by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)
Too many things. By which I mean, I suspect the thing that throws people about Stephenson is that his books tend to have too many things going on simultaneously, at least for a lot of readers.
I should note, I'm actually talking more about too many ideas, and too many stories, packed into the same book.
But funnily enough, "too many things" might also be a valid statement (not necessrily a valid criticism) about his writing style itself, especially in his later books (which often elicits the comment that Stephenson "needs an editor").
"Too many things" might also be a valid statement about his plotting, structure and pacing. Stephenson doesn't give you an easy on-ramp, he dumps you right into his setting and drowns you with imagery and sometimes with invented terminology and sometimes with details.
In Anathem, it took me 50 pages to start getting comfortable with the new terms, but after that they faded into the background. In The System of The World, half the first book seemed like it was just lists of things. There's a scene where Jack Shaftoe is in a marketplace and it feels, in recollection, like it was just an entire page of lists of things he saw in that marketplace. However, I think there's a valid argument that those lists-of-things were a literary device, just like all the alien terminology from the beginning of Anathem, and arguably -- just like in Ananthem -- it works.
But back to too many ideas, too many stories, and too many themes.
There's the world building/extrapolation, the characters' personal stories, and the overarching plot or story (lets call that the Big Story), and behind that a greater story (lets call that the Meta Story). And behind that is the Big Theme, which I see echoes of through many of his books.
In Snow Crash, you have the Metaverse; and the crazy future America of enclaves and anarchocapitaliasm; but also Hiro's Journey (<rimshot>); and also the Big Story about Raven and then later L. Bob Rife and his evil mastermind plan using the titular "snow crash" hack.
In The Diamond Age you have the nanotech-based world and the fractured, phile-based society; the personal story of Nell, and her ersatz VR-actor mother, Fiona and her father, Judge Fang and Dr. X; and the Big story of the invasion of Shanghai, and the Meta Story about the Feed and the Seed. The Feed-based status quo is essentially a Water Empire and the Seed is about freeing mankind from that. By the way, I'd love to see Stephenson tackle What Comes Next, or somebody else for that matter, as long as they do a good job of it.
In The Cryptonomicon, you have, of course, WWII and modern, cutting-edge internet, computers and crypto; the personal stories of Lawrence Waterhouse, Randy Waterhouse and Bobby Shaftoe, and the Big Story is the two intertwined stories of the Nazi gold and the crypto enclave.
And behind all of those is the Big Theme of society and interdependence. Stephenson hints at it in the Snow Crash setting of enclaves and anarchocapitalism and it becomes more of a central element, more explicit, in Stephenson's later books, including The Diamond Age, The Cryptonomicon and Anathem. And if I think about it hard, I can find elements of it in The System of the World that I suspect I could articulate if I took another look (hm, maybe I'm due for a re-read of those...).
Similarly, in The Cryptonomicon, the Big Theme is first so obvious in the case of WWII that it doesn't need to be stated, though I do love that bit in the middle about Shaftoe's sense of identity and belonging with the military and marines. In the modern-day story line I don't recall it being set out so explicitly, but then again a lot of that story line is about modern and "20 minutes into the future" internet and cryptohavens.
Much of the Big Theme is reflected in The Diamond Age's Neo-Victorianism, fairly explicitly in the description of its origin, and to some degree the echoed in the way that the disparate characters come together near the end, superseding Neo-Victorianism's role as the flag bearer of societal interdependence. Maybe Neo-Victorianism never was as good as it thought it was. Maybe the Water Empire aspect of the Feed led to it rotting from within.
One could also draw parallels between Neo-Victorianism and the internal struggles of China in Diamond Age, and the history of the British Empire and China during the original Victorian era -- perhaps the Neo-Victorians as a society/phile lost their moral leadership by ignoring the horrors happening in China during The Diamond Age and abdicating responsibility (as made concrete by the 60,000 orphans Judge Fang encounters).
The Diamond Age is probably my favorite classic Neal Stephenson novel.
Zodiac, one of his earliest, is a blast, but less speculative.
Crytponomicon is certainly a landmark Stephenson novel.
Anathem certainly has elements of the Big Theme both internal to the cloistered world of the Maths and in the relationship between the Maths and the Saecular Powers. Also between their world and the aliens.
Stephenson's later works are perhaps a bit too solipsistic for my tastes, but maybe I'll change my mind as I get a chance to reread them.