Neal Stephenson's Some Remarks, a remarkable essay collection

Neal Stephenson is a talented essayist, a fact that anyone who read his seminal In the Beginning... Was the Command Line will be aware of. Some of the finest moments in his fiction is really nonfiction, essays that make up part of the story, which some critics take umbrage at. I love it. I happen to love discursive novels. But that said, Stephenson's essays are even more enjoyable than the discursions in his novels, which is saying something.

Some Remarks is a new collection of mostly reprinted, mostly nonfiction. I've read nearly every word in this collection before, some of it multiple times, but nevertheless found it to be a breezy, fast, and thoroughly enjoyable read.

The collection is dominated by Mother Earth Mother Board a "hacker tourist" travelogue that tells the story of the FLAG transoceanic cable, a pioneering privately funded project that was originally published in Wired magazine, which deserves kudos for having the bravery to commission an essay that runs to more than 100 pages in this 300-page book. This essay still stands as a kind of Moby-Dick for undersea cabling, a ferociously detailed, gripping account of an obscure but vital field that manages to be both highly technical and highly dramatic. I found my 2012 re-read of this essay much different from my original reading of it in 1996, in particular because of all the references to politics in middle eastern countries like Libya and Egypt, which have been so much in the news lately. There's a little frisson of history-in-the-making from this essay, as you realize that the establishment of redundant, high-speed network links into the region prefigured a vast, global change that we are still experiencing.

There are many other pieces in this book, including two pretty good short stories (Stephenson readily admits that he's at his best with fiction at much longer lengths), as well as some classic interviews and a speech in which Stephenson lays out a theory of the sort of work that he writes and its place relative to literature and culture.

There's an unabashedly esoteric and absolutely delightful account of Leibniz's metaphysics, and an evocative piece on life as a child in a midwestern college town. In short, there is the sort of highly varied and erudite contrasts that make Stephenson's novels so pleasurable (and important).

Stephenson lightly edited these essays to remove anachronistic irrelevancies, but some of them still stand as perfect reflections of the period in which they were written, time capsules and core samples of the heroic days of the early commercial Internet. This is, in short, a fantastic book and an indispensable companion to Stephenson's canon.

I'm also delighted to note that there's a Brilliance audio MP3CD unabridged audiobook edition.

Some Remarks

(Image: Neal Stephenson Answers Questions, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from jmpk's photostream)

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