Neal Stephenson, along with William Gibson, is considered one of the seminal writers in the cyberpunk genre. His eclectic writing consists of everything from philosophy to math, cryptography, and linguistics.
Below we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of some of his best works to date based on aggregated ratings from thousands of reviews across the web.
20. The Big U
Considered both hilarious and electrifying, the book is about college life described in the way that only Neal Stephenson can describe it. This is one of Stephenson’s earliest books and teaches you a lot about the writer before he started writing stories that were more science fiction-oriented. If you’d like to go back to school and get to know this writer a little better, this is the book that you need to read.
“What people do isn't determined by where they live. It happens to be their damned fault. They decided to watch TV instead of thinking when they were in high school. They decided to blow-off courses and drink beer instead of reading and trying to learn something. They decided to chicken out and be intolerant bastards instead of being openminded, and finally they decided to go along with their buddies and do things that were terribly wrong when there was no reason they had to. Anyone who hurts someone else decides to hurt them, goes out of their way to do it. . . . The fact that it's hard to be a good person doesn't excuse going along and being an asshole. If they can't overcome their own fear of being unusual, it's not my fault, because any idiot ought to be able to see that if he just acts reasonably and makes a point of not hurting others, he'll be happier.”
Kitazume contemplates suicide when his friend Luis, a Jesuit priest, intervenes. Together, they decide to smuggle a Manchu princess into Mexico, but it’s a little more challenging than they thought it would be. Soon, deadly politics takes over, and the priest is trying to save his friend and the world. Add in some twists and turns that the reader won’t expect, and you’ll understand why this is such an extraordinary novel.
18. Fall, or Dodge in Hell
Dodge Forthrast is a multi-billionaire who falls ill unexpectedly. Because he wrote in his will decades earlier that he wants his body to be given to a cryonics company, this is what his family reluctantly agrees to do once he is put on life support.
Years later, technology allows his brain to be turned back on, but this sort of limbo is not what Dodge expected it would be when he signed the papers all those years ago. This is excellent writing with a very innovative theme.
“The living stayed home, haunting the world of the dead like ghosts.”
Entertaining and funny, this is the story of William Cozzano, who runs for president with a biochip implanted in his brain by his backers without anyone realizing it.
Because of this chip, the public’s mood is channeled into his brain, so things such as policy and the issues don’t matter because Cozzano is not actually a candidate; he’s just a special effect.
“What do you mean by values?” “They were code words like honesty, hard work, self-reliance . . . myths, actually, to motivate the people to accept the natural inequities found in a market system.”
Sangamon Taylor is a good guy in a bad world and a wanna-be Sam Spade. While on an assignment, his house is bombed, and he suddenly finds himself on the FBI Most Wanted list.
Still, he plods on with his next case in Boston with the same hard work, and wit that he’s always managed to do his job with. He doesn’t do the jobs alone but relies on a fascinating cast of characters to help him through all of them.
“If you've put yourself in a position where someone has to see you in order for you to be safe - to see you, and to give a fuck - you've already blown it.”
15. The Cobweb
A foreign exchange student is murdered at a university in Iowa where federal grant money is also being used for dubious purposes, including creating a deadly bug.
Foreign policy and many other factors come into play, and it’s a small-town sheriff who has to put everything together to determine what is truly going on. This is a political thriller with twists and turns that you’ll never forget.
“The people who know the most are not allowed to ask questions—or even to make suggestions. The least common denominator sets the standards. Just wait until you see Washington, Betsy—these goddamn car salesmen and small-town lawyers come into town every two years not knowing their ass from a hole in the ground, and this enormously sophisticated and powerful and dangerous system is at their mercy. The Agency distorts information to fit the half-assed policies they scheme up.”
14. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
Mel Stokes is a linguistics specialist asked to translate documents that will prove that magic was widely practiced at one point. She’ll receive a large sum of money for the task, but only if she agrees to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
The people in charge of the project want the information so they can go back in time and allow magic to continue to be used throughout the ages, and they’d like to meddle with history a little while they’re at it.
“Reader, if you don’t know what a database is, rest assured that an explanation of the concept would in no way increase your enjoyment in reading this account.”
Jack is an adventurer and a dreamer, and he rescues Eliza so that she can help him reinvent Europe with the newfound power of finance. In a way, they’re in a race against time because anything that happens along the way can alter the political leanings and the future of the entire world.
“Whenever serious and competent people need to get things done in the real world, all considerations of tradition and protocol fly out the window.”
After a catastrophic event makes Earth a ticking time bomb, nations worldwide band together and send people to outer space for their survival. But their plans don’t go as they’d hoped.
5000 years later, the resulting seven distinct races head out to another world that looks nothing as it did thousands of years earlier: Earth. Once they get there, it’s up to them to re-save the earth so that the human race doesn’t disappear.
“As it turned out, imagining the fate of seven billion people was far less emotionally affecting than imagining the fate of one.”
Richard Forthrast, who decades earlier retreated to a remote area to avoid the draft, is now a billionaire from his illegal activities, and he has plenty of time and money to spend. He becomes addicted to the world of gaming, and when he starts buying virtual gold pieces from Chinese gold farmers, he looks at it as a way to launder his illegally earned money.
But when one of those farmers starts a virtual war for dominance over the gold pieces, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur, and he isn’t quite sure what to do next.
“That, as far as she could tell, was the purpose of the religion she had been brought up in: it made people feel better when really horrible things happened, and it offered a repertoire of ceremonies that were used to add a touch of class to such goings-on as shacking up with someone and throwing dirt on a corpse. None of which especially bothered Zula or made her doubt its worthwhileness. Making sad people feel better was a fine thing to do.”
10. Snow Crash
If you’d like to take a trip through a very bizarre future America, this is the book to read. Hiro is both a pizza delivery guy and a warrior prince, and he goes after a virtual villain working hard to bring about an apocalyptic event and wreak havoc on the world. His goal is to strike down the hackers and bad guys, but first, he has to find out who they are.
“Well, all information looks like noise until you break the code.”
9. The Diamond Age
Also titled A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, it describes a young lady named Nell and her coming-of-age story, which is set in the future. It deals with ethnicity, social class, education, and the nature of artificial intelligence.
In fact, the story deals with a lot of things that young ladies still deal with today, along with numerous things that they no longer have to worry about.
“The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.”
8. King of the Vagabonds
Part of The Baroque Cycle series, it tells the story of Jack Shaftoe, an adventurer who risks life and limb for love and for fortune, and Eliza, who Jack rescued from a Turkish harem so that she could become a spy, a confidante, and a pawn of royals to help Jack accomplish his goal to reinvent a contentious continent and bring it into the current century.
Fraa lives in a separate world of mathematicians and scientists, intentionally kept away from the influences of the secular world. When the time comes for a once-in-a-decade rite that allows for the two worlds to get together temporarily, there is concern that some of the “others” might accidentally stay in the non-secular world instead of remaining in their own — and Fraa isn’t sure that’s such a bad thing.
“Nothing is more important than that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.”
The third book of The Baroque Cycle series is about Dr. Daniel Waterhouse and the Natural Philosophers as they increase numbers. At the same time, England is plagued by war and royal insecurities.
In addition, the beautiful Eliza plays a dangerous game that has her acting as a double agent and the confidante of kings from the enemy’s side.
The Cryptonomicon flits back and forth between two time periods: World War II and the present. The book is interesting because the stories of the people involved in the two periods intertwine in a unique way. And through it all, a story is told that is filled with paranoia and oddities that you won’t soon forget.
“Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker's game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.”
4. Solomon’s Gold
This story takes place in 1714 and tells the tale of Daniel Waterhouse, whose job is to mend a rift between two very powerful but adversarial geniuses in London. But he soon finds out that the same things that made him go to the American colonies years earlier are rearing their ugly heads again and making him entertain the thought of going back to the area as soon as possible.
3. The Confusion
This is book number two in the Baroque Cycle series, and the story of Jack and Eliza continues. It is the year 1689, and other characters include Newton and Leibniz, among others. When alchemy and natural science start to battle one another, Daniel Waterhouse seeks to go to the Massachusetts colony just to escape the madness that has taken over England.
“Every human being who is born into this universe is like a child who has been given a key to an infinite Library, written in cyphers that are more or less obscure, arranged by a scheme—of which we can at first know nothing, other than that there does appear to be some scheme.”
2. The System of the World
Book number three in the Baroque Cycle follows Daniel Waterhouse as he returns to England after two decades and finds it almost unrecognizable. He teams with Newton to try and figure out who is trying to kill some of the scientists so they can determine how to figure out the riddle behind the mystery of King Solomon’s gold and its magical properties.
“Space and Time! Two minor omissions that no one is likely to notice," grumbled Newton.”
This is the middle third of The Baroque Cycle series and continues with its story of Jack, Eliza, Daniel Waterhouse, and the rest of the gang as they go about their adventures.
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