Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

22 Sep 2010, 10:56 a.m.

Beginning To Think About A Formative Influence

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Suresh Naidu visited the other night and, of course, inspected our bookshelves. "You're the only household I've ever seen that had every Stephenson, including the Baroque Cycle, but not Snow Crash. The Big U and not Snow Crash?!" Snow Crash was on another bookshelf because it didn't physically fit on that one.

When someone asks me, "Who are your favorite scifi authors?" I sometimes say, "Depending on who's asking, Neal Stephenson or Ursula K. Le Guin." But that's unbalanced, because I deeply adore Le Guin's The Dispossessed but have read only five of her thirty-plus books, while I've read nearly everything Stephenson's published in book form. (Speaking of Le Guin: congratulations, Jed!)

I am trying to remember the timeline on how I discovered each of these authors. Did someone recommend The Left Hand of Darkness to me my freshman year at Berkeley? I know I had that used paperback by my junior year when I taught it. (Note: I find that syllabus incredibly embarrassing since I'd have much more diverse and interesting works and questions if I taught it now; Andy's syllabus is cooler.) Seth Schoen gave me a copy of In The Beginning Was The Command Line sometime in 1999, I think. And then I bought Snow Crash at Cody's Books on Telegraph, and started reading it as I walked home to my apartment, and came home to discover that my flatmate Nikki had moved out with zero notice, after living with me for six weeks, leaving a note on the refrigerator whiteboard telling me "you know why." I did not know and still do not know why she moved out; it is one of the mysteries of my life, like why sociology lecturer Andrew Creighton laughed at me that one time when I guessed that the video clip he'd just shown us was "modern dance?".

Oh right, Stephenson. Then I got Cryptonomicon and I didn't read it linearly the first time, I just dipped in and read random chapters.

I think I've had about fifteen conversations about Neal Stephenson and his work in the past month. Not surprising when I've been to the World Science Fiction Convention, but then there was Tennant Reed, the climate change policy wonk I ended up chatting with at the Melbourne airport when our flight to LA was delayed. Not a WorldCon attendee. He's a Tolkien fan; I'm not. I introduced him to Pynchon, whom he hadn't tackled yet. But we quoted lines from the first chapter of Snow Crash at each other verbatim. It's in The Atlantic's thought-provoking "Tech Canon", and it's in the geek canon. (Speaking of The Atlantic and thinking-about-tech: I am a fan of Biella's Anthropology of Hackers syllabus & explication.)

This is just spadework, right now, this entry, just clearing some brush so I can really think about what Stephenson has meant to me. There's a way in which In The Beginning Was The Command Line got me the job at Fog Creek Software. There are satirical scenes in Cryptonomicon that I initially read as erotic. I could go on and on (as he does!), and at some point I should.


22 Sep 2010, 12:26 p.m.

Pedantry: We do not have every Stephenson, as we don't have Interface or The Cobweb. And I think her name was Nikki, but can't quite recall the spelling.

22 Sep 2010, 12:49 p.m.

The first guy I really loved introduced me to Stephenson. I should read Snow Crash, he said, and if I liked it we definitely had compatible senses of humor. I did.

22 Sep 2010, 13:38 p.m.

I notice you didn't mention Zodiac.

Y'know how the complaint almost everyone makes about Stephenson is that his endings suck? Zodiac probably has the most satisfying ending of any of his books -- certainly of his early (by which I mean pre-Cryptonomicon) work -- and yet it's the book hardly anyone ever talks about.

So we, as readers and fans, aren't giving him much of an incentive to work on his endings.