Neal Stephenson is one of my favourite authors. He's managed to morph from political satire to sci-fi to historical drama to thrillers set in the modern day without breaking sweat. He's also a powerfully intelligent guy, and if he thinks he can bring swordplay to the PC, I trust him.
And you, dear gamer, should have a read of these books.
Snow Crash, 1992
If you read only one cyberpunk novel, you’re an idiot. The bare minimum for the genre should be William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s third novel, and his breakout achievement.
It’s a bold, anarchic look at a future dominated not by governments, but by corporate chains and politicised crime organisations. The mob, for instance, now focuses on pizza delivery, while the CIA has become a for profit intelligence agency.
While there are wonderful characters, (like the novel’s hero and main protagonist – Hiro Protagonist, I shit you not) and some cracking dialogue, the joy of Snow Crash is in its sweep, the ancient proto-hackers of Sumeria to the vast, false-neon sprawl of the Metaverse, Stephenson’s take on a wholly visualised and powerful internet.
Many, at this time, became possessed of the idea that Stephenson and the aforementioned Gibson were somehow at odds. It’s a silly idea, and Stephenson himself had a hilarious response to the idea in an excellent reader interview at Slashdot a few years back. The entire interview is actually pretty awesome.
This is possibly one of Stephenson’s cleverest ideas. It combines a number of his passions – timekeeping (which he shares with Gibson, to a degree), language, and big, star-spanning ideas.
You might feel a little adrift at first, though, but Anathem’s worth sticking with. The language is close to ours, but ever so slightly different, much like the setting. But perseverance pays in spades; as the novel progresses, the language becomes more natural, your understanding of it more complete and intuitive. It’s a clever trick, but as you then move out of the closed world of a cloister full of mathematics-obsessed monks... let’s just say the book goes in some amazing directions.
It’s odd to write a list of great Neal Stephenson novels and not include Diamond Age, Crytptonomicon or his massive Baroque Cycle, but they are amongst his densest works. I don’t think they’re less rewarding for that, but they’re possibly not the best starting points. Similarly, his early work is pretty good, but not quite on par.
However, if you give the books I’ve listed a go, and like them, trust me – you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
If you want to see Stephenson as a really interesting guy with some great ideas for gaming, this is the one.
The plot revolves around a highly monetised MMO, but ties in Welsh jihadists, an ex-Spetznaz merc who redefines coolness under fire, survivalists, fantasy novelists and a whole mess more.
What’s amazing is the way REAMDE’s narrative moves all over the globe in dashes of action and exposition. I referred yesterday to Stephenson’s ability with action scenes, and REAMDE is no exception. But, again, it’s the big ideas, especially with how gaming can help solve real-world problems, and simple things like the importance of family, that give the book an incredible heart.