Some Remarks: The glory of infodumps separated from narrative

Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson science fiction book reviewsSome Remarks by Neal Stephenson

Some Remarks compiles eighteen short texts by Neal Stephenson. Aside from a couple short stories, this is a book of essays, interviews, and speeches. These short texts should please most Stephenson fans because they combine humor, insight, and exposition — in other words, these are infodumps gloriously freed from narrative.

Hesitant readers would do well to test this book by reading its opening essay, “Arsebestos.” Stephenson points out that although sitting all day is unhealthy, much of corporate America requires its office drones to sit in cubicles. People would be better off doing their work while ambling along on a treadmill, as Stephenson does, but managers are too cowardly to risk changing the status quo. After all, what if walking leads to knee problems? The essay, as its title suggests, is pretty funny, it provides a revealing analysis into the costs of how people unthinkingly spend much of their time, and it concludes that a more innovative approach, though unlikely to happen, is called for. Much of Some Remarks recalls the tone, structure, and even the conclusions of “Arsebestos.”

Many of these essays lament that Americans now struggle to do “big things” — even bigger than removing ourselves from chairs — but Stephenson also devotes a lot of text to defending geeks and speculative fiction. There may be some overlap in these arguments, so let’s see if we can tease it out. Stephenson explains that geeks seek to understand how things work, and it is their devotion to the little details that allow for the rest of society to passively enjoy the benefits of engineers. Here is one description of geeks and their role in culture:

Between about 300 BC and AD 400, Alexandria was by far the world capital of high-quality information. It must have had much in common with the MIT campus or Stanford in Palo Alto of more recent times: lots of hairy smart guys converging from all over the world to tinker with the lighthouse or to engage in pursuits that must have been totally incomprehensible to the locals, such as staring down wells at high noon and raving about the diameter of the earth.

Geeks may not be socially adept, but they are smarter, at least in the aggregate. And they tend to enjoy SFF, perhaps because it prizes intelligence over other aspects of narrative. Stephenson backs this last point on SFF in part by pointing out that Hugo Weaving, who plays Agent Smith in The Matrix and Elrond in Lord of the Rings, succeeds because he projects intelligence. Geeks like this archetype. Though unstated, the implied takeaway seems to be that we should find ways to help people read Neal Stephenson novels (and other SFF, of course).

It’s difficult not to sense a defensive approach in this argument: geeks may not be cool according to most conventions, and speculative fiction writers might not get a lot of literary cred, but both focus on how things work. Society might get big things done if we more fully appreciated them. It may help some readers to enjoy this book if they identify as geeks (especially if they identify as geeks in the flattering way Stephenson has described them here).

The heart of Some Remarks is “Mother Earth, Mother Board,” a longish travelogue written in 1996 for Wired. Stephenson travels from Hong Kong to Egypt to England to elsewhere, but the focus in every part of his travels is how wires are laid. The focus on telecommunications infrastructure makes for a unique and compelling approach to the travel memoir. In fact, this is the first travelogue I’ve read in which a tourist in England does not comment on monarchy, accents, or English slang. It’s arguably the text most likely to be read ten years from now in this collection.

One of my favourite things about Stephenson’s books is his ability to incorporate lists into his fiction. So here’s a list of random observations:

  • The account of his many battles against William Gibson is very funny.
  • “The hacker tourist” sounds clever at first, but it quickly becomes annoying.
  • Stephenson discusses Star Wars more often than Star Trek, and I can’t figure out why. Star Trek — particularly its reverence for Chief O’Brien and Spock — seems like the geek utopia that he envisions. Perhaps Star Wars appeals to — what strikes me as — his libertarian sympathies. Or perhaps it’s just the light sabres.
  • It seems like Stephenson could be considered a futurist, but he strikes me as 1) conservative in his views and nostalgic for the past, and 2) determined to find the future by studying the past.

Here we end the list.

Regardless, I’m happy to recommend Some Remarks, particularly to Stephenson’s fans. Having said that, this group is likely to have already read much of the book since many of the texts have already been posted online.

Published in 2013. #1 New York Times bestselling author Neal Stephenson is, quite simply, one of the best and most respected writers alive. He’s taken sf to places it’s never been (Snow Crash, Anathem). He’s reinvented the historical novel (The Baroque Cycle), the international thriller (Reamde), and both at the same time (Cryptonomicon). Now he treats his legion of fans to Some Remarks, an enthralling collection of essays—Stephenson’s first nonfiction work since his long essay on technology, In the Beginning…Was the Command Line, more than a decade ago—as well as new and previously published short writings both fiction and non. Some Remarks is a magnificent showcase of a brilliantly inventive mind and talent, as he discourses on everything from Sir Isaac Newton to Star Wars.

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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5 comments

  1. Considering his rivalry (??) with Gibson, I’m startled to read a description of “Mother Earth, Mother Board” that makes it sound a lot like two separate essays in Gibson’s DISTRUST THAT PARTICULAR FLAVOR. It does seem like a lot of what Stephenson does best is in here. I’ll probably read it, and even though it’s only July, I already know someone who will need this for Christmas. Thanks, Ryan!

    • Ryan /

      I think Gibson and Stephenson are both pretty great writers, but I think they’re very different in style, structure, tone, character dynamics, etc. I can see the link between them, especially here as both books contain texts from Wired. Having said that, Some Remarks and “Mother Earth, Mother Board” are both pretty unique and you could likely read them soon after or before reading Distrust that Particular Flavor without hassle. I read the two within a year of each other.

  2. I have a hard time getting through Stephenson’s fiction, but I do like his non-fiction a lot. I think I’ll have to track this book down!

    • Ryan /

      Most of it is online (the current wikipedia entry on Some Remarks provides links to most of the texts), so it’s not hard to sample before committing to the entire book.

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