Neal Stephenson – novelist

A true polymath, Neal Stephenson is a prolific writer who
Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson

spans genres, spinning together computer science, mathematics, language and history in his epic tales. Coming to prominence with his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash in 1992, this was followed by The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon before the release of The Baroque Cycle. Set across centuries, nations and disciplines, Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World featured a cast including Isaac Newton, Christiaan Huygens, King Charles II, George Handel, Louis XIV and Samuel Pepys among others, each of the three volumes were nominated for the Locus Award, with two wins, and an Arthur C Clarke award. On Saturday 18th August, while attending an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, he was good enough to take time to talk with Geek Chocolate.

Geek Chocolate – Your body of work is, to put it simply, daunting. Where to start, and why would you suggest that book?

Neal Stephenson – Well, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that I have a patchwork readership. I started noticing this with Cryptonomicon. I think a lot of people that had read Snow Crash gave a copy of Cryptonomicon to Uncle Bob or Grandpa Bill, or whatever, the older guy who maybe was in the war, who didn’t like cyberpunk, didn’t care for the new fangled stuff, but it was a way for the younger, male cyberpunk readers to reach out to older family members and make a connection with them. And so I began to see silver hair in my audience, and that continued with the historical books. So there’s no simple answer because different books appeal to different demographics. I generally ask, if someone asks me that question, I try to find out what they like and then I’ll make a recommendation.

GC – Although for the outsider, there can seem to be a division in your work, these are science fiction, these are historical, history and science are in some ways the same, in that to some they may appear to be heading towards a specific goal, but both are in fact an process, still going on around us all the time.

Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon

NS – Well, I seem to have found a little niche in the form of historical fiction that’s about science, so I guess you could see it as a kind of dialogue between those two powers, in a way. You’ve got people who, in a particular historical context are dealing with forces and events that we think of as historical but they see a way to change things or to break out of that system by doing something new which is called science, and that’s, to me, a source of some useful plot points.

GC – You mentioned briefly in a couple of the essays in Some Remarks, the division between fan and mundane, and to me one of the differences is the role of the protagonist in the media that we are given, be it the crew of Serenity or for Britain, Professor Quatermass, standing up to the bureaucracy of the ministry, those characters take action that extends beyond their own lives, whereas soap operas or makeover shows are always confined, never venturing beyond their comfort zones. I think fans are drawn to characters who want to change the world. Do we just dream bigger?

NS – Well, it’s an interesting observation, I like it. I’d be hesitant to say that’s unique to science fiction, but I suppose one does see more of it there. There’s always been a strong link between historical and science fiction. I think it’s one way, a lot of science fiction people really like history, it doesn’t necessarily go the other direction quite as much, but it does come out of this idea that there are times when history can be steered or changed by taking some sort of action, and if science provides, say, a menu of possibilities that maybe isn’t obvious to people that are living in the moment and bound by the norms of their society. That can obviously be used for both good or bad purposes, but protagonists in novels tend to use it for good things.

Quicksilver

Quicksilver

GC
– Staying on that theme, I wrote an editorial last year about how televised science fiction, which for years was focused on spaceships and exploration and, yes, explosions and battles, has practically vanished from our screens, being replaced by supernatural dramas and superheroes. Have we lost that ambition and our belief that we can achieve?

NS – Well, the interesting thing about that observation is that I’m certain that it’s driven entirely by the economics of TV production, so it’s always easier if, say, if you’re running a science fiction channel, it’s always easier to try to dream up a premise that’s about people sitting around inside a room talking to each other. That’s very cheap to produce, whereas anything that involves spaceships getting blown up is expensive, so I think a lot of what you’re noticing is driven by forces we wouldn’t consider to be artistic, but it still has that effect, nonetheless, of narrowing down our scope.

GC – And yet while it’s easy to feel that “big science” is in the past, we live in exciting times. You were associated with the private rocket company Blue Origin for several years, and just in the last fortnight NASA have had the success of the Curiosity on Mars, which is fantastic, and our personal technology is ever more sophisticated and miniaturised. Where do you see the next steps, and will they be publicly driven or funded privately or through industry?

NS – To me, it seems right now that we’ve got a sort of a disconnect or dysfunction going on which I’m tempted to blame entirely on timid capitalists, but I don’t know if that’s fair. When I look at the Curiosity landing, which went perfectly, it was just an unbelievably difficult thing to do, and it all just came off, so clearly we’ve got the talent, we’ve got the ability. We’ve got a lot of capital sitting around, and we’ve got problems that need to be addressed, but the connection isn’t being made.

There’s, I think, a certain attitude about risk that’s taken hold that’s quite timid, and it’s weirdly skewed, so you look at, say JP Morgan, which put together a hedging strategy whose purpose was to reduce risk, and lost billions on it. I think one person got sacked. So there’s a case where they just threw away a vast sum of money with no consequences, and that money, if it had been invested in start-up companies or new technologies, could have produced huge changes in our world, and maybe solved some problems, but to invest it
that was deemed apparently too risky. There’s no way you could have lost that much money by investing in a number of companies.

GC – Living in Scotland, I have for years said, if when I was a child if they would have put the investment and research into wind and wave power, which we have coming out our ears, we would have had efficient, workable technology, and we’d have had the patents on the lot of it to sell to the rest of the world.

NS – Yeah, and the people making it all work would have been local. Jobs in Scotland. So I don’t understand the mentality about risk that drives this decision making at the moment.

Some Remarks

Some Remarks

GC
– Speaking of personal technology, in one of the essays collected in Some Remarks, you comment that the attention span of society is diminishing, and that the novel, particularly of the style you write, has become marginalised, with the media obsessed with transience rather than substance. With the proliferation of e-readers, can you see the serious novel making a comeback, or is it destined to become a niche market?

NS – I think that what I said in that quote, I would now change that wording. I would say that what these forces do is oblige each medium to do what it does best. What novels do better than any other medium is to provide scope and depth. You can tell vast stories with large casts of characters, explore worlds in depth in a way that simply is not possible with other media, and so I actually think that what George R R Martin has called “megafiction” has a bright future, and that, just coincidentally, one of the innovations that makes that future even brighter is the advent of e-readers.

GC – To write a saga so absolutely compelling it demands the attention.

NS – Yeah. And that also, as an example, a couple of years ago when I went on one of these tours I downloaded all of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which as you know is a cycle of seven long novels, and I read the whole thing on airplanes as I was flying around, and I couldn’t have carried all those books with me. Well, I could have, but it would have been a real chore. So I think that megafiction, to use George’s term, actually has a bright future.

GC – There are also comments that literacy and education make people more effective, yet the drive in society is not towards those goals, it’s towards possessions rather than knowledge, and you observe that the history taught in schools is not as exciting as the books you’ve read yourself in research. How can we address the imbalance and engage minds?

NS – Well this is going to sound extremely self-serving, but again the way that a lot of people find their way into history is through fiction, and it’s because it’s simply more interesting to do that than to read a textbook. I can remember in elementary school, being shown a movie called Johnny Tremain which was about a drummer boy in the American Revolution, which I’m sure now would be viewed as an embarrassing childish thing, but was far more interesting to me to have that history told through a story than it was to read it in a textbook.

I think that people who teach history are maybe overly concerned with a particular notion of accountability and technical correctness than is really good for them, and that more people would know more history if history class just consisted of sitting down and reading sort of “ripping yarns” in a historical setting, because what happens then is that if you read enough of those ripping yarns you eventually say, “well, I wonder what the truth of this matter was, was this character real, what did they really do,” and then you can go to Wikipedia or whatever and get the historical facts.

GC – At the Edinburgh Science Festival last year, there was a talk with Iain M Banks, Ken Macleod and Charlie Stross, where they commented that it was a stroke of genius for Gene Rodenberry to put Mr Spock, an actual science officer, on the bridge of the Enterprise, and in Britain our equivalent would have been Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group, who was show doing research and as a hero, defeating alien invasions, and I was wondering what you thought of the portrayal of scientists in science fiction, or if you had any favourite characters. I know you mentioned Ripley in one of your essays in Some Remarks as a character who asks intelligent questions and acts upon the answers, something Ridley Scott let us down with in Prometheus when the scientists have panic attacks and do stupid things.

NS – I was actually going to mention the scientists in Prometheus. They’re everything that you said, but in a certain sense that’s an advance over Spock right? I mean, nothing against Spock, it was a brilliant idea to have a Spock in that show, what forty, fifty years ago now, but if we were still dealing with Spocks I think it would mean that we hadn’t advanced, and some films, James Cameron’s depiction of scientists in Avatar and The Abyss and some of his other movies, they are much more human, and I think in Prometheus they’ve made them almost more human than we’d want to be, because the scientists there are almost unrecognisable, and it takes you a while to realise. If you’re talking about, I forget their names, there’s the one with all the tattoos, and the other one, they’re very blue collar, and I actually kind of liked seeing them, even though they ended up being weak characters doomed to suffer the timeless fate of such characters, the red shirt fate.

GC – Bearing in mind the vagaries of Hollywood and how many promises are made and never come to fruition, the word is that a film of Snow Crash might actually be moving ahead. Are you in a position to say anything more?

NS – It’s been in the care of the Kennedy/Marshall Company for almost twenty years, and they’re the best in the business, they absolutely know what they’re doing, and because of that they’re not the kinds of people who will just lunge out and do something for the sake of doing it. They can afford to take their time and wait for the right circumstances, and so over the years we’ve worked on it from time to time.

I’m now enormously relieved that we didn’t try to make it in the nineties, because we would have had this huge expository burden. It would have been one of the first movies about the Internet. There was a Sandra Bullock movie back then, The Net, and there were other movies like Tron, that was an older movie, but those films had to explain a lot. There was a lot of expository “There is this thing called the Internet, and you can log onto it, and lots of people on it.” This all has to be explained to a nineteen nineties audience, and now we don’t have that bur
den any more, we just tell the story. So that’s worth waiting for.

GC – Speaking of the Internet, you very directly connected on Kickstarter for CLANG recently, and broke your budget very swiftly to fund the development of motion control for a realistic, immersive swordfighting fantasy game.

Snow Crash

Snow Crash

NS – No, just barely, and just in time. It was a nailbiter. We didn’t know. Forty eight hours before the deadline it seemed very much a touch and go thing, and with about a day to spare we hit our target. We’ve been working with, another Edinburgh connection, this fellow named Guy Windsor who runs a sword school in Helsinki now, but he lived in Edinburgh for many years. He appeared in one of those videos. So yeah, that was interesting, that was a never to be forgotten experience, it was another go for broke moment, and we made it, and so now we’re just trying to organise the project so that the people who donated won’t be disappointed.

GC – What is next for Neal Stephenson?

NS – I’ve been trying to arrange things so that other projects like CLANG can be delegated to people who know what they’re doing, and that seems to be slowly succeeding, and so I’m hoping that at some point in the autumn, when it starts raining in Seattle again, I can go into my little workspace and start work on the next book. I’m not really saying what that is yet, but I’m just starting it, so it won’t be out for a couple of years, probably. Pretty vague answer, but the bottom line is I’m going to write another novel.

GC – Excellent. Thank you so much for your time.

NS – Hey, you’re welcome.


Neal Stephenson’s collection of essays and stories, Some Remarks, is now available from Atlantic Books and is reviewed here

Special thanks to Neal for his time, and to Frances Sutton of the Edinburgh Book Festival and Karen Duffy and Corinna Zifko of Atlantic Books for their kind assistance


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