Author Neal Stephenson On His Latest Book, Video Game Sword-Fighting And The Light In Los Angeles
In Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing, author Neal Stephenson describes Alexander Graham Bell and Lord Kelvin as the "supreme ninja hacker mage lords" of global telecommunications. Readers of Stephenson's work would probably agree it wouldn't be much of a stretch to apply the same description to him within the speculative fiction world. For nearly three decades, Stephenson has penned everything from Snow Crash—which is listed among TIME Magazine's "100 All-TIME best English-language novels"—to the gripping historical science fiction books of The Baroque Cycle. Recent years have seen the release of Anathem, REAMDE and a collaborative transmedia project called The Mongoliad, which has led to CLANG, a Kickstarter-funded sword-fighting video game currently in production. Tonight, Stephenson will be in Los Angeles to discuss Some Remarks at Skylight Books, and LAist spoke with him last weekend to learn more about his recent projects.
LAist: "Arsebestos" is an insightful, relevant piece about the dangers of sitting and working at a computer all day, and it made me want to buy a treadmill desk like yours. Are you at your desk now?
Neal Stephenson: Not at the moment, but on a typical day, I would be. I'm inherently lazy, so I had to make it my only option. It's the only place I can go to check e-mail.
LAist: Though you wrote the short story "Spew" in '94, the demographic tracking and social circles bear more than a passing resemblance to things like Google and Facebook. Since you were thinking about these things before they even existed, how careful are you with your personal computer security?
NS: You know, I went through kind of a cloak and dagger-y phase when I started getting interested in crypto and learned how to use PGP and GBG and a lot of the other hard-core crypto and privacy stuff.
That wasn't wrong, but as time went on I became aware that if someone's going to invade your privacy, they're probably not going to do it by breaking the encryption key on your e-mail. They're likely going to do it through simple, low-tech means, so it's better to do things like shred bank statements and check privacy settings on Facebook than it is to try to build an impregnable digital fortress.
LAist: Although you've said you'd never finish writing it, do you expect your hilarious short piece "Under-Constable Proudfoot" to lead to some fan fiction? NS: Maybe some anonymous contributions could build that out into a full story…
LAist: Since the release of "Mother Earth, Mother Board" [a Wired piece—included in Some Remarks—about fiber optics and laying the longest undersea wire on Earth], do you think versions of problems encountered in the wired realm have popped up in that of the wireless?
NS: I think they are probably comparable in the sense that they're both very challenging engineering projects that are nearly invisible, so most people are only aware of these things when they stop working. But if you visit with those who are building these systems—whether submarine cables or wireless systems—you begin to appreciate just how huge the investment is and the level of technical sophistication.
The wired version of it is interesting to me because at beginning of the day, you're having to make this one physical object go all the way around the world, and you're having to touch every piece of dirt in-between. So it makes really good fodder for exploration and storytelling.
LAist: One of my favorite pieces in the book talks about how access to more information can make us risk-averse. That's an incredible thought—that being naïve may sometimes be a good thing if you don't realize something's been deemed impossible...
NS: Right. Exactly.
LAist: Do you think that many innovations in the future will come from side projects, because those usually involve less risk?
NS: That's an interesting thought, and it wouldn't surprise me at all. I think it's very common for people to over-plan and to make projections years and years into the future, which often become totally invalidated within a few weeks of starting, so you get a lot of zombie business plans out there for that reason.
It makes more sense to just start doing something, see what happens, follow your nose and proceed in an adaptive way. That's what a great many businesses end up doing anyway. If someone's trying to hold you to a fixed plan and is very controlled about it, I think it can be pretty counterproductive because it doesn't usually work that way.
LAist: Some Remarks also talks about the libraries of Alexandria and their ties to technology today. Since smart people no longer converge in libraries like they used to, where are the best places to meet now? Message boards?
NS: That kind of thing leads to a lot more advancement within specific disciplines and less broad-based activity. The historical swordsmanship community, which has been an interest of mine for a long time, was initially a few islands of people who didn't know how to reach each other.
When the Internet came along, they all eventually found each other, and now they're incredibly well-networked and are talking all the time about their area of interest. It's led to a great deal of advancement in that field, and I'm sure the same thing is true of a lot of other niche activities. And that's great.
But there is something to be said for getting everyone together in one library where you might be more apt to bump into somebody who is interested in something totally different.
The CLANG Kickstarter promo video
LAist: It seems you're assembled a group of multi-talented people through Subutai Corporation, which is creating projects on multiple media platforms. It's encouraging that Subutai reached its Kickstarter goal for CLANG, a game that has been described as "Guitar Hero with swords." Are you trying to create the video game you always wanted to play?
NS: Yeah, we're trying to make the game that sword-fighters know they want. And I think even non-sword-fighters will enjoy it because many people aren't aware of how interesting and fun a good sword-fighting game could be.
LAist: Do you think that in 10 years, it'll be customary for books and video games to be released on the same day?
NS: That's kind of the future we're aiming for. Games, books and movies don't always mesh together in the way that we think they could, so a lot of what we're trying to do at Subutai is to come up with a new production mentality that does all of those things in a coordinated style so they all fit together and it's a seamless transition from one to the next.
LAist: The Subutai office looks like a fun workspace. Especially with the hamster wheel.
NS: Yes, the hamster wheel is big. That's the problem with it.
LAist: And you helped build it?
NS: Yeah, but it's been partly disassembled for space reasons. Maybe when we get really big, we can put it back together and put it in the lobby as a museum piece.
LAist: Turning to another one of your projects, how is Project Hieroglyph—which focuses on a return to inspiration in contemporary science fiction—coming along?
NS: We are getting it properly organized. It started out as me making a lot of noise, which is not a bad way to start something but it's a pretty bad way to finish it.
We now have a Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State, and we've got the publishing side of it—the actual anthology—set up at HarperCollins. Putting any anthology together is a huge job, and we now have the people in place. They've done it before, and they're hard at work on this one.
So I'm now able to turn my attention to what I think is the most valuable thing I can do, which is writing the next story I want to write.
LAist: When do you think you'll start that?
NS: I hope to dive into that this fall, so nobody will hear from me for 2-3 years, then hopefully a book will pop out.
LAist: Already looking forward to it! It seems that your writing often inspires people to take action—such as readers visiting Bletchley Park after reading Cryptonomicon. What have been some of the most interesting pursuits you've heard of that were inspired by one of your books?
NS: I wish I could rip off some fascinating tale in that vein, but as far as I know, the most widely visited place of mention in my writings is the Mr. Donut in Akihabara, which is mentioned in Cryptonomicon.
LAist: Given that a Snow Crash film is in the works and will be written/directed by Joe Cornish, is there any chance Cryptonomicon could someday become a miniseries?
NS: Well, you're on the right track in the sense that it's clearly too large to ever be made into a movie without sacrificing a lot, so I do think that if there's a future for a lot of my work on the screen, it would be in a miniseries format instead of a movie format.
LAist: You'll be traveling to Los Angeles for your Skylight Books appearance. Since you're a seasoned world traveler, what's something about L.A. that has intrigued or delighted you?
NS: There's something about the light in Los Angeles that automatically puts me in a particularly good mood. The typical L.A. experience for me is wake up in Seattle and travel through heavy rain and gloom to the airport, then take a surprisingly quick flight to L.A.—I mean, I can get to L.A. faster than some people who drive to work there! Once I step outside, there's just something about the quality of the light shining down that makes it feel like everything's going to be fine.
Don't miss Neal Stephenson tonight (7:30 p.m.) at Skylight Books as he discusses Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing.