Where Past and Future Merge
Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves completely knocked me out. It has been a long time since I had the feeling of wishing a book would not end, but that was the case with Seveneves. Stephenson actually made me believe that I had just witnessed the destruction of the surface of the Earth, the reduction of humanity to seven human beings and its return to earth 5000 years later.
He does this in a number of ways.
- Stephenson really knows his science; he comes from a scientific family and concentrated on physics and geography in college. He is a great explainer. I learned more about applied genetics in this book than I have probably picked up in the last five years. (The physics sort of went over my head, but I skimmed those parts).
- He is an extremely astute observer of human nature. For me, the main pleasure of Seveneves was Stephenson’s depiction of human nature under extreme pressure, and his astute observations about the political issues that would reconstitute themselves as a new version of humanity grew and developed. People tend to clump with other people who are like them, and from that basic tenet of human nature, a lot of the intrigue and fascination of the events of Seveneves derives.
- He is extremely funny. I couldn’t take a 857-page book about the near-destruction of the earth and humanity without some humor!
- Finally, he has a reverence for the natural world that really comes through in Seveneves. I would look up from reading this book, observe the clouds scudding by and go, “Thank God. We still have a sky! We have clouds!!” Seveneves really makes you realize how rare and hospitable a place our earth is, compared to the difficulties of surviving in space.
Well, enough about how much I loved this book. I started my Neal Stephenson reading odyssey with Snow Crash. Published in 1992, it showcased Stephenson’s ability to mix up so many different areas of knowledge in a novel – history, linguistics,anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics and philosophy. Among others.
In interviews, Stephenson explained that the title of Snow Crash had to do with the way an early version of the Apple computer looked when it, you know, crashed. It’s set in the 21st century in Los Angeles, a place where government has ceased to operate and business entities, legal and illegal, pretty much control everything.
The main character, whose name is Hiro Protagonist (Hiro-Hero…get it?) is a classic science fiction hero, a computer hacker who starts investigating what happened to a friend of his who died of what seemed to be a drug overdose. His business card reads “Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world.”
Hero discovers that the eponymous Snow Crash is both a virus that can infect humans and a virus that can infect computers and bring society to its knees. Off we go, into a plot that revolves around ancient Sumeria, its language’s connection to modern languages, and other esoteric bodies of knowledge. I mainly remember being pleased with myself that I was able to finish “Snow Crash” and enjoy it – again, Stephenson’s humor got me over the rough parts. Much as one of William Gibson’s novels introduced the word “cyberspace,” Snow Crash is credited with popularizing the word “Avatar” – Hiro’s girlfriend specializes in designing facial expressions for avatars.
The next Neal Stephenson novel I took on was 1999’s Cryptonomicon. This book is part science fiction, part historical fiction and incorporates one of my favorite story lines – the code-breakers – scientists, mathematicians, secretaries – who broke the German Enigma code in World War II, operating out of England’s Bletchley Park. In Cryptonomicon, there’s a modern equivalent of code breakers whose goal is to help populations targeted for possible genocide to defend themselves.
A lot of real people walk through Cryptonomicon, including Alan Turing, Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, Herman Goring and Ronald Reagan. How’s that for a dinner party? One character, Bobby Shaftoe, is a military operative who stages alternative events to deceive the Germans into thinking that the Allies have NOT cracked the Enigma code. This really happened! If you want to read about that, try Ben MacIntyre’s great book “Double Cross,” about a bunch of double agents who deceived the Germans into thinking that the D-Day landing would occur elsewhere.
But I digress. Where was I? Back to Neal Stephenson.
The next books I want to mention are Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. This is a three book series – Quicksilver (2003), The Confusion (2004) and The System of the World (2004) (Stephenson says they are actually eight books, some lumped together for publishing convenience).
These three, very large and very long books are actually set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Europe. So you could call them historical fiction, though Stephenson has called them an early version of science fiction. They cover Europe’s turn from feudalism towards a more enlightened and scientific point of view and they reference Stephenson characters in other books; one of Bobby Shaftoe’s ancestors, Jack Shaftoe, is a key character, and some of the backstory of “Cryptonomicon” is embedded in these books. Real characters, such as Isaac Newton and the science-philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, make appearances (apparently Newton and Leibnitz had a nasty feud about…something).
These books are on my to-be-read list. After “Cryptonomicon” I realized that reading a Neal Stephenson novel requires powers of concentration that I just didn’t have at that time in my life. A reviewer for the Toronto Star called the Baroque Cycle a “sublime, immersive, brain-throttlingly complex marvel of a novel that will keep scholars and critics occupied for the next 100 years”.
The last Stephenson novel I had time to mention, and the last one published before “Seveneves,” is Reamde a thriller published in 2011. (Yes, it’s an anagram of READ ME; he can’t let that code stuff go). It concerns a woman who is taken hostage, and the combined efforts to find her as she is dragged around the globe. A high concept but suspenseful book.