Tag Archives: Neal Stephenson

Science fiction’s utopias are built out of wilful ignorance

Project Hieroglyph challenges SF writers to move away from dystopian stories, but while the optimism is refreshing, real-world questions go unanswered

Science fiction, for most of the 20th century, celebrated the idea that a competent man could build better machines to help make a better world. In recent years that prediction seems to have come true. Stories that once sounded like sci-fi are now a regular part of everyday life. Popular scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku proclaim how science will shape human destiny and our daily lives, while non-fiction bestseller The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee presents a convincing argument that sci-fi ideas like self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and robot workers are now very real.

There are few critics left who would argue against the idea that science fiction has played an integral part in the emergence of this new machine age, in the process transforming itself from pulp fiction into one of the most influential cultural forms of the 21st century. But the influence that sci-fi wields has grown darker since its golden age. The once optimistic vision of competent men tinkering with the universe has been replaced with science gone awry – killer viruses, robot uprisings and technocratic dystopias revelling in the worst of our possible futures.

Read more – The Guardian

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The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview

Neal Stephenson – legendary author of speculative fiction –  on Elon Musk and geek culture, the  NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, how negative cultural narratives are killing big science  – and the upbringing that made him the writer he is.

“I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird.”

~ Neal Stephenson.

IN LATE 2013 I had the opportunity to interview the author Neal Stephenson. Some Remarks, Stephenson’s collected non-fiction writing, was due for release in the UK and I was fascinated to talk to the author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon about his wider views of science, technology and contemporary culture. It happened that the interview came just at the time that CLANG, the innovative sword fighting game that Neal had championed to successful Kickstarter funding, hit a few kinks in its development.  Our interview took a few twists and turns, but came out full of interesting insights in to the author’s thoughts and creative development. But, as sometimes happens with interviews, our discussion didn’t quite match the focus the commissioning technology publication had been looking for.  And so, after some consideration, I’ve rescued the interview from editorial limbo to publish here in full.  I hope you enjoy reading it.

Damien Walter, 2014

DW – Your non-fiction writing collected in Some Remarks displays the same fascination with technology and social change as your novels, I think that’s fair to say? Where did this fascination begin?

seveneves NS – One of the items in Some Remarks is a foreword to the posthumous re-issue of David Foster Wallace’s book Everything and More, in which I try to make the case that DFW’s work is informed by a particular sensibility peculiar to what I call the Midwestern American College Town,  or MACT. I won’t try to recapitulate that argument here, but the gist of it is that I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird. I suppose we all have such insights when we move away from the place of our upbringing. My ancestors had been ministers, professors – or ministers and professors – for several generations back. That’s in the paternal line. On the maternal side, they were reasonably well-to-do farmers with a direct and recent connection to Geraldine Jewsbury, a very complicated Victorian author. By the way, I didn’t know about any of that when I was young, I only became aware of it in my twenties and thirties. But one assumes it has an effect.

Anyway, during the 20th century they all made a turn toward science and technology and so I ended up with a lot of academic scientists and engineers in my family. I grew up in a MACT, dominated by a university of science and technology, wherein our neighbors, the people we saw at church, the parents of my friends, etc. all tended to have (or to be studying for) Ph.Ds. Some of my friends’ fathers had worked on the Manhattan Project, and as a teenager I worked summers as a research assistant in an old Manhattan Project lab. I developed a fairly typical nerdy fascination with computers and programming, which showed up in my fiction, particularly Snow Crash; and when that book became popular among high tech people, I ended up knowing many such.

DW – How did this upbringing contribute to your talent for seeing the “big picture” of technology?

NS – To the extent that I have any talent for it, it presumably arises from the fact that I never recognized any meaningful division or conflict between science and technology on the one hand, and any other aspect of culture (literature, religion) on the other. The typical MACT is too small to allow for specialization, and so if the professors are going to have cultural events they must organize them themselves, rather than delegating the work to a separate cultural elite. Again, all of this was simply the air I breathed, and I didn’t become conscious of it until later in life.

DW – The MACT sounds like much the kind of place where many young science fiction fans came of age. Today scifi and “geek culture” are arguably the new mainstream culture of the internet connected generation. How do you rate its influence on your work?

NS – Re scifi/geek culture, this is something that I grew up with, just as a historical accident. I can still remember seeing The Hobbit for the first time, in the hands of an older boy at my school when I was in the sixth grade. This was at about the same time that I was obsessing over the original Star Trek series and watching Astro Boy cartoons. Today, of course, we would identify all of these as being touchstones of geek culture, but at the time, nothing of the sort had even been imagined. So I was left with a fascination for these strange found objects on the periphery of our culture. I could say similar things about D & D and even Star Wars. People who were fans of one of these things tended to be fans of the others, and so geek culture evolved, I think, out of a lot of random encounters in dorm rooms and subway cars, and began to snowball as the geeks got better at networking.

“when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise”

When the Internet came along and made networking easy, the whole phenomenon just exploded and has now become a dominant force in our culture. I never partook of it as heavily as some others, in the sense that I didn’t go to SF cons, have never visited Comicon, and haven’t really been involved in the relevant Internet discussion groups. Consequently, when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise, and in fact I wasn’t really aware that anything had happened until people began to reach me via the then-new medium of email and to address me as if I were some kind of significant person.

Its main influence on my work has been that I have felt confident that I need not keep writing the same book over and over again. I have tried to make each book different from the last. I’ve always felt confident that this would work, which is to say, that the community of readers would accept this sort of random-walk approach, and so far I have never been disappointed. From time to time I will hear from a reader who is startled by the fact that my latest book isn’t very much like the one previous, but those people seem to be outnumbered by the ones who don’t care at all, supposing they even notice.

500th Post – Are blogs good for writers?

Well. This is my 500th blog post.

HHUUUURRRRAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Coincidentally, it’s also effectively four years since I started blogging. I opened my blog in April 2006, but did not really start using it fully until August that year, when I moved from Blogger to WordPress. Looking back at my first post, it was quite clear I had no idea what to do with a blog. Book reviews coming soon. How insightful!

I began blogging because I wanted a focus for my writing. In 2006 I was starting to gather short fiction publications, and was taking the idea of writing more seriously. After a short conversation with M. John Harrison at the 2006 Eastercon, I decided I wanted to review and write critically about genre fiction. A blog, I thought, would be a good platform for both. And all things considered I think it was a good call.

Blogging often comes under fire, especially for fiction writers, as a distraction and a waste of time. At an average of 500 words per post, my 500 posts to date equals 250,000 words. Or 2 novels and a short story collection. Or 1 fantasy blockbuster. Or 1/10th of a Neal Stephenson tome. Surely I could have written those instead? Perhaps. They say it takes 1,000,000 to complete a writers apprenticeship. All told, including fiction (most of which will never see the light of day), professional and academic writing and now this blog, I’m probably getting close to that. So those 500 posts served at least one purpose, and I very much doubt I would have banged out the next Lord of the Rings instead if I had not started the blog at all.

But as a 500th post celebration, I’d like to share some thoughts on what blogging has helped me achieve as a fiction writer.

A Focus and a Record of Progress – At last years World Fantasy Convention, Ann Vandermeer gave a group of us Clarionauts an informal pep talk about the writing life. Writing, she said, is a long career. Things you do and learn in your twenties can still be paying dividends in your fifties and sixties or beyond. Everything you do as a writer is one more step on the path (I paraphrase, but this was the sense of Ann’s wisdom). I truly agree with this sentiment. I have been writing with serious intent for seven years, with the standard lifetime of generalised ‘I Wanna Be A Writer’ ambition before that. But beginning to blog was an undeniable catalyst for my development as a writer. Writing is easy to lose sight of, amidst the chaos of real life. But just the act of regularly updating a blog can be enough to bring you back to your goal. And it provides somewhere to reflect on your progress towards that goal. You could reflect in a private journal of course, but the public nature of a blog makes the reflection more focussed. You can, as I have done, set writing goals which you then utterly fail to achieve (three NaNoWriMo’s and two novel drafts to date…) but even those can play a part. And it’s a permanent record of what you have achieved. and in my case at least, it has contributed to progress. I’m certain I would not have had the experience to blog for The Guardian, or the focus to get to Clarion in 2008, without starting this blog first.

Research – there is a lot to learn about writing. Books to read. Genres to study. Techniques to acquire. History to get familiar with. In speculative fiction alone, there is more material than you might hope to cover in an under-graduate degree. Add in general literary theory and criticism, and keeping up outside the genre, and the task of really learning the field is no little thing. I’ve used my blog as a repository for a lot of my learning. Each new post represents an aspect of learning, and ideas that have come up as I’ve been studying various areas of SF. Again, the public nature of a blog gives it an edge over a private journal in this regard. You don’t really understand something until you have written it down coherently enough for someone else to understand.

Community – but the most valuable aspect of this blog has been the extended community of writers and others, mostly in the SF community, that it has connected me with. Something I think it’s important to make clear is that a blog is not a promotional tool. Most of the people both blogs and social networks connect you with are not ‘fans’ (for lack of a less cringeworthy term), but peers. Other writers of similar experience, and a few of much more experience. Social networks, primarily Facebook and Twitter, are also valuable for connecting with your community as a writer. But a blog makes a good base to work from. Whilst it may sound sentimental, when I chat with people on Twitter it feels like having a conversation in the street. But discussing things here on the blog feels like inviting people into my home.

Focus, Research, Community. Three genuine benefits of keeping a blog as a fiction writer that I have found invaluable. I’d like to know the opinions of others on this topic of course, positive or negative.

Where next for my blog? I have the serious intention of being able to look at this blog when I’m sixty, and read back through 10,000 or so posts, at an entire career in writing (and possibly some non-writing related occurrences!). I think that would be quite something. But, I’m also intending to put the blog on hold for periods to give undivided attention to fiction writing when it is required. But until that time, I’ll continue to enjoy sharing these posts with whoever wants to read them.

Goodnight all.