Techno-thriller mega-author Neal Stephenson is the guru of futuristic science fiction, yet his main concerns are down-to-earth–the over-hopping of beer and the increasingly non-motile lifestyle of desk jockeys. But despite (or perhaps because of) his eccentric worries, he caters to a vast, rapt audience. Ever since his smash cyberpunk hit “Snow Crash,” he’s been stirring up the fiction world with his doorstopper novels — from Victorian-era magical adventures in his Baroque Cycle series to “Anathem,” a far-future space epic about a cloistered group of scientists, philosophers and mathematicians. Last year, he launched through his startup, Subutai, an online publishing project in which the novel’s content is crowd-sourced. Stephenson’s writing is dense, confounding and utterly readable. In his most recent novel, “REAMDE,” we’re plunged into the world of massive multiplayer online gaming (fanboys, try to stay calm), and the dangers inherent in gold farming (accumulating in-game currency and items to sell to wealthy gamers for real cash). Bookish got the chance to pick the sci fi icon’s brain.
Bookish: Techno-thrillers are clearly your forte, and this time, you feature the popular world of multiplayer online gaming. Do you play yourself?
Neal Stephenson: I’ve done role-playing games of one kind or another since I was in college and did a little bit of D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] — the old-school, paper and pencil kind. The entire world of electronic gaming has come into existence in the decades since then. I’ve been able to watch how each new generation of game programmers takes ideas that originate with D&D-type games and incorporates them into more and more sophisticated electronic games. And when I became aware of the gold farming phenomenon some years ago, it attracted my interest, probably because I’ve written some other books in which real gold, real money, real currencies figure as an important plot element. I felt like this was on my turf.
Bookish: So the book takes us from Iowa to Seattle to China, to the Philippines, to England, to British Columbia. With each location, you provide this ridiculous level of detail and scope. It almost felt like it was like a videogame. Was that your intention?
NS: I guess it’s just part of my style or my habit to want to describe physical settings in enough detail that the reader feels like he or she is there and not just being fed a generic description. So I try to gather enough specifics about the way things look, the way they smell, how things work, so that the reader can feel immersed in the narrative. At the end of the day, that’s what readers, particularly readers of this kind of fiction, are really doing it for; they want to dive into the world of a book and feel like they’re there.
Bookish: A kind of escapism?
NS: Escapism is a term that some people wield as a criticism of certain books and certain readers. But a lot of people, particularly when they’re talking about fantasy or science fiction, they’ll say, “Oh, well this is just escapism”–it implies a kind of character flaw on the part of the readers. But it’s a service that this art form, the novel, can provide that you can’t get in as much depth and scope from other forms of art. And so vanishing into the imaginary world is a part of savoring and appreciating that art form.
Bookish: With “REAMDE,” I was reminded of your previous novel “Cryptonomicon,” especially with those random rants that you throw in: the best way to eat cereal; the mathematical functions of horniness; the emotional reclusion of bearded men. Got a quick rant for me right now?
NS: A lot of it tends to be disappointingly mundane stuff. Like my current pet peeve is–and here we’re definitely talking about First-World problems–over-hopping of craft beer. Hops are a very aromatic, bitter compound and I suspect that they’re being used by incompetent brewers to cover up defects in the taste of their produce. I’ve been trying this experiment lately: If you go into a microbrewery type of place and ask them for their “least-hopped” beer, they either can’t even answer the question or they seem pretty seriously taken aback. They’re just trying to kill you with hops.
Bookish: That should be a band name: Killing You With Hops.
NS: I have a list of band names. I’ve got it written down somewhere…here are a few: “Apex Predator,” “Apple Maggot Quarantine,” which is a phrase we often see in the Pacific Northwest.
Bookish: What are the current tech trends that really excite you?
NS: My answer might devolve into another rant. There’s all kinds of really hard medical evidence right now that chairs are incredibly dangerous. Like if you’re obliged to spend your workday, every single day, sitting in a chair, it’s actively bad for you. So I’m interested in anything that facilitates working while you are moving around. I allude to this in “REAMDE” where there’s the character who works all day on an elliptical trainer–I’ve got a treadmill that I walk on for a few hours a day while I write. It’s easy to envision a corporate park of the future where, instead of a big cubicle farm, there’s just a park and the employees are all kind of wandering around randomly in the great outdoors taking calls and doing exactly the same work but getting exercise in the process.
Bookish: What do you think is in store for publishing? And how does this tie into your [recently released] experimental fiction project, “The Mongoliad,” a community-driven, serial novel?
NS: People in publishing are constantly prophesying their own demise. And the fact is that most of the people who work in publishing are among the brightest, most hardworking, productive humans you could ever hope to know. And they’re extremely passionate about what they do and happy to be doing it. And essentially everything that these people do can be translated directly into an electronic publishing environment. It just takes some imagination and adjustment to figure out how the wires are going to be hooked up and who’s going to be signing the paychecks. The Subutai Corporation, the startup I’m part of that’s creating “The Mongoliad,” is one of many publishing platforms trying to find answers to those questions.
–By Rowena Yow