Interview with Neal Stephenson

September, 2008
Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson would like you to know that he is not a recluse. When fan mail piled up after the smash successes of his multiple bestsellers, including the Cyperpunk classic Snow Crash and genre-bending Cryptonomicon, Stephenson had to make a tough choice between answering fans and writing new fiction. Fortunately, he decided to stick with the latter. Stephenson talked with Goodreads about his new book Anathem, shared some ominous predictions for the future of the Internet, and gave us some expert advice on how to read science fiction.

Goodreads: Your new book, Anathem, takes place in a frenetic, technology-obsessed future world in which most people are focused on immediate gratification. Only the elite scholars — who you describe as those predisposed to the unusual behavior of sitting and reading a book — are separated from this hectic pace by living in cloistered communities. An intellectual yourself, would you personally find this kind of living situation to be a utopia or a prison?

Neal Stephenson: It's meant to be ambiguous that way. I'm not going to kill the ambiguity by giving you a straight answer. But I will point out that, in the world of the book, the ones in the cloisters are free to leave at any time. They can go back out into the general population and try to make their way in that world like anyone else. So they are making a decision every day as to whether it is a utopia or a prison and whether the outside would be better or worse.

GR: The cloisters in Anathem are organized around Millennium Clocks because some communities of scholars only emerge from isolation every 1,000 years. This seems like an impossible idea found only in science fiction, but The Long Now Foundation, a real-life think tank that emphasizes long-term thinking, is actually planning to build such a clock in Nevada. This engineering feat, The Clock of the Long Now, is a mechanical clock that will keep time accurately for a period of 10,000 years. How are you involved in this project and how did it influence Anathem?

NS: The idea for the world grew out of a back-of-napkin sketch I drew for the Long Now Foundation's website back in 1999. I tried to envision a world in which the building of such clocks had taken place thousands of years in the past. During the time I was writing the book, I paid occasional visits to the workshops where the clock is being built and to the site where it will eventually be constructed, and from time to time I discussed the project in a general way with Danny Hillis, who is the originator of the idea and the designer of the clock.

GR: Anathem includes a glossary of terms (read an excerpt from the Anathem glossary »). Do you have any strategic reading advice? Should the reader look back and forth or do you recommend full immersion in the language?

NS: I'm hoping that the book is accessible to habitual science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers alike. One of the skills that science fiction readers develop, after reading a few thousand science fiction novels, is picking up the details of a new world through a kind of osmosis. They just plunge and start reading. Unfamiliar names and words appear. Undeterred, they plow ahead. Slowly their subconscious mind assembles a picture of the world. By page 100 or so, they know the meanings of all those words. Every kid in America knows the meanings of words like horcrux and Wizengamot that are used in the Harry Potter novels. But there are also many readers who are more accustomed to books in which every word can be looked up in a dictionary, and they find it distracting or even annoying to encounter new terms in a work of fiction. For them, I included a glossary. Use it or not depending on what sort of reader you are.

GR: Your books have spanned the near future (Snow Crash), the recent past (Cryptonomicon), and the distant past of the 17th and 18th centuries (The Baroque Cycle). How far into the future is the world of Anathem? Do you consciously mine different centuries for inspiration or has this extreme span of time in your canon been accidental?

NS: You could think of it as taking place 3,700 years in the future — which is to say, 3,700 years after the first Millennium Clocks were constructed.

When it comes to writing, I don't "consciously" do much of anything, since self-consciousness is my worst enemy. I guess that makes it an accident!

GR: Anathem readers can also buy an audio CD, IOLET: Music from the world of Anathem. How did this music component evolve? What are your thoughts on books becoming increasingly multimedia?

NS: When I was beginning work on Anathem, I would attend concerts by a couple of local a cappella groups, Cappella Romana and The Tudor Choir, as a way of getting into the mood. Cappella Romana sings Byzantine chant and Tudor Choir does Renaissance polyphony. My friend David Stutz, who is retired from Microsoft, sings in both of them. A couple of years ago, we and our wives went out to a Trio Medieval concert together. Beforehand, we had dinner, and over a bottle of wine the Anathem project came up in conversation. Somehow we got onto the idea of actually trying to create the sort of music that the fictional characters in the book would sing as a way of glorifying ideas from math, physics, or philosophy that were important to them. I reckoned that I'd never hear another word about it once we had sobered up, but David went to work on it and began to compose this music, with very minor and occasional input from me. Earlier this year we began booking studio time in Portland and Seattle, and brought in singers from the Cappella Romana and The Tudor Choir to record some of David's compositions. The CD is being released on September 9th (the same day as the book) and will be available through the Long Now Foundation website and CDBaby. All profits (after we recoup costs of recording) will go to the Long Now Foundation.

GR: Snow Crash is lauded for its anticipation of (or influence over) later creations in software and gaming, such as Second Life. Where do you see the Internet going in five to ten years? Any predictions or trends you have observed?

NS: I see this as more and more of a social class issue. I'm remembering the advent of late '60s/early '70s drug culture when I was a kid. Authority figures would try to scare us away from drugs, and whether or not we were actually using drugs, we would just laugh at them because their threats and warnings seemed so overwrought. We all knew people who used various kinds of drugs but managed to stay healthy and out of trouble. Much later, it became obvious to me that the middle-class kids I tended to hang out with were cushioned from possible negative effects of drugs by their intellectual, financial, and social capital. Their parents and friends and neighbors kept an eye on them; Dad was always there to bail them out; they knew lawyers and doctors who could get them out of trouble. But that wasn't true of lower-class drug users. Poor people and communities really did suffer terrible effects from drugs because they lacked that cushion.

How does this apply to the Internet? Well, a few years ago we heard (and we still sometimes hear) dire warnings about the possible negative effects of the Internet, but we've gotten into the habit of laughing them off. We all know how to discern spam from legitimate email; we self-police on Wikipedia; we develop a sixth sense for knowing when a web page was put up by a crackpot. So I'm pretty complacent and pretty positive about the Internet as long as I'm hanging out with technically savvy Internet users. But when I come into contact with users who aren't so technically savvy, I'm shocked by how gullible they are and how effectively they are being manipulated by bad actors who know how to exploit that gullibility. There is a huge political campaign being waged right now in the form of E-mail smears that are being forwarded around the Internet like chain letters. They are obviously coming out of campaign boiler rooms somewhere, but they are sent around from person to person in social networks that fly way under the radar of MySpace, Facebook, etc., and many of the recipients are just unbelievably naive about them — they'll believe any kind of accusation against a candidate, so long as it's contained in one of these E-mails. That's only one example of how technically non-savvy people are being gulled and used on the Internet. I think we are headed for a situation in which we have a distinct intellectual/information underclass, created and perpetuated by bad Internet memes, and that the vector for those memes is going to be E-mail rather than Web pages.

GR: Given your propensity for extensive research and an average book length of 1,000 pages, each book is a major time investment for you. How do you pick your subjects? Do you sometimes leave a story unfinished, or do you usually not begin writing unless you're quite certain that you'd like to devote an entire book to the idea?

NS: It has been quite a long time since I started something and left it unfinished. Once you've done it a few times, you develop a pretty strong sense of what is and isn't going to work.

GR: You've mentioned that you use a different writing system for each book. You famously wrote the nearly 3,000-page Baroque Cycle with a fountain pen. Did this book demand a new system? Describe a typical day spent writing.

NS: In this case I used a very similar process. Up in the morning, go to office, read through yesterday's pages and edit them, then move on to writing new pages. By 10 or 11 in the morning I'm done. Eventually I transfer it into a computer. Then I go exercise and spend the afternoon working on something completely unrelated. The only real difference between how I wrote Anathem and how I wrote The Baroque Cycle was that in the case of Anathem I printed out the manuscript and read through it quite a bit more frequently than I did in the case of The Baroque Cycle.

GR: Your extracurricular projects have ranged from programming and sword collecting to designing rockets for space flight. After finishing writing for the day, what kinds of non-book projects are you working on right now?

NS: I like designing and building stuff. I've been working on some equipment related to my interest in Western martial arts, and I have a part-time gig at Intellectual Ventures Labs, investigating the feasibility of various inventions, most of which originated with other people.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

NS: The most recent novel that I was really crazy about was The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist. Right now I'm a short distance into Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, waiting for the opportunity to read more while I'm flying around on the book tour. Enjoyed Neil Gaiman's new one. I recommend Etgar Keret, Matt Ruff, Sean Stewart, and China Mieville.

Comments (showing 1-3)




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message 3: by Ken (new)

Ken I'm deeply grateful that Neal exists and sustains. He breaks all the commercial writing "rules" and demands much of the reader. As one of our few "deep-thinkers", he is partially responsible for creating the mad, corrupt, but also vital and interesting world we live in. After all, if we don't dream up things first, what would ever be created?

Ken Coffman is the author of Steel Waters and Hartz String Theory


message 2: by Joe (last edited Apr 21, 2010 09:24AM) (new)

Joe Neal totally blew me away with Snowcrash. It started out a little flippant but quickly took on depth that I didn't imagine. I envy him for being able to spin that many plot lines together with only minimal rereading of his prior pages, as mentioned in this interview.
The way he describes an emerging technically un-savy underclass seeing accurate but I wonder whether it will look more Huxlean than that. Will this class end up as Betas, or just political pawns and scam victims?
Can't wait to read Anathem!


message 1: by Shantal (new)

Shantal M Good interview - good questions. I've read everything he's written and can't believe how varied, versatile, and downright amazing he is. Baroque Trilogy is my favorite by far!


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