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Bostonia: The Alumni Magazine of Boston University

Fall 2008

A Voice from the Future

Speculative Fiction Writer Neal Stephenson Talks About His New Book, His Influences, and Why He Can’t Write Short

| From Books | By Devin Hahn

Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Anathem, charts the adventures of a group of hyperintellectual monks out to save their world from an extraplanetary menace. Photo by Devin Hahn.

Neal Stephenson has been a dominant voice in the world of speculative fiction — known as sci-fi/fantasy to the uninitiated — since the 1992 publication of Snow Crash, a novel that predicted with eerie accuracy the advent of virtual communities like Second Life and World of Warcraft. Stephenson’s subsequent works have dealt with subjects as diverse as ecoterrorism, nanotechnology, cryptography, and alchemy and have starred a motley cast of punks, hackers, soldiers, scientists, pizza delivery guys, and historical figures (Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur, Isaac Newton, and Louis XIV, to name a few).

Stephenson’s new novel, Anathem (William Morrow, 2008), is his most ambitious project yet: it seeks to completely reshape the history of scientific and philosophical thought. Set 4,000 years in the future on a planet called Arbre, the novel chronicles the adventures of a cadre of hyperintellectual monks who must save their world from an extraplanetary menace.

With Snow Crash, Stephenson (CAS’81) was writing alongside the young upstarts of sci-fi (they call it cyberpunk for a reason), but with Anathem, he is vying for a position among spec-fic’s old guard: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Huxley.

Stephenson spoke with Bostonia about his work.

Bostonia: I understand that you started writing about halfway through your undergrad career.

Stephenson: Yeah. I had tried to write some short stories much earlier, because the conventional wisdom is that the way you get into writing is by starting with little stuff and then working your way up to novels. So I tried to write a couple of short stories, and they just didn’t go anywhere. So based on that I thought that maybe being a writer just wasn’t in the cards for me. And then about halfway through college, I was stuck in town over break — no money, nothing to do — and I ended up just banging out a short novel. Not a very good book, but the point is, I was able to finish a novel even though I was never able to finish a short story. They’re different forms. To this day I’m not particularly good at writing short stories.

Bostonia: What motivated you to start writing in the first place?

Stephenson: Even when I was in elementary school, I thought it seemed like a good gig compared to other things that a person could do for a living. Setting aside any highfalutin ideas about art or intellectual content, it’s nice work if you can get it.

Bostonia: But there was no specific impetus that told you it was time to bang out that novel?

Stephenson: Well, there’s a time in everyone’s life I think when they’re not entirely certain what they’re going to be doing a few years later. You know, you’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old — a lot of people in that age range don’t have the faintest idea what they’re going to be doing when they’re twenty-five. Some do, but many don’t. So it’s natural to investigate and try a number of different things, and writing was one of those avenues that I looked at. And it took a few years for it to take. Then, by the time I was a few years out of college, I was able to get a book published, and then a few years after that was able to get another one published.

Bostonia: Before your writing career was in full swing, how did you find the energy and motivation to be a gainfully employed person and write at the same time?

Stephenson: I think it would be more difficult if your gainful employment was something that required focus. And by that I mean that it’s the thing that you think about even when you’re not working. You get up at three in the morning and jot things down. You think about it on the weekends, you put in more than forty hours a week just because you’re driven to do it. If you’ve got that kind of gainful employment, then I agree that it would be very difficult to get a writing career started on the side. But, as we all know, there are plenty of occupations that don’t have those characteristics, and that’s the kind of stuff that I was doing at the time I was getting my writing career going.

Bostonia: How much of your life have you spent in academia?

Stephenson: It depends on how you look at it, because I come from a long line of preachers and professors. My great-grandfather was a professor of classics. One grandfather was a physics professor, the other was a biochemistry professor. My dad and a bunch of my uncles were professors. I grew up in college towns, and all of my friends’ parents either had Ph.D.s or were working on their Ph.D.s. So in that sense, I spent my entire life up until the age of about twenty-four in academia.

Bostonia: I was wondering why academic settings crop up frequently in your work.

Stephenson: My beat as a writer has ended up being geeks, hackers, scientists, engineers; those are the people I’ve ended up writing about frequently. It’s not that I’m necessarily making a conscious decision to write about academia, but academia is where my kind of character tends to hang out. It’s not always the case. In Cryptonomicon, the geeks are in the context of high-tech startups in the Bay Area. So I guess I naturally tend to end up where my kind if character tends to end up.

Bostonia: How did that become your kind of character?

Stephenson: Well, it’s not like I made a plan. I’m not a terribly self-conscious or self-directed writer. I just do what seems to work. Any questions that involve self-awareness or self-analysis, self-criticism — because it’s not productive to put a lot of time into that kind of thing. I think it hampers rather than helps the actual process of getting stuff written.

Bostonia: Have fictionalized versions of any of the people you’ve met in these settings made their way into your novels?

Stephenson: I think fiction that’s written that way tends to be less satisfactory. There’s a template that some people have in their minds — when they think about what fiction writers do for a living, they think that the fiction writer sort of takes real people they’ve known and real experiences and changes a few names and details and then writes it all down. And some fiction writers probably do that. But it sort of shows. The results aren’t as satisfactory as when you proceed in a different way. So I’ve always tried to avoid the kind of approach that you’re talking about.

Bostonia: What do you mean, proceed in a different way?

Stephenson: Again, that’s a self-analysis kind of question. You’re asking me to kind of deconstruct my process — how I do it. I’m not objecting. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but I’m just saying that I don’t know. But it’s not a roman à clef, it’s not just switching the name plates.

Bostonia: When you say the results aren’t as satisfactory, do you mean from a reader’s perspective or a writer’s?

Stephenson: I do think that when you’re reading a roman à clef you kind of have the feeling that it’s just somebody who’s gossiping, or being a tattle-tale, and it’s not a satisfactory experience as a reader. I think it could get to be pretty boring as a writer.

Bostonia: You’re clearly comfortable writing both speculative and historical fiction. What challenges does each kind of novel pose?

Stephenson: When I’m doing it, I’m not hugely conscious of there being two modes. Once I get the place and the people in my head, the process is somehow the same. There are two different ways of getting to that point. In a historical novel, you try to gather information about the time and the place: the buildings, what people wore, the manners, the sets of attitudes and mental habits that people would have had when they walked into a room. In a speculative book, that has to be made up. But it’s not totally made up, because it’s always based on historical precedents to some extent. So, for example, with Anathem I’ve got a speculative future, but it’s based on monastic communities of medieval Europe, so I can go back and look at the way people behaved in those historical communities and use that as a basis to construct the future reality.

In the case of the historical novel it’s just a matter of hoovering up information in any way possible, which means physically going to the places where these things happened, going to museums, looking at paintings, looking at drawings, looking at maps, reading documents written during the era itself by people who lived there and documents written by historians who have a much deeper knowledge of the time and place than I could ever have. And at a certain point I get to the place where I suddenly feel as though I can start writing a scene. I’ve got everything I need, or if I don’t have it, I know where to get it. And at that point it just kind of happens without a lot of conscious thought or effort.

Bostonia: Can we talk about a particular scene? How about, for example, the opening scene in your novel Quicksilver, which takes place at a public hanging in the Boston Common, in the year 17--.

Stephenson: During the time that I lived in Boston, I became fascinated by the way its topography has changed since white people started living there. I remember seeing pictures of the creation of Back Bay, where they were bringing trainloads of dirt up from New Jersey and dumping it into the basin to fill that in. It’s just obvious in the street pattern — in Back Bay you’ve got a grid, a modern street pattern, and in older parts of town suddenly it becomes hilly and the streets become more medieval. So I’d been aware for a long time that the shape of the city had changed.

I was on a trip to Boston around the time I was starting Quicksilver, and I hit a couple bookstores and picked up a couple books on the history of the place, the history of Harvard College, the history of the city, old historical maps. Then combine that with other things that I knew — I have a friend who is in a Revolutionary War reenactment group, so he has a lot of knowledge about the military units of the time, the weapons that they used. Just from reading a lot about the history of England during the era, I was able to get a lot of information about the technology, the way the society was structured, the shipping, the way the economy worked. And some of it’s kind of nonobvious. For instance, the fact that they used Spanish coins. That’s not what you’d expect, because we have this idea of the pound sterling being such a fundamental currency and such a stable thing, you’d think that’s what they would use in an English colony, but it’s not what they used. So, little pieces of information like that kind of filtered in over time. I was able to write that scene, in its broad outlines, early in the book, but then as I continued to do research and write the rest of the Baroque Cycle, every so often I would come across some detail, and I would realize that I had done something wrong in that opening chapter. I had to go back and replace the British pennies with pieces of eight, or make some other such change. That scene continued to be tinkered with right up until the very end of the project.

Bostonia: Another detail that has stuck with me from the opening of Quicksilver is the scene between Enoch Root and Daniel Waterhouse at the pub in Harvard Square. Enoch Root comments on the size of the beams that make up the bar.

Stephenson: There are a number of things that go into that. One is simply walking into old, historical taverns in New England and looking down at the floor planks and seeing how big they are. And then there’s reading academic history about the deforestation of Europe in order to build navies. You go take a tour of the Constitution and see the size of the pieces of wood that were used to build that ship. And finally, if you look at the history of northern Europe from a kind of populist, bottom-up point of view, you can see that there was an economic and environmental devastation wrought on the smalltime farmers and crofters and so on by the deforestation process that built those navies. Put all those things together and you get the table in the tavern, and the conversation that those guys are having about it.

Bostonia: In Anathem’s fictional world, the planet’s thinkers — its philosophers, mathematicians, and others (dubbed the avout) — are segregated from the rest of the society (the extramuros). How does this division reflect aspects of twenty-first-century American society?

Stephenson: This is an unusual book for me in that the subject matter is the bifurcation of society into long- versus short-attention-span people, for lack of a better way of putting it. I’m not setting out to write a screed here, but that’s part of the fabric of this particular book, it’s part of its premise, and so it does show up when they’re talking about what they call the extramuros world. And the avout perceive things to which the extramuros people are kind of oblivious. The big shocker for them, when they begin interacting, is the jeejahs, the electronic devices that are constantly interrupting people, breaking their attention. So there’s a lot of commentary about that in the book.

Bostonia: How much of it is that you wanted to say things about our present?

Stephenson: I’m not a big fan of books with a message — with a political axe to grind. They tend to be insufferable books to read. So I certainly didn’t want to write something like that. At the same time, what you’re doing in speculative fiction, as William Gibson has said, is you’re writing about the present. Speculative fiction books are really books about the present for the most part, not about the future. Putting them in the future just enables you to talk about the present in a different way. The kind of bifurcation that I’m talking about I see as just being a fact of life — and a pretty obvious fact of life — in our civilization today. And the world of Anathem just reflects that through the speculative fiction lens, and perhaps makes it a little bit more obvious than it is to us living our day to day lives and not stepping back and thinking about it.

Bostonia: The principal characters in Anathem live in a kind of monastery that is centered around a giant clock. In the acknowledgements section of the book you thank Danny Hillis and the Long Now Foundation for this inspiration. Can you talk about your relationship to the Long Now Foundation and about how the millennium clock found its way into Anathem?

Stephenson: I became aware of the idea for the millennium clock in the mid-1990’s, when Danny Hillis and Stuart Brand were talking about it at the hackers conference. After first, I thought, “Hmm, what an interesting technical challenge.” And then I went on a trip to Eastern Europe and passed through all these little towns that had town squares with the town hall in the middle and a clock in the town hall. And the clocks were always stopped, they were always wrong, and I started to see that as a real marker of a town that was in decay, that the clock is wrong.

So I talked about it again with Danny and Stuart at the next hackers conference, and I said, “Is your idea to make a technological tour de force that can run for that long without any human intervention, or is it going to rely on having people around to keep it working?” Because those are two extremely different projects, and they’re both interesting in different ways. But I was a little more interested in the latter, because I was interested in what kind of human institution would be required that could possibly survive that long. And of course they didn’t need me to point that question out to them; they’d already been thinking about it. They were leaning more toward one that would have some kind of human institutions connected with it.

They asked me and several other people to contribute to the Long Now Foundation Web site a few years later, around the turn of the millennium. They just asked us to make sketches of what we thought the clock might look like. Not as serious proposals, but as a way of saying, “Here’s how different people think about this idea.” I sketched out a little idea, with a clock tower in the middle and some concentric walls surrounding it with gates in the walls that would function kind of like the doors on a cuckoo clock. At a certain time, determined by the clock, the doors would open up for a little bit. And then people could go back and forth.

Then I speculated about a human institution that could be built around this facility, where while the doors were open you could pass freely in and out. But when the doors closed, if you were on the inside, it meant you were making a commitment to stay there until the next time the doors opened. And I talk, in this little sketch, about clock monks who would devote themselves to winding the clock and taking care of it. That was all there around the turn of the millennium.

I sort of put it out of my mind for a number of years then, because I was trying to finish the Baroque Cycle. But it kept coming back to me, because I kept seeing all of these examples in day-to-day life of how people who read books and who focus on the life of the mind are becoming more and more like the monks of the medieval times. That is, they’re more and more separate form the mainstream of society. They are to media culture kind of what vampires are to mirrors. People like that have just stopped showing up in talk shows and the media in general because they talk too slowly. I mean, if you can’t say what you need to say in seven seconds or less, then you’re going to get mercilessly edited down, or edited out of the program altogether. And sooner or later, rather than do all that tedious editing work, the producers will just stop inviting you. And if you’re one of those people, you’re going to start saying “no,” even if someone does invite you, because it’s so annoying. I know that they’re out there, they’re out there by the millions, but they are invisible to the rest of the culture, and they’re talking to each other on back channels of e-mail and books that are like a separate stratum of communication.

That was becoming more and more obvious to me over the time that I was finishing the Baroque Cycle. So when I was recovering from that and felt like writing something, I thought, “Well maybe I’ll just take a crack and this and see what happens.” So I started writing the first chapter where Orolo is interviewing the artisan, and it felt like it was clicking. I just kept writing it.

Bostonia: In the acknowledgements section of your book you state that Anathem is “a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of earth’s past and present.” Why did you need this fictional framework?

Stephenson: When I started the book, I hadn’t made up my mind yet whether it was going to happen in the future of Earth or on a fictional planet. There are advantages to doing it both ways. And as I got further into the project, it became clear that if it were set on Earth, then as my characters were talking about these things, they would constantly be footnoting. They’d say, “Well, as Leibnitz said in his 1701 treatise, such and such, translated by—.” And because there’s a lot in there — these people are ranging over a pretty wide span of intellectual history — I was concerned that the book would just get weighted down with a lot of historical detail, that it wouldn’t illuminate anything. So I decided that it would be simpler, cleaner, to set it on a different world whose intellectual history ran in parallel to that of Earth. Then in that way everything could just be simpler and cleaner.

Bostonia: Most of Anathem’s characters believe that there are no new ideas, and the novel suggests that even original ideas are nothing but transmissions from another world. That seems like a bleak position for a writer to take.

Stephenson: There are very few mathematicians who believe that they are creating something in the same way that an artist creates a sculpture. Most of them feel pretty certain that they’re discovering something that’s out there. And yet, they’re not depressed by that, they don’t think it’s bleak. If anything, it heightens the enjoyment and the sense of excitement for them, because they feel as though they’re exploring a landscape that’s filled with incredibly beautiful and surprising results. Look at how the Greeks thought of it: they would invoke the Muse at the beginning of a work of literature. I think they were responding to a feature — call it a neurological feature — of how creativity works, which is that once you get into the flow-state, it just sort of happens. You feel as though you’re a conduit for material that’s flowing into your consciousness from some place that you don’t understand, and you’re just transcribing it. That’s an experience that artists have reported, and it’s also an experience that’s been reported by mathematicians who say, “I didn’t feel as though I was creating this proof. I was just writing it out. I was the stenographer.”

Bostonia: This is your first novel since Zodiac that employs a first-person narrator. Can you talk about the development of the third-person narrative voices that were so striking in your previous work, particularly Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, and why you decided to shift gears for Anathem?

Stephenson: In the third person it’s sort of me talking, and talking through the eyes of different characters. So it does change a bit depending on whether the point of view character is, say, Daniel or Jack. Obviously, those people perceive things in different ways, and they’re kind of unreliable narrators in different ways. Jack’s particularly unreliable.

Bostonia: There does seem to be a sort of Waterhouse aesthetic and Shaftoe aesthetic.

Stephenson: Right. Yeah there is. And I’ve had a lot of fun with that and became very comfortable with those voices and that way of proceeding. And when I finished the Baroque Cycle it was quite obvious how I could then fill in everything between 1714 and 1939 with other books about Shaftoes and Waterhouses and turn that into a career. And it would be an enjoyable career. Once you got all of the historical documents — have that machine up and running — there’s all kinds of reasons to keep the machine going. And maybe I will. But I thought that it might be better to jump sideways and get out of that Shaftoe/Waterhouse place where I’d been for about seven years, and do something completely unrelated. I sort of did have a vague idea for what the next one might be, and then a fan wrote in and suggested that idea, and so that kind of confirmed that maybe I should do something else for a while.

Bostonia: Would you like to tell us what that idea was?

Stephenson: Not right now. So, in starting Anathem I had a different challenge in that I had to explain this imaginary world. And it kind of didn’t matter at first whether it was the future of Earth or some other planet, because either way it’s such a different world that there was a lot of explaining to be done. And I think that writing things in the first person can simplify that, because you’re not jumping around from one point of view to another. There’s no omniscient point of view. You’re seeing everything in the way that one specific person would or did see things. I just made a decision that it was going to be a better way to explain this world, and it was compatible with the story. I didn’t see this as being one where I would jump between different narrative tracks. So there was no compelling reason to use an omniscient narrator.

Bostonia: In what ways was Anathem influenced by other science-fiction work?

Stephenson: One is the characters. The main characters of this book are young adults. They’re in that phase where they’re grown up, they’re physically mature, but there’s still a lot about their lives that’s not settled yet — what they’re going to do for a living, are they going to get married — that kind of thing. And Heinlein wrote a few books centered around characters who were in that situation. I was consciously reaching back to that a little bit when I laid out the cast of characters for this book, because I knew that it was going to be a lot about people who sat around and thought about heavy ideas. It gives you a little bit more traction for getting into these people and identifying with them if they’re dealing with very normal young-people issues while they’re thinking about the heavy ideas. So there’s that. The indebtedness of this book to science fiction is so systemic and thorough that it’s kind of hard to relate particulars. But the important thing that I’d want to get across is there is that indebtedness, and that it couldn’t have existed without the literature of SF that came before it.

Bostonia: Many artists maintain a tight set of themes or aesthetics that they work with over the course of their careers, refining the idea, reworking it, etc. Do you feel that way as a writer?

Stephenson: There’s a bit of that, but there’s also moving on and expanding the area that you’re interested in. Cryptonomicon ended up being about crypto and money, and that grew out of conversations I had with Bay Area cypherpunks in the early 90’s. I came down there once and suddenly they were all talking about money, about digital cash, and had become fascinated by how money worked. I was finishing that, and I became aware that Isaac Newton had spent his last thirty years making money, and that Leibnitz had built one of the first digital computers. So there was money and math again together, and also these two characters knew and hated each other and had this famous war, so that had to be written about. And in the course of writing about that I got into the difference between their two philosophies, which I didn’t know about, and learned that that argument is still going on today — I mean, the argument between the string theorists and the lube quantum gravity people is very much the same argument. And it gets into topics that Godel worked on, that preoccupied philosophers in the twentieth century. So in a way I’m still pounding away on that same set of themes, but at the same time it’s kind of expanded — I’ve learned more over time, and I think found a different way into talking about those same ideas.

Bostonia: Many of your novels devote a substantial number of pages to explaining things, such as mathematical proofs or obscure word origins. Why?

Stephenson: I remember reading books when I was a kid — Robert Heinlein novels, let’s say — where things would be explained. In books like that there’s a payload of legitimate science info delivered in a vehicle that’s reasonably fun and engaging to read. There’s a bit in Have Spacesuit Will Travel where a spaceship lands in the kid’s back yard, and he’s abducted and knocked out. He wakes up and he’s experiencing what feels like normal gravity, so he thinks he’s still on Earth. But then it’s explained to him that he’s on a ship that’s accelerating toward the moon at 1G, and he doesn’t believe it until halfway there the ship flips around and starts decelerating at 1G toward the moon. So the whole time he’s experiencing Earth gravity, but in the middle there’s this flip-around that’s really disturbing. And it’s explained that by going there using that trajectory you can do it a lot faster. And then later he has to go out to Neptune or Pluto or something, and so then they’ve got to give him a bunch of drugs so he can survive the heavier acceleration. So in books like that there’s a payload of legitimate science info that is delivered in a vehicle that is reasonably fun and engaging to read. And that’s part of why I sought those books out; it’s part of why I still remember them. So I’m not conscious of doing something out of the ordinary or engaging in some kind of strange literary experiment when I do that, just because I used to see it all the time in science fiction books I read as a kid.

Bostonia: With Anathem you may have one-upped Heinlein in that respect.

Stephenson: In Anathem I think it’s taken about as far as you could ever take it. Time will tell whether I’m going to get away with it or not.

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On 8 January 2009 at 10:55 AM, Phil Redman (COM'95) wrote:

Great interview. I really like the depth and intelligence of the interviewer. I feel he/she really knew the subject and asked intelligent questions. Great to see this since NS doesn't get out much.

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