AWF18: The big ideas of Neal Stephenson

AWF18: The big ideas of Neal Stephenson

New York Times bestselling author Neal Stephenson is renowned for works seething with big ideas, both innovative and complex in their genius, including Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Anathem, and his latest Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O co-written with Nicole Galland.’

Tara Black took these illustrated notes during Neal Stephenson’s solo session. He was interviewed by David Larsen.

AWF18 11 Neal Stephenson

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black


Buy some of his books! I can vouch they are all really good…

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O
Published by Borough Press
ISBN 9780008132576

Published by Borough Press
ISBN 9780008132545

AWF18 – In the Afterlife, with David Eagleman, Courtney Sina Meredith, Robert Webb and Neal Stephenson

AWF18 – In the Afterlife, with David Eagleman, Courtney Sina Meredith, Robert Webb and Neal Stephenson

The Heartland Festival Room is the place where music and literature mingle in the festival season. In The Afterlife, an 8:45pm session to wrap up the first night of festival goings-on, was a gently rollicking hour of words and melody from an achingly talented group of people.

The basic premise of the session was the reading of stories from Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman’s collection of beautiful snippets of imagined afterlives – but rather than simply David at the mic the whole time, reading duties were shared with other festival guests: Robert Webb, Neal Stephenson and Courtney Sina Meredith. Between readings, we were treated to the incredible evocative work of Claire Cowan, a member of the Blackbird Ensemble.

To go into the detail of the stories read would ruin part of the joy of absorbing them yourself – but to comment on the nature of the stories, there is beauty, there is sadness, and there is a whole lot of humour. The first story read, the titular Sum, was an especially delightful collection of statistics – the breakdown of how long the average human spends at certain kinds of activities. Personal highlight? ‘77 hours of confusion.’ – sounds about right. That story seemed like the most clear demonstration of Eagleman’s comment during his introductions – ‘I’m a neuroscientist and writer of fiction. Really they’re part of the same thing – just trying to figure out what’s going on around us.’

Through all this – and through all the readings – Claire Cowan sat to one side of the stage, head down and listening, cello unfurling towards the fabric ceiling of the tent. At each cue, she took up her cello and looping pedal (I presume – or other looping device, I was a long way from the stage!) and began weaving the most magical soundscapes as she built clicks upon breath upon layers of different cello melodies and harmonies. It always astonishes me the sound that a solo instrumentalist with looping abilities can produce – each piece was beautiful and complex.

Each reader brought a slightly different cadence to the story they read – Eagleman obviously had the easy familiarity of an author sharing his own work, while Webb brough some comedically trained lightness and Stephenson the slightly somber tone of a novelist of hefty works. Meredith’s poetic inclinations came through in her slightly more lyrical delivery. At the heart of each reading, however, was a real enthusiasm for Eagleman’s work, which was very quickly passed on to those of us in the crowd who weren’t yet familiar with his work.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Published by Random House US
ISBN 9780307389930

Each of the guests will appear again during the festival:

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.

Book review: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_sevenevesI am still looking sideways at the moon, making sure it is all there, after finishing this epic space-borne read from Neal Stephenson. I have read pretty well everything Stephenson has written, and if there is anything I have learned from it, it is that he has an uncanny sense of what the future holds. Unsurprisingly, he is currently Head Futurist at Magic Leap, a 3D wearable visual technology start-up. I wonder if the staff on the International Space Station have a copy each of Seveneves, just in case?

This is not just another post-apocalyptic novel. This novel takes you from the moment that apocalypse comes onto the cards, thanks to the Moon breaking into seven pieces, through to the dawning of a new race of women and men, once all is said and done.

The characters are selected to carry the science, and there is a lot of it in there. Science is the holy grail. Dinah is the first person we encounter, and it is through her story we are introduced to the International Space Station, Izzy for short. She lives there with 12 others, as the resident robotic scientist. She has a large team of robots which she is programming, as the moon explodes, to work out how best to mine the asteroid tied to the front end of Izzy, which is called Almathea. The second voice we encounter is Doc Dubois, an astrophysicist and TV personality, who is watching as the moon explodes, and is the person who, a few days later, has to inform President Julia Bliss Flaherty, that the world is going to end imminently.

Quite a large proportion of the first two-thirds of this book is taken up with the narration of astrophysical logistics. If this is your thing, you have certainly come to the right place. I found myself intrigued, but occasionally in need of a nice clear diagram, as gravitational physics is not my field of expertise. It looks as though there are some diagrams in the e-book edition.

For all that, the story makes for compulsive reading, and the thought experiment is fascinating. It takes in the psychology of being responsible for the future of the human race, the impossibility of saying goodbye to just three or four among the 7 million people who are inevitably going to die, and the logistics of creating a floating world – a Cloud Ark – based around a space station originally only designed to hold, at its maximum capacity, tens of scientists.

World leaders coordinate a world-wide drawing of lots, to select two young people – a man and a woman – from each country to be sent to space, so the diversity of the world is maintained when the earth can be re-populated. One of the first people sent to Izzy upon the disaster is Moira, a geneticist, and a specialist in maintaining heterozygosity in black-footed ferrets through artificial gene splicing. Her role is to be the caretaker for the future generations of every life-form on earth, which are to come from her store of DNA sequences, and embryos, as well as from the ‘Arkers’ – those who are chosen to be part of the space community.

The meaning of the title of the book only becomes significant in the third section of the book, as we encounter New Earth – 5000 years after the Moon’s dissolution, which caused the ‘hard rain’ which destroyed the earth – through the actions and voice of Kath Two. Kath is ‘Survey’, a member of the space community sent to New Earth to check how re-seeding has gone, and see how habitable segments of the Earth are. The technology described in this part of the book is fantastical, and the breadth of Stephenson’s vision of the space-based future is awe-inspiring.

The story ends rather suddenly, and after burning through the final section in a matter of a day or two, I was left wanting more. This is no mean feat when you have been carried by the sheer power of the author’s storytelling through 850 pages. I even read the acknowledgements, and learned that Stephenson had the idea for this novel circa 2006, while working part-time at Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ private aerospace programme.

Seveneves is long, and complex at times, but extremely compelling. I recommend it for fans of Stephenson’s work, and anybody who wants the hard science (fiction) on what might happen if we were faced with a future in space. If you want an introduction to Stephenson’s work, try Diamond Age: or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, and follow it up with Cryptonomicon.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Neal Stephenson
Published by The Borough Press
ISBN 980008132521