Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Neal Stephenson - a new master

If the name Neal Stephenson means nothing to you, then please pay close attention.

If you’re reading this blog at all, you are presumably interested in books. Which means, more likely than not, that you read novels. Well now, there are all sorts and kinds of readers of novels, and all sorts and kinds of books to cater for their various tastes. But if you’re interested in good old-fashioned story-telling, on the grand scale, Neal Stephenson’s recent books are just the thing for you.

Stephenson’s first significant book was a sort of eco-thriller called Zodiac. Not bad but nothing staggering. This was followed by a series of books which I suppose one would have to classify as science fiction. But don’t be put off. To begin with, science fiction is several decades past the bug-eyed monster stage, and the genre is in fact producing some of the most intelligent and entertaining fiction around. Which is not to say that I enjoy all of it, by any means.

However, beginning with a book called Quicksilver, published last year, Stephenson has moved away from science fiction and on to slightly different things. Quicksilver is set in the late seventeenth century, and belongs in a category of novels which some would call historical, or picaresque, or possible just an adventure story. All you need to know, as a potential reader, is that it’s a bloody good read. My advice is, get hold of a copy, sharpish.

Quicksilver is apparently the first book in something which the author calls the Baroque Cycle. I have no intention of trying to summarise the plot here – you can find that sort of thing on Amazon. You probably do need to be warned, however, that Quicksilver is fiendish long. And normally I don’t recommend long books, but in this case I more than make an exception. You may need to give the story a little time, but it is well worth the perseverance.

Quicksilver was followed by The Confusion, which was published on 1 April and which I have just finished reading – all 815 pages of it. And the third book in the cycle is due out later this year.

I could provide you with links to reviews and things, but the truth is that no sensible person would bother to ‘review’ or ‘criticise’ a book such as this. The only appropriate response to it is to go down on your knees and thank whatever gods may be that there are still some writers around – well, one, anyway – who can deliver something like this into your hands.

If you insist on a link, go to Metaweb. This is a site which seems to have been set up by Stephenson himself, but which now contains reams of stuff about the author and his books, written by some of those dead-keen people who get kind of carried away in their enthusiasm. In this case, however, I am inclined to think that getting carried away is justified.

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