Neal Stephenson is an amazing processor of information. I (like countless other fans of his work) am currently reading Anathem, his latest novel which tackles such myriad issues as religion, science, the long clock… I’m only 200 pages into a lengthy brick of a book. So far it is living up to the amazing trilogy of his previous work, The Baroque Cycle books.
If you missed them, The Baroque Cycle books are Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. Stephenson has an amazing ability to process, digest and integrate knowledge in his work — the books are historical fiction and yet they have this very science fiction feel to them that is bound up in the tremendous excitement about discovery and possibility Stephenson brings to the story. You read these books knowing at once the historical contours of where they will go, but you get so engaged in the characters wild journey through the amazingly productive time of the books (1660-1715) that there is a giddy feel for the discovery of modern financial systems akin to Doc Brown inventing a time machine.
Stephenson was one of the first authors I saw who let fans use the Internet to take apart his books online or at least the knowledge in them. The first time I saw this was on a site called the Metaweb which was a wiki built around the books of The Baroque Cycle (sadly the URL seems to have lapsed and the work is only accessible through the Wayback Machine). Now there seems to be a similar effort built around Anathem. This wiki approach is a natural for an author who layers so much material into his narrative; it seems intuitive for readers to pull the layers back again and to build that knowledge outwards.
This is a small thing, but I’m just struck by how fans of a work might no longer view the reading of the book as the end of the experience, but instead take on such a thing as working on a wiki built around the book. How does that change the readers’ relationship to the book; the author’s relationship to the readers? I’m not entirely sure if there’s any generalization that’s entirely valid — nothing requires readers to be anything more than readers, just as nothing requires a writer to pay attention to the world beyond a paper and pen in front of them. Nevertheless, with work like Stephenson’s it’s really interesting to think about the life of the book beyond the acts of writing it and reading it.
Stephenson recently spoke at the Googleplex; the Q&A provides a lot of insight into what he’s interested in and how he approaches his writing (I liked in particular his thoughts on the “deification of knowledge”).