[email protected]: Neal Stephenson

By Shamus Posted Saturday Mar 28, 2009

Filed under: Movies 35 comments

Author Neal Stephenson visits Google’s Headquarters in Mountain View, Ca, to discuss his book “Anathem”. This event took place September 12, 2008, as part of the [email protected] series.

Link (YouTube)

Thanks to Kaedrin for finding this.

Anathem is still on my to-read list. I actually lost my way three-quarters through Quicksilver. It was a great book, but the honest portrayal of the savagery, brutality, and brevity of 16th century life put me off. The book alternated between fascinating me and filling me with revulsion. The need to take the thing in manageable doses slowed my progress, and once I realized I had two more nightstand-crushing tomes waiting for me after Quicksilver I was daunted. I quit with the intention of trying again later when I had more time. That time has yet to materialize. And now he’s produced yet another book. I don’t think it speaks well of my reading habits that Stephenson can write books faster than I can read them.

In the video, he talks about the book and also addresses things like the criticism that his endings are lacking. His response is very interesting because he points to the climactic nature of his finales. I actually never had a problem with that. All of his books have had a sufficiently epic climax, it’s just that it feels sort of abrupt to end the book right after the climax. It’s the equivalent of a man getting up the moment sex is complete and leaving without saying a word. It’s not that his books are unfinished, it’s just that the reader seems to be left with the impression that there was something more to be said. This is probably unfair to Stephenson. It’s more a convention that we’re used to. And there is something ironic about complaining about the length of a book and then taking issue with the concise ending. The cream of his writing takes place in his technical diversions and thought experiments, and there isn’t much room for that sort of thing in the post-finale pillow talk. But I suppose that criticism is the toll charged to those who break with established conventions.


From The Archives:

35 thoughts on “[email protected]: Neal Stephenson

  1. Mark says:

    Quicksilver was certainly a hard fought battle for me… but once I got past that, things picked up a bit in Confusion and System of the World (though they’re still pretty rough reads). Anathem takes a bit to get started, but once you get used to it, it really picks up steam. I enjoyed it immensely (more than the Baroque books).

    Incidentally, both The System of the World and Anathem have entire chapters of epilogue. I don’t think either has done anything for his reputation (I’ve seen complaints about both), but then, I’ve never had a major problem with his endings (except possibly for The Diamond Age). Like he says in the vid, I think he got this reputation early on and there’s not much he can do to really get rid of it, so he just writes endings he likes (which is as it should be)…

  2. Anaphyis says:

    I never had any problems with his endings either but then again one of my favorite authors at the time I picked Stephenson up was pretty much unable to write a pleasing ending. And while Stephenson might not go for a classic dramaturgy curve and ends on the climax instead, his endings are at the very least satisfying.

    And Wheel Of Time pretty much inoculated me for the “dragging on endlessly about a subject” parts of his books, so yeah, I don’t really have anything negative to say about his work.

  3. McNutcase says:

    Anathem is… well, I started reading it six moths ago, and I’m still barely into it. Only just into System of the World, too.

    I categorise Stephenson as the book equivalent to prog rock’s triple concept albums. If you get it, he’s great, but he can be incredbily opaque.

  4. Lazlo says:

    My only issue with Stephenson is the order he puts out his books in. Way back when, he wrote great, relatively short books. When I was young and single and had copious amounts of free time, I absolutely loved Snow Crash, Interface, The Big U, they were great! (and still are…) My life and his writing hit a crossroads around Cryptonomicon. It was long and fantastic. I loved every word. Like you, I never quite made it through Quicksilver, and now, with a wife, two kids, and an occasionally consuming job, I look at Anathem and I think to myself wow… if I dedicated a significant portion of my free time to this book (and not just any free time, but free time when I have mental clarity. I can game at 4 AM, but reading a book that has a high idea density and requires significant amounts of long term, short term, and working memory necessitates the use of more rarefied free time), then I’d maybe be finished in six months… by which time I’d have probably forgotten important plot points from the first half of the book.

    So I buy all of his books on reputational credit, keeping the assumption that I’ll enjoy the heck out of them two decades from now when my kids are in college.

  5. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “It's the equivalent of a man getting up the moment sex is complete and leaving without saying a word”

    Hey,women do that too.And I dont see a problem with that.

  6. Samops says:

    I love Stephenson. All his books are awesome.. except the baroque cycle in my opinion. I read them all, but I really struggled, and the story didn’t grip me at all. Anathem is awesome however, much more interesting and fluidly written. Highly reccomended!

  7. LintMan says:

    The “shove you out the door right after the climax” thing is what Hollywood’s all about, and it seems to me that more and more book authors are doing the same thing. It seems based on the insulting notion that once “big bang” has happened, the audience can’t possibly remain focused and interested on the story any longer.

    I think The Lord of the Rings (the books, not movies) had the right idea for how to wrap up an epic story: A big climax, after which things begin to wind down, but then we get another, smaller climax (Scouring of the Shire), and then things finish up. I’ve that Peter Jackson hated that part of LotR.

  8. smIsle says:

    Lint Man: And, I think it’s safe to say that it was a favorite among a large portion of the fans. Well, I know it was one of my favorite parts … you got to see the changed hobbits in action, and they were awesome :-)

    As far as Neal goes – I tried to read Diamond Age a long while ago (so, i guess I should give him another try) and while i love all of the concepts that people say it’s about, i could never get into it!

    Any suggestions for a first book?

  9. Trianglehead says:

    Thank you Shamus, for stealing yet another hour of my life. :P

  10. Sam says:

    The need to take the thing in manageable doses slowed my progress

    I’m currently having the same problem with Nabokov’s Lolita. The subject matter is making it very difficult for me to read it more than a chapter or two at a time. I’ve been between 2/3 and 3/4 done with the book for a few weeks now because I can’t get myself to continue reading it, even though the finish line is within sight.

    I’m going to have to look into this Neal Stephenson guy. Add his books to the ever-growing pile of literature I need to read someday.

  11. oleyo says:

    Probably you haven’t read it in a while and forgot, but The Baroque Cycle definitely takes place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Anywho, I read Anathem and it really drew me in. Though I think that the as others have mentioned, he seems to rush you out the door. Though it may just be that the post climax size only seems small to his huuuge buildups. Can you say Victor Hugo?

    Overall i think you would mostly enjoy it, and it is 1/3 the size of the Baroque Cycle :)

  12. Kevin says:

    I just finished Anathem and really liked it. It was the first Stephenson book that I’ve ever read, and now I would like to read another.

  13. John Lopez says:

    “Hey,women do that too.And I dont see a problem with that.”

    Your doing it wrong.

  14. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    I agree with Mark (#1, above) — Quicksilver, while interesting, does drag a bit, but once you get into Confusion and System of the World things start racing along (relatively speaking).

    I loved Anathem — just finished rereading it last night, in fact. It was really in my sweet spot, though: mathematics, philosophy, and linguistics are all interests of mine. Some people complain that it takes forever for anything to happen, and I can kind of see why they feel that way; but to me, the journey before “things start to happen” itself was fascinating. (And on rereading, you can see all of the foreshadowing and foundation-laying that’s going on while “nothing is happening,” which is cool.)

    I also think that Anathem’s ending is probably the … hmm, least jarring? of his endings. It felt pretty natural, actually. Might be because wrapping your head around the climax of Anathem is a bit of a slog, though.

  15. mc says:

    “I don't think it speaks well of my reading habits that Stephenson can write books faster than I can read them.”

    Haha, I made the same observation exactly! I just finish Quicksilver, and he breaks out another one? The man is good at this.

    At least Vonnegut can’t pull that trick on me anymore.

  16. Mistwraithe says:

    You’re doing it wrong.

    (Sorry grammar police at work, nothing to see here, move along) ;-)

  17. Jeysie says:

    While I have yet to read Stephenson personally, I can comment that your thinking there should be something after the climax of the story is something we’re used to, in that there are “stages” that come after the climax in dramatic structure.

    It goes: exposition, rising action, climax/turning point, falling action, and dénouement (comedy)/catastrophe (tragedy), if you’re wondering. So if a story ends right after the climax, you’re pretty much missing 2/5 of the story!

  18. Anaphyis says:

    LintMan: Considering the LotR movie goes on for about half an hour (depending on the version) after the escape from Mt. Doom, this is actually not a case of Hollywood shoving you of the door. But I think you didn’t want to imply that. The fandom is actually fairly divided over the battle for the Shire part. Some feel it shows how much the Hobbits have grown and conveys an important message about the problems of others always finding a way to get you too. Others think it’s largely uninteresting, breaks the flow and delivers a broken Aesop (the Hobbits had a huge part in Saruman’s failure after all, so the raid is actually a result of the Hobbit’s interference)

    Jeysie: The classic dramaturgy curve has been subverted before it was even clearly defined so your last sentence is highly debatable to say the least. Even some old fairy tales leave the post-climax stages to “and they live happily ever after.” We are – and I think that was your main point – however generally conditioned to this kind of narrative, which makes subversions memorable and this again is the reason many novelists are going for this. It depends largely on execution and personal taste whether it’s memorable n a good or a bad fashion though.

  19. Kaeltik says:

    @ oleyo: The first historical events that I remember from Quicksilver were the death of Charles I and the birth of Isaac Newton, so I think you’re right: begins mid 17th century. I make the same mistake all the time; calling the 1600s the 16th century, 1500s the 15th, etc.

    @ Jeysie: Stephenson tends to skip the falling action. This is usually my least favorite part (barring Cleansing of the Shire-style mini-climaxes), so no skin off my nose.

    @ Shamus: The Baroque Cycle is worth the slow start. It just keeps getting better. If the brutality is a problem, then I’d recommend avoiding the Song of Ice and Fire books (George R. R. Martin; they are otherwise phenomenal) and trying Anathem.

    @ all: Just finished Anathem last week. One of the most immersive stories I’ve ever read. It’s meaty and complex, almost like the Silmarillion, but exciting. Like Heinlein in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but longer and more subtle.

  20. Jeysie says:

    @Anaphyis/Kaeltik: I guess it’s a matter of… to me characterization is the most enjoyable aspect of a story, so cutting things off right after the climax loses the opportunity to see how the characters (and the setting around them, for that matter) react to and are changed by the events of the climax. To me, we very much are missing 2/5 of the story whenever that occurs.

    (Whereas someone who has a heavy plot-centric preference may well not have a problem with the story ending right as the big part of the plot ends, it’s true.)

  21. Mycroft says:

    In the baroque cycle the main character was born in the 1640’s (his father wanted him to be a newly minted priest welcoming Jesus back in 1666) and dies in his 80’s.

    I’d say Snow Crash is my favorite of Stephenson’s works, but Anatham is a close second. For some reason, I really like reading about fictional educational structures for higher education.

  22. Fyr says:

    I think I must be alone in this but I hardly notice the ending of books; I can never remember what happened at the end. That’s the part of the book where I stop thinking and just need to keep reading to find out what happened. Then when it does happen, that need is satisfied and I can forget that part.

    On an unrelated note – I do wonder if Stephenson is responsible for the term viral going, er, viral. Obviously the idea of viral propagation of real viruses predates him, but is it’s popularization as a description of the spread of ideas because of Stephenson?

    And this site seems to imply that Dawkins (and later Blackmore) have linked memes and viruses:


    But, as I haven’t read The Selfish Gene or Meme Machine, I’m still in the dark on that. Meme Machine probably came after viral became so widely used anyway… but then again Snow Crash was years earlier than I ever saw the word used as it now. So if wasn’t any of these, who was it?

  23. Kaeltik says:

    @ Jeysie: I can see where you’re coming from. Stephenson is into character development, so it would be painful if he omitted the resolution. What I meant to suggest is that many of his stories skimp a bit on the falling action, i.e. the bits between the climax and the dénouement. You get your resolution, just less wind-down than you may expect from books with such heft.

  24. Jeff says:


    I’m pretty sure that’s part of the joke. ;)

  25. Legal Tender says:

    @ All,

    So is this Neal Stephenson guy the modern version of Umberto Eco?

    I’m in my mid-twenties and enjoyed immensely both The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum when I read them a few years ago but I’m told they were a bit hard to get into back in their day.

    The amateur linguist in me also enjoyed Baudolino but that was a bit more of a love-hate relationship and it kind of resembles what I’m reading here about Stephenson’s books (aside: if any of you are fluent in Spanish and have a passable command of Italian I highly recommend the Spanish version of this book. The first chapter is one of the best translations I have ever read in my life. I went lol when reading it, literally).

  26. Daemian Lucifer says:

    @John Lopez

    If I was,they wouldnt be comming back.

  27. LintMan says:

    @Anaphyis: I wasn’t trying to use the LotR movies as an example of the Hollywood trend – it is a bit of a counterexample, but I’m talking more in terms of new original movies, rather than film adaptations of a classic 50-year old trilogy.

    I know not everyone likes the Scouring of the Shire (as I mentioned PJ doesn’t). I like it because it clearly shows how the hobbits have changed and grown since they left the Shire – Gandalf and Aragorn were no longer required to “rescue” them. (I don’t think there’s any intended “moral” there, so arguments either way on that are rather moot).

  28. RichVR says:

    @Jeysie While I understand your adherence to dramatic structure… It’s almost as if you think that the story exists outside of the imagination of the author. The author is God. When he/she says the story ends, it ends. Structure imposed from an outside source is immaterial.

    While I have often wished that a book didn’t end where it did, it did. And that’s it. I guess that’s why there is so much fanfic around.

  29. inafish says:

    @Legal tender: Yeah, I’d say that’s a fair comparison. Personally, I’ve always struggled with Eco’s books a bit, and not so much with Stephenson’s, but I definitely see where you’re coming from. The word that comes to my mind when I think of both of these authors is “erudite” (and not just because I learned this word from Stephenson).

    That said, I’m still saving Anathem for later. Luckily, I’ve always got enough time for a great book, but sometimes I just don’t want to handle a book that is both very long and concerns big ideas.

  30. Ed says:

    Quicksilver was a 1000 page intro to the 2000 pages of stupendous action in Confusion and System of the world. I gave up on quicksilver, picked it up again 9 months later, slogged through it, and couldn’t put the other two down. I have reread them all multiple times and each time I find something new to marvel at.

  31. karrde says:

    I accidentally read the Baroque Trilogy in the wrong order, which made it a little weird…I didn’t really know if I liked it or not when I got to the end, but I did enjoy the ride.

    I do know that Stephenson tried to immerse himself in the world he was writing in, which made the Baroque Trilogy so, well, Baroque.

    I picked up Anathem when I couldn’t find the book I was looking for in the bookstore. I read it, and enjoyed it more than Cryptonomicon.

    The narrator is a strange mix–part a child of a modern-feeling world, partly a member of closed, monastic-style community of scholars. The plotline ought to feel like a pedestrian re-working of a theme that is not entirely new in science-fiction. But Stephenson introduces it in a way that makes the whole event feel unique.

    I’d recommend it, though it may soak up large tracts of non-existent spare time.

  32. I’m with Jeysie, although certainly books vary. You don’t necessarily need a ton of words after the climax, but it’s lacking something if the climax isn’t seen to have some kind of meaning for or impact on the characters.

    And RichVR’s objection doesn’t mean much to me. Accept that and you basically are saying that every book–and movie, for that matter–is perfect as written. The problem: Some books suck. I’m not willing to accept critical assumptions that don’t let me make that evaluation.

    As to Stephenson’s endings–I found, for instance, the ending of Cryptonomicon (and even Snow Crash) disappointing not so much for abruptness as because it didn’t seem able to carry the weight of the concepts running through the book. In Cryptonomicon everything revolves around secrets and ciphers and information and the importance of these things. The climax is about fighting some guy over buried gold. Well, gosh, I could have just read a book about pirates. Oh, but wait, there’s a modern twist–the gold is going to be used to start a *bank*! Um. Yes, there’s a modern, *boring*, twist–which again has nothing to do with the theme. Maybe he’s intentionally subverting his whole book-long set of points about information and all that stuff? The book is awesome. The ending seems unrelated and banal.
    It’s not as bad in Snow Crash, although after a whole book tracking down the secrets of the ages and fearing the rise of an ancient, pre-conscious form of human intelligence at the expense of modern concepts like free will, it’s a little piddly that the solution on offer turns out to be keeping your anti-virus up to date. At least the Uncle Enzo subplot had a pretty solid finish which was in keeping with the philosophical points made about the Mafia.

  33. Namfoodle says:

    @ John Lopez, RE Daemian Lucifer:

    I think the real issue is whether or not the ladies are over-charging him before they leave… ;)

  34. Chuk says:

    I’m a pretty big Stephenson fan, so you might want a grain of salt with this, but I think Anathem is one of his better books. (I did finish reading the Baroque Cycle and thought the second book was the best of those three — I am also unlikely to reread them.)

  35. John Lopez says:

    @Namfoodle, RE Daemian Lucifer:

    I found the idea that anyone would respond to a one off Internet Meme (“You’re doing it wrong”) from a total stranger as a serious critique… disturbing.

    Hopefully there is a bulk discount involved here.

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