While I love big ideas and big words — and Stephenson uses both, in spades — that sort of book demands a certain attention, a time and a place, to be appreciated. I had a rocky start with the novel, but it won me over finally. Some plottings, sadly, get glossed over, or are plain forgotten, and the ending's a bit crap, but I loved it all the same.
Here are some bits that I took note of, for their humour or insight.
Most of their children had reached the age when they were no longer naturally endearing to anyone save their own parents; the size when their energy was more a menace than a wonder; and the level of intelligence when what would be called innocence in a smaller child was infuriating rudeness.
On cultural differences:
Finkle-McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possible be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultured thrived and expanded while other failed It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.
Hackworth had made efforts to learn a few Chinese characters and to acquaint himself with some basics of their intellectual system, but in general, he liked his transcendence out in plain sight were he could keep an eye on it — say, in a nice stained-glass window — not woven through the fabric of life like gold threads through a brocade.
On the collapse of nation-states:
The media net was designed from the ground up to provide privacy and security, so that people could use it to transfer money That's one reason the nation-states collapsed — as soon as the media grid was up and running, financial transactions could no longer be monitored by governments, and the tax collections systems got fubared. So if the old IRS, for example, wasn't able to trace these messages, then there's no way that you'll be able to track down Princess Nell."
"It wouldn't work," Finkle-McGraw said. "I've been thinking about this for years. I had the same idea: Set up a sort of young artistic bohemian theme park, sprinkled around in all the major cities, where young New Atlantans who were so inclined could congregate and be subversive when they were in the mood. The whole idea was self-contradictory. Mr. Hollywood, I have devoted much effort, during the last decade or so, to the systematic encouragement of subversiveness."
"We change the script a little," Madame Ping said, "to allow for cultural differences. But the story never changes. There are many people and many tribes, but only so many stories."
On diplomacy, or something:
"Yo! Aren't you going to invite the King of the Reptiles?"
They looked at me like I was crazy.
"Reptiles are obsolete," said the King of the Shrews.
"Reptiles are just retarded birds," said the King of the Birds, "and so I am your King, thank you very much."
"There's only zero of you," said the Queen of the Ants. In ant arithmetic, there are only two numbers: Zero, which means anything less than a million, and Some. "You can't cooperate, so even if you were King, the title would be meaningless."