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Thoughts on Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson is a collection of essays, one sentence from a novel that he never finished, and a few short stories.  I’m not the typical audience for this book as I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, nor science-y essays.  As a result, I read a bit of the most recent essays in the collection, the introduction, and the short fiction pieces, plus the one sentence to the novel.  I can say that I see why he never went further with his novel; it wasn’t very attention grabbing for me, but hey, it might have been a sentence from a future chapter and not the book opener for all I know.

To say this collection is weird is an understatement; readers only need to check out “Spew” with its tech-babble and sci-fi tongue-in-cheek feel as Profile Auditor 1 skulks around the big brother system that watches everyone’s lives for a living, looking for anomalies.  I found the overwrought tech language and mysteriousness too much; I was kept too much in the dark for the beginning part of the short story.  However, by the end, I was intrigued by the hotel clerk and her suspicious profile and wondered what the profiler’s interest in her was, but it is clear by the end of the story that she’s got more gumption than he does.  While Stephenson brings up issues of big brother and what it could mean from a marketing perspective, the story also gave me pause about my own buying habits and whether I’m that gullible in my purchases — seeing it on television or the Internet is enough to make me buy it — but I also realized that is not all that he is highlighting, but also the factors that play into buying decisions from friends, recommendations, advertisements, and finances.

“Patch this baby into your HDTV, and you can cruise the Metaverse, wander the Web and choose from among several user-friendly operating systems, each one rife with automatic help systems, customer-service hot lines and intelligent agents.  The theater’s subwoofer causes our silverware to buzz around like sheet-metal hockey players, and amplified explosions knock swirling nebulas of tiny bubbles loose from the insides of our champagne glasses.”  (page 288, “The Great Simoleon Caper”)

The second short story, “The Great Simoleon Caper,” relies on a similar notion of a man behind the technology who looks in on customers through their set top boxes, but instead of profiling their likes and dislikes and buying habits, he is their customer service representative to iron out their problems.  In this scenario — which began with a “innocent” brother’s request for how many jelly beans would fill up Soldier Field — the customer service rep brother is suddenly thrust into an underground plan to circumvent government controls.  Investing in Simoleons, an e-money, is a campaign his brother wants to succeed, but how will his brother ensure that the deal goes off without a hitch.  Do you sense a bit of paranoia in these stories?  A bit too much over-the-shoulder watching?  Perhaps that’s a good thing — keeping people honest and on their toes.

Stephenson’s fiction was livelier and more inventive to me than the nonfiction essays about the dangers of sitting at a desk for your job and other topics, which seemed to try to hard to be humorous or witty.  Some Remarks is an interesting collection of essays, but for someone that reads mostly fiction and poetry, this is not a good fit.

About the Author:

Neal Stephenson is the author of the three-volume historical epic “The Baroque Cycle” (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) and the novels Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

This is my 64th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

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  • Well you know this isn’t my cup of tea. Seems odd to include just one sentence from a novel.

  • I had never read this author before but I read the first essay in the collection “Arsebestosis” and really enjoyed it. I haven’t gotten to any of the other essays but it sounds like I might be disappointed.

    • I’m not sure that you will. Arsebestosis is the first one I read and got bored with it and didn’t finish. So if you liked that one, you might like some of the others more than I did.

  • I was amazed when I saw this title on your blog. I like reading Stephenson, especially the early novels (Zodiak doesn’t have much of the tech cleverness that gets the more literary reader), but part of the reason I like reading him is that he gives me insight into my husband’s IT world.

    • Yeah, this was not my cup of tea, but I did like his inventiveness…and the writing is well done, so I can’t really fault him because I have no interest in the cyber world…at least this ultra cyber world.

  • I didn’t realize this is a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I may take a pass on it.

    • Yes, mostly nonfiction though.

  • “Overwrought tech language and mysteriousness” is just what I would expect to find in a Stephenson story. You’re right, you aren’t the target market for this book. I read a lot of techy stuff so I’ll probably like the stories. Hopefully the audio is good because that’s the copy I have!
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    • Hopefully, its something you can enjoy on audio. I did appreciate his short stories in the book. I thought they were interesting…and definitely not my normal reading. The essays were a little dry for me, even though I could see he was trying to be amusing.