Sunday January 13, 2013
Review: Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing
Review by PRIYA K.
Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing
Author: Neal Stephenson
Publisher: William Morrow, 326 pages
NOVELIST Neal Stephenson starts his introduction to Some Remarks by saying that certain publishing types have assured him that he has “reached the stage in my life and career” to release a collection of shorter works.
While he is probably being droll in his usual self-depreciating way, this may well explain why Some Remarks is a hodge podge of all manner of things. Aside from essays, long-form journalistic pieces, and fictional works, there is a college lecture, an interview with Slashdot readers (slashdot.org is a website based on and running the Slashdot-Like Automated Story-Telling Homepage software) and even a foreword written for a book by the late David Foster Wallace.
The only thing that prevents the collection from being completely schizophrenic is Stephenson’s passion for all things geeky that shines through his writing.
Those familiar with his novels will know that Stephenson takes great pains to explain things to his readers.
Since his speculative fiction tends to deal with highly technical (cryptography) and sometimes obscure subjects (Sumerian mythology), the explanatory passages do not intrude into the narrative but rather, move things along.
In shorter non-fiction writing, however, it appears that Stephenson cannot move far beyond just explaining things.
That is not to say that he does not have some astute observations bouncing about, or that he writes poorly.
Metaphysics In The Royal Society 1715 – 2010, for instance, is a surprisingly readable account of the history of the rivalry between mathematicians Gottfried Leibniz and Issac Newton; despite the jargon, you find yourself engaged in the piece if only to share the writer’s excitement.
The pièce de résistance of the collection is Mother Earth, Mother Board – something that the Some Remarks editors must have realised as well since it easily takes up a third of the book.
Originally written for Wired magazine in 1996, the essay is an enormous travelogue about the setting up of transoceanic cables. Or more specifically, the privately-funded FLAG (Fibre-optic Link Around the Globe) project involving a 28,000 km-long submarine communications cable literally stretching out across the world.
While the subject matter would glaze most people’s eyes over, Stephenson manages to make the geekery involved both accessible and riveting. Aside from explaining the technical details of what these cables are and why we should take an interest in them, he also weaves in the human drama involved.
As Wired published some fantastic photographs to accompany the initial report, it was a bit disappointing to not have them included in this collection.
For the most part, however, many of the essays feel like they had just been plucked out of an intelligent person’s notebook – random interesting ideas that are smashed together in a forced narrative and that do not really go anywhere.
A case in point is the opening essay, Arsebestos, in which Stephenson argues that sitting at office desks the whole day may spell a certain doom for us all.
From his own chiropractic problems, to using Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to illustrate that class division literally translates into your ability to walk around, Stephenson veers off into so many points that it becomes quite a chore to locate the point of it all.
If you are a huge fan of Stephenson, or want a primer on his ideas, then this collection is for you. For more depth, however, his fictional works may be more on the money.
In Mother Earth, Mother Board, Stephenson describes his approach to writing the piece as such: “Our method was not exactly journalism nor tourism in the normal sense but what might be thought of as a new field of human endeavour called hacker tourism: travel to exotic locations in search of sights and sensations that only would be of interest to a geek.”
Reading Some Remarks feels a bit like being a hacker tourist visiting Stephenson’s thought process – the problem is that you barely feel grounded enough in his ideas to go past being just another tourist.