baroque Cycle takes place in the 17th Century; Water: The Epic Struggle... (a review will probably appear in this space later) includes a chapter on the rise of Britain and the Netherlands to global prominence that took place during the same era, and The Most Powerful Idea in the World (which I wrote about in a previous post) is about the Industrial Revolution and focuses on the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries but also references earlier events.

In Quicksilver there is a conversation with a fictional version of the scientist Robert Hooke on looking at natural and man-made things under a microscope that is too good not to share (p. 122):

Daniel put the needle on the stand and peered through the Microscope.
He expected to see a gleaming, mirrorlike shaft, but it was a gnawed stick instead. The needle's sharp point turned out to be a rounded and pitted slag-heap.
"What think you now of needles?" Hooke asked.
"A razor looks worse. It is all kinds of shapes, except what it should be," Hooke said. "That is why I never use the Microscope any more to look at things that were made by men—the rudeness and bungling of Art is painful to view. And yet things that one would expect to look disgusting become beautiful when magnified ...
But Hooke only became irritated again. "I tell you again. True beauty is to be found in natural forms. The more we magnify, and the closer we examine, the works of Artifice, the grosser and stupider they seem. But if we magnify the natural world, it only becomes more intricate and excellent."

The passages I've quoted from illustrate one of the aspects I really appreciate about Neal Stephenson's writing, that he shares and enhances my appreciation for science and math. His characters are great too, and I find the plots interesting.