Neal Stephenson

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Neal Town Stephenson (born 31 October 1959) is an American writer, known primarily for his science fiction works in the postcyberpunk and chemical generation genres with a penchant for explorations of society, mathematics, currency, and the history of science.

See also The Baroque Cycle, Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon


  • For a Westerner to trash Western culture is like criticizing our nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere on the grounds that it sometimes gets windy, and besides, Jupiter's is much prettier. You may not realize its advantages until you're trying to breathe liquid methane.
  • I think visual literacy and media literacy is not without value, but I think plain old-fashioned text literacy and mathematical literacy are much more powerful and flexible ways to organize your mind.
    • Neal Stephenson coins the term "text literacy" during interview for the article "Pushing the Edge With 'Diamond Age' Nano-Machines," Associated Press, May 10, 1995
  • In your high school geology class you probably were taught that all life on earth exists in a paper-thin shell called the biosphere, which is trapped between thousands of miles of dead rock underfoot, and cold dead radioactive empty space above. Companies that sell OSes exist in a sort of technosphere. Underneath is technology that has already become free. Above is technology that has yet to be developed, or that is too crazy and speculative to be productized just yet. Like the Earth's biosphere, the technosphere is very thin compared to what is above and what is below.
  • Why Baroque? Because it is set in the Baroque, and it IS baroque. Why Cycle? Because I am trying to avoid the T-word ("trilogy"). In my mind this work is something like 7 or 8 connected novels. These have been lumped together into three volumes because it is more convenient from a publishing standpoint, but they could just as well have been put all together in a single immense volume or separated into 7 or 8 separate volumes. So to slap the word "trilogy" on it would be to saddle it with a designation that is essentially bogus. Having said that, I know everyone's going to call it a trilogy anyway.
    • Baroque Cycle entry in now-defunct MetaWeb
  • As far as culture and politics are concerned, the important theme is long-attention-span vs. short-attention-span thinking. I'm sure that your readers can think of any number of ways in which having a longer attention span can be useful. But I'll name one. Bankers with long attention spans don't lend money to people who can't pay it back. If we had more bankers who adopted a long-term view of their responsibilities, we might not be in the middle of a financial crisis that is blowing away 150-year-old investment banks.
    • In response to whether Anathem "reflects today's culture or politics," from an interview published Sept. 22, 2008 by MIT News

The Big U (1984)

  • Now, at the little southern black college where I went to school, we had no megadorms. We were cool at the right times and academic at the right times .... Boston University, where I did my Master's ... most students had no time for sonic war, and the rest vented their humors in the city, not in the dorms. Ohio State was nicely spread out, and I lived in an apartment complex where noisy shit-for-brains undergrads were even less welcome than tweedy black bachelors.
    • Dr. Bud Redfield; "The Go Big Red Fan" (prologue)
  • This is a history, in that it intends to describe what happened and suggest why. ... I may have fooled around with a few facts. But I served as witness until as close to the end as anyone could have ... and so there is not so much art in this as to make it irrelevant.
    • Early schema for author's now-familiar approach to historic events and persons; "The Go Big Red Fan" (prologue)
  • What you are about to read is not an aberration: it can happen in your local university too. The Big U, simply, was a few years ahead of the rest.
    • "The Go Big Red Fan" (prologue)

Zodiac (1988)

  • Sangamon’s Principle,” I said. “The simpler the molecule, the better the drug. So the best drug is oxygen. Only two atoms. The second-best, nitrous oxide—a mere three atoms. The third-best, ethanol—nine. Past that, you’re talking lots of atoms.”
    “Atoms are like people. Get lots of them together, never know what they’ll do.”
    • Chapter 1
  • One of the problems, hanging out with me, is that I can turn any topic into a toxic horror story. I've lost two girlfriends and a job by reading an ingredients label out loud, with annotations, at the wrong time.
    • Chapter 1
  • And I hadn't even told him the truth. Actually, the shit coming out of Basco's pipes was a hundred thousand times more concentrated than was legally allowed. ... That kind of thing goes on all the time. But no matter how many diplomas are tacked to your wall, give people a figure like that and they'll pass you off as a flake. You can't get most people to believe how wildly the eco-laws get broken, but if I say "More than twice the legal limit," they get comfortably outraged.
    • Chapter 2
  • The corporations have already planted their own bombs. All we have to do is light the fuses.
    • Chapter 4 (Sangamon Taylor on why violent action is not necessary against polluting corporations)
  • If you look at the bottom of a Zodiac, it's not just flat. It's got a hint of a keel on it for maneuverability. Not a proper hull though.
    Hull design is an advanced science. In the days of sail it was as important to national security as aerodynamics are today. A hull was a necessary evil: all that ship down under the water gave you lots of drag, but without it the rest of the ship wouldn't float.
    Then we invented outboard motors and all that science was made irrelevant by raw power. You could turn a bathtub into a high performance speedboat by bolting a big enough motor on it. When the throttle is high, the impact of the water against the bottom of the hull lifts it right up out of the water. It skims like a skipping rock and who gives a fuck about hydrodynamics. When you throttle it down, the vessel sinks into the water again and wallows like a hog.
    • Chapter 4
  • It's the ultimate Boston transportation. On land…all those slow cars get in the way. There's public transit – the T — but if you're in good shape, it's usually faster to walk. Bicycles aren't bad. But on water, nothing stops you and there isn't anything important in Boston that isn't within two blocks of being wet. The harbor and the city are interlocked like wrestling squid, tentacles of water and land snaking off everywhere, slashed with bridges or canals.
    • Chapter 4
  • In four years of work, I've idled my Zodiac down every one of its thousands of inlets, looked at every inch of its fractal coastline and found every single goddamned pipe that empties into it. Some of the pipes are big enough to park a car in and some are the size of your finger, but all of them have told their story to my gas chromatograph. And often it's the littlest pipes that cause the most damage. When I see a big huge pipe coming right out of a factory, I'm betting the pumpers have at least read the EPA regs. But when I find a tiny one, hidden below the waterline, sprouting from a mile-wide industrial carnival, I put on gloves before taking my sample.
    And sometimes the gloves melt.
    • Chapter 4
  • My nighttime attitude is, anyone can run you down and get away with it. Why give some drunk the chance to plaster me against a car? That's why I don't even own a bike light, or one of those godawful reflective suits. Because if you've put yourself in a position where someone has to see you in order for you to be safe -- to see you, and to give a fuck -- you've already blown it.
    • Chapter 5 (Taylor on riding a bike at night)
  • Jim and his crew of a dozen or so specialize in loud, sloppy publicity seeking…. Myself, I like the stiletto-in-the-night approach. That's partly because I'm younger, a post-Sixties type, and partly because my thing is toxics, not nukes or mammals. … there are all kinds of direct, simple ways to go after toxic criminals.
    You just plug the pipes.
    • Chapter 6
  • Most of my colleagues go on backpacking trips when they have to do some thinking. I go to a good hardware store and head for the oiliest, dustiest corners. ... If they're really good, they don't hassle me. They let me wander around and think. Young hardware clerks have a lot of hubris. They think they can help you find anything.... Old hardware clerks have learned the hard way that nothing in a hardware store ever gets bought for its nominal purpose. You buy something that was designed to do one thing, and you use it for another.
    • Chapter 8
  • Any property that's open to common use gets destroyed. Because everyone has incentive to use it to the max, but no one has incentive to maintain it.
    • Chapter 8
  • I don't like sewing machines. I don't understand how a needle with a thread going through the tip of it can interlock the thread by jamming itself into a little goddamn spool. It's contrary to nature and it irritates me.
    • Chapter 9
  • Talking to cancer victims never makes me feel righteous, never vindicated. It makes me slightly ill and for some reason, guilty. If people like me would just keep our mouths shut, people like him would never suspect why they got cancer. They’d chalk it up to God or probability. They wouldn't die with hearts full of venom.
    It is a strange world that Industry has made. Kind of a seething toxic harbor, opening out on a blue unspoiled ocean. Most people are swimming in it, and I get to float around on the surface, on my Zodiac, announcing that they're in trouble. What I really want to do is make a difference. But I'm not sure I have, yet.
    • Chapter 11
  • "It might interest you to know that our state is tired of being used as a chemical toilet so that people in Utah can have plastic lawn furniture."
    "I can't believe an assistant attorney general came right out and said that."
    "Well, I wouldn't say it in public."
    • "Cohen," the assistant attorney general of an unnamed East Coast state meeting covertly with Sangamon Taylor near the Jersey Shore. Chapter 11
  • The intern had also discovered a vague little article from the late Sixties saying that Basco had put some "junk machinery" on the floor of the Harbor, giving the usual feeble excuse.
    "They claim that this junk was going to become a habitat for marine life. You don't buy that?"
    Bless her, she did know how to blow my lid. "Rebecca, goddamnit, since the beginning of time, every corporation that has ever thrown any of its shit into the ocean has claimed that it was going to become a habitat for marine life. It’s the goddamn ocean, Rebecca. That's where all the marine life is. Of course it's going to become a habitat for marine life."
    • Chapter 21
  • He had a sense of irony that ruled his life, made it impossible for him to use his considerable brains in any kind of serious job. Kind of like me.
    • Chapter 22
  • There was a white man sitting at the kitchen table, warming his hands by wrapping them around a hot cup of tea. He had kind of an oblong face, curly red hair piled on top, a close-cropped but dense red beard, shocking blue eyes that always looked wide open. He face was ruddy with the outdoors, and the way he was sitting there with that tea, he looked so calm, so centered, almost like he was in meditation. When I came in, he looked at me and smiled just a trace, without showing his teeth…"
    • The legendary S.T. finally meets the legendary Hank Boone (proto-Enoch Root character), end of chapter 24
  • He was a peculiar guy. I'd never met him, just seen his picture and heard tell of him from the veterans of GEE's early days… And I’d seen him on film… sitting right underneath a five-ton container of radioactive waste, getting thrown into the sea when it was dropped on his Zodiac… And he was like that even when he wasn't working — a drunk, a bar fighter. But the guy I was looking at was totally different. Shit, he was drinking herb tea. He talked in a slow, lilting baritone murmur, he paused in the middle of sentences to make sure the grammar was right, to pick just the right word. But it wasn't a wimpy Boone I was looking at. I had to remember the action he'd just pulled off, on short notice, on my behalf….
    Boone turned and looked at me with his invisible smile again.
    • Further description of the mysterious Hank Boone, beginning of chapter 25

"Mother Earth Mother Board," cover story in Wired, 4.12 (1996)

Subtitle: "In which the hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of the longest wire on Earth"
  • Everything that has occurred in Silicon Valley in the last couple of decades also occurred in the 1850s. Anyone who thinks that wild-ass high tech venture capitalism is a late-20th-century California phenomenon needs to read about the maniacs who built the first transatlantic cable projects. The only things that have changed since then are that the stakes have gotten smaller, the process more bureaucratized, and the personalities less interesting.
  • Both Penang and the Internet were established basically for strategic military reasons. In both cases, what was built by the military was merely a kernel for a much vaster phenomenon that came along later. This kernel was really nothing more than a protocol, a set of rules. If you wanted to follow those rules, you could participate, otherwise you were free to go elsewhere. Because the protocol laid down a standard way for people to interact, which was clearly set out and could be understood by anyone, it attracted smart, adaptable, ambitious people from all over the place, and at a certain point it flew completely out of control and turned into something that no one had ever envisioned: something thriving, colorful, wildly diverse, essentially peaceful, and plagued only by the congestion of its own success.
  • Both of them have seen many young Western men arrive here on business missions and completely lose control of their sphincters and become impediments to any kind of organized activity. Daily hired Wall because, like Daily, he is a stable family man who has his act together…and they seem to be making excellent progress toward their goal, which is to run two really expensive wires across the Malay Peninsula. They tend to be absolutely straight shooters…. Their openness would probably be career suicide in the atmosphere of Byzantine court-eunuch intrigue that is public life in the United States today. On the other hand, if I had an unlimited amount of money and woke up tomorrow morning with a burning desire to see a 2,000-hole golf course erected on the surface of Mars, I would probably call men like Daily and Wall, do a handshake deal with them, send them a blank check, and not worry about it.

Anathem (2008)

The novel is written in first person, the narrator is named "Erasmus" or "Raz."

  • "Ylma is having you work it out in the most gruesome way that when she teaches you how it's really done, it'll seem that much easier....Like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer—it feels so good when you stop." This was the oldest joke in the world, but Barb hadn't heard it before, and he became so amused that he got physically excited and had to run back and forth across the kitchen several times to flame off energy. A few weeks ago, I would have been alarmed by this and would have tried to calm him down, but now I was used to it, and knew that if I approached him physically things would get much worse.
    • Part 4, "Anathem" (also the title of the novel)
  • "Describe worrying," he went on.
    "Pretend I'm someone who has never worried. I'm mystified. It don't get it. Tell me how to worry."
    "Well...I guess the first step is to envision a sequence of events as they might play out in the future."
    "But I do that all the time. And yet I don't worry."
    "It is a sequence of events with a bad end."
    "So, you're worried that a pink dragon will fly over the concent and fart nerve gas on us?"
    • Orolo and Erasmus, Part 4, "Anathem"
  • "I guess that people like to think they are not only living but propagating their way of life."
    "That's right. People have a need to feel that they are part of some sustainable project. Something that will go on without them. It creates a feeling of stability. I believe that the need for that kind of stability is as basic and as desperate as some of the other, more obvious needs. But there's more than one way to get it."
    • Orolo and Raz, Part 4, "Anathem"
  • "Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs. We have a protractor."
    • Erasmus to Cord, Part 6, "Peregrin"
  • [T]he work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be, it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who'd made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power, but of story. If their employees came home with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn't live without story...had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Sæculars were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure?
    • Erasmus theorizing why others are joining his journey, Part 7, "Feral"
  • "He told us that a lone avout was being pursued by a mob. We saw it as an emergence."
    • Vlor leader explains to Raz how they came to rescue him, Part 7, "Feral"
  • "Quantum interference—the crosstalk among similar quantum states—knits the different versions of your brain together."
    "You're saying that my consciousness extends across multiple cosmi," I said. "That's a pretty wild statement."
    "I'm saying all things do," Orolo said. "That comes with the polycosmic interpretation. The only thing exceptional about the brain is that it has found a way to use this."
    • Part 8, "Orithena"
  • Neither of us said a word as we picked our way down the path for the next quarter of an hour, and the sky receded to a deep violet. I had the illusion that, as it got darker, it moved away from us, expanding like a bubble, rushing away at a million light-years an hour, and as it whooshed past stars, we began to see them.
    • Part 8, "Orithena"
  • Tris was pudgy and not especially good-looking good looking, but she had the personality of a beautiful girl because she'd been raised in a math.
    • Part 10, "Messal." (A "math" is a co-ed academic/research monastery. Most the novel takes place in maths.)
  • "I can hardly believe we are talking about a possibility so inconceivable as that other universes exist—and that the Geometers originate there!"
    In this, Zh'vaern seemed to speak for the entire table.
    Except for Jad. "The words fail. There is one universe, by the definition of universe. It is not the cosmos we see through our eyes and our telescopes—that is but a single Narrative, a thread winding through a Hemm space shared by many other Narratives besides ours. Each Narrative looks like a cosmos alone, to any consciousness that partakes of it. The Geometers came from other Narratives—until they came here, and joined ours."
    Having dropped this bomb, Fraa Jad excused himself, and went to the toilet.
    "What on earth is he going on about?" Fraa Lodoghir demanded. "It sounded like literary criticism!"
    • Part 10, "Messal"
  • "Those who think through possible outcomes with discipline, forge connections, in so doing to other cosmi in which those outcomes are more than mere possibilities. Such a consciousness is measurably, quantitatively different from one that has not undertaken the same work and so, yes, is able to make correct decisions in an Emergence where an untrained mind would be of little use."
    • Part 11, "Advent." Fraa Jad, on his polycosmic approach to problem-solving.
  • “Much pruning had taken place in recent weeks. I am now absent in many versions of the cosmos where you are present.”
    • Jad to Raz, Part 11, "Advent"
  • Yul had simply launched himself at the guy from some distance away, and body-checked him at full speed, stopping on a dime in midair as he transferred all of his energy into the target.
    "Conservation of momentum," he announced, "it's not just a good idea—it's the law!"
    • Yulassetar Crade removes a TV reporter in zero gravity, Part 12, "Requiem"
  • But in that we started so many things in that moment, we brought to their ends many others that have been the subject matter of this account, and so here is where I draw a line across the leaf and call it the end.
    • Final sentence of the novel, possibly addressing criticism of the author’s previous endings, Part 13, "Reconstitution"
  • [T]echnical and clinical term denoting speech (typically but not necessarily commercial or political) that employs euphemism, convenient vagueness, numbing repetition, and other such rhetorical subterfuges to create the impression that something has been said. ...
    It is inherent in the mentality of extramuros bulshytt-talkers that they are more prone than anyone else to taking offense (or pretending to) when their bulshytt is pointed out to them. ... One is forced either to use this “offensive” word and be deemed a disagreeable person and as such excluded from polite discourse, or to say the same thing in a different way, which means becoming a purveyor of bulshytt oneself.... The latter quality probably explains the uncanny stability and resiliency of bulshytt.
    • From the definition of "bulshytt," The Dictionary, 4th edition, A.R. 3000
  • The expression can be traced to the Third Centennial Apert, when the gates of several Hundreder maths opened to reveal startling outcomes, e.g.: at Saunt Rambalf's, a mass suicide that had taken place only moments earlier. At Saunt Terramore's, nothing at all — not even human remains. At Saunt Byadin's, a previously unheard-of religious sect.... At Saunt Lesper's, no humans, but a previously undiscovered species of tree-dwelling higher primates.
    • From the definition of "to go Hundred," The Dictionary, 4th edition, A.R. 3000 (Anathem's glossary)

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:

Nonfiction articles by Neal Stephenson, published online

Short fiction by Neal Stephenson, published online