Cover image for In the beginning ...was the command line
In the beginning ...was the command line
Stephenson, Neal.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Avon Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
151 pages ; 21 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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Item Holds
QA76.76.O63 S7369 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QA76.76.O63 S7369 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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This is "the Word" -- one man's word, certainly -- about the art (and artifice) of the state of our computer-centric existence. And considering that the "one man" is Neal Stephenson, "the hacker Hemingway" (Newsweek) -- acclaimed novelist, pragmatist, seer, nerd-friendly philosopher, and nationally bestselling author of groundbreaking literary works (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, etc., etc.) -- the word is well worth hearing. Mostly well-reasoned examination and partial rant, Stephenson's In the Beginning... was the Command Line is a thoughtful, irreverent, hilarious treatise on the cyber-culture past and present; on operating system tyrannies and downloaded popular revolutions; on the Internet, Disney World, Big Bangs, not to mention the meaning of life itself.

Author Notes

Neal Stephenson, the science fiction author, was born on October 31, 1959 in Maryland. He graduated from Boston University in 1981 with a B.A. in Geography with a minor in physics. His first novel, The Big U, was published in 1984. It received little attention and stayed out of print until Stephenson allowed it to be reprinted in 2001.

His second novel was Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller was published in 1988, but it was his novel Snow Crash (1992) that brought him popularity. It fused memetics, computer viruses, and other high-tech themes with Sumerian mythology.

Neal Stephenson has won several awards: Hugo for Best Novel for The Diamond Age (1996), the Arthur C. Clarke for Best Novel for Quicksilver (2004), and the Prometheus Award for Best Novel for The System of the World (2005).

He recently completed the The Baroque Cycle Trilogy, a series of historical novels. It consists of eight books and was originally published in three volumes and Reamde. His latest novel is entitled The Rise and Fall of D. O. D. O.

Stephenson also writes under the pseudonym Stephen Bury.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

To promote Stephenson's sf blockbuster Cryptonomicon [BKL Ap 1 99], Avon set up a Web site that included this treatise on operating systems (OS). Stephenson's fandom brought Avon's server down with the volume of demand for the essay, so Avon has published it as a paperback. Whether online demand will translate into hard-copy interest, especially when the essay remains online, free, is a crap shoot. Stephenson traces the history of OS from 1973, before the graphical interfaces of Macs, Windows, Linux, and BeOs, when strings of commands had to be keyed into a telegraphlike machine that was the interface to the computer. Since the advent of DOS and Unix and the successes of Jobs and Gates, users no longer endure the disorienting environment of the command line; they simply point and click. Stephenson doesn't get too bogged down debating the advantages of Apple over Microsoft, yet his tract sometimes seems to be a testimonial on the merits of Linux, an open source and free OS that he says is the true hacker's only real choice. --Benjamin Segedin

Publisher's Weekly Review

After reading this galvanizing essay, first intended as a feature for Wired magazine but never published there, readers are unlikely to look at their laptops in quite the same mutely complacent way. Stephenson, author of the novel Cryptonomicon, delivers a spirited commentary on the aesthetics and cultural import of computer operating systems. It's less an archeology of early machines than a critique of what Stephenson feels is the inherent fuzziness of graphical user interfacesÄthe readily intuitable "windows," "desktops" and "browsers" that we use to talk to our computers. Like Disney's distortion of complicated historical events, our operating systems, he argues, lull us into a reductive sense of reality. Instead of the visual metaphors handed to us by Apple and Microsoft, Stephenson advocates the purity of the command line interface, somewhat akin to the DOS prompt from which most people flee in a technophobic panic. Stephenson is an advocate of Linux, the hacker-friendly operating system distributed for free on the Internet, and of BeOS, a less-hyped paradigm for the bits-and-bytes future. Unlike a string of source code, this essay is user-friendlyÄoccasionally to a fault. Stephenson's own set of extended metaphors can get a little hokey: Windows is a station wagon, while Macs are sleek Euro-sedans. And Unix is the Gilgamesh epic of the hacker subculture. Nonetheless, by pointing out how computers define who we are, Stephenson makes a strong case for elegance and intellectual freedom in computing. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Available for free download online at an Avon-sponsored website, this extended essay on computer operating systems by high-tech novelist Stephenson (Cryptonomicon) generated such demand that the server actually crashed. The audience for this title, though, is potentially much broader. Stephenson's strength lies in making technical topics accessible; anyone who has used a mouse, typed a letter into a word processor, or developed an interest in the history of computers will be able to enjoy much of this book. He is weakest, however, in reining in his proseÄthe ease of composing on a computer seems in his case to encourage logorrhea. The long-anticipated outcome of the government's case against Microsoft may increase interest in Stephenson's viewpoint that the inevitable tendency of computer operating systems is toward becoming both free and open. Buy where interest in technology issues is strong, although readers who pick up the book because of Stephenson's name may wish that a firmer hand had edited the material.ÄRachel Singer, Franklin Park P.L., IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



In the Beginning...was the Command Line About twenty years ago Jobs and Wozniak, the founders of Apple, came up with the very strange idea of selling information-processing machines for use in the home. The business took off, and its founders made a lot of money and received the credit they deserved for being daring visionaries. But around the same time, Bill Gates and Paul Allen came up with an idea even stranger and more fantastical: selling computer operating systems. This was much weirder than the idea of Jobs and Wozniak. A computer at least had some sort of physical reality to it. It came in a box, you could open it up and plug it in and watch lights blink. An operating system had no tangible incarnation at all. It arrived on a disk, of course, but the disk was, in effect, nothing more than the box that the Operating System (OS) came in. The product itself was a very long string of ones and zeroes that, when properly installed and coddled, gave you the ability to manipulate other very long strings of ones and zeroes. Even those few who actually understood what a computer operating system was were apt to think of it as a fantastically arcane engineering prodigy, like a breeder reactor or a U-2 spy plane, and not something that could ever be (in the parlance of high tech) "productized." Yet now the company that Gates and Allen founded is selling operating systems like Gillette sells razor blades. New releases of operating systems are launched as if they were Hollywood blockbusters, with celebrity endorsements, talk show appearances, and world tours. The market for them is vast enough that people worry about whether it has been monopolized by one company. Even the least technically minded people in our society now have at least a hazy idea of what operating systems do; what is more, they have strong opinions about their relative merits. It is commonly understood, even by technically unsophisticated computer users, that if you have a piece of software that works on your Macintosh, and you move it over onto a Windows machine, it will not run. That this would, in fact, be a laughable and idiotic mistake, like nailing horseshoes to the tires of a Buick. A person who went into a coma before Microsoft was founded, and woke up now, could pick up this morning's New York Times and understand everything in it -- almost: ................. Item: the richest man in the world made his fortune from -- what? Railways? Shipping? Oil? No, operating systems. Item: the Department of Justice has tackled Microsoft's supposed OS monopoly with legal tools that were invented to restrain the power of nineteenth-century robber barons. Item: a woman friend of mine recently told me that she'd broken off a (hitherto) stimulating exchange of e-mail with a young man. At first he had seemed like such an intelligent and interesting guy, she said, but then, "he started going all PC-versus-Mac on me." ................. What the hell is going on here? And does the operating system business have a future, or only a past? Here is my view, which is entirely subjective; but since I have spent a fair amount of time not only using, but programming, Macintoshes, Windows machines, Linux boxes, and the BeOS, perhaps it is not so ill-informed as to be completely worthless. This is a subjective essay, more review than research paper, and so it might seem unfair or biased compared to the technical reviews you can find in PC magazines. But ever since the Mac came out, our operating systems have been based on metaphors, and anything with metaphors in it is fair game as far as I'm concerned. In the Beginning...was the Command Line . Copyright © by Neal Stephenson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from In the Beginning... Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.