You Should be Reading: Neal Stephenson

You should be reading:

Neal Stephenson


Do you like deep plots with complex characters? Do you find coding, linguistics, history, genetics? Do those sound like odd things to write books about? If you’re intrigued or these are your cup of tea, keep reading:

Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Reamde
Snow Crash is credited with the use of avatar to mean an icon to represent a person and the development of Google Earth. The Diamond Age is loosely related, about 80 years later and in a post-scarcity world. Reamde is set in a modern world involving an MMORPG virus and terrorists.

Snow Crash deals with neuro-linguistic programming and the development of languages, which might fall under coding as well.

Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World, Cryptonomicon
Collectively, the first three are known as the Baroque Cycle and are set in the 18th century, during the life of Issac Newton, are follows the lives of three characters while the economic system of the modern world is developed. Cryptonomicon is set between WWII and modern time and focuses on the development of cryptocurrency.

Zodiac, Seveneves
Zodiac is Stephenson’s first novel and quite different in tone to the others, though it does deal with a genetically engineered toxic eating bacteria. Seveneves deals with rebuilding the human race from the genetic material of seven women.

The first Stephenson book I read, and many seem to start here, was Snow Crash, the story of Hiro Protagonist (yes, really) and Y.T. and their mission to save the world from becoming infected with a neuro-linguistic virus. It’s a non-linear timeline, in the beginning, hitting important events over a period of time in order of their importance rather than their timing. The geekiness of the story and the blending of ancient languages and modern hacking fascinated me.

The next book I read was Cryptonomicon, which, admittedly, was a bit intimidating for me, a person who reads a bit on the slower side because it’s over 1100 pages, but I enjoyed it immensely. Moving between WWII and the program to hide the fact that Enigma had been broken and the modern-day effort to build a cryptocurrency system funded by gold lost in the Philippines during WWII. It’s quite interesting how the two times intersect.

From there, I went onto the Baroque Cycle which is set in the mid-1600s-early 1700s following the lives of three people whose lives intersect with each other and with people like Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, and with the development of the stock market and the modern financial system. The books are vast in scope and setting and quite a bit more interesting than the description indicates. Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle are set in the same slightly alternate reality as there is at least one immortal that appears in both and, while possibly not related, the main characters in all four books have the same surname.

Next for me was Diamond Age, loosely related to Snow Crash, set in a post-scarcity world where matter printers can manipulate atoms so no one goes without the basics of life. Education serves as the catalyst for change in the social order.

Reamde is probably my favorite, tied with Snow Crash, at least. One review called it ’14 Die Hards stacked on top of each other’ and I’d have to agree. The ‘damsel in distress’ is clever and self-rescuing, which is wonderful. I also like that the book deals with the fall out of the adventures on the characters, which is rare.

Zodiac is an eco-thriller, told from the first-person whereas the others are the third person. It is more informal in tone. It is also a story of the effects of zealots on their causes, themselves, and on those around them.

Stephenson doesn’t talk down to his readers. He is also capable of inserting five pages of backstory between characters introducing themselves. His books can be quite challenging but are generally worth the effort.

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