Neal Stephenson, nature poet?

Neal Stephenson caricature by Flickr user DonkeyHotey

After my recent question about whether or not to read The Hunger Games, my scifi man JWH said if it comes down to a choice between that and Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, go with Reamde. Reamde being the latest from the man that brought you Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Baroque Cycle, and other increasingly humongous and satisfying works of historically-minded speculative fiction. So I did, and I’m still plowing through the 1000+ page tome and throwing my back out carrying it to the train. But do I resent the lack of editing? Oh no. Let it go on forever. As usual, Stephenson is teh awesome. And there is some karma going on, as the man himself visited MIT this week to talk about his writing and how to make science-fiction like concepts a reality.

In a nutshell, Reamde is a novel about characters involved in a spies-and-terrorists global chase, kind of like Bourne but with irony and minorities, that also parallels and is interconnected with these same characters’ interactions within a big World of Warcraft-style online role-playing game. It is full of satisfying geeky exploits, awesome factoids that Stephenson digs up (though, to be honest, not as many per page as one finds in Baroque Cycle), and hair-singing gun battles.

What jumps out at me though is Stephenson’s shift towards a rather poetic appreciation for nature, in a way that is unusual for scifi, where you typically see the Earthly or extraterrestrial or orbital natural surrounding established in a minimal way to set a cool backdrop behind the writers’ battles and plot points. Take a look at this passage, maybe the most obvious example of this tendency in Reamde, in which Stephenson talks about the British Columbia landscape through which some of the characters roll in an RV:

Newborn calves suckling from their mothers’ udders. Huge geometric reshapings of mountainsides that she guessed must be mining projects. Canyons lined with marble the colors of honey and blood. Spindly steel-wheeled irrigation systems poised at the edge of barren cleared fields, like sprinters at the starting line, waiting for the season to begin. Mountains marching in queues from directly overhead to the horizon, one after another, as of to say, We have more where these came from. Deciduous trees budding out on the mountains’ lower slopes, engulfing the lone dark spikes of conifers in a foaming, cresting wave of light green.

The language here confers a lot of energy and seeming agency to nature, in particular in this last sentence with trees “budding…engulfing…foaming…cresting” like a wave up the mountain slopes, and enmeshes even the inanimate parts of the land with the life of its ecosystem, as with the canyon colored like honey and blood. It is beautiful work, much more like Adrienne Rich than William Gibson.

But why is Stephenson doing this? This is a guy who obviously cares about the landscape, but usually to make a scifi point, as in The Diamond Age where he has artificial islands and power sources whose geometry mimics natures (because that’s the most efficient structure), or to have the chance to evoke fractal geometry. I found myself torn between staying with this rendering of nature for its own sake and wanting to get to the next plot point. This tension syncs interestingly with observations that characters make in Reamde about the game-in-the-book, T’Rain (“Terrain”), whose underlying virtual landscape is supposed to be incredibly realistic but, as with this passage to a plot-driven reader, is usually just a scrim, a set of conditions to be dealt with unthinkingly as you rush to do battle and get gold.

Could it be that in his later career Stephenson is shifting the ground of speculative interest in his works from the built, fantastic/futuristic landscape of Snow Crash, to a natural landscape that can render (in the digital graphics sense) his characters’ interplay and struggles as either primal-timeless or very current? I don’t have a handle on this yet but it is interesting that in this, his first book in a while set in “the present,” and driven in part by parent/uncle-child relationships and older characters dealing with mortality, we see a turn towards a language of nature that many other authors have used to stage their wrestlings with these same emotions.

2 thoughts on “Neal Stephenson, nature poet?

  1. J()5|-|,
    great to see you today – just digging into your blog…
    didn’t know you were a dystopian sci-fi fan! Could be a deeply embedded psychic condition in all of us growing up near the CIA and having the post-nuclear air raid sirens doing their test-blare every 21st of the month…

    Will have to enlarge the scope of my middle-age-earthian crises and check out Reamde and Hunger Games. Back in the day was a huge blade runner fan and anything scifi-philoso-dark, but alas going to the movies let alone reading anything but non-fiction archi-speak has not been in the stars. Guilty pleasure however was watching all the semi-recent redoes of the Battle Star Galactica series on netflix… kind of good human/machine/god soap opera stuff, did you see it? ok time to peruse more of your musings…

    • Jh0st, if you only have time for one Stephenson book, start with The Diamond Age (my personal opinion, others may prefer Snow Crash).
      Do you remember the Concorde going overhead as well, speaking of deep imprinting of futurism?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *