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)


  1. Amazon is currently reporting that the “Brilliance audio MP3CD unabridged audiobook” is temporarily out of stock, which is kind of amusing.

  2. Cory,  a few years ago I’d adopted your “tk” from “Writing in the Age of Distraction” and I teach it to my students. Amused to see one of them slip through.

  3. Ordered on sight.  Like Charles Stross, Stephenson includes actual science and tech in his novels where lots of authors substitute hand waving and glossed over electrical near-magic without going into the practical issues.  I can’t wait to read these essays.  Thanks for the recommendation, Cory.

  4. a kind of Moby-Dick for undersea cabling

    “To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”  

  5. I find Stephenson’s use of discursive, non-fiction elements frustrating since he often edits/modifies them to fit his narrative. For comparison, Junot Diaz’s “…Oscar Wao” is significantly non-fiction, telling the story of Trujillo and the DR, but it doesn’t alter facts for the sake of fiction.

    A lot of Stephenson’s longer uses of non-fiction remind me of the climactic scene in Inglourious Basterds, only it’s not as obvious what the change is. His digressions into Sumerian history in Snow Crash left me wondering “OK, what did he research and what did he make up?” I lost trust in him for the non-fiction elements (which was fine since the book ended entirely in fiction-space), but I don’t like the feeling of not trusting an author. It’s why I often avoid memoirs or biographies (especially biographies of unfamous or semi-famous people).

    1. Great way of putting that. I don’t have any answers, but I’d lerv to listen to people chat who are working out answers to such historian questions. In “Foucault’s Pendulum,” for example, Umberto Eco kind of touched on the way conspiracy theorists combine improv’s “yes and” with history writing. One clue is that the limited number of historical facts you have are *all relevant*.
      Looking forward to this essay collection! I enjoyed Gibson’s and Rucker’s recent nonfiction, so thank you BB yet again.

    2. If we knew more history facts, we wouldn’t have to wonder when reading stories where people play with it. But I was led into majoring in history by reading fiction (Eco). My redneck school district had only one history class, to retain/beschäftigen a basketball coach.

    3. The use of Sumerian myth in Snow Crash was creative and entertaining. I had never read anything like it before or since…

    4. I’m sympathetic to you to a point – changing facts for no reason at all is something that never fails to infuriate me (favourite example: Die Hard 2, with “This is a Glock Seven.  It’s a porcelain gun made in Germany, and it can pass through a metal detector”.  Wrong in every possible way, for no reason at all). However there’s a difference between that and coherently altering something much more complex in order to hang a narrative on it; it’s a piece of writerly craft as valid as building a character or setting.  Basically, you HAVE to be able to alter facts for the sake of fiction, otherwise all fiction would include nothing real at all.

      Similarly, maybe you found yourself wondering what of Snow Crash was research and what he created, but ultimately, why does it matter?  Whether it’s real or not, and whether you later look it up or not, the story remains what it is: a story, created for entertainment.  If it inspires you to go and learn about Sumerian mythology, that’s great; I really don’t think taking fiction as fact is particularly sensible, though.

  6. I could use a Stephenson essay on Leibniz’s metaphysics. I did some reading on it when Leibniz showed up in The Baroque Cycle, and man, I can’t see how that whole “windowless monads” thing could possibly have seemed like a good idea. 

  7. The undersea cable article was appened to the digital version of Cryptonomicon I bought for the Kindle a few months ago. 

  8. Never understood why “Mother Earth Mother Board” wasn’t reprinted as a book. It’s long enough, and I’m sure Neil had a few more pictures to add.

  9. Writers are the #deity of all that they incarnate Ab Nihilio – to a point.  There’s a need for using references external to the created realms or the reader’s learning curve detracts from enjoyment. The genius that Neil shows is in expanding our horizons, by his references being teasers to do our own research.

    That essay on CLI stands as a touchstone work on it’s own merit.

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