Chad Perrin: SOB

20 March 2009

a common difference of opinion about Neal Stephenson

Filed under: Cognition,Geek,Writing — apotheon @ 09:53

In a comment by Scott Schimmel to the recommended books list from earlier this week, he expresses some disagreement with me regarding my opinions of Neal Stephenson’s writing. There seems to be a very common dividing line between two types of Stephenson fans: in one corner are those who like Anathem and don’t have any problem with the way Stephenson went about building an alternate world, complete with new vocabulary, and many of whom list the Baroque Cycle (which I have yet to read) among their favorite Stephenson books; in the other corner are those who take issue specifically with the passel of “made-up words” in Anathem, tend to find the whole book kind of pretentious and overwrought, and almost universally think Snow Crash is his best book.

xkcd's opinion Another correlated difference, it seems to me, is that the fans who dislike the “made-up words” in Anathem seem to like Neal Stephenson’s books in direct proportion to how closely they adhere to the superficial trappings common to the mainstream of what we call speculative fiction, with a near-future science fiction bent that offers significant focus on the new technologies that do not yet exist. As Stephenson strays from that, their opinion of his writing seems to drop, though I would not be comfortable suggesting that this correlation implies any causation at this point.

By contrast, the bunch of people that don’t seem to have any problem with Stephenson’s presentation of the story in Anathem seem to like his books the further they get from anything like mainstream science fiction. This means that, while they tend to really like Anathem, it doesn’t tend to be their favorite Stephenson book, as most of them seem to favor the Baroque Cycle, which seems to offer the same dichotomous focus on both present fiction and historical fiction events intertwined to provide a single, overarching story of two plots, judging by the descriptions of the trilogy that I’ve read. My own favorite Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon, was the first of his writings to take that approach, and I look forward to reading the Baroque Cycle in the relatively near future.

All of his novels (unless there are some I’m forgetting or of which I’m not aware) are, in some respect, science fiction. So far as I’m aware, they all use (speculative) science and engineering as major plot points, almost as characters unto themselves in some respects, even if the science they use is by now obsolete by at least several decades in some cases. The obsolete stuff, though, is definitely not science fiction in the traditional, superficial sense, though, where the focus is on speculative science and engineering of the future.

Another correlative trend, though one that doesn’t translate into as strictly accurate a rule of thumb, is that Stephenson’s earlier novels are more traditional science fiction fare, while his later novels stray further from that. I say it’s not as strictly accurate a rule of thumb because one could argue that Diamond Age is more science-fictiony than Snow Crash, and that Anathem is more science-fictiony than the Baroque Cycle (based on what I know of it) or Cryptonomicon. I think this is a bit too narrowly focused on the most superficial trappings, though, as the actual role of the speculative science and technology in each novel he has written appears to be less traditional for the genre than the last. Understand that I’m basically lumping the Baroque Cycle together with Cryptonomicon, here, since I haven’t actually read it but it seems to be roughly equivalent in terms of what I’m talking about here, judging by what I’ve heard about it.

I find myself wondering what the causal relationships are here. Is there some factor I’ve mentioned that serves as the source of the other factors, at least roughly speaking? Is there some factor I haven’t mentioned, that may not have occurred to me at all, that ties this all together? Are there actually many causal factors, such that what looks like a small number of correlated trends is actually an accidental confluence of a great many unrelated trends? What would Neal Stephenson have to say about all this?

Would this be a good subject for a statistical study, perhaps as thesis work for a psychology Master’s degree?

I had the pleasure of attending a Neal Stephenson reading and signing not too long ago. It was, of course, part of a tour to promote the freshly published Anathem, and it was where I got my autographed copy of the book. If I had thought of this before then, I would have asked him what he thought, myself. Alas, almost nobody had read the book by that point, and these trends had not yet surfaced in a recognizable form (since they really required Anathem to achieve that form, and enough time for people to express their opinions of it). The question simply didn’t exist yet.

Instead, I ended up asking him about whether he intended to write anything like In the Beginning was the Command Line ever again. The answer appears to be “probably not”, and that is apparently a very common question at his readings/signings.

By the way, I note that Anathem has been nominated for a Hugo award, and of the three books I’ve read that were nominated in the Best Novel category this year, I think Anathem most deserves to win. I quite liked the other two, though. Of them, only Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book isn’t in the aforementioned recommended book list as of this writing, and I’m still trying to decide whether to include it in that list. I want to read the Stross book that is also nominated, but I have some other Stross higher up my list of to-read books. I don’t know anything about Zoe’s Tale yet, and in fact haven’t read anything by Scalzi at all at this point.


  1. Most of the time made-up words, capitalized words, and randomly italicized terms correlate with books I don’t like. Can’t speak specifically to Stephenson. There’s one case I’ve found where it doesn’t correlate, however, and that’s when the author only uses new words for concepts that are genuinely different and interesting, and the exploration of those concepts within the book would be cumbersome or difficult without those terms. The one really good example I have of this (I don’t see it done well very often at all) is Fiona Patton’s “Warriors of Estavia” series. She explores a lot of very different familial relationships that don’t have perfect analogues in our society, and I find her use of terminology makes it easier to envision the world rather than cluttering it up or confusing it.

    Comment by heather — 20 March 2009 @ 11:47

  2. I don’t know if it’s so stark a line as all that.

    I really liked Cryptonomicon, for instance (although I do favor Snow Crash and The Diamond Age). And I enjoyed Anathem — I just think I would have enjoyed it more without its sprinklings of suur and fraa. Are they really so different from Sister and Brother as to need to be coined? I doubt it. The only argument for them that I’d lend any weight to is that it might help to establish the alternate world as alien in regards to our own. The counter-argument there, of course, is that it’s a speedbump dropped in the way of suspension of disbelief. After all, these people weren’t speaking English at all, so why is all of their dialogue and inner monologue translated except for these words?

    I have to admit, though, monyafeek made me laugh.

    On the other hand, I didn’t really care for one of his earlier works, Mosaic. I couldn’t really point to a reason; nothing grabbed me. Not the characters, not the plot, not even the high concept, although that was potentially interesting.

    Haven’t read the Baroque Cycle yet. I have it penciled in for this summer. I won’t be able to devote proper attention to it until then. I find Stephenson is a lot like Pynchon — you have to be pretty focused in order for things not to escape you, and chances are something slips by on the first read anyway.

    Comment by Scott — 20 March 2009 @ 03:17

  3. I really liked Cryptonomicon, for instance (although I do favor Snow Crash and The Diamond Age).

    I didn’t say that people who prefer Snow Crash and think there were too many “made-up words” in Anathem couldn’t like Cryptonomicon.

    I just think I would have enjoyed it more without its sprinklings of suur and fraa. Are they really so different from Sister and Brother as to need to be coined?

    If Stephenson were to use terms from Earth religious practice, he probably would have gone with Dom or Don instead of Brother. Would that have really changed things so much for you? Does it really matter that much to you that the guy use the most mundane, common terms with the least requirement for education possible on the part of the reader when he writes a science fiction book?


    . . . and that completely ignores the fact that, in the end of the story, the suurs and fraas actually interacted with people from Earth who wouldn’t have been familiar with the terms. Then, of course, there’s the fact to which I already alluded — that the difference in terms is more than just a superficial renaming of things. They’re terms with a subtly different etymology, for different purposes within a different context, and using terms to name things that are derived from something that is meant to be understood as in some respects diametrically opposed in context cheapens the whole thing.

    There are times when authors capriciously fling invented terms around without their use actually adding anything to the story, but this is not one of those times.

    fter all, these people weren’t speaking English at all, so why is all of their dialogue and inner monologue translated except for these words?

    Those words don’t translate directly. If you’re “translating” them in your head, rather than internalizing their unique meanings, you’re doing it wrong.

    On the other hand, I didn’t really care for one of his earlier works, Mosaic.

    I haven’t read it.

    Comment by apotheon — 20 March 2009 @ 04:37

  4. I guess I was a late-comer to the party as Anathem was the first Neal Stephenson book I “read”. I put read in quotes because I listened to the audiobook. I think this helped with the made-up words because I didn’t have to worry about pronunciation, something that sometimes drives me crazy.

    I loved the book and went to Snow Crash next. I liked that one as well, but it felt less deep, it had a vein of silliness running through it that made me like it a little less.

    I’m guessing from what you said that I would like Cryptonomicon over Baroque Cycle; maybe I’ll give that a shot as my next Stephenson read (I’m trying to pace myself a little so I don’t go into Neal Stephenson overload :) )

    Comment by Matt — 21 March 2009 @ 07:17

  5. Welcome to SOB, Matt.

    I’m guessing from what you said that I would like Cryptonomicon over Baroque Cycle

    I think either you mistyped or misunderstood, or I miscommunicated something. Judging by the trends I’ve seen, I would think it would be likely that you’d like Cryptonomicon over Snow Crash; I can’t really comment very authoritatively on the Baroque Cycle, since I haven’t read it myself yet. Cryptonomicon is my favorite Stephenson novel so far, but judging by the trends I’ve seen I should like the Baroque Cycle at least as much as Cryptonomicon.

    In any case . . . let me know how you like future Stephenson books, if you like, and we’ll see how well that fits in with the trends I’ve observed.

    Comment by apotheon — 21 March 2009 @ 09:51

  6. I would say that I mostly fall in the 2nd category, but I might have a slightly different take on it. I think that Anathem and Cryptonomicon are at the top of the list of his novels (It’s hard for me to say witch is better since I read them so far apart). Next down the list is Diamond Age, then The Baroque cycle and last is Snow Crash. After reading that much of Neal’s work you can see a definite evolution in the complexity he brings to his writing, but for me He went just a little over the top with the Baroque cycle and came back down with Anathem. To me Snow Crash feels like a young adult/ action serial with some depth, but not nearly as much as his latter works, I enjoyed it, but (Note: I already had read Crypto. and Diamond Age) was looking for something more. The other thing that makes me enjoy Neal’s works more then a lot of others is the relatability of his protagonists. This is helped by the depth of backstory he gives his charcters in his more recent projects. Ironically this is probably part of what pushed the Baroque Cycle down the list for me as well, despite there extensive history, I never really connected with the charcters the way I did in Crypto. or Anathem.

    Regarding the made up words, it never really got in the way (or added) to the story/character development for me so I was cool with it.

    What I guess I’m saying is I think there is definite difference in the early vs. latter style of Neal’s writing, but I think it has more to do with the complexity of the world/character development then it does the words themselves or the fact that it is traditional sci-fi or not.

    Just my take,

    Steven John

    Comment by Steven John — 25 March 2009 @ 10:04

  7. Thanks for your take, Steven. I agree that there’s a difference in general complexity of storytelling, and in plot and character development, between Stephenson’s earlier works and his latter works. I guess it’s another factor to consider, and seems more likely to have a causal relationship with the general classes of people likely to like or dislike a particular book in contrast with others, at least at first glance.

    Comment by apotheon — 25 March 2009 @ 11:50

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