Some Remarks – Neal Stephenson

2012_some remarks ukIt’s a privilege to be in the company of those smarter than you, especially when your host turns out to be so personable, and in this new collection of his shorter work, writer Neal Stephenson, better known for his epic novels, invites us to join him as he discusses his diverse interests and, in a reprinted online interview, what his readers have asked of him, a means of communication he finds more efficient than individual responses as he explains in the concluding Why I Am a Bad Correspondent.

With so much on offer, it is perhaps churlish to start with the cautionary note that mixing story, essay and biography, all written in the same prose style without information to delineate which is which can sometimes wrong foot the reader, but it is offset by noting that had such introductory clarifications been included, overall I’ve not found a collection of essays as readable and enjoyable since Carl Sagan’s Billions and Billions or Arthur C Clarke’s Greetings, Carbon Based Bipeds! High praise indeed.

Launching off with the call to arms for office workers to demand changes to their toxic deskbound lives in Arsebestos, he then embraces the history in Metaphysics in the Royal Society 1715-2010, in some ways a companion piece to his Baroque cycle, as he, by his own admission, struggles to condense decades of research and scholarship into a few pages, an impossible task encompassing Newton, Leibniz, calculus and correspondence, through Gödel to Feynman but he succeeds in rendering them alive and vivacious, leading to his simple conclusion that sometimes the right answer may be obtained through poor methodology simply by random insight or chance.

Both In The Kingdom of Mao Bell and Mother Earth, Mother Board are more up to date, examining how the Internet has developed and expanded from Asia across the world, the first with the observation that beyond the former bamboo curtain the word “network” is synonymous with sinister undertones of government infiltration, the latter Stephenson’s personal journey through the territory as he witnesses firsthand the technical and economic challenges and the many levels of coordination required from many dedicated and determined teams and individuals, one of the few “big projects” of the type that so rarely move forward against the ingrained resistance of the deeply conservative and unimaginative modern zeitgeist.

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This theme is also discussed in Locked In where he demonstrates the breadth and depth of his knowledge (as always acknowledging and thanking his specialist advisors) of the space programme, focusing on how processes have become entrenched to the point where more efficient and practical alternatives are disregarded. That essay is tied with Innovation Starvation, where he recognises that complaining about the apparent demise of the space age “is to expose oneself to attack form those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled” before he talks of the inspiration provided by “the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF” and the work of Asimov, Heinlein and more recently Gibson, and both are reminiscent of Clarke’s classic essay Failures of Nerve and Imagination, asking where are the dreamers who will launch the future.

Indeed, Stephenson’s short stories are in the mould of those legendary names, Clarke and Heinlein: introduce the characters and the dilemma, then step up and solve it with science, happy ending and those with the knowledge and insight take a bow before delivering a pithy bon mot, though where his predecessors would do it with rockets and innovative engineering, Stephenson writes codecs, so it comes as no surprise that Spew and The Great Simoleon Caper take us to his familiar haunt of a data operator getting mixed up in metaverse shenanigans, though fortunately not so over their heads as in Snow Crash, though the tone and mood of Spew in particular recalls that breakthrough novel.

Science fiction and the fandom movement are directly addressed – both as the subject and as the intended audience – in the lecture delivered to the students of Gresham College and in the essays It’s All Geek to Me and Turn In, Tune In, Veg Out, where he speaks of the enthusiasm with which we invest in our chosen interests. Whether he is discussing the different responses to the film 300 of fandom and critics and how the weight of backstory crippled The Phantom Menace, his affection is never in doubt, as he observes how science fiction is inherently different from horror in that one expects characters to act stupidly, the other for them to act smartly.

This topic was picked up during Stephenson’s recent appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival, where he was asked to compare the actions of Ellen Ripley, the example he used in his essays, against the haphazard performance of the crew of the Prometheus, where he said that while the attempt to make them seem more humanly flawed and less aloof, as scientists are often portrayed in film, may have been overplayed to the point where their roles in the film were less convincing as a result.

Recounting his childhood in a Midwestern college town, he comments on what he calls “the Promethean consensus,” the various the cautionary tales too often repeated throughout history and literature that those who seek knowledge will be punished for the act, a myth he counters with his undisputable observation that “literacy and education make people more effective,” which is often the reason that those in power wish to keep those under them in ignorance.

While the works here are sometimes complex, Stephenson never sets out to obfuscate or bamboozle but to enlighten, and the feel of the collection is perhaps best summed up with his promise of “something cool that I want to share with you for no reason other than making the spark jump between minds.”

Some Remarks is now available from Atlantic Books

Please follow the link for our interview with Neal



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