Neal Stephenson: Futurist, keynote speaker at Animfx15

When I found out that Neal Stephenson was coming to Wellington as part of the Animfx15 conference, I could not buy a ticket fast enough (thanks, Kathryn Carmody, for letting me know!) While my enthusiasm on Twitter was echoed by only one other person, I figured I was in good company with novelist, short story writer and playwright Pip Adam.

anmimfx030_neal_stephensonThe session was expertly chaired by David Gouge, Weta Digital’s Marketing Manager, who managed to span all of Stephenson’s work perfectly, while giving him plenty of time to talk on subjects he wished to say more about. Because I found everything interesting, and I don’t need to flavour this with my own opinions too much: here is how it went down.

Stephenson began writing at school, but was disheartened because he couldn’t write short fiction. He spent his spare time as a kid reading old sci-fi paperbacks, and watching the original Star Trek on a black & white TV that his dad had soldered together. In his second year at college, he was stuck in Boston – so he surprised himself by sitting down and writing a 200-page novel. Which was “terrible” – and which one of his closest friends has a copy of, which he keeps in trust, and threatens to release occasionally.

02-Baroque_CycleStephenson has often wondered why fans of science-fiction also love fantasy – futuristic fiction doesn’t exactly match up with magic and elves – but he thinks he has the answer: Maps. He spoke of the maps of Tolkien, and how they were so immersive because they included places not used in the plot: making you think that there was more to a world – that it encompassed as much as your imagination wished. He drew this theme out later in the discussion, adding that often these science-fiction and fantasy lovers also enjoy historical fiction, and for the same reason. When I think about the books that I have read from his output: actually, that works. I began reading him with the Baroque Cycle, before seeking out his earlier work, and becoming obsessed with The Diamond Age in particular, then Cryptonomicon, of course. Since then, I have become much less of a historical fiction fan, but not before a quick obsessive dogleg into Diana Gabaldon at about age 19. (Portals have always been a source of fascination: Playing Beattie Bow is to blame.)

Stephenson believes that the grown of nerd culture / success of Comicon etc / fan fiction is accounted for by this space where the imagination is left to grow. And gaming is a natural extension of Science Fiction. Storytelling, for Stephenson, can be in any format, including augmented reality (he is Chief Futurist at Magic Leap. The biggest challenge for him as author to become a futurist was to let go of the design of the world he created, and allow the world-building to be completed by those playing within the world. For him, Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR, the field he is in now) is all about detail. Every detail affects the play of a game – if you are doing it right, the reader and the characters connect. The most significant reason that a reader, or a gamer, will stop going along with the world, will be if they don’t believe the character is either internally consistent or fits within the world, says Stephenson.

David Gouge then moved Stephenson on to a discussion of the trend for dystopic Science Fiction. Stephenson has a theory that dystopia is an economic choice made by movie and game-makers. To make a new world costs a lot of money: it’s much easier to take a familiar icon and “throw some dirt on it”, as the Planet of Apes did with the fall of the Statue of Liberty. He added that it is also easier from a creative POV not to need to create new rules for a world: dystopia is the scrubbing clean of everything except a shared history – so the back story exists, regardless of where the story is coming in.

cv_sevenevesSo, asked Gouge, is a futurist somebody who is willing to see something new? Kind of, Stephenson says, and he adds that this is much easier in books: they are a cheap medium. I can see where he is coming from in Seveneves with this in mind: Seveneves is dystopic, yes, but that is not all: it is also a wildly predictive book about a future that hasn’t really previously been imagined. A mind-leap into what earth might look like after thousands of years with nothing growing on it, using nanotechnology and synthetic biology theories to justify it. This wasn’t beloved by reviewers, but his reasons for it are clearer now.

Stephenson is excited about the technology that is currently being developed, because it doesn’t have expectations already there for it. He figures there may be about five years that all our best minds have to work in the field of AR and VR, to create a new paradigm – without the ‘attractor lock’ that we are stuck in with movies and games at the moment (super-heroes for movies; first-person shooters for games). He hopes to see people experiment wildly in the area, before anything becomes ‘a safe bet.’

Talking about immersive technology, Gouge asks about our current habit of studying our devices to the exclusion of all else. Stephenson says that he sees this as something that will look old when we look back on it from a future perspective: the tech of the future will not need a device to work, it will instead be all around us. It will be social: or at least he hopes that it will be more satisfactory than what we have now.

In talking about controlling our future, Stephenson says there are always unintended consequences of new ways of communicating. People are beginning to realise there is something broken and wrong about how people behave on social media, especially Twitter. People believed at the beginning of the Internet that it would have a utopian effect on our world; this hasn’t entirely been true. Mob mentality has taken over in some forums, twitter included.

So how does Neal Stephenson deal with the pressure of being a Futurist? “I sit alone in a little room and I make stuff up. It would kill my productivity if I was worried about the predictability of the future.”

A fantastic morning, well-spent. It was a bit surreal to leave the Embassy with all these thoughts of the future, only to be thrust relentlessly into our current time, with hordes of All Black supporters filling Wellington’s streets. It seemed only fitting that the boss should pop in with champagne at lunchtime.

Event attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

Read Neal Stephenson – here is his website to help you figure out where to start.

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