Saturday, January 14, 2017

Neal Stephenson: A New Book and a Retrospective

Neal Stephenson: A New Book and a Retrospective

While weeding through my e-mail earlier today, including the dozen or so I seem to get from Barnes & Noble every day for the priveledge of being a "member", I noticed that one of them was advertising a new book by Neal Stephenson, my favorite author. If you don't know who Neal Stephenson is and have never read one of his books, you should really stop what you are doing and go read one, any one. If you like reading, are interested in things like cryptocurrency and interesting new technology like Steamit then he is definitely the author for you.

Neal Stephenson, in addition to being an author, has worked as an advisor for Blue Origin and as the Chief Futurist of Magic Leap among other things. Although he is primarily known as a science fiction writer, his books cover a wide range of subjects, including currency, cryptography, philosophy and the history of science among others. He even forshadowed cryptocurrency in his 1999 book Cryptonomicon and this was the first book of his I read (though it was not the first that he wrote).

The books (unless otherwise note, all summaries are from Wikipedia or Amazon):

1 - Cryptonomicron

I discovered Neal Stephenson and this book completely by random. I was out of town for a work related trip and I had forgotten to bring a book. I was in the local mall for lunch and stopped by the bookstore there (at that time it would have been a Walden Books or B Dalton) to look for one. I picked up Cryptonomicon because it was thick and the cover looked cool. The description sold me and it was a purchase I didn't regret.

Cryptonomicon is set in two different time periods. One group of characters are World War II-era Allied codebreakers and tactical-deception operatives affiliated with the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park (U.K.), and disillusioned Axis military and intelligence figures. The second narrative is set in the late 1990s, with characters that are (in part) descendants of those of the earlier time period, who employ cryptologic, telecom and computer technology to build an underground data haven in the fictional Sultanate of Kinakuta. Their goal is to facilitate anonymous Internet banking using electronic money and (later) digital gold currency, with a long-term objective to distribute Holocaust Education and Avoidance Pod (HEAP) media for instructing genocide-target populations on defensive warfare.

2 - The Baroque Cycle

 

 

I was fortunate in that shortly after I read Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver, the first volume in the Baroque Cycle was released. Neal Stephenson writes lengthy novels but isn't that prolific in terms of number of books. It's usually several years between releases. I think of the Baroque Cycle as a trilogy because it was originally released in three volumes but it's really eight books.

It was published in three volumes containing 8 books in 2003 and 2004. The story follows the adventures of a sizeable cast of characters living amidst some of the central events of the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central America. Despite featuring a literary treatment consistent with historical fiction, Stephenson has characterized the work as science fiction, because of the presence of some anomalous occurrences and the work's particular emphasis on themes relating to science and technology. The sciences of cryptology and numismatics feature heavily in the series, as they do in some of Stephenson's other works.

3 - Snow Crash

After finishing the Baroque Cycle, I started actively seeking out more of Stephenson's work as he had written several books before Cryptonomicon. I started with Snow Crash which is really the book that made him famous initially and gave him the reputation as a science fiction author.

Like many of Stephenson's other novels it covers history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics and philosophy.

The book presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus, similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter-program which he called a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different languages as a protection against Asherah (a re-interpretation of the ancient Near Eastern story of the Tower of Babel).

The story begins in Los Angeles in the 21st century, no longer part of the United States. The federal government of the United States has ceded most of its power and territory to private organizations and entrepreneurs. Franchising, individual sovereignty, and private vehicles reign supreme over the landscape. Mercenary armies compete for national defense contracts while private security guards preserve the peace in sovereign, gated housing developments. Highway companies compete to attract drivers to their roads and all mail delivery is by hired courier. The remnants of government maintain authority only in isolated compounds where they transact tedious make-work that is, by and large, irrelevant to the dynamic society around them.

Hiro Protagonist is a hacker and pizza delivery driver for the mafia. He meets Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), a young skateboard Kourier (courier), during a failed attempt to make a delivery on time. Y.T. completes the delivery on his behalf and they strike up a partnership, gathering intel and selling it to the CIC, the for-profit organization that evolved from the CIA's merger with the Library of Congress. Within the Metaverse, Hiro is offered a datafile named Snow Crash by a man named Raven who hints that it is a form of narcotic. Hiro's friend and fellow hacker Da5id views a bitmap image contained in the file which causes his computer to crash and Da5id to suffer brain damage in the real world. Hiro meets his ex-girlfriend Juanita Marquez, who gives him a database containing a large amount of research, positing connections between the virus, ancient Sumerian culture and the legend of Tower of Babel. Juanita advises him to be careful and disappears.

4 - The Diamond Age

This one is kind of, sort of an indirect sequel to Snow Crash, set 80-100 years later so it was the next logical choice for me.

The novel deals with themes of education, social class, ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence.

Set in twenty-first century Shanghai, it is the story of what happens when a state-of-the-art interactive device falls in the hands of a street urchin named Nell. Her life—and the entire future of humanity—is about to be decoded and reprogrammed...

5 - Zodiac

Continuing in reverse chronological order, Zodiac was Stephenson's 2nd novel. I didn't think his first two novels were as good as the rest but they are still very good and worth reading.

Meet Sangamon Taylor, a New Age Sam Spade who sports a wet suit instead of a trench coat and prefers Jolt from the can to Scotch on the rocks. He knows about chemical sludge the way he knows about evil—all too intimately. And the toxic trail he follows leads to some high and foul places. Before long Taylor’s house is bombed, his every move followed, he’s adopted by reservation Indians, moves onto the FBI’s most wanted list, makes up with his girlfriend, and plays a starring role in the near-assassination of a presidential candidate. Closing the case with the aid of his burnout roommate, his tofu-eating comrades, three major networks, and a range of unconventional weaponry, Sangamon Taylor pulls off the most startling caper in Boston Harbor since the Tea Party.

6 - The Big U

His first novel...

The story chronicles the disillusionment of a number of young intellectuals as they encounter the realities of the higher education establishment parodied in the story. Over time their lives and sanity disintegrate in different ways through a series of escalating events that culminates with a full-scale civil war raging on the campus of American Megaversity.

7 - Anathem

At this point, I had exhausted all of Stephenson's novels and actually had to wait for him to release another. Anathem was next and again, I was not disappointed.

In this follow-up to his historical Baroque Cycle, Stephenson conjures a far-future Earth-like planet, Arbre, where scientists, philosophers and mathematicians—a religious order unto themselves—have been cloistered behind concent (convent) walls. Their role is to nurture all knowledge while safeguarding it from the vagaries of the irrational saecular outside world. Among the monastic scholars is 19-year-old Raz, collected into the concent at age eight and now a decenarian, or tenner (someone allowed contact with the world beyond the stronghold walls only once a decade). But millennia-old rules are cataclysmically shattered when extraterrestrial catastrophe looms, and Raz and his teenage companions—engaging in intense intellectual debate one moment, wrestling like rambunctious adolescents the next—are summoned to save the world.

8 - Reamde

Another long wait and then Reamde comes along. This one is more of a straightforward technothriller but still very good.

The story, set in the present day, centers on the plight of a hostage and the ensuing efforts of family and new acquaintances, many of them associated with a fictional MMORPG, to rescue her as her various captors drag her about the globe. Topics covered range from online activities including gold farming and social networking to the criminal methods of the Russian mafia and Islamic terrorists.

9 - Seveneves

This is his most recent novel and was a little bit of a disappointment for me. Don't get me wrong, it was still good but a bit depressing...

This science-fueled saga spans millennia, but make no mistake: The heart of this story is its all-too-human heroes and how their choices, good and ill, forge the future of our species. Seveneves launches into action with the disintegration of the moon. Initially considered only a cosmetic, not cosmic, change to the skies, the moon’s breakup is soon identified as the spawning ground of a meteor shower dubbed the Hard Rain that will bombard Earth for thousands of years, extinguishing all life from the surface of the planet. Now humanity has only two years to get off-world and into the Cloud Ark, a swarm of small, hastily built spaceships that will house millions of Earth species (recorded as digital DNA) and hundreds of people until they can return home again. But who goes, and who stays? And once the lucky few have joined the Cloud Ark, how will the remaining seeds of humankind survive not only the perils of day-to-day of life in space but also the lethal quicksand of internal politics? Slingshot pacing propels the reader through the intricacies of orbit liberation points, the physics of moving chains, and bot swarms, leaving an intellectual afterglow and a restless need to know more. An epic story of humanity and survival that is ultimately optimistic, Seveneves will keep you thinking long past the final page.

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I've left off a few, including the two he wrote with J. Frederick George (Interface and The Cobweb), the collaborative Mongoliad and various short fiction and non-fiction but this post is already way too long. All of it is well worth reading.

And then there's the reason I posted this to begin with... Neal Stephenson has a new book forthcoming in June, this one written with Nicole Galland. I will leave you with the description from Amazon:

From bestselling author Neal Stephenson and critically acclaimed historical and contemporary commercial novelist Nicole Galland comes a captivating and complex near-future thriller combining history, science, magic, mystery, intrigue, and adventure that questions the very foundations of the modern world.

When Melisande Stokes, an expert in linguistics and languages, accidentally meets military intelligence operator Tristan Lyons in a hallway at Harvard University, it is the beginning of a chain of events that will alter their lives and human history itself. The young man from a shadowy government entity approaches Mel, a low-level faculty member, with an incredible offer. The only condition: she must sign a nondisclosure agreement in return for the rather large sum of money.

Tristan needs Mel to translate some very old documents, which, if authentic, are earth-shattering. They prove that magic actually existed and was practiced for centuries. But the arrival of the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment weakened its power and endangered its practitioners. Magic stopped working altogether in 1851, at the time of the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace—the world’s fair celebrating the rise of industrial technology and commerce. Something about the modern world "jams" the "frequencies" used by magic, and it’s up to Tristan to find out why.

And so the Department of Diachronic Operations—D.O.D.O. —gets cracking on its real mission: to develop a device that can bring magic back, and send Diachronic Operatives back in time to keep it alive . . . and meddle with a little history at the same time. But while Tristan and his expanding operation master the science and build the technology, they overlook the mercurial—and treacherous—nature of the human heart.

Written with the genius, complexity, and innovation that characterize all of Neal Stephenson’s work and steeped with the down-to-earth warmth and humor of Nicole Galland’s storytelling style, this exciting and vividly realized work of science fiction will make you believe in the impossible, and take you to places—and times—beyond imagining.


Originally published at: https://steemit.com/books/@darth-azrael/neal-stephenson-a-new-book-and-a-retrospective