Tag Archives: Neal Stephenson

TERMINATION SHOCK – Neal Stephenson (2021)

Termination Shock Neil Stephenson ToppingScience Fiction has always been about its own times too, and so today Cli-Fi – a term coined by Dan Bloom – is taking center stage more and more. While there is Cli-Fi that’s not speculative, so far most of it has been part of SF, and lots of SF authors will have to incorporate some of its elements, whether they want to or not: anybody writing about future Earth will have to deal with climate change one way or another. While we continue our journey into the 21st century, the Change will become less and less speculative, turning what started as a speculative genre into dead serious realism. Horror possibly. It’s clear that fiction about the changing climate is here to stay, in whatever form.

Over the past few months, I’ve read 3 high profile authors’ most recent takes on the genre: Bewilderment by Richard Powers, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson’s brand new Termination Shock.

I’ll briefly compare these three offerings, but let me first situate Termination Shock in Stephenson’s larger oeuvre, and also say something about its general merits. There will be no spoilers, but I’ll have to talk about the book’s core message – as that needs more than just a novel, but a megaphone too.

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FALL OR, DODGE IN HELL – Neal Stephenson (2019)

Fall Or Dodge In Hell

Stephenson’s first new single author book since 2015 is yet again a whopper: 883 pages. Seveneves was a love it or hate it affair: page after page crammed with technical details about what would happen if the moon would “blow up without warning and for no apparent reason.” 2017’s The Rise And Fall of D.O.D.O., co-written with Nicole Galland, was a much lighter affair about time travel and witches – a breezy beach read I enjoyed, yet it lacked the single-minded urgency of Seveneves or the original brilliance of Anathem.

Fall or, Dodge in Hell falls somewhere in between: Stephenson caters to a larger audience again, without an overdose of scientific stuff, and hardly any difficult vocabulary – he (or his editor) even felt the need to explain references like one to M.C. Escher – but at the same time this is not mere entertainment.

Like Seveneves, Fall is actually 2 books in one. The second storyline appears after about 300 pages, and alternates more or less evenly with the first one for a couple of hundred pages, after which it dominates practically all of the final 200. In Seveneves the final part was far-future scifi, while Fall‘s second book is marketed as high fantasy – something it is not, as I’ll get back to in a few seconds.

It’s of note that this book isn’t really about Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast, even though he is the titular character. Dodge was the main character in REAMDE and Stephenson says he picked Dodge to recur because he liked writing him. Much to my surprise, he hardly figures in the book, at least as his biological self. (I haven’t read REAMDE, and Fall is a standalone book for sure.)

Shouldn’t you know already: Fall is about mind uploading after death, and a big chunk of the book is about executing Dodge’s last will and testament, after he suddenly dies at the very beginning. He wants his brain frozen, so it can be uploaded to a digital world when the technology comes into existence. As such, Fall starts in a very near-future setting, and we spend quite some time in the next 20 years or so. At the end of the book, we’re about a century from 2019.

The Dodge that manifests in the digital realm is simply a different character. A flat character. Which takes us straight to this novel weakness: the final 200 pages. If you allow me to pan those first, I’ll end with what makes this book worth a read.

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THE RISE AND FALL OF D.O.D.O. – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland (2017)

The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O.Neal Stephenson wrote one of my favorite books: Anathem. His last book, Seveneves, was one of my favorite reads of 2015. So I looked forward to this new tome – 752 pages – especially since the blurb seemed to promise good old-fashioned fun.

Yes indeed, fun! Anathem & Seveneves are dense, serious books, but The Rise And Fall Of D.O.D.O. has the aura of a Dan Brown book: the discovery of old documents, secret government agencies, the past that turns out to be different from the official narrative, betrayal, mystery, magic.

Could it be that Stephenson again tapped into that youthful enthusiasm that characterized his brilliant sophomore effort Snow Crash and the outrageously bonkers The Diamond Age – a book that’s probably a bit too self-aware for its own good.

And what to think of the addition of Nicole Galland – with whom Stephenson (and a bunch of others) co-wrote The Mongoliad trilogy, and who primarily writes historical fiction? The dust jacket has this on their labor division:

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.

Yet the colophon places the copyright solely with Neal Stephenson, who “asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work”.

I’m guessing the main idea came from Stephenson, and he wrote the bulk of the book, with Galland acting as editor / beta-reader deluxe to keep things “warm” and the sentences light. Why? To make sure Stephenson’s latter-day heavy-handedness doesn’t get in the way of revenue. This is clearly a commercial release, aimed at a big audience. Both covers show this: the secret file, the comical dodo, the military stamp lettering, the cheesy slogan – “Think you know how the world works? Think again.”

That’s not necessarily a negative. Summer’s here, and to start the season I was up for escapist beach reading: a few thrills, a bit of alternate history, some cool technology and lots of adventure.

Did I get that?

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SEVENEVES – Neal Stephenson (2015)

SevenevesThe first hardcover edition is a beautiful behemoth of a book… 861 pages, quality binding, and 4 top-notch illustrations that really enhance the story. It’s a feast to hold in your hands. Stephenson clearly is on top of the commercial food chain. And when one starts reading, the first sentence (“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”) hits you like the instant classic first line it is. The first 50 pages are excellent, thrilling, and command a feeling of tremendous promise that is rare in any genre.

Gradually, technological and scientific exposition takes over. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is heavy, heavy, heavy. Somewhere around the halfway mark it struck me what a tour de force this book is: Stephenson’s vision is so detailed, so imaginative, so well researched that the constant awe becomes relentless. He has been explicit in interviews on a possible purpose for science fiction, as the genre to lead the way, to think big, to entice the imagination of scientists, leaders, the human race. He has expressed disappointment in that regard too, and sets the record straight with this book.

The fact that it is an intellectual achievement does not necessarily make Seveneves a good book. Not everybody will enjoy this, as the reader has to work, work, work. The focus in this book is on world building and science, not characters. At least, it seems that way at first, and just by page count, it is. This is true to content: in a real cataclysmic scenario about the demise of the human race, individuals wouldn’t be the focus. The book is about the bigger picture, the science that will get us out of the mess, about the human race working together. But then again, after about 120 pages the characters do become a wee bit interesting. Still, by page 240 I still didn’t really care for them.

Yet, somewhere around the halfway point the book had me teared up, for 2 pages. Those were 2 terrific pages. Emotional pages. Amongst the best 2 emotional pages I have ever read. There was so much truth in them. Continue reading

THE DIAMOND AGE – Neal Stephenson (1995)

The Diamond AgeAs a big fan of Anathem  – one of my favorite SF novels – and Snow Crash, I had high expectations for this book. Although The Diamond Age, or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer has its merits, and is often entertaining, ultimately, I was disappointed.

The problem with this book is that it tries so hard. It’s so obviously textbook postmodern – mixing genres, high & low, the Victorian & cyberpunk, etc.; abrupt switches in point of view, storylines cut short, odd jumps ahead in time, etc. – that it becomes tiresome after a while. In the same postmodern vein, some of the ideas are so obviously, outrageously over the top that they ultimately fall flat on their faces. Nanocomputing via mass orgies, anyone?

There’s the obligatory postmodern meta-ness too, as this is a science fiction book about a fictional high-tech book. That part works rather well though, and is truly clever.

I’m not saying there’s nothing to like in this book. The first 400 pages of my 500 page edition had me gripped. There’s a sense of wonder and mystery, and some interesting characters. The stories that Nell, the young girl, reads in her primer are original and sometimes hauntingly beautiful – such a mixture of fantasy-ish fairy tale material and SF is echoed in books like House of Suns and The Three-Body Problem. So, yes, it’s a good read for the bulk of the time. Yet near the end, I couldn’t really care for what happened to the characters anymore, in part because it was becoming predictable and repetitive. The ending felt rushed & haphazard, and too much of an action flick pastiche.

Aside from the climax that simply was too climactic, my other main problem with this book is the fact that Stephenson’s prose is often so dense it becomes a chore. There’s heaps of detailed descriptions, larded with Stephenson’s favorite technique: the enumeration.

The Diamond Age usually follows the same pattern: character enters new setting, which is described in detail for some pages, and then something happens to the character for about half a page – often just dialogue. The descriptions are wild, Stephenson’s imagination vivid, but at the same time there’s hardly any variation in the writing, which makes for boring reading.

This book is also a lot more pretentious than Snow Crash, and because of that, less fun.

By all means, if you liked other Stephenson books, give The Diamond Age a chance. It’s not bad. Just be prepared for tons of sentences like:

The Coastal Republic checkpoints at the intersections of the roads were gray and fuzzy, like house-size clots of bread mold, so dense was the fractal defense grid, and staring through the cloud of macro- and microscopic aerostats, Hackworth could barely make out the hoplites in the center, heat waves rising from the radiators on their backs and stirring the airborne soup.

I cannot stress the brilliance of Anathem though!

originally written on the 6th of October, 2015

QUICKSILVER – Neal Stephenson (2003)


Just a short review for this long book…

If you get through the first 200 pages Quicksilver pays off, but it still is a struggle at times: a bit too much details and characters, and dense prose. Nonetheless, there are lots of brilliant parts.

Also, if you aren’t that interested in Daniel at first: hang on, because in the second part and third part of this book he only plays a minor role, and two other, much more interesting characters are introduced.

All and all, very much worth the effort. My hunch is that the next book in the Baroque Cycle will even be better.

originally written on the 28th of August, 2014