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Neal Stephenson on video games, farming gold and irony

Neal Stephenson will be at Tattered Cover LoDo tomorrow, and in advance of his appearance we talked with him about his new novel, Reamde, a thriller based on a virus that steals your information and requires payment via gold in a MMO game.

Before you click through to the interview, where we discuss everything from video games to the use of irony by sportscasters, enter our contest for a chance to win a copy of the book.

Westword: How did you decide on gold-farming as the core of the virtual world inside ofReamde?

Neal Stephenson: I've known about the gold-farming phenomenon for years now, and when I first heard about it I couldn't believe it was real; I thought it was a joke. I've been following it with interest since then and at some point I realized it would integrate pretty well with another story idea I'd been thinking about, which had to do with the idea of a virus called ransomware that encrypts all your files and holds them for ransom. That's an old idea, but it'd hard to make money off of them because it's hard to deliver it, and it occurred to me that the gold-farming mechanism would be a way to do that.

So which came first with this book, the thriller aspect or the virtual-world part?

The initial core of the story came to me quite a while ago when it seemed like we were getting one news story after another about some kid in the Philippines or China or Uzbekistan who would write a virus that would spread across the entire world in the course of a few hours or days. We haven't heard as much of that recently, but a number of years ago that was happening all the time. It was always treated as kind of a serious problem, but also kind of funny. It wasn't funny if you got infected, but there was a certain kind of picaresque quality in seeing some kid invent a piece of code that would touch millions of computers.

So it occurred to me that it might be interesting to write a story about a virus like that, one that happened to seriously inconvenience somebody who would take it the wrong way and decide to revenge himself on the author of the virus.

It's interesting that you and a couple other authors -- William Gibson, for instance, who are known as science-fiction authors -- have switched from far-future stories to stories more about the present.

You know, it is getting to the point where the future is coming on us so quickly that a science fiction writer who's supposed to predict the future -- at least according to an older concept of what science fiction is -- can only throw up their hands.

I sort of gave up after 9/11. I do feel that the tool kit of the science fiction author is quite well suited to addressing the modern-day world as it is, without trying to extrapolate a hypothetical future at all.

And with a complete lack of irony, I'd say -- it seems a lot of modern novels are seeped with irony regarding contemporary tech issues.

Yeah -- I can't remember when it was I first became deeply sick of irony, but I think I had a creeping feeling for a number of years that I didn't want to hear about irony anymore. The word "ironic" is now employed by sportscasters to mean anything that's mildly interesting [laughs], regardless if there is anything ironic about it. The word itself has lost its meaning.

I don't know if it's just me getting old or the seriousness of post-9/11 or what, but writing a piece of fiction jam-packed with irony doesn't seem like a terribly productive use of my time.

Since a lot of this book is based around a game, I have to ask, are you a big gamer yourself?

To say you're a big gamer is a pretty strong claim [laughs]. I've spent what seems to me like an inordinate amount of time playing Halo, but the one time I chose to play online I was deeply humiliated. I realized I didn't even count as a ranked beginner and the same is true with about any other game you'd want to mention.

I think part of it is that I still have this ridiculously old-fashioned mentality of what constitutes cheating and fair play, and nobody else does. Everyone just throws away the manual and goes straight to the cheating sites -- they're probably not even called cheating sites, just places where people exchange data on how to beat a game -- and they just learn everything about it. I'm sitting there trying to play by the rules.

You've done a little non-fiction stuff in the past too, has that changed the way your write?

Actually -- and I don't mean to be this way -- but there's going to be a compilation of my non-fiction stuff being published in a year or so. Anyway, my job, and the reason I'm permitted to do what I do, is to tell stories in a way that is entertaining enough that people will actually sit down and read them. The thing we're peddling when we tell stories like that is immersion in a world, because what people want when they pick up a novel is to jack into it and spend some time there.

There are a number of techniques writers use to make that happen and one technique is to describe that world in enough detail. Something I do a lot is supply enough quasi-journalistic description of the world so people who read it feel as though it rings true.

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