Neal Stephenson

The Big U (Neal Stephenson) - Vintage Books - 1984 - 307 pages

Why had I not heard about this book until this year?  Stephenson's first novel is an excellent satire of late-20th-century college life.  The action takes place from September to May of one school year at "American Megaversity" (AM) that is based very loosely on his alma mater, Boston University.  A few of the students are actually enrolled at AM to gain an education, but most of them are just there to experience various chemicals, play loud music, terrorize/prank fellow students and generally wreak havoc on all occupants of the eight-tower, multi-plex of on-campus living quarters.  The administrative staff, led by S.S. Krupp, is primarily-devoted to damage control and creative fund-raising to justify their existence.  A group of well-armed, Eastern European janitors (?) have been hired to battle an underground rodent infestation that is resistant to normally-used traps & poisons.  The faculty is along for the ride.  In a few short months, traditional curricula and social activities devolve into floods, strikes, extreme gaming, massive acts of destruction and organized warfare.  The book should be considered an underground classic, and an impressive first effort by one of the greatest modern authors.  The story makes Animal House seem like Romper Room.  If you went away to college and lived in a dormitory, you can appreciate Stephenson's view of higher education.  Your "pay-rents" may not have the same appreciation.  [JAM 12/9/2016]

Zodiac (Neal Stephenson) - Grove Press - 1988 - 316 pages

The Group of Environmental Extremists (GEE) is a ragged, donation-funded collection of young eco-thrill-seekers who fearlessly tackle the giant corporations that dump their pollution into Boston Harbor.  This early novel by Stephenson reads as well as any mystery/detective story and the science is right on the money.  GEE, led by Bohemian, non-conformist Sangamon Taylor, travels about the harbor by inflatable Zodiacs, plugging waste pipes, creating news stories for Boston reporters, and generally making life miserable for fictional chemical companies like Basco, Boner Chemical, Biotronics, etc.  Although written in 1988, the plotline is just as applicable today except that cell phone, computer and analysis technologies have made great leaps and bounds.  Somebody should make a movie out of this one.  [JAM 11/8/2016]

Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson) - Bantam - 1992 - 470 pages

Stephenson's third novel (after The Big U and Zodiac) is a divergence from present time and an adventure into a speculative but possible future where laws and governments have failed; and where crime syndicates hold power with worldwide franchises.  Our hero (Hiro Protagonist) and his young female platonic friend, Y.T. (Yours Truly) make their living as couriers (in Southern California) delivering digitized pizzas and other stuff on various vehicles including high-tech skateboards with magnetic harpoons.  Hiro is also a well-respected computer hacker who spends much of his time Metaverse (virtual reality) writing code and dodging viral threats.  There appears to be no hope for the return of organized government but all parties are seriously concerned about religious fanatic like L. Bob Rife who is trying to conquer the real and virtual worlds with ancient Sumerian gibberish.  With amazing skill, the author ties it all together into a fast-paced, technological thriller of sorts.  This was the first novel by Stephenson that proved that he capable of writing about much more than post-college hijinks.  [JAM 8/3/2017]

Interface (Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George) - Bantam Dell - 1994 - 618 pages

The incumbent president is threatening to declare that the national debt is void; and somebody has implanted a computer chip in the brain of an independent candidate for the 1996 presidential election.  That is all you need to know about the first 400 pages of this novel wherein authors Stephenson and George explain how all of this could happen.  After that, the story becomes a crazy page-turner of twists and turns at a national level.  I believe that this is their statement about the condition of U.S. politics in the 1990s.  There is very little mention here about Democrat or Republican as if the parties are interchangeable.  I wonder what they would think now.  The entire plot of the book is explained by "Lady Wiburdon" on page 523.  [JAM 10/31/2018]

The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson) - Bantam Books - 1995 - 455 pages

In the 22nd century, scientists have learned how to synthesize large slabs of diamonds to replace glass and other materials.  They have also perfected the Star Trek "replicator" so that nobody ever has to worry about getting food, clothing and other household products.  However, this same scientific community has thrust a new form of pollution ("nanosites") on the population.  The nanosites are everywhere, sometimes in black clouds, and imbedded in your skin and internal organs.  Detectives can learn anything about you by tapping your nanosites or reviewing reports from similar devices in your immediate vicinity.  In spite of this advanced technology, there is also extreme poverty and unrest in the world.  Most of the action in Stephenson's future world takes place in and around Shanghai where caning is still practiced as the primary punishment in a "Confucian" legal system.  Although nobody can ever get away with crime, one super-smart "bespoke" engineer (Hackworth) steals an interactive primer for his daughter (Fiona) but gets mugged by thugs who steal the book and give it to a young girl named Nell.  After the book is stolen, the plot thickens as Hackworth gets lost for ten years in the underworld of the Drummers; Nell gets educated and entertained by her primer; and one "ractor" (professional video story teller, Miranda) tries to find student Nell.  The geopolitical situation in the 22nd century world is very complicated and dangerous.  Read about it at your own risk.  [JAM 9/10/2017]

The Cobweb (Neal Stephensom and J. Frederick George) - Bantam - 1996 - 414 pages

This book was originally co-written by Stephenson under the pen name, "Stephen Bury."  Then, Neal Stephenson became a very popular author.  So, Stephenson's name replaced Bury when the book was reprinted in 2004.  It is hard to tell which parts of the book were co-written by George.  However, the Stephenson touch is evident throughout.  The story is very entertaining.  A cop with integrity in Iowa discovers some suspicious activity at a local college by "Jordanian" exchange students.  At the same time, an FBI analyst discovers the same thing while following the purchases of various of commodities by a country (Iraq) receiving U.S. foreign aid so it could wage war against Iran in 1990.  Stephenson and George explain it all as President George H.W. Bush prepares to attack Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait.  This is historical fiction at its best.  Our United States intelligence agencies (FBI, CIA etc.) are treated poorly by the authors in this volume.  The whole thing probably did not happen.  Probably.  [JAM 7/31/2018]

Cryptonomicon (Neal Stephenson) - Avon Books - 1999 - 918 pages

This is the book that answers the question: "What happened to Hitler's gold?"  Author Stephenson tells the historical mystery by following numerous mostly disjoint stories from World War II and slowly merges them into one in present time (1998).  Along the way, he cannot help but explain how everything works and does it in the most entertaining manner.  We welcome the side trips that offer a generic business plan (pages 238-240), a brief description of how the body works (page 316), and the three types of men as observed by a hardcore marine (page 372).  The WWII code-breakers play major roles in the story but most of the action occurs in the Philippines.  The protagonist sums this part of the world in one sentence: "Pursuing an explanation for every strange thing you see in the Philippines is like trying to get every last bit of rainwater out of a discarded tire."  War is hell and WWII was an awful war.  The unusual Germany/Japan alliance is perfectly illustrated in this novel.  The author takes us on a wild ride that keeps us in suspense to the end.  Stephenson is truly one of the most accomplished authors of our time.  [JAM 11/30/2015]

The Baroque Cycle (Neal Stephenson)

This three-volume work of historical fiction begins in the seventeenth century and follows the life of fictional character Daniel Waterhouse who was a member of the very real Royal Society of London.  The trilogy is a prequel (of sorts) to Cryptonomicon that spans World War II and a more modern era.

Quicksilver (Volume I) - HarperCollins - 2003 - 927 pages plus after-notes

In 1660, The Royal Society was founded in London to improve "natural knowledge".  Its members included most of the greatest thinkers of the day including Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, John Locke, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren et al.  They worked to compile knowledge about physical and biological sciences.  And many of them were obsessed with alchemy and the possibility of converting base metals to gold.  At the same time, Europe was in turmoil as various royal families tried to control various plots of land.  The author follows various members of the RS, Newton's rival mathematician Leibniz on the continent, the vagabond Shaftoe brothers, and a Turkish harem slave (Eliza) who might have been a countess.  This wonderful work of fiction combines monetary issues, early methods of encryption, and the trappings of royalness into improbable adventures that may have occurred in and around actual wars and ruling changes.  Stephenson, who is mostly known today as a syfy writer, has proven himself to be an extremely prolific producer of all types of fiction, always told from a scientific perspective.  [JAM 7/25/2016]

The Confusion (Volume II) - HarperCollins - 2005 - 815 pages plus after-notes

Vagabond Jack Shaftoe conspires with nine other galley slaves to steal Solomon's gold, build a magnificent sailing vessel, and traverse the Pacific Ocean to the coast of California and beyond.  Ms. Double-Duchess Eliza survives numerous pregnancies, the small pox, and a marriage to an arch-enemy while conducting vast international financial coups and avoiding incarceration because of a Shaftoe connection.  And, Natural Philosopher Daniel Waterhouse convinces Sir Isaac to rescue the English economy by accepting an appointment to The Mint, thereby allowing Daniel to escape to Boston.  Within Baroque history at the turn of the 18th century, a motley crew of characters maneuver numerous perils to transport gold, silver and mercury hither and yon.  Author Stephenson miraculously retains the continuity of events occurring simultaneously on three continents and the high seas.  How can he top this in Volume III?  [JAM 8/29/2016]

The System of the World (Volume III) - HatperCollins - 2004 - 892 pages plus after-notes

Eliza is an advisor to Princess Caroline now, and Jack has been dispatched to London by King Louis XIV to destroy the British economy.  Meanwhile, Natural Philosopher Daniel Waterhouse is caught in the middle trying to mediate the longstanding feud between Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and Dr. Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716).  The wild card in the events of the day (1714) is the whereabouts of the fabled Solomonic gold equally sought by kings, alchemists and Peter the Great (1672-1725).  Waterhouse forms a Clubb; Dappa becomes a famed prison-author; Jack assaults the Tower of London; Newton has fits; and everybody fears the Mobb in the world's busiest and possibly dirtiest city.  Author Stephenson has achieved the monumental goal of recreating the world-as-it-was 300 years ago.  And, some of it is true/  [JAM 10/2/2016]

Anathem (Neal Stephenson) - Harper - 2009 - 981 pages

This is the best work of science fiction that I have read in decades.  Author Stephenson has created  a parallel cosmos that is somewhat like the one that includes Earth but with many differences.  The terminology is odd but similar.  It takes a few pages but most readers will understand it enough to continue.  The glossary and "The Dictionary" are very helpful.  Fraa ("male avout") Erasmus lives in a walled community that keeps scientists from causing too many advances in the "Saecular" world.  His main job is to wind the giant clock daily with his crew of fellow "Decenarians" (those who have been within the walls for less than ten years).  The walled community ("concent") seems like a quasi-prison/religious cult but most of the residents prefer it to the chaos of the outside world ("extramuros").  The life of Erasmus is extremely regimented (and dull) until the planet ("Arbre") is attacked by visitors from a different cosmos ("The Cousins").  Then, the walls are breached and the fraas and suurs ("female avouts") are released into the Saecular world since The Powers That Be realize that they need some smart people to fight this threat to the planet.  The author manages to stir opinions about religions, cultures, science, and conspiracy theories while maintaining a plausible plot line about the futures of cosmi.  The novel is truly an adventure into another possible world with many surprises for the reader.  Mr. Stephenson has established himself as one of the great syfy writers of our time.  [JAM 7/18/2015]

Reamde (Neal Stephenson) - Morrow - 2011 - 1,044 pages

A better title for this novel would be "The International Zula Fan Club."  The story starts with an interactive video game ("T'rain") and a computer virus ("Reamde") that is delivered by innocent Zula's boyfriend/creep to a group of Russian criminals who have no sense of humor.  So, the Russians kidnap Zula and her boyfriend and take them on a long trip to China in an effort to find the hackers who stole their stuff.  After an unusual series of coincidences, the traveling band of misfits locate the hackers who just happen to be close neighbors to evil group of jihadists who happen to be much uglier than the Russians.  Then, this ragtag group go on a round-the-world pursuit of the terrorists who also decided to kidnap unlucky Zula for some reason.  The pro-Zula group collects many more obscure Zulaites along the way and somehow manage to cross various immigration boundaries without valid passports.  This is a very complicated game of travel tag but author Stephenson makes it all work with infinite ability to find the most difficult situations for his protagonists and then slowly gets them out of trouble.  Another good title is "T'rain, Planes and Way Too Many Guns."  [JAM 11/18/2017]

Seveneves (Neal Stephenson) - William Morrow - 2015 - 867 pages

If you think you are smart enough to write a science fiction novel, read this one before you try.  Author Stephenson creates very complicated situations, and then methodically works through them in a logical manner.  His grasp of extremely technical issues is amazing.  Perhaps there is too much explaining of details here for the layman, but it is worth it.  After the moon exploded, the residents of the International Space Station (Izzy) endure a five-year journey in a desperate attempt to save the human race.  It seems that moon dust could rain down upon us for thousands of years creating an unlivable environment.  The world governments must stock Izzy with everything that might be needed to ride out the storm.  Unlike many of today's dystopian authors, Stephenson is ever optimistic about womankind and her ability to accomplish gigantic feats of engineering, politics and cultural transformation.  The meaning of the book title is explained at the end of part 2 and then a very different adventure begins in part 3.  [JAM 8/9/2015]

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland) - William Morrow - 2017 - 752 pages

So here's the deal: history as we know it is constantly changing because of witches.  Witches can do magic.  The U.S. government has secretly funded an effort to decipher some ancient documents to help them find witches to create a system of passageways to the past.  With this functioning method of time travel, our guys can keep their guys from doing bad stuff (in a perfect world).  This novel from the syfy mind of Stephenson (somewhat modified by Ms. Galland) is his latest trip to another world that might be existing contemporaneously.  The authors spin history, technology, superstition and corporate regimentation into a web of mystery and adventure.  This may be Stephenson's best novel to date.  The book has no ending - just a stopping point.  The world about you is not what you think.  [JAM 8/22/2017]

Fall, or Dodge in Hell (Neal Stephenson) - William Morrow - 2019 - 883 pages

Author Stephenson has delivered an intelligent and plausible fantasy world that makes the creations of Tolkien and Martin pale by comparison.  Wealthy gaming magnate, Dodge accidenttally signs up for cryogenic preservation and soon finds his being in a new world where he gets to make everything.  Then, many of his friends join him and proceed to make things better and better.  However, his arch enemy, forever angry because his parents named him Elmo, comes into Dodge's world and tries to steal the whole place.  This fantasy world is composed of human-type people, animals who talk, invisible spirits and inanimate objects that become animate when needed.  There are no motorized vehicles here but sometimes a friendly hill will give you a ride.  Read this book.  It is like none you will find anywhere. [JAM 6/30/2019]