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Huray for fountain pens!
on August 16, 2012
In his quarter-century (by my count) career of professional writing, Neal Stephenson has learned to show off less as his ideas grew stronger, to waste less time as his books grew longer, to write simpler as his plots grew more complex. He knows pearls of wisdom show best against black velvet, rather than, say, set off by Roman sparklers.
If you doubt this, read this book. Here Stephenson includes some great and some less than great essays, which can be sorted by their publication dates. The clarity of expression and complexity of thought of the 21st century Stephenson plainly exceed that of his younger self. Comparing 2010's "Metaphysics in the Royal Society" or 2008's "Gresham College Lecture" to 1994's "Spew" or "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" is like comparing the full moon to fireworks: the latter are flashy but not very illuminating; the former is what it is.
The fulcrum, the turning point when it all changed, is Stephenson's indispensable "Mother Earth, Mother Board." The first full flowering of Stephenson's mature style, it appeared in "Wired" one year after "The Diamond Age" and three years before "Cryptonomicon." I always felt that it deserved to have been published as its own book. Now it forms the heart of this one, supplemented by pieces that teach as much about writing as about the technologies and subcultures they explore.
By the way, the subject matter of the essays is always important and fascinating, and Stephenson's take is invariably invaluable. He is not just a techno-geek: his social engagement and historical perspective make his work not just commentary but prescription. To read this book is to be educated, entertained, and chastened, reminding one of the Puritans Stephenson both admires and in many ways resembles.