Michael Goldberg : Breaking The Code With Neal Stephenson

One on one with the author of Snow Crash, the landmark futuristic virtual reality novel. By Michael Goldberg Seattle, Washington It was William Gibson, of course, in his brilliant 1986 novel Neuromancer, who first captured the experience of what he described as being "jacked into a custom cyberspace deck." I came late to the book; I'd already experienced the rush that comes as one listens to the modem connect, and then, all at once, one is plunged into the on-line universe. So reading about Gibson's imagined future was all the more startling. In less than a decade some of what he'd written about had already come to pass! Neal Stephenson read Neuromancer, but he also grew up on the great futuristsннIsaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, etc.ннwho concealed their theories about the future in the science-fiction genre, one that was seen as little better than comic books throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s. Writing in Details earlier this year, Bruce Sterling wrote that Stephenson, "is the first second-generation, native cyberpunk science-fiction writer. Unlike most of the original '80s cyberpunks, he grew up in the new technoculture and, with a hacker's background knows how it really works." For the most part, that's still the case. But it appears that the work of the current generation of sci-fi writers is being taken more seriously in some quarters. Certainly Wired magazine, which has put both Gibson and Stephenson on its cover, and Details, which sent Gibson off to interview U2 some yars back, have treated them with the respect that Philip K. Dick really didn't get for most of his writing career. Like Neuromancer, Snow Crash is a defining work. With it, Stephenson created a world fully imagined, characters unique and yet familiar. They say that everyone in Hollywood and Silicon Valley with an eye to creating multimedia entertainment has read Snow Crash. Probably so. And so what? More importantly, most of us have read it. We recognize in Stephenson a like soul, a man whose eyes cut through society's facade like lasers, viewing the dark, twisted vortex into which we're plunging at a furious rate. What is inspiring about Snow Crash are the characters who, despite all odds, retain their dignity as they fight against the Evil, andннremember, this is fictionннcome out victorious. It rarely turns out that way in real life. But at least we can dream. Snow Crash was written during a period that began in 1988 and ended in late 1991. Stephenson listened to some of the leaders of the "Seattle Sound," while he pounded away at his epic work. Rock & roll courses through Snow Crash. It is a rock & roll novel the way films like Blade Runner, Performance, Breathless and Touch of Evil are rock & roll films. The spirit is there, make no mistake. I don't pretend to know Neal Stephenson yet. Shortly after starting ATN, I gave him a call and told him about the magazine. He seemed vaguely interested. But at this point he doesn't have a direct Internet connection, nor does he have a web browser. (He told me the other day that he's trying to get an ISDN line into his houseннthe waiting when one uses a normal 14.4 or even 28.8 modem drives him crazy.) So he hasn't seen ATN yet. I hope that changes soon. A month or two after the publication of his latest book, The Diamond Age, I called him to see if he wanted to be featured in ATN. No problem, he said. So a week later we both settled into our respective easy chairsннNeal in Seattle; me in San Franciscoннand using that antique device, the telephone, proceeded to talk about the inner and outer worlds of Neal Stephenson. Addicted to Noise: Snow Crash has given people a futuristic vision of life on line. What you've written, and what William Gibson has written, has provided a fantasy backdrop to what's actually going on in the world. It's also inspiring people who are trying to duplicate or follow this vision in some way. How do you feel about this? Neal Stephenson: In a strange way, I'm not well-positioned to be aware of it. I wrote Snow Crash in, I think, 1990, mailed it off to my agent, and as soon as I walked out of the Federal Express office, that was it. I was done with it. Now, I'm conscious that it's being read because I get statements from the publisher every so often saying that X-many copies have been purchased, and, more often, I see references to it in the press. When I go out to do readings, which I don't do very often, I run into people who tell me, Neal, there are companies in Silicon Valley who are basically throwing Snow Crash on the table and saying, "This is our business plan". If it's really happening, I'm glad that people are buying the book and finding it that interesting, I guess. But I'm not a part of these companies. I'm not down in the trenches watching what they do from day to day, so I have to take other people's word for it. ATN: I mentioned to Jon Luini, a principal at the Internet Underground Music Archive and the guy who heads the technological aspects of Addicted to Noise, that I was going to interview you, and he said, "Oh yeah, I just read Snow Crash two weeks ago." Jon is in his twenties and a brilliant hacker. He felt the book described some of where he's heading, and enjoyed the whole world you created. This is a guy who's plugged into a computer terminal writing code 18 to 20 hours a day. Stephenson: I think that techies can tell by little cues here and there in the book that I'm not unacquainted with the nuts and bolts of the technology, and that makes them feel like the book speaks to them perhaps a little more directly than some others. SOUNDTRACK FOR SNOW CRASH ATN: I read in your biography at the back of Snow Crash that you were listening to "a great deal of loud, relentless, depressing music" while you wrote the book. What were you listening to? Stephenson: The primary CDs I listened to were Soundgarden, Bob Mould and Public Image Limited. Those three put together probably accounted for 90 percent of what was on my stereo. ATN: Were you living in Seattle when you wrote the book? Stephenson: No, I was living in Alexandria, Virginia. My wife is a physician and she went through undergraduate school on a ROTC scholarship. When she finished medical school and her residency, she had to give four years to the Army. So we left Seattle and went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and that was sort of franchise ghetto land, which got me thinking about the franchise landscape. Then we went to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, right outside DC, and we lived in Alexandria, where I wrote the book. ATN: When did you come back to Seattle? Stephenson: In the summer of '91. ATN: Did you go to the clubs or check out what was happening in the music scene? Stephenson: No. That whole thing was sort of embryonic when we were in Seattle between '84 and '87. Then it got cool and things started happening during the time I was away. I remember getting Soundgarden's Ultra Mega [released on SST Records] in Jersey, which was quite a coup because they weren't well distributed at that point. You couldn't just go into any Musicland and pluck it off the shelf. Of course by the time I got back in '91, it was just getting enormous. And then it was too late. Shortly after I got back, I was driving around and there was a local radio station giving away blocks of 100 free tickets to an upcoming Pearl Jam concert. They announced the locations where they were going to be handing them out, and one spot happened to be within a couple of minutes' drive from where I was, so I buzzed over there. It was out in front of a big sports bar. By the time I arrived, there were already about 100 people lined up. I got in line anyway, just 'cause I might have a chance. This rent-a-cop came out. He looked like he was about 16 years old, barely old enough to shave, nervous, and he asked us to reverse the direction of the line by swinging around 180 degrees! At that point, the whole thing broke down and everybody just turned into a tight little knot. Some people got pissed off and irritated, and started shoving. It was getting ugly. Finally the guy came out with this huge bundle of tickets. Everybody converged on him, and he got this look of sheer terror in his eyes. People were clawing at his hands and he ended up throwing this bundle of tickets up in the air everyone kind of surged forward. I look down and I'm 30, 31 years old, a parent, wearing shorts and a pair of Teva sandals, and everyone standing around me is 21 or younger. They're all wearing Doc Martens. It became really obvious to me who was going to lose if I tried to get into a shoving match with these people. So I backed away because I value my toes. It was too late for me. The whole Seattle thing had happened during exactly the four year period I happened not to be living in town. I was over the hill. ATN: Obviously if you were listening to that music when you were writing, you're still a pretty big music fan. Stephenson: I find it hard to work unless I've got music going on my headphones. ATN: So what was playing when you were writing The Diamond Age? Stephenson: Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains were a couple of my favorite bands, and still are. I was listening to the entire Seattle gang. It sounds incredibly unimaginative of me. Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, a little bit of Tad, the usual suspects. Some Sugar, too, I guess. ATN: Is that allegiance to Seattle music or did it just turn out to be your taste? Stephenson: It's some sort of weird synchronicity. I kind of like pop culture. Although I'm qualified to call myself kind of an intellectual, I've always admired various kinds of pop culture for the same reason intellectuals are not supposed to. I like comic books. When I go to a movie, I almost always see some kind of action film. Like the last film I saw was The Hunted. And I like books with a lot of action in them. I like music that has power to it, that has a lot of drive and gets your adrenaline going. So I've always had this dark, hidden admiration for kick-ass rock-n-roll bands like AC/DC and that kind of thing. I always wondered why someone couldn't make music with a powerful drive that was fun to listen to, got your adrenaline going, and kicked ass but wasn't stupid. All through the '80s we had to put up with these hair bands who kicked ass but were incredibly moronic in their choice of subject matter. There's only so many times you can listen to "Oh baby, I wanna do it to you all night long, I wanna do it to you right until the morning light." When Soundgarden came along, I was tremendously excited because they did kick ass and they were exciting and fun to listen to, but they were obviously intelligent people. All the subsequent Seattle bands that came along had that same quality. ATN: So when you're writing, do you have headphones on and the music is really cranked and you're kind of riffing away? Stephenson: I tend to get very self-conscious when I'm working, and I'm easily distracted. Just the sound of my fingers hitting the keys distracts me. It used to be, when you typed on an electric typewriter, that the machine would hum away, squeaking, thundering, clacking or whacking against the paper, making noise. Now, on a computer, you can hear your fingers clicking the keys, but everything else is quiet. For some reason that's distracting to me. It makes me self-conscious. But if I've got some tunes going so I can't hear it, I seem to be much more productive. ATN: Is the music also acting as a soundtrack while you're creating scenes and developing story lines? Stephenson: When I'm trying to get fired up to write a big hairy action-packed segment, I have been known to put on hairy loud action-packed music. ATN: What was the impact on your life with Snow Crash becoming a successful novel? Stephenson: It's easier to get through to people on the phone. A lot of people who do stuff that I think is cool in the way of technology seem to have read the book. If I want to swap e-mail with those people or talk to them, I don't have to explain who I am. ATN: That's not too glamorous. Stephenson: For me, it's kind of glamorous 'cause I like technology. I like computers. I like science. I just like the ideas that people come up with, the things that people do in their heads. The people that I most enjoy talking to are hackers and scientists and people who tinker with stuff. ATN: Had you read some of William Gibson's stuff before you wrote Snow Crash? Stephenson: I read Neuromancer not too long after it came out, and I've read most of his work now, since I read Neuromancer. ATN: I've wondered if you felt like he was something of an influence or inspiration. Stephenson: He most definitely was. ATN: When I read Virtual Light, I thought Gibson had been influenced to some degree by Snow Crash. I saw Y. T. in his female character in Virtual Light. Stephenson: I'd be more inclined to look for other explanations first. In my view, it's much more common to find independent parallel evolution of ideas than direct influence. There's a lot about messengers that lends itself to making them heroes in books. ATN: Like what? Stephenson: They're young, they wear cool clothes, they go fast, they defy death. They're out there on the streets actually doing stuff in a world where a great deal of what's going on is bits moving on wires and not very interesting to watch. ATN: So you think it's just the times and coincidence? Stephenson: Oh yeah. I have the sense that Virtual Light was probably being written about the time that Snow Crash was in the pipeline. ATN: What about the whole slacker thing? Y. T. is like that, even though at the time you were writing the book, slackers hadn't really been in the media. Stephenson: I don't really think of her as a slacker exactly. She's a little too intense. She has a very ambitious and driven personality. The minute she sees Hero in the first chapter of the book, she's looking for an angle and proposing a business partnership with him. ATN: That's true, yeah. I guess I was thinking more of this free spirit skateboard thing. Stephenson: She hangs out with a lot of those people but I think that she's different from the rest. She's got ambitions and she's got things she wants to do with her life. ATN: How is it, developing leading female characters? Stephenson: I think in many ways female characters are inherently more interesting because there's more going on with them. Pulp fiction, science fiction, and technothriller-type fiction are full of rugged loner male characters who are completely disconnected from any sort of social or familial web of relationships. The reality is, there aren't many men like that. One is even less likely to find women like that, so I think that a lot of times women characters are more interesting. ATN: But to create those characters and have them be believable, particularly for a man to do, seems like a real challenge, in the sense that you really have to get outside yourself and your own ways of experiencing the world. Stephenson: You're always getting outside yourself. I think most of the male characters I write about are at least as different from me as the female characters. I'm not sure if women are inherently that much more different from me than anyone else. ATN: When you sat down to start writing The Diamond Age, was it difficult given the success of Snow Crash? Stephenson: At the time I wrote Diamond Age, it seemed likely that Snow Crash was going to do pretty well, do better than my other books. But it still hadn't hit as big as it eventually hit. So that wasn't too much of a factor. It is sort of on my mind now. ATN: In terms of the writing you're doing? Stephenson: Just anything that I may undertake in the near future. I think it makes one less willing to take risks. ATN: How do you feel about that? Stephenson: It doesn't bother me too much. All it means is that I'm inclined now to be methodical and careful about what I undertake, and not try to rush into anything before I feel ready to do it. Diamond Age was in a way an attempt to write something weirder and less accessible than Snow Crash. Just to see how people would react. Snow Crash has all kinds of hooks in it that make it immediately attractive to a lot of readers. Diamond Age is farther into the future and not quite the joyride that Snow Crash is. ATN: What are some of the hooks in Snow Crash, compared to what aren't hooks in Diamond Age? Stephenson: A lot of the ideas in Snow Crash grew out of a graphic novel project. When I was working on the graphic novel, we were very consciously trying to come up with visually interesting hooks like this skateboarder with a magnetic harpoon and his wild skateboard chases on freeways. Diamond Age has got interesting hardware, but it's just not quite as hooky. I mean, most of the interesting hardware in Diamond Age is microscopic. ATN: Are you writing another novel now? Stephenson: No. My uncle and I write novels together under the pen name of Steven Bury. We have one called Interface that came out last April, and we just finished another one, which is just getting into the whole marketing pipeline. I'm taking some time off from novels. I'm working on a CD-ROM project with a company in Seattle called Shadow Catcher Entertainment. ATN: What's that going to be like? Stephenson: I'm not that interested in twitch games although I've been having fun with Marathon lately. And I'm not that interested in interactive movies where you have to make a decision every so often and there are 800 different endings. So we've got an idea for something that's going to be neither of the above. Kind of a psychological thriller with cyberpunk and noir overtones. ATN: Seems like some of the right elements for something potentially interesting. Stephenson: It'll be live action with real actors set in the near future of Seattle. ATN: Is there a name for it yet? Stephenson: Yeah, it's called Daymare. ATN: Given where you are with the project, when might we actually see it? Stephenson: We're scripting it now. They're sort of hot to go into production later this year. So I suppose it's not out of the question that it might be out a year from now. ATN: Are you going to continue to do novels? Stephenson: Oh yeah. The more I mess around with novels, the more I like them. I still think they're an incredibly powerful medium that's here to stay. So I absolutely intend to keep writing novels as my main occupation for the indefinite future. But usually I go four years between books. ATN: Do you literally spend the four years writing, or do you take several years off? Stephenson: I usually spend a couple of years doing something that doesn't go anywhere, then I get tired of that and sit down and write a novel. The actual writing process usually doesn't take more than a year. ATN: How intense is the process? Are you writing from morning 'til night? Stephenson: No, if I write from morning 'til night, I end up with 10 pages of really good stuff followed by 50 pages of crap then I have to go through and edit out all the crap. I learned a while ago the right approach is to get up first thing in the morning, work for a couple of hours, then stop and do other things like research, or work on my income taxes, or whatever. ATN: What made you decide to write? Stephenson: One day in fourth or fifth grade, my best friend came to school wearing leather shoes. Until then, we had all worn tennis shoes. And I still wore tennis shoes. I was horrified that my peers, people close to me, were already showing signs of domestication. I had never worn leather shoes that didn't hurt my feet. At that point, I began thinking about occupations I might be able to find for myself that would enable me to wear tennis shoes, or not wear anything on my feet at all. That was my litmus test for careers all the way through my teens and 20s. ATN: What did your mom and dad do? Stephenson: My father is a professor of electrical engineering at Iowa State University. My mother worked as a lab technician in various biochemistry research labs for most of my young life and has also done a lot of work for the Methodist Church at their regional and national levels. ATN: So you were always around science. Stephenson: Oh yeah. My father's father was a physics professor at Washington State, and my mother's father was a biochemistry professor at Mankato State University in Minnesota. Stephenson: I came up with an idea for a novel when I was in college and I sat down and wrote it. ATN: What made you think you could do it? Stephenson: I don't know. I had been discouraged up to that point because I had tried to write short fiction and found that I couldn't. I had always been told by teachers that the way you become a writer is first you have a journal, then you work up to writing short stories, and then you write novels. I had really indifferent results trying to keep a journal, and I was a complete failure at writing short stories. But when I sat down and tried to write a novel, I found it was much easier for some reason, and it's always been that way for me. ATN: Were there points where you got discouraged along the way? You wrote and said, I can't do this, I'm not going to do this, or, It's too hard? Stephenson: I was frequently anxious about my prospects for selling books. But once I started doing it, I was always pretty confident that I had good ideas and I could put them down on paper. ATN: What gave you that confidence? Stephenson: I don't know. I don't know where ideas come from. I find the whole concept of the muse pretty persuasive. It always seems to come from outside and shows up unpredictably not because of any personal merit or effort that I'm putting out. Ideas drop into my head pretty much fully formed out of nowhere and I say, Hmmm, that's a good idea. That I think it's a good idea isn't a reflection of arrogance on my part, because I don't even feel as though it's my idea. It's my job to write it down and mail it off. I guess I'm a little cautious about trying to come up with straightforward mechanistic explanations of why people write stuff. Because the more I do it, the more mystified I am. That's an analysis question which I think is a fine pursuit for people who analyze things for a living. But I just don't happen to be one of those people. I try to analyze my own writing as little as possible. ATN: You mentioned that you want to get hooked in so you can experience the Web and kind of cruise around. Is that something that's going to happen soon, do you think? Stephenson: I don't care to fool around with the Web until I have enough bandwidth that I won't find it irritating. I'm not easily impressed by the good things it does, and I'm quick to be irritated by its failings. I know that I'm going to be really irritated if I start trying to browse the Web at the low bandwidth my crappy telephone service is capable of providing. ATN: You made a comment before that you don't think very highly of television, and you think the Net is going to end up just as full of garbage. Stephenson: If the Net works right, it'll be like the publishing or music industry. If I go downtown and visit Sub Pop Records, I can probably find a room full of demo tapes that people have sent in hoping to get a record deal, most of which probably aren't so hot but some of which are probably brilliant. And likewise, I can go to any publisher and they've probably got thousands of manuscripts sent in unasked for, most of which are not very good, some of which are very exciting. You don't have that in television and movies because it's so expensive and requires the cooperation of so many people and so much equipment to create art. Consequently, most TV has to go through a multi-level process of review by executives, accountants, and focus group analysts. So, if the world of interactive media is organized along the lines of television, where it's very expensive and everything's got to be treated like a new business venture, then there'll be a lot of garbage on it. On the other hand, if it's organized in such a way that anyone can create interactive media as easily as picking up an electric guitar or rolling a sheet of paper into a typewriter, then there will be a profusion of material, some of it not very good, some of it great. And the condition that you have to have for that to happen is that everybody, whether rich or not, part of a large group or not, has to have access to the means of production. From what I've heard and understand, the Web may be the answer to that. That may be how it happens. So, yes, I suspect there will be a lot of garbage out on the Web. But that doesn't bother me as long as there's some good stuff, too. Nobody's forcing you to click on the garbage.