Neal Stephenson reading guide

US science fiction writer Neal Stephenson is perhaps best known for his outstanding novel Cryptonomicon, an epic science fiction tale that switches between Allied codebreakers working at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, and one of the code breaker’s descendants employing cryptologic and computer technology to build a “data haven” in the near future. This is easily the first choice for anyone unfamiliar with Stephenson’s work. As long as you can make it through the first few chapters, you will be hooked until the last page. It’s an epic story that entertains and educates in equal measure.

Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematical genius and Captain in the U.S. Navy, is the central character in the first time period, assigned to a secret outfit to keep the Nazis ignorant of the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the German’s Enigma code. In the later, Waterhouse’s crypto-hacker grandson, Randy, fights governments and multinationals with Shaftoe’s granddaughter, Amy, to salvage a Nazi submarine that holds the key to keeping the data haven up and running. The data haven will create an anonymous Internet banking system, a place where encrypted data can be stored and exchanged without scrutiny and fear. Blending the past and the future tales works beautifully.

Two of Stephenson’s earlier Cyberpunk novels, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (see below for descriptions), are just as impressive, with anthropology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence combined with some excellent characterizations. Like Cryptonomicon, these are not to be overlooked. You will not be disappointed.

Stephenson’s canvas’ are always large: computer technology, mathematics, cryptography, religious beliefs, the history of science, and philosophical thought in all its guises are common areas of examination and exploration.

Perhaps this is explained by his background: Stephenson’s family all worked in technical fields; his father was a professor of electrical engineering and his mother worked in a biochemistry laboratory. Strangely enough, his father’s father was also a physics professor, while his mother’s mother was a biochemistry professor. Stephenson himself studied physics at university but realised he could spend more time using the computer mainframe if he switched to geography. He graduated with a B.A. in geography and a minor in physics in 1981.

Stephenson has also worked as a part-time advisor for Blue Origin, a company developing a manned sub-orbital launch system (you can see this influence in his novel Anathem) and has previously written under the pseudonym Stephen Bury.

Later works, including his so-called Baroque Cycle, Quicksilver, Confusion and The System of the World, are historical fiction set in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries involving a variety of real historical characters such as Isaac Newton. Stephenson calls them science fiction because there are anomalous historical occurrences and the books focus on scientific and technological advances. These later works are a lot harder to get into and are not recommended unless you enjoy historical fiction. Each of his Baroque Cycle novels is nearly 1,000 pages and very ponderous.

Neal Stephenson’s latest novel

Neal Stephenson is currently working on a novel about global warming called Termination Shock, which is due to be released 16 November, 2021. Here’s the description from the official Neal Stephenson web page:

Neal Stephenson’s sweeping, prescient new novel transports readers to a near-future world in which the greenhouse effect has inexorably resulted in a whirling-dervish troposphere of superstorms, rising sea levels, global flooding, merciless heat waves, and virulent, deadly pandemics. One man – visionary billionaire restaurant chain magnate T. R. Schmidt, Ph.D. – has a Big Idea for reversing global warming, a master plan perhaps best described as “elemental.” But will it work? And just as important, what are the consequences for the planet and all of humanity should it be applied?

Description of Termination Shock, Neal Stephenson’s novel due 16 November, 2021.

Neal Stephenson books you must read

Cryptonomicon (1999)

(read description above)

Snow Crash (1992)

The US Federal Government has handed over its powers to private organizations and entrepreneurs. Hiro Protagonist and his hacker friends discover a new pseudo-narcotic called “Snow Crash”. Mysteriously its effects are experienced both in the real world and in the “Metaverse”, the virtual reality world that evolved from the Internet. Hiro must use his computer hacking and sword-fighting skills to uncover the drugs secrets…

The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995)

In a world where nanotechnology has taken over, Nell illicitly receives a copy of an interactive book (the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer) intended to make sure its reader lead an interesting life and grows up to be an effective member of society. The Primer reacts to its owners’ environment and teaches them what they need to know to survive and grow…

Anathem (2008)

Set on the planet Arbre, Erasmas, a member of the avout—a, intellectuals who live in walled off monastic communities, discovers that alien beings are orbiting Arbre and that the secular powers are attempting to cover the visitation up. Rather than holding religious beliefs, avout-a are the scientists and philosophers of this world, holders of the world’s greatest scientific secrets…

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell (2019)

Richard Dodge dies after what is supposed to be a simple medical procedure, his body frozen and his mind scanned in digital format according to his will. This brain scan creates a “connectome” of his final mental structure (basically, an incredibly detailed map of every neural connection in his brain). Years later, after augmented and virtual reality (and technology generally advance), his grandniece Sophia uses Dodge’s scanned mind in a lab experiment and he is revived in an amnesiac state. While forgetting most of his past, Dodge builds a virtual world funded by wealthy anonymous donors and the real story begins. A heavy-duty tome, exploring the perils and possibilities of scanning your brain to live a virtual afterlife, it’s a impressive technological ride.

Neal Stephenson recommended reading

Reamde (2011)

The Big U (1984)

Zodiac (1988)

Interface (1994)

The Cobweb (1996)