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Neal Stephenson in Austin, September 25, 2008

P1020202 Neal Stephenson at Book People in Austin, TX in 2008

On September 25, 2008 Neal Stephenson gave a reading from his latest novel Anathem, signed books and answered audience's questions. This is Stephenson's third reading and Q/A at Book People over the last 4 years. Some of the questions haven't changed much from year to year. Are his projects getting bigger and bigger? Is he ever going to write something short? Which is the favorite of the novels he has written? Why does he prefer to do his research in books, as opposed to search engines? Hint: serendipity. Are there new technologies he is excited about? Other questions are new. Does he have any ideas on posthumanism? Has he been making something cool in the workshop lately? Why is Anathem set on an imaginary world, not Earth?

As far as I can tell, one of the most popular questions given to Stephenson is some variation of "Your projects have been getting bigger and bigger. Are you ever going to write something short?" Before the speaker has even finished, Stephenson interjects: "Just to be pedantic, the last five books were about the same length." However, he was hoping Anathem would be shorter. "[My publisher and I] first wanted to break it up into two books, because there's a natural divide in the middle," he says. "But we decided not to do that."

Then there's another perennial question: which is the most favorite of all the books Stephenson has written? He says: "It's always the most recent, because I would like to think I get better with age. But I have a soft spot for Confusion." Confusion is also the book he had the most fun writing. That's partly due to it being the middle book of the Baroque Cycle trilogy. "The thing that happens with trilogies," says Stephenson, "the one in the middle is usually the fun one. In the first book of a trilogy you have to explain what hobbits are, set out all this vocabulary. And in the third book you have to wind everything up. There's a lot of energy going in tying up the plot. But the second book, you can just let it rip. So Confusion is like that. Pirate Ships, bodice ripping. It was unfair that I was being paid to do it."

Perhaps that partially explains the length of his novels. ;-)

The research Stephenson does for his writing is another fascinating subject for the audience. People who know about Stephenson's method of filling up lots of and lots of "comp books" with research notes, wonder how efficient that is. Somebody asks: "I wonder if you have tips or techniques for people who have to collect very large amounts of interconnecting data, and not burn all their time?"

Stephenson replies: "You're not burning your time. It's golden time. [...] While I'm looking for stuff, I'm reminded of all those other things. It's serendipity. It is hugely valuable to be reminded of all those little things you might have forgotten."

For the same reason his primary tool of research is not Google, but books. Stephenson values serendipity of libraries or bookstores. Unlike searchWilliam Gibson engines that present only the results relevant to your keywords, bookstores and libraries allow you to run across information you never knew you needed. "You look at the books and find other books you would not have found if you only looked at Google."

However, the knowledge he acquires does not stay in his head forever. "All that stuff sits long enough in my head while I write the book, and then it all goes away, and I'm left with an NBA playoff schedule and a few useless pieces of information," says Stephenson.

Neal Stephenson at Book People

Neal Stephenson reaches for a water bottle

Here are some other questions people asked Neal Stephenson.

Q. A lot of thinkers in the history or Arbre (the world on which Anathem is set) are analogous to Earth, so why did you set the story on a different world?

A. You are asking an extremely reasonable question. The real history of ideas on Earth is very complicated. To do justice to that history, it's necessary to go into a lot of detail of people who thought and influenced each other in different ways. I didn't want to do that because the book was already going to run a bit long (audience laughs). I just wanted to go through intellectual history in an efficient way.

There's a problem in science fiction, where somebody's doing expository dialogue, let's say, about warp drive: there was Newton, and he said this and that, and there was Einstein, and.... the history of science tracks to whatever year it's writen in, then it goes on to pretend-scientists of the future who invented the warp drive. I personally find it very distracting, because it's obvious where the dividing line is. I didn't want to have it in my novel.

Q. You are in a think tank. Are there new technologies you are excited about?

A. I work part time in an invention company in Seattle called Intellectual Ventures. There's a lot of stuff that's cool when you look at it in the abstract, but I've learned that the devil is in the details. It's a lot harder for me to get excited [about new technologies].

Q. 10 years after you've written Diamond Age, are you still interested in posthumanism, do you have any ideas on it?

A. When people use that word, it's not completely clear. It's kind of a grab bag for hopes, aspirations and fears that a lot of people have. I don't find it a very useful world in that sense, unless it's a very specific idea that's being talked about. And I'm a bit skeptical of what it really amounts to, unless there's a specific program somebody has in mind.

Q. Have you been making something cool in the workshop lately?

A. I've been making helmets. I don't know if that's cool. That's kind of cheap metal work, it's welding and banging.