“Hi,” the man’s voice said, somewhat breathlessly. The mic squawked and, presumably, he adjusted it. I couldn’t see him, but if he looked like most of the crowd, he was young, white, and thin, wearing trendy but understated metrosexual work clothes – think BBC’s Sherlock, if you haven’t seen Bay Area fashion lately. The speaker took a deep breath and plunged into his question.
“Do you think Jesus Christ was a post-Singularity human from an alternate dimension?”
Silence. Everyone transferred their attention to the man standing on the small dais at the front of the room. A decade or two older than most of the crowd, he wore a sleeveless vest and cargo khakis bulging with the modern traveler’s toolkit of electronics. His head was shaved, offsetting the somewhat villainous grey-and-black goatee he wore.
“In the Multiverse, anything is possible,” he replied smoothly. This was hardly the weirdest question he’d faced.
The crowd – a hundred plus? I’m terrible at off the cuff estimation – cackled. This was what we’d come for. Event delivers.
I’m a huge Neal Stephenson fangirl. Orion was almost named after a character from Cryptonomicon, and I can quote entire scenes from his books. I know far more than the average American does about World War II codebreaking, the origins of the stock market, tessellations, and currencies. So when I heard that he was doing a book signing in San Francisco, I had to go, four-month-old or no four-month-old.
My bibliophile friends may disown me for admitting this, but I’d never been to a book signing before. I’ll buy books all day long, but deliberately standing in a crowd is, like, the opposite of books. I’m slightly agoraphobic and introverted and honestly the whole thing sounds pretty terrible.
But. Neal Stephenson! The one living author I would go stand in line for!
So G got to hang out with his son solo, and I put on a fancy bra and a t-shirt (the stay at home nursing equivalent of black tie, I tell you) and headed over to the city with my battered, beloved copy of Crypto tucked in my bag in the hopes that he’d sign “outside” books too.
Stephenson has had the “New York Times bestseller” logo on his books for fifteen years, but he had never gotten the top-tier launch treatment before. Over the years I’ve ended up on various official email lists and social media notification groups, and they all combined to alert me about the new book launch. That’s what they’re supposed to do.
But his publisher, Harper Collins, put up a shiny new web page too. And bought an endless stream of Facebook ads. And prodded the author into a 12-city book tour. It’s much more publicity than I’m used to seeing about my favorite sci-fi author.
And when I looked around at the crowd at the signing, I realized why: Stephenson isn’t considered a sci-fi author anymore. I was dressed like a new-mom slob in a writer nerd tee (yes, Aarene – I wore the Metaphors be with you shirt!) and I was by far the worst-dressed attendee. There was one traditional, old-fashioned nerd couple – utilikilt, buckled boots, waist length ponytails on both, tee shirt from a con – but everybody else was very much “tech professional.” I was reading my e-copy of the book on my phone before the author came out, and I saw a few others intently staring at their screens, but most of the audience hadn’t even started the book. (It had been out for two whole days, FWIW.)
So Neal Stephenson, of all the possible sci-fi authors, has gone mainstream.
*It’s sevenev.es, and of course it doesn’t show up very highly in google rankings. I had to go dig it out of my email! This is why print publishing is dying, you bozos.
For once in my life, I thought up a good question on the fly. When the mic came around to me, I said, “So years ago I read in an interview that you wrote the Baroque Cycle longhand.”
“I did,” he said. (Neal Stephenson, that is. Said. To me!)
“I was wondering if you ever went back to a word processor, and if writing that much longhand changed your workflow?” (See? I told you it was a pretty good question!)
“So I wrote the Baroque Cycle and Anathem in longhand, with a quill pen, then after I’d done the first pass of editing, I typed them into Emacs.” The audience, which had murmured “oooh” at the thought of writing over a million words on paper, exploded into applause – Emacs is a very, very old school Unix editor.
“For Reamde and Seveneves, I wrote in Scrivener.” More applause. Scrivener is what I use to write when I’m on the laptop – I’ve run a couple hundred thousand words through it.
“Writing is a process for me. I found that overall, I’m just as fast writing longhand. There’s a bottleneck where the words go down on paper, but that just means you’re spending more time thinking about them as you’re writing them, and it ends up being just as fast for me.”
I nodded. Not that it was, like, a real one on one conversation, but now that I’m writing it up on my own blog I can pretend. That’s fascinating, Neal – I’ve noticed the same thing! I don’t write longhand, but I do spend a ton of time thinking about what I want to write, mulling over my phrasing and the order of ideas and the general topic, before I finally get to thumb-type the post on my phone while I nurse Orion.
“Each of my books has its own process and setting where I write it, and I usually move on afterwards. After Reamde, I built a library to write the next book in, but I ended up not using it and writing Seveneves instead. I need to go back and use that library and write the book I intended to write next.”
You know you’re a writer if you read that paragraph and think, “Damn. I wish I had a library to write in. Oh well, I’d just get sidetracked looking at cat gifs anyway.”
I’d read a much more recent interview with Stephenson, which of course I can’t be bothered to find because I’m thumb-typing this on my phone, where he talked about how recent science fiction is, to put it bluntly, disappointing the world. Golden Age stuff – think early Heinlein – was all about rockets into the solar system, and asteroid mining, and colonies on Ganymede. Sci-fi that came out when I was growing up was already moving away from that – there was a shift toward FTL (faster-than-light travel) as a fundamental plot device.
There are some extremely entertaining themes that can only be explored with FTL as a premise – you cannot have a thrilling space dogfight at realistic speeds. And FTL gives writers other worlds, and it gives them large enough time scales to talk about the Singularity and beyond – it’s great! But Stephenson’s point was that it turns science fiction into fantasy.
A good story sucks you in and lets you imagine yourself in the world the author’s created. But the difference between a lunar colony and a post-Singularity FTL seedship really is “maybe in five decades” versus “maybe in five millennia.” Near-future sci-fi has the power to inspire kids to bring about that future.
However, I’d just come off of a several month-long search for good sci-fi set in our own solar system, and all I could think was, “but that shit is boring, dude.” Compared to Iain Banks’ or Peter Hamilton’s sprawling – and yes, fine, fantastical – space operas, some drama about asteroid miners seems like small potatoes indeed.
And then I read Seveneves, and I wished I’d had some institutional support to actually teach me real math, and I wish I’d gone to engineering school instead of wasting a lot of time and money in the humanities.
So! Spoilers and discussion of themes below the cut. Click on, or read the book and come back later. (I just installed the WordPress app, so I can approve and write comments easily on my phone, so I will hopefully be a lot more interactive here!)