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).