As an author, Neal Town Stephenson is hard to pigeonhole: Snow Crash is a cyberpunk novel along the lines of William Gibson; The Diamond Age is pure futuristic fiction; Cryptonomicon's timeline jumps between the Second World War and the present day; and The Baroque Cycle is a trilogy set around the Restoration. His novels are characterised by funny prose, interesting metaphors, geeks presented sympathetically yet humorously, and a keenness to explain scientific concepts and technology1 in abstract ways.
It is worth mentioning that The Big U, Interface and Cobweb do not appear to be considered as part of the Stephenson canon; it is significant that the bibliography on his own website does not reference them.
The Big U
The Big U was Stephenson's first solo novel and has recently been re-released after being out of print for a number of years. It is a satire of American college life. Even Stephenson himself describes it as 'rough', though it is interesting to see the traits that would define his later novels here in nascent form.
Stephenson wrote Interface and Cobweb with his uncle, Frederick George, under the pseudonym of Stephen Bury. Stephenson has said that they decided to write 'mainstream, commercial, techno-thriller-type fiction just for the hell of it'. And that is a good description of the books. They have been called Clancy-esque by some.
Interface is a fairly straightforward techno-thriller. A presidential candidate is fitted with a neural chip that allows him to communicate with a computer. At the same time, a sample of voters are fitted with other chips that transmit their emotions in real-time, allowing the president to use their emotional reaction to optimise his campaign. However, the shadowy company that funded the chip's development have their own ideas...
Another Bury book, Cobweb is a thriller based on biological weapons. A small-town sheriff has to deal with Iraqi agents infiltrating a local university to gain access to bio-weapons technology. At the same time, a CIA analyst has trouble convincing people of Saddam Hussein's threat in a climate where he was an American ally against Iran. She is 'cobwebbed' by her political enemies, forced into an impenetrable maze of meetings, bureaucracy and pointless reports, effectively neutralising her threat.
Set in and around Boston, Zodiac, is an eco-thriller that tells the story of self-proclaimed 'professional *sshole' Sangamon Taylor, and his battle against industrial pollution. While this book certainly carries a message about the evils of corporate industrialism, it is a ripping yarn with a truly memorable hero. It is also laugh-out-loud funny pretty much throughout. Though it lacks the scope and weight of his later novels, it's certainly not just for Stephenson completists.
Perhaps the most accessible Stephenson novel, Snow Crash carries many similarities with the type of world that William Gibson wrote about in his cyberspace novels. It tells the story of newly-fired pizza delivery boy Hiro Protagonist, teenage roller-skating Kourier YT, and lovable mafia don Uncle Enzo, as they get caught up in a plot to take over the world using a Sumerian informational virus. In this universe, corporations run the country but the mafia run the pizza delivery business. The book also features the fearsome Raven Davidoff - an Aleutian whaler who is a dab hand with molecule-sharp glass knives, bamboo spears, and has a nuclear bomb wired to explode if he dies.
Snow Crash is more light-hearted than many of Stephenson's later books - more of a knockabout and notably funnier. However, the ideas and historical details about ancient Sumeria and the neurolinguistic me virus give it a larger thematic weight than one might expect.
The Diamond Age
Diamond Age is a favourite among Stephenson readers. If the motif technology of Zodiac is the chemical molecule, and in Snow Crash the neurolinguistic virus, Diamond Age has nanotechnology as its hi-tech theme. Set a century or more in the future, it tells the story of Nell - initially as a six-year-old girl from the lowest strata of society - who comes into possession of a truly remarkable book: The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. We watch her grow up, tutored by the Primer. However, other factions within the world are also very interested in the Primer...
Diamond Age is where Stephenson starts giving his novels a larger scope. The various threads and themes are too complex to detail here as they follow events around the whole world and span over a decade. It is a grand, wonderful and surprising human novel, and contains one of the most amazing 'gotcha' moments ever.
Taking codes and code-breaking as its central theme, Cryptonomicon tells the story of Randy Waterhouse in the present day, but harks back to the story of his grandfather Lawrence Waterhouse. Waterhouse Senior was a cryptographer during the Second World War, while his grandson is a specialist in internet technology trying to set up a data haven in an obscure sultanate. The two timelines interact in many interesting ways, and characters (and their relatives) pop up in both threads. Waterhouse Senior interacts with actual historical figures, including one Alan Mathison Turing.
The story is too complex to do it justice here, but it involves the Enigma machine, the Riemann Zeta function, a Japanese gold hoard at a place called Golgotha, and the best use of the Num Lock key ever devised. It is a joy to read from start to finish.
The Baroque Cycle
At the time of writing this Entry (February 2004) only the first volume of The Baroque Cycle, Quicksilver, has been published2. It's difficult to get a strong idea of the overall shape of the story from one book, but calculus, and whether Newton or Leibniz really invented it, appears to be central. Stephenson himself has stated that cryptography is the central motif, but that money, war and power (and cryptography's effect upon them) are the central themes of the larger story, which will include The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon, and perhaps some others covering 'a large span of history'. It could be suggested that there is room for a Babbage/Ada Byron3 era entry in the larger cycle, assuming that William Gibson and Bruce Sterling haven't exhausted that particular subject in The Difference Engine.
Quicksilver tells the story of Daniel Waterhouse (a distant ancestor of the Waterhouses living in London during the Enlightenment), 'Half-Cocked' Jack Shaftoe, all-round rogue and King of the Vagabonds, and Eliza, a Qwghlmian4 girl rescued from a Turkish harem, who unfortunately gets caught up in the Byzantine politics of France and Holland. They bump into among others: Newton, Leibniz, Wilkins, Hooke, William of Orange, Louis XIV and Benjamin Franklin. Such diverse historical events as the Restoration, the invention of calculus, the Great Fire of London and the formation of the Royal Society are used as compelling backdrops for the protagonists' trials and tribulations.
Many ancestors of characters in Cryptonomicon appear here, including the rogue Jack Shaftoe, the rocky island nation of Qwghlm, and the mysterious Enoch Root. Stephenson has stated that the two Enoch Roots are actually the same person, so his presence in events 300 years apart will presumably be explained at some point, or at least maddeningly hinted at.