Raiding the Library : Neal Stephenson’s worlds, Part 1

cvr_zodiacMan, I haven’t felt like that in months!  I feel like spending the whole damn day at the keyboard and churn out thousands upon thousands of words just for the sake of it.  That’s always a good sign.

I’m one avid reader.  I read novels by the buckets when I have the time to do it.  When my urge to write waned these past months, I made up for it by reading and watching TV more.

Having been around long enough to resist falling into the trap of trying to make a RPG campaign out of everything cool I read or saw on a screen, I had an idea.

Why not try a new series where I share plot elements of books I read with you guys to set the ideas engine off for our collective RPG campaigns.  Not quite reviews nor campaign plans, I just plan to ramble about cool stuff I’ve read and maybe try to churn new ideas for RPGs.

I start the series with my favorite author.

I’ve long been a fan of Neal Stephenson’s work.  To this date, his Snow Crash and Age of Diamonds novels are, by far, my favorite Sci-Fi stories .  I’ve read Snow Crash every two years since it’s first printing as a paperback and I’ve read the Diamond Age 3 times already and I’m starting to feel the pull to read it again.

Do note that Stephenson, much like the early work of William Gibson, assumes his readers are expert in the field he writes about… or are goddamn geniuses! This made me throw a few of his books away in disgust!

FYI: Feel free to skip any long Data Dump you can’t fathom, chances are its not necessary for the story.  I ended up doing it for his 3 book Baroque cycle!

So here’s a quick summary of each story and sample of the key tropes I got from each book:



A jerkish ecological militant, bordering on eco-terrorism, is the chemical equivalent of a film noir Detective.  He gets  caught in a conspiracy-level ploy that leads to the discovery of massive amounts of toxic wastes being released in his city’s Boston’s water.

Selected Tropes:

The well meaning jerk: The main character is one monumental asshole and he knows it.

The evil corporation: There’s always one, willing to pitiful things like client safety and future growth for some thing more important like this semeter’s bottomline

The cool boat: Zodiac boats!  Weee! Not as cool now, but still the Eco-Guerrila vehicle of choice!

RPG nuggets:

I think that the well meaning Jerk NPC is a great way of modeling a modern day Magnificent Bastard.  As usual, be careful not to piss your PCs too much (unless you want them to).  This NPC model lives to annoy PC and motivate them through negative reinforcement.

Eco-terrorism is going to be a subject whose popularity will likely rise in the current global polarizing of opinions and stances.  This makes it an interesting approach to explore, especially if you go at it cross genre.

  • Fantasy: What if the rising use of Magitek had noticeable, yet still debatable ecological impact on the world?  Final Fantasy VII’s initial plot hook IIRC.
  • Horror: What if rising global pollution was a condition for summoning the Great Old Ones as they can’t survive if the Ocean is not polluted enough?  Maybe those crazy cultists that blew up 5 stolen nukes under Bikini Atol are on to something.

cvr_snowcrashSnow Crash

Summary: TV Tropes writes it up better than I ever could.

The tale of a Mafia-backed badass pizza delivery guy who teams up with a badass courier in a Post Cyber Punk disincorporated USA to fight “Snow Crash” – a computer virus for the brain. Oh, and there’s a badass biker with glass knives and a nuclear bomb strapped to his motorbike, too.

This book is pure applied Rule of Cool.

Selected Tropes

Bad Ass characters and villains: This book is bursting at the seems with characters who are scary strong.

Cool Car and Boat (see a theme here?):  The Deliverator is a high tech military grade car for… delivering pizzas. And part of the action of the book takes place on an Aircraft Carrier turned into a floating refugee city.

Big Fraking Gun: “Portable”-nuclear-powered-depleted-uranium-needle-shooting Gatling Gun… ’nuff said!  It’s called “Reason” and you should listen to it.

The Plucky girl: A “I don’t take crap from nobody” 15 year old sketboard courrier girl.  She somehow managed to also show up in a William Gibson novel… fancy that!

Serious Business: Your pizza in 30 minutes, or the delivery boy murdered free!

As I said, if you are a geek, like cyberpunk and haven’t read Snow Crash, go get it now!

RPG Nugget

I really like the concept of brain hacking.  There’s something sinister and powerful behind that idea.  You can easily build a whole campaign, regardless of genres, around an Evil Overlord (corporate or classic) going around and making zombies of the average population without having to invoke complicated rituals that PCs can interrupt by dropping a d20 on it.

Also, having tried it, making your characters Bad Asses in the eyes of ‘the average’ NPC makes for an Epic feeling in your game.  Yes the bad guy waiting for you outside the bar can rip cars in half.  However, while you are in that bar, the waitress is impressed with YOU.

I also really like the concept of the frail looking, Waif-fu mastering, teenaged NPC.  So much so that my players now automatically assume that any underaged NPC I introduce in my games are automatically some sort of Avatar for a god of Battle or a guidance system for an Orbital laser cannon.

Then, there’s something to be said to let PCs handle an experimental, exceedingly deadly weapon and then throw something equally stupid cool at them for the weapon to be used.  I mean, if you are going to be giving them a Wand of Nuking with four charges left, I suggest that you send them a squadron of flying Titanium Elemental Bombers!

Finally, that ‘serious business’ part, makes for such a great tyrannical, Lawful Evil, setting spark.

Anyone else got ideas from these two books?


  1. I love Stephenson. That ssaid, I love early Stephenson much better than later Stephenson. ZODIAC is almost my favorite Stephenson novel (SNOW CRASH is still my favorite), and I have long thought it would make a great RPG campaign or adventure. I always thought that this would work well in either a CYBERPUNK 2020 or a SHADOWRUN game… this would make an excellent Cyberpunk adventure to use Corps and maybe even a Media or a Rockerboy with. I haven’t played Shawdorun, but I think your idea from FF would work.

    Sadly, the more Stephenson writes, the harder it is for me to get through his stuff. DIAMOND AGE was good, but longish for me. CYRPTONOMICON was really long. and the last trilogy was a hard slog (any 3-book hardcover trilogy that gets released as 7 PAPERBACK NOVELS is probably a bit long). That being said, I also got ANATHEM for Christmas, but I am waiting until the summer to read it.

  2. Are you going to do the Quicksilver books?

    I have to say I could never quite get into Stephenson’s books. I wanted to like them, but find them heavy going. But it’s great to read your rpg-related riffs on them.

    noismss last blog post..[Alignment Breakdown VI] Neutral Good

  3. @The Badger King: Hey Welcome to the blog. I too much prefer his early work. There are some gems in his later, wordier work… but you really need to work at it.

    I’m currently 530 pages into Anathem and while I enjoy the story, the pace is dreadfully slow as we are buried in fictive scholarly discourse and data-dumps. I for one am a bit tired of reading about how humans integrate senses to perceive the world.

    At least, there’s less of the ‘screw the plot thread let’s discuss something completely unrelated’ that are the hallmark of Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle.

    @Noism: Yeah, he’s not for the faint of heart. Once you get that you can skip the wordy parts with little to no impact, he gets easier to read.

    As I go into his later work, I plan to Cherry pick stuff that I found interesting in each book and leave out the rest.

    As for Quicksilver (the Baroque Cycle), I’ve read the first two books and abandoned halfway into the third. I’ll likely tackle the part with the Pirate ship which had a nice twist and through the rest out.

  4. @ChattyDM:
    Never heard of that guy before… but the way you talk about his stuff reminds me of what I had to do to actually read “Lord of the Rings” and eventually enjoy some bits of it :p

    Eric Maziades last blog post..The Rules of Sharing Narrative Control (and Improv)

  5. That Plucky Girl also makes a cameo in Diamond Age. ;)

    And you like brain hacking? Why have you not become a believer of “Ghost in the Shell”– all of it: 1, 2, Stand Alone Complex and Stand Alone Complex 2: 2nd Gig.

    SAC does an excellent job of showing what a series can do to provide a long story arc and yet have independent episodes…


    Bens last blog post..Lord of the Rings, Conquest of Middle Earth…

  6. @ Eric: Yeah, I was defeated by the Lords of the Ring too. But that’s another discussion.

    @Ben: IIRC, by the end of the last chapter, there’s a whole army of them walking through China.

  7. Nono, that *specific* Plucky girl. Very early on. She’s there.


    Bens last blog post..Lord of the Rings, Conquest of Middle Earth…

  8. @Ben: Damn, this means I’ll have to read it again! :D Oh well!

  9. Stephenson is dense at times, but I for one prefer the data dumps in the Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon. As far as fantasy RPG inspiration goes, I think all the strange scientific experiments and such in those books have tons of potential. But yeah, Snow Crash is an all time favorite.

  10. I had the honor of having Chatty come over to my place last weekend for some gaming goodness and we talked about this very subject. He made a point which I thought should be reinforced here since he only mentions it in passing.

    Stephenson’s data-dumps and other epic dissertation on any topic are awesome to someone who is himself a enthusiast in the field.

    We talked a bit about Cryptonomicon and we realized that we liked totally opposite parts of the novel. I liked everything about cryptography and the “net privacy” objective of the modern characters and hated pretty much everything else. Mainly because at the time I was working for a Internet Privacy start-up employing some pretty knowledgeable cryptography dudes.

    (I was only part of IT but still, the office culture was all about that stuff. Actually, the company owner was the one who introduced me to Stephenson.)

    Anywho, I continued on with Stephenson after Snowcrash but I hit the father of all brick walls when I reached Quicksilver. Unfortunately for me, the themes of this megalodon of a serie did not intersect with my own sphere of geekness.

    Obviously the same can be said about any novel, if the subject does not appeal to you, you obviously won’t like it… What sets Stephenson apart is the fact that he can immerse (or drown) the reader in a variety of topics. Most writers can do the same but in only one subject.

    So there you have it… If you haven’t tasted this author’s prose and are lucky to share a passion for one of his novels’ flavor, you’re missing out. Otherwise, it’s like reading one of Chatty’s epic post about his laundry… You just can’t believe he can write so many words about seemingly nothing.

  11. Sheesh, there should be a law about linking to TVTropes without warning. There goes half an hour at least.

    Curse you ;-)

    SuperSoogas last blog post..Lessons learned from Inheritance

  12. @Durn: Welcome to the Blog! I will think about it when I write my next post on this as I’m struggling to actually remember much from those books (hurray for Wikipedia). As PM mentions in his comments, Stephenson’s Data dump are interesting to a very specific sub-type of geek depending on subject.

    I for one will long remember the Ultimate Capt’n Crunch experience!

    @PM: You once again show the nail who’s the true master of the hammer. I never saw this as such as I had yet to discuss a post Diamond Age book with someone who read it all.

    The dissertation are now a fundamental of his author signature and one needs to adapt to them or abandon what is still great literature.

    It helps that I stopped feeling like a complete idiot whenever I read parts that are complete gibberish!

    @Super Sooga: I think I forgot to welcome you to the Blog, so here you are: Welcome! Yeah, I’m known to be a stealth trope linker :) Sorry about that, you need a strong will defense score here.

  13. See, I liked the asides in Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon a lot. In the Baroque Cycle, about half way through book 2 I realized I just didn’t care about anything that was happening, and the lectures just didn’t have the amount of ooh neatness that the earlier books.

    (For a heinleinian political tract with stephensonian asides, try Doctrow’s “Little Brother”)

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..

  14. I loved Snow Crash… all of it. Diamond Age would be my second-favorite. Enjoyed Cryptonomicon, liked Anathem but thought it could have been half the length without missing anything.

    And, of course, it violates the Fiction Rule of Thumb

    Ninetails last blog post..Hacking Skill Challenges

  15. @Michael: Its exactly like PM mentions. The asides’ interest are directly related to your affinity/curiosity with the subject Stephenson writes about.

    @Ninetail: I’m 600 page+ into Anathem and I agree with you that this story could have been told in a slimmer book without loosing much more than scientist-monks arguing a lot.

  16. Part of it was lack of interest, part of it was the fact that he’d already had a lot of those asides in other books (esp cryptonomicron.) Part of it is that his plotting gets sloppier the longer he writes.

    Michael Phillipss last blog post..2009 book list

  17. Your summary of Snow Crash reminded me of Ninja Burger…

  18. I keep knocking back copies of Snow Crash because I was convinced I read it years ago. Turns out it was a completely different book and now i can’t get my hands on a copy no matter who I ask.

    Need to break out the moth eaten wallet I think.

    Bobs last blog post..Waste of Paper


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