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Neal Stephenson: And Now the News
posted 23 September 2008
Neal Stephenson was born in Fort Meade MD and grew up in Iowa. He graduated from Boston University with a BA in geography and a minor in physics.

His first novel The Big U, a college thriller with SF elements, appeared in 1984, followed by Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller (1988). The successful and influential Snow Crash (1992) is a cyberpunk classic and made him a star in the SF world. He wrote two thrillers in collaboration with his uncle, George Jewsbury, under the name Stephen Bury: Interface (1994) and Cobweb (1996). Returning to solo work he produced the Hugo and Locus Award-winning novel The Diamond Age (1995). In 1999 he broke new ground with Locus Award winner Cryptonomicon, his massive, Pynchonesque novel of history and cryptography, which proved quite popular with SF fans. Later that year he published In the Beginning... Was the Command Line, an often humorous non-fiction commentary on computers and culture that originally appeared in shortened form on the Internet. He also contributes occasional non-fiction articles to Wired.

Stephenson spent seven years at work on his vast three-volume Baroque Cycle, which includes the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Quicksilver (2003), The Confusion (2004), and The System of the World (2004). These books, set in the 17th century and featuring historical characters like Leibniz and Newton along with the ancestors of characters from Cryptonomicon, pushed the boundaries of SF. His latest novel, Anathem (2008), is another long, complex book, although more purely SF than his other recent works.

Photo by Liza Groen Trombi

Website: Neal Stephenson
Excerpts from the interview:

“I was interested in our concept of 'news.' At the end of the year, every year, the newspapers publish a roundup of the best in the news. When I started thinking of Anathem, they were also publishing their end-of-decade news roundups; some were publishing end-of-century and end-of millennium roundups. Every morning I'd sit and read all this stuff that I wouldn't remember the next day. Why was I spending all that time reading the news every day, when I could just wait until the end of the year and read the summary and get the important stuff?

“I thought, 'OK, so there's a monastery devoted to maintaining a clock. The clock is going to have a wall around it, and the wall is going have a gate -- just like the door on a cuckoo clock. It's connected to the clock mechanism, and once every certain span of time that door is going to open up, and stay open for a little while. And while it's open, anybody who wants can go in and out freely, but after it closes if you're on the inside it means you've made a commitment to stay there until the next time it opens. During that time, you're not going to have informational contact with the outside world.'

“From there, it's an obvious step to have concentric circles: one that would open every day, one every year, every ten years, every hundred years, and so on. That sketch went up on the Long Now Foundation website in 2000, about the time I was starting the Baroque Cycle. Then the idea got buried for four or five years while I was doing that project. When I recovered from that, somehow the idea about the clock came swimming up to the surface. Finally I said, 'What the hell. I'll just try it and see what happens.' So I started writing the conversation that starts the book, with characters getting ready for the next opening. Once I started doing that, the rest of it just flowed pretty directly, so suddenly I found myself writing a novel.”


“The main character isn't some austere monk; he's a teenager. Though I hate to use a sugary, vague word like 'inspiration,' a lot of that was inspired by the way Heinlein had a knack for populating his novels with characters who are about this age. It just works to have people that age in a book like this, because otherwise it can be too serious, too somber: a bunch of grown-ups sitting around talking about serious things. From the very beginning, I wanted it to have a little bit of a flavor of Heinlein young-adultish books. You get to learn about the world along with the characters.

“You've got a bunch of people around 18 years old and they're buddies: they wind the clock together, and they've grown up together. They've discovered girls together, they get in trouble together, they fight and have arguments, sometimes they hate each other. The other thing that's good about them is, they joke around and they lapse into slang. They can express themselves in this perfect classical language, but at certain points when they're just talking to each other they'll drop into a more slangy and informal style of speech.”


“I think one reason this idea kept bobbing to the surface after I finished the Baroque Cycle is the way I would see it every day, reading e-mails and living the life that I do, reading fewer and fewer books. I myself have become so much a part of the electronic, ephemeral culture that I can just feel book reading get pushed out of my life by e-mail or other distractions.

“It's paradoxical to write a great big huge book about the fact that we don't read great big huge books anymore, but that's kind of what this is. It was a thin book that got too interesting! And I kept it as one volume, since the problem with splitting is that you end up selling one or maybe two books that don't really end -- they've got a cliffhanger or an unresolved ending. If the reader's fully aware that's what they're getting, it's fine. But in practice, a lot of readers get to the end of Volume One and become outraged. So there are reasons not to split it up.”

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