Yes, I am a serially addicted reader. Series or authors. Find one, like it or him or her, and buy them all and read them all. Sometimes this leads to disaster and ruin (as in Nelson DeMille, a one trick pony with The General’s Daughter and nothing else I have touched seems worth the time), but often it leads to hours of wonder and amazement as in John Varley’s short stories, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser mysteries, and anything by Elmore Leonard, Annie Proulx, Robert Heinlein, John D. MacDonald, Dick Francis, Larry McMurtry and a whole host of others. Let me introduce to the previously unfamiliar one Neal Stephenson, a young author of prodigious output as well as astoundingly good writing and research. He has an enormous range of interest and talent and is putting together some really neat stuff. He’s kind of a cross between William Gibson (for the focus on the impact of information technology and media on society) and Colleen McCullough (for the weaving of interesting stories into historical perspective with accuracy on the history). Stephenson has proved himself a serious researcher, a developer of interesting plot lines, very interesting character development, and a wide range of historical contexts. Like William Gibson and John Varley, Stephenson has really interesting, intriguing and unusually ideas – a very, very different view of the world. Let’s start. The first novel, Zodiac takes place in present-day Boston, where the protagonist, Sangamon Taylor is in the middle of a terrific career as a professional pain in the ass to major corporations polluting the environment. Taylor’s organization, not unlike Greenpeace, searches for targets of environmental wrong-doing and then exposes it to the public. Non-violent (mostly), but hugely embarrassing. Taylor is the master of disaster and Zodiac leads the reader on a very engrossing who-done-it-and-why. The problem, someone – trying to cover up the dumping of PCBs into Boston Harbor, has unleashed the supposed anti-dote. The only problem is the discovery that the solution, while enormously effective at eliminating PCBs, also threatens to wipe out most, if not all, ocean life. It is technology merged with politics and social commentary, and it’s a good action novel as well – as well as a throwback (or is it throw-forward??) to the social activist genre. Zodiac is fun and not-so-heavy. Snow Crash is really a weird combination (as if Zodiac wasn’t). Now Stephenson really does begin to look at the information age…..and it is not pretty. Set in the future where the US government is just one of many power structures owning land and claiming citizens (and so are the Mafia, the Nipponese, the Crips, New South Africans, among many others). Not lacking for tongue-in-cheek, the hero/protagonist is named, well, yes, Hiro Protagonist. Pizza delivery boy by day (for CosaNostra Pizza – a company with a highly defined set of company by-laws) and king of the “Metaverse” at night, Hiro is an ace hacker who gets wired into chasing down the source of a virtually, figuratively, and literally deadly virus. At the heart of the villainy is one L. Bob Rife, multi-billionaire televangelist. The story is interesting, the action pretty good, there are good guys and bad guys and a love interest, but the most fascinating thing about this book is the ideas. Idea: America has become fractionated into mini-states of influence that act like embassies of safety – if you belong. Idea: the Mafia is a power player with “franchises” set up all over the country…like some big corporation complete with recruiting on high school and college campuses. Idea: the US government has given up on some polluted areas – they become “Sacrifice Zones” – where the National Parks Service has determined that the clean-up cost of the particular parcel of land exceeds its total future economic value. Idea: that the way that ancient Sumerian priests were able to communicate with and control populations could be coded into modern information technology – in other words, there was (and is) a merging of the virtual and the actual virus and it can be used against specific targets – named Snow Crash. Snow Crash gives an inkling of things to come….many of the ideas that Stephenson develops in later books see their start in this book. This is another fun, rollicking read…with a bit more content and the beginnings of some fairly involved ideas. style="width: 120px; height: 240px;"> Next in line is The Diamond Age. Here, Stephenson really develops a couple of ideas first surfaced in Snow Crash. First, in this 21st century, society has clearly evolved beyond nation states into a combination of states sects or cults (common cultures or “claves”) driven by either ideology or economics (or both) but all managed collectively by the “Common Economic Protocol”. Second, his thoughts around the role of information technology – and its impact on and integration with people are much more highly developed. John Percival Hackworth is an artificial intelligence engineer living in Atlantis/Shanghai, Atlantis being the common terminology for the neo-Victorian clave. He is given the task of using state-of-the art nano-technology to create “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” for the daughter of Atlantis/Shanghai’s chief executive. Now this book – as we come to find – is designed to help a young lady being raised in rigid (can you say stultifying) Victorian mode to learn to think for herself. Hackworth steals a copy for his own daughter, but loses it in a mugging (outside the enclave, of course) and the book falls into the hands of a young street girl, Nell – and it is no surprise that it changes her entire outlook and trajectory. Now this is Science Fiction, so you know that the fate of all humanity hinges on Nell and what and how she reacts to the challenges that face her. There are other great characters in the book and Stephenson does a terrific job giving them life – Judge Fang, the Confucian judge for the district of Shanghai, who has a soft spot for children, but is by-the-book on law-breakers, or Miranda, the “ractor” (reactive actor) hired to participate in the functioning of the “Lady’s Illustrated Primer”, who becomes as much a mother to Nell as she ever (or will ever) have. Then there is Dr. X, the mysterious underworld figure living in the “Celestial Kingdom” and whose motives are always unclear. Stephenson brings all of this together – social community and inequity, nanotechnology, the impact of information, masses of people in South East Asia to a major conflagration all surrounding Nell and Hackworth and Dr. X. I must say that The Diamond Age also begins to show one of Stephenson’s flaws -- and that is the ending is not as strong as the beginning and middle. Not terrible, but a bit confusing and confused…. like he ran out of just a bit of steam and couldn’t wrap it all up quite as well as he was able to introduce it. In any case, he continues to be creative with his ideas - you may or may not love how information is transferred surreptitiously across borders – but you will appreciate the concept. Perhaps a re-reading of the ending helps. Overall, though, a fascinating set of ideas, good character development, lots of mystery and action. Very different from Snow Crash and Zodiac and just as good. All of Neal Stephenson’s previous work is just a warm-up for Cryptonomicon, a giant of a novel (literally, at 918 pages, and figuratively) and a truly great read. Here Stephenson really bites off a challenge: using past and present/future, using two (if not really 2½) plot lines, Stephenson weaves a story of war and intrigue, of information technology and spies, of World-War-II and the World-Wide-Web. Perhaps the best writing Stephenson has ever produced is found in his WWII adventures of Marine Bobby Shaftoe and his eventually joining up with Captain Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse whose Detachment 2702 is involved in amazing adventure of deception and cryptography (remember the Allied breaking of the famed German Enigma code). Stephenson’s battle descriptions and his ability to get into the mind of the “grunt” on the ground are simply terrific. The battle of the Pacific has rarely been so vivid and visceral, so horrible and so real. Shaftoe is a true character in every sense of the word – he is developed well by Stephenson and endowed with an uncanny ability to survive the worst moments of battle – all while maintaining a fabulous sense of humor and total self-awareness. Stephenson’s descriptions of the initial Japanese invasion of the Philippines, and the battles for the then unknown islands in the Pacific rank up there with the best war writing I remember. For this alone, the book is worth the time and effort. Lawrence Waterhouse is a bit more of a stereotype – Princeton grad school (along with his classmates Alan Turing (real) and Rudolf “Rudy” von Hacklheber (invented), he gets wound into the increasingly deadly game of spying and deception surrounding the Enigma code. From the names, you can guess that the classmates end up on slightly different sides of the war. There is both humor and horror, insights into the history; and some fantastical invention (just wait until you visit Qwhlgm). Now, start at the other side of the story. Lawrence Waterhouse’s grandson (yes, a romance – you will love it!!) is Randy Waterhouse – a hacker and dot.bomb graduate who is embarking on one of a series of start-up companies. This one aims at creating a “data-haven” in some Southeast Asian sultanate – a place where encrypted data can be stored and exchanged far away from the pesky, prying eyes of governments. As in all of these new age startups, competition is fierce and money scarce. Randy joins forces with Bobby Shaftoe’s granddaughter (Amy) to salvage a sunken Nazi submarine that may hold either enough treasure or enough data to finance the whole venture. Are you beginning to see some of the possibilities here? Grandfathers Bobby and Lawrence are in the Pacific during WWII dodging the Japanese and waging crypto-war against the Germans. Grandchildren Randy and Amy are trying to fend off Filipino entrepreneurs and found a company with a location that allows data to escape government scrutiny. The linkage to the mysterious doings of detachment 2702 and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines is really well architected. Stephenson manages to keep both plot lines cooking – good dialogue, good characters (lots of them, too) and insight worth noting. Stephenson really understands data encryption and cryptography and can explain it and make it interesting. He also proves he can write war stories as well. On top of all of that, Stephenson has a deep interest in how markets work, how commerce proceeds – something that started in Snow Crash, evolved in The Diamond Age, is really given its head in Cryptonomicon. This really is a fabulous book. Better than his early novels….really worth the time. This guy is really an original thinker and its just plain good fun, too. Jump-shift next to Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle. This is a truly ambitious undertaking….to my eye and to my taste perhaps a bit more ambitious than it should have (or could have) been. The novel’s overreaching made it longer than it needed to be (unfortunately, a few places where interest flagged) and just not as sharp as earlier work. That said, it’s a HUGE ambition at work here and falling a bit short makes Quicksilver very good, just not great. Again, Stephenson’s scholarship and research is superior and telling – this is a romp through history – placed in the late 17th and early 18th century English and American Colonies and peppered with cameo (and sometimes enduring) appearances by the notables in science and politics of the day. You will meet Isaac Newton (as the neurotic student), Gottfried Leibniz (as the maligned co-inventor of the calculus), Ben Franklin, Spinoza, William of Orange, Jan Sobieski, Samuel Pepys, Robert Hooke (famous for using the microscope), and John Churchill (yes, Winston’s ancestor). You will romp from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to London, to the Siege of Vienna and through the myriad of German principalities as well as Paris and North Africa. You will experience science, e.g., the invention of calculus, the practice of alchemy, the use of cryptography, the advances and debates in astronomy, just to name a few. You will live through how the state-of-the-art of medicine dealt, more than a bit inadequately, with plague, syphilis, and smallpox. You will get to see how commerce drove the world as it either created or benefited from such enduring institutions as the birth and development of the multinational corporation, slavery, warfare, and the coffee trade. This is a march through the science, technology, and human conditions of the time period. To get you there, Stephenson has developed a 3-in-1 novel, three relatively intricate plot lines woven together. Plot one finds Enoch Root seeking out Daniel Waterhouse (yes, same family names that appear in Cryptonomicon) to help resolve the fight between Newton and Leibniz over the origins (and future) of calculus. In his trip back to London from Boston, Daniel recounts his 50 year journey from Cambridge (as Newton’s roommate), through the English religious upheaval of the mid-1600’s, the politics of the destruction and restoration of the English monarchy, and the progress of the Royal Society. Daniel is the son of a Puritan burned at the stake, struggling for recognition and success, who ends up hob-nobbing with the best and the brightest in England. Plot two introduces Jack Shaftoe (yep, another family name from Cryptonomicon) and Eliza. Jack is the “King of the Vagabonds) who just happens (neat story there) to rescue Eliza from a Turkish harem during the siege of Vienna. Eliza’s brains and her sex appeal (as well as her lust for power, fame, and money) combined with Jack’s sheer chutzpah result in a voyage through most of Europe, bumping into and getting entangled with the noble and near noble….not the least of which is William of Orange. Plot three is really the weaving together of plots one and two. Epic is the word here – great sweep, great issues, great people (mostly, but not exclusively, great men). Epic too, is the size of the book. At 900 pages plus, this is not a great airplane book. In fact, it was hard enough to hold up while reading in bed. I think the book could have benefited from more rigorous editing….the prose wanders at times and loses its sharp edge in other instances. Occasionally, Stephenson tries too hard – his characters are almost unbelievable in what they experience and how much (a kind of historical Forrest Gumping, if you will). Also, the novel starts slowly - it really helps if you are a history buff. Finally, Stephenson repeats the difficulty seen in earlier work in bringing us to the conclusion. In addition to the effect of being Volume One of a trilogy, there is no real satisfaction in the ending – a true disappointment after 900 pages. The brilliance that Stephenson brings – helping the reader be there, so to speak, mostly succeeds in overshadowing the novel’s weaknesses. However, there are a number of weaknesses to this tome – you will really need to be in shape for this one….more than just a bit of endurance is required. However, I have ordered Volume Two….it is probably worth it.