Influences: Neal Stephenson

After reading the first few hundred pages of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, my friend Jordan Byrne asked me what I thought of it. Despite the novel’s incredible scope and dazzling prose, I only said these four words in response:

“It’s filled with joy.”

There are specific elements of Stephenson’s writing that I aspire to emulate in my own, but more than anything else, I try to write with the same joy that he does. Let me explain:

If you haven’t already read Stephenson’s seminal sci-fi novel Snow Crash, what are you waiting for? In 1992, Stephenson predicted the trajectory of emerging technologies with an accuracy that’s unsettling, all while telling a rousing adventure story about an Internet ninja who saves the world from a deadly computer virus.

Even if you think you don’t have time to read the entire novel, pick it up and read the first page. One page, that’s all I ask. Stepehenson’s introduction of the famed Deliverator – a heavily armed pizza guy – stands as one of the greatest openings in literary history. I mean, get a load of this first graf:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

(Oh, and remember when you said you didn’t have time to read Snow Crash? After you read that first page, I bet you’ll suddenly find you have the time.)

For me, Stephenson belongs to a hallowed subcategory of writers who effortlessly pack their prose with laser-specific imagery. (David Foster Wallace also belongs to this subcategory; I’ll talk about him in another entry.) Look no further than the aforementioned opening graf of Snow Crash, which fills your head with specific images:

Like a wren hitting a patio door
Like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest
Feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books

Built into these images are dark humor and the requisite martial imagery – “freshly napalmed forest” – for such a great warrior. But more than that, the opening graf of Snow Crash – along with the rest of Stephenson’s writing – is packed with joy.

Stephenson builds incredibly detailed worlds in his novels – even in a novel like Cryptonomicon, which takes place in our world. In The Diamond Age, he imagines a world dominated by nanotechnology. In Anathem, he imagines a fully realized alternate universe, right down the most minute details of human physiology. In The Baroque Cycle, a massive trilogy of novels, Stephenson recreates the late 1600s (and thereabouts) as he chronicles the emergence of modern science.

But I want to focus on Cryptonomicon, because it also includes passages replete with one of Stephenson’s most powerful devices: hyperbole. No author I’ve encountered has deployed hyperbole to such memorable effect as Stephenson. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why he uses it so much, but my best hypothesis is that it’s one of the ways he shares his joy with us.

Cryptonomicon is about a treasure hunt – and let me stress that I’m wildly, recklessly, comically understating the book’s scope – and in one of the book’s many memorable passages, the main characters go on a journey to find some of this treasure. Along the way, they have various adventures, all of them peppered with Stephensonian hyperbole. While riding in a jeep, their driver sounds the vehicle’s unexpectedly loud horn, and in the (paraphrased) words of the story’s hero: a neighboring country files a formal protest of the disturbance while whales and dolphins wash up dead on the coast from the noise. Elsewhere in the book, the story’s hero speculates that one of their partners on the journey – a supremely accomplished soldier – takes showers with a Bowie knife clenched between his teeth.

I could go on, but you get the idea. In my own writing, I have (on bent knee) tried to emulate Stephenson’s use of hyperbole. In my novel The Odds, the physically perfect fanatics of the Order of the Narsyan owe much to Stephenson’s influence, as does the world’s most beautiful woman, Shanta Feruccio. (The “world’s most beautiful woman” device also appears in DFW’s immortal novel Infinite Jest.)

But besides hyperbole, Stephenson’s influence on me extends far and wide. He tells his stories with great love and joy, and he powers his storytelling with an endlessly vivid imagination. Like I’ve said about my other influences, I’ll never match his skill, but by Crom am I going to have fun trying.

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