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Neal Stephenson's talk in Austin, October 1, 2003

October 1, 2003 Neal Stephenson was at Book People in Austin, TX, where he signed copies of his latest book "Quicksilver", the first book in "The Baroque Cycle" trilogy, and answered audience's questions. Below is an approximate transcript of his talk. Due to the poor quality of the tape recording it was hard to pick out the exact words that were said, so I can't guarantee the accuracy of either audience's questions or Neal Stephenson's answers. The places I couldn't hear I paraphrased the best I could.

One of the most remarkable things about this interview is that Neal Stephenson introduced the audience to the word "steampunk" and had to assure them he didn't make it up. Who could have guessed that in a few years steampunk jewelry will be sold at Walmart!

Other curious bits from the interview: the pronunciation of the Qwghlm islands, and Neal Stephenson's reading tastes (actually you may regret finding out about that one). Also, a very interesting observation of what we mean by "technology".

NS ... It had been my intention to have some kind of FAQ site up on the web somewhere that would answer those questions and where I could put new answers as they came in, which I guess is what FAQ is. Such a site now exists, and the address is metaweb.com. You can go there and find, with a little bit of clicking around, you can find a bunch of annotations of this book, most of which I wrote myself. Some of the annotations are actually written by other people, some of who I know and some I don't. Because it's that kind of a site, where if you're willing to get over a little initial learning barrier of how to post things on it, you can add to it. It runs the Wikipedia software, if that means anything to you. And if it doesn't mean anything to you, it just means that you can add stuff to it. (Snickers in the audience)

I invite you to go and check it out if you care about this kind of stuff. It's an overkill for FAQ type of site, and the reason for that is that it's sort of an experiment I'm conducting in conjunction with a company called Applied Minds, which is based in San Francisco and LA. The objective of the experiment, which may never be realized, or might not be realized for 20 years is to try to figure out a way to build a system of putting up explanations of stuff on the Internet that works better than the way the Internet does now. And that's why it's so big and complicated.

You can view annotations of this book there, and see what's real and what's not. You can ask for other parts of the book that you're curious about to be annotated. Hopefully I or something else will notice your request and do something about it. You can annotate other books by other people, and I've already put up a sample annotation of a book by Heinlein just to show that it's possible. Or you can just explain stuff that you care about.

Anyway, enough about this site. As I said, the part of this that seems to work best is generally to do questions and answers. So why don't we just start.

(Pause)

Of course, it only works if people ask questions. (Laughter in the audience)

Voice 1. How do you decide which version of history to use for historical novels?

NS. Since I'm not claiming to give some absolutely correct version of history, I sort of don't care. I can pick material that works best for me, as a work of fiction, but I'm cognizant of the fact that people do disagree about what really happened. If I think it's important, I try to consult various sources. For example, if I'm trying to get a sense of what a person was like, I pay particular attention to people who actually knew the individual in question and try as best as I can to get a sense of what kind of person that was. And then as I write the book I try to portray that character in a way that I think is consistent with who I think that person was.

Voice 2. In "Diamond Age", you explored a society divided into ever smaller cliques. Do you still believe in that... is it still where the society is going...?

NS. At the time, it worked well as a plot device, it reflected some trends that were evident. I think that post 9/11 a lot of that changed and those trends kind of went into reverse. I don't know if they'll continue to go into reverse for a long time, or if it will go back to a more fragmented kind of situation. But obviously, there was a market trend towards kind of everyone pulling together, and feeling like we had more in common than we thought we did, after 9/11. That's a pony I haven't been riding so much of late. I feel that having hit that pretty hard in two successive books, that maybe I should back off and write about something else.

Neal Stephenson answers audience's questions at Book People in Austin, TX in 2003 or 2004

Voice 3. Why do you use a pseudonym?

NS. You're referring to Stephen Bury? My uncle and I, in the late 80s or very early 90s, decided that we'll try our hand in writing technothrillers and that we would do it together. So we wrote two: one is called "Interface" and one is called "The Cobweb". It's partly that when we started doing it, it was before anyone had heard of me, so there was no disadvantage to putting an imaginary name on the cover. And partly is that it's simpler and clearer to have one simple name to represent this partnership, than two big, long, ungainly anglo-saxon names, which is what we would have had otherwise.

Voice 3. Is there a piece of his name in the pseudonym?

NS. Yeah. It's assembled out of fragments of our names. But if I go into much more detail, it won't be a pseudonym anymore.

Voice 4. The islands off the northwestern coast of England -- how do you pronounce their name? (Laughter in the audience. He means Qwghlm islands. -- E)

NS. There's an annotation on the site. The language that they use...

Voice 4 ...it has no vowels.

NS. It has no vowels, and the consonants that it has, we don't have them in any of the northern European tongues. So what you see is a really goofy transliteration of their language into the Roman alphabet. So the "Q" is a transliteration of a tongue-clicking noise as is used in some South African languages. I can't even do it right, but it's like (clicks his tongue), something like that. I can't get it juicy enough cause I'm not used to your arid Texas climate. (Laughter in the audience.) And then the rest of it is a swallowing, gulping noise (gulps), so if you put those two together, that's how it would sound. If a person who came from that island, who was a native speaker of that language said that word. But it's been acknowledged for many centuries that people who aren't from there can't really make those sounds fluently. So a convention has developed: the way an English person from nearby would approximate that sequence of sounds would be by saying "TAG'em"! (Laughter in the audience) "TAG'em", yeah! The "T" is the click and the "gum" is the gulping noise. And it sounds nothing at all like the way a native Tuggumian (more laughter in the audience) would say it. However, the natives, when they hear that sound coming of an Englishperson, they understand that the English person is trying to say the name of their island. It's a convention that sort of works.

Voice 5. From the outside it seems that over your last 3 or 4 books, whenever you get interested in something, you write 800 pages on it. From the inside, your process, is that how it feels or is it something else?

NS. Can you give an example (roaring laughter in the audience) of an 800 page...?

Voice 5. First you [...] societal fragmentation in the "Diamond Age", and then you moved on from that [...]

NS. Actually, first thing that happens in the "Diamond Age" is that stereotypical cyberpunk character buys a farm because he's so stupid. So you can infer from that what my state of mind was at that time towards cyberpunk. But if you can give me a specific example, I'll try to...

Voice 5. It seems that you are jumping all over the place in terms of subject matter, so I was curious how it feels from your perspective...

NS. Oh, you mean going from more of a cyber... no, post-cyberpunk kind of theme and audience to a WWII novel to a historical novel? Well, they (I think he means his publisher -- E) have been pretty calm about it. I won't say that we haven't had some discussions on the topic of "is this really going to work". But I feel that I have a sense of what it is that people who read my books are looking for, and some of the times that's like predicting the future, but I don't think it's that important in the big scheme of things. I think they are really looking for other stuff. And I think I can deliver it in a historical novel as well as I can in a novel that's set in the future; My agent and my publisher are pretty intelligent people and very reasonable. I've been able to communicate that to them and they've been willing to take a chance that it would work. And so far it's working out pretty well. It would be a lot more complicated if nobody was buying any of these books. Then the discussion would take on a whole lot of texture that it currently lacks (Laughter in the audience), but so far it's worked out pretty well.

Voice 6. Could you tell us about your writing process?

NS. I'm a "slow and steady wins the race" kind of guy. I just try to set up my life in such a way that every morning I get a couple of hours to myself, and I just try to get something down on paper while I'm reasonably fresh. The trick is to be able to notice when you've just written a really bad sentence. It took me about 15 years to learn that. The other trick is that when you notice that your last sentence really, really sucks, that you have the good sense to stop and knock it off until the next day, not gamely push on. So that's how I do it in a nutshell, and if you do the math you'll see that just a few pages a day adds up to lots and lots of pages over a few years.

I work with a fountain pen. That's kind of new. I wrote "Cryptonomicon" with a word processor, but the new one, "Quicksilver" and everything after is written with a fountain pen and later typed into computer, so I got it printed and stuff.

Other than that, all I really have to say about the process is that thinking about it doesn't seem to help very much. The more I do it, the more convinced I am that it's closer to an athletic event than it is to intellectual undertaking. I'm not being arch there. It has much more in common with knowing how to dribble a soccer ball than it does with knowing how to parse a mathematical equation.

Neal Stephenson answers audience's questions at Book People in Austin, TX in 2003 or 2004

Yeah, Apache? (addresses a person in the audience, Geoffrey, who was wearing an O'Reilly Apache T-shirt)

Geoffrey. (Inaudible)

NS. One of the advantages of writing in longhand -- and since you are wearing an O'Reilly shirt, I'll slip into a geek metaphor here -- I think there is a buffer where your next sentence lives while you are writing it down or typing it in. If you've got a really fast output device like typing at 8000 words a minute, which is how fast I type -- then the time it spends in the buffer is very short. But if you've got a slow output device, then it has a longer residence time it spends in that buffer; it sits there while you are scratching it out across the page. It turns out that it's very easy to edit things that are in the buffer. As soon as they go down on the page in any form, then it becomes a pain to go back and find them and edit them. I think that just using a slow output method saves at least one editing pass. Then when I am actually editing stuff that's been written out, I think that the pen is still faster, because you ca just kkhhhh (makes a scratching noise) scratch out a word, or you can move things around, add stuff, and I just find it a lot quicker than any other method I've ever known. So usually I'll do a couple of passes on a page, editing it with a pen, and then I'll finally transcribe it in -- I use emacs -- type it in, and that's another editing pass. Sorry all you vi fans. (Laughter in the audience) Sorry, Doug. By the time it's finally typed in, it's pretty darn clean. It's been edited a lot, and it usually doesn't require a whole lot more editing as we conventionally define that term.

Yes, fire extinguisher? (Addresses a guy who -- you guessed -- was standing next to fire extinguisher)

Voice 8 (fire extinguisher guy). (Inaudible)

NS. Yes, this question refers to one of Stephen Bury books that I co-wrote with my uncle. It's set in a college town in Iowa. It turns out some of the graduate students there are using their lab privileges to concoct... it's not anthrax, but it's botulism. So I did find it creepy, particularly since the name that they gave to that strain of anthrax was the Ames strain, and Ames is the town that I'm from. So the Ames supplies a lot of the raw material for that book.

And of course, later, I have to add... maybe you guys already know this... Ames got sort of tarred with being the home of this strain of anthrax. Turns out that this strain of anthrax was really from Texas. Some of them down here found it. They needed to mail it off to Fort Dietrich or wherever you mail your really hot anthrax specimens. The story I heard is that they had a stack of pre-printed mailing labels that had the return address of national animal disease labs in Ames, Iowa on them. So they just pulled one of those off the stack, and sent it off that way. And then when it arrived at Fort Dietrich or wherever it was sent, they saw the return address, they saw the mailing label and they figured it had come from Ames, cause in all truth, Ames is that kind of a town. It is one of the world capitals of animal diseases. And that's how it got that name. But it never had anything to do with Ames.

The other funny thing about that was that as soon as that little thing broke, the people at the national animal disease labs at Ames got so flipped out that they just took all of their anthrax and put it in an autoclave and killed it, because they just didn't want to deal with ... Ames isn't the kind of town thats geared up to defend against Al-Qaeda warriors parachuting in from black helicopters, and they just didn't want to have any part of it.

Neal Stephenson talks to a fan at a book signing at Book People in Austin, TX in 2003 or 2004

Lawrence. How would the advent of quantum cryptography affect [the plot of Cryptonomicon]?

NS. I've been meaning to become all-knowledgeable about quantum cryptography, it's on my list, because I got perilously close to having to know about that while working on "Cryptonomicon". I read a couple of papers about it, but the result of reading those papers was I realized that to learn all of that was going to be a big deal, and maybe I should try just sort of struggle to the end of this project using only classical cryptography, and not get into that, because to do it right would take a lot of effort. So my answer is, I don't know enough about it to have an opinion. But the other fact is that as Bruce Schneier and a lot of other people have been pointing out: it's usually not the technical strengths and weaknesses that really matters; it's that if you call someone on the phone and ask them what their password is, they will tell you.

Voice 10. (I could not hear the question, but it mentioned Grand Catholicon -- E.)

NS. I don't know what Grand Catholicon is, so...

Voice 10. (Clarifies what Grand Catholicon is, but I still couldn't hear him. By the way, Google search for "Grand Catholicon" did not return anything useful, or anything that would unambiguosly explain what it is. - -E.)

NS. OK, OK. I know the idea, I just never heard it called Grand Catholicon before. It certainly got a lot of names. I don't know if you've seen the new one, but the first word in the new book is Enoch, and it's set and starts in 1713. So there's plenty more about him, and to come out and just answer your question would be not only to lift my skirt but to rip it over my head and twirl it around like this (makes a twirling motion), which I'm not really willing to do. So there's a lot more on this in this series of books, and there's a lot more about Isaac Newton who was a really hardworking alchemist. He spent more time working on alchemy than he did on what we call physics. So the stuff you are interested in is certainly addressed in the Baroque Cycle, but I'm so reluctant to come out and baldly give you any answers to it.

Voice 11. (Inaudible)

NS. Before I get into this, I should say that although your observation is correct, it's easy to make too big a deal out of it. It's not necessarily the case that I've got some big plan. There's a lot of randomness in this. Having said that, the whole cyberpunk project, if you will, came out of that in the golden age of SF, when you saw a computer, which wasn't that often, it was a giant computer that filled up the whole room. Sometime in the 80s people woke up and said: wait a second, digital technology is actually very pervasive and it's interacting with our culture in a lot of ways that science fiction hasn't been addressing. So let's address that. Cyberpunk addressed that.

It wasn't too long before people like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson started looking to the past as well, saying: wait a second... if digital technology and that way of thinking is interacting with our culture now and in the future, who's to say it wasn't doing that in the past? So they wrote "The Difference Engine" which was a steampunk novel (Laughter in the audience). That's a real genre name, by the way, I didn't just make that up. Steampunk, yeah.

There's certainly precedents for looking back, and it's pretty obvious how "Cryptonomicon" fits into that project. It just happened, as I was drawing to the end of that, I became aware, thanks to a book by George Dyson, called "Darwin Among The Machines", that computers and thinking about computational logic went way, way farther back than I ever thought. It went back at least to Leibnitz. I thought, if it's a good thing to go back and look at the historical end of this whole deal, that we shouldn't let Leibnitz go ignored. It just so happened that there was this other guy at the same time as Leibnitz, called Newton, who was really interested in money. And money happens to be a theme in "Cryptonomicon". So I got to do something with that. And if you take into account the fact that Newton and Leibnitz hated each other, and had this intellectual war against each other -- there's a good book: "Philosophers At War", check it out, it talks about this -- it just seems like a no-brainer that I had to go write about this.

It could very well be that the next thing I get really interested in will take place a million years in the future or something like that. I just don't know yet.

Neal Stephenson signs books at Book People

Voice 12. Have you heard -- I just heard about this -- on PBS about the recent explorations of Archimedes palimpsest, he was beginning to develop the calculus?

NS. You know, I saw some really fleeting reference to that somewhere; it was something that was scraped off and re-written on.

(They exchange a few more inaudible sentences.)

Voice 12. Yeah, and the interesting thing is, he was taking the first steps towards developing calculus. Which, of course, Leibnitz and Newton did a thousands years later.

NS. So, in answer to your question, I have seen it, but I don't know anything more about it than you do. But it sounds very interesting.

Voice 13. I'm curious to what degree 9/11 changed the direction of your writing. What impact did it have on your writing, if any...

NS. It stopped it for about a month, and made me really glad that I wasn't trying to writing something set in the near future. Other than that, I've been kind of insulated from any direct effects of that, simply because I've been working on something that's set 300 years in the past. That's a pretty brief answer, but that's about all I got. It didn't have that much of an effect, really.

Voice 14. "Cryptonomicon" is one of my favorite books, ever...

NS. Thanks.

Voice 14. ... Is there, or will there ever be the kind of annotation that would talk about what I would like to know -- how much of it really happened?

NS. Well...

Voice 14. Can you just tell me? (Laughter in the audience)

NS. The system is set up in such a way that it will be easy to put up that kind of annotations. I or somebody will probably start doing that at some point, if for no other reason than that it's tied into "Quicksilver", which is being annotated. It's just a matter of when am I gonna have the time to do it, and the answer is, not real soon. But it's possible. If you've got one specific thing that you wanna know whether it's real or fictional, I can try to answer it on the fly here.

Voice 14. Can I get back to you? It's been a long time since I've read the book.

NS. Yeah, yeah, OK.

Voice 15. What is your favorite book?

NS. Book, period?

Voice 15. Yes, "Cryptonomicon" is mine. What is yours?

Voice 16. Of the ones you've written. And the ones you haven't.

Neal Stephenson at Book People in Austin, TX in 2003 or 2004

NS. All I can tell you is what I've been reading lately that I like. I haven't had much opportunity to read fiction in quite a long time. But I've read a book by Matt Ruff called "Set This House In Order" which came out in February which I think is really great, and there's a British SF (by the way, he pronounces SF as es-ef, not scifi --E.) writer named China Mieville who's got a couple of books out: "Perdido Street Station" and "The Scar" that I think are pretty hot stuff.

Other than that, it tends to be really obscure things about 17th century. There was an essayist named Ned Ward who ran around London in 1710ths -- 1720s. He would write those satyrical essays about London, about London society. They're wild. They are being incredibly scabrous, funny, biting satire. They're all written in this style of prose that these guys used back then, which I've become kind of addicted to: lots of capital letters and lots of italics, and it's very direct and very funny, and kind of the opposite of Victorian prose.

Just to give you and idea -- I hope I'm not gonna make people flee from the room screaming when I tell this -- he writes a satirical thing called "The Virtuosos Club" where he's making fun of the Royal Society. But he won't call it the Royal Society, because even he was apparently afraid that Isaac Newton would get on his case, or something. So he calls it the Virtuosos Club and he tells a story about how this traveller had -- I have to see if I get this straight -- this fellow of the Royal Society had gone to Egypt.

This is all told by Ned Ward with a straight face. He says he had gone to this village where diarrhea was so rampant that in order for people to sleep through the night they would have to put corks in their butts before they went to bed. They would sleep all night, corked up, and then in the morning they would go to the nearest roadside ditch and expel these things. So if you walked down the road and looked in the ditches, you would see all these corks strewn out around in the ditches.

This traveller picked one of these up. (This is written in 1710.) He took it back to the Royal Society and passed it around at a meeting of the Royal Society, and asked them to identify it. So these guys are all passing this cork around, you know, these guys in the periwigs and the whole bit, at a high table, and they're all examining it through magnifying glasses, and sniffing it. They are saying "it's a potent medicine that's used in the East Indies", and they're giving all these totally bogus, made up, pretentious explanations of what it is. And pretty soon they are nibbling pieces off it (roaring laughter and groans in the audience). Finally, at the end when they're kind of stumped, he tells them what the thing is, and then they're all running out of the room, throwing up and being sick.

So I'm a big fan of the work of Ned Ward. (Roaring laughter in the audience.) But it's so obscure and out-of-the-way that it's kind of hard to recommend.

Voice 17. Could you describe your relationship with technology? Do you like computers, do you have a favorite computer, do you avoid them like a plague?

NS. I take a broader definition of what technology is, right now. And this is, by the way, not my idea, I'm not even close to being the first person to point this out, but if you want an example of a really amazing technology -- the tires on your car are just incredible. The things that they do, the abuse that they suffer most of the time without going flat. Buttons, scissors. These are all really great technologies that we don't acknowledge as being technologies -- cause they work. (Roaring laughter in the audience, applause.)

Again, I'm repeating someone else's words here, but two of the better definitions I've heard of technology are:

  • anything that was invented after you were born;
  • or

  • you only call something a technology when it's not working right.

I like computers; I've got a lot of computers in my house, I use them all the time; but more and more I'm looking for excuses to get out of the house and not be sitting there gazing at pixels on a screen. So I'm neither anti- or pro-technology, but as I grow older and throw away more old computers, I'm less and less enchanted with them. More and more have got an attitude of "do these things really work for me? Are they really improving my life in some way?"

In certain narrow areas they are really cool to have: email, particularly if it's on a wireless laptop, is a truly great technology. But I'm getting more cynical and hard to impress as the years go by, and I think that that's true of a whole lot of other people as well.

So there we have it. I think we're gonna go to the signing stage, and if any of you got really burning questions that didn't get answered, that might be time for me to address some quickly as the books go by.

Thanks.