Interviewed by Tasha Robinson
Neal Stephenson became a hero to the science-fiction world in 1992 with Snow Crash, a jazzy, funny, prescient dystopic novel about a Mafia pizza-delivery boy caught up in a plot that crossed ancient cultures with virtual reality. It wasn't Stephenson's first novel, but it made him an instant name among the William Gibson crowd, drawing attention to his previous books—the collegiate send-up The Big U and the eco-thriller Zodiac—and guaranteeing an instant audience for his follow-up, The Diamond Age. Over the past decade, Stephenson's bestselling novels have gotten progressively denser, more ambitious, and more celebrated, from the monster techno-thriller Cryptonomicon to the three-volume historical series known as the Baroque Cycle to his new 937-page science-fiction outing Anathem. His books tend to range broadly across theoretical and intellectual topics, while delving deeply into one or two concepts: Anathem, for instance, takes place on a world where scientist-philosophers dwelling in monastery-like strongholds (small ones are "maths," large ones are "concents") avoid the secular world for periods marked and enforced by giant clocks, and devote themselves to logic and thought experiments, which Stephenson explores at length while building to a series of events that disrupt their system. Stephenson recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the soundtrack for Anathem, making up words, and reading philosophy so you don't have to.
The A.V. Club: What started you writing Anathem?
Neal Stephenson: It comes out of conversations I've been having with Danny Hillis, Stewart Brand, Alexander Rose, and others at the Long Now Foundation going all the way back to the mid-1990s on the subject of the Millennium Clock, a.k.a. the Clock Of The Long Now. In 1999, I sketched out an idea for a tall clock tower surrounded by a system of walls, with gates in the walls that would be opened by the clock mechanism at regular intervals, and "clock monks" who might live inside the walls, insulated from the distractions of the outside world. This was just me doodling for the hell of it—not a serious proposal. The Long Now Foundation guys have their own ideas as to what they want to build, and it looks nothing like what I'm talking about.
At that time, I wasn't conceiving of this as a book idea, but in 2005, when I was looking for a next project, I found that I couldn't get this idea out of my mind, so I set to work on it.
AVC: What sort of topics did you wind up researching before writing it? How organized or results-driven are you about research?
NS: Depends on the book. For the Baroque Cycle, I just read lots of books and took notes without having much of a plan. In the case of Anathem, most of the research had to do with philosophy and metaphysics. Reading this sort of thing has never been my strong suit, so I actually had to be somewhat more "organized and results-driven" than is my habit. I just made up my mind that I was going to have to read some of these philosophy tomes, and I forced myself to read something like 10 pages a day until I had bashed my way through them.
AVC: Why base a book in part on topics that you yourself aren't passionately interested in reading about?
NS: I was trying to run something to ground that had come to my attention when I was working on the Baroque Cycle. That series, of course, was about the conflict between Newton and Leibniz. Leibniz developed a system of metaphysics called monadology, which looked pretty weird at the time and was promptly buried by Newtonian-style physics. Later I learned that some eminent 20th-century thinkers, including Bertrand Russell and Kurt Gödel, had been interested in Leibniz's work, and that Leibniz had been adopted as a sort of patron saint by some of the people working on Loop Quantum Gravity. When I finished the Baroque Cycle, I still felt as though this was a loose end. In part, Anathem is an attempt to tie up that loose end. To do this, I had to read Kant and Husserl and some other stuff that Kurt Gödel apparently thought of as light reading.
AVC: Has this happened before with any of your books, where you had to fight your way through source material on some specific topic to get what you wanted for the book?
NS: All the time. I read this so you don't have to. It's all part of the service.
AVC: Do you tend to try to do all your research up front before starting to write a book?
NS: No in general, and especially in the case of Anathem. At the beginning of the project, I wasn't certain that I could come up with an engaging storyline and cast of characters in this world, so I had a strong bias toward actually writing, and worrying about research later. In other words, I was afraid that I'd devote a year or two of my life to grinding through Kant and Husserl, then discover that there simply was no novel to be written here.
AVC: Do you enjoy the actual process of research? Do books tend to be inspired by your reading, or do you start with the idea for a book and then do the reading to supplement the idea?
NS: The story is everything, so it always begins with a story. Research is a kind of scaffolding built underneath the story as I go along. My enjoyment level varies, but in general, I'm writing about topics I find interesting, so I can't gripe too much.
AVC: With that in mind, do you wind up with other ideas for books as you're researching or plotting? Are you the kind of writer who ends up with notebooks full of "maybe someday" plots and ideas as you're working?
NS: No, I'd find that extremely distracting. I'm strictly a one-project-at-a-time kind of guy. If I came up with a compelling idea for a different book while working on a project, I'd probably abandon the first project and go with the new idea.
AVC: Has that ever happened? Or, in keeping with your comment about starting Anathem before you knew there was a story there, have you ever gotten significantly into a project and decided not to pursue it?
NS: I think it has happened so early in certain projects that I have long since forgotten about the originals. It would be quite unusual for me to get deep into a project and then shitcan it. One of the advantages of having done this for a while is that I have a better sense than I used to of when something is or isn't working. Until I developed that sense, this was a pretty dicey career for me, both in terms of paying the rent, and emotional wear and tear.
AVC: You've addressed in other interviews the way some people have complain that Anathem starts slowly, that it's hard going at first for the first 100 or 200 pages, before the actual plot begins. What went into deciding where to begin it, and figuring out how much readers needed to know about the world before they could absorb the story?
NS: It's easy to imagine writing a 250-page version of Anathem that ends before what you call "the actual plot" even begins. If I'd done that, it would have been more of a small literary novel, meant to be read as a statement about the relationship between the bookish and non-bookish parts of our society. But I'm not a small-literary-novel kind of guy, and once I'd developed the world in the first couple of hundred pages, I felt that there was potential here to go on and write an engaging story set in that world. So that's what I did. This probably ruins things both for the people who want small literary novels and for those who want action-packed epics, but anyway, it's what I wrote.
AVC: Was the way you put the story together influenced by the fact that this was a first-person narrative? Was it more difficult getting exposition and description of the world into this book than others?
NS: Early on, I settled on the first-person strategy as a way to deal with exposition and world-description issues. As long as the book is, it could have been far longer had I gone with an omniscient third-person narrator, or multiple point-of-view characters, since either of those would have enabled me to impart much more detailed information about the history and geography of the world. As it is, we see everything from the narrator's point of view, so exposition about the world is limited to what impinges directly on him and the story he's telling. Considering how old the world is, we learn very little about its history, which I think is a good thing.
AVC: There are a lot of neologisms in your books in general—in Anathem, largely iterations of or plays on existing words, in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, invented words for invented futuristic concepts. Do you have a method for making made-up words sound sensible, for avoiding the terrible-made-up-word disease that hits so much science fiction and fantasy?
NS: "Method" is an awfully dignified word for it, but here goes: In the room where I work, I have a chalkboard, and as I'm going along, I write the made-up words on it. A few feet from that chalkboard is a copy of the full 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, to which I refer frequently as a source of ideas and word roots. Whenever I get distracted or bored, my eyes wander over to that chalkboard and I read the words. Some of them grow on me, and others annoy me. I attack the latter with eraser and chalk, and keep nudging at them until I like the way they look and sound. Others never make the cut at all and simply get erased. Perhaps one day I will sell these on eBay to RPG players who need names for characters or alien races.
AVC: Speaking of made-up words, did you see the xkcd strip about the book, or any of the subsequent discussions online?
NS: I saw the strip, but not the discussions. Note that the dependent variable in the graph is "probability that the book will be good" and not "quality of book," which means that I still have some statistical chance of writing a good book even if it's full of neologisms.
I'm alternately baffled and intrigued by all of the attention that has been paid to the made-up words in Anathem, since it seems to me that it doesn't have a hell of a lot more such words than most other fantasy and science-fiction books. To me, it's always been a normal part of reading F/SF that one encounters unfamiliar words and learns their meaning as the book goes on. Every kid in the world knows the meanings of "horcrux," "wizengamot," etc. Right now I'm reading Stephen King's Dark Tower series, which is stuffed with made-up words. So when I see discussion of neologisms in Anathem, I find myself considering a couple of hypotheses:
1) Maybe Anathem is being read by a lot of people who are not in the habit of reading fantasy and science fiction and who simply aren't accustomed to encountering neologisms in literature.
2) Maybe it's just another example of shortened attention spans. People don't have time to read. This is not me criticizing others—I'm exhibit A of someone who doesn't have time to read! Only reluctantly do they pick up a book as fat as Anathem. When they find it has new words in it, they get even more impatient.
But those are just guesses. For me, it is still something of a mystery as to why people are so preoccupied with this. Maybe I'm just underestimating the difficulty of figuring these things out from context. My own tastes run toward the "just let me figure it out" end of the spectrum. The alternative is big chunks of naked exposition.
AVC: Was the glossary in the back of Anathem your idea?
NS: It wasn't my idea, but once I assembled the list of words, I saw that it was a good idea.
AVC: You explore word evolution throughout the Baroque Cycle—the way the iterations of "fantasies" evolved, for instance—and in Anathem you expressly seem to be having fun iterating words. And linguistics has been a theme in your plots as well. Why is it such an interest for you?
NS: Hmm, I think that this vein is close to being mined out already, but I'll say that my knowledge of and talent for linguistics are quite limited and I'm not aware of being a hell of a lot more interested in that topic than I am in others.
AVC: Your books deal with pretty weighty concepts, but they're generally accessible to the layman—in some cases, like with cryptography in Cryptonomicon and logical thought in Anathem, it feels like you're presenting readers with a 101 course. Between that and the college lectures you've done, do you have any interest in teaching?
NS: You must be talking about the Gresham College lecture that's up on the Internet. That's not a college lecture in the normal sense of the term. Gresham College doesn't have students; it's a public lecture series that's been going on in London since the reign of Elizabeth I.
Coming up with lectures is a huge amount of work. I was willing to do one lecture for Gresham because I was honored to have been invited, but to create lectures for a class would probably require that I shut down everything else and concentrate on lectures for a couple of years. Then there would be many, many other skills that I'd have to learn, such as how to sit through a faculty meeting, how to deal with students, etc. It is really not in the cards for me. It's not who I am or what I do. I'm a novelist.
AVC: Do you think about accessibility when you're writing? Do you worry about whether readers will be able to keep up?
NS: Anathem is about as far as I'm willing to go in the direction of asking the reader to bear with me. Some of the especially technical stuff, I relegated to appendices. The appearance of technical appendices in a work of art is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's definitely a warning, like hitting the rumble strip on the edge of the highway.
AVC: How conscious are you as you're writing of your style in general? Do you try to steer it?
NS: I try to find a style that matches the book. In the Baroque Cycle, I got infected with the prose style of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which is my favorite era. It's recent enough that it is easy to read—easier than Elizabethan English—but it's pre-Victorian and so doesn't have the pomposity that is often a problem with 19th-century English prose. It is earthy and direct and frequently hilarious. So a lot of what you see in the Baroque Cycle is me wanting to be one of those guys. In the case of Anathem, I needed something that was more formal, less flashy, as if it had been translated from the classical language of another planet, but enlivened with slang terms that a teenage narrator would enjoy throwing around.
AVC: How do you go about finding the voice on the page once you've determined what it should be? Is there any trial-and-error process in the writing?
NS: This is one of these questions that requires a higher level of self-scrutiny than is really good for me. In general I have difficulty answering any question that includes the word "process," partly because I'm not that self-aware, and partly because there is no process.
AVC: Do you think of yourself as having messages to get across, or trying to educate your readers, or interest them in specific topics?
NS: I really am just trying to tell stories. But stories are often grounded in larger events and themes. They don't have to be—there's a big literature of trailer-park, kitchen-table fiction that's just about goings-on in the lives of ordinary people—but my own tastes run toward stories that in addition to being good stories are set against a backdrop that is interesting to read and learn about. In Tale Of Two Cities, you have a good story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. In Moby Dick, you have a good story that happens to take place in the context of a whaling ship. I think it would lead to a pretty bad relationship between author and reader if the latter felt that the former were tugging on their sleeve trying to impart a message or educate them, but it seems to work fine to set a story in a larger context that the reader can get interested in and learn about as they go along.
AVC: When we last talked to you back in 1999, you said a lot about your method and how it had evolved since your earliest days as a writer. Has it changed since then?
NS: Sorry, nothing new to report here! The only thing that has changed since 1999 is that I write with a fountain pen on paper.
AVC: How did the music for Anathem on your website come about? Are there any plans to release it as a companion to the book?
NS: Yes, I think it's available on iTunes and CDBaby.
The music was composed by my friend David Stutz. He is retired from Microsoft. He sings bass in two local early-music groups, Cappella Romana and The Tudor Choir. When I was working on Anathem, I would go to concerts by these groups as a way of getting into the mood of the mathic world. I reckoned that the avout would have musical traditions that were similar to those developed in Europe during the Middle Ages, except that the themes of their music would be mathematics, philosophy, and science rather than religion.
About a year and a half ago, David and I and our wives were going to a concert by Trio Medieval, which sings similar music. We had dinner beforehand. Over a bottle of wine, I told David about the book project, and we came up with the idea of actually trying to create the music that the avout would sing. I was thinking that I'd hear no more of it after we had sobered up, but David took the bit in his teeth and went to work on it in a serious way. My participation was minimal. We would cast about for ideas from the world of mathematics that might make good fodder for a work of music. Then David would disappear for a couple of months and get up to speed on the mathematics and figure out a scheme for translating the structure of the math into musical form. You can see some of David's liner notes at synthesist.net.
In about March of 2008, David started to get singers into studios in Portland and Seattle to lay down tracks for the CD. A rough-cut CD was included with the galleys of the book in May. Over the course of the summer, some additional tracks were completed, and the CD was released on September 9, on the same date as the book. We got some of the singers down to San Francisco to perform at the launch event.
AVC: What's next? Are you in that "looking for a new project" stage, or do you have a follow-up in mind or in progress?
NS: At the moment I'm writing a short piece for a compilation volume. No plans after that.
Front page image by Bob Lee