Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The new Stephenson

Neal Stephenson writes learned, lengthy novels, featuring great technical detail and set in eras other than our own. Cryptonomicon, a very large book, explores cryptography in World War 2. His Baroque Cycle, set in 17th and 18th century Britain continues to daunt me with its 3000 pages. If anything can get you to attempt these mighty books, John Derbyshire's review is the thing for it. Thanks mostly to length I haven't read these books, I read and loved Snow Crash and the Diamond Age, books that I suspect Stephenson considers learning projects as both are listed under "other works" on his books page. These books are also more explicitly speculative fiction as they are set in the future and feature all sorts of technical toys

His upcoming book, Anathem, takes the speculative element from his earlier books and the philosophical exploration elements of his more recent works. It is set on a planet much like Earth where a group of monks are starting to interact with the secular world. These monks are a little peculiar as they seem to be math monks, dedicated to the study of math rather than the glory of God.

So far ( I am about a third of the way through) it is an excellent read. The philosophical debates and political conflict among the cloister's various factions are fun to read, the characters are interesting (the main character's story is a classic bildungsroman) and Stephenson's humor is well used. He pokes fun at IT, modern culture, and modern politics in a way that fits in well with the story. One of his themes is similar to that of Susan Jacoby's Age of American Unreason, which argues that modern culture is anti-learning. The learning centric monks looks quite different than the entertainment addicted proles who dominate the secular world.

As one of the principal themes of the book is math, I suspect many will be leery of starting it. Don't be. He approaches the subject almost entirely from a non-quantitative way (although for the curious he provides some narrative proofs in the appendix) and the debates are understandable and interesting to a non-specialist (note: my math grades were my lowest in school).


Matt said...

Nice review; I'll look forward to this one, though I'm still waiting for my local library to get a copy of Interface. I've read almost all of his other works (Zodiac is my other favorite besides Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash), but couldn't even get through the first book in the Baroque Cycle...too tedious.

Tripp said...


It's more of a halfway review at this point. It could always go to hell in the second half, although I doubt it will.

I need to try Cryptonomicon again. I started it at the wrong time.