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Atmosphaera Incognita

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For more than two decades, Neal Stephenson has been the reigning master of the epic fictional narrative. His vast, intellectually rigorous books have ranged in setting from the distant past (The Baroque Cycle) to the modern era (Reamde) to the remote future (Anathem, Seveneves). But when Stephenson turns his attention to shorter forms, the results can be every bit as impressive, as this dazzling novella—itself a kind of tightly compressed epic—clearly indicates. Atmosphæra Incognita is a beautifully detailed, high-tech rendering of a tale as old as the Biblical Tower of Babel. It is an account, scrupulously imagined, of the years-long construction of a twenty-kilometer-high tower that will bring the human enterprise, in all its complexity, to the threshold of outer space. It is a story of persistence, of visionary imaginings, of the ceaseless technological innovation needed to bring these imaginings to life. At the same time, it shows us our familiar planet from an entirely new perspective, and offers vivid snapshots of the unique beauties and unexpected hazards of the “atmosphæra incognita” that lies between this world and “the deep ocean of the cosmos.” The result is pure pleasure, pure excitement, pure Neal Stephenson. No one with an interest in Stephenson's work, or in science fiction at its most thoughtful and ambitious, can afford to miss this latest edition to an extraordinary body of work.

104 pages, Hardcover

First published July 31, 2019

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About the author

Neal Stephenson

104 books25k followers
Neal Stephenson is the author of Reamde, Anathem, and the three-volume historical epic the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World), as well as Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 146 reviews
Profile Image for Sarah.
599 reviews144 followers
July 2, 2019
This is my first experience with Neal Stephenson. At a mere 104 pages, it was much less intimidating than some of his other very lengthy novels. The premise is very simple: eccentric billionaire wants to build tower twenty miles high. It moves at a meandering pace, going over everything from the tower proposal to purchasing the real estate to the actual engineering of the tower and the various obstacles they must face.

But the science behind building something so completely impossible was fascinating, and I didn’t mind the slower pace here. It’s obvious that Stephenson does his research and is very thorough about it. It’s incredibly imaginative and immersive. Little ideas kept popping up here and there like helipads and base jumping and they each put a smile on my face.

The characters were great. I adored Carl, which is truly impressive given that we never really meet him, and I liked Emma a lot too. Within the first few pages it occurred to me that she was someone I could have easily been friends with in real life, which I know sounds strange, but it isn’t a thought that occurs to me about fictional characters often.

It all culminates in one explosive ending which I won’t spoil. I very much enjoyed this and would recommend it to anyone looking for a quick break from their usual fare. Thank you to NetGalley and Subterranean Press for the ARC to review.
Profile Image for wishforagiraffe.
205 reviews50 followers
July 27, 2019
Stephenson does surprisingly well in this short form. Fewer long digressions, but still a lot of great technical ideas and solid conceptual science. It has a conversational tone and covers a lot of ground, in several senses of the word.

I would have likely been just as happy with a full accounting of the tower's building, rather than the breezy overview we get, but it works well in this form.

Unfortunately, even with room to expand a bit (the print version has several blank end pages), Stephenson gives us yet another abrupt ending. Not really even a conclusion.

Still, worth reading if you're a fan of Stephenson, if you enjoy "hard" SF that still has well written characters and solid prose, or if you're looking for a nearer future SF that isn't entirely bleak.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,495 followers
July 29, 2019
Unlike most of Stephenson's wonderfully expansive works of technical imagination, this is a novella. It mines an interesting story of a billionaire named Carl working to fulfill his idiosyncratic dream of building a 20-kilometer tall tower. Holy moly! For perspective, Mt. Everest is 8.8 km tall, or 5.5. miles.

The narrator Emma was Carl’s friend at age 12 and is picked by him to manage the project based on her track record in property management for him in recent years. Her girlfriend gets the commission to run the restaurant/bar that rises over the decades it takes to extrude the steel beams of the tower from below. As you can imagine, sealing it like a spacecraft is necessary after you get to Everest heights.

Most of the story dwells on various engineering challenges that must be solved, including foundation work on the scale of the Pyramids, rebooting the steel industry, and computer-assisted strategies to counter the impact of wind and the expansions and contractions due to extreme temperatures. The only real “action” sequence comes from the heroic human teamwork that takes place when Mother Nature makes an assault in the form of the strange powerful lightning recently observed from satellites to shoot upward toward space from the stratosphere (and believed to involve huge gamma ray bursts and likely antimatter production).

In sum, if you like the wonders of human engineering and appreciate a playful imagination on plausible problem solving in the face of challenges, this short read could provide you some satisfaction. For me, I would appreciate more on the personalities involved in an amazing endeavor, such as in McCullough’s account of the Wright brother’s development of the first airplane (The Wright Brothers). Greg Egan's Phoresis, which features an alien race trying to build a space elevator, also suffers from the same limited level of character development (it also misses the plausible engineering in favor of exploring the cultural factors that might drive such a project over many decades). The reason I loved Stephenson’s nerdy Seveneves was the addition of diverse, fulsome characters to another engineering-focused story, in that case the building of a self-sufficient space station and riding out for many years a world-ending meteor strike of Earth.

This book was provided for review by the publisher through the Netgalley program.
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,036 reviews510 followers
August 24, 2019
I have not read Neal Stephenson in ages. He is one of those SF writers whose books (by default) are long and demanding, though not on the same level as a writer like Kim Stanley Robinson. So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this … novella on Goodreads. Neal Stephenson writing short fiction? There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Indeed.

Imagine also my surprise at discovering that this slim book is quintessential Stephenson, a distillation of the author’s talents and preoccupations in just about 100 pages. It is a deceptively quick read, with the author masterfully ratcheting up the tension and detail … until a truly mesmerising ending that seems out of this world. Except it takes place on earth. Well, actually at the top of a 20-km-high building, the construction of which is the narrative engine here.

I actually think that Atmosphaera Incognita (got to love that grandiose and baroque-sounding title) is a masterclass in How To Write An Effective SF Tale of Ideas. Stephenson has an incredible ability to break down highly complex ideas into Big Screen style images – he will make a helluva effective teacher, if he hasn’t done so already.

Yes, some reviewers have griped that the characterisation is not as carefully constructed, but they are missing the point: The bloody building is the main character. And SF is a genre about Big Ideas, after all. It rather leaves character navel-gazing to literary fiction. Of course, you get true fireworks when you combine the two, but that, as they say, is yet another story …

P.S. BoingBoing reports that this story is actually from a collection called Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future. This, of course, was a project of Arizona State University’s Centre for Science and the Imagination, with which Stephenson has been associated since 2011.
Profile Image for Denise.
347 reviews32 followers
September 23, 2019
A tower. A tall tall tower. Not a lot f plot but fascinating all the same.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,543 reviews307 followers
April 23, 2022
Bite-size Neal Stephenson! Cool. Plus, the ebook's just 3 bucks! Granted, it's more of a fictionalized essay than, you know, actual fiction with actual characters. Hey, his characters are still a lot more lifelike than the stuff I grew up on. In a short afterword (that I wish had been longer) Stephenson credits Geoffrey Landis for working out the Tall Tower idea, ASU's Project Heiroglyph for publishing the story, and Jeff Bezos for the idea of using jet engines[!] for active stabilization in windstorms. Essential reading for Stephenson and hard SF fans. 4.4 hard-edge stars!
Profile Image for John.
294 reviews11 followers
August 22, 2019
A brief story about the complexity of building a 20 KM tall tower. As with all of Neal Stephenson’s books he poses & answers questions I would not have even thought about. I’m used to his books being an epic length and this definitely was not that this a lot of details are skipped and the ending was rather abrupt. Overall this was still very interesting & well written but I would’ve preferred a longer & more detailed version.
Profile Image for Liviu.
2,240 reviews626 followers
July 30, 2019
another disappointing work from the author, this time a novella that has a great premise but mostly fails to deliver with wooden prose and uninteresting characters
Profile Image for Campbell.
544 reviews
August 13, 2019
Yeah, not bad. It feels incomplete, however, a fragment of a larger work.
Profile Image for Scott.
303 reviews6 followers
June 25, 2021
Interesting novella length story about building "the first bar in space", atop a 20 km high tower. The tower itself is the main character in this story but is told in first person narrative by an (unamed) woman who is a commercial real estate buyer as well as long time friend of the project's visionary.

As Stephenson is incredibly adept at doing, the topics range from the logistics of steel production to geological science to jet stream atmosphere snafus. The characters range from civil engineers to mountain hikers. The story moves quickly and is engaging from a technical standpoint. Quite a shock of drama within the last fifteen pages. I enjoyed it.
476 reviews1 follower
June 6, 2019
This short novella appeals to hard SF geeks. Stephenson presents a dazzling narrative exploring the detailed technological innovations entailed in a project to construct a twenty kilometer high tower that reaches to the junction of our atmosphere and outer space. Virtually creating a vertical city that serves as a platform to the stars. The story unfolds in the eyes of real estate developer who is tasked by a self-made, eccentric billionaire to find the most ideal property site to construct this monolith. The same developer stays on to be the administrator of the project. Presented are the "scientific" solutions and innovations necessary to bring this engineering feat to fruition. Although the science presented is awesome, there is something lacking in human interest. Although some people are trapped near the top of the tower ... there is little in the way of drama and intrigue.
This short novella apparently is to be part of a bigger book: Hieroglyph. A series of stories designed to envision new ideas for the future ... hopefully in a more optimistic and realistic approach. Thanks to NetGalley and Subterranean Press for providing an Uncorrected Proof in exchange for an honest review. Once again, Stephenson's amazing skill in Science Fiction is realized.
Profile Image for Val Timke.
121 reviews9 followers
July 8, 2019
This was truly a dense text, and if you're not up for reading pages upon pages of structural design descriptions, this may not be for you.

My experience with this tottered somewhere between enjoyable and relieved it was short. It wasn't that there was too much description but I didn't really connect to the description until the latter parts about the weather and "sprites."

I see some people saying they were glad it was short and in some way, I am glad it was too. It worked as a novella. There was just enough character and dialogue in it to make it work. However, I do think there could have been more scenes demonstrating how the tower affected the lives of those who had built it. We didn't really get a whole lot between the lengthy structural descriptions.

I loved the "into the unknown" aspect to this. It was really well done (and also my first Stephenson though I do own Seveneves.) In the end, for the length it was, I think it was worth the time.

**I did receive this as a Netgalley ARC from the publisher. This is my honest review.
Profile Image for Cobwebby Eldritch Reading Reindeer .
5,069 reviews264 followers
May 3, 2019
The geniuses of our era, in my opinion, are the late Stephen Hawking, John Connolly, and Neal Stephenson. I never miss anything Mr. Stephenson pens, even though sometimes I have to really stretch my brain to comprehend, because isn't that the point of science fiction? Of any literature? To stretch us, mold us, trigger us to evolve into our better selves?

In his very new novella Atmosphæra Incognita, a self-made, crusty, often irritable, and very bullishly determined billionaire decides to build a Tower: twenty kilometers in height, it will reach into that elusive junction of Earth's atmosphere with outer space. Why? Why do modern humans construct skyscrapers? Why the Tower of Babel? Why the Hanging Gardens of Bablyon? Perhaps here it is that unconscious desire of humankind to "knock on heaven's door," to "reach the stars," "ad astra per aspera." Mankind always reaching above himself: Icarus, Prometheus, billionaire Carl.
Profile Image for Logan.
1,281 reviews34 followers
February 16, 2020
So while an interesting thought experiment, it really seemed half baked. There was no plot, no point, no grand closure. Some people decided to build a high tower. A few people died building it.

It lacked on a myriad of technical and economic details so it wasn't just hardcore science, and yet at the same time, it had no story or point to it all, so I'm not really certain what the purpose was.

And it just ended in the middle of it. Ooookay...
Profile Image for Nicole.
1,058 reviews4 followers
July 22, 2019
Enjoyable novella about some people who build a space tower. For such a short piece, I got more character development from Stephenson than I had expected. Granted, we're told rather than shown a lot of the character development, but the story was not quite 100 pages long. (The book's official total is 104 pages, but include some reference material at the end.) It was an enjoyable read, but more than anything it makes me think of the science behind the story and the currently unknown difficulties we'd have if we really tried something like this.
Profile Image for Jon.
403 reviews7 followers
January 1, 2020
A fun and brief immersion into the world(s) of Stephenson, yet even here he still manages to have an anticlimactic ending lol. I swear, it's like he gets all the interesting academia out of the way and goes "That's it, let's wrap this sucker up."

I'd actually like to see this one turned into a movie as, unlike his usual infodump-filled tomes, this one is capable of being converted into a 120 minute scifi extravaganza ala Contact, without the alien angle.
Profile Image for Brennan Selcz.
172 reviews2 followers
May 10, 2019
This was another kind of strange book. Overall, there was really no point in it other than to take this reader along as the tower is built and show how it affected certain peoples lives as they became involved with the project. As the story was quite short, there was not a whole lot of character development, but I did enjoy our main character Emma and getting to see how her stakes in the project allowed her to meet some new people and how it changed her pre existing relationships. I know this review may seem a little lacking in the form of content, but I really do not know what to say. The book had a calm tone to it and I enjoyed getting to read about the twenty years in which the building of this tower was taking place and getting to see how it affected some peoples lives in such a small book. And that’s about it, other than the fact that I learned some neat stuff regarding to aerodynamics, architecture, and industry. This being said, I’m giving this book a four stars because I found that I enjoyed the book enough to think it warrants over a three, but it just did not have enough of a wow factor for me to give it a five. The thing I perhaps liked most about this novel though was the writing style. I own a couple of Neal Stephenson’s other books and this short tale definitely has intrigued me enough to where I want to get to his other novels before too long. Overall, even though I had some trouble articulating what I liked about this book, I believe that it told a good concise story and one that would be worth your time to read if you are interested.
Profile Image for Mike Ellsworth.
Author 7 books8 followers
August 12, 2019
First of all, I adore Neal Stephenson. He’s perhaps my favorite author. I did not adore this seemingly dashed off short story, for which I paid way too much on Kindle.

The story seems like a rough draft of what could have been a pretty interesting novel about building a 20 kilometer high tower.

The blurb reads, “Atmosphæra Incognita is a beautifully detailed, high-tech rendering of a tale as old as the Biblical Tower of Babel.” It is not beautifully detailed. There’s hardly any detail to this scant sketch at all.

I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Stephenson, including his early work published under a different name. This one stinks.
Profile Image for Nichole.
801 reviews17 followers
July 30, 2019
This one really didn't do it for me. It was a quick read, but it was pretty much just about building a tower, and engineering. This may appeal to some people, but it wasn't for me.

I received a copy from Net Galley. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Maddie O..
184 reviews86 followers
March 20, 2021
I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley.

This had such a fascinating premise, and I think it mostly delivered. I felt like I wanted a little bit more from it, but I'm not quite sure exactly what that was.
114 reviews12 followers
October 10, 2019
A quick read and one I picked up because "Neal Stephenson". Basically a (very interesting) science idea turned into a narrative. However don't expect any suspense or complex plot twists.
110 reviews1 follower
August 23, 2019
Atmosphaera Incognita by Neal Stephenson (Subterranean Press; 2019) is a reprint of an earlier novella (written in 2013), that is a shorter and more accessible introduction to one of the most renowned writers in the world in the field of what he calls "speculative fiction." Although this novella is less than 100 pages (making it about only 1/10 of the length of the majority of Stephenson's novels); still, this is truly a Neal Stephenson book. Though somewhat short on characterizations, the story contains the meticulous descriptions of the technologies represented in the work.

In this case, Stephenson riffs on the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, describing the aspirations of Carl, the 11th richest man in America, and his dream to build the tallest skyscraper/tower the world had ever seen. The story is told through the view of Carl's childhood friend and now real estate procurer Emma. The story almost exclusively describes the building and testing of this structure and all the obstacles to be overcome --- from finding a site that was geologically workable and that the surrounding communities and governments would allow, to building a new kind of steel mill for the construction of the tower; along with all of the physical and technical difficulties to be overcome. Because of the tower's extreme height, most of the structure had to be pressurized to allow for oxygen. Plus elaborate jet engines had to be strategically placed around the outside of the tower to offset the ferocious winds and stressors that would be inflicted upon the tower at all hours. The prime bit of action in the novella takes place when a group of dignitaries are going to the top of the new tower to dedicate, and there is a freak lightning/electrical storm that threatens all of their lives. Because you see, when you are above the lower atmosphere, and into the upper mesosphere and troposphere, all kinds of atmospheric phenomena occur that we are not even aware of on the ground. But the disaster is mostly averted with only a small amount of loss of life.

True to Stephenson's style, his descriptions of geological and construction details, along with atmospheric conditions reflect a lot of research and consultation, but Stephenson can make these technical descriptions plausible and understandable. For readers who are new to Stephenson's work, this novella is a good place to start, and even to whet one's appetite for his larger and much more challenging works. Recommended.
Profile Image for Kend.
1,249 reviews67 followers
July 31, 2019
Happy book birthday to this little novella!

I should preface this review with a disclaimer: This is the first work by Neal Stephenson that I've read. I know, I know, it's criminal. He credits Jeff Bezos in his acknowledgments, which makes a lot more sense when I realized he *works* for Jeff Bezos, sort of. And the character at the center of this narrative is not its narrator, a competent lesbian with a degree in comparative religion and no job prospects, but rather the brilliant tech titan and moneybags, Carl. It's Carl who gives the narrator a job that she ends up being rather good at, and which ends up involving a bit of real estate, a bit of project oversight, and a great scene involving abseiling down a structure that boggles the mind. Boggles it, but in a pleasurable way. If I had to guess, I'd argue that Stephenson's gift is taking complex structures and breaking them down into bits that make sense to even the most average of science fiction readers. (And that's me. I'm *very* average.) But back to Carl for a second; Carl is not just at the heart of the story, but also at the heart of the book's plot structure. Without his driving vision for a building that extends past the majority of the Earth's atmosphere, there would be no story, and without his death, there would be no reasonable explanation for the book's one extended action sequence. Carl puts all the characters in motion, and then draws them together when the plot requires. He's always present. And that, my friends, is symptomatic of (uh-oh, here comes my least favorite genre term) "hard" science fiction's obsession with the space-obsessed CEOs of Silicon Valley. If you, too, are obsessed ... then this novella will be pure heaven for you.

If you're disillusioned? This isn't going to open any new vistas for you.

Luckily, this is a novella--and novellas are tiny little self-contained thought experiments. They're perfect for exploring ideas without staying so long that they get on your nerves! I love novellas, and I'm always a fan of being introduced to an author by way of novella. I know enough from this short 100-page novella to know that a) I like Stephenson's style, b) I like big buildings and I cannot lie, and c) I'm still on the fence about characterization. It's a good start.
355 reviews3 followers
July 19, 2019
Full disclosure: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

An eccentric billionaire decides that his legacy will be to build a 20-kilometer-tall steel tower. As nothing like this has ever been attempted before, the project poses massive engineering and supply problems, not to mention the political challenges of convincing local government and the local community at the proposed site to allow the project to move forward. The novella follows the construction of the tower over decades, offering a vision of how engineers might resolve some of the challenges of designing and constructing such an ambitious project.

While the story is told from the perspective of the billionaire’s friend and employee who is involved in the project from the beginning, offering glimpses of her life over time, it is focused on exploring the ways the engineers resolve the unique design problems posed by extremely high winds, extreme temperature fluctuations, etc. that would come with building a structure that high into the atmosphere. It also offers glimpses of the uses to which such a structure could be put, such as an airport in the sky.

I thought it ended in an odd spot, with the story not quite resolved and the tower still incomplete (although nearing completion). It works as a fascinating thought experiment, more than anything else. Indeed, that seems to have been its purpose. This novella was originally published in Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer’s Hieroglyph, an anthology of near-future, optimistic sci-fi stories of how technology and science can change the world.

In short, Atmosphaera Incognita offers a tantalizing tale of what human engineering might be able to accomplish, given the resources to do so.
Profile Image for Realms & Robots.
196 reviews4 followers
August 9, 2019
For me, Atmosphæra Incognita was equal parts architectural fascination and tingling discomfort when imagining that top floor view. It’s a quick story centering on a billionaire who decides to build an enormous tower tall enough to reach space. We primarily follow the workings and observations of the project lead, a childhood friend who was in the right place at the right time and landed this lifelong gig. I found the specifications and details fascinating, primarily because of my personal interest in architecture and infrastructure. You can imagine how complicated such a megastructure would be, and the many steps to build it are especially interesting from an economic standpoint.

It’s notable that the whole project isn’t approached from a wild science fiction standpoint. Instead, Stephenson treats it like any other building project, imagining the governmental hurdles, the rebuilding of the American steel industry, and the complications of grumpy neighbors who don’t want to look at a huge tower in their backyard. The every day approach makes this impossible project seem possible, especially as the technical details are thrown in. The story ends with a quick conflict that’s horrifying to imagine as the characters cower in fear of a weather phenomenon, afraid they’ll be hurled from a billionth story window.

Overall, Atmosphæra Incognita is a quick, detail-rich read that examines the many hurdles to creating an impossible structure in modern times. Given our society’s obsession with enormous buildings, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to imagine.

Atmosphæra Incognita
By Neal Stephenson
Published by Subterranean Press

NOTE: I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest, unbiased review.
Profile Image for Ren HappilyBuriedInBooks.
88 reviews13 followers
June 28, 2019
Neal Stephenson’s work isn’t what comes to mind when asked to prove that good things can come in small packages, but Atmosphæra Incognita is proof of exactly that. Rather than a towering novel, this is novella about a tower. In a scant hundred or so pages, Stephenson manages to engineer a steel extrusion process and pinpoint the ideal location for its needs, build a tower twenty kilometers in height, and breathe life into the characters needed to complete the project.

Atmosphæra Incognita takes into account a variety of issues that a tower of twenty kilometers might call into question: materials, engineering, structural stability, climate, wind patterns, earthquakes, tourism, economy, use for future endeavors like rocketry, and politics. For fans who crave the richness and obsessive attention to detail that Neal Stephenson delivers, but haven’t had the time to jump into his latest novel entitled Fall, or Dodge in Hell, this is a more bite-sized option.

Thanks to Subterranean Press and NetGalley for the provided e-ARC and the opportunity to read this book. My review is honest, unbiased, and voluntary. #NetGalley #AtmosphæraIncognita @SubPress

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