SOME PEOPLE MIGHT SAY Neal Stephenson is a strange writer: an accomplished SF novelist whose most commercially and critically successful work might be an historical trilogy, a “breakout” writer who argues that even that trilogy is science fiction of a kind and may be right, a self-proclaimed geek, a cyber journalist who has published much in Wired, a church-goer these days by his own declaration, an historian of science and what he at least considers “metaphysics,” and much more.
But not as strange as Some Remarks.
Or perhaps precisely as strange as this collection.
Or vice versa.
In his introduction to Some Remarks, Stephenson forthrightly admits:
Certain persons who know what they are talking about where publishing is concerned have assured me that I have reached the stage in my life and career where it is not only possible, but advisable, to release a compilation of what are drolly referred to as my “shorter” works.
And that is indeed exactly what this collection is — a hodge-podge of short stories, assorted journalism, interviews of the writer himself, academic writings, and even an introduction to Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace.
Now I am myself primarily a novelist, but a novelist who has published about a half-dozen collections of short stories and three collections of “non-fiction.” But I have never mixed fiction and non-fiction in the same book, and each of my “non-fiction” collections has been of essays more or less about specific areas of interest — politics in the broadest sense in Fragments of America, the business of writing in Stayin’ Alive, literary criticism in Science Fiction in the Real World — and therefore each was put together with a different potential readership in mind.
This is the way it almost always is done.
This is not what Neal Stephenson has done here.
Stephenson says that he hasn’t written very much short fiction, not nearly enough for a whole short story collection, so I suppose it’s understandable that he would want to put a little sampling of it in what is otherwise a collection of “non-fiction.” But even that aside, Some Remarks is a weirdly disjointed gathering.
I keep putting quotation marks around “non-fiction” because it is, after all, utterly useless as a defining or informative category, embracing as it does everything that is not fiction, from yellow journalism to scientific elucidation, from music criticism to autobiography. In this book, it is everything from a long, fascinating, semi-academic paper on Newton, Leibnitz, science, and metaphysics in the 17th Century to a screed championing writing and doing office work while walking on a treadmill rather than sitting on your ass; from a long interview with the author to an exhaustive and exhausting essay on the technology, business history, and current culture of the transoceanic cable industry; from an argument against excessive secularism to an apology for not answering fan emails; from separate repetitions of meditations on science fiction versus literary fiction to an explanation of why the American space program is in the doldrums; and much more etcetera besides.
Strangest of all is that over a full third of the collection is devote...read more