[Paleopsych] Reason: Neal Stephenson's Past, Present, and Future
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Sun Apr 17 17:04:34 UTC 2005
Neal Stephenson's Past, Present, and Future: The author of the widely
praised Baroque Cycle on science, markets, and post-9/11 America
Interviewed by Mike Godwin
If you met the novelist Neal Stephenson a decade ago, you would have
encountered a slight, unassuming grad-student type whose soft-spoken
demeanor gave no obvious indication that he had written the manic
apotheosis of cyberpunk science fiction (1992s Snow Crash, in which
computer viruses start invading hacker minds). It wasnt his debuthed
published two earlier novels in the 1980sbut the book was such a hit
that it put his name on the science fiction map in a way the earlier
efforts had not.
Meet Stephenson today, and youll meet a well-muscled, shaven-headed,
bearded fellow whos just published a highly acclaimed, massively
popular trilogy of 900-page novels set mostly in the 17th century.
Talk to him, though, and you still hear the rigorously humble guy of
10 years ago. Read that trilogyQuicksilver, The Confusion, and The
System of the World, collectively called The Baroque Cycleand youll
have the uncanny sense that youre reading some new kind of science
fiction. Actually, with every Stephenson book since Snow Crash, you
feel that youre reading some new kind of science fiction, regardless
of the nominal set and settings of the story.
The three parts of The Baroque Cycle were published at six-month
intervals in 2003 and 2004; they feature historical figures ranging
from Newton and Leibniz to Louis XIV and a very young Benjamin
Franklin, bound up in a narrative with the fictional ancestors of the
characters in Stephensons similarly huge, cryptology-centered 1999
novel Cryptonomicon. Like Cryptonomicon, the trilogy has attracted
praise from mainstream critics as well as Stephensons science fiction
fan base. The Village Voice calls the series a work of idiosyncratic
beauty whose plots boast tangled, borderless roots. The Independent
says it is a far more impressive literary endeavour than most
so-called serious fiction. Even a mixed review of Quicksilver in The
Washington Post describes it as often brilliant and occasionally
Stephenson has a substantial libertarian following as well, and not
merely because the decentralized, post-statist social systems he
describes in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (1995) are so radically
different from modern government. The Baroque Cycle is, among other
things, a close look at the rise of science, the market, and the
nation-state, themes close to any classical liberals heart. Reading it
means reading three long, encyclopedic books and maybe spending half a
year in an earlier century. Its not the kind of thing the average
reader takes on lightly. But once you find you have a taste for
Stephensons broad range of obsessive interests, his fine ear for
period and modern English prose and speech, and his gift for making
the improbably comic seem eminently human, the question no longer is
whether youll read his booksits when.
Contributing Editor Mike Godwin interviewed Stephenson, primarily via
e-mail, in late fall.
Reason: In The Baroque Cycle we see two different kinds of
nation-states at war with each other: traditional monarchies vs. the
modern mercantile state. Some readers see political themes in Snow
Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicone.g., that traditional
governmental institutions have collapsed or mutated into some less
central form. Is this something you see as inevitable?
Neal Stephenson: I can understand that if you are the sort of person
who spends a lot of time thinking about government and commerce, then
by reading Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and The Baroque
Cycle through that lens, and by squinting, holding the books at funny
angles, and jiggling them around, you might be able to perceive some
sort of common theme. But it is a stretch. The themes you mention are
so vast and so common to all societies and periods of history that I
would find it difficult to write a novel that did not touch on them in
In general I try to avoid the easy, the glib, and the oversimplified
in my books. I dont always succeed, but that is my goal. A way to
approach that goal is to try to see things through the eyes of
reasonably well-wrought characters. So, if Im writing a book set 350
years ago, when the old medieval system of titled nobility is losing
ground to a new power system based on international trade, then I try
to get inside the heads of people who lived in those days and see
things their way. Similarly, if I am writing something set in a
high-tech world where the nation-state seems to be losing ground as
compared to other sorts of entities, such as NGOs or traditional
cultural groups, Im going to do my best to reflect that. It is the
sort of thing that intelligent people think about from time to time,
and it would seem stilted to portray otherwise intelligent and
self-aware characters who never think about such topics.
Much of what has gone on since 9/11, not only here but in other
places, like the Netherlands, looks to me like a reversal of the
trends of the previous couple of decades. Government is getting more
powerful, and its (perceived) usefulness and relevance to the average
person is more obvious than it was 10 years ago.
Reason: Snow Crash is almost a parody of a libertarian future. Do you
think the affinity-group-based societies you outline in that book are
on their way? Do you see that as a warning note, or a natural state
were progressing toward?
Stephenson: I dreamed up the Snow Crash world 15 years ago as a
thought experiment, and I tweaked it to be as funny and outrageous and
graphic novellike as I could make it. Such a world wouldnt be stable
unless each little burbclave had the ability to defend itself from all
external threats. This is not plausible, barring some huge advances in
defensive technology. So I think that if I were seriously to address
your question, Do you see that as a warning note, or a natural state?,
I would be guilty of taking myself a little bit too seriously.
Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian
instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable
opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost
as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has
to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost
as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station
for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a
triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists
interact with each other in a way that Im afraid might turn out to be
Reason: You gave a speech at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy
Conference a few years back in which you suggested that the focus on
issues like encryption was too narrow, and that we should give more
attention to what theologian Walter Wink calls domination systems.
This surprised some of the attendees, partly because it reached
outside the usual privacy/free speech issue set and partly because,
hey, you were citing a theologian. What brought you to Walter Wink,
and what other light do you think theologians can shed on our
approaches to government?
Stephenson: This probably wont do anything to endear me or Wink to thE
typical reason reader, but I was made aware of him by a Jesuit priest
of leftish tendencies who had been reading his stuff.
Its almost always a disaster when a novelist decides to become
political. So let me just make a few observations here on a human
levelwhich is within my comfort zone as a novelistand leave it at
Its clear that the body politic is subject to power disorders. By this
I mean events where some person or group suddenly concentrates a lot
of power and abuses it. Power disorders frequently come as a surprise,
and cause a lot of damage. This has been true since the beginning of
human history. Exactly how and why power disorders occur is poorly
We are in a position akin to that of early physicians who could see
that people were getting sick but couldnt do anything about it,
because they didnt understand the underlying causes. They knew of a
few tricks that seemed to work. For example, nailing up plague houses
tended to limit the spread of plague. But even the smart doctors
tended to fall under the sway of pet theories that were wrong, such as
the idea that diseases were caused by imbalanced humors or bad air.
Once that happened, they ignored evidence that contradicted their
theory. They became so invested in that theory that they treated any
new ideas as threats. But from time to time youd see someone like John
Snow, who would point out, Look, everyone who draws water from Well X
is getting cholera. Then he went and removed the pump handle from Well
X and people stopped getting cholera. They still didnt understand germ
theory, but they were getting closer.
We can make a loose analogy to the way that people have addressed the
problem of power disorders. We dont really understand them. We know
that there are a couple of tricks that seem to help, such as the rule
of law and separation of powers. Beyond that, people tend to fall
under the sway of this or that pet theory. And so youll get perfectly
intelligent people saying, All of our problems would be solved if only
the workers controlled the means of production, or what have you. Once
theyve settled on a totalizing political theory, they see everything
through that lens and are hostile to other notions.
Winks interpretation of the New Testament is that Jesus was not a
pacifist milksop but (among other things) was encouraging people to
resist the dominant power system of the era, that being the Roman
Empire. Mind you, Wink is no fan of violence either, and he devotes a
lot of ink to attacking what he calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence,
which he sees as a meme by which domination systems are perpetuated.
But he is clearly all in favor of people standing up against
oppressive power systems of all stripes.
Carrying that forward to the present day, Wink takes a general
interest in people in various places who are getting the shaft. He
develops an empirical science of shaftology, if you will. (Of course
he doesnt call it shaftology; thats just my name for it.) He goes all
over the world and looks at different kinds of people who are
obviously getting the shaft, be they blacks in apartheid South Africa,
South American peasants, or residents of inner-city neighborhoods
dominated by gangs. He looks for connections among all of these
situations and in this way develops the idea of domination systems.
Its not germ theory and modern antibiotics, but it is, at the very
least, a kind of epidemiology of power disorders. And even people who
cant stomach the religious content of his work might take a few cues
from this epidemiological, as opposed to theoretical/ideological,
Reason: The Baroque Cycle suggests that there are sometimes great
explosions of creativity, followed by that creative energys
recombining and eventual crystallization into new formssocial,
technological, political. Are we seeing a similar degree of explosive
progress in the modern U.S.?
Stephenson: The success of the U.S. has not come from one consistent
cause, as far as I can make out. Instead the U.S. will find a way to
succeed for a few decades based on one thing, then, when that peters
out, move on to another. Sometimes there is trouble during the
transitions. So, in the early-to-mid-19th century, it was all about
expansion westward and a colossal growth in population. After the
Civil War, it was about exploitation of the worlds richest resource
base: iron, steel, coal, the railways, and later oil.
For much of the 20th century it was about science and technology. The
heyday was the Second World War, when we had not just the Manhattan
Project but also the Radiation Lab at MIT and a large cryptology
industry all cooking along at the same time. The war led into the
nuclear arms race and the space race, which led in turn to the
revolution in electronics, computers, the Internet, etc. If the
emblematic figures of earlier eras were the pioneer with his Kentucky
rifle, or the Gilded Age plutocrat, then for the era from, say, 1940
to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. Its no
coincidence that this era is also when science fiction has flourished,
and in which the whole idea of the Future became current. After all,
if youre living in a technocratic society, it seems perfectly
reasonable to try to predict the future by extrapolating trends in
science and engineering.
It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of
this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left
distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in
popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a
generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently
decided that it doesnt care for some of what scientists have to say.
So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings
of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people dont
belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence,
hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details,
and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by
Since our prosperity and our military security for the last three or
four generations have been rooted in science and technology, it would
therefore seem that were coming to the end of one era and about to
move into another. Whether its going to be better or worse is
difficult for me to say. The obvious guess would be worse. If I really
wanted to turn this into a jeremiad, I could hold forth on that for a
while. But as mentioned before, this country has always found a new
way to move forward and be prosperous. So maybe well get lucky again.
In the meantime, efforts to predict the future by extrapolating trends
in the world of science and technology are apt to feel a lot less
compelling than they might have in 1955.
Reason: Is The Baroque Cycle science fiction?
Stephenson: Labels such as science fiction are most useful when
employed for marketing purposes, i.e., to help readers find books that
they are likely to enjoy reading. With that in mind, Id say that
people who know and love science fiction will recognize these books as
coming out of that tradition. So the science fiction label is useful
for them as a marketing term. However, non-S.F. readers are also
reading and enjoying these books, and I seem to have a new crop of
readers who arent even aware that I am known as an S.F. writer. So it
would be an error to be too strict or literal-minded about application
of the science fiction label.
Reason: To some of your longstanding readers, it may be a bit of a
jolt to find themselves in the 17th- and 18th-century settings of this
new trilogy. Is there any clear line connecting your earlier novels to
your most recent ones?
Stephenson: The progression from my earlier S.F. works set in the
future to The Baroque Cycle is easy to explain:
The earlier books like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age
actually had a lot of historical content in them.
Obviously, I was paying a lot of attention to information
Historical novels, such as alternate histories, are common
in the S.F. world.
The Second World War has been, and continues to be,
fertile ground for novelists and other artists.
Taking into account all of the above, it was reasonable,
verging on obvious, to write a historical S.F. novel about the origins
of information technology in the Second World War (Cryptonomicon).
That book also ended up having a lot to do with money.
As I was working on Cryptonomicon I became aware that a)
Leibniz had done a lot of work with information technology and b)
Newton had done a lot of work on money, and of course I already knew
that c) Leibniz and Newton hated each other and had a philosophical
war. When I began to study the period of time in which these two men
lived I discovered that d) it was a fascinating epoch in many, many
ways. So again, it became reasonable, verging on obvious, to write
something about that topic. But the complexity of the era was such
that I didnt think I could tell the story I wanted to tell in a single
book. And yet the excitement and splendor of the times were such that
I hoped I might be able to sustain a reasonably interesting narrative
over a large number of pages.
Reason: One of the things you discover reading The Baroque Cycle is
just how much of todays understanding of the worldnot just the
physical world, but the social and monetary worldsderives from ideas
that were current in the time of Newton and Leibniz. Was that a
surprise to you when you were researching the period?
Stephenson: The initial surprise was that Leibniz had done so much
computer-related work so early. I got that from George Dysons Darwin
Among the Machines. When I began to read about the period, I was
surprised by the sophistication of the Amsterdam stock market and the
complexity of the Lyonnaise financial system. But the greatest single
surprise for me was the welter of ideas contained in [Robert] Hookes
Micrographia. Hooke talks about an incredibly wide range of topics in
One is how we ought to define thinkingwhat is intelligence? He cites
the way that flies are drawn to the smell of meat, which seems like
intelligent behavior. But then he cites the counterexample of a trap
that kills an animal. To a primitive person who didnt know that the
trap had been invented by a person, it might seem that the trap itself
possessed intelligence and will. Of course, this isnt really the case;
its just a dumb mechanism reflecting the intelligence of him who
created it. But, Hooke says, who are we to say that a fly isnt just a
more complicated mechanism that is designed to fly toward the smell of
meat? In which case it isnt being intelligent at all, only reflecting
the intelligence of the Creator.
The final surprise Ill mention is that Leibnizs system of doing
physics, which is based on fundamental units called monads, has got a
few things in common with the modern notion of computational physics,
or it from bit. Furthermore, Leibnizs rejection of the concept of
absolute space and time, which for a long time seemed a little bit
loony to people, enjoyed a revival beginning with Ernst Mach.
One could argue that people like Leibniz and the others were able to
come up with some good ideas because they werent afraid to think
metaphysically. In those days, metaphysics was still a respected
discipline and considered as worthwhile as mathematics. It got the
stuffing kicked out of it through much of the 20th century and became
a byword for mystical, obscurantist thinking, but in recent decades it
has been rehabilitated somewhat.
At bottom, anyone who asks questions like Why does the universe seem
to obey laws? or Why does mathematics work so well in modeling the
physical universe? is engaging in metaphysics. People like Newton and
Leibniz were as well-equipped for this kind of thinking as anyone
today, and so it is interesting to read and think about their
metaphysics. Seventeenth-century chemistry may have been rudimentary,
and of only historical interest today, but 17th-century philosophy is
highly developed and still interesting to read.
Reason: The Baroque Cycle is an unusual work of fiction in that it
includes an extensive bibliography. Were you pre-emptively answering
critics who might not appreciate how much of these books was drawn
Stephenson: I didnt anticipate (and so far have not seen) any such
line of attack from critics and so made no effort to pre-empt it. It
just seemed obvious to me that anyone who actually bothered to read
The Baroque Cycle must have an interest in that era and might want to
do some further reading, and so as long as I was killing trees I
figured Id try to save them some time and hassle by supplying a few
pointers on where they might look.
Reason: Your Newton and Leibniz (and the fictional Daniel Waterhouse)
are remarkable characters because of their deep interest in almost
everything around them. Are there modern figures who in your opinion
show that range of interests?
Stephenson: To be interested in too many things is not conducive to
professional advancement in the sciences today. You cant write a
general Ph.D. dissertation. You have to pick something very specific.
What does happen from time to time is that youll have one scientist
working on a very specific problem in one field, and another working
on what seems to be an altogether different problem in another field,
and somehow a spark will jump between them and theyll end up writing a
Freeman Dyson and his son George Dyson are two people with
extraordinarily broad scope. Beyond that, it is difficult to
generalize. One encounters high-tech geeks, lawyers, ministers,
businesspeople, soldiers, and construction workers who have made
themselves extremely erudite by reading a lot of history, science, and
philosophy. In an earlier era, people like these might have gravitated
to the Royal Society, and indeed one of the many remarkable things
about the early Royal Society was its ability to gather in such
people, combined with its ability to identify and marginalize
enthusiasts (cranks) while fostering the ones who had something to
contribute. Modern-day scientific institutions tend to value
specialization. But that is an unavoidable consequence of the
advancement that has taken place in all sciences in the last 350
Reason: A critic once said of Thomas Pynchon that he was one of the
few modern novelists for whom what the characters do for a living is
more defining than what their emotional relationships are. It seems to
me that you have that same focus. In The Baroque Cycle, the biggest
romantic relationship in Daniel Waterhouses life occurs mostly
offstage, unless you count his difficult friendship with Isaac Newton.
Stephenson: Theres a false dichotomy embedded in that. Its possible to
have an emotional relationship with what you do for a living. And this
is especially true when you work with other people, because naturally
you form emotional relationships with those people, which get all
tangled up with your relationship to the work itself.
Daniel Waterhouse has all sorts of emotional relationships with
people. It is true that his romantic relationships with women play
little overt role in the book. But hes got a quite complex web of
relationships to his father and to the rest of his family, as well as
to people like the Bolstroods, who are so close that they might as
well be family. And over the course of the story he develops
relationships with people like Wilkins, Hooke, Oldenburg, Newton, and
Leibniz. The book is much more about those relationships than what
Daniel does for a living. We actually see very little of what Daniel
does for a living and much more of his interactions with these other
people. The reason he is summoned back from Boston in the opening
chapters of Quicksilver is precisely because he is known to have
relationships with Newton and Leibniz that no one else has.
Reason: In the last decade or two, theres been a surge of fiction set
in the 17th century: Tremains Restoration, Pears An Instance of the
Fingerpost, Chevaliers Girl with a Pearl Earring. Is there something
about the era that speaks with particular significance to the 21st
Stephenson: The glib answer would be that this is such a broad
question that I could only answer it by writing a big fat trilogy set
during this era. And if I try to answer this question discursively,
thats what its going to turn into. So Ill fall back on saying that it
just feels interesting to me.
Here are a few specifics. The medieval is still very much alive and
well during this period. People are carrying swords around. Military
units have archers. Saracens snatch people from European beaches and
carry them off to slavery. There are Alchemists and Cabalists. Great
countries are ruled by kings who ride into battle wearing armor. Much
of the human landscapethe cities and architectureare medieval. And yet
the modern world is present right next to all of this in the form of
calculus, joint-stock companies, international financial systems, etc.
This cant but be fascinating to a novelist.
Some older systems have reached a splendid apotheosis. Probably the
most splendid is the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. Others
mentioned include the Spanish Empire, the Mogul Empire, and the
Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately it was not possible to explore all of
these in very much detail in these books without making the cycle five
times as long as it was already.
At the same time, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that all of
those great systems were peaking and going into decline. The most
conspicuous example, again, is Louis XIVs version of the French
monarchy, which held together as long as he was there to run it. But
he was one of a kind, and as soon as he died it all began to unravel
and ceased to exist in a few decades.
Again with hindsight, we can see that the new structures and systems
that supplanted the old ones were being established during this
period. And they were being established in some unlikely places by
some unlikely people. The role of persecuted religious minoritiesJews,
Huguenots, Puritans, Armeniansis especially interesting here.
Thats all to give some explanation of why the period is interesting to
me. Of course, I cant speak for the other writers you have mentioned.
Reason: In The Baroque Cycle, with some exceptions, you stick to a
modern, comic mode. Since its clear from your parodic passages that
you can do period voices when you want to, why did you choose to make
the language so modern?
Stephenson: The Three Musketeers has a distinctly 19th-century flavor,
even though its set in the 17th century. Shakespeares Julius Caesar
reads like an Elizabethan play, not like an ancient Roman history. Im
hesitant to draw such comparisons because there is always the critic
who jumps in with the cheap shot: Oh, look, hes comparing himself to
Shakespeare. So as a parenthetical aside to those who think that way,
Ill stipulate that Im not a Shakespeare or even a Dumas, but I am
capable of learning from them.
I could have tried to write the entire Baroque Cycle in Jacobean
English, but at some point Id have had to ask myself, Who am I
kidding? Everyone knows this was written in the 21st century. The
sensibility from which its written is that of the high-tech modern
world. To purge the whole cycle of all traces of modern English would
have seemed forced and absurd. So I just wrote it in whatever language
seemed best to get the story across, which in some places was
modern-sounding English and in other places was period English.
Reason: There are some mysteries in the trilogy that you dont fully
Stephenson: Mysteries and unresolved questions are a part of real
life, and so its OK for them to exist in novels. As a matter of fact,
Im inclined to be a bit suspicious of any novel in which everything
gets tidily resolved at the end. It doesnt feel right for me to do
this. So I typically leave some things unresolved. Its not an
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