During the past 6 months, I’ve been reading a lot of enormous novels—in excess of 600 pages—and really enjoying them. Most of these have been series but I’ve just recently finished two standalone books of 600+ (Perdido Street Station by China Miéville) to 1100+ (Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson) pages and, though they are quite dissimilar, I’ve been considering them in relation to one another.
I’ve counted Stephenson among my favorite authors for a while despite only really liking about 50% of what I’ve read by him. It seems that his greatest strength is, at times, also his downfall. Stephenson’s novels are frequently described as infodumps [example 1] [example 2] [example 3], and these can be a ton of fun whether the material feels esoteric, as in the case of my favorite of his novels Anathem, reiterative, as in his genre redefining Snow Crash, or inapplicable, as with Reamde, to the reader. I really enjoy diving into the insane detail he provides as both background for the story and instruction for all manner of geeks. However, when something in the story isn’t working, the infodump makes an already problematic story that much more of a slough to read. Best example here is probably Reamde, which really held me for about 500 pages before the thriller became entirely too predictable for a reader of few thrillers. At that point, spending 25 pages diving into a single topic made the novel difficult to pick up and entirely too easy to put down.
After Reamde, I was a little jaded in going back to Stephenson’s older novels. When I tried Cryptonomicon for the first time, I dropped it around 2/3rd completed. That seems a bit later to abandon, but for a novel of that size, there were still about 400 pages remaining and I just couldn’t see a reason to stick around. That was about 9 months ago and in the meantime, as I said, I’ve been reading quite a few enormous novels and something called me back.
I was not drawn to Perdido Street Station for the same reason. About 20 months ago, I read Embassytown and was quite honestly blown away by the magnificent exploration of symbolic language and Miéville’s ability to integrate that into a compelling story without distraction. Since then, I’ve been wanting to dive into another of his books. Sadly, his work is underrepresented at my local libraries and used bookstores and I only recently picked up a MMP of Perdido. In between the two novels, I became enamored with Miéville as a critical writer and personage in SFF, so when I got my hands on Perdido, I had a hard time not laying the book I was already reading aside.
I should say that while I do not harbor any animosity towards fantasy, neither do I have any affinity for it. This is completely inexplicable to me, to be honest. I can say with some verve that I am not interested in the Tolkien-branch of high fantasy, but I have absolutely torn through the first four Song of Ice and Fire novels in the past three months and the only reason I haven’t started Dance with Dragons is my wish to hold it until February to meter out my anticipation while waiting for HBO’s Game of Thrones to finish the third novel.
Thanks to Miéville, I believe I am beginning to see what has kept me away from fantasy. I don’t mean to insinuate that Miéville is the only fantasy writer that can really pull me in, but his blending of new and old conventions and his respect for the in-world limitations of a fantasy story make me likely to recommend Perdido to a wide variety of readers.
As I say, these novels are not terribly similar. Both authors have dabbled in similar genres and tropes, though not in the stories at hand. These works are, again, quite expansive but Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon clocks in at nearly double the length of Perdido. But the attention to seemingly insignificant detail is something I see as shared between the two. Done right, the absolutely staggering amount of information imparted by these kinds of novels can be enchanting and, honestly, addictive.
In Perdido, the main focus of attention is given to describing the circumstances, situations, inhabitants, politics, architecture, and moods of New Crobuzon, a major city in the Bas-Lag world (to which Miéville has twice returned in non-sequential novels). Bas-Lag is a world filled with numerous sentient and sapient races, steampunk-like technology, a scientifically misunderstood form of magic referred to as thaumaturgy, toyed up physics, and a great deal of institutional corruption. Having finished the 623 page novel, I have the feeling as though I have spent a semester abroad studying in New Crobuzon and now wish to explain at great and aggravating length why others should follow. Though, since the novel is 13 years old, I’ve hardly blazed a new trail. The plot is intriguing and pulls one through the story at a steady and reliable pace, but what really enthralls the read of this novel is the detail of Miéville’s imagined city. This was only my second of his fiction works, but I can certainly count myself a Miéville fan, now and forever.
The exhaustive detail in Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is much less to do with the world of the novel and far more to do with its ideas. The reader is privy to the amazing depth of Stephenson’s research into cryptography, cryptology, and World War II history. The novel switches between numerous POVs spanning from the end of the 1930s to just ahead of the novel’s 2002 publication date. As with all of his novels, it serves the dual function of telling an intricate story and expounding the reference work worth of knowledge on its primary subjects.
I’m coming to realize that I really love these kinds of expansive novels with unimaginably intricate world building more and more. The insular novels of the mind and the sparce novels of modernity and 1970’s social SF are still important to me and they will likely bare a greater resemblance to my own writing for the foreseeable future, but nothing draws me in quite as these huge, detailed and idea saturated stories can.
I highly recommend both of these novels, though for a Stephenson newbie, I might warn you to start with Snow Crash or, if unintimidated by math, the superb Anathem.