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Neal Stephenson Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Fort Meade, Maryland, 1959. Education: Boston University, B.A. 1981. Career: Teaching assistant in physics department, Boston University, 1979; research assistant, Ames Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Ames, Iowa, 1978-79; researcher, Corporation for a Cleaner Commonwealth (environmental group), Boston, 1980; clerk in library, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1981-83; writer. Agent: Liz Darhansoff, 1220 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10128, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Big U. New York, Vintage, 1984.

Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.

Snow Crash. New York, Bantam, 1992.

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. NewYork, Bantam, 1995.

Cryptonomicon. New York, Avon, 1999.

Other

In the Beginning … Was the Command Line (nonfiction). New York, Avon, 1999.

* * *

Neal Stephenson has become the most prominent post-cyberpunk novelist, challenging and displacing the leading figure in the cyberpunk field, William Gibson. The post-cyberpunk novel takes for granted, and builds on, the key elements of Gibson's fictional world—cyberspace, virtual reality, and a degraded political, cultural, and social environment traversed by a lone, marginal hero. Stephenson's major novels are characterized by complex, multiple, interweaving plots; by a style that is generally lively and forceful, if sometimes banal; by a plethora of technological, mathematical, scientific, and cultural references that can become top-heavy; and by a bravura imagination that moves backwards and forwards in time, elaborating on actual historical events and extrapolating from current social trends into an imagined future. Stephenson has moved beyond the confines of genre or cult fiction to establish himself as a best-selling author who seems to catch the pace and style of a world that is being transformed by information technology.

After a first novel, The Big U, that made no impact, Stephenson produced an ecological thriller, Zodiac, featuring Sangamon Taylor, a campaigning chemist and a kind of environmental private eye who works for a Greenpeace-style environmental group, and who makes it his mission to expose large and powerful companies that dump toxic waste. Checking on the state of Boston Harbor, Taylor discovers a dangerous toxin that may destroy the whole earth—but when he tries publicly to identify the company responsible, all trace of the toxin disappears. The novel follows his quest to prove the company's culpability, a quest that involves—in what will become a characteristic Stephenson mix—businessmen, the FBI, Satanists, and the Mafia. In Zodiac, a compelling thriller combines with science fiction to produce a potent symbol of impending eco-catastrophe.

It was his third novel, Snow Crash, that established Stephenson as the key post-cyberpunk writer. From the opening pages, where a Deliverator, desperate to deliver a pizza within thirty minutes or suffer dire consequences from the Mafia, finds himself slowed down by a Kourier, a female skateboarder who has attached herself to his car with an electromagnet, we are in a fast-moving, feverish, fear-ridden future, in which the Internet has become the Metaverse, the Street has replaced the Information Superhighway, the USA has collapsed economically into a batch of city-states, and the Mafia, now an acceptable business organization but still able to instill deep fear, masterminds what is now a major industry—pizza delivery. The Deliverator—whose function in the novel is comically highlighted by his name, Hiro Protagonist—is also a freelance hacker and, in the Metaverse, a samurai swordsman, who sets out to find the source of a new drug, Snow Crash, that has destroyed the mind of Da5id [sic], Hiro's friend and the founder of the Metaverse protocol. Hiro is helped in this task by Y.T.—the skateboarder with the electromagnet—and the novel traces, somewhat schematically, the existential development of both these characters as it follows their dramatic adventures. As plot lines and cultural references proliferate—there is, for example, much use of Sumerian mythology in later chapters—Stephenson has some difficulty in holding his novel together and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion; but for much of the narrative his inventive power and the energy of his style sweeps the reader along. Of all Stephenson's novels so far, Snow Crash has attracted the greatest volume of critical commentary.

The Diamond Age; Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer demonstrates Stephenson's interest in the past as well as the future, although it is the past reconstructed in the twenty-first century, where neo-Victorians rule Atlantis/Shanghai and the Confucian system of justice—in which the judge is also detective, jury, and sometimes executioner—still operates. But John Percival Hackworth, a nanotechnologist, creates an illicit copy of A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, which, despite its very Victorian title, is intended to teach girls to think in an independent way. This copy gets into the hands of an orphan child, Nell, who uses it to educate herself. The novel interweaves passages from the Primer with a sensitive exploration of Nell's developing knowledge and understanding of the strange world she inhabits—a world that Hackworth, by creating a "wet Net" in the blood of the human race, hopes to transform. The novel is less hectic, more measured, than Snow Crash ; but as in the earlier work, Stephenson finds it difficult to achieve a satisfactory ending. Once more, however, he carries the reader along for much of the story.

In 1999, Stephenson produced his most elaborate and complex novel yet, Cryptonomicon, which interweaves past and present and puts out threads towards possible futures. The two time zones in the novel are the 1940s and the 1990s. In World War II, mathematical genius Lawrence Waterhouse and U.S. marine and morphine addict Bobby Shaftoe—along with real-life gay mathematician Alan Turing—are members of Detachment 2702, an Allied group working to decipher Nazi communication codes while not letting the enemy know their codes have been cracked. In the 1990s, Randy Waterhouse, Lawrence's grandson, and Amy Shaftoe, Bobby's granddaughter, work together to create a haven for the free storage and exchange of data, and to search for gold that was once possessed by the Nazis. Although Stephenson handles the interweaving of the time zones well, he once more has problems in concluding a novel that is, as he himself says, a big tangle of interrelated themes: cryptography, language, computers, and money. This time, however, he plans a sequel, or perhaps a number of sequels, and he is already working on a novel called Quicksilver, once more concerned with cryptography but set 300 years ago. Cryptonomicon took Stephenson onto the bestseller charts and provoked comparisons with the works of Thomas Pynchon. This comparison is premature: Stephenson has not reached that rank yet, but it will be interesting to see whether he approaches it with Quicksilver.

—Nicolas Tredell

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