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Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Thursday, 05 February 2009, 9:30 pm
by DavidTate
Eric, I see that you list Neal Stephenson as an author of some reputation whom you have not yet read. You also note that cyberpunk, in general, gives you a pain. Fair enough.

You should probably skip Snow Crash; I can't imagine you liking it much. I haven't read The Diamond Age, so I can't comment on it. I did read Cryptonomicon, though, and I think it a rather extraordinary work. It has many excellences, and a couple of flaws. The excellences seem to me the sort that you might appreciate.

For one thing, it values the manner of the telling, for its own sake. There is a famous (or infamous) passage in which several pages are devoted to the correct way to eat Cap'n Crunch cereal. To me, at least, this is not boring or self-indulgent -- it's more the sort of thing you might find in a Jack Vance restaurant scene.

For another, Stephenson's use of language is far above the norm. Even his most casual tone shows evidence of extremely careful word choice, and his nonsense names make me think of Gene Wolfe and Vance.

I tried to read the Baroque Cycle; I bogged down near the beginning of The Confusion. There were many excellent passages in the part I read, but the whole was simply too bulky; it wore me down.

You mentioned that, for some things, you would rather read nonfiction than cyberpunk. This suggests a tactic: for an easy introduction to Stephenson, I'd suggest that you read his nonfiction essay "Mother Earth, Mother Board", available online at If you don't like his nonfiction, you probably won't like his fiction either.

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Monday, 05 July 2010, 1:25 am
by DavidTate
FWIW, I have embarked on reading Stephenson's tome Anathem. I'm about 1/4 of the way through it, and am loving it -- but there remains a distinct possibility that I will end up throwing it against the wall at some point. Much will depend on the where he's going and how he wraps it up.

I will say that the invented coinages in the terminology are among the best I can recall.

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Sunday, 15 August 2010, 9:42 pm
by DavidTate
DavidTate wrote:FWIW, I have embarked on reading Stephenson's tome Anathem.
OK, I've finished Anathem. I'm not quite certain what to say about it.

Let's go with Eric's 4 categories:

1. Language use

This one is a mixed score. The first-person narration is competent but not remarkable. However, the vocabulary of the book is (in my opinion) a major achievement. The setting of the work involves a cloistered subculture within a larger secular culture. Stephenson has coined original terms based on Latin and Greek roots to give the flavor of (say) modern monastics speaking Latin. As a secondary goal, he has somewhat disguised mathematical and philosophical concepts from our own past in order to help them appear 'new' to the reader. I think this part of the novel is a tour-de-force, with only one or two minor mis-steps. The title itself is related to both 'anthem' and 'anathema'.

2. Plot

The overall arc of the plot is excellent. There are a couple of dry spells, and some unnecessary (to my eye) wanderings, but overall the story is interesting and involving. The reader's final impression will probably be more influenced by the philosophical content than the story, but that's not because the story is particularly weak. There are some fantastical events that might border on the incredible, but they are sufficiently set up by the story that I'm willing to give them a pass.

3. Characterization

This is clearly the weakest aspect of the novel. Our Protagonist is engaging enough, in a Young Adult sort of way, but he is neither complicated nor compelling in himself. That's not necessarily a problem, if he serves primarily as our eyes on the world, but the rest of the cast is not much more interesting as characters. The villains, saints, spear-carriers, boffins, bureaucrats, and [redacted to avoid spoilers] are pretty 2-dimensional across the board.

4. Setting

Wow. What a fascinating world we are shown, and it only gets more interesting as the book progresses -- until the final sections, which will either thrill or annoy readers, depending on their predilections. I haven't read all of Mr. Stephenson's website related to the book (, but I suspect that the novel arose through a confluence of a setting he had in mind and some ideas in the philosophy of science that he wanted to explore. My degrees are in Philosophy and Applied Math, so I fall in the very center of his (presumed) target audience, and I can't be objective on this point.

Using Nero Wolfe's criteria: it gave me pleasure, it informed me, it stimulated my mental processes. That makes it a good book, at least for me.

I suspect this will be a polarizing work, with people who find the physics, philosophy, and geopolitics intriguing rating this book quite highly. Those who don't care about math or philosophy or physics will generally be bored. Those who object strongly to the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics will probably hate it, unless they are students of the History of Science, in which case the pleasure of spotting many different historical figures/schools under different names will provide some puzzle-type enjoyment.

For me... I think one or two stars, on Eric's scale. I need to let it settle for a while to be sure.

Disclaimer of sorts: I experienced most of this book as Macmillan Audio audiobook, read by Oliver Wyman (primarily) with other voice characterizations. The reading was generally very well done (with a few odd exceptions), and the snippets of music between sections added a nice atmosphere. I finished the book in print edition, but I'm sure the immersive audio contributed to my appreciation of the book. Checking the website page for this book (, I see that the listener reviews of the audiobook are strongly bipolar -- either "awful" or "great". I'm not surprised, and I have to side with the 'pro' contingent.

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Monday, 16 August 2010, 6:18 am
by owlcroft
I can see I will have to try some Stephenson, soon rather than late. Gad! "So many books, so little time." Between the baseball season, which really eats my time in both watching and discussions forums, and a current re-read of the Nero Wolfe saga, I'm behindhand--then, besides the dozens waiting on the shelves, I keep acquiring new ones. (I have Beyond Black up for when I wrap up my Wolfe spree.) But I'll get there, I'll get there.

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Friday, 04 January 2013, 7:27 am
by ArnoKA
I have nothing to add to David Tate's excellent evaluations, just a sorrowful postscript:

Stephenson's latest novel, REAMDE, is an action-packed technothriller, 1000+ pages of unremitting brutal violence.

And presently I saw in Google that his next project shall be CLANG, a "swordfighting video game". so, sadly, I fear that Stephenson is coming
to same conclusion as M.A. Foster: writing SF novels doesn't pay enough.

Happy New Year to everybody!

Arno, an old Finn.

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Friday, 17 January 2014, 12:42 am
by armia741
I'm writing this from work, so forgive me if I'm not too coherent ;-) Just wanted to point you in that direction, giving that the site and forum search turned up nothing - maybe spelling errors on my side?

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Friday, 17 January 2014, 3:00 am
by ArnoKA
Would somebody with better knowledge of English language explain to me what
armia741 is trying to say, please!

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Friday, 17 January 2014, 10:04 pm
by DavidTate
ArnoKA wrote:Would somebody with better knowledge of English language explain to me what
armia741 is trying to say, please!

Sorry, Arno -- no idea. For that particular comment, your English is as good as mine.

But while you're here -- could you recommend an English translation of the Kalevala? I'd hate to pick one up at random that doesn't do justice to the original.

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Saturday, 18 January 2014, 5:51 am
by armia741
Eric, I see that you list Neal Stephenson as an author of some reputation whom you have not yet read. You also note that cyberpunk, in general, gives you a pain. Fair enough.


Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Saturday, 18 January 2014, 8:21 am
by ArnoKA
David, you got me there, but I promise, coming monday, I'll try to contact some experts.
I hope to answer you then.

Your's ArnoKA

Arno K. Ahonius, an old Finn

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Saturday, 18 January 2014, 12:15 pm
by Terry Tornado
David Tate wrote
could you recommend an English translation of the Kalevala? I'd hate to pick one up at random that doesn't do justice to the original

I don't know Finnish, so I can't comment on fidelity to the original, but for a verse translation that is eminently readable in English, let me recommend the 1963 translation by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr.

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Monday, 20 January 2014, 7:53 am
by ArnoKA
On English Translation of KALEVALA

A fine Finnish philologist, Rauni Vornanen, has said: “The Finnish language is full of mammoth bones!” meaning, of course, that Finnish is incredibly archaic language. It is as if an intelligent Briton could understand and speak the Anglosaxon language of Alfred the great. Many words of ancient usage would be obscure, but a modern Finn should catch the meaning from the context.

David, I think I have quite good news for you. I phoned Suomen Kalevalaseura, (the Finnish Kalevala-society) where a charming and very helpful lady told me that the best translation, especially for an American would be by a British poet, Keith Bosley, published by the Oxford University Press in 2008. AND I suppose you are pleased to hear that there is a very new voice recording (American) by Naxos.

The lady told me that a translation by a Finn, Eino Friberg, is also hold to be fine by many experts.

My Finnish webmaster, Elisa Ltd, be curse of Allah upon them, has broken my
connection with the net every fifth minute. I hope I can send this before it is tuesday there.

Your’s, Arno

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Monday, 20 January 2014, 7:09 pm
by DavidTate
ArnoKA wrote:On English Translation of KALEVALA ...
Many thanks, Arno. I'll see if I can track down a copy.

For what it's worth, I'm told that Icelandic is also "full of mammoth bones". Modern Icelanders can read the Old Norse sagas in the original with less difficulty than a modern American trying to read Chaucer, or perhaps even Shakespeare.

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Wednesday, 22 January 2014, 1:44 pm
by ArnoKA
Well, David, I may be ultra-chauvinist now, but I want to stress that in Finnish the bones are literally mammoth's ones, coming from the time when the last mammoths were still roaming in Siberia.
For example, many foreigners have said that "äiti", the Finnish word for "mother", is the most beautiful word of the language. Be that true or not, äiti is a neologism, coming from proto-german word
"aithi". The older word, "emo", is still used when speaking of animals. But when a modern Finn hears somebody to say "Oi emoni, kantajani!", he certainly understands that the speaker is meaning
his mother.

The Icelandic Sagas were written in thirteenth century, though admittedly from older sources. From which animal did the bones come? Wild horses? Cows shipped in from Norway?

Arno Ahonius, former engineer, now happily retired.

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Tuesday, 28 January 2014, 6:39 am
by ArnoKA
I would like, if I may, still remain on KALEVALA for a while. I seem to remember that Tolkien was very keen on Finnish language and especially on KALEVALA. In The fellowship of the Ring Queen Galadriel sings "Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen!", which doesn't sound very Finnish-like to me. True, Lassi Surinen could very nearly be a name for a Finnish male, and of course there is alliteration enough. But alliteration is no Finnish monopoly; Beowulf alliterated with the best.

Re: Neal Stephenson

PostPosted: Sunday, 05 October 2014, 7:56 pm
by DavidTate
As an example of the kind of writing I very much enjoy in Stephenson's works, I offer the following short paragraph from page 12 of his recent (non-SF) novel REAMDE:
Richard's ex-girlfriends were long gone, but their voices followed him all the time and spoke to him, like Muses or Furies. It was like having seven superegos arranged in a firing squad before a single beleaguered id, making sure he didn't enjoy that last cigarette.