Some minds are giants. Not all will get to know this savant, yet … I will join the parade of: Read This Man’s Books.
For the reader of this essay, think about this description in Wikipedia [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neal_Stephenson ]:
“Neal Town Stephenson (born October 31, 1959) is an American writer known for his works of speculative fiction.
His novels have been categorized as science fiction, historical fiction, cyberpunk, postcyberpunk, and baroque.
Stephenson’s work explores subjects such as mathematics, cryptography, linguistics, philosophy, currency, and the history of science. He also writes non-fiction articles about technology in publications such as Wired. He has also written novels with his uncle, George Jewsbury (“J. Frederick George”), under the collective pseudonym Stephen Bury.
Stephenson has worked part-time as an advisor for Blue Origin, a company (founded by Jeff Bezos) developing a spacecraft and a space launch system, and is also a cofounder of Subutai Corporation, whose first offering is the interactive fiction project The Mongoliad. He is currently Magic Leap‘s Chief Futurist.”
He doesn’t just write about science and social issues, … he tells tales about them. He teaches through remarkable imaginative story telling. The reader not only gets a great yarn, but knowledge, and wisdom.
Let met tell a story, one I often use to introduce to others this gifted man’s works:
In the third volume – the System of the World – of his 2700 page Baroque Cycle, he brings four characters together for an imaginary conversation taking place in England around 1730.
Newton and Leibniz many will at least been heard of, as well as – perhaps – princess Caroline, soon to become a Queen of England because her husband is about to become king – neither of which were born in those islands, but rather were a royal linage that could be “used” by other aristocrats and bankers as an acceptable anchor in attempt to avoid future wars.
In these books we will see many arts of statecraft illuminated, … but here princess Caroline has called – to her sitting room – the two European savants, along with a fictional friend: Daniel Waterhouse. She wishes to see hear their thoughts concerning deep matters, ideas for which she , as Queen, might have some responsibility to encourage.
The dialogue is given about twenty pages, and is lively with even a bit of wit, as well as rancor, for Leibniz and Newton were at odds about a fundamental question.
Is matter a lifeless “thing”, this “atom” Newton wants to describe as the smallest bits of matter; or, … is the “monad” (Leibniz’s name for the smallest) living, willful, and conscious.
This is a question which – as scientific materialism unfolded – went in Newton’s direction, and we live in that world. Yet, many moderns are beginning to find that Nature is – factually – conscious and living and watching us with more care than are we watching Her.
The Baroque Cycle (a three volume, 2700 page yarn, with amazing heroes and heroines), also concerned itself with the historical aspects of finance. He imagines into living existence what was thought when lenders could sign a note that would be honored someplace else, many weeks later, to someone who arrived by ship and/or carriage, and presented the “agreement” or “promise”.
A few years back I got to ask a question of Neal Stephenson, who was doing some kind of call in show, which my eldest son was connected to, and had offered me by phone what question would I like to ask, … so I got my son to ask where Stephenson himself stood on the question debated by Newton, Leibniz, Waterhouse and princes Caroline: Newton’s or Leibniz’s idea of the nature of the smallest – and Stephenson said he sided with Leibniz and threw out a half dozen names of writers and their books, none of which I had heard of before, although I had no doubt there discussions would be scientifically based. Just not yet “popular”, for science has fashions, does it not?
Another story ….
Wired Magazine, some years ago, asked Stephenson to write an article about the undersea cable infrastructure, to which most phone and internet lines are connected.
He then spent several months travelling the world and meeting the builders, and sailors, and technicians and bureaucrats, of all manner of nationalities. That’s an example of the degree of his immersion in technical and social questions. There are books of his non-fiction works.
His latest novel: “Fall, or Dodge in Hell”, which I’ve just started reading, begins with a main character’s introspective thoughts about his experience, and the stuff he has been taught – and mostly believes – connected to his brain. Asking, where does he go when he sleeps and what is happening when he wakes up?
To that riddle he adds another, by referencing the current debate between physicists and philosophers about “qualia”, and such ephemeral experiences as the taste of a tomato. Are our qualitative experiences real, or only a fiction created by the “brain”?
A report in 2015 said he had sold over 300,000 books. I suspect it was far more than that who have been influenced by his thought – millions perhaps, for as I have done, many no doubt give away copies to others at every opportunity.
I honor him as a gifted teacher who illumined much about the world, all the while wrapped up in the music of the imagination.
Here is a shorter book, which I have read multiple times: “Snow Crash” https://www.amazon.com/Snow-Crash-Neal-Stephenson/dp/0553380958/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2WFOENAH4H6Y5&keywords=snowcrash+neil+stephenson&qid=1575822250&sprefix=snowcrash%2Caps%2C154&sr=8-2
It is about our social future, and one of its main characters, born of an “Asian” woman and a black America soldier, is named: Hiro Protagonist.
The full title of the book is: “The Diamond Age – Or a Young Ladies Illustrated Primer”. In it, using nano-technology, a skilled artisan designs a little book, which is also a massive computer, with AI like functions. The Book presents a persona that changes as the child grows. A spirit-friend who gives advice, tells stories and otherwise helps keep safe a child pursued simply because she has a copy of the book, that was to have belonged to a ultra rich individual, who asked it be created for his grand-daughter.
Neal Stephenson is a natural savant, skilled and learned in matters few of us would even bother to tackle. If you like to read for pleasure, and to learn at the same time, he’s one of the very best writers around.
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