Neal Stephenson’s Epic

I first found Neal Stephenson in 1999 when I read In the Beginning was the Command Line in which he compared operating systems to car dearlerships:

Imagine a crossroads where four competing auto dealerships are situated. One of them (Microsoft) is much, much bigger than the others. It started out years ago selling three-speed bicycles (MS-DOS); these were not perfect, but they worked, and when they broke you could easily fix them. There was a competing bicycle dealership next door (Apple) that one day began selling motorized vehicles–expensive but attractively styled cars with their innards hermetically sealed, so that how they worked was something of a mystery. […] One of them (Be, Inc.) is selling fully operational Batmobiles (the BeOS). They are more beautiful and stylish even than the Euro-sedans, better designed, more technologically advanced, and at least as reliable as anything else on the market–and yet cheaper than the others. With one exception, that is: Linux, which is right next door, and which is not a business at all. It’s a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live there are making tanks. These are not old-fashioned, cast-iron Soviet tanks; these are more like the M1 tanks of the U.S. Army, made of space-age materials and jammed with sophisticated technology from one end to the other. But they are better than Army tanks. They’ve been modified in such a way that they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks are being cranked out, on the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number of them are lined up along the edge of the road with keys in the ignition. Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free.

I saw hints of his cleverness then. It wasn’t till I took up The Baroque Cycle that I began to glimpse at how amazing he truly is with his craft. Still, I wonder. The sheer genius in The Baroque Cycle really feels like it needs a good editor. That, or three times as many books. Stephenson’s genius is his ability to wrangle the baroque details of his 2500+ page saga into a coherent, compeling story. Weaving story lines together and enticing you to struggle on. Of course, his downfall is his compulsive need to tell you all the details he has mastered. Partly, this is because he has done so much research on the period (the late 17th and early 18th century) and partly it is because he is telling you so much about our present world and how modern governance and commerce came to be. It reminds me a lot of the genius of Tolkein: the ability to create and master a world and then convey it to the reader in a compelling fashion. And Stephenson has that down, too: he refuses to be type-cast as an author — he’s gathering fans from outside of science fiction. Finally, Stephenson impresses me as someone who has thought things through thouroughly but hasn’t developed a visceral reaction to anything remotely Christian. See, for example, his take on governance in this Reason interview:

We are in a position akin to that of early physicians who could see that people were getting sick but couldn’t do anything about it, because they didn’t understand the underlying causes. They knew of a few tricks that seemed to work. For example, nailing up plague houses tended to limit the spread of plague. But even the smart doctors tended to fall under the sway of pet theories that were wrong, such as the idea that diseases were caused by imbalanced humors or bad air. Once that happened, they ignored evidence that contradicted their theory. They became so invested in that theory that they treated any new ideas as threats. But from time to time you’d see someone like John Snow, who would point out, “Look, everyone who draws water from Well X is getting cholera.” Then he went and removed the pump handle from Well X and people stopped getting cholera. They still didn’t understand germ theory, but they were getting closer. We can make a loose analogy to the way that people have addressed the problem of power disorders. We don’t really understand them. We know that there are a couple of tricks that seem to help, such as the rule of law and separation of powers. Beyond that, people tend to fall under the sway of this or that pet theory. And so you’ll get perfectly intelligent people saying, “All of our problems would be solved if only the workers controlled the means of production,” or what have you. Once they’ve settled on a totalizing political theory, they see everything through that lens and are hostile to other notions. Wink’s interpretation of the New Testament is that Jesus was not a pacifist milksop but (among other things) was encouraging people to resist the dominant power system of the era, that being the Roman Empire. Mind you, Wink is no fan of violence either, and he devotes a lot of ink to attacking what he calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence, which he sees as a meme by which domination systems are perpetuated. But he is clearly all in favor of people standing up against oppressive power systems of all stripes. Carrying that forward to the present day, Wink takes a general interest in people in various places who are getting the shaft. He develops an empirical science of shaftology, if you will. (Of course he doesn’t call it shaftology; that’s just my name for it.) He goes all over the world and looks at different kinds of people who are obviously getting the shaft, be they blacks in apartheid South Africa, South American peasants, or residents of inner-city neighborhoods dominated by gangs. He looks for connections among all of these situations and in this way develops the idea of domination systems. It’s not germ theory and modern antibiotics, but it is, at the very least, a kind of epidemiology of power disorders. And even people who can’t stomach the religious content of his work might take a few cues from this epidemiological, as opposed to theoretical/ideological, approach.

I’ve only just started the third book.

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