By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Peter Bennett|
"Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded. They are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity."
---Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
NEAL STEPHENSON CAN FOOL YOU. HIS NOVELS are so much fun to read that it takes a while to realize how dead serious he is. He's been tagged a science-fiction writer, but outside hardcore SF circles, he is known mostly for his definitive treatments of certain buzzy pop-tech subjects: environmental direct action in Zodiac (1988), virtual reality in Snow Crash (1992), nanotechnology in The Diamond Age (1995), and the vexatious fields of data cryptography and e-cash in his new epic of modern techno history, Cryptonomicon.
But Stephenson's ambitions, and his reach, are a lot bigger than the pigeonholes he's been squeezed into. He writes fiction designed not so much to change the world, as to quietly shift the way people think about it, and about the forces that keep it moving -- or could bring it grinding to a halt. His themes carry over from book to book, and spill into the intervals in between. A lot of the spade work for Cryptonomicon was done while researching and writing two big stories for Wired magazine, "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" (on the Shenzen Special Economic Zone in China) and "Mother Earth Mother Board" (about laying fiber-optic cables in the Pacific, and other matters). Stephenson seems to relish every phase of the journey. He is fully prepared to be surprised and delighted, and at times horrified, by the stuff he comes across. That's what makes his writing so zestfully entertaining; there's a report of some breathless new discovery on almost every page. And like the big SF hits of the 1960s, Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune, Stephenson's work attempts to smuggle a few new concepts into the popular forebrain -- to download a relentless thought-virus.
Stephenson's breakthrough novel, Snow Crash, is famous for its depiction of the computer-generated alternative landscape called the Metaverse -- a three-dimensional shared virtual-reality environment with the tactility of real life. Movies like Dark City and The Matrix feed off Snow Crash, but the truly distinctive environments of the novel's near-future landscape aren't virtual at all. They are franchised semiautonomous nation-states, the Burbclaves and Franchulates, or distributed world governments like Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong, a metastasized fast-food chain whose global strip-mall franchises compose a sovereign nation. Above all there is the Raft, a sprawling, lawless, ad hoc island nation, the Sargasso Sea of shantytowns, created by accretion in the middle of the North Pacific, as refugee craft of all shapes and sizes organize spontaneously around the rusted hulk of the junked aircraft carrier Enterprise.
The trick in the book is that, as big as it gets in terms of action and settings, it is finally about something even bigger: a conspiracy to download viruses not just into computers and the VR realm, but into human brains. The chief conspirator, Stephenson suggests, is "like a cracker who breaks into a computer system, bypasses all the security precautions, and plugs himself into the core, enabling him to exert absolute control over the machine." The intrigue in Snow Crash centers on tracking down and deploying an ancient Sumarian incantation, "the nam-shub of Enki," that conditions minds to be reprogrammed. The central character, a punk pizza jockey and high-level VR designer named Hiro Protagonist (whose function and moniker are one), describes this succinctly as "the operating system of society." In context, the Metaverse is really a flashy subplot, a fictional Trojan horse for sneaking in Stephenson's more significant concerns, the ones he's been elaborating ever since.
In The Diamond Age, Stephenson seems to step out from behind the neon curtain. The skateboard/hacker/speed-metal trappings are gone, the tone much more earnest and analytical. This is a big fat mock-Victorian novel that extrapolates the Burbclave and Franchulate concepts into an even more radically evolved future. The agent of social mutation here is pervasive nanotechnology, the material-world analog of the hacker viruses in Snow Crash, submicroscopic fabricating machinery that can transform matter from within, rebuilding it atom by atom. Pride of place among the 'Claves belongs to the Neo-Victorians, sober, honorable and at times ponderous fellows who have turned to the past for guidance -- and, in the process, may have latched onto something fundamental. "Nell realized," Stephenson writes,
that it was precisely their emotional repression that made the Victorians the richest and most powerful people in the world. Their ability to submerge their feelings, far from pathological, was rather a kind of mystical art that gave them nearly magical power over Nature and over the more intuitive tribes.
This is a hell of a note, coming from a guy who claims to have written Snow Crash "as [he] listened to a great deal of loud, relentless, depressing music." The soundtrack of The Diamond Age would sound a lot more like Edward Elgar.
THE DIAMOND AGE IS STILL SQUARELY IN THE TRADItion of speculative fiction. The huge new Cryptonomicon, however, is something else. A conspiracy thriller, it depicts an alternative vision of recent history swelling into the present. And I think Stephenson means every last word of it.