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Science fiction: perspective on Neil Stephenson's writing from rereading Frank Herbert

I'm planning to get to Neil Stephenson's new novel, Fall; or Dodge in Hell sometime soon. I've reveled in some of his books, and look forward to the new one. However, having reread one of my favorite books of all time, Frank Herbert's The Dosadi Experiment, brings me to a more clear perspective I have on reservations about Stephenson's writing.  I got clear about it thinking about Stephenson's writing relative to Herbert's and the writing of another favorite, William Gibson.

It all has to do with characterization.

I find Herbert's characters more gripping than Stephenson's. Herbert's primary characters tend to be iconic: super-able, in way that aren't entirely realistic, but relatable and deeply appealing to me. Stephenson's characters are much more realistic - not so idealized, more in the post-modern mix of contemporary convincing detail, including imperfection and commonplace nuance that has the feel of normal people. William Gibson is a master of that kind of thing, managing to portray deeply colorful characters through nuanced details and quirks. Stephenson doesn't quite achieve that, either. Herbert and Gibson both deliver colorful characters in different ways. Stephenson's characters are more in the style of Gibson's, but without quite the vibrancy.

That said, Stephenson does do conceptual vision and plotting well - sometimes achieving surpassing excellence in my eyes. I loved Diamond Age for spectacular and wildly ranging speculation and adventure ("spectacular speculation" (-: ), and Zodiac for outright wild adventure. Cryptonomicon and Anathem are surpassing in another vein – conceptual intricacy and depth in legitimate technical realms – Cryptography in Cryptonomicon and mathematics in Anathem. I loved all of those. I am almost sure The Baroque Cycle excels in technical and plot intricacy and depth, plus ties to historical reality (which I believe is also an element of Cryptonomicon) , but I just couldn't make it through more than 1.3 of the books... )-:

I have to say a little more about The Dosadi Experiment. Another of Herbert's books, Dune, is held by many to be at the pinnacle of speculative fiction. I agree and love that book. I admire and enjoy Dosadi even more! I've reread it many times in my life - probably more than five - picking it up when I felt I needed a reliably good, inspiring read. It's kind of funky that it's my go-to, because it realizes some decidedly harsh and controversial perspectives, like democratic voting influenced by polling being a tool for profound authoritarian control. But I think his vision is based in an ecological perspective that is both valid and illuminating. For instance, maybe we should be more alert to the threat that democracy faces in distortion of the feedback loop. Like, Fox news?


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