Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing – Neal Stephenson

NealStephensonI just finished reading (and reviewing) a collection of essays by William Gibson and have now moved on to Some Remarks,  a collection of essays by Neal Stephenson. So of course, the natural question is “In a fight between Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, who would win?” As it turns out, one of the articles in this book is a reprint of Stephen’s 2004 Slashdot interview, where he answers exactly this question (see the interview’s question #4 for a highly entertaining answer).

This book is a collection of 18 articles by Stephenson, ranging from 1993 to 2012. Unlike Gibson’s book, these essays have been edited to remove many of the passages made stale by history, as Stephenson notes in the introduction. Given this transparency and his straight-forward motivations, I suppose I can’t fault him for this.

The essays tend to be pretty short, readable and engaging, with the possible exception of a 118-pager in the middle of the book, ‘Mother Earth, Mother Board’ – a Wired Magazine article from 1996. It’s a ‘hacker tourist’ travel documentary exploring the physical world of the Internet’s trans-oceanic cabling. It reminds me of Andrew Blum’s 2012 book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, except it’s much more readable (Blum’s book was a slog of poor organization and self-indulgent writing). However, even with Stephenson’s superior style and perspective, I think the physical and political details of the Internet may simply be fundamentally boring.

As I enjoy both Gibson and Stephenson as writers, I was curious to see how reading these two books back-to-back would shift my opinions. If anything, I’ve shifted slightly more towards the Stephenson camp. I think there are a few reasons for this:

  • Stephenson’s a bit closer to my own age – he’s 10 years older than me while Gibson’s 10 more. I don’t have any concrete examples to back up why this might make a difference, but his perspectives seem to resonate more for me.
  • Stephenson has more hard technology cred than Gibson. By his own admission, William Gibson is a bit of a technology luddite despite his position in the pantheon of SF (he even coined the term ‘cyberspace‘!). However, Stephenson walks the talk and is more in touch with the actual technology of the present. For example, check out the excellent (if a bit dated) In The Beginning… Was The Command Line.
  • Gibson’s writing tends to be a little darker and and more literary in my mind. Stephenson often tends to inject more humor and chooses to opt for good ol’ storytelling over subtlety at times.

In the end, I still enjoy both writers, despite my (now infamous?) dissatisfaction with Stephenson’s Cyrptonomicon – I felt it rambled on waaay too long, though after reading it I felt a compulsion to encrypt all my shit. On the flip side, Snow Crash is one of the best SF books I’ve read. Anyway, if you like Neal Stephenson’s work, this collection of articles should be a nice treat.

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