like medieval history, string theory, Plato's Dialogues, semiotics, BUT the book is enjoyable and it held my interest (after the second chapter. It does start out kind of drily and baffling). Stephenson tells a good story with a light hand, even though the wide range of themes and subjects on which the plot hinges do provoke thoughts of weightier matters. I listened to the book on CD, because I was commuting a long way for a while, and I think the reader managed to keep the drama going, but probably even as a silent read, it will keep people turning pages. I was well sucked-in after the first few chapters.
It starts with some dry facts abut the history of the protagonist's world and it continues bringing up, without explanation, facts and events about which we have no previous knowledge. These mysteries are resolved as the story continues. I suspect the author chose this method of introducing readers to a new cosmos, because if he had laid it all out schematically at the start, it would be quite boring. His is, after all, a pretty ambitious and wide ranging vision. After a few chapters I was beginning to have a basic idea of Stephenson's worldscape, but it was actually quite satisfying even toward the end of the book, when some features of the place that had remained mysterious throughout the story were elucidated in the context of the plot.
I started through the book a second time and found that the chapters that were boring at the first view, became more interesting now that I understood this neighboring cosmos a bit more. Like many good science fiction writers Stephenson does not neglect the human side of his speculative milieu. The values his characters struggle to define and preserve are a big part of what makes the book compelling.
Not many writers can sustain such a high level of creativity for so many pages. Chabon keeps up not just convolutions of plot, but witty dialogue and entertaining stylistic play with the conventions of Chandler era detective writing on the order of "like a hot kiss on the end of a wet fist." This cleverness is within a work of some thematic weight if only by allusion to possible alternate outcomes to the holocaust. Some of the humor may be more accessible to people acquainted with Jewish culture and Yiddish expressions, but there is a glossary and notes on the historical underpinning of Michael Chabon's imagined territory.