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Neal Stephenson: The Past Through Tomorrow August 2004

Neal Stephenson grew up in Iowa and graduated from Boston University in 1981 majoring in geography with a minor in physics. His first published novel The Big U, a college thriller with SF elements, appeared in 1984, followed by Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller (1988). Snow Crash (1992), a cyberpunk classic, made him a star in the SF field. He wrote two thrillers in collaboration with his uncle, George Jewsbury, under the name "Stephen Bury": Interface (1994) and Cobweb (1996), and published solo novel The Diamond Age, winner of the Hugo and Locus Awards, in 1995. Cryptonomicon followed in 1999; also a Locus Award winner, this massive, Pynchonesque novel of history and cryptography proved tremendously popular with SF fans. Later that year he    
Photo by Charles N. Brown
published In the Beginning...Was the Command Line, a non-fiction commentary on computers and culture. The past seven years were spent on the vast three-volume "Baroque Cycle", beginning with Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Quicksilver (2003) and followed by The Confusion (2004) and The System of the World (2004). These books, set in the 17th century and featuring historical characters like Leibniz and Newton along with the ancestors of characters from Cryptonomicon, are Stephenson's latest attempt to push the boundaries of SF. Stephenson lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife (married 1985) and their two children.

Excerpts from the interview:

“One of the defining characteristics of SF is that it's about worlds. You create a world first, and then you tell one or more stories in that world. That's why so frequently in SF, people will go back again and again to the same world and tell additional tales. That's kind of what's going on here. The world of the 'Baroque Cycle' happens to be 99% factual history, or as close as I can come to it, but what readers of this kind of fiction are looking for is the ability to become immersed in a different world. That's why there is a big crossover between historical fiction and SF. For me, the world-building process is part and parcel of writing. It's the only way I really know how to play this game. I guess that's why I feel so firmly that I'm in the SF camp, no matter where my work is set.

“I had been working on a future storyline connected to Cryptonomicon, but in attempting to write it I realized I needed to go back instead. So I did that, and it ended up taking seven years! The 'Baroque Cycle' project was never envisioned to be as big and long as it turned out to be. There's a line from Tolkien where he says, 'This tale grew in the telling.' I'm reluctant to quote that directly because it sounds like I'm copping an attitude, but that's what happened with this: it started out smaller and got bigger. I never slogged. I enjoyed every minute of writing it. Of course, I badly wanted to get to the end, but when I did, I was sad it was over. At various points along the line, I tried various superstitious tactics; at one point I said, 'I'm not gonna cut my hair until this thing is done.' I finally wound up on Christmas Eve 2003. A couple of weeks later I felt this overpowering need to have short hair again, so I just kept whacking until there was nothing left. And I plan to keep it that way.”


“People keep asking me why I think of the 'Cycle' as science fiction. When I was a kid I used to read these huge anthologies of science fiction stories, and there would always be some oddball stories that were set during the Crusades, or with cave men, or what have you. They weren't overtly science fiction, but there didn't seem to be any doubt in anyone's mind that they belonged. I make an analogy to cycling through stations on the FM dial, trying to get something other than morning talk show idiocy: when I come to a jazz station, I know within less than a second that what I am hearing is jazz. There's a particular aesthetic impression you get from jazz that you can identify and recognize right away. It's the same with SF -- once you get used to it, you just know. If you sit down and try to analyze it to death, certain elements may be there, but that kind of abstract theoretical process is not how people recognize jazz and it’s not how they recognize SF. So I like to think that what I've been working on is obviously SF. In a bookstore there are little signs above the sections. Go to the right signs, and the chances of finding what you want have just gone up quite a bit. So it's a perfectly legitimate function, and I don't mind that kind of label at all.”


“Science fiction writers do have to think things through in a certain amount of nitty-gritty detail, or at least they should. My big gripe with Star Trek was always that I couldn't ever comprehend the underlying society, since we hardly ever see any of that. Complaining about a very old science fiction TV series is beating a dead horse, but clearly it's been the trend since then to talk more about the underlying society. A lot of people have done that, but the one who always stands out for me is William Gibson because he zeroed in on information technology -- how it was going to change society, and how society was going to change it.

“The analogy (which I've used a lot before) is to the electric guitar. Thomas Edison made electricity into a consumer product and developed the light bulb, probably anticipated washing machines and stuff, but he sure didn't anticipate the electric guitar! That was far too weird of an idea. No one could have predicted that the descendants of slaves could have adopted this and come up with what would become the dominant form of popular music in the whole world. That's the kind of thing real societies do with real technology. One of the things Gibson has achieved is that he put some of that into his world. We've got information technology. How is it going to be used, not just by engineers who design products but by regular people who pick this stuff up and turn it to their own weird ends? Spam is another thing kind of like the electric guitar, though it's much darker, less palatable. Clearly the people who originated the technology never in their wildest dreams could have imagined that everyone on Earth who has e-mail would get 30 penis enlargement advertisements a day!”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the August 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

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