We are incredibly excited that Neal Stephenson (the author of enormously popular and enormously satisfying books like Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and the hefty Baroque Cycle--Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World) is coming to Kepler's tonight. He'll be signing REAMDE, which is his newest novel and our Book of the Week. His publisher was kind enough to send us a set of questions and answers, so read on to learn more!
Get the book HERE.
An interview with Neal Stephenson, author of REAMDE.
Q: Reamde is an adrenaline-fueled, non-stop action adventure thriller with a large international cast of compelling characters. How did you come up with the idea?
NEAL STEPHENSON: It's been banging around in my head for years. We've all grown accustomed to stories about computer viruses that come out of nowhere and sweep across the world in days. I thought it would make a good plot hook to imagine a situation in which a powerful and vengeful person was seriously inconvenienced by such a virus, and decided to track down the hacker who created it and get even.
Q: Central to the storyline is Richard Forthrast’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game, T’Rain. Are you a serious gamer? Any plans (or dreams) to make T’Rain a reality?
NEAL STEPHENSON: I definitely spend more time than is good for me playing games, to the point where I put together a system for playing XBox while using an elliptical trainer. But my few encounters with actual twelve-year-old boys in the online universe have made it clear that I cannot aspire to the title of "serious gamer."
Making T'Rain a reality would be a massive tech development project that would probably extend over several years and require hundreds of millions of dollars in capital. If someone wants to pony up the dough, I'd be happy to get involved!
Q: One of the interesting backstories in the book is how T’Rain was developed and the unique talents behind it—especially the writers who devised its bible. What connections do you see between an MMORPG like T’Rain and literature—storytelling? Would you consider that kind of game to be a kind of participatory literature?
NEAL STEPHENSON: The two writers are a kind of self-parody; I've taken two literary tendencies that are always competing for control of my keyboard, and made them flesh.
All role-playing games are a kind of improvisatory literature. It's easy to make fun of RPG dorks. But those games wouldn't be interesting unless the people playing them were coming up with interesting characters and spinning tales with legitimate narrative qualities--some of which are at least as good as what gets published as officially sanctioned literature.
Q: Talk about your characters. While Richard is the central figure, his niece, the super-smart, super-cool Zula, is a great kickass heroine. You’ve also got a frighteningly intelligent and supremely capable villain in Jones. What inspired their creation?
NEAL STEPHENSON: It's difficult to tease specific answers out of the morass of ideas and impulses that is my brain. In general, though, I would say this about thrillers. The characters in thrillers find themselves in crazy, dangerous situations that fortunately don't happen to the vast majority of real humans. As a writer, you have two basic approaches as far as coming up with characters is concerned. You can make your characters into James Bond/Jason Bourne types who live in the thriller universe all the time, or you can come up with more realistic everyday characters---people you might expect to meet in the pages of a more sedate, literary novel, say---and then plunge them into the thriller universe, whereupon it becomes more of a fish-out-of-water proposition. I've taken the latter approach just because I think it gives me more options as a writer.
Q: Reamde is a massive tale with a number of moving parts. How did you keep track of the divergent characters and parallel storylines as you were writing?
NEAL STEPHENSON: With a spreadsheet. Sorry.
Q: Your previous novels have been set in the future and in the past. Reamde is a story that is very much of this time and place. How does this novel connect to your previous books?
NEAL STEPHENSON: While it's true that I've done a lot of future and past writing, the fact is that The Big U, Zodiac, half of Cryptonomicon, and all of Interface and The Cobweb (the thrillers I co-wrote with my uncle) are set in basically the present day, and even Anathem takes place largely in a setting that is very close to contemporary society. So, it doesn't feel like much of a departure for me. While it's enjoyable to make up imaginary future societies or bring old ones back to life, there's also a lot to be said for working within the present-day world and being able to fold commonplace observations into the story.
Q: Your work has been called cyperbunk, post-cyberpunk, speculative, historical fiction, even baroque, and you have proudly called yourself a science fiction writer. How have you and your ideas—and your writing matured—since Zodiac and Snow Crash? How are those changes reflected in Reamde?
NEAL STEPHENSON: I'd say that when I was younger I felt insecure about my ability to supply the old-fashioned literary qualities of plot and character and so made up for it with "special effects." But working on the Baroque Cycle renewed my interest in plot for plot's sake, and the virtues of just telling a good yarn, and so you could think of REAMDE as me just writing a book that is all about plot. This doesn't mean that every book I ever write henceforth is going to be the same way, but I did want to have a go at it.
Q: Your novels explore a number of specialized subjects—mathematics, currency, science, technology. Are you surprised at the success you’ve achieved? What might the future hold for expansive novelists like yourself in an age of shrinking attention spans, an age that is becoming increasingly defined in 140 letters (or less)?
NEAL STEPHENSON: When faced with that kind of competition, you can go one of two ways. You can try to become like the competition by making things briefer and more tweet-like. Or you can play to the real strength of the novel as an art form, which is its ability to handle material of great scope. I would argue that the success of long-form television series such as Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones is a reaction against all the forms of media that play on short attention spans. The audience enjoys immersion in worlds of enormous scope. The only media that can provide that experience are novels, television series, and increasingly games.
Q: Throughout the post-World War II period, science fiction was predictive of where society and technology were headed. Today, science and reason are being undermined by a number of cultural forces. Where is science fiction/speculative fiction headed as our optimism and faith in science declines?
NEAL STEPHENSON: If I have anything to say about it, we'll soon be seeing more SF that recalls the Golden Age techno-optimism of the 1950s. Not in a naive or campy way, but in a way that gives young scientists and engineers something that they can realistically aspire to during their careers. We are still flying around on airplanes and getting energy from reactors that were designed during the 1960s, and in many cases, such as Fukushima, we're paying a price for our lack of technological imagination. This decline in innovation has coincided with a growing hostility toward science and technology on both the left and the right, and with a turn toward a sort of hackerish cool hip gloominess in the SF world. We have to snap out of it.