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Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson(1959- )
Neal Stephenson came from a family of engineers and hard scientists who he calls “propeller heads”. He was graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in Geography and a minor in physics. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his family. He has started a new company called Subutai which developed a platform (PULP) for creating interactive novels. Here’s Neal Stephenson’s website.

Quicksilver: Information overload

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

[The audiobook contains Book 1 of the print edition of the Quicksilver omnibus. Book 2 is King of the Vagabonds. Book 3 is Odalisque.]

I’m a scientist by profession and I love history. Thus, I’m fascinated by the history of science, especially the era of Isaac Newton et al. So, Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver should be just my thing and I was fully expecting to love this book (it’s been on my list for years), but I’m sad to say that I was disappointed in this first installment of The Baroque Cycle, though I still have high hopes for the remaining books.

Quicksilver is well-researched and well-written and chock full of plenty of stuff I love to read about: 17th and 18th century scholars and politicians exploring the way the world works. What ... Read More

King of the Vagabonds: Great characters, still teachy

King of the Vagabonds by Neal Stephenson

King of the Vagabonds is the second installment of Neal Stephenson’s ambitious and epic Baroque Cycle. I was disappointed with Quicksilver, the first book, because, though it was a thorough and realistic historical fiction, it had neither a compelling main character nor a cohesive plot. Thus, it felt like a textbook, except that I wasn’t sure which anecdotes about the real historical figures were factual and which were fictional. In other words, if we’re going to skip the plot, I’d rather read about 17th century scientific discoveries in a non-fictional account. After all, there are plenty of interesting ones.

King of the Vagabonds is, therefore, quite an improvement, mostly because it has two extremely entertaining main characters: Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe (who is, literally, half-cocked)... Read More

The Confusion: Best novel in THE BAROQUE CYCLE

The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

If Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson’s BAROQUE CYCLE, focused on events in England and continental Europe during the 17th century, The Confusion is Stephenson taking the time to provide a more global context. Or half of it is. The Confusion combines two novels from the cycle, The Juncto and Bonanza. The Juncto follows Eliza’s exploits in Europe, while everyone’s favorite vagabond, Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, stars in Bonanza.

Eliza’s son has been kidnapped by Lothar von Hacklheber, and she employs every means at her disposal to ruin him. Eliza is the brains of this novel, and she manipulates the nobility, cryptographers, and philosophers to regain her son. Eliza is ri... Read More

The System of the World: The end of an excellent series

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson

The System of the World combines the final three “novels” — Solomon’s Gold, Currency, and The System of the World — of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. The novel’s title refers to the third volume of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Most people remember Isaac Newton today because of the Principia Mathematica. In it, Newton explains the universal law of gravitation and the laws of motion. However, by the end of Newton’s life, he devoted his time to theology, alchemy, and running the British Mint. Readers that missed Isaac Newton’s presence in The Confusion will be happy to see him back, and more dramatically back than ever. He has transformed from an odd but brilliant scientist into... Read More

The Mongoliad: Mostly successful

THE MONGOLIAD by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and others

The series of books known as THE FOREWORLD SAGA was a grand experiment in collaboration and serialized storytelling involving more than half a dozen authors, including Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. So far it includes three novels (individually titled The Mongoliad, Books One, Two, and Three) which relate the central tale set during a near-history version of the Mongol invasions of the mid-thirteenth century. Also available are several short stand-alone prequels and "sidequests," some in graphic format, which are set in the world during different time periods. Ambition in both scope and execution, the experiment seems to me to have been mostly successful, if not wholly so.

The story is epic and global in natu... Read More

The Beast of Calatrava: A FOREWORLD sidequest

The Beast of Calatrava by Mark Teppo

Mark Teppo’s The Beast of Calatrava is one of the “sidequest” stories associated with the FOREWORLD SAGA universe shared by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, and others. (Bill recently reviewed the novels in the series.)

This story is set in the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista. The Knights of the Templar have arrived to cleanse the land of the Muslims who took the region twenty years earlier. Ramiro Ibáñez de Tolosa, a former knight who was grossly disfigured in that losing battle, has been living in the area as a goatherd while secretly killing m... Read More

The Assassination of Orange: A Foreworld sidequest

The Assassination of Orange by Joseph Brassey

The Assassination of Orange is another short (only two hours in audio) “sidequest” in the FOREWORLD universe shared by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, and others. Like the other sidequest I read, The Assassination of Orange is strictly historical fiction — there are no supernatural elements. It stands alone, so you don’t need to have read any of the other FOREWORLD stories.

This story, as the title foreshadows, is about the assassination of Prince William of Orange (aka William the Silent) who was targeted by Spain because he led the Dutch revolt which sparked the Eighty Years’ War. Sir Roger Williams of England was sen... Read More

Zodiac: The Eco Thriller: An accomplished blueprint

Zodiac: The Eco Thriller by Neal Stephenson

Sangamon Taylor is a professional asshole, he is known as the granola James Bond, and he knows how to use your child’s aquarium to filter PCBs from his body. Zodiac: The Eco Thriller is Neal Stephenson’s second novel as well as a clear blueprint for its successor, the cyberpunk classic, Snow Crash.

Sangamon Taylor works for GEE, an activist group that tries to act as a check against the toxic waste Boston industrialists dump into Boston Harbor. GEE, whose members are often English majors and leftover hippies from the sixties that care about the environment, man, stages media events and organizes non-violent civil disobedience. They are well meaning, but they really rely on Sangamon, their trained chemist and impromptu engineer, to collect and analyze samples of toxic wast... Read More

Snow Crash: Required reading for cyberpunk and speculative fiction fans

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Readers considering whether they should read Neal Stephenson’s breakthrough novel, Snow Crash, would do well to read the novel’s opening chapters about the Deliverator. Rarely has a sales pitch been so blatantly — and so masterfully — launched at the start of a novel. Even James Bond must envy such a rich opening gambit.

For some readers, the remainder of Snow Crash will not live up to the pacing of the opening sequence. In fact, I’d even go so far as to suggest that Stephenson’s hero, Hiro Protagonist — who carries a katana and who is supposed to be “type A on steroids” — does not live up to his introduction. Yet, the style and sheer attitude of the opening is a joy to read, and this mood, which skates the line between irony and geek enthusiasm, is maintained throughout.

The plot is a litt... Read More

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

In The Diamond Age, anything, no matter how trivial, could be made from diamonds drawn from molecular feeds. This will be the era in which humanity masters nanotechnology. On the one hand, this is a time of plenty and technological progress, but it is also a time of great illiteracy as well. With the rise of universal access to the molecular feed, the governments and nations that we know today will lose their purpose and become supplanted by culture-based societies that have territory around the world.

John Percival Hackworth, for example, is a Neo-Victorian engineer based in Shanghai. He has been commissioned to build a primer that will teach the Neo-Victorians’ children to think independently. More than a book, the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is interactive and adapts its storyline for the young... Read More

Cryptonomicon: Pretty big accomplishment

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

"This code business is some tricky shit."  ~Bobby Shaftoe

Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is a lengthy historical fiction set during both World War II and the late 1990s with much of the action taking place in the Philippines. In the 1940s, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, colleague of Alan Turing, is hired by the U.S. Navy to help break Axis codes. Meanwhile, Marine Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, who’s too enthusiastic and courageous for his own good, doesn’t realize that his troop’s job is to make it look like the U.S. hasn’t broken the codes, but just happens to always be in the right place at the right time.

Waterhouse and Shaftoe know each other only superficially, but their descendants, who’ve noticeably inherited some of their traits, meet in the 1990s storyli... Read More

Anathem: Don’t skip the Note

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

In his “Note to the Reader” at the start of Anathem, Neal Stephenson writes “if you are accustomed to reading works of speculative fiction and enjoy puzzling things out on your own, skip this Note.” My advice is this: Don’t skip the Note. In spite of years of speculative fiction reading, I found myself constantly referring to the novel’s chronology and glossary, not to mention online summaries and Stephenson’s acknowledgements page.

Here’s why. Our narrator, Fraa Erasmus, is an avout, a fid, and an Edharian. He is a Hylaean, a Protan, and a Decenarian. He lives in the mathic world, not extramuros. Nor does he live in the Sæcular world, though he was born there. It is worth noting that Erasmus is also not a Procian, an Ita, nor a Hierarch. He is also not a member of th... Read More

Reamde: A fun, engaging thriller

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

After a decade of novels set in 18th century Europe and in alternate universes, Neal Stephenson triumphantly returns as a bestselling author to contemporary America.

But he doesn’t stay in Seattle for long. Reamde wastes no time crossing borders, taking us — usually illegally — to Xiamen, the Philippines, and British Columbia. Chronologically, our first border crossing is Richard Forthrast’s decision to move to Canada to dodge the draft. Working as a wilderness guide, Richard discovers a smugglers’ route from the prohibition days, and he makes a fortune backpacking marijuana across the 49th parallel. He later goes straight, spends ten years playing World of Warcraft, and invests in a ski lodge.

However, Richard’s greatest achievement is “T’Rain,” a MMORPG. T’Rain is like World of Warcraft, except that it caters to, rather than r... Read More

Some Remarks: The glory of infodumps separated from narrative

Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

Some Remarks compiles eighteen short texts by Neal Stephenson. Aside from a couple short stories, this is a book of essays, interviews, and speeches. These short texts should please most Stephenson fans because they combine humor, insight, and exposition — in other words, these are infodumps gloriously freed from narrative.

Hesitant readers would do well to test this book by reading its opening essay, “Arsebestos.” Stephenson points out that although sitting all day is unhealthy, much of corporate America requires its office drones to sit in cubicles. People would be better off doing their work while ambling along on a treadmill, as Stephenson does, but managers are too cowardly to risk changing the status quo. After all, what if walking leads to knee problems? The essay, as... Read More

SevenEves: Our scientists love it. Others don’t.

SevenEves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson doesn't shy away from big concepts, long timelines, or larger than life events. His most recent novel, SevenEves, begins with the moon blowing up. Readers never find out what blew up the moon, because all too quickly humanity discovers that the Earth will soon be bombarded by a thousand-year rain of meteorites — the remnants of the moon as they collide with each other in space, becoming smaller and smaller — which will turn Earth into an uninhabitable wasteland. Humankind has a 2-year deadline to preserve its cultural legacy and a breeding population. The solution is to make extended life-in-space a possibility. The first two thirds of the book follows a group of astronauts and scientists who are among those who will form the new colony orbiting Earth, waiting a few millennia for it to become habitable again. The last third shows us what has become of humanity after 5,000 ... Read More

Fall, or Dodge in Hell: A super cool concept that eventually collapses

Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson

Richard (“Dodge”) Forthrast, the famous and popular billionaire who created a much-loved video gaming company, unexpectedly dies during a routine medical procedure. Many years previously he had been duped into signing a contract that specified that his brain should be preserved until technology was developed that could scan and upload it to a virtual environment. He never changed his will. Unable to get out of this legal predicament, his family is forced to adhere to his youthful whims.

Dodge’s niece Zula, and her daughter Sophia, who remembers her great-uncle with great fondness, are determined to be part of the creation and evolution of the virtual space where the brains of rich dead people go. Unfortunately, they have a rival — Elmo Shepherd, the man who owns the company that’s got Dodge’s brain. He’s a zealot who’s anxious to create the virtual world as fast as possible... Read More

Steampunk: Quick entertaining education on the subgenre du jour

Steampunk edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

Steampunk is an anthology of, well, steampunk stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. If you hurry, you can still get to this first anthology before the second one, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, appears in mid November. Based on the quality of the stories in this collection, I heartily recommend checking it out, especially if you’ve been a bit bemused (or possibly amused) by all the people wearing odd Victorian costumes at SFF conventions nowadays, or if you have at best a vague idea of what steampunk exactly entails. If you’re one of those people who’s interested in, but not entirely sure about, the new hot subgenre du jour (like me, prior to reading Steampunk), this anthology is here to take you by the hand and give you a quick, entertaining education. And oh, it also contains some truly excel... Read More

More novels by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson InterfaceInterface — (1994) As Stephen Bury. Publisher: From his triumphant debut with Snow Crash to the stunning success of his latest novel, Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson has quickly become the voice of a generation. In this now-classic thriller, he and fellow author J. Frederick George tell a shocking tale with an all-too plausible premise. There’s no way William A. Cozzano can lose the upcoming presidential election. He’s a likable midwestern governor with one insidious advantage — an advantage provided by a shadowy group of backers. A biochip implanted in his head hardwires him to a computerized polling system. The mood of the electorate is channeled directly into his brain. Forget issues. Forget policy. Cozzano is more than the perfect candidate. He’s a special effect.


Neal Stephenson The CobwebThe Cobweb — (1996) As Stephen Bury. Publisher: From his triumphant debut with Snow Crash to the stunning success of his latest novel, Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson has quickly become the voice of a generation. In this now-classic political thriller, he and fellow author J. Frederick George tell a savagely witty, chillingly topical tale set in the tense moments of the Gulf War. When a foreign exchange student is found murdered at an Iowa University, Deputy Sheriff Clyde Banks finds that his investigation extends far beyond the small college town — all the way to the Middle East. Shady events at the school reveal that a powerful department is using federal grant money for highly dubious research. And what it’s producing is a very nasty bug. Navigating a plot that leads from his own backyard to Washington, D.C., to the Gulf, where his Army Reservist wife has been called to duty, Banks realizes he may be the only person who can stop the wholesale slaughtering of thousands of Americans. It’s a lesson in foreign policy he’ll never forget.


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