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An Evening With Neal Stephenson

Updated on April 19, 2012

On April 17, 2012, celebrated science fiction author Neal Stephenson, known for his work such as the post-cyberpunk novelSnow Crashand historical fiction pieces Cryptonomicon and his Baroque Cycle series of novels stopped by MIT on behalf of the school's Tech Review media group. He had an evening with fans and students to discuss his previous work and current ideas and positions on topics like spaceflight as well as the need for people to get off their butts and work while you walk.

Stephenson answered a question on his take on current news of technological advancements – in particular, on the topic of alternative spaceflight. He pointed out that one of the main problems for spaceflight is insurance, or the lack of insurance companies willing to put money on the expensive rockets and landers needed for missions. He stressed that spaceflight companies should educate insurance agents, and jokingly told the audience that some should consider switching majors from computer science to one better suited for working in the insurance industry.

When the topic of Snow Crash came up during the two-hour event, the first mention concentrated on his idea of the Metaverse – an environment where people use goggles and avatars to explore in a virtual urban sprawl. According to him, the idea of exclusive online areas in that sprawl such as the elite Black Sun club described in the novel became false with the advent of the internet, where everyone has their own property and exclusivity is a rare if not nonexistent.

Another mention to the novel came from a question from the audience once again asking him about the Metaverse, this time about its connection to the augmented reality concepts currently popularized after Google's advertising on its own AR glasses. It led to what he called, "an excuse to rant" against the sedentary life in front of a computer. He talked of the idea of walking while you work – as an example to how strongly be feels on the subject he said, "Just last week, I gave a presentation on a treadmill. That's how tedious I'm capable of being." He ended the subject by saying, "As long as we are welded to the monitor…people are going to be stuck in unhealthy environments."

As far as questions about upcoming work, he stated that his next book is still "very nascent." He is working on is based on the ideas of NASA scientist and sci-fi author Geoffrey Landis, whose research is working on creating massive ten kilometer-high towers using new forms of material such as buckminsterfullerene. Stephenson's story would take the tower and make it twenty kilometers high, despite Landis' hesitation to go past fifteen, "since he is a rational man," Stephenson said.

He said he is currently working on short stories to the Hieroglyph collective he created along with other futurists and creative thinkers. Another project of his,The Mongoliad, is an app-based serialized story where the reader subscribes to read new portions of the novel. It was because of this project that Stephenson answered a question regarding the future of printed books. "Books work," he said, reminding the crowd that Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dumas wrote serial novels without any use of multimedia.

For a good portion of the evening, Stephenson talked about his interest in historical European martial arts, or HEMA. To him, most of the sword fighting used in movies like The Three Musketeers or The Princess Bride deal with rapiers, which are modern weapons compared to a long sword. He described spars from older styles and weaponry as "sledgehammer fights." An example he uses of he stark difference in how sword fighting is used is in fighting games. A player "just presses the A button until they are dead – not rooted in any fighting," he said. He compares it to modern first-person shooters, which evolved from primitive movements to games with realistic weaponry and illusion of real movement.

He answered one of the standard questions asked to celebrated authors – why are there no movies adapted from his novels? When the idea thatSnow Crashcould work as a road movie came up, he made a cautious pause before answering. He still thinks the novel is too long. However, with the advent with the advent of high-form television, he thinks it could be a possibility. The success of fantasy writer George R.R. Martin's A Song Of Ice and Fire series now adapted into HBO's Game of Thrones along with the upcoming adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods are evidence of this.

One person in the audience asked about his ideas on design. He started his answer with a suggestion: go to China, "where they are building "awesome skyscrapers," he said. He compared it to the "how cheap can we make it built" ideal of American design. An example of this was the Kingdome in Seattle. Stephenson was there for the demolition, and said that if you had seen the construction and disrepair the stadium had from the start, you could see why it was more cost effective to demolish the building than paying off the mortgage.

His list of current reading includes Israeli author Etgar Keret and Seattle-based author Matt Ruff, whose alternative-9/11 thriller The Mirage was released just this past February. He lauded the work of Peter Fleming, brother of James Bond author Ian, who he said was completely unsung, especially in his work on the Boxer Rebellion. He is currently reading a book on Bell Labs from an e-book, which is a problem for him. " I can't remember a title of many of them," he said.

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    • KrisL profile image

      KrisL 5 years ago from S. Florida

      Interesting, I'll check out Etgar Keret

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