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An interview with Neal Stephenson:

If you met the novelist Neal Stephenson a decade ago, you would have encountered a slight, unassuming grad-student type whose soft-spoken demeanor gave no obvious indication that he had written the manic apotheosis of cyberpunk science fiction (1992’s Snow Crash, in which computer viruses start invading hacker minds). It wasn’t his debut—he’d published two earlier novels in the 1980s—but the book was such a hit that it put his name on the science fiction map in a way the earlier efforts had not.

Meet Stephenson today, and you’ll meet a well-muscled, shaven-headed, bearded fellow who’s just published a highly acclaimed, massively popular trilogy of 900-page novels set mostly in the 17th century. Talk to him, though, and you still hear the rigorously humble guy of 10 years ago. Read that trilogy—Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, collectively called The Baroque Cycle—and you’ll have the uncanny sense that you’re reading some new kind of science fiction. Actually, with every Stephenson book since Snow Crash, you feel that you’re reading some new kind of science fiction, regardless of the nominal set and settings of the story.

The three parts of The Baroque Cycle were published at six-month intervals in 2003 and 2004; they feature historical figures ranging from Newton and Leibniz to Louis XIV and a very young Benjamin Franklin, bound up in a narrative with the fictional ancestors of the characters in Stephenson’s similarly huge, cryptology-centered 1999 novel Cryptonomicon. Like Cryptonomicon, the trilogy has attracted praise from mainstream critics as well as Stephenson’s science fiction fan base. The Village Voice calls the series “a work of idiosyncratic beauty whose plots boast tangled, borderless roots.” The Independent says it is “a far more impressive literary endeavour than most so-called ‘serious’ fiction.” Even a mixed review of Quicksilver in The Washington Post describes it as “often brilliant and occasionally astonishing.”

Stephenson has a substantial libertarian following as well, and not merely because the decentralized, post-statist social systems he describes in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (1995) are so radically different from modern government. The Baroque Cycle is, among other things, a close look at the rise of science, the market, and the nation-state, themes close to any classical liberal’s heart. Reading it means reading three long, encyclopedic books and maybe spending half a year in an earlier century. It’s not the kind of thing the average reader takes on lightly. But once you find you have a taste for Stephenson’s broad range of obsessive interests, his fine ear for period and modern English prose and speech, and his gift for making the improbably comic seem eminently human, the question no longer is whether you’ll read his books—it’s when.

I particularly liked how Stephenson answered the question about whether The Baroque Cycle is science fiction or not. “It’s in the tradition.”