We all have our Christmas traditions – the Santa stockings, the bad jokes over the Christmas meal, retelling embarrassing stories about a distant relative – but my favourite tradition is grabbing a book that I received as a present, and submerging myself in it for as long as it takes. Surfacing only to eat chocolate and ham (not necessarily in that order). Kate took a punt, and bought me the latest Neal Stephenson (I couldn’t get into his previous series) which I’ve spent most waking hours with since.
Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose meets Carl Sagan’s Contact
This is a long one. You’ve got to want it, and Stephenson doesn’t make it easy. He has created a whole new lingo for his futuristic world, a bit like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, but admittedly does help a little by scattering dictionary entries throughout. There are also mini-essays at the end that you need to read in order to follow some of the plot. It is hard-core speculative fiction, with a particularly academic bent. If this is not your thing, I’m pretty sure you’ll be hating it before you even need to worry about its length. If you like sci-fi novels with big ideas, then keep reading..
The main characters belong to a cloistered order, and we get a feel for what monastic life might be like (I was reminded of The Name of the Rose). This is contrasted with the futuristic world outside the walls of their self-imposed prison, which gets a satirical treatment ironic for a sci-fi author. But, the sci-fi take on monastic life is pretty cool.
It takes about a third of the book before the plot picks up in pace, and we’ve got a mystery, some puzzling philosophy and characters that we care about. It takes about this long to get used to the lingo as well, so be prepared.
I already knew a lot of the philosophy, math and science that Stephenson draws upon in this book, and I really appreciated his explanations and clear analogies as provided by the characters. Part of the fun was in seeing how many different strands of knowledge could be pulled together to service the plot.
It’s probably 10% story and 90% academic discourse, but I liked it.
After I read the book, I also checked out the website of the Clock of the Long Now, which relates in a tiny way to the book, and is a pretty ambitious idea. Worth a look.