Saturday, January 07, 2006

On Neal Stephenson
I finished reading the last of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle books today. Though I know a lot of people, whom I know to be quite avid readers and in many cases admirers of Mr. Stephenson's other work, who will disagree with me, I found the trilogy fascinating. One complaint I heard was that the Baroque Cycle broke from the more sci-fi elements of his previous writing, and was therefore less satisfying. Given that it is a work of historical fiction, taking place in the years between 1650-1714, this can't really be avoided, but I didn't find it that big of a break. He wrote the Baroque Cycle, a more-or-less fictionalized history of the budding development of technology, as an (extreme) prequel to Crytonomicon, a more-or-less fictionalized history/modern day story of cryptography. In this context, it makes sense. But it also seems to follow quite well in the tradition of his prior book, The Diamond Age, which fused a resurgance of Victorian principles, an explanation of the development of nanotechnology, and a cyberpunk setting and plot. For people who wanted more sci-fi, cyberpunk goodness, clearly the Baroque Cycle would be a disappointment. For me, though, it was still excellent.

What puts me in awe of Neal Stephenson is his ability to take a huge chunk of historical research, from what seems to be one of the more confusing and turbulent eras of Western European history, and weave two or three fantastically intricate plots through it in such a way as to leave the reader wondering what was truth and what was fiction. These are dense books, so full of plots, characters, and information that they can't possibly be considered a quick read, but they left me with the feeling that I probably had learned something in the end. They make me want to learn more, too, as I realized just how weak my knowledge of European history is. To be able to turn a feud between Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Liebniz over who invented calculus first into adventurously riveting reading, full of political import and far-reaching impact, is surely a gift. To be able to immerse a reader in the court life of England, France, and Austria; the sailing life of a ship full of world-traveling Vagabond schemers; the development of Natural Philosophy and the fall of alchemy in the Royal Society of England; the development of modern currency and financial transaction; and the personal romances of several pairs of people of high and low rank within one overarcing story is, well, amazing.

There are many authors whom I like, and whose work I very much enjoy reading, but there are only a few who inspire actual awe in me. Neal Stephenson is one such. I will never in a million, billion years ever be able to concieve of writing something like he does, but I fervently hope he continues to.

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