Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Have You Read Neal Stephenson?

Here's a conversation I had with a friend yesterday.

Him: "So what are you reading now?"
Me: "A thousand-page novel about a role-playing video game by a dude named Neal Stephenson."
Him: (silence, shock): "You mean, a novel about, like, Call of Duty?"
Me: "Sort of — it's more like World of Warcraft."
Him: "Interesting." (Not meaning it, wondering if he still wants to be friends with such a huge nerd.)

Indeed, Neal Stephenson's novel Reamde, of which I have traversed about 200 pages, is on the surface, the dorkiest thing I can possibly imagine. I don't have a gaming bone in my body, so plowing through 200 pages of video-game-origin story would seem, to my self-who-didn't-just-read-those-200-pages, a complete bore. 

But you know what? I'm enthralled. One of the marks of a great writer, in my opinion, is his/her ability to entrance readers who don't give a peacock's petute for the subject. And here with are with Mr. Stephenson. (And incidentally, I'm in the same boat with a book of essays by Jonathan Lethem, in which, at one point, he led me through a 50-page piece about James Brown, to whom I haven't allocated more than four or five thoughts in my whole life. But I loved Lethem's essay!)

Stephenson, as his loyal and passionate fans have been telling me for a long time, writes with such flair, that even his page-long (or longer) tangents are riveting. Whether he's explaining what an Application Programming Interface (API) is, or simply describing a room, he's clever and funny, and he's constantly keeping you on your toes so you don't find yourself skimming or fading out. 

So, really, the point of this post is just to tell you that my first impressions of Stephenson are immensely positive. I'm very much looking forward to spending 850 more pages with him.

Have you read Stephenson? Impressions? Suggestions on where to go after Reamde (assuming I continue to enjoy it)?


  1. This intrigues me. I have numerous gaming friends, and I have been subjected to endless conversations about StarCraft and World of Warcraft and any other "craft" you can think of. Those conversations have failed to interest me, but maybe Mr. Stephenson would.

  2. When I spotted your question on one of my blog rolls, I immediately remembered that I have read one Neal Stephenson novel, and that was 'Snow Crash'. I stole it off my not-so-nice ex-bf years ago and was meaning to get rid of it through Bookcrossing by Wild Releasing it. But having not read the darn thing, I didn't want to let it go without knowing what it was about; so I read it.
    This book was brilliantly written and took me on a wild ride through what we now know as the Internet. I loved it and now wish I hadn't let it go... I may yet go and buy another copy of it just to read it again. :)

  3. I have to read the book and pass it on to my game-mad relatives...

  4. Snow Crash - a comedy about language, Americans, and the dangers of an anarco-libertarism. The main character is a pizza delivery ninja named Hiro Protagonist. Really.

    Cryptonomicon - a bit more realistic, but also fun. The plot ping-pongs between code-breakers in WWII and code-writers in modern day techonolgy. Includes a several-page-long rant on Capt'n Crunch.

  5. I'm excited to read this one. I've heard good things about Snow Crash as well.

  6. Twice I tried Quicksilver and only got halfway both times. Then I read Snow Crash and loved it. Next on my list is Anathem and someday I will tackle Reamde. I hope you post a review for it.

  7. Glad to hear you're enjoying Reamde--my sense of it was that it improved as I got further into it. As with a lot of Stephenson's work, he dives right in and asks the reader to catch up with settings, terminology, and characters as the book moves along. If you like Reamde, Cryptonomicon has a similar feel to it in terms of the mixture of action and thought-provoking exposition, though it's a bit more demanding in terms of the code breaking sections. Snow Crash is more fun, and one of the best science fiction books out there, for my money. Even Stephenson's earlier stuff is worth reading--his "ecothriller" Zodiac is a romp. His toughest book, I think, is Anathem--lots of imagination but also lots of effort to keep all the pieces in place. If you like sci fi, I would recommend Snow Crash, and if not, Cryptonomicon. I'd be curious what other people here have to say about the giant Baroque Cycle trilogy. I love Stephenson, but I have shied away from those books out of a hesitance to commit that much reading time to one narrative. Are they worth it?

  8. One of my favorites that doesn't get a lot of press is The Diamond Age. But they're all good.