Neal Stephenson’s Ideal Forms

By Peter BerardAugust 18, 2015

Neal Stephenson’s Ideal Forms

NEAL STEPHENSON has been publishing important novels every few years (like clockwork – appropriate, given his use of clock imagery) for over 20 years. In 1992, he wrote Snow Crash, one of the two great cyberpunk novels, before he helped bury the genre with The Diamond Age, which won a Hugo award in 1995. He has written seven novels since then; all have been big sellers and have earned acclaim from critics. If there is a single word critics use to describe Stephenson, that word is big. He writes big books (The Diamond Age was his last novel that clocked in at fewer than seven hundred pages). In them, he engages with big ideas. The action in his novels spans big spaces and big stretches of time. We hear a lot about how big his ideas are, but we get little substantive engagement with these ideas, especially outside of science fiction circles.

This is a shame. Stephenson’s writing and ideas deserve a more considered critique, both for their own sake and as part of literary history. Moreover, Stephenson is the rare writer who provides something like a key to help decipher how his fiction reflects his ideas. This key is embedded six hundred pages deep within Anathem, his greatest work to date.

In Anathem, the world one day finds itself orbited by an alien mothership of inscrutable origin and motives. After a variety of misadventures and numerous scientific and philosophical expositions, we find out that these aliens are not visitors from other planets, but from a confederation of alternate earths who have mastered dimensional travel. This is not the dimensional travel of Sliders or Rick and Morty — dimensions aren’t channels one can change at will. The physics savant in Anathem who explains dimension-travel insists that dimensions are not in physical proximity; rather, they exist in Platonic proximity. He refers to the dimensions as “narratives,” (“It sounded like literary criticism!” exclaims a listener) and he suggests that all such narratives descend from an original reality (i.e., Plato’s world of ideal forms) and branch out from there. Moreover, due to some quirk of quantum physics, travel between narratives is only possible from narratives further from the ur-reality to closer ones — that is to say, from lower realities to higher. Not long after, we find out that one of the narratives that make up this confederation of Platonic dimensional travelers is a familiar one: our dimension, our narrative. We also discover that our narrative is precisely two Platonic notches lower than the world we have, by this point, spent seven hundred pages exploring in Anathem.

This means the reader can compare the world of Anathem to our world in order to understand what Stephenson thinks is Platonically more or less ideal. By that point, we have explored much of the world of Anathem — a world nigglingly similar to ours but sporting a different vocabulary for proper nouns and for many material items (and a Dune-style glossary of terms, naturally). As such, we can develop a substantial idea of what Stephenson sees as two notches more Platonically ideal than our world in terms of social, political, scientific, and even biological and geographical arrangements. The reader could make a good parlor game of it, if they liked, comparing Anathem’s “Arbre” to our Earth.

As a lens for examining Stephenson’s other work, the Platonic game Anathem invites us to play serves a larger critical purpose. It moves us away from a shallow celebration of Stephenson’s intellectual grandiosity and allows us to examine his characters, his humor, and his commentary (explicit and otherwise) on real life. What Stephenson has to say about the small things is worth considering, especially in the context of his larger vision and given his place as one of the great science fiction writers of his time.


There are a few ways to chronologically divide Stephenson’s career. We could use a chronology based on the usual lineaments of his critical reception — bigness and ideas. From this angle, we’d wind up with four periods: juvenilia (his 1980s work, The Big U and Zodiac); cyberpunk (Snow Crash and The Diamond Age); historical fiction (Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, composed of Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World); and recent doorstops (Anathem, Reamde, and Seveneves). This system is straightforward, but it is also troublesome because of the chronological juxtaposition between Stephenson’s greatest triumph, Anathem, and his next and worst work, Reamde, a grossly inflated airport thriller. In all, this chronology relies on shifts in Stephenson’s discussion of cans — what technology can do and how technological possibility changes over time.

It’s also possible to divide Stephenson’s work into stages related to his discussion of oughts: how people ought to behave and think. Stephenson’s oughts cover a wide range of moral and intellectual prescriptions — from one’s relationship to the almighty to the physical posture one should adopt while working at a computer. Looking at his work this way produces chronological stages not unlike the stages of life. His first emphasis is on youth, and his early fiction focuses on tales of young people getting it done. This describes Zodiac and Snow Crash. There are comparatively few explicit oughts here. His second emphasis is on reproduction: Stephenson introduces the theme of child-rearing and familial (and cultural) continuity in The Diamond Age. This focus recurs in his subsequent work, but in The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon the theme is new and pronounced; it has the exuberance of new parenthood. This is also the point where his work takes on a notable conservative cast. When reproduction enters the picture, we ought to stop messing around and hit objective morality home, hard. His third emphasis might be called reflection: Stephenson retroactively casts ideas, themes, and even characters and objects from his earlier works backwards into the foundations of the modern world in his eclectic, fascinating, and somewhat overlong Baroque Cycle. Among other things, the Baroque Cycle is the story of men seeking out eternal life through eternal truth. Anathem shares a similar focus. This is a classic progression undertaken by serious moralists: from the specific, contingent moralizing of a given time and place to a broader speculation about where morality comes from. If ideas and morality are embedded in objective reality — an idea that undergirds Stephenson’s later work — then how does temporal change work? In his period of reflection, Stephenson suggests that we ought to step back and consider the larger contexts in which morality is embedded. Fourth, and most recently, Stephenson turns toward an emphasis on decline and regeneration. The action in Reamde and Seveneves, for example, is continually spurred, frustrated, and ultimately concluded by efforts to overcome what Stephenson sees as our societal limits and shortcomings. Whichever context we find and whichever shape our morals take, we need to meet them with serious intent. Even if the specifics remain necessarily mysterious, taking higher purposes seriously is the ur-ought, in Stephenson’s later work.

The contemporary shortcomings Stephenson highlights range from the deadly serious (our crumbling infrastructure and political immobility) to the trivial (we sit in chairs too much; social media gives everyone ADHD, etc.). In general, Stephenson, especially in his later work, values the big and the serious. Space travel — which has fascinated him since childhood, but which is largely absent from his work before Anathem — is a powerful testing ground for Stephenson’s current idea of the greatest good. It doesn’t get much bigger or more deadly serious than space travel. Seveneves, as a reviewer in this magazine has noted, is a very humane book, but Stephenson writes about terrible things happening to those who would apply contemporary buzz-word discourse — “smart swarms,” chaos theory, peer-to-peer market-based space survival — to a major space project.

Ironically, given that our space programs have largely been the product of geopolitical tensions, much of what Stephenson sees as opposed to the big, serious, and transcendent can be summed up in the word political. Politics is essentially compromise with the subjective — people’s desires and feelings — and in Stephenson’s vision this ranges between being a necessary evil and an unnecessary, gratuitous evil. Politics is prescription contingent on time and circumstance. As such, it interacts uncomfortably with a morality that refers to timeless universals. This has been a problem that has caught up political thinkers since Aristotle. Stephenson departs from traditional conservatives by refusing to punt the question of change back to reference to some ur-text or sacred tradition. His characters draw their moral precepts from a wide variety of sources – religion, tradition, individual experience. But regardless of his influences, Stephenson still has many prescriptions, and he’d like them to stick. Other favorites within his demographic – to put it bluntly, nerds – resort to Darwin. Natural selection, as understood by its interlocutors à la Dawkins and Dennett, gives time and chance an exalted role as the mechanism that winnows the worthy from the unworthy. Stephenson flirts with this is The Diamond Age but casts it aside as a theme thereafter. This leaves morality. Generally, this entails fewer stances on any one given issue, and more general moral fiber, something to give life purpose. Stephenson employs a different spectrum of visible signs of virtue and vice than traditional moralists — his heroes have sex, do drugs, curse up a blue streak with little authorial judgment — but meets up with them at a few key points.

Stephenson’s negotiation with traditional morality can be illustrated by reference to two of Stephenson’s stock figures that hover around the action of his novels and provide contrasting moral color. One is the armed WASP. They turn up in numerous places in Stephenson’s oeuvre: the rough-and-ready Shaftoe family in Cryptonomicon; the miners who dig their way to safety in Seveneves; the free-trading, improbably anti-slavery Puritans in the Baroque Cycle. This figure is competent, family-oriented, stubbornly independent — too inflexible to be a protagonist but fundamentally good. Even in Anathem, two-dimensional plateaus above Earth, something analogical to Protestantism develops, and some of its austere adherents help the heroes out. In Reamde, the armed WAPSs are Idaho survivalists shooting it out with the Jihadi bad guys, and Stephenson assures us that the survivalists aren’t racists or fanatics, appearances to the contrary. The armed WASP’s opposite is the corrosive subjectivist, often but not always a humanities scholar. This figure is canting, hypocritical, annoying, has an enervating cynicism, and is about as ubiquitous as her opposite, the armed WASP. In Anathem, we get the stuck-up Procian order; in Reamde, we get Peter, the main character’s feckless wannabe-criminal boyfriend, and we hear a good amount about his tattoos and other millennial generation signifiers – he sounds a lot like a certain cohort of Stephenson’s readers. Stephenson has written thousands of pages replete with Nazis, slave traders, jihadi terrorists, gangsters, and sociopaths of various stripes, but none of his depictions are as poisonous as that of Charlene, a postmodernist literary scholar and the two-timing girlfriend of the main character of Cryptonomicon.

These figures provide contrast for the action of adapting to radically different contexts that dominates much of Stephenson’s character development. He admires a certain kind of traditionalist, but he writes about change: technological, social, personal. Some of his characters are thrust into change from one or another traditional background: Daniel Waterhouse from 17th century Puritanism in the Baroque Cycle, Dinah from a clan of mining engineers in Seveneves, Erasmas from the science-monasteries in Anathem. These characters undergo the refining fire of loss, disaster, war, and uncertainty (Stephenson frequently makes good use of alchemical imagery). This burns away some of their hidebound qualities, but the core of moral and practical competence they inherit from their upbringings remain in place and see them through. Cynics and subjectivists can sneer from their ivory towers — they exist to provide a different sort of contrast. You know the heroes have arrived when they begin relentlessly contradicting something a caricature of an academic or bureaucrat said a few chapters earlier.

Where Stephenson’s heroes need to acquire virtue, the process unfolds less deftly. In Cryptonomicon, we see the contrast between the World War II–era Marine Bobby Shaftoe — always ready to act, seldom in doubt even when smacked out of his mind on China white — and contemporary hacker Randy Waterhouse (a descendant of Daniel), morally sapped by easy living and the wiles of a postmodernist lady. Randy wins the day by making better friends and acquiring “greatest generation” virtue. In The Diamond Age, the main character is the beneficiary of a nanotech computer designed to impart timeless values and practical know-how — like a postcyberpunk Bill Bennett you can carry in your pocket — to little girls. Reamde is the weakest example here. The main character may get stronger while held in durance vile by a gaggle of terrorists, but in the end, everyone gets what was coming to them as a natural consequence of their own actions. Even the mountain cats of the Northwest only eat evil people in Reamde. Like the heroes, they operate on a higher plane, where action and thought are one and follow from each other.

Stephenson’s oughts, in short, are both distinctly worldly but directed toward (and by?) imperatives, which transcend our lived existence on this planet. The moral sensibility is related to Kant’s categorical imperative, Flannery O’Connor’s “Church of Christ Without Christ,” and at times, neoconservative social nostrums. If universal meaning is found in a circuit between the personal and the transcendent, then the merely worldly (or social, or political, or communitarian, or…) is just dross. In political writing, this sort of moralizing can be used to erase inconvenient social concerns (à la David Brooks). In literary writing, it can be used to advance a banal literature of jejune personal improvement. Stephenson flirts with both in his more pedestrian moments but ultimately has bigger concerns.

At his best, Stephenson can turn the contradictions between his vaulting ambitions and his pettier concerns into strengths. Anathem and Seveneves are Stephenson’s most interesting 21st-century books, and also his oddest. Anathem uses quantum narrative branching in its plot: we see multiple versions of the same critical events take place. In the end, the main character is left uncertain as to whether these versions are just hallucinations or if he was witness to a genuine quantum-platonic branching event. The reader is reasonably certain it was the latter. Stephenson implies that a sort of mysticism, mastered by the most advanced science-monastics of a dimension two Platonic skoshes above ours, ensured that the right narrative prevailed and the world was saved. Science and mysticism meet at high levels in unlikely places in Stephenson’s work.

Seveneves does not explicitly make use of Platonic narrative devices, but there comes a point about two-thirds of the way through the novel when all but eight members of the human race are dead. Those eight are huddled on a fragment of the moon (which exploded in the novel’s first page), as safe as they’ve been for years, but utterly alone. Here, Seveneves makes a sudden tonal shift. For the previous six hundred pages, we were presented with a straightforward tale of the development of a space ark, learning all about orbital mechanics and the deadly dangers of cosmic radiation. But when the eight women — all of the survivors are women — decide how to go about furthering the future of the human race, they take on allegorical qualities. One is Intelligence, another Intuition, another Compassion, another something like Risk, and so on. They argue over which of the values they represent should go forward with the babies they will genetically-engineer.

Up until then, Seveneves was a very restrained novel. Stephenson admirably declines to indulge in apocalypse porn telling his tale of the earth’s destruction. Unlike in many apocalypse stories, survival is not an emergent quality of the author’s respect for what a character represents. He had even avoided allegory — tricky when dealing the literal representatives of humanity — until the end, with the titular Seven Eves (one of the eight survivors was menopausal). Did we see another quantum branching there? Did whatever ineffable force moves narratives — the cosmic author, if you like, the narrator of narrators — take a hand there in the ruins of the moon? Did we again experience “causal domain shear,” a Platonic bump in an upward direction?

In that scene, the Seven Eves set in motion events that create a world that seems, like the world of Anathem, closer to Stephenson’s platonic ideal world than our complicated, iffy world could be. “Five thousand years later” (as the chapter break puts it), the society descended from the Eves is better than we are at things that Stephenson holds dear, notably space habitation. Moreover, their society is more legible. In possibly Stephenson’s most daring conceptual leap to date, the survivors live in seven tribes, each descended from an Eve, culturally and genetically programmed to follow their Eve’s values — intelligence, leadership, nonaggression, etc. — and model their tribes thusly. Even their interactions with members of other tribes follow the script written out by their millennia-dead foremothers. Their conflicts are the conflicts of the seven survivors on the rock. And they all know it — the characters in the last part of the book routinely acknowledge the millennia-old dynamics they play out. Eventually, they encounter descendants of those who found ways to survive the cataclysm on Earth — one group of which is, as it turns out, related to one of the Eves (and represent a darker twist on his armed WASP trope). Stephenson has long nurtured a fascination with heredity, but Seveneves took it to a new, equally fascinating and unsettling, level.

Stephenson’s lineage stories — the families carried over the course of history since the 17th century in The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon, the descendants of the Eves, the various philosophical-scientific quasi-monastic orders in Anathem — are a vessel for bridging the universality of value and the contingency of time. Lineages keep the channel open between man — or the elect — and universal truth, despite the static thrown up by historical change, politics, and general entropy. As with many belief systems centered on the relationship between man and an inscrutable, demanding universal moral order, the particulars — who is elect and how one knows, what keeping the channel open entails, whether there’s any expanding the channels — are vague and daunting. Like the Calvinist proto-capitalists in the works of Max Weber — or Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, for that matter — members of Stephenson’s character lineages do not know whether they are elect or not, but can go some way towards assuaging their fears by acting rationally towards a worthy worldly goal, and hewing closely to the straight and narrow path of vocation.


Readers can always fall back on the perspective we open with: Stephenson — big writer with big ideas. One might actually decide he’s a small writer: Even in his grandest and most otherworldly books, petty earthly grudges abound. His grand ideas sometimes express themselves in odd and off-putting manners — Seveneves, despite its diverse representational inclusion, ends up presenting something that sounds a lot like a positive eugenics scheme. And Stephenson himself can get defensive in a small way, especially toward critics from his left.

In one of the odder and bigger moments in Anathem, Stephenson incorporates the lowest of the low — the pedantic, hypocritical, subjectivist humanities scholar — into his noblest creation. As it turns out, the Procians – the annoying, subjectivist half of the scholar-monastic community – can manipulate the relationships between Platonic dimensions just like the more scientific faction the heroes belong to, and can alter the timelines of whole universes. Stephenson is evasive regarding how exactly this dimensional mysticism works. But consider this: Stephenson himself works with words, not material things like his engineer heroes. In fact, he works with narratives — the very things his figures of derision use to define the world. Often despite itself, the universal and the specific, the abstract and the concrete — to say nothing of the most timeless Platonic philosophy and instantly-dated complaints and nostrums — constitute each other in his work. When it works, together he uses them to form a warp and a woof, the material and the frame for an infinity of worlds.


Peter Berard is a doctoral candidate in history at Boston College. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.

LARB Contributor

Peter Berard is a writer and organizer living in Watertown, Massachusetts. You can find more of his work at


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!