Neal Stephenson: a deeper look


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Author Neal Stephenson (‘Cryptonomicon,’ ‘The Baroque Cycle,’ ‘Snow Crash’) has just published a new novel, ‘Anathem.’ L.A. Times staff writer Scott Timberg talked to Stephenson for an upcoming profile. But since you’ll have to wait a few days for that, we thought we’d share some excerpts from his recent interviews with the author.

Scott Timberg: ‘Anathem’ is set on a different planet, in a different universe?
Neal Stephenson: As a kid reading science fiction, I was always fascinated with parallel universe situations: situations where someone gets jumped into another universe that’s similar to ours, with a hand-wavy, pseudo-physics explanation for how it happened. I wanted to come up with my own hand-wavy, pseudo-physics explanation.


S.T.: Your books are driven by ideas, but they’ve got to have something else to work as novels, I’d think.
Neal Stephenson: There are a lot of ideas that bang around. They’re kind of like seeds which fall on barren ground.... On a good day, I can take one of these ideas and see how it fits in with some characters and a story. And then I’ve got something. If that’s not there, then it’s all a complete waste of time.

S.T.: How much do you plan out timelines and the structures of your world ahead of time?
Neal Stephenson:
If you do it that way, you’re at some hazard of shortchanging what people really read books for, which is characters and stories. It’s better to take a leap of faith and start telling the story. It’s probably a rookie mistake. If you lack confidence in your ability to fill all that in, you’ll sit for a long time working on the map.

S.T.: What made you set ‘Snow Crash’ in L.A.?
Neal Stephenson:
At the time I was living in New Jersey, and I was really in the space between Philly and New York. So I was in this place where there really was no city center: You could drive for hours in either direction and see the same landscape repeating itself, of strip malls, and.... I don’t think I’d ever lived in anything like that before. You read science fiction, and it’s always on a giant urban core, or it’s on a space station — but from where I’m sitting that’s not the future. From where I’m sitting, the future is this landscape of low-rise sprawl. I think I put it in L.A. — it’s been a long time — because it gave me more options. You have the entertainment industry there, you’ve got high-tech, the Pacific Rim factor.... It just gave me more surface area.

Where Neal Stephenson is now, after the jump.

S.T.: You’ve been in the Northwest for a long time now — Seattle’s working for you?
Neal Stephenson:
It is really working for me. I like this kind of weather. I like the neighborhoods. There are a lot of interesting people around because of the high-tech world here. And there’s a gritty, practical side to the city that’s easy to miss. But it really informs the way the city works. I think of about the time of the dot-com bubble bursting, there was a crab boat that went down in the Bering Sea — the entire crew was lost. It put everything in perspective. Nobody was whining about the high-tech [bust] anymore.

S.T.: Can you talk about a book that made a big impression on you back in the day?
Neal Stephenson:
When I was in high school I read ‘Moby-Dick’ — that’s one where I can remember all kinds of specifics, details and impressions. For a while I was trying to impose a policy of having a harpoon-throwing character in every single one of my books. But it’s difficult to maintain that kind of restraint.

S.T.: What about Walter Miller Jr.’s ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz,’ which has a post-apocalyptic monastery setting? Did that have an influence on your new novel?
Neal Stephenson:
It’s a different premise from ‘Anathem’ in a lot of ways. When people hear about monks in S.F., that’s the one they think of, and rightly so. But when you look at it from the geek’s point of view, there have been zillions of science-fiction books over the years with monks in them.

S.T.: Have the old genre categories blurred?
Neal Stephenson:
Most of these genres that people in the 1950s would have thought about have either gone away or been absorbed by other things. Westerns are pretty much gone: You don’t walk into a bookstore and see a huge section marked ‘Westerns.’ And obviously crime and detective still exist and kind of became the backbone of television. And I would argue that fantasy and science-fiction have regained their identity and become unbelievably huge. If you look at the Top 100 movies of all time, they’re almost all science fiction or fantasy.

S.T.: Why do you think that is?
Neal Stephenson:
I think it’s where ideas go. Even if people don’t think of themselves as intellectuals, they like to see ideas in movies. It sounds funny, but people respond to that.

S.T.: Despite the range of your work, some of which is set in the past, some in the future, you seem quite comfortable being called a science-fiction writer.
Neal Stephenson:
People in the S.F. world always worry that its writers will abandon them. I’ve never used the phrase ‘science-fiction ghetto.’ But I still hear from people: ‘Neal, are you trying to break out of the science-fiction ghetto?’

— Scott Timberg