My Neal Gnome

Every time I see somebody reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, an invisible gnome perched on my shoulder whispers to me: “Hey! Isn’t it time you reread it?”

I smile patiently at the gnome and reply: “Look, I’ve read the book three times. That’s two extra readings, adding up to about 1800 pages, which could have been used on 4-6 other novels. I’m going to read something else.”

To which the gnome replies: “Phooey.”

I saw my buddy French reading it the other day, but this time, the gnome had an ace up its sleeve. “Oh-ho,” it said, “His new novel Quicksilver is coming out in a little more than a month. It’s a prequel of sorts to you-know-what. And it’s been a while since you’ve read it now, hasn’t it? And you’re going to want to have it all fresh in your head, won’t you?”

“Yes, gnome,” I replied dutifully.

“Plus, reread Snow Crash while you’re at it, for kicks,” said the gnome.

What can I say? The gnome was right.

So I’m two-thirds of the way through Snow Crash, which is holding up remarkably well. In 1992 it was incredibly prescient, and eleven years later it’s still amazing how many future trends Stephenson gets right, albeit through the gonzo lens of his over-the-top world, a sort of libertarian hell. I mean that not in the sense that it would be hell for libertarians, but that it’s the kind of hell that rampant extreme libertarianism might create – everything privatized to pieces, the rule of law rendered meaningless. The course of history has taken a different route, though, to where the greater threat is not the erosion of societal structures into the seething biomass, but the intrusive actions of an overzealous federal government. Stephenson didn’t foresee the role of international terrorism, or the potential repercussions of an event like 9/11.

He also failed to anticipate SUVs, and spends a lot of energy mocking “bimbo boxes” (minivans), which now comes off as quaint. But in many matters both technological and cultural, he gets things right, and in any case he never set the novel up to be a prophetic one, and it’s probably unfair to judge it significantly on those grounds. Any book with characters like Raven and Uncle Enzo can certainly stand on its own merits without having to tell the future as well.

After I’m done I’ll tackle Cryptonomicon again, with pleasure. Quicksilver comes out on September 23. I fired off an email to Slashdot to see if they want me to write a review of it for them, like I did for Cryptonomicon. I’m betting they probably have somebody else lined up for it, in which case I’ll write something spiffy up for Polytropos instead.

UPDATE: OK, maybe Stephenson captured overzealous feds too. Just got through Chapter 37, a description of Fedland, where Y.T.’s mom works. Hilarious and terrifying.