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Choosing which Neal Stephenson book to start with is a daunting task. He’s written Post-Cyberpunk Sci-Fi; thrillers and historical fiction that are all fantastic reads.It’s not that Neal Stephenson is a prolific novel writer -just 10 novels to date…-. It’s that he’s a compelling, intellectual and riotously funny author. I dare you to try reading only one and stopping there.
Neal Stephenson is one smart cookie.
He grew up surrounded by intelligence and a passion for technology; he has a knack for witty and laugh-out-loud dialogue (not to mention colorful characters); and he- most importantly- makes you think.
I first fell in love with Neal Stephenson’s writing with Snow Crash (1992).
When I hear “Neal Stephenson favorite books” this is the book that comes to my mind instantly.
The dual setting (reality/the Megaverse) and the smashing wordplay of the main character, Hiro, kept me mentally on my toes. I was smitten.
When The Baroque Cycle (2003-2004) came out, I inhaled all 3 books of the series.
Neal Stephenson’s historical fiction was even better than his Sci-Fi, if that was humanly possible.
I not only hyper-connected with unlikely people (I think I shall forever have a crush on Jack Shaftoe, the rogue) but I learned. I constantly looked up historical moments and terms. Not because I had to; but because I really, really wanted to understand that world and those times.
Why should you read my favorite Neal Stephenson books? It’s simple. You’ll be entertained. You’ll be smarter. You’ll walk away from his books thinking and re-evaluating everything you thought you knew. And you’ll thank me for the introduction to such a sublime reading experience.
You might begin with Snow Crash, like I did. It seems to be more accessible and less intimidating than some of his other tomes. It also gives you a good grasp of his deadpan humor and his detailed writing style.
With two unlikely heroes (a pizza delivery guy and a skater girl) and an unbelievably twisting storyline, it’s a fast-paced read.
All right, I’m a little biased. I think the best Neal Stephenson books are all of them, because each genre he writes in offers something unique to the reader.
The 3 main categories his books fall into are:
My Neal Stephenson book recommendations are based on what I took away from each of the categories. The Sci-Fi books made me reflect on what could very well be in the near future. The historical fiction forced me to explore people and history from a first-hand perspective. And the thrillers… well, they’re just plain thrilling. Ha.
Yes and no. The Sci-Fi books are stand-alones.
The Baroque Cycle should be read in order: Quicksilver; The Confusion; and The System of the World.
Cryptonomicon has ties to The Baroque Cycle, but also stands alone.
And the thrillers? As you like.
But don’t worry. I’m covering each genre with summaries of the best Neal Stephenson books below. Just read on!
So don’t forget to bookmark this to help you decide on your next.
Let’s take a look at the 3 main genres Neal Stephenson’s books fall into
As I mentioned before, there are 3 categories he writes in. When you’re trying to decide which Neal Stephenson book to read 1st, it helps knowing a little bit more about the genres.
For such a detailed (read: confusing) sub-sub-genre, it’s actually a lot simpler than it looks. It’s basically a combination of technological advancement and ‘real life’ in the future.
For example, in The Diamond Age (1995), a young girl has an adaptive ‘Primer’ that modifies its information as she grows up in a post-globalization world.
The fast-paced and quirky action of Zodiac (1988) has an ‘eco-detective’ as it’s hero who investigates pollution.
The techno-thriller Reamde (2011) involves hackers, virtual gaming and online money. Neither are what you’d call traditional thriller subjects.
Some of Neal Stephenson’s best books are his historical fictions. And even though I’ve heard from quite a few people that they associate historical fiction with the word ‘boring’, I can assure you that his works are miles away from being that.
Cryptonomicon jumps between WWII cryptography and present-day telecommunications. With a little epic action in between.
Don’t even get me started on The Baroque Cycle.
The following are summaries of each of the best Neal Stephenson books, with reasons why I chose them. And why I think you should, too. Hopefully, it’ll help you decide which Neal Stephenson book to read first.
She’s a woman, you’re a dude. You’re not supposed to understand her. That’s not what she’s after…. She doesn’t want you to understand her. She knows that’s impossible. She just wants you to understand yourself. Everything else is negotiable.
Hiro isn’t your typical protagonist; he’s a pizza delivery guy for the mafia and sells intel to the CIA on the side. He’s also a genius hacker.
It comes in handy since people live in two worlds: real life and a virtual place called the Metaverse. He excels in the Metaverse.
He gets a hypercard called ‘Snow Crash’ which is a virtual virus and a real virus that fries your head. With the help of 15-year-old Y.T., a girl skater-courier, they try to stop it.
What was the Best Thing about Snow Crash?
I dug Snow Crash mainly for the heroes and the snappy dialogue. The story itself was believable, despite some of the crazy turns it took. It didn’t make me giggle; it made me guffaw.
Why I Think you should Read Snow Crash:
You shouldn’t, unless you want to have a great time reading about the near future. You don’t have to be a Sci-Fi fan to enjoy this book.
And it’ll make you think about where technology could be taking us.
They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.
The world is no longer made up of countries, but it’s made up of globalized groups called ‘phyles,’ which share ideals, cultures, or ethnicities, to name a few. Those without a phyle are ‘thetes,’ and the poor working class.
The story surrounds Nell, a young girl who was born as a thete, and John Percival Hackworth, an engineer and the man who designed the Primers.
Primers are books for elite children to guide them into growing up properly in their phyle societies.
The storyline moves between the two main characters: Nell, growing up and being taught by her ‘illegal’ Primer; and Hackworth, trying to strike a balance between two opposing phyles that are both blackmailing him.
Why I Chose The Diamond Age as one of the Best Neal Stephenson Books:
Not only does it explore the possibilities of technologies that could be realized, it also touches on the what-ifs of a global world and identity.
The Diamond Age also left me considering what happens when the have-nots get opportunities the haves take for granted. It’s definitely a ‘thinking book.’
Why do I think you Should Read The Diamond Age?
Once you get adjusted to the phyle/thete world, you can’t help but make logical comparisons to our world now.
The nanotechnology: the separation into groups people seem compelled to fall into; and Nell’s Primer winds up teaching you, too.
I had to ride my bike to and from their god damn plant way up north in the high-chemical crime district, and reachable only by riding on the shoulder of some major freeways. I could feel the years ticking off my life expectancy as the mile markers struggled by.
The narrator of this unusual thriller, Sangamon Taylor, is a hybrid: an eco-detective. He investigates pollution crimes of large companies for an environmental group.
When he discovers the Basco Co. has polluted the Boston Harbor, he tries to do something about it.
Basco frame him as a terrorist bomber and he has to go into hiding. He ends up in Maine, ends up meeting a ‘real’ terrorist and they team up to try to prevent more ecological devastation by Basco.
Why did I Love Zodiac?
All of Neal Stephenson’s novels have a hefty dose of humor; most have action; but this one is unique because of the detective-environmental angle. Add to that a fast pace and quirky characters.
Why I Think you should Read it:
It’s an odd, hilarious and involving read. Even though it was written in 1988, nearly everything rings true today. It deals with the very real problem of corrupt companies trying to get away with pollution.
You also can’t help but enjoy the hipster-before-it-was-hip sleuth, Sangamon.
Humans needed water or they would die, but dirty water killed as surely as thirst. You had to boil it before you drank it. This culture around tea was a way of tiptoeing along the knife-edge between those two ways of dying.
The inventor of an online game, Richard Forthast, is rich. Fortune 500 rich. This is because of the popularity of his game, T’Rain, and the in-game money, which goes with it. He’s also a gun-toting pothead.
A hacker infects T’Rain with a virus that wipes the players’ games and asks for a ransom if they want them returned.
Zula Forthrast is his niece. She tries to track down the hacker, gets kidnapped on the way twice, and travels from Seattle to the Philippines and a lot of places on the way. She also comes across many inventive characters (Russian mobsters and an MI6 operative, for example).
Why I Chose Reamde:
It’s not a fast read, but I couldn’t put it down. You don’t have any catch-your-breath moments. It zigzags. Taking you from what should be a ‘normal’ family reunion -of a millionaire- to impossible situations, Reamde keeps you glued to the pages. Have I mentioned how funny it is?
Why do I Think you should Read it, too?
To give you a tiny taste of the tone of Reamde: the title comes from a typo of ‘Read Me.’ A world-ending computer virus has a typo.
If you like adventure stories, are even slightly technological and have a healthy sense of humor: this is your book.
“My men think you are dead now, and won’t waste balls on you,” Jack said. “In fact I have let you live, but for one purpose only: so that you can make your way back to Paris and tell them the following: that the deed you are about to witness was done for a woman, whose name I will not say, for she knows who she is; and that it was done by ‘Half-Cocked.’” –Jack Shaftoe
(It’s a little crazy to summarize 3 huge tomes together, but you really can’t read just one without the others.)
The stories take place in the early 17th and 18th centuries and involve several major characters:
You follow these characters through some of the most iconic moments.
Quicksilver is from 1660-1688, going through the Restoration; The Confusion is during the same years with different locations (more exotic ones, like Eliza in France and Jack travels the world); The System of the World is in 1714 London and concludes the series.
It’s much more exciting- and terrifically funny- than you’d expect from almost 3,000 pages of history.
Why I Chose The Baroque Cycle:
Because they’re brilliantly written. Because I didn’t mind how many days I lost reading them, since I was so involved in the Baroque world. I felt like I was living it. Because I’ve never enjoyed being educated so easily.
The Baroque Cycle are 3 of the most enticing historical fiction books I’ve read. Ever.
Why I Think aou Absolutely have to Read The Baroque Cycle:
You don’t have to be a history buff to fall in love with these books, but you might be one after you finish them.
They pull you in and immerse you in the period. The science of alchemy of the times. The precariousness of life through the Plague.
The characters are so rich and fascinatingly varied you can’t wait to run into them again to find out how they are.
Of course, the underlying structure of everything in England is posh. There is no in between with these people. You have to walk a mile to find a telephone booth, but when you find it, it is built as if the senseless dynamiting of pay phones had been a serious problem at some time in the past. And a British mailbox can presumably stop a German tank.
The setting slides between two times: WWII and modern day.
The protagonist in WWII is Lawrence Waterhouse, a man intrigued with the patterns he finds in nature. He also happens to be a brilliant cryptographer that helps decipher German and Japanese codes for the Allies.
Switch to modern day, and his grandson, Randy Waterhouse, is a part owner of a telecommunications company that’s having a few problems.
The book travels between the two, as far as the Pacific in wartimes- including Goto Dengo, a survivor of WWII that goes on to help Randy as an engineer for a project.
Why I Chose Cryptonomicon:
Actually, out of all of Neal Stephenson’s books, this one is probably my all-time favorite.
It includes tons of extras, like how to understand cryptography and such; it smoothly ties two very different generations together; and it’s a rambunctious read.
Why should you Read Cryptonomicon?
It’s as accessible as Snow Crash, but because of the historical and modern basis, doesn’t require you to suspend disbelief or create an alternate world as you read. It’s real.
It will stimulate your intellect while you’re being fully entertained. The best that intelligence (pun intended) has to offer, combined with the fantastic action sequences.
These are my favorites. What about you? Which is the Neal Stephenson book to read first, in your opinion?What do you think are Neal Stephenson best books? Why did you like them (or not)?
Let us know in the comments below!
Neal Stephenson Interview: Blog
Neal Stephenson Interview: Scientific American