Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Neal Stephenson at Keplers

This evening I went to Keplers, my local independent bookstore (as they keep reminding me), to hear Neal Stephenson read from The System of the World, the final volume of his Baroque cycle.

The crowd was what you would expect for a science fiction/early modern history reading: a mix of people who knew each other at Xerox PARC during the glory days of the 1970s; a few escapees from a Dungeons & Dragons convention; a sprinking of gentle-looking, grey-haired folks who memorized every second of Neil Young’s Decade; and a fair number of twentysomethings who memorized every second of Radiohead’s Kid A. And then me.

Neal was pretty entertaining: laid back but energetic, and good with the questions. When asked a question about his female characters, he replied, “That would require some self-analysis. I don’t do that, out of fear that it might break something.” (Or something close. All quotes are approximate.) A number of people asked questions about how he writes, to which he replied that writing isn’t a “lofty art,” but instead is “more like a craft, or an athletic event.” I couldn’t agree more.

He also writes two or three hours a day, no more. And yet he can write 1200-page books.

Pictures may come later, though they’re not terribly exciting. Basically, there’s one of Neal signing a book. Then there’s another one of him signing another book. Then, there’s an out of focus one of him signing a book. Then, a picture with someone’s back obscuring Neal signing a book.

It was fun to go to the event. He’s been to Keplers several times, so I now have autographed copies of all three volumes of the series. Though their status as precious artifacts has probably kept me from rereading them as aggressively as I might; I’ll have to buy the paperbacks and start over again.

I have a hard time following all the plot lines, and the intricacies of who is who; but at the same time, I think the books are one of the most brilliant explorations of the connection between natural philosophy and finance, and of the deep intellectual currents that link early modern science, technology and commerce, that I’ve ever encountered. And while I’m not an early modernist, I’ve read more than my share of that stuff, going back to Merton and Hessen. For many authors, the connection between science and commerce existed at a pretty high level: Hessen’s argument that Newtonianism was a response to the problems of long-distance trade and a burgeoning military is characteristic. Of course, a younger generation has made this picture more complex, but I think Stephenson’s work still stands out for its argument of subtle similiarities in the way some savants came to look upon money, information, and nature.

And maybe in this volume I’ll finally find out what’s up with Enoch Root (whose appearance in the first pages of Quicksilver immediately got me hooked on the series).


  1. Wantwantwant. And do you mean to say there were no proper GenXers besides you? We are such a lonely demo these days, with our mortgages and memories of Nirvana. So how’s the new volume? And what’s next?

  2. Hm. I’ve now run into a lot of people who liked Quicksilver. The only reason I stuck it out until the end was Stephenson fan loyalty. My impression is that he probably had to battle to get Cryptonomicon through an editor at that weight, and it did so well that no editor could keep him in check. There were some interesting ideas in the book, to be sure, but for me, it just seemed like it needed another draft. De gustibus and all that.

  3. I confess I just skim over large passages of the book– whenever we come to a one-page description of a piece of rope, I look for the next piece of dialogue.

    So in one sense, I agree with the idea that the book– indeed, the whole series, and Cyrptonomicon as well– could have used a more aggressive editor. Stephenson has always been an expansive, highly descriptive writer (you saw this in Snow Crash, but since the concepts of the Metaverse and avatars were relatively new, it made some sense to take the time to explain them), and he’s only got more so.

    And yet I prefer having to skim over some things I think aren’t worth my reading just now, to having the books be shorter. Perhaps my sense is that I’ll be rereading them later, and can fill in those bits. Maybe I appreciate how different such a baroque style is from the journalistic, blog-to-the-point stuff that I usually read. Maybe I put up with it because my instinct is that for Stephenson, all that other fiddly discursive stuff is too tightly woven into the things that I really like– the discussions of ideas, the characters, the concept of the deep connection between the way early moderns came to see the natural world and construct financial systems.

    Or I could just be a masochist.

    Of course, I can’t take TOO much of this kind of writing. The other big thing on my bookstand is
    “Get Your War On II,” which I enjoy for completely different reasons.
    TITLE: Some Cool Blogs on metacool
    BLOG NAME: metacool
    DATE: 10/03/2004 08:17:37 PM
    I added a couple entries to the metacool blogroll today. As always, this list is carefully edited for your viewing pleasure, and each blog in some way touches on metacool’s theme of creating cool stuff. Here they are: Christian Lindholm:

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