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Q&A with sci-fi author Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson.

Neal Stephenson, who visits the Tattered Cover LoDo on Tuesday, October 2 (click here to learn more), isn't just one of the top sci-fi authors working today. He's among the best and most interesting current writers in any genre. It was a great opportunity, then, to chat with him about his latest epic, Anathem, which he discussed at length despite unpleasant circumstances.

Stephenson spoke while riding a train somewhere on the West Coast en route to another stop on his ongoing book tour. "This train, man," he grumbled at one point. "Every time this train starts – every time it pulls out of the station – conductors get on the intercom and say, 'Stop the train! Stop the train! We’ve still got somebody who needs to get off!' And then we stop and they let them off, and then we start again, and then somebody comes on and says, 'There’s a passenger that hasn’t gotten on yet!' And they all start shouting at each other on the intercom, and all the passengers can hear it. It’s really crazy."

Some readers will say the same about Anathem, which traces the adventures of teenage monks on the Earth-like planet of Arbe. Characters like protagonist Raz are isolated from the rest of society for years at a time in order to give them the sort of perspective the rest of the citizenry lacks. Throughout a narrative shaggy enough to allow for extended philosphical dialogues as well as alien attacks, Stephenson creates a society whose challenges contain echoes of our own. But while his prose can be dense, due in part to his invention of enough new terms to fill a sizable glossary, it's also clever and unexpectedly humorous at times, resulting in the sort of book that rewards the time it takes to plumb its more than 900 pages.

The interview begins with talk of The Baroque Cycle, a series of three wonderful books -- Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World -- that found Stephenson stretching beyond sci-fi and earning mainstream kudos for his efforts. From there, he notes how Anathem grew in size and scope during the writing process; argues that the book isn't as minutiae-filled as it could have been; offers insight into his decision to insert definitions into various sections; details his approach to balancing new words with slangy ones appropriate to his young characters; traces the parallels between Earth and Arbe; contrasts the long-view approach to world affairs championed in the book with the superficiality and noise of the ongoing presidential campaign; shares secrets about how he makes potentially stultifying topics accessible; and concedes that his books have scared off TV and movie producers in part because he fills them with the sort of material that other mediums have great difficulty translating.

Warning: There's a brief mention of something that Stephenson considers to be a spoiler. If so, it's an exceedingly minor one, by my reckoning -- and no reason not to enjoy the chance to get into the head of a writer and thinker well worth getting to know better.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Although science fiction fans have embraced your work for a long time, The Baroque Cycle brought you to the attention of a lot of mainstream readers who may have heard about you but may not have read any of your books. What was that experience like – to suddenly have a new audience join your old one?

Neal Stephenson: I think I was prepared for it a little bit by the reception to Cryptonomicon [published in 1999], which was sufficiently mainstream in a lot of ways – and it pulled in a lot of those kind of non-science-fiction readers. That was the book where I started hearing from different people. Young people would come up to me at readings and say, “I bought a copy of your book for my uncle or my grandfather who served in World War II, and he liked it.” And I started seeing more silver hair showing up at my readings and a kind of distinctly new and different kind of person. I had plenty of time to get used to it, and I was naturally pleased to see that the readership was expanding.

WW: Can you immediately tell just by talking to someone, as opposed to any visual clues, who got into your work by reading The Baroque Cycle and then moving backward, and who has been there since the beginning?

NS: It’s not something I really try to do. I don’t sit around trying to read people that way. Most of these interactions come during signings, when people are coming up to me one after another very quickly, and typically, the first thing out of their mouth is that they’ll tell me which of my books is their favorite. The way it tends to work is, there are some people who’ve read all of my books. But I’d say there are quite a few people who liked one or two particularly and aren’t as interested in the other ones.

WW: And for you, is that fine?

NS: Sure. It’s not for me to tell the readers what they should like or how they should think about this stuff. I’m perfectly happy to deal with people on whatever basis works for them.

WW: With the success of The Baroque Cycle, I suspect that there was the assumption in some circles that you’d continue to move further away from science fiction in the future – but that’s certainly not the case with Anathem. Did you ever have any temptation to continue in The Baroque Cycle direction.

NS: There was definitely temptation because once the world’s set up and the cast of character’s set up, and particularly once you’ve done all the research that’s needed to be able to just sit down and write in that era, certainly the path of least resistance is to go on in that vein. But by the same token, I was getting a little bit tired of dealing with the same set of themes and families and so on and felt that it might be a healthy thing if I had another idea to pursue that other idea. I can always go back and do more in that vein if I choose to in the future.

WW: Those books were so massive. Did this one start out as a shorter book? And did it just start growing?

NS: Yeah, it did. It did. Basically what happened is that it turned out to be a book that’s set in a fictional world. It doesn’t happen on Earth. And anytime you set a book in a fictional world, even if it’s very similar to Earth the way this one is, you have to spend time explaining that world and getting the reader familiar with it. And the reader has to put some effort into learning some vocabulary and some alternate history and getting comfortable with the way that world works. By the time you’ve done all that, it doesn’t seem right to just generate a very brief story and then drop it and never go back to that world. So I think in an earlier age of science-fiction publishing, I would have taken maybe the first third of Anathem and brought it out as volume one of a trilogy or a series of books. And in fact, I had some discussions with my publisher about breaking this one in half and having it be a two-parter. But in the end, we decided that because I had the whole thing written, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to break it up that way and leaving the readers stuck in the middle of the action.

WW: You talked about the history and the research – and one of the things I loved about the book was how logically conceived and laid-out it was. Did you have to write almost a parallel book to the one that readers can pick up that traces the entire history of Arbe?

NS: No. In this case, I specifically wanted to avoid getting into a hugely ambitious world-building project. The history of this world is quite a bit longer than the history of our world. It basically takes all the history we’ve got and slaps on another 3,700 years. I knew it was going to be a sizable book and readers were going to have to learn some new material, as I was talking about, in order to read it. And I didn’t think there was anything to be gained by piling on a whole lot of detail about what happened in the year 1735 of the Reconstitution or filling in a huge amount of detail about the geography and the politics of the world.

WW: From my reading, there was a good amount of detail. But it sounds like from your perspective, you’re just scraping the surface of it – and you could have gone into a lot more detail had you wanted to…

NS: Yeah. I’m only developing the detail that’s needed in order to tell the story I’m telling. There’s another way of doing it, which is very common among science-fiction and fantasy writers, and that’s to build the entire world out in full detail with massive amounts of information, and then trace one, single storyline that kind of threads its way through that mass of detail. And that has the advantage that it makes it easier for you to then go back later and write other stories set in that same context. But in this case, part of the point of the mentality of the Avout in the book is that none of that stuff really matters to them. They’re aware that there’s been a huge amount of history, of wars and dark ages and renaissances going on around them for thousands of years. And to them, it’s all basically repetitive and not all that new or interesting. The approach I took to writing the book reflects their attitude about that. While there’s a ton of history in the Second Millennium, it doesn’t really effect what’s important to these characters.

WW: You mentioned the vocabulary, and one of the things I found interesting was the way you sprinkled definitions throughout the book to make it more readable, and to prevent readers from having to constantly be flipping back and forth between the chapters and the glossary in the back of the book. Was that your attempt to make it as accessible as possible while still giving yourself the creative challenge of coming up with these new words and terms?

NS: That evolved while the book was being written. I originally didn’t think I was going to invent so much vocabulary. This is something of a point-of-view question. If you’re coming to the book from the world of mainstream literature, it does seem like there’s a lot of vocabulary. But if you’re a habitual reader of science-fiction or fantasy, it’s probably no more than normal. For example, every kid in America knows the meaning of worlds like “horcrux” and “Wizengamot” in Harry Potter, and they can blow through sentences with those words in it without batting an eye, because they’ve learned all that vocabulary. But at some point, I started putting in those definitions at the beginning of chapters just to see how it would work, and the early feedback I got from my early readers is that they liked that. So since that was pretty much unanimous with the early readers, I just went back later and put more of those in.

WW: Throughout the book, you write sentences that may have two or three terms of your own invention, but you’ll also include slang terms that are familiar to us now, which makes the dialogue seem very natural to the modern ear. If I recall correctly, you once have a character refer to a woman as a “chick,” for example. Was that your way of making sure the conversations didn’t become completely opaque?

NS: Yes. The main characters are guys who are about eighteen years old. And I wanted to make it clear that even though they speak in an ancient, classical language and spend their days thinking about math and philosophy and science, that they’re in other ways completely normal guys that age. My vision of how these people would communicate is just how people communicate in school or any university today. Talking to your teacher or your professor, you’re going to adopt a more formal, old-fashioned vocabulary and way of speaking. But the minute those people are gone and you’re hanging around with your buddies who are your age, you naturally drop into a much more informal kind of slang talk. That’s how the guys talk in the book, and that’s how we end up with sentences like that.

WW: You mentioned earlier that Arbe has a history beyond Earth’s history. What’s the relationship between them? What’s the connection? For example, there’s one alien character who’s named after Jules Verne, and that name doesn’t immediately ring a bell with Raz…

NS: There’s a definite parallelism between the two worlds, and the history of Arbe runs parallel to that of Earth in a whole lot of ways. They’ve got their equivalent of ancient Greece. They’ve got their equivalent of Socrates and Plato. They’ve got their equivalent of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages with the monasteries and many other such analogies. But they’re not aware that there’s an Earth that’s similar to them any more than we’re aware that there’s an Arbe that’s similar to us. All these parallels exist and they’re obvious to anyone who reads the book. It’s kind of hard to talk about this without turning it into a big spoiler…

WW: I understand – and please don’t feel the need to get so specific that we give things away.

NS: Well, even mentioning the Jules Verne character is kind of an automatic spoiler, if you see what I’m saying. So I guess keeping it on the level of the parallelism, I hope that’s hope it’s part of the fun and the interest in the book for the reader – seeing Arbe as a sort of alternate version of Earth.

WW: So there isn’t a specific, regular cross-pollination between the cultures? It’s just that they developed in very similar ways?

NS: Right. There’s zero communication between them. There’s zero interaction between the two – at least in any way that we normally think about that. I guess you could think it’s kind of like in Australia, where they’ve got marsupial wolves and other creatures that are very similar to creatures on other continents, but they evolved entirely separately to fill similar niches.

WW: You mentioned earlier how our main monk characters essentially withdraw from society for decades or even longer at a time. That tends to give them the longer view about what’s going on outside their own communities. Could you imagine that being helpful in our own world? In the current presidential race, for example, we’re spending so much time arguing about whether Barack Obama really meant to call Sarah Palin a pig when he used the phrase “putting lipstick on a pig” to talk about John McCain’s policies. Would it be nice from your perspective if someone could step into the middle of that and say, “This is all background noise. Let’s look at what’s really important”?

NS: That’s clearly a theme of the book, and I think anyone who opens their eyes and looks around at things like our presidential campaign can see that we’ve got a serious problem right now with taking the kind of short-term and sometimes thoughtless view of what’s going on. If people don’t think it’s a serious problem, I would just point to the whole financial crisis that’s going on now, which is going to be hugely expensive and hugely damaging to a large number of people. Basically the entire situation stems from the fact that people were lending money to folks who weren’t able to pay it back, which was a short-term mentality if ever there was one. It seems to work for a few months or a few years, but eventually reality comes crashing in and we’re all paying the consequences.

WW: It’s almost as if our whole financial system was one big pyramid scheme, and it’s just coming due…

NS: Yeah, but even someone who’s running a pyramid scheme is engaging in a certain kind of intelligent plan, right? Presumably they’re expecting they’re going to take their bag of cash off to Rio or something before the whole thing collapses. I wonder if there was that much premeditation going on with the credit crunch. It doesn’t seem to me that anyone was thinking about how it was going to play out in the end.

WW: Whereas your characters in Anathem are always thinking about how things are going to play out, and to see what’s most important…

NS: That’s their role. And it’s a role that’s been defined for them for a long time. They’ve got a relationship with the outside world, the Sæcular power, that’s been around for a long time. It’s not an easy relationship. Frankly, there’s a lot of mistrust and even occasional violence between the two sides. But at least there is that mechanism in place, and there’s a group of people who’ve been kind of given the assignment of taking the long view and not being distracted by day-to-day noise.

WW: You spoke earlier about the fun of the book – and when the average person hears that it’s heavily philosophical, it may not sound like a lot of laughs. But a lot of the philosophical conversations were infused with humor. One example is a long dialogue that deals with pink dragons that fart nerve gas. Do you find it easier to get into deep topics by pulling people in with someone that doesn’t seem deep at all?

NS: It’s certainly the case that a book full of philosophical dialogues could come off as being awfully heavy, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In my experience dealing with mathematicians and physicists and people who deal with heavy, serious topics for a living – I find that there’s a lot of warmth and a lot of humor. It’s not forbidding all the time. These people enjoy what they do. They take a lot of joy in it. They enjoy imparting that to other people. They’re human beings – and I wanted to reflect that here and have them come off as real people, and not as icy, emotionless freaks.

WW: I was trying to imagine what Hollywood would do if someone tried to adapt Anathem. And my guess is, he or she would probably take out almost all of the philosophical conversations that are obviously one of the things you enjoyed most about writing the book. Is that an example of why your books haven’t made the transition to film or television yet?

NS: It could be. But I think it’s also that they’re big books with a lot in them. If you want to adapt something into a movie, which is basically a 120-page or less script, it’s better to start with something more in the nature of a short story or a novella. Even a modestly long novel, you’ve got too much material. So movie people simply look at the books, and if they’re as thick as these books are, they know right away it’s not going to be a serious candidate for a film adaptation.

WW: To me, though, they’re a great argument for the continuing viability of the book as a medium. There’s so much in them that you want to take your time, linger over them. They’re one of the best bargains out there in that sense. Is that the way you see them?

NS: That’s absolutely the way I see it. If you want to sort of stop talking about art and start talking about the business end of the thing, to the extent that novelists and book writers are in competition with movies and TV, there’s kind of two approaches you can take. One is to try and fight those guys on their own turf by writing very short, punchy, visually oriented stories. And I guess my attitude is that’s kind of like giving in, and it’s not going to work. Because you can never out-movie the movie people. But the other approach is to stress what it is about the novel that makes it special, and to try to do in novels exactly the things that movies and television programs aren’t capable of doing, and will never be capable of doing. And that’s to go deep and immerse the reader in an imaginary world for a long period of time and give them a kind of depth and scope that simply can’t be compressed into visual media.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts