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.
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.