May 2004

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Defining Stephenson

Speculative fiction is a lot like obscenity. You know both when you see them -- and that makes pining down a definition difficult. One personís seductive nude is easily anotherís First Amendment exemption. One readerís classic SF dystopia is easily anotherís meta-fiction commentary. Despite the numerous definitions that lurk in dictionaries and hard drives (like ďscience fiction is a story based on fictional, scientific possibilitiesĒ or ďFantasy is a tale that has events happening that could never happen in the natural worldĒ, none actually satisfies. Is David Foster Wallaceís Infinite Jest science fiction? How about A Clockwork Orange? And how does fantasy fit into the genre classifications? And where is the boundary between it and science fiction? And isnít all fiction fantasy on some level? Itís enough to make any taxonomistís head spin.

We need the categories, of course. Some writers may dream of breaking free of the genre ghetto and have wild dreams of bookstores simply divided down the middle like gendered clothes at the Gap. Non-fiction would live on the left side of the store. Fiction would live on the right. Every book would be alphabetical by author. Readers would go quietly mad, of course, because they could never find something new to read if they didnít already know the author or title. Random discoveries would be a challenge if all books were lumped together, with Harlequin romances rubbing against Harlan Ellison and Tom Clancy.

For the most part, publishersí imprints tell us where any particular book goes. If Torís mountain or Baenís rocket is on the spine, you know it will turn up in the speculative fiction section. Readers neednít make their own definitions and can simply defer to trained professionals. Itís not a bad system, frankly, and frees up more time for the actual reading.

Where it all goes pear-shaped, however, are the books that donít come pre-stamped, like Jest or Orange or Margaret Atwoodís Oryx and Crake -- three books frequently shelved in the mainstream fiction bins but that are textbook examples of what the SF/F genre is, despite protests to the contrary. Or like Quicksilver and The Confusion, the first two books in Neal Stephensonís Baroque Cycle, which is being published by William Morrow, a Harper Collins imprint that also foisted 101 Uses for a Bridesmaid Dress and Body Language of Horses on the reading public. Despite a few exceptions -- Neil Gaimanís American Gods is the most notable -- Morrow is not a speculative fiction powerhouse.

But Stephensonís books have always skirted genre trimmings. His Snow Crash, which with William Gibsonís Neuromancer defined cyberpunk, was published in paperback by Bantam, as was The Diamond Age. Cryptonomicon, the quasi-sequel to the Baroque Cycle, also bears Harper Collinsís odd wave and bar logo on its spine. The branding of Stephensonís books, however, tell you nothing about their content. His work is deeply entrenched in the idea of, well, ideas, whether they describe the minutia of the future of pizza delivery or the past of code breaking. Judging by the first two books -- the third, The System of the World, will be released in September -- Stephenson is still fascinated by the details of ideas and has raked the 17th century to harvest ripe thoughts about economics, pirates, alchemy and needlepoint.

The books are remarkable, much in the same way Todd Haynesís Velvet Goldmine* is, but without the glam rock and Ewan McGregorís penis. Both are rambling mash notes to a bygone era when anything seemed possible. Both thinly coat verifiable history with a glaze of fiction. Both are dazzling in their embrace of huge metaphoric landscapes and flashes of bewildering genius. The difference is that Stephenson somehow makes his sprawling tale work, for the most part, and leaves his audience dazzled by both his audacity and skill.

Which isnít to say that Quicksilver and The Confusion are perfect. At times, Stephenson gets so involved with describing the bark on every single tree that he loses sight of where his characters are in the forest. His Cryptonomicon suffered from the same trait but, here, the results are more keenly felt if only because the scale is so enormous and the characters so fascinating. With the Baroque Cycle, Jack Shaftoe, the King of the Vagabonds, rubs elbows (and other things) with Eliza, a slave turned French countess who meets Daniel Waterhouse, son of a Puritan scion, as well as great thinkers Isaac Newton and Wilhelm Leibniz. Each is finely drawn and almost larger than the pages they live on. Keeping track, however, of the details of their fabulous exploits as well as the scientific advances and political landscape can be maddening, given the sheer level of information Stephenson buries the reader in. Again, itís impressive but the narrative gets crushed under the weight.

Still, itís more engrossing than nine-tenths of the books on the shelves, regardless of their section. And thatís where the Baroque Cycle becomes the most troublesome. Unlike Stephensonís earlier works, which could be fairly confidently plunked with Gibson or Bruce Sterling, the Baroque Cycle defies categories. It has elements of every genre, from swashbuckling romance to gee-whiz science to historical fiction to spy thriller to modern fantasy and high-tone literature. It is both a textbook example of what speculative fiction can be and a cautionary tale about what it is not. Yet itís hard to accurately finger why these books encompass this paradox, without reverting back to speculative fiction being like obscenity. Here are small windows into what the genre can do, framed in large walls covered in fiendishly mainstream wallpaper.