Reviewing a collection of essays is a tricky task at the best of times, since they have often been written over a long period, with differing levels of experience, and about entirely different subject matters. It becomes even harder for a reviewer when some of these pieces are not even written by the author himself, but come from journalists and websites interviewing the author: this book is a bit of a mixed bag.
Neal Stephenson is undoubtedly a very intelligent author, and has probably been one of the top science fiction writers of the last 15 years or so. His books stand out because they are either meticulously researched (in his historical novels) or surprisingly visionary (in his novels set in the future). He has a knack for analysing large and complicated systems and cultural patterns, and for breaking them down for his readers so they can understand them without having to do too much heavy lifting. Due to his very entertaining and often tongue-in-cheek writing style, the action of his books carries you along while you unintentionally and effortlessly learn a great deal about history, monetary systems, computer technology, physics, and many other things.
Some Remarks often reads almost like the ‘making of’ segment of a movie you might get when you buy a DVD. Stephenson goes into depth about some of the more complicated subject matter that he has already discussed in his books, like the dramatic correspondence between Newton and Leibniz about who invented the calculus, and the way Leibniz perceived the world through his ‘monads’. I have read most of Stephenson’s books, so such subject matter is almost like returning to an old friend and learning a little bit more about him. In several essays, he summarises the events around the innovation of modern international financial systems, or the way information really flows in the contemporary world. Each of these pieces reveals a little bit more about Stephenson’s interests and explains to the reader why he planted some of these areas of expertise as plot devices in his books, mainly in Cryptonomicon and his Baroque Cycle novels.
Another example of this feeling of a ‘making of’ is a foreword to another author’s book in which Stephenson describes the road grid system in Iowa, which is almost a word-for-word extract from one of his recent books, Reamde. Again, this offers more understanding of the novel in retrospect, giving extra context that can now be slotted into place. There are also a couple of pieces describing Stephenson’s knowledge of the geek community, which features heavily in his contemporary books. He displays surpisingly deep insight into this area, often quite misunderstood and poorly portrayed in popular fiction.
Apart from interview material that largely describes Stephenson’s origins and interests, there are essentially two further types of writing in this book: short stories, and general observations about humanity’s technical innovations.
The two short stories in this book are placed within the universe of Stephenson’s famous novel, Snow Crash, or at least in a very similar possible future. As the stories were both written in the mid-90s, the future hasn’t really panned out the way Stephenson expected, which doesn’t necessarily make them a bad read. But they hold out a larger promise (if they had been turned into a book) that they ultimately don’t deliver. They also very clearly toy with the same ideas Stephenson discusses elsewhere in this collection, making them feel a little repetitive.
Stephenson’s general statements about innovation, per se, are much more entertaining and thought-provoking. He has a strong technical background, and you feel that he knows what he is talking about in his critical observations. Whether this is his description of the laying out of glass-fibre cabling across the globe in the mid-90s, or his fantastic analysis of why the space-faring industry is stuck in a rut, these accounts are filled with sharp, analytical and ultimately very thought-provoking material.
The experience of reading this collection of pieces is varied. There is some repetition in the texts, which can be irritating, as Stephenson returns to the same themes again and again over the years (as is only natural). There is also one rambling essay that clearly would have benefited from some editing and shortening.
However, most of the pieces provide interesting background reading to Neal Stephenson’s books. They make his stories richer and even more intriguing, and more personal, as readers come to know more about the author. I would recommend Some Remarks to Neal Stephenson fans, but only after they have consumed a healthy number of his books. Some of the topics are just a bit too confusing to be approached on their own.
Neal Stephenson Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing, Atlantic Books, 2012, PB, 400pp, $29.99
Matthias Schreck is a user-interface designer with an economics and IT background, working in Sydney. Like most self-confessed geeks, he is on his way to becoming a history buff. He reads an odd mix of human-centred design books and science fiction novels, and is obsessed with popular movie culture.
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