In 1999, Newsweek dubbed Neal Stephenson "the hacker Hemingway" when Cryptonomicon, his bestselling novel about World War II code-breaking and contemporary computer encryption, began drawing as much praise from the literary establishment as it did from cyberpunks. It was heady promotion for a writer who was already a cult favorite among science fiction readers, and positioned Stephenson as a hip visionary who could translate complex science into fascinating fiction that spoke to the dot-com age.
Now, Stephenson's first novel in four years is poised to become another crossover feat. And this time, the stakes are as high as the anticipation of its September 29 release by William Morrow.
At 944 pages, Quicksilver has a physical heft that matches the literary ambition behind this panoramic retelling of the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. What's more, Quicksilver is the first volume of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, a literary triptych (his publishers resist calling it a "trilogy") whose second volume, The Confusion, is scheduled to hit stores next April, followed by The System of the World in September 2004.
But size clearly doesn't intimidate Stephenson's readers. The 918-page Cryptonomicon spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, rose to #12, and netted about 100,000 copies after 11 trips to press. And it went on to sell 300,000 copies in mass market and trade paper.
Still, the question remains whether critics and readers will agree enthusiastically enough with the publisher's comparisons to Barth and Pynchon to help sell Quicksilver's announced 250,000-copy first printing—significantly larger than Cryptonomicon's, whose repeat printings couldn't keep up with demand. And will Stephenson's science fiction fanbase be game enough not only to follow him into a grand exploration of Western history, but to buy three hardcovers totaling close to 3,000 pages in a shortened release period that most booksellers are calling unprecedented?
Anticipation Is High
Like Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle is not science fiction, nor will it be promoted that way. But Morrow is counting on Stephenson's devoted SF fans to see the books on a continuum with landmark genre works like Snow Crash, which put him on the map in 1992. "Neal has always addressed complex and ambitious ideas, often using historical detail to illustrate his points," said Suzanne Balaban, Morrow's assistant director of publicity. "Readers of historical fiction and narrative nonfiction will also love this. After all, biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Newton are current bestsellers, and both are characters in the Baroque Cycle."
Though Quicksilver explores the lives of the ancestors of Cryptonomicon's protagonists, Morrow executive editor Jennifer Brehl maintains that the book stands on its own, as do all the books in the Cycle. "The story wraps up satisfactorily. The plot and the history leave you wanting to know more. But you don't have to read Quicksilver to enjoy [either of the next two books in the series]."
For Stephenson's fans, a long-building promotional campaign is helping to spark excitement. Shortly after the release of Cryptonomicon, Stephenson revealed in interviews that its immense plot was still not broad enough to accommodate all the story lines he had planned, and that he was working on a related series. In the past few months, Morrow has stoked interest by strictly limiting the number of advanced reader's copies and controlling their distribution to squelch prepublication resales on the collector's market.
Readers not familiar with Stephenson will find him hard to overlook come September. Morrow has already planned reservation boards that allow booksellers to take preorders, flashy floor displays with foil risers and full-page four-color advertising in major newspaper and periodicals the first week of publication. The New York Times Sunday magazine will run a profile of Stephenson by Laura Miller, and similar features are planned by Newsweek, Time and USA Today.
Given Stephenson's reputation as an Internet guru, no marketing campaign would be complete without some cleverly crafted Web work. The Baroque Cycle Web site (www.baroquecycle.com) features an opening splash page written in Real Character, a glyphic language created by 17th-century Bishop John Wilkins (also a character in Quicksilver). In May, the site offered a signed copy of the book to the first person to decipher the message; Morrow tallied 16,000 hits in the first three days, and declared a winner shortly after. It was the start of an Internet campaign that will escalate until shortly before September 23, when the encompassing Neal Stephenson site (www.nealstephenson.com) goes live with new content.
Stephenson, who did a rare book signing at BEA in May, will launch the book at the Microsoft headquarters in Seattle. Then he's off on an 11-city tour of bookstores, some of which are planning to rent larger off-premises sites to accommodate the anticipated crowds.
But Does the First Book Deliver?
For the past two months, Quicksilver has been steadily logging preorders at Amazon, suggesting that Stephenson's fans are ready and waiting. Still, booksellers like Elizabeth La Velle, a buyer for the Minneapolis science fiction and fantasy specialty store Dreamhaven, are cautious in predicting how the Cycle will play to Stephenson's science fiction base. "Whenever a writer comes out with a book that stretches a little beyond what they usually do, we just have to wait and see," she said.
Few booksellers find the size of the Cycle daunting, and some believe that the opportunity for instant gratification will help readers overcome any reservations about its total tonnage. Charles Stillwagon, events coordinator at the Tattered Cover in Boulder, Colo., sees a parallel between the rapid release strategy for the Baroque Cycle novels and the movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, which he credits for making lengthy linked books popular again. "People aren't afraid of big books," he said. "They'll sink their teeth into them and immerse themselves in the whole mythos."
But the success of the Cycle will ultimately depend on whether new readers, along with Stephenson fans, believe the books deliver on their promise. Though some early reviews have been mixed, most booksellers PW interviewed were bullish about Quicksilver. Micha Hershman, buyer for science fiction, fantasy and graphic novels at Borders, put Stephenson in the same category as Michael Crichton and Neil Gaiman—writers who have evolved from their genre roots and increased their reader base with each new title: "These guys have rock-star standing. They get massive turnouts." If readers agree, then there will be nothing baroque about Stephenson's sales potential.