Neal Stephenson is a name that shouldn’t need much in the way of introduction to readers of speculative literature - five of his last six novels have been New York Times bestsellers. His latest book Some Remarks is non-fiction - a collection of essays, articles and interviews on everything from the history of science and today’s current lack of innovation to movies and the boom of geek culture.
Stephenson recently grabbed headlines with the announcement of Clang, a Kickstarter-funded video game that aims to be the “ Guitar Hero of sword-fighting.” He was recently here in the UK promoting Some Remarks and the paperback edition of his last novel Reamde, and I was lucky enough to grab a couple of hours with him over drinks to discuss all these subjects plus more: including the problems facing contemporary science fiction writers and the long awaited movie adaptation of his 1992 cyberpunk classic Snow Crash.
Tim Maughan: One of the things I’m really interested in talking about is Clang. I think it surprised a lot of people that you announced it, though perhaps not your fans....
Neal Stephenson: It sort of surprised us. We’d been working on it for a little while...
Well, In one form or another for quite a few years, at least five years. In terms of this specific incarnation of it - thats maybe a 2 years old thing. We had sought to advance it by more traditional means but that didn’t work out. But during that time Kickstarter was coming out of nowhere as this exciting way of financing things, so we kind of spontaneously decided to roll the dice and throw all our efforts behind that.
In Innovation Starvation (an essay in Some Remarks) you talk about investment being risk adverse - do you think Kickstarter counters that or do you think in a ways it compounds it, in that it needs to appeal to consumers straight away?
Well so far the different projects being financed by Kickstarter are so diverse, and the whole thing is so new, that there isn’t a long enough track record and even if there were it would be kind of difficult to compare the apples to the oranges to the pineapples. I was struck by the diligence of the would-be donors, I hadn’t really expected that. The idealized image one gets of Kickstarter is that you just throw your idea out there and the money magically rains down on your head and you’re ready to go. Which may be true of some projects but in our case we got a lot of detailed questions from would-be donors and many of them were exactly the kind of questions an investor would ask as part of a due diligence process. And so I think that the analysis was comparable if we’d got conventional investment.
There’s a quote from you in the book where you say “actually what’s interesting about money is it doesn’t seem to have changed much at all.” Do you think Kickstarter is a change?
In that quote I’m saying that people have been doing very sophisticated things with investment and securities for hundreds of years - I don’t think its a change on that order. Kickstarter is a... it’s certainly a new thing in reaching a lot of people and aggregating a lot of contributions. But as I see it the problem that we’re stuck in now is just what we were talking about - capitalists claim that they’re very risk adverse but in reality they’re throwing away millions of dollars on absolutely hair-brained hedging strategies and over-complicated financial structures, so in terms of what they actually do they’re foolhardy with money, but if you try and get them to invest in new things then they claim that they’re risk adverse.
I’m very curious about the actual mechanics of Clang, but I imagine that’s something you’re trying to keep close to your chest....
Well, as part of this impromptu due diligence process we actually divulged quite a bit. So I’m happy to talk about that, and if it feels like I’m giving away too much....
Okay. So “Guitar Hero for Swords” - how literal is that? Is it going to be something a casual gamer can pick up and swing around and get somewhere?
Well, yeah... that part HAS to be there, otherwise no one will learn it. And in a sense that’s the easy bit - every sword fighting game has that, where you can just keep hitting a button until the other guy dies.
So...you could just do that (mimes a very basic sword swing) and if the other guy is just doing that, the person who does it enough times will win....
Okay. So will there be a tutorial/training aspect of it so that you pick more advanced moves?
Yeah, totally. There has to be.
And initially its going to be multiplayer only?
Yeah. Because otherwise we would have to build an AI to fight you, and we don’t have the budget for that.
So the control is based purely on the sword positioning - there’s no Kinect-style body tracking?
Correct. So it has to recognize what’s basically a gesture. So at any actual point in the fight, depending on what position your character is in, you’ve got a limited number of moves you can do so the system has to be capable of recognizing—of distinguishing—between a finite number of possible moves.
So it is like Guitar Hero in that sense...in that you’re not free-fighting with a sword, you’re pulling off combos in a way....
Yeah. You’re playing certain chords. And the gesture you make with the sword basically determines which move you pull off.
Okay...so there’ll be some clue on screen, some visual guide, about where you need to be positioning the sword.
Yeah, exactly. You got it. That’s the idea. We’ve played with it enough at a sort of demo level to think that it’s doable. With the budget we’ve got we can’t do much more than a sort of playable demo....
I mean, you’ve raised an impressive amount of money, but having worked in games I know it’s not a massive amount of money.
Right. If we were starting from scratch then we could easily burn through that much just thrashing around. We’ve actually already done all the thrashing around. So we can get underway with the real thing pretty soon.
On “Innovation Starvation” and the future:
The essay in Some Remarks, “Innovation Starvation,” opened up a lot of questions for me. You talk about how an academic had said to you that science fiction had to be more optimistic to produce these hieroglyphs, right?
Yeah, the term came out of a conversation with Jim Karkanias at Microsoft - that there were certain kinds of iconic images that came out of SF that were sort of like hieroglyphs. So that just became the code name we ended up giving the project. It needed a name.
So tell me a bit more about the project. It’s ultimately to be an anthology, right?
Yeah the idea is to get a group of writers together—some of whom might be the usual subjects, some I hope will be non-obvious choices—to write fiction in a somewhat more positive, constructive way about things that might get done in the future.
And do you see this as different from what Bruce Sterling calls “design fiction”?
It’s certainly not incompatible. Design fiction would be a fine way to execute at least one of these ideas. I’m assuming they would mainly just be stories, but they would be cross-linked to engineering, scientific content that would talk about how to actually execute these projects. The stuff that resonates hardest tends to be backed up by some research and calculations.
The classic example is Have Spacesuit Will Travel, where they get on this ship that’s going to the moon where it accelerates at 1g until they’re halfway there and then flips over and accelerates at 1g until they land. So they’re at 1g all the way there apart from the sickening moment in the middle when it flips over. Now I haven’t checked the math on that, but I’m assuming Heinlein or somebody did the math, and was able to inform that story with some plausible reality, and I think that kind of science fiction works better when that is there, and I’m hoping that we can cultivate some relationships with staff at Arizona State or wherever we can find them that provide that kind of backing material. In my case I’m working on a idea about a tower 20km high....
For launching from the top of the tower?
That’s one of the things you could do with it, yeah. One of the professors at Arizona State is trying to work out if that’s possible, and if so what it would look like. And in the course of doing that we’re finding some interesting, non-obvious information about such a project.
One of the examples you mention in the book is counter to that in a way - you talked about Gibson and cyberspace, and how that kick-started the whole dot com thing, and he’s always been intentionally quite sketchy on the science side of things. And another example that springs to mind is Snow Crash - with how it obviously inspired Google Earth and Second Life. Now I don’t like to use the term dystopian for either of those books, but neither of them are particularly optimistic books either.
Yeah. I mean in a narrow sense they are optimistic - optimistic about what people could do with the science. The social message isn’t necessarily optimistic. But that’s alright, really what I’m more thinking of is the technical side, of getting things built.
In All Geek To Me you say “but at first hint of politics they’ll jump back behind their shield wall - wait until the noise stops.” I kind of thought you were being intentionally ambiguous in that statement. I couldn’t really judge if that was a regretful statement or almost a compliment?
Well, I think it’s...maybe more a statement about where politics is in my country right now, which is highly polarized and there are large areas where it hasn’t intruded and you can pretend its not happening, but all the time there are political weasels lurking around the edge that are always trying to find some way to come in and appropriate something and ruin it. For everyone. Because everything becomes stupid and banal when that happens. That’s kind of what I was alluding to. And geeks are particularly sensitive to that, and when they sense it happening they kind of hide.
But is there something you’d like to see the geek community mobilized politically for?
Well...its not for me to determine. I mean....
I mean your science fiction writing has never shied away from politics...not partisan politics, but from political thought and concerns...it’s always dealt with social issues, economics, things like that.
Well yeah...I try to be very cagey about that sort of thing, because nothing ruins a novel like suddenly realizing “this guy’s got an axe to grind,” so I’m very aware of not doing that. As far as geeks are concerned I think they’re all just stunned and aghast at the turn that politics has taken in my country towards a frank disregard of scientific reality. And a pride in denying it.
It’s a very strange thing to watch from over here....
Right. And geeks are pretty self-mobilizing when confronted with that kind of thing.
What’s interesting is that you said in the book a few times that geek entertainment is becoming more mainstream. All Geek To Me was written in ’07, your Gresham College Lecture on geek culture was from ’08... do you think geek culture has changed in the last few years? Is there a sense it has become even more mainstream and commodified, as Hollywood, etc. has tried to force it into an identifiable demographic?
Oh sure—the appearance at ComicCon is a big mark on the calendar for big movies—y’know, “we have to get principal photography completed by such-and-such date so we can show something at ComicCon.” It’s very powerful.
Do you think that’s a damaging thing to a notion of geek culture or community? Is there a danger everything gets reduced to marketable tropes? You make this distinction in the book about the difference between vegging out and geeking out - does it feel as things become more mainstream that there’s less of a distinction between the two?
The kinds of films that appeal to geeks have done so because they do a good job of containing both. By and large the reason they’re so successful is because they have no scruples about including material like dogfights or superheroes - they’ve no problem with embracing spectacle. They’ve always been good at that. Geeks are exquisitely sensitive to when someone is trying to manipulate them. You can’t really get away with much with these people. If they sense that you have wholeheartedly embraced them and done it right then they’ll love you forever, but if you come off as being calculating or exploitative then you’re toast.
[The thing with tropes is]...if you only give people what they are conscious of wanting, then they’ll sort of claim to be satisfied when really they’re not. Eventually you get in trouble for that, so there really is a requirement to deliver something surprising.
On science fiction:
With your recent novels you’ve done historical fiction, and Reamde was basically present day. Do you think you’ll ever write a future-based novel again? Is that something you’re thinking about doing?
I’m thinking about it, yeah. [The] epiphany we had was that today’s science fiction writers are being asked to predict the outcomes of innumerable futures in huge areas—like biotech, genetic engineering, computers—which is a lot more than was asked of Robert A Heinlein. He was like, “Okay, there’s going to be rockets. Go. See what you can make of that.” There was like a structured plan for the future—a timeline—that just had to be filled in by Heinlein and company. But now what we’ve got a several different areas of development that have these vast, innumerable potential consequences. That’s a harder job.
Is that a turn-on or a turn-off for you?
Well, I think it forces a different strategy. You’ve got to find a way to limit the universe of possible outcomes. So I think that’s why the current generation of SF writers is somewhat daunted; there’s too much to do.
Do you think that’s also why there’s been a flurry of steampunk or historical fantasy?
Yeah, going back. A retreat into the past. Or into the FAR future...where anything is possible....
...the post singularity, science-is-magic future....
Yeah. Or post-apocalyptic stuff. “Okay, well NONE of that is going to happen because there’s only 5 humans left.” That makes everything really simple again.
The thing that occurred to me about Reamde is the similarity with (William) Gibson’s last few books. It’s kind of speculative science fiction in a modern day setting...was that a conscious decision?
There’s not so much conscious, tactical thinking going on - a lot of it is pretty impulsive. In the case of Reamde I just had this idea that came to me a few years ago, about this Russian mobster that decides he’s going to get revenge on the kid that wrote the virus that wiped out his computer. And I couldn’t get that out of my head so I just decided to write it. Pretty much everyone over-estimates how much strategy and thought goes into these decisions. It’s shockingly random.
One of the most warming things in my career has been... one day I went into a bookstore and I looked out over the audience, and there was grey hair all over teh place. And that was after the cyberpunk kids had given copies of Cryptonomicon to their dads or uncles that were in the war. “Dad, I know you think I’m weird, I’ve got the blue mohawk and the pirecings, you don’t understand what I do or the books I read, but I want you to read this because I think you’ll like it.” So dad or Uncle Jim or whoever reads it, and it’s a bonding moment across generations.
I’d not thought of it like that, that’s pretty cool.
Yeah, it is. And its not like that was conscious, like I planned for it to happen, but I think it did happen. And then the historical novels brought in another demographic, to use a crass term.
On the Snow Crash movie:
So there’s talk of a Snow Crash movie again. Do you know much about that, do they keep you in the loop? Joe Cornish is meant to be involved.
Oh yeah. I’ve met with Joe. The story is that its been for a long time in the custodianship of the Kennedy/Marshall Company, and “’ve always felt comfortable with that because I knew they wouldn’t just screw it up. They can afford to wait until the time is right. Which is kind of what’s been happening. It’s good that we took our time, because if we’d done it in the 90s there would be this crushing expository burden of ”There’s this thing called the internet! This is what it is! Lots of people can be logged on to it at the the same time!“ It would have been excruciating and taken up half the movie. And a few years later it would have seemed sadly dated and wrong. Now we don’t have to do that. We don’t need to explain what an avatar is...none of that has to be explained. And the graphics can be whatever we want them to be. The graphics won’t look stupid and old and dated....
They don’t even have to look like graphics.
Right. Exactly. We can just film it. And so I think there’s huge benefits going to be reaped by having waited 20 years. And Joe so far has come into it with a great attitude. He’s not the sort of guy that feels like he needs to stomp all over something to make it his.
I was super-excited when I heard he was involved. I’m a big fan, he’s got a huge cult following here. Have you seen Attack The Block?
Yeah. It was the first thing I did when I heard he was doing it. He’s a great choice, I think. It’s a non-obvious pick that in retrospect fits perfectly. Like ”Oh yeah, of course." And he’s funny, right?
Oh yeah, he’s a very funny guy.
I mean one way to go with this would be to make it bombastic - and he’s not going to do that. He’s more subtle.
Is there a timescale for it yet? Are you involved in the writing?
No, Joe’s the writer. The only schedule that matters is that the big production houses have got their key release dates. It’s like landing slots at Heathrow, right? You know what plane is going to be at what gate two years in advance. It’s the same with movies. That’s the only thing that matters, and I doubt that’s been decided yet. It’s exciting. I’ve got no reservations about it.
When he’s not writing for Tor.com, Tim Maughan writes science fiction — his critically acclaimed book Paintwork is out now, and has been picking up support from the likes of Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod. So you should probably go buy it already.