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Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing
Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 326 pages

Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing
Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's background shows clearly in his writing. He was born in Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency (NSA), and grew up in a family that included biochemistry, physics, and electrical engineering professors. His own studies included physics and geography.

Stephenson is the author of Zodiac, Snow Crash, and the Hugo award-winning The Diamond Age. He also writes with his uncle J. Frederick George under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. Stephenson currently lives in the Seattle area with his family.

Neal Stephenson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Anathem
SF Site Review: Anathem
SF Site Review: Anathem
SF Site Review: Snow Crash
SF Site Review: Quicksilver
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Interview: Neal Stephenson
SF Site Review: Cryptonomicon
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Diamond Age

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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In his novels, Neal Stephenson is famous for his absorbing infodumps -- pages going into detail on say, the technical details of aspects of cryptography, or on the experience of eating Cap'n Crunch. Show, don't tell, they say, but there have always been authors who could make telling great fun, and Stephenson is one of those. So it's not a surprise to find him a fine writer of nonfiction, as Some Remarks, his first collection, amply demonstrates. (Of course, this is not precisely news -- several of the essays appeared in Wired and got considerable notice at that time, and the book length essay In the Beginning was the Command Line is also well known and much respected.)

Here are collected 18 pieces, ranging in time of first appearance (or composition) from 1993 to 2012 (two are original to this book; ranging in length from one sentence to well over a hundred pages; and varying in form as well: three short stories, a couple of interviews, an introduction to another writer's book, a transcribed lecture, and essays both short-form and long-form.

The longest piece is "Mother Earth, Mother Board," which looks at the process of laying a cable (specifically the FLAG (Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe) cable, from England to Japan. The essay addresses specific "on the ground" issues, like the people and technology involved in the underground path across Thailand, as well as undersea issues, like the math involved in determining a minimum "slack" course across the ocean bottom. It also looks at the business complexities of the project -- and at the historical background of undersea cables, particular the mid 19th Century rivalry between Wildman Whitehouse and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). Fascinating stuff, well worth the nearly 50,000 words devoted to it. The shortest piece is all of 34 words, "the first sentence of a thriller that I will never complete"... for obvious reasons, as it's set in J.R.R. Tolkien's Shire.

The other two short stories are complete, and both are enjoyable enough if not brilliant -- Stephenson's introduction confesses to a weakness as a short fiction writer after all. "Spew" is about a man who gets a job as a "patrolman on the information highway," in this case sort of a VR-enhanced web (in a story from 1994); while "The Great Simoleon Caper" concerns a plot to create a new currency. Both stories fit this nonfiction collection well, in that much of their value lies with their engagement with futuristic tech/economics, as opposed to their story-telling strength.

Also here is a set of extracts from one of his other famous very long essays, "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell." (His third famous long essay, In the Beginning was the Command Line, has already been published as a separate book.) "Metaphysics in the Royal Society 1715-2010" takes a quite different than usual look at some aspects of the rivalry between Newton and Leibniz, in particular examining some of Leibniz's stranger ideas. Ideas that, Stephenson argues, are more interesting and, in some ways, contemporary than people credit. This is the sort of thing that makes books like these really worthwhile -- telling me about something I not only didn't know anything about, but didn't know was even there TO know anything about. (By contrast, I knew there were undersea cables like FLAG, even though I certainly learned a lot in "Mother Earth, Mother Board" that I had never known.)

The book also includes a series of more miscellaneaous pieces -- interviews and lectures and memoirish stuff and occasional writing, as well as a few more speculative pieces. It is a comprehensively interesting collection, a great representation of Stephenson's writerly voice and of his interests and enthusiasms. Definitely worth reading.

Copyright © 2013 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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