Emptying the Electronic Trunk

By Norman SpinradAugust 7, 2012

Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writings by Neal Stephenson

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 devoted to Mother Earth, Motherboard, which was apparently written over time as a long series of articles for Wired wherein the author, styling himself the Hacker Tourist, traveled halfway around the globe — from the Pearl River Delta in China to Alexandria, Egypt to England, with various stops in between — telling the full and complete story of the transoceanic cable industry, its heroes and villains, the evolution of its technology, the present state thereof, and the present-day culture of its work force, in exhaustive and quite definitive detail. Read this and you will, for all practical and impractical purposes, know everything that anyone not intimately involved with transoceanic cables could conceivably want to know, and then some.

Mother Earth, Motherboard dominates Some Remarks in terms of pages and reading time. Neal Stephenson is a very good writer indeed, as he has to be to make this topic interesting to anyone who doesn’t come to it with a prior interest in transoceanic cables, which he does by sheer colorful descriptive writing and total geeky technical expertise and the telling of the sometimes droll and interesting history thereof.

Indeed, Mother Earth, Motherboard could probably have been expanded into a tight little freestanding book that would be the definitive history and technological explication of transoceanic cables up to the time of its writing, not just the best that such a book could be, but the best possible. But of course the readership for such a book would be rather small and specialized. And while the readership for Stevenson’s fascinating and masterful tale of Metaphysics in the Royal Society 1715-2010 would be more general and larger, the readers who would enjoy both would be fewer than those who would enjoy either. Throw in Stephenson’s somewhat repetitive meditations on the places of science fiction and literary fiction in the total cultural surround and that reductive effect in readership that would enjoy all three is enhanced, not mitigated. And so forth.

So, in a conventional sense, what we have here is an incoherent and unbalanced mess of a collection that seems to have been thrown together out of the contents of Neal Stephenson’s electronic trunk, with apparently no editorial consideration of what readership it is supposed to appeal to. In a less conventional sense, however, intentionally or not, it can be read as a kind of intellectual autobiography of Neal Stephenson, with the targeted readership being the fans and devotees of his total oeuvre, which, the publisher seems to have judged according to Stephenson’s Introduction, is large enough to make it commercially viable.

And in that sense, it is literarily quite successful too. We have snapshots of his youth, family background, formal and informal education. An interesting and geekily proselytizing essay on the peculiar physicality of his writing method. An explanation of why he is an admittedly lousy email correspondent. Several takes on what differentiates “science fiction” from “literary fiction,” why he has chosen the former over the latter, and why he considers his historical novels more of the same. A great deal on his “geeky” lifestyle, intellectual passion, and consciousness. A kind of homage to his upbringing in Middle Western university towns. Fascinating essays on scientific history and evolution. And so forth.

Viewed from this perspective, even the devotion of a third of the collection to Mother Earth, Motherboard makes a kind of geeky sense, an enormous metaphor, which in its own way is overarchingly intellectually and metaphysically self-revealing, as the title cryptically proclaims from the beginning, and as Stephenson sort of proclaims in the end.

Chez Neal Stephenson, the geological physicality of the planet Earth is not merely like the motherboard of a computer, it is the motherboard of a computer, the worldwide web of transoceanic cables is the wiring laid upon it, connecting the zillions of computers and communication devices large and small, all of which combined are, in both a physical and metaphysical sense, the electronic manifestation of Teilhard de Chardin’s Noosphere, a.k.a. the World Wide Web, a.k.a. Cyberspace, a.k.a. the Collective Planetary Consciousness.

Not only a mighty metaphor, but with 117 pages of travelogue, scientific, and economic history, personal asides, and so forth hung upon it, also perhaps a cryptically, or not so cryptically, self-created literary and literal model of Neal Stephenson’s creative consciousness itself.


LARB Contributor

Norman Spinrad is one of the most brilliant and controversial SF writers of all time. His cutting-edge, counterculture-inspired fiction redefined the genre in the 1960s, and his work over the past several decades has moved beyond SF into political thrillers and historical fiction. He is also the author of a major work of SF criticism, Science Fiction in the Real World.


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