SFX magazine #8 Jan 1996 / SFX Profile: Neal Stephenson "The new William Gibson"
His books are multi-layered adventures, mixing tomorrow's technology with yesterday's archetypes to create one of contemporary SF's most convincing visions of the future. Dark-eyed and intense, with a dry sense of humour, Neal Stephenson has been called "the Quentin Tarantino of post-cyberpunk science fiction." Mary Branscome uncovered him at a Kensington hotel during a promotion tour for his most recent novel, The Diamond Age...
Neal Stephenson has only written four-and-a-half novels (the half being Interface, a collaboration with his uncle which went out under the pen-name "Stephen Bury"), and not all of them pure SF, but he's already been called - by Bruce Sterling, no less - "the hottest science fiction writer in America." His breakthrough came, of course with Snow Crash, probably the most successful SF novel of 1993 and 1994 put together, and the book that established him as the sort of trendy, must-read author who gets his stories published in Wired and Time magazines. Snow Crash was, wrote SF author Rudy Rucker, like "Neuromancer meets Vineland. The best book I've read this year."
Today Stephenson enjoys a mainstream success that's rare for SF authors, perhaps only equalled by the likes of Terry Pratchett, or Iain Banks' non-SF novels. His follow up to Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, is currently repeating Snow Crash's success - "when Stephenson talks, you get the feeling he's going to be right," said Newsweek - while earlier works, like the ecological thriller, Zodiac, are being republished in this country. "Together," wrote Sterling of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, "they represent a new era in science fiction."
So what's Stephenson's stuff actually like? As with William Gibson and Sterling before him, describing his work can be tricky: Stephenson novels touch on everything from virtual reality, computer viruses, nanotechnology and how to keep credit card transactions secret to teenage rebellion, martial arts, personal morality and the inner meaning of fairy tales. They're intelligent and, more importantly, damn good reads.
In the bookshops, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age often appear in the mainstream literature section, rather than on the science fiction shelves. Part of the reason is historic - earlier books, like The Big U and Zodiac, weren't ever marketed as SF. But another part of it is... Well, can it be that, as with other "good" SF, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age are seen by the book trade as simply too impressive to be "mere science fiction"?
Stephenson hopes not. "You could argue that everything I've ever done is science fiction, but equally you could argue that it's just fiction that has a lot of technical stuff in it. There's no real logic to how these labels work anyway - Michael Crichton writes what could very easily be described as science fiction, but it's never labelled or marketed as such."
Good point. One reason Stephenson may be seen as slightly outside the boundaries of SF is that, unlike most SF writers, he's never published short stories in the traditional SF markets. A couple have appeared in more unusual places, however - "Spew," a story about monitoring everything from shopping to cable TV, appeared in Wired, and "Simoleons," about the development of cyber-cash, cropped up in Time magazine.
"It's just that I don't know much about short stories," he laughs. "I don't write many of them, and I don't think I'm particularly good at them. There's nothing very unusual about my contributing to Wired - they like to publish fiction, but don't often come across any that's suitable - but the thing in Time was a complete fluke. They were doing this special issue on technology, decided they wanted some fiction, and hired me as the 'cyberlebrity' of the moment to write it for them. You can't just ring up Time magazine and ask if they want to publish your story!"
Neal's main characters are often very active - individuals who use martial arts, ride inflatable boats round harbours and dive heroically into polluted waters. Exciting stuff, but quite different, I suspect, to the sort of thing he himself normally gets up to...
Er, you don't spend a lot of your time fighting and running about, do you?
"Not very much!" he laughs. "Though the main character in Zodiac was loosely inspired by a good friend of mine. A lot of people are surprised to find how different writers are from the characters in their books - I think they simply underestimate the amount of imaginative work that goes into a piece of fiction."
As with most of Stephenson's work, Zodiac paints a very negative picture of politics - all governments are manipulative; all politicians as corrupt. It's very cynical, isn't it?
"I think that if you do even a cursory reading of 20th century history, you can't help but come away with a somewhat sceptical attitude towards government power," Stephenson explains. "But it really doesn't have to glow out of any fundamental philosophical or political belief system. Really it's very simple - if there's a big beast that keeps running around eating people, then you can see that it ought to be caged or done away with. You don't need to base that opinion on any kind of belief system. I'm actually very sceptical of any kind of totalising ideology, and that includes Libertarianism - but it also includes just about any governmental system you can think of."
So what's the answer?
"Actually, the more I go along, the more respect I have for some of the really old tried and tested political systems, like the United States constitution, or the parliamentary system in Britain. They're both imperfect, and they've both been vulnerable to the excesses of government power occasionally, but I think those systems still have a lot to offer."
The technical side of Neal Stephenson's books is always very convincing - you get the impression he knows a lot about exotic weapons, cryptography, computer networks... Pretty much everything, really. So how much is realm and how much is simply made up?
"Well, I've been programming computers since I was 14," Neal says, "and along the way I've become reasonably fluent in about eight different computer languages. So while I haven't actually sat down and written cryptocode, I'd like to think I have enough grounding in math and computers to be able to give a convincing account of how this stuff might work in the future, and what the bugs would be."
Could you make a living as a programmer, do you think?
"Well, I've never been paid to write code, but I come from a family of techies. One of my grandfathers was a physicist, the other was a biochemist, and my father is an electrical engineering professor. I grew up in a one-industry town centered on a technical university, so when I was growing up all of my friends' parents were PhDs and hard scientists."
So that's normal to you?
"Wherever it is you grow up, you think that's normal, and I certainly thought it was normal until I left. I've been immersed in that world ever since I was born, and I feel reasonably comfortable with it. I studied physics in college, and only moved over into geography because they were doing a lot of computer stuff at the time. But though I did work as a research assistant in physics labs during the Summers, I've never used my programming skills to make money."
So how feasible is the science in your books? Is it hard science, or just flights of fancy? And do you expect any of it to crop up in real life?
"I think the best approach is to stay with hard science as far as it can go," he explains, "and then, if you want, go on a little flight of fancy - but try to blur the dividing line a little. So in Snow Crash, for example, the science and the computer science is pretty straight, and the historical research is all for real - the only thing that's fancy is that one extra step of imagining that an ancient virus could actually infect the brain."
And the nanotechnology in The Diamond Age?
"That's another example. The nanotech in that book has been vetted by the leading experts in the field, like Drexler [author of Engines of Creation - Ed.], and Merkle [a researcher at Xerox, who's worked out the major equations describing how nanotechnology would work - Ed.] gave it a good review after the fact. The one complaint Merkle has was with the notion of a centralised feed system - he said that it isn't really technically sound, because it wouldn't be hard for every house to have it's own individual source, so you wouldn't have to have it all networked the way I described. I've no doubt that he's right, but in a way that's not the point. My feeling is that if you were designing a society around nanotechnology, you'd probably feel the need for some central control mechanism, so you'd build it that way deliberately - not because you had to, but because you wanted to."
You can never really be certain how things are going to develop in the future, anyway...
"No," Stephenson agrees. "Take the bit in The Diamond Age, where the Drummers are shown as able to use some kind of collective mind to break into the most advanced crypto schemes - well, there's a great deal of speculation there. But, on the other hand, we've all seen examples of math prodigies who could do amazing things in ways that couldn't be explained, so at least it's got some grounding."
Stephenson's books tend to see nanotech as the next big technological development, rather than other popular choices, like artificial intelligence, or a singularity, with people uploading themselves into computers. Part of the reason is because he's pretty resistant to any scenario that presumes any equivalence between the brain and computers - "It just seems too schematic to me, and whenever people have these schematic ideas about what's going to happen in the future, the reality turns out to be much more complicated," he says - and partly because he simply finds it easy to be sceptical about artificial intelligence.
"The predictions of the AI people have been just so pathetically and consistently far off the mark for such a long time that I think one has to assume there's something they're not getting," he laughs. "You almost have to take a cautious, sceptical approach. Nanotechnology, on the other hand, strikes me as an interesting idea - in fact, after reading Drexler's book I felt it would be very hard to responsibly write any science fiction that didn't largely revolve around nanotech. I had to see what could be done with it."
He doesn't see nanotech as being the solution to our every problem, however. After all, if he did he'd surely feel forced to write about post-scarcity utopias all the time, where there aren't any problems left and it's all terribly, terribly boring...
"Like Star Trek you mean? Yeah! Well, there's a really fundamental split there in one's attitudes about human nature. The Star Trek attitude is that the only reason we're nasty to each other is because sometimes we run out of stuff, and that if we stopped running out of stuff we would all stop being nasty to each other, and then our only problems would occur when our spaceship inadvertently ran into a tachyon storm out in the middle of nowhere! And I don't see any reason to but into that view of human nature."
So we're going to keep on being nasty to each other?
"Right. We're very close to a post-scarcity future right now - at least in my country. There's poverty, but at least there's not starvation, except in really odd places, and there's disease but there's not plague. There's not people dying in the streets, and there's homelessness, but most people can find a roof over their heads if they need it - it may be in a homeless shelter, but it's something. But it certainly hasn't stopped people being nasty to each other. I mean, look at OJ. He wasn't lacking for anything, nobody in that sick sub-culture in LA was lacking for anything, but all it did was remove the limits from how tawdry they could be to each other. That's all post-scarcity did for them - break down the barriers that kept them from being as grotesque as they could theoretically be."
This feels like one of the points being made in The Diamond Age.
"Well, it's kind of a sledgehammer point, but you've got this group of people, the thetes, who have everything they need in the way of food, shelter and even information, and they're still miserable wretches, just like the Dickensian miserable wretches."
Ah yes, Dickens. You can't help but think of classic Victorian novels when reading The Diamond Age. After all, it follows the lives of its characters in a decidedly Dickensian fashion...
"I guess that's true," Stephenson concedes, "but it wasn't a conscious thing - it's just that I've always had a bent for writing long, complex novels, and I suppose writing a pseudo-Victorian novel gave me the licence to give in to that!"
Despite all the nastiness in The Diamond Age. though, Nell manages to escape. Does that mean, then, that you believe in the redeeming power of education?"Sure. I don't think education by itself is a panacea, but I think it can raise people out of the real nastiness. That said, there are plenty of educated people who behave badly too, so I think there's also a need for cultural norms that encourage some sort of ethical system, whatever it may be - whether it's based on scientific rationality, or some kind of religion or whatever. I think there's a need for ethics and morals, if you will, but education is a good start."
Talking of education, at the end of Snow Crash we're left wondering what might happen to one of the characters, YT, and in The Diamond Age there's this prim and proper pseudo-Victorian schoolma'am racing her wheelchair and coming out with phrases like "chiselled spam." So tell us - is Miss Matheson actually YT?
"I prefer not to issue a definitive opinion on that."
So she might be?
"I prefer not to issue a definitive opinion on the subject."
We move on to Interface, the novel Stephenson co-wrote with his uncle using the pen-name Stephen Bury. It's about the marketing of politicians - "A very straightforward observation of reality in the United States," he says - and will be followed by further Stephen Bury novels.
"We just finished one called The Cobweb, he tells me, "which is going to be set in 1990. One of the cities is a university town - lofty and affluent, up on the bluffs, oak trees and gothic buildings, the other one is down in the flood plain, and is a really depressed industrial town. There's a deputy county sheriff from this town who becomes aware that some of the Iraqi foreign students are engaging in highly disturbing extra-curricular activities, and it follows from there. It's the adventures of this sheriff trying to deal with this problem when nobody else takes it seriously."
More "pure" Neal Stephenson books are on the way too, but further down the road...
"I need to get back into a productive cycle again," he explains, "because at the moment I'm writing a screenplay, and I've written a script for a CD-ROM game. We don't call it a game, though - it's an 'edfotainucation' piece set in Seattle in the present day. It's a noir psychological thriller, and is all to do with how our memories work, and putting an audio-visual interface on that. The production company is Shadowcatcher Entertainment, a newish company in Seattle that was founded by some people who got out of Hollywood because they couldn't take it any more."
How into things like CD-ROM are you? Do you think they'll ever replace books, for instance?
"No, though they may replace certain types of books - reference books, do-it-yourself books, cookbooks, atlases. Anything where there's cross-referencing, and lots of graphics. But I'm quite convinced people will be reading novel on paper a thousand years from now. I think it's a technology that's pretty well developed and pretty much reached perfection, and it will keep on going."
What about films? Is work progressing on the film of Snow Crash, and how involved are you?
"It's happening," he explains, "but with a script written by someone else, which is fine by me, As far as I know, the only person who's physically right for the part of Hiro is Roland Gift, but I have a feeling that the people who make the movie will be a lot less concerned with matching the descriptions in the book that with the marquee value, so I wouldn't be surprised if Hiro underwent some racial changes. Other than that, I think Patrick Stewart would make a good librarian."
Do you have any idea how long it might take to make?
"Well, from the time the fateful cheque is written to the time they actually begin shooting will probably be a year, and from the time filming begins to when it comes out could easily be another year, so not soon!"
We get back to talking about the books and I point out that there's such a lot going on in your average Stephenson novel that it can become quite difficult to pick out individual themes or messages. Do you feel people understand your books, or are they constantly misinterpreted?
"Well, I think that a lot of people felt Snow Crash was an all out attack on all forms of religious belief," he sighs, "and it wasn't. It was more of an attempt to point out a distinction between religions that are kind of viral, and not based on any kind of rational thinking, verses ones that are 'Religions of the Book' - i.e. based on a fixed text and immutable."
"Another one I get all the time is the d-word - dystopia. A lot of people can't talk about this kind o f fiction without calling it a dystopian view of the future, and so I'm constantly pointing out that the 20th century has been pretty damn dystopian, and that nothing in any of my books is actually as dystopian as a good part of the world has been for a good part of the 20th Century!"
In other words, you're not half as negative as it might appear?
"Ultimately, I don't go to either extreme - I don't believe in the Star Trek world, and I don't believe in the George Orwell world either. People will continue doing good things and bad things to each other, and there's going to be a really fine granularity to it. You won't have entire continents suffering from massive persecution, but you may have a lot of individual people who are being persecuted within a family or a small community instead. I just think the future's going to be really, really complicated."
Both Snow Crash (£8.99) and The Diamond Age (£9.99) are available from all good bookshops on paperback, and come highly recommended.
Neal Stephenson on Neal Stephenson
The complete works of Neal Stephenson, with a few terse, but incisive comments from the man himself...
- The Big U 
- A gonzo campus caper, described by John Clute as "rather in the style of National Lampoon's Animal House." Only with a brain.
Stephenson: "The Big U is essentially sophomoric campus humour - it has a few worthy moments, a few bright spots, but it's probably not worth seeking out."
- Zodiac 
- An ecological thriller, following the strange adventures of Sangamon Taylor as he tries to avoid being poisoned by chemical companies, or sacrificed by drug-crazed heavy metal fans, before he has time to save the world.
Stephenson: "Zodiac is a fun book, and one I still have great affection for."
- Snow Crash 
- The future of virtual reality and the end of the nation state collide as the katana-wielding Hiro Protagonist, and the hip skateboard courier YT, bike across America, running from a prehistoric computer virus that infects the human mind.
Stephenson: "Snow Crash is the famous one, so it's probably worthless for me to say anything else about it."
- Interface [1994, co-written as Stephen Bury]
- The conspiracy that controls all the other conspiracies decides that the best way to make money is to control - not assassinate - a US president. Take a senator with a stroke, implant a radio-controlled microchip and you can react to the polls in real time. But can the senator stay human?
Stephenson: "Interface is meant to be an entertaining, but not stupid book. I hope that's what it turned out to be."
© 1995 Future Publishing.
- The Diamond Age 
- In the nanotech age of plenty, a streetwise tearaway from a South China slum on the other side of tomorrow steals a book to give it his sister Nell, and the Illustrated Primer changes her life and that of it's inventor.
SFX said "violence, adventure, sex, serious hardware and an intriguing plot - it's all here, and it makes an excellent story."
Stephenson:"The Diamond Age is my take on nanotechnology, which I think is going to be very important, and on the way it's a continuation of some of the thoughts on society and culture that are there in Snow Crash."
[article illustrated with 5 black and white photos of Neal Stephenson credited to Tony Sleep and Rob Scott, and the US/UK covers of his books.]