Some Remarks

by Neal Stephenson

Cover image

Publisher: William Morrow
Copyright: June 2013
ISBN: 0-06-202444-2
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 336

Buy at Powell's Books

This is going to be another weird review, since I read this essay collection about three months ago, and I borrowed it from a friend. So this is both from fading memory and without a handy reference other than Internet searches. Apologies in advance for any important details that I miss. The advantage is that you'll see what parts of this collection stuck in my memory.

Some Remarks is, as you might guess from the title, a rather random collection of material. There's one long essay that for me was the heart of the book (more on that in a moment), two other longer essays, two short stories, and thirteen other bits of miscellaneous writing of varying lengths.

I found most of the short essays unremarkable. Stephenson uses a walking desk because sitting is bad for you — that sentence contains basically all of the interesting content of one of the essays. I think it takes a large topic and some running room before Stephenson can get up to speed and produce something that's more satisfying than technological boosterism. That means the most interesting parts of this book are the three longer works.

"In the Kingdom of Mao Bell" was previously published in Wired and is still available. Some Remarks contains only excerpts; Stephenson says that some of the original essay is no longer that interesting. I had mixed feelings about this one. Some of the sense of place he creates was fun to read, but Stephenson can't seem to quite believe that the Chinese don't care about "freedom" according to his definitions in the same way and therefore don't have the same political reaction to hacker culture that he does. This could have been an opportunity for him to question assumptions, but instead it's mostly an exercise in dubious, sweeping cultural evaluation, such as "the country has a long history of coming up with technologies before anyone else and then not doing a lot with them." A reminder that the detail with which Stephenson crams his writing is not always... true.

Stronger is "Atoms of Cognition: Metaphysics in the Royal Society 1715–2010," which covers material familiar to readers of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. The story of Newton, Leibniz, their rivalry, and the competing approaches to thinking about mathematics and science was my favorite part of that series, and in some ways the non-fiction treatment is better than the fictional one. If you liked the Baroque Cycle, this is worth reading.

But the highlight of the book for me was "Mother Earth Mother Board." This is a long essay (50,000 words, practically a small book and the largest part of this collection) about the laying of undersea fiber-optic cables. Those who have read Cryptonomicon will recognize some of the themes here, but there's way more to this essay than there was to the bits about undersea cables in Cryptonomicon. It's mostly about technology, rather than people, which puts Stephenson on firmer ground. The bit about people reads more like a travelogue, full of Stephenson's whole-hearted admiration of people who build things and make things work. There's a bit of politics, a bit of history, a bit of tourism, and a lot of neat trivia about a part of the technological world that I'd not known much about before. I would say this is worth the price of the collection, but it too was previously published in Wired, so you can just read it online.

Those reading this review on my web site will notice that I filed it in non-fiction. There are a couple of stories, but they're entirely forgettable (in fact, I had entirely forgotten them, and had to skim them again). But, for the record, here are short reviews of those:

"Spew": This originally appeared in Wired and can still be read on-line. The protagonist takes a job as a sort of Internet marketing inspector who looks for deviations from expected profiles. While tracing down an anomaly, though, he finds another use of the Internet that's outside of the marketing framework he's using.

It's unlikely that anyone who's been online for long will find much new in this story. Some of that is because it was originally published in 1994, but most of it is just that this isn't a very good story. Stephenson seems to have turned up his normal manic infodump to 11 to satisfy the early Wired aesthetic, and the result is a train wreck of jargon, bad slang, and superficial social observation. (3)

"The Great Simoleon Caper": Originally published in TIME, this story too is still available online. It's primarily interesting because it's a story about Bitcoin (basically), written in 1995. And it's irritating for exactly the same reason that Bitcoin enthusiasm often tends to be irritating: the assumption that cryptocurrency is somehow a revolutionary attack on government-run currency systems. I'm not going to get into the ways in which this doesn't make sense given how money is used socially (David Graeber's Debt is the book to read if you want more information); just know that the story follows that path and doesn't engage with any of the social reasons why that outcome is highly unlikely. Indeed, the lengths to which the government tries to go to discredit cryptocurrency in this story are rather silly.

Apart from that, this is typical early Stephenson writing. It's very in love with ideas, not as much with characterization, and consists mostly of people explaining things to each other. Sometimes this is fun, but when focused on topics about which considerably more information has become available, it doesn't age very well. (5)

Overall, there was one great essay and a few interesting bits, but I wouldn't have felt I was missing much if I'd never read this collection. I borrowed Some Remarks from a friend, and I think that's about the right level of effort. If it falls into your hands, or you see it in a library, some of the essays, particularly "Mother Earth Mother Board," are worth reading, but given that the best parts are available on-line for free, I don't think it's worth a purchase.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-12-27

Last modified and spun 2017-06-06