My first contact with the fiction of Neal Stephenson was with his post-cyberpunk drama “Snow Crash”. In many ways a pleasant read for fans of William Gibson, while still adding a new distinctive voice to the genre. Despite somewhat hazy memories (after all I read it in the early nineties), I recall it exploring several interesting ideas, the pizza delivery guys gone crazy not being one of them. Earlier attempts “The big U” and “Zodiac” were unremarkable by today´s standards and not enjoyed by many except die-hard completists. For me personally, the feeling that Neal Stephenson mattered came with his next novel “The Diamond Age”. Even though published in 1995 it exhibited a visionary streak that could surprise you even today, with the depictions of nanotechnology, matter compilers and cybernetics combined with strange and hidden subcultures. I still remember this book as both entertaining and esoteric.
“Cryptonomicon” published in 1999 dealt with cryptography, code breaking and Nazi gold by way of Alan Turing and modern day data havens. In essence an intellectual suspense story with a backdrop of Bletchley Park Military Intelligence. Spanning from WW II to the present, Western Europe to Asia and treatise on cryptography to modern day suspense story, it´s an interesting ride that never becomes boring. The story somehow manages to balance intellect and entertainment in a way that makes you rush forward through the many pages of this fairly thick volume.
His next work, “The Baroque Cycle”, was published in 2003/2004, and widened both the scope and the word-count of his oeuvre considerably. Actually presented as a series of 8 novels published in 3 volumes, Stephenson himself refused to call it a trilogy. The books are a wonderful mix of historical fiction and science fiction, with a blend of fictional and historical characters and events. The mix of styles (very often bordering on pastiche) could be off-putting to the serious reader, but might just as well be seen as enriching the work. Characters from 17th and 18th century Europe like scientists Newton, Leibniz, Hooke and Huygens rub shoulders with various Kings and Dukes of the time, in a sprawling story of political intrigue and the birth of both Natural Science and the Royal Mint. This is without a doubt the endeavor of a madman, trying to incorporate an impossible amount of real history, fictionalized period drama and philosophy of science into a few thousand pages. It´s not difficult to see how this work could be criticized for lack of focus and its mix of the high and the low, but I can´t help to admire the audacity of what it´s aspiring to do.
After dealing with “The Baroque Cycle”, which must have been a pretty extreme effort, it´s not hard to understand that the next book from Stephenson didn´t arrive until four years later. “Anathem” is again a science fiction story, concerned with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and different philosophical ideas of reality. While owning a copy of this book, I must confess to not having read it yet. Maybe it´s just me, but I found the beginning of “Anathem” so uninviting and just plain boring that I quickly put it away for later reading. Sorry to say, that later hasn´t yet arrived, even though I´m sure that I will sometime get around to it.
This leads us to “Reamde”, his latest novel published in 2011. Here we have a 1000+ pages long suspense story, chronicling the adventures of multi-millionaire former marijuana smuggler gone online role-playing game tycoon Richard Forthrast, as he´s desperately trying to save his niece from the Russian mafia and Islamic terrorists. A real roller-coaster of a story taking us from continental North America to China and beyond, covering such topics as MMORPG´s, hacking and credit card theft, internet gaming gold mining and social networks, as well as organized crime, religious terrorism and the US Sovereign Citizen Movement. A lot could be said about Stephenson´s ability to tap into current concerns in an impressive way, but this is still more than anything an entertaining yarn probably destined for a future Hollywood makeover. Reading it is very often pleasurable, even though it´s impossible not to be irritated by its tendency towards longueurs. What should be a fast-paced suspense piece is often interrupted by page after page of detailed descriptions of milieu or events that could easily have been told in a few lines. This creates a weird effect of story-time either rushing forward or suddenly stopping in a bubble of suspended animation. If a character travels from point A to point B in a novel or a movie, you can choose to show the character departing and then arriving, or to show every turn of the wheel and every part of scenery passing through the window. It´s not like we don´t know where this is heading, but it takes us a long time getting there.
The part of the novel that deals with T´Rain, the online game created by Richard Forthrast, tells you about one of the persons creating the underlying story of the game-world. Producing huge amounts of text he is suggested to suffer from graphomania, the obsessive/compulsive impulse to write. Somehow you wonder if this is not Stephenson trying out a little introspection. So, as “Reamde” goes, read it but feel free to skip a few pages when you feel like it.