Neal Stephenson's Past,Present, and Future

The author of the widely praised Baroque Cycle on science, markets, and post-9/11 America.

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 (1992's Snow Crash, in which computer viruses start invading hacker minds). It wasn't his debut--he'd published two earlier novels in the 1980s--but 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 you'll meet a well-muscled, shaven-headed, bearded fellow who's 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 trilogy--Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, collectively called The Baroque Cycle--and you'll have the uncanny sense that you're reading some new kind of science fiction. Actually, with every Stephenson book since Snow Crash, you feel that you're 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 Stephenson's similarly huge, cryptology-centered 1999 novel Cryptonomicon. Like Cryptonomicon, the trilogy has attracted praise from mainstream critics as well as Stephenson's 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 astonishing."

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 liberal's heart. Reading it means reading three long, encyclopedic books and maybe spending half a year in an earlier century. It's not the kind of thing the average reader takes on lightly. But once you find you have a taste for Stephenson's 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 you'll read his books--it's 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 Cryptonomicon--e.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 some way.

In general I try to avoid the easy, the glib, and the oversimplified in my books. I don't 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 I'm 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, I'm 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 we're 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 novel like as I could make it. Such a world wouldn't 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 I'm afraid might turn out to be quite stable.

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 won't 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.

It's almost always a disaster when a novelist decides to become political. So let me just make a few observations here on a human level--which is within my comfort zone as a novelist--and leave it at that.

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    one remarkable feature of The BAroque Cycle is Stephenson's ability to write demotic modern English - the inflections and jokes are typically London. Come on Neal, surely you are English. It would be too much not only to research and write this amazing cycle but also to adopt an alien tongue for the modern passages. My copies of the cycle don't have the bibliography - is there a way I can download them?

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