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Stephenson, Neal

Entry updated 22 July 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1959-    ) US author whose first two novels – The Big U (1984) and Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller (1988) – both convey a strong sense that sf turns are just around the next page, but neither of which can justly be read as sf. The first is a gonzo college caper, told rather in the style of John Landis's film, National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), in which a vast "Megaversity", funded by an involvement in radioactive waste disposal, is initially disrupted by Computer misfunctions, leading to a kind of revolution by students, who sport machine guns on campus, and whose behaviour is governed by the internal bicameralism espoused by Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), a speculative text Stephenson later made use of in Snow Crash (see below). The second, much more controlled but still shaggy, carries a cast of slightly older but similar characters through a complicated story involving Pollution in the waters around Boston, Massachusetts.

Neither book adequately signalled the bravura attack and fine control of Stephenson's first sf novel, Snow Crash (1992), in which – as it were – the sf content seems to have sopped up the excesses that marred the earlier efforts. Set in a Near-Future Los Angeles (see California) and elsewhere, and infusing its Cyberpunk ambience with a cornucopia of data and references to American cultural icons, it depicts a land exorbitantly devolved into private-enterprise enclaves; Los Angeles itself is no longer part of the United States. The plot, whose protagonists are armed skateboard-riding "Deliverators" of pizza and other substances, soon moves into Virtual Reality territory, where the eponymous computer virus turns out not only to affect human brains (see Basilisks), but also, perhaps, historically to have been instrumental in the creation of humanity's early languages (see Linguistics) and Religions. (It might be illuminating to compare Snow Crash with Leo Perutz's Sanct Petri-Schnee [1933; new trans Eric Mosbacher as Saint Peter's Snow 1990 UK], the eponymous Pandemic virus of which novel engendering Religion in humans.) The novel then slides into chase sequences. Interface (1994), with Stephenson and George F Jewsbury writing together as Stephen Bury, is an energetic near-future thriller, somewhat reminiscent of Zodiac, centring on a presidential candidate under the control of a bio-chip which is connected to online polling software, so that – unless things go wrong – he can instantly spin-doctor his behaviour. From the 2002 UK reissue, the cover credit is Neal Stephenson and J Frederick George (Jewsbury's pseudonym).

By contrast with Snow Crash's explosive rendering of Cyberpunk, this author's next novel The Diamond Age; or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (1995) is a calmer, more thoughtful depiction of a world transformed by pervasive Nanotechnology. Human society has reorganized into nongeographical tribes or Phyles; the underclasses ("thetes") enjoy a limited Utopia thanks to public matter-compilers (see Matter Duplication) which offer basics like food and water at no cost, but spiritual and intellectual deprivation remain. The central character Nell, a child whose coming-of-age story this is, is lifted from thetehood by the (illicitly copied) Illustrated Primer, an interactive educational device resembling a tablet Computer, intended for the daughter of an aristocrat of the major neo-Victorian phyle New Atlantis. Moral and computational issues are explored, both in real-world action and in fairy stories told through the Primer. The Diamond Age offers a highly impressive density of worldbuilding detail; it won the Hugo and Locus Award as best novel.

Stephenson's breakthrough into a wider literary market came with Cryptonomicon (1999), a novel that established him both within and beyond the sf field as a significant cultural figure. The book has two main threads: one set in World War Two, the other contemporary. The two are linked by the notion of cryptography (see Linguistics) and, more generally by the sense that the information by which humans record their understanding of the world is the most valuable substrate it contains. Information, vulgarly, is money. Various plot elements – lost Nazi gold, Underground data havens – appear as thematic McGuffins, but the true heart of the novel lies in the didactic intensity with which it describes the metamorphoses and manifestations of information. Various historical characters such as Alan Turing (see Icons) appear to augment this theme, and a considerable amount of Information Theory is expounded in the course of the book; the Computer-geek view of the world is shown sympathetically, from inside. In the end, Cryptonomicon becomes not so much a story as a way of seeing the world. This too won a Locus Award.

After this came The Baroque Cycle, comprising Quicksilver (2003) The Confusion (2004), and The System of the World (2004). Although couched as historical novels, spanning the emergence of the Enlightenment in Western thought, the books do have fantastical elements. Their central burden seems at first to be a minutely detailed exposition of how a particular strand of thought – the scientific world-view – came to understand and manipulate the world. In that sense, they are about the birth of the world of Cryptonomicon. One character, the possibly Immortal Enoch Root – who may be a Secret Master tasked with monitoring the creation of modernity – appears in both works; the Cycle also features ancestors of Cryptonomicon characters; John Wilkins plays a significant part, and his pioneering book on cryptography is here retitled Cryptonomicon. But these hints that an inner history of the world is unfolding do not survive long into the vastly detailed depiction of eighteenth-century life and thought, where the story of the awakening of men of science from their long slumber – Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (1964) tells a similar story – is depicted at sometimes alarming length. This exposition may not, however, be the heart of The Baroque Cycle; through the many alarums and excursions of the surface plot, including picaresque pirate adventures and alchemy, the sequence increasingly focuses on a single key to the transformation of the old world into modernity: the scientific and philosophical and mercantile shift from treating the world not in terms of substance but of exchange value: money, as the text makes clear, is no longer gold but currency (see Money). The Baroque Cycle surely has no rival in the density of its description of creation of modern capitalism. The first volume won the Arthur C Clarke Award award; the second and third shared a 2005 Locus Award.

Anathem (2008), by contrast, was overtly science-fictional. Set on an alternate Earth called Arbre, it spends a great deal of its considerable length following a group of rationalist Scientist-monks (or "avouts" inhabiting a "concent"; such neologisms abound) whose debates recapitulate much of the history of Western philosophy, although with changed names: Plato and Platonism become Protas and Protism, and so on. Many pages are spent in setting out the world-view that the avouts have come to reify and describe. Then, perhaps unexpectedly, the book opens up into entirely different territory with the detection of a huge and unusual Spaceship (very nearly a World Ship) which proves to be armed with devastating kinetic-energy Weapons. Planetary exploration, Aliens of a sort, Parallel Worlds and even Space Opera are all evoked as this world-view is put to an unexpected test.

Though there are hints of a very Near Future setting, Stephenson's characteristically lengthy REAMDE (2011) is an essentially contemporary thriller or Technothriller that takes off from the corruption of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (the title refers to a typographical error in a computer virus called "Read Me") through a complex scheme involving the laundering of virtual Money generated within the game; but the game itself plays a limited role in the complex international chase melodrama, involving terrorists, spies, and hackers, which occupies the bulk of the narrative. The protagonist of the tale also features in Fall or, Dodge in Hell (2019), in which he emerges from Suspended Animation as a kind of Brain in a Box whose phenomenal surround Bitworld, via sophistications in Virtual Reality, provides him an extraordinary fantasy-based inscape; he suffers, however, from Amnesia, and is assaulted by the avatar of another entrepreneur. The world outside, moreover, riven by spasms of post-fact conspiratorial Paranoia, offers some perhaps insuperable challenges to the two internally rampant tycoons.

Like the avouts of Anathem, Stephenson is centrally concerned with what rationality can do, and with information as the fuel and transformative product of rationality. Even more than Bruce Sterling or William Gibson, he relentlessly conveys an at times highly exhilarating sense of how information-saturated the world can be, an exhilaration that – dubiously for some – seems tied to a conviction that Homo sapiens will be able to keep a handle on that knowledge. (The sometimes excessive length of some of his works may come as a consequence of his need to convey in apodictic terms this point of view.) It may be that his central weakness is an inability to know when something does not need to be said again; but there is no denying the force of what he does say. It may be he requires the complicated interplay of idea and exemplary action that exemplifies Hard SF at its grandest. Cryptonomicon, only seemingly lacking a hard sf frame, is therefore his most successful novel to date, though the palindromically titled Seveneves (2015) has much of the same drive. It is an epic tale spanning or rather leaping across five millennia after a great Disaster – the exploding of the Moon into deadly fragments by the passage of what may be a small Black Hole – dooms our home planet to a near-interminable fiery pounding by meteors; in the ensuing complications a great Space-Station complex, from which expeditions to other planets are meant to take off, is also destroyed. The seven Eves of the title (see Adam and Eve) – seven women who are of child-bearing age, together with an eighth who is past menopause – survive, find secure refuge upon a fragment of the Moon's core (see World Ship), and there take momentous decisions about the future Evolution of Homo sapiens, a process whose successful sussing of the consequences of radical decisions may be seen to echo similar assurances generated by the samurai of the Effective Altruism movement; the title itself [for Seven Samurai see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] is suggestive. This exposition of oncoming doom and narrowly surviving the relentlessly expounded End of the World occupies the bulk of the book. The narrative then jumps forward to a time "FIVE THOUSAND YEARS LATER" when numerous but conversing human clades live in a great ring of advanced Space Habitats surrounding the battered Earth. The planet itself has relatively recently been subjected to Terraforming from space, and it emerges that two human enclaves have survived far below the surface, one Underground and one Under the Sea; conflict ensues.

Termination Shock (2021), set in a relatively imminent Near Future, deals with the effects of Climate Change on a nation, like The Netherlands, precariously close to immersion from the rising oceans of the world; at least one Technothriller-friendly geoengineering solution, choking the atmosphere with sulphur, is seen as both triumphalist and somehow intriguing. Unintended consequences, in Stephenson's hands, seem foreseen: certainly vast populations world-wide are clocked as being doomed to suffer from the "solution".

Stephenson is one of contemporary sf's central recognizers of the world. [JC/GS/DRL]

see also: Internet; Invisibility; Prometheus Award; Robert A Heinlein Award.

Neal Town Stephenson

born Fort Meade, Maryland: 31 October 1959



The Baroque Cycle

  • Quicksilver (New York: William Morrow, 2003) [The Baroque Cycle: hb/Richard I Aquan]
    • Quicksilver (New York: HarperTorch, 2006) [first part of the above: pb/]
    • King of the Vagabonds (New York: HarperTorch, 2006) [second part of the above: pb/]
    • Odalisque (New York: HarperTorch, 2006) [third part of the above: pb/]
  • The Confusion (New York: William Morrow, 2004) [The Baroque Cycle: hb/Richard I Aquan]
  • The System of the World (New York: William Morrow, 2004) [The Baroque Cycle: hb/Richard I Aquan]

Richard Forthrast

  • REAMDE (New York: HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2011) [hb/James Iacobelli]
  • Fall or, Dodge in Hell (New York: HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2019) [hb/Philippe Henri]

Foreworld Saga

individual titles

  • The Big U (New York: Vintage Books, 1984) [pb/uncredited]
  • Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988) [pb/Steve Carver]
  • Snow Crash (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1992) [hb/Jean-François Podevin]
  • Interface (New York: Bantam Books, 1994) with George Frederick Jewsbury, writing together as Stephen Bury [pb/Bruce Jensen]
    • Interface (London: Arrow Books, 2002) with George Frederick Jewsbury, as by Neal Stephenson and J Frederick George [differently credited reissue of the above: pb/Cyberlab]
  • The Diamond Age (New York: Bantam Books, 1995) [a subtitle, Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, appears only on the cover and title-page verso: hb/Bruce Jensen]
  • The Cobweb (New York: Bantam Books, 1996) with George Frederick Jewsbury, writing together as Stephen Bury [pb/uncredited]
    • Cobweb (London: Arrow Books, 2006) with George Frederick Jewsbury, as by Neal Stephenson and J Frederick George [vt of the above, differently credited: pb/uncredited]
  • Cryptonomicon (New York: Avon Books, 1999) [hb/Amy Halperin]
  • Anathem (London: Atlantic Books, 2008) [hb/Ghost]
  • Seveneves (New York: HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2015) [hb/Jonathan Knowles]
  • The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (New York: HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2017) with Nicole Galland [hb/Joel Holland]
  • Atmosphæra Incognita (Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 2019) [novella: first appeared in Starship Century (anth 2013) edited by Gregory Benford and James Benford: hb/Patrick Arrasmith]
  • Termination Shock (New York: Morrow, 2021) [hb/Erik Waider]



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