The first line in any story about Neal Stephenson will reference his massive, massively complicated, and massively successful novels. And for good reason. In Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, and others, the author has written genre-defining (and genre-busting) fiction. But Stephenson is more than a novelist; he's also a thinker and a doer.
Two recent projects exemplify these qualities. Some Remarks, a remarkable collection of essays, interviews, a brief work of fiction, and a single new piece, finds Stephenson delving into his archives – something he rarely does – to highlight older pieces that tackle the topics of today: the coolness of geeks, the relevance of science fiction, the ambition of politicians. One of his other current endeavors is CLANG, a video game that hopes to reinvent a longtime Stephenson obsession, swordfighting interfaces. In a sprawling interview with The Verge, the author offered up some of his many plans and thoughts, including a new “research-heavy” novel, his trouble with Twitter, and why Kickstarter might be superior to venture capital.
You seem like you're constantly working on different projects. You're writing in the morning and tinkering in the afternoon. Now you have CLANG, which just raised more than $500,000 in a Kickstarter campaign. How do you keep it all straight? Is it a product of your personality that you're doing so many different things?
The last year or so, since I finished REAMDE, I've been working on some projects so I haven't been doing a lot of writing. That changed now because I'm under contract to write a book so I have to refocus things and get back to work. When I am in that normal work mode, it's pretty simple. I get up, eat breakfast, write for a couple of hours, and then I have to go do something else to get my mind off it. That something else can be a lot of different things, but it's usually something more of a geeky, technical nature.
Can you talk about the book you're working on now?
I'm not ready to say much about it.
You're just at the beginning stage?
"I think it's healthy to bring writing some kernel of story pretty early in the process."
You write about things that interest you. Are you surprised by the level of success you've achieved doing so?
I am. I was sort of oblivious to what was going on about 20 years ago when Snow Crash came out. I was aware that it was doing better than my previous books had done but that was it. It was a slow building book because it wasn't launched with a huge book tour or lots of publicity. It was more viral, I guess. It took a little while for it to become clear that it was going to be a game-changer careerwise.
How much research do you do before you start writing a book?
This one is going to be comparatively research heavy. There will certainly be a few months where it's almost all research and little to no writing. But I think it's healthy to bring writing some kernel of story pretty early in the process because that immediately focuses the research effort. As soon as you start doing that, you can prune off a whole lot of unnecessary research that might have been done if you were taking a shotgun approach to it.
I can only imagine what this is going to be if you're describing it as "research-heavy."
Compared to REAMDE, which I had to travel for but it wasn't research-heavy in the sense of familiarizing myself with a different historical period or anything like that.
Some Remarks is an anthology of sorts. Do you go back and read your older work on a regular basis at all?
Never. I absolutely never read any of my stuff once it's published.
Was Some Remarks your idea or someone else's, and how did you decide what you wanted to include in the book?
It was suggested to me that it might be time to do this. I rely on people who know more about the publishing industry to tell me when it is time to do this sort of thing. They said it was, so we went around to scrounge up all the old stuff. It took awhile to remember all the pieces because a lot of them have fallen through the cracks. We slowly put together a list of everything that I've published. Some of them seemed palatable. Some of them just didn't make the cut. Some of them needed to be cut down and excerpted because they were really choppy. We put the book together that way, and I wrote a new piece about walking while you work.
Was going back through your work an interesting or fun process, or was it more a thing you had to do?
I think it's more a thing I had to do. I mean, it's not about me. [Laughs] We're trying to put something together that the readers would enjoy. I hope that people will enjoy finding all this stuff in one place, browsing through it, and reading the bits they want. In general, I'm always a little superstitious about going back and devoting too much attention to older material. On some level, I suspect I'm like a shark: If I stop swimming I'll suffocate.
CLANG hit its Kickstarter goal of $500,000. What was your reaction when you put the project up and throughout the process?
It was fascinating. The part I didn't anticipate was the level of interactivity that was going to be involved. If the thing had just completely failed, then that would not have been the case. If it had blown through its target right away the way some of these things do, it wouldn't have been the case either. But when you're slowly building towards the goal and you don't know whether you're going to hit the goal or not, you end up paying a lot of attention to the thing and kind of gardening it. You're interacting with the community of donors quite a bit, trying to figure out what works, and answering questions. It ended up being a full-time job during those 30 days to try to keep it moving and find ways to push it over the finish line.
I thought it was really interesting that in the Kickstarter video you said something along the lines of, 'We’re just using me as the figurehead to help the promotion but the gamemaking will be handled by professionals.' You were so upfront and honest about lending your starpower, for lack of a better term, to the project.
I think the process forces total honesty and full disclosure. In order to make this work, we needed to make a case that would pass muster with people who are very sophisticated about games and how games are developed. Anybody who knows anything about developing video games knows that it's a very significant engineering challenge. It would make us look foolish to have a novelist, even if I am a geeky novelist, asking for money to make a game. Everybody would know to some level that that's not real. Our approach was to tell it like it is all the way through and let the chips fall where they may in terms of whether people wanted to fund it or not. In the end, it worked, and we were able to make it work without committing to stuff that we wouldn't be able to deliver.
Did people say they had heard about the project because you were involved, but they wanted to know how your group as a whole was going to pull it off?
Well, that's obvious. We don't need to hear from people to know that. A lot of the feedback that we got was clearly from intelligent, skeptical people who were in effect doing a kind of due diligence. When you raise money the old fashioned way – through a VC or whatever – there's a due diligence process there, which can be pretty thorough. Looking at the Kickstarter process, you might think that it's people throwing their money away, but I believe that the community there does a better job of actual due diligence than actual private investors might.
I was just reading an article about Curt Schilling, who burned through some number of millions of dollars trying to make a video game. If a geek novelist has no chance to make one, I can't imagine a baseball player would.
I read about that. I have no idea what their failure mode was, but we figured that the best way to avoid a big failure like that was to pick a very small kernel. To pick a narrow goal and keep it narrow. We heard from a lot of would-be donors who said, "If you make it run on such and such operating system, if you make it work with the hardware that I have, or if you include my favorite weapon, I'll donate more money. It would have been very easy for us to say, "Oh sure, we'll do that." It would have gotten us to the goal sooner, but we would have made a bunch of promises that we wouldn't have been able to keep. Instead, we said we were only going to do one thing, take it or leave it, and that worked. If we can do what we said we were going to do, maybe we can go back to the well later and raise another round. For me, this way is a much saner and more comfortable project than raising a vast amount of money from someone and then trying to execute on an incredibly big and complicated project.
"I believe that the community there does a better job of actual due diligence than actual private investors might."
In a World Policy essay you wrote the following: "'You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!' proclaims Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (and one of the other speakers at Future Tense). He refers, of course, to SF writers. The scientists and engineers, he seems to be saying, are ready and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense. Hence the Hieroglyph project, an effort to produce an anthology of new SF that will be in some ways a conscious throwback to the practical techno-optimism of the Golden Age." Can SF save the world?
It would be saying a lot to say that SF can save the world, but I do think that we've fallen into a habitual state of being depressed and pessimistic about the future. We are extremely conservative and fearful about how we deploy our resources. It contrasts pretty vividly with the way we worked in the first half of the 20th century. We are looking at a lot of challenges now that I do not think can be solved as long as we stay in that mindset. This is more of an "if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail" kind of thing. My hammer is that I can write science fiction, so that's the thing I'm going to try to do. If I had billions of dollars sitting around, I could try to put my money where my mouth is and invest it. If I did something else for a living, I would be using my skills – whatever they were – to solve this problem, but since I'm a science fiction writer, I'm going to try to address it through the medium of science fiction.
I would imagine the billion dollar "Save the World" Kickstarter is a little ambitious right now.
Well, you never know. There are worse ideas.
Do you feel like your fans have grown up with you?
More and more frequently, I'll meet a reader who will mention a book that to me is a pretty recent book, something that I just finished writing, and he'll say, "I read that when I was a kid." It would seem that that is happening. I'm not as conscious of the passage of time, but that seems to be happening.
I wouldn't say next step, but I have been interested for awhile in trying to figure out how new tech is going to change the way we tell stories. My ideas about that change along with the technology. The Mongoliad was the pilot project for a larger effort that we hope will make use of the Internet and a lot of modern media production technology to tell stories in a big world in a number of different media. We chose prose first because it's the easiest and quickest thing to produce. We chose the Internet as the distribution channel for the same reason. The other stuff we're working on including CLANG are efforts to expand that into other mediums, in this case video games. We're just going to keep picking away at that, sort of like the guy in The Shawshank Redemption with the little hammer. Eventually, we may hit a stone wall and have to give up the project, but as long as we're allowed to keep tunneling, we'll keep doing so.
Do you think there will always be a place for the big novels that you write?
Oh yeah. There's no doubt that the medium is here to stay. People like big stories. You get unmatched bang for the buck writing stories. The bang in this case is being able to plant a big universe and a lot of powerful images inside a reader's head. The buck in this case is that there's one person working alone without needing any special tools. That's not going to change. They may be delivered in different ways, on e-readers or whatever, but they will be around for a long time.
How do you prefer to read?
I go back and forth between e-readers and paper. If I'm at home, I tend to prefer paper books. There's no logistical hassles, and they can be read in any light, except total darkness, of course. If I'm traveling around at all, I'll use an e-reader.
You have 25 tweets since 2010 on your Twitter account. It seems like you start, you stop, you start, you stop. Why do you keep coming back?
We set that up when The Mongoliad got started. It seemed like we should have that social media presence. I didn't take control of it and start writing my own until a few months ago. I've put up maybe half a dozen tweets of my own since then. From now on, anything that shows up on that channel is going to be written by me, but I'm just not a habitual checker of it. It may be that I'm following the wrong people but all the stuff that I see is just gibberish. It's big, long strings of links to things that I don't really feel like clicking on because I know it's going to take me off to some website and I'm going to lose a bunch of time browsing that website or watching that video. If all it's doing is giving me links to other places that I might be interested in, it's not useful to me. I prefer people who tweet funny or interesting remarks of their own without embedded links. There are a few people like that. Matt Ruff does a nice job. I just don't go to Twitter that often, and because I don't go there that often, I don't tweet that often.
Are there other social media sites that you use more?
I follow Facebook. I have a number of people who I hear from on there, but I don't really use it. I don't have many outgoing posts.
Do you still read reviews of your books?
I tend to wait until a long time after the book has been published. Then, I go back and read a few. A lot of times, the publisher will put a bunch of them together and send them to me. I tend not to read them at the time the book comes out.
Alvy Ray Smith once said of you: "He's on the shy side. A strong ego, but nicely hidden." Is that a fair description?
[Laughs] I think that you have to have a certain kind of strong ego to be a writer. If you write things with the expectation that other human beings are going to read them, that's a certain kind of statement of self-confidence in and of itself, right? I think it's necessary to have a little bit of that in order to write at all, or in order to attempt difficult things. I would say I have a certain kind of stubbornness that causes me to do difficult things or things that make not work, and I guess you could think of that as ego.
Do you think you hide it well? It sounds like you do if you put that much thought into it.
Well, I mean, I guess that's for other people to decide.