Tea-Time with the Mayor of Des Moines


Neal Stephenson answers questions from the Slashdot crowd, including the all-important "In a fight between you and William Gibson, who would win?" Setting aside that ineffable exchange, the best line is probably this one: "In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she'd never heard of me was because I was famous."

NEXT: Blowing the Shofar

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  1. I hope this doesn't mean I'll be cast out of cyberspace, but I didn't like Cryptonomicon. I thought Stephenson was a very creative guy with a really cool idea for a book, but he kind of sucked as a writer. I couldn't even finish the book, and I haven't tried anything else by him. Some fairly painful dialogue, some absolutely agonizing imagery...blegh....

  2. J,

    I didn't like Crypto either, give Snow Crash a try...it's the one I usually steer folks too.

    Thanks for the link Jesse....I love his bit about Dante writers vs Beowulf writers, and how a successful and famous writer could be "unknown" to someone who only knows "academically" approved writers. (I can't help assigning the following tags-Dan Brown (very, Very lucky) Dante writer....Tom Robbins (very, very successful) a Beowulf writer.

  3. I tried Snow Crash, and couldn't make it through a third of it. "Hiro Protaganist." I hate that kind of crap.

  4. Wow. I couldn't put Cryptonomicon down. It consumed my entire weekend when I bought it.

    Indeed, I think I should treat myself to a redux.


  5. J, JDM, Try "The Diamond Age".

  6. Neal Stephenson:

    To me it seems a lot easier simply to invoke the First Amendment. (To protect hacking tools)

    Maybe, but certainly Amendment IX does:

    "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

    There is no constitutional provision for our government to ban hacking tools.

    ...cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called "literary" ... so I'm going to call them Dante writers... It's conventional to refer to... "commercial" novelists, but I hate that term, so I'm going to call them Beowulf writers.

    He attributes the advent of Beowulf type writers to the printing press, but the liberty to read and write was also necessary to generate the explosion of this type of writers. Also, it would have been more consistent for Stephenson to use, instead of "Beowulf writers", one of those great serialized novelists of the 19th Century. Perhaps; "Arthur Conan Doyle writers" would do well. Of course, there is some overlap between "literary" and "commercial" writers and not all institutions that support writers are coercive in the way that tax supported institutions are. The "Dante writers" (and other artists), whose popular works are subsidized by non-tax supported institutions are held to account by a process that tends to be more legitimate than the Dante writers whose works are subsidized by tax supported institutions.

    Full disclosure: The only fiction of Stephenson's
    that I read was Snow Crash. It was fun but I liked Gibson much more. I like the "feel" of cyberpunk as well. I got into it to the extent that I used to buy girl friends mirrorshades to wear.

  7. Interestingly, I've liked his more recent work after Snow Crash: Cryptonomicon, Baroque Cycle. Snow Crash was a roller coaster of a novel and great fun, but seems a bit immature now. His latest works (crypto, baroque) aren't even really science fiction. However, in the case of the Baroque Cycle, although I like it, I think I can objectively say that It's Not For Everyone(tm).


  8. I enjoy Stephenson's writing, but really don't like the way he ends books. But then, I'm the kind of guy who likes to continue farther in the characters' lives, and not too many books do that. Maybe with his books, and the richness of the explanations prior to the ending, I hoped he'd continue that a little farther. But alas, I was disappointed. I've read Crypto, Snow Crash, and The Diamond Age, so I'm guessing it's more his style than a failing of one particular book.

  9. I read both The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon, and they both suffered from the same problem: they didn't conclude. Both of them were engaging, for the most part, while they were going, but once they tried to end, they just couldn't. The end of the book was no different than the end of a chapter. They both needed a good 50 more pages to actually have a reasonably satisfying ending.

  10. His latest works (crypto, baroque) aren't even really science fiction.

    I hate hearing a comment like that because it implies that the book has moved a step up from less-important genre and is somehow more legit.

    Take it from someone who has read a wide variety of SF for the past 35 years, his recent books are SF. The style, the plotting, the focus on ideas, the depth of detail, an SF fan recognizes it in a second.

  11. Skeptikos, Zero Enna,

    Thanks for the suggestions; I'll check them out when I get a chance.

  12. In the Stephenson style, I recommend Matt Ruff books to readers, specifically Sewer, Gas and Electric (also of note libertarians, the book features a talking lamp programmed with an Ayn Rand AI). I believe Neil Stephenson gives the book a "mad props" blurb on the back cover.

  13. Okay, I skimmed the article but missed the reference to the Mayor of Des Moines. I go out for lunch a couple times a week, and the Mayor of Des Moines happens to eat at the same joint. Should I check with him?

    --Mark Lambert
    Des Moines, Iowa

  14. Mark Lambert,


    On his official web site, Stephenson riffs on the meaning of his fame as a bestselling author: "It helps to put this in perspective by likening me to the mayor of Des Moines, Iowa," he explains. "It's true of both the mayor of Des Moines and of me that, out of the world's population of some six billion people, there are a few hundred thousand who consider us important, and who recognize us by name. In the case of the mayor of Des Moines, that is simply the population of the Des Moines metropolitan area. In my case, it is the approximate number of people who are avid readers of my books. In addition, there might be as many as a million or two who would find my name vaguely familiar if they saw it; the same is probably true of the mayor of Des Moines."

  15. I've read and enjoyed (in this order) Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Zodiac and Quicksilver. I frequently re-read the first three. Haven't gotten around to reading Cryptonomicon. I pretty much enjoyed Quicksilver, but it hasn't really spurred me to go after the rest of the Baroque Cycle series.

    My one criticism of Stephenson is that, as others have mentioned, most of his books seem to come to a close with an awkward, abrupt clunk -- sort of like Monty Python sketches do. Although that hasn't kept me from enjoying Python, or Stephenson.

    "If Neal Stephenson fought William Gibson..." I read Gibson's Neuromancer, loved it, re-read it many times. I liked many of his short stories in the Burning Chrome collection, but couldn't get into Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive or any of his subsequent works.

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