Neal Stephenson’s Endings

One complaint frequently aimed at Neal Stephenson is that he can’t write an ending. Even the Wikipedia article on Stephenson (which is supposed to be written from a neutral point of view) mentiones that his books have “an abrupt ending with no conventional denouement and many loose ends” and that this pattern holds true for all of Stephenson’s books. A couple of advance reviews of Anathem have been posted, and both of them mention that the ending is abrupt, but an improvement over his other endings. Personally, I’ve never had much of a problem with his endings (minor spoilers ahead):

  • The Big U: Considering that the novel has very little actual plot, the ending fits reasonably well. The book gets a little ridiculous, but as Stephenson himself notes, this is in many ways a juvenile work (it was his first novel, after all). [previous blog posts: Megaversity and The Big U and Journalists]
  • Zodiac: This is a pretty straightforward book with a good ending. The ecological crisis at the heart of the plot is averted through a satisfying set-piece. In a lot of ways, it’s one of Stephenson’s more accessible efforts, including the ending.
  • The Cobweb (as Stephen Bury with J. Frederick George): One of his pseudonymous novels, this one does begin to stretch plausibility towards the climax, but I thought the ending worked well (and really, it’s no more ridiculous than any other techno-thrillers that I’ve read – indeed, I found both Bury novels to be much more entertaining). [previous blog posts: Stephen Bury]
  • Interface (as Stephen Bury with J. Frederick George): Similar to The Cobweb, the ending of this novel, while perhaps straining believablility, was also quite entertaining and worked reasonably well. [previous blog posts: Stephen Bury]
  • Snow Crash: The novel that made him famous and probably his most popular novel to date, this book has a fine ending. Computer virus crisis averted and all is well. [full review]
  • The Diamond Age: And finally we come to a book that I think has a legitimately unsatisfying ending. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I remember it being confusing and very abrupt. A lot of his other stories have abrupt endings, so that alone isn’t the issue. There’s a quick, disorienting jump in time, followed by a rushed revolutionary-style climax. It didn’t quite work for me (and apparently a lot of other folks too). At some point, I will probably reread this book, and maybe it will be less obtuse upon that second reading. In any case, this is one situation where I agree that the ending could use some work (and perhaps it will get a revamping for the upcoming mini-series).
  • Cryptonomicon: Once again, there are parts of this ending which are a little absurd (namely, Andrew Loeb, Jungle Warrior), but I thought the ending was fine. The book is infamous for it’s various tangents, but it’s got a few core threads, all of which seem to be resolved and tied together nicely. I don’t love this ending, but I think a big part of that is that I loved the book so much that I didn’t really want it to end. I [full review]
  • Quicksilver: This is the only other book I think has a substandard ending… but, of course, it’s also the first book in a series… a series which essentially tells one 2,700 page story. Thus, I think this novel can be forgiven for any loose ends or questions it leaves open (as they are amply addressed in the next two volumes).
  • The Confusion: There are times when this book lives up to its title, but the ending is not one of them, and indeed, I loved the ending to this book. This is especially true when considering that the book is the second in a series of three and that the story isn’t anywhere near complete. The ending perfectly sets the stage for the third book in the series. Maybe it’s just because I’m a movie guy and the ending seemed kinda cinematic to me. Jack Shaftoe, freed of slavery and thrust into political intrigue, stands in a boat on the Thames and stares at his nemesis, Isaac Newton, who sits silhouetted atop the Tower of the London mint. I can clearly envision the cinematic shot in my head as Jack says, “Enjoy your perch up there, Mister Newton, because Jack the Coiner has come back to London-town, and he aims to knock you down; the game has begun and may the best man win!” Brilliant stuff.
  • The System of the World: The end of a 2,700 page story is perhaps Stephenson’s least abrupt ending (there’s a whole chapter of epilogue!), and maybe even my favorite of his endings. It’s hard to say, because the story is so long. I guess some folks get annoyed at some loose ends that were not really tied up, but that’s because these three books were part of an even larger story which also includes Cryptonomicon and really hasn’t concluded yet (there is supposedly another book to be written that takes place in the future). Even so, I don’t mind some of the loose ends. What’s the deal with Enoch Root and that special gold? I don’t think I want to know. I like that Stephenson has kept those elements of the story mysterious. Some will call that cheap and manipulative storytelling, but what can I say? I enjoyed it.

In the end, I think it’s unfair to say that Stephenson is bad at writing endings. I wouldn’t say they’re his strength either, but for the most part he does a fine job. They can be abrupt at times and maybe even a little absurd (especially the Stephen Bury books), but neither of those things is necessarily bad, especially when you consider how great Stephenson is at crafting incredibly detailed and wonderfully realized settings, characters and stories. Sure, there are sometimes loose threads, but endings are, by their very nature, arbitrary. There’s always more story to tell.

Stephenson himself has addressed the perception of bad endings:

I always write the endings that I want to, and am as satisfied with my endings as I am with any other aspect of my writing. I just have an opinion about what constitutes a good ending that is at variance with some of my readers.

Gretta Cook also talked about Stephenson’s response to the question during a talk at Google:

He dislikes pat endings that explain everything and tie everything up with a neat little bow; in real life, there are no convenient termination points.


In other Stephenson news, there’s a great article in Wired about some of the themes that drove Stephenson to write Anathem.

3 thoughts on “Neal Stephenson’s Endings”

  1. I really liked how sudden the ending of Snow Crash was. We all know what I thought of Cryptonomicon; and I have no idea if I’ll read any of his other stuff. Who can say?

  2. I don’t remember the ending of Snow Crash being all that sudden… it seemed fine to me. Did you ever finish Quicksilver?

  3. Snow Crash: problem solved, dog explodes, end of book. No epilogue, barely even finished by the time it finishes.

    I haven’t gone back to Quicksilver since; I’m beginning to learn my limits. I’ve got about three other books going right now that I’m not sure when I’ll resume, while I read some other books effortlessly in the meantime. I’ve got the iffy books in my bag as back ups, for times like when I finished Small Gods again today.

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