Neal Stephenson’s bestselling science-fiction novels (Snow Crash, Anathem, the Baroque Cycle books, and more) are steeped in deep thinking about science, technology, philosophy, history, and culture. It stands to reason that Some Remarks: Essays And Other Writing, his first collection of non-fiction, would inhabit the same depths. What’s unexpected is the gulf between Stephenson’s passion, imagination, and authority as a fiction writer, and the shortage of those qualities in his essays. He even openly announces it: In Some Remarks’ introduction, he speaks of how he’s “reached the stage in my life and career where it is not only possible, but advisable, to release a compilation of what are drolly referred to as my ‘shorter’ works.” That advisement presumably came from his publisher, since the entire tenor of the introduction is apologetic and preemptively defensive. It seems as though the only reason the book exists at all is that Stephenson couldn’t think of a good enough reason for it not to.
Some Remarks gets off to a shaky start with “Arsebstos.” The book’s opening essay tries to correlate the theme of class division in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with its characters’ relative mobility—not in an economic sense, but literally in their ability to walk around. It’s glib, it’s facile, and it goes nowhere. Stephenson’s labored use of personal chiropractic problems to illustrate his pedestrian point—that people aren’t meant to sit at desks, so maybe they should use treadmills while working—isn’t just tedious, it ends on a jarring note. After all, offices full of workers marching on treadmills while manning computers is a chilling image rather than an exhilarating one. The fact that Stephenson, a student of history, fails to note that treadmills were once used as punitive devices in prisons amounts to a missed opportunity.
Similarly, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” is a cute title in search of a subject. It never finds one. What begins on a promising note—an anecdote about seeing Star Wars in a theater in Iowa in 1977—becomes a loose, scattered ejection of half-formed thoughts, including a dissonant, poorly supported defense of Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin Skywalker. Even worse, it sets the tone for Stephenson’s gratuitous yet superficial examination of geek culture. In “Slashdot Interview,” he breaks down genre writers and literary writers into “Beowulf” and “Dante” camps, a rickety analogy that devolves into threadbare complaints about critics and academics who shun genre fiction. (“In order to set her straight,” he says of one of them, “I had to let her know that the reason she’d never heard of me was because I was famous.”) And in “It’s All Geek To Me,” he trots out every line of lazy shorthand about geek culture that’s swamped pop-culture analysis over the past 10 years. “[Geeks] made peace with their own dorkiness long ago,” he boldly asserts. “Lack of critical respect means nothing to sci-fi’s creators and fans.” That is, unless you’re Neal Stephenson.
Again, though, it doesn’t seem like Stephenson ever intended most of these slapdash ruminations to become immortalized in a book. There’s one major exception: “Mother Earth, Mother Board,” a sprawling essay about the history of submarine cable that spans the full spectrum of Stephenson’s intellectual scope. It’s a virtuoso piece, and one that still resonates 16 years after being published in Wired. (At more than 100 pages, it also accounts for a full third of Some Remarks—though it remains freely available from Wired’s online archives.) The book’s other saving graces aren’t actually non-fiction. “Spew” and “The Great Simoleon Caper” are two short stories Stephenson—whose novels are often massive—culls from a very small store. “Spew,” in particular, is fantastic, a cyberpunk gem from one of the writers who helped codify the genre. Still, there’s a sad irony to it. Its dystopian scenario of workers cocooned in virtual-reality cubicles mirrors the topic he discusses in “Arsebestos,” only he explores it far more vividly and profoundly in a fictional context. That irony illustrates the basic failing of Some Remarks: From its self-effacing title on down, it feels like Stephenson would have preferred starting a new novel over putting it together. Or writing most of it in the first place.