Neal Stephenson Interview
Few writers can boast Neal Stephenson’s range. After first finding fame for dystopian cyberpunk with Snow Crash (1992), he’s subsequently touched on cryptography (Cryptonomicon), the Enlightenment origins of modern science in his “Baroque Cycle” and MMORPG gold-farming in techno-thriller Reamde (just published in paperback and of which more below). On a rain-lashed day in Bristol, SFX caught up with Stephenson on a visit to Blighty to promote his first volume of essays, Some Remarks.
SFX: Why now for a collection of your essays?
Neal Stephenson: “It wasn’t my call. The idea was presented to me by my American editor. One imagines a sort of underground bunker at the publishing company where they keep tabs on everything you’ve written on big chalkboards, or pushing pieces around with little sticks like the Battle Of Britain. At some point the accumulation of pieces hits some critical point, and they consulted the Mayan calendar and it decided the time had to be now. I meekly went along with it.”
What was it like to go through your old stuff?
“It was mostly not too embarrassing. There were moments of cringing, but when those moments came the offending passage got marked for removal.”
The piece on laying fibre-optic cables to connect the world – “Mother Earth Mother Board”, first published in Wired in 1996 – seems to have aged well.
“I suspect that if you were a cable industry professional you might find certain aspects of it dated, but none of us are. It was sort of a dark, hidden, mysterious line of work before and it still is. That one didn’t require any fixing up. The only aspect of it that struck me as humorously dated on re-reading it was [me taking] GPS co-ordinates from different locations. I’ve got a photograph of myself in front of the big column in Alexandria, Pompeii’s Pillar, holding this GPS unit the size of a loaf of bread. I’ve got this kind of cool, hip, swaggering look on my face – check me out I’ve got this unbelievable piece of technology.”
Do you enjoy journalism as a break in pace from other writing?
“It’s something I could very happily do more of. There are some parts of it I don’t care for that much. There’s a lot of responsibility. The whole part about not lying can be tedious work, but just getting to go around and describe things is enjoyable.”
With Reamde, was there a desire to subvert the techno-thriller? It’s sometimes described as a genre that’s about reassurance – in a sense what happens at the end of techno-thrillers is that scary things happen but the world reverts to the way the world is. The world you write about is a changing, fluid place.
“That’s an interesting remark about thrillers. In a sense they are sometimes structured like TV episodes where the purpose is to bring everything back to the starting place so that you can write the next episode. I certainly didn’t want this to be a repeating project. I like the characters, but it’s not my objective to go on writing more thrillers with the same group of people. One of the decisions I made with this one was I didn’t want most of the characters to be the kinds of people who show up in thrillers.
“One of the things that happens is you get these kinds of ‘thrillery’ characters, James Bond types, who presumably do nothing with their whole lives but move from one thriller situation to the next. I’m not against those kinds of books, but I wanted to write a book that was mostly about people who are not that way and who find themselves unexpectedly plunged into a ‘thrillery’ kind of situation, and have to find some way to contend with that. I thought that would be a more interesting story. One of the side effects of that is it would be unfaithful to that premise ever to write another book with the same people. Lightning isn’t going to strike twice.”
Stephenson says he will begin work on a new novel in October, but that other projects have been taking up much of his time. He won’t talk about the next book – “It’s just a little too nascent” – but he does discuss his videogame project Clang, rooted in his fascination with sword-fighting.
“That’s been perking along in the background for a while. It just came to a head and needed either to move forward or die. The way to move it forward we decided was going to be through [crowd-funding website] Kickstarter, which was a great example of succeed or die: you make your goal or you don’t so it was a good way to put that move-forward-or-die decision into action. Because we got funded we’re hiring people who can do that kind of work, it can be delegated.”
Was it strange, as one of the guys associated with the early days of the digital economy, suddenly you’re saying, ‘I want money to do this project’? [Stephenson appeared in tongue-in-cheek videos as part of the pitch for Clang.]
“It was strange, and I think because of that it was obligatory to strike the right tone and go about it in a somewhat self-aware manner. For me just to show up in a talking-head pose, making a blunt appeal for money would have seemed strange, but to do it in a kind of knowing way, with a certain amount of parody and self-awareness, felt like it would work.”
What other projects have been taking up your time?
“There’s the Hieroglyph project, which is this constructive or optimistic science fiction anthology to get organised. That emerged from some conversations about the extent to which science fiction has become exclusively dystopian in recent decades. And that has coincided with a seeming downturn in our ability to get big new things accomplished in our physical environment.
“The question that arose was: are those two things connected and if so in which direction does the causality point? Is technological stagnation leading to a darkening of science fiction or is it the other way round? If it’s the other way round, there’s an implied responsibility on the part of science fiction writers to start writing something in a somewhat more optimistic, creative vein. Since I’m exhibit A of the gloomy, dystopian, hacker-loving science fiction writer, I felt as though the burden was particularly on me.” [Stephenson will write a story about a 20,000 metre-tall tower; Cory Doctorow will contribute a story too, he adds.]
Do you think we’ve reached a point where we’ve hit a technological plateau or are we just “between times” as it were?
“That’s kind of the question we’re addressing. This isn’t necessarily about serving up a pat answer to that question, we’re just trying to talk about it. It’s sort of clear that a lot of the kinds of people who in earlier generations would have been building rocket ships or nuclear reactors have been writing spam filters and figuring out ways to get people to click on ads. That’s what our economy has decided they’re best suited to doing right now, but it does seem ignominious compared to sending humans to other planets or solving the energy crisis.”