Few individuals write about issues that impact human survival. Fewer still win multiple literary awards for writing science fiction novels. Hardly anyone joins a major corporation as chief futurist. Neal Stephenson can be credited for doing all three.
Writer, academician, video game designer and technology consultant are just some of the things Neal is famous for. He has authored historical epic novels ‘Cryptonomicon’ and ‘The Baroque Cycle;’ science fiction novels ‘The Diamond Age’ and ‘Anathem;’ contemporary thrillers ‘Zodiac’ and ‘REAMDE;’ and science fiction epic ‘Seveneves,’ among others.
His “Snow Crash” published in 1992 preceded “ The Matrix” series and introduced the concept of “The Metaverse” . Yes, Neal Stephenson coined the term. And his 1994 “Interface” preceded NeuraLink by over 20 years!
In his latest science fiction book “Termination Shock,” Neal lays out a scenario where an individual takes technological steps to intervene in climate change in order to ensure human survival. Let’s hope that this book does is not as prophetic as some of the others.
His imagination, unique sense of technology trends, immersive literary style, and attention to detail set a very high bar for the other science fiction authors. In the past, when people asked me what I would do when aging is defeated, I usually answered that I would catch up on Neal Stephenson’s novels as well as movies and video games based on his work.
I talked with Neal about his creative process, how he researches the material that he includes in his books, and how he works with the other science fiction writers. I also asked my favorite question – why in most science fiction where people mastered space travel, people are still aging.
Alex Zhavoronkov – Two generations of science fiction readers grew up reading your work, which is now also being taught at the university level. In my opinion, you’re the most famous science fiction author alive. Can you tell me about your creative process and how you choose a subject? And once you choose the subject, what kind of research do you do?
Neal Stephenson – I have ideas all the time that come out like a running faucet. And so I need to put a bucket under that faucet to catch them at any given time. And if not, I get restless and crazy. So that can take many forms. But the best form for me is to work on a book. I’m almost always working on a book of some kind. I generally don’t have a vacation or a pause between finishing one book and starting another one, because it just makes me crazy to not have an outlet. Frequently, I’ll have a couple of ideas in my head that might become the subject of the next book. And I often make a decision on the spur of the moment when it’s time to begin the next project. So it’s not really planned out in advance, it’s just a snap decision based on what I think is most interesting creatively. And some ideas have to sit up here (pointing to the head) for a while to gestate and become ready and right. Once I’ve decided which book I’m going to do next, I spend some time doing research. If it’s a historical book, I might have to do a bunch of research. The important thing is that the story has to be compelling and interesting to the readers. They (the books) have to start off in a way that engages the reader and draws them in and gets them interested in the characters. And the plot has to develop. Sometimes, over researching it at the beginning can get in the way of that. So, I try to focus first on getting the story started. And then if I feel that I have a good start, I might slow down for a little bit and let research catch up with what I’m writing. The best contribution of research is to supply little details and plot developments that might not occur to me if I were just completely making things up. Whereas with, let’s say, ‘Seveneves,’ as I was studying and learning the orbital mechanics and the technical details of orbits and rockets and so on, that provided some ideas that I would never have come up with if I just free associated. I would say that research tends to kind of peak in the middle of the project and then beyond a certain point, it can become a little counterproductive. Because the more research you do, the more you feel that it should be included. You don’t want to put time and effort and sometimes money into doing research and then never use it – that seems silly. There’s always a temptation to keep putting the research in there, even if it might not continue to serve the purpose of the story. So beyond a certain point, I tend to pull back and then I just try to focus on writing and telling the story. If I do research beyond that point, it tends to be extremely focused. It’s not open ended at that point.
Alex Zhavoronkov– You usually write in the cyberpunk style and go into very deep technological detail. However, ‘The Mongoliad’ was a major pivot from this regular genre. It’s closer to ‘Lord of the Rings’ than cyberpunk and apocalyptic scenarios. What made you pivot into this area?
Neal Stephenson– I had written some historical fiction previously with ‘The Baroque Cycle” and I enjoyed it very much. I could have a very happy life just writing historical fiction. ‘The Mongoliad’ had emerged from a group project that was based on an interest in what’s called Hema – Historical European Martial Arts, which is a thing I became interested in about 20 years ago. We had some writers in my little group and I had an idea that we began to work on which was to tell a story with a very long arc beginning in ancient Athens and continuing up until the 20th century about a secret group of martial artists who take various forms over the centuries. We had ideas for a possible movie project that we tried to sell in Hollywood. But then we hit on the idea of trying to tell a story in fiction. This is not a screenplay project anymore, and not merely an adaptation of the movie idea, but a new story in the same world that was designed to be a novel or a series of novels. So as a group, we eventually hit on the idea of setting something during the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 1200s. It’s just a historical oddity that just as the Mongols were poised to sweep across Poland, Germany and Hungary, and into Western Europe, they stopped because the great Khan had died; and their tradition was that when the great Khan dies, all of the other Khans have to go home back to Mongolia and choose the next Khan. So the premise of ‘The Mongoliad’ is that this was not an accident. According to official history, the Khan died in a hunting accident. What we are claiming is that a group of these European martial artists traveled all the way across Asia and hunted him down and killed him, specifically to trigger this clause in the Mongol constitution and force them to pull back. So that’s the storyline of ‘The Mongoliad.’ We originally wrote it for electronic publication. Later, Amazon decided to publish it as a series of novels. Then different members of the group produced sequels to it, as well as some graphic novels and other material that are set in that same universe.
Alex Zhavoronkov– That was a phenomenal piece of work and I deeply enjoyed it. I think that you inspired a lot of people to go and look at history. I’m not sure how many people know Mongol history so deeply. How much of this was envisioned by you? And how much of it was Greg Bear?
Neal Stephenson– There’s a whole list of writers and we all contributed to the story. In that group, Greg and I were comparatively more experienced, published novelists than some of the others; so I think some of them tended to take advice from us, for better or worse. But Greg also has a very deep knowledge of history and a huge library and a capacity to take in new information at a very high speed. We had the other members of the group: Nicole Galland, Joseph Brassey and others. Although they were not as well established, we’re all equals in terms of basic ability, energy and willingness to work on this thing.
Alex Zhavoronkov– Who are your other favorite authors? Is there anybody who you would like to collaborate with? Maybe from today or even from the past?
Neal Stephenson– I have actually collaborated with Nicole Galland on other projects and have enjoyed doing so very much. But in general, I don’t collaborate because I don’t need to. There have been a few exceptions and I’ve enjoyed those projects very much. I don’t read a lot of fiction to tell you the truth, because I only have so much time for reading, and I tend to spend that time reading material that’s related to my current writing project. The one exception that I have very much enjoyed is Joe Abercrombie, who is a British fantasy writer. His book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ just came out a couple of weeks ago. I have been enjoying that very much. Joe Brassey, one of the other collaborators on ‘The Mongoliad,’ has got his own series of fantasy novels, “The Drifting Lands,” that I think are excellent. But other than that, it’s a lot of history. I’ve been reading a book about authoritarianism as well as Jonathan Rauch’s book ‘The Constitution of Knowledge: a Defense of Truth.’ So those are some things on my recent reading list.
Alex Zhavoronkov– When are we going to see the first movie based on ‘Snow Crash’?
Neal Stephenson– Actually, HBO Max passed on it in June. So that project is currently back into limbo.
Alex Zhavoronkov – What about Amazon?
Neal Stephenson– They passed on it previously.
Alex Zhavoronkov– So that’s crazy. What about ‘The Mongoliad?’ Will anybody televise that?
Neal Stephenson– It doesn’t seem to have elicited a lot of interest and I think it’d be a very expensive costume drama. In TV and movies, they like things that happen in the contemporary world where you just have normal people in normal clothes sitting in normal rooms talking to each other. Those are very cheap to produce and they sell very effectively in the marketplace if you do it right. As soon as you start trying to produce any movie or TV show in which all of the characters are wearing special costumes, special hair, carrying special props, special furniture, special rooms, it becomes much more expensive and complicated to produce. At that point you’re in a whole different league. And the scrutiny that the executives would give to such a project is very intense because if they’re going to spend all that money, they want to make sure that this is going to appeal to a broad audience. There’s a lot about ‘The Mongoliad’ that would maybe scare them off.
Alex Zhavoronkov– Moving on to another question then. How did you end up at Magic Leap? And what did they need to do to get you to work on something in that kind of domain?
Neal Stephenson– Four people from the company came to my house for a visit and they were still very secretive. I didn’t really know what they were doing but they told me under NDA about something and showed me some technology they were working on and so we ended up working out. Then I went to Florida and met Rony Abovitz, the CEO. It was anopportunity for me to work on something that I thought was interesting. I liked all the people I met, and I thought that the project was fascinating. I’ve been in the habit for many years of having a sort of technical project that I can do during the afternoon. I write in the morning, but then during the rest of the day, I need something else that I can do that takes my mind off of the book. At different points and times in my career, I’ve worked at Blue Origin, I’ve worked at Intellectual Ventures Labs and I worked on the transmedia startup Subutai that did ‘The Mongoliad.’ At that particular moment in my life, I was between projects, so I was kind of available. I decided to try it out and began working for them half time, and ended up creating a little squad in Seattle to try to make some original content that would run on the device. That’s a challenging and fascinating problem, because AR content ought to be aware of one’s surroundings and responsive to one’s movements and surroundings. It shouldn’t just be like a movie that plays. To build a hardware device that’s capable of doing that is a very interesting challenge; and it’s one that Magic Leap basically succeeded at. You’ve got to have a device that uses cameras to look at the whole environment, maybe LIDAR, other sensors, and then it has to integrate what it sees into an accurate three-dimensional model of the room. That’s a thing that is called SLAM in the lingo, Simultaneous Location And Mapping. The device has to either retrieve that information from a cache or create it on the fly. Then, it’s got a model of the room, which is constantly being changed and updated. Then you have to think about things like occlusion. If I’ve got a chair over there and if something goes behind the chair, it needs to be occluded by the chair, as it would be if it were a real thing; that’s easy to say but hard to do. So that’s all just basic capabilities that the system has to have that doesn’t even begin to create content. Sitting on top of that, you’ve got a game engine that is designed to create three-dimensional content. We built an application called Baby Goats that was just a simple application in which you had baby goats running around your room, and they would jump up on things, the way goats do, and they had behaviors and some kind of simple AI. But in order to make that work, we had to build part of a whole engineering stack within my group, based on work done by other people at Magic Leap. So the other people had laid the foundations that we added on to and we ended up releasing that as a sample app that other developers could look at to get ideas. And we worked on a more ambitious IP project as well, creating an original IP universe that was optimized for augmented reality. So that were a fascinating few years. In April 2020 Magic Leap cut back on its staff and pivoted to industrial and commercial applications; which is probably a good business decision, similar to what Microsoft is doing with HoloLens. You’ve got to find the market and sell units into that market. So that was the decision they made that rendered me and what I was doing sort of temporarily irrelevant.
Alex Zhavoronkov– That is crazy. I was just thinking about getting a device just to get a touch of your universe there. So we are not going to see your ideas and creative thinking and that device anytime soon, are we?
Neal Stephenson– No, and I don’t think the Baby Goats application works. It hasn’t been updated to work with the new OS. I understand your feelings, it was very impressive in a technical way.
Alex Zhavoronkov– One of my investors and fellow thinkers is also one of the co-founders of Oculus. He quit Facebook and is investing in longevity. He would have appreciated your creative genius because, I’m pretty sure millions of people would buy a device just to get a touch of the universe, if it works.
Neal Stephenson– It works. The performance specs of the device are good enough to work. So it comes down to a matter of budgeting and project management. I’s a chicken and egg situation, which is very common for things like game consoles, PCs, what have you; where essentially, you’re a hardware maker, you’ve got a thing that works, it meets its engineering specs, which is a miracle unto itself, but the people are not going to buy it unless there is an application for it that makes that worthwhile. The easiest path to that is probably in the industrial and commercial setting.
Alex Zhavoronkov– Switching to a related matter, your novel ‘Fall; or, Dodge in Hell’ is a fundamental work on the possibility of digital immortality in a very near term. And it looks like in the past few years there has been a major wave of fiction novels and movies starting from, ‘Transcendence’ and recent Amazon series on the subject. What made you go into this field and how far do you think uploading is from reality? How much research did you do into the field and what do you think is the technological possibility of uploading in the near future?
Neal Stephenson– I should begin by saying that compared to some of my other books like ‘Seveneves,’ in ‘Fall,’ I’m being a little more flexible with the science. In ‘Seveneves,’ I was pretty strict about orbital mechanics and rockets and all that stuff and in ‘Fall,’ I certainly did some research on brain scanning and so on, but I had an idea on where I wanted the story to go creatively that I was going to write whether it was realistic or not.
Alex Zhavoronkov– So you didn’t collaborate with anybody who is working on that right now?
Neal Stephenson– I looked at current research on different scanning techniques, but I didn’t really go deep, in that case, because I had an idea or a few ideas. One is that there was a trend in the 1990s for certain people, typically tech people from Silicon Valley. And you’d see them wearing these ID bracelets with instructions on how to freeze their body, which I thought was fascinating. The part of me that’s a novelist had the idea that what if somebody did that 20 years ago and signed all the papers and made it legal, and then just forgot about it, and then suddenly died. So that was one of the ideas that contributed to ‘Fall.’ And then another one is the mystery of consciousness and how it turns on and off. I’ve reached the age where every so often, I have a routine colonoscopy, and when they put you under for that procedure, you’re lying there, you are normal, you are conscious, you are talking to the person, and they inject this drug and within a few seconds, your consciousness is gone, it is shut off, is completely absent until sometime later, it switches back on again in a minute or two. But it’s almost as if you died, and then resurrected from a consciousness point of view. So that creates all kinds of fascinating philosophical issues around what does it mean to be alive, to be conscious. Now I’m almost 62; the 20 year old Neal, who was in college in Boston, might as well be dead. All of my tissue has been replaced. But I believe that I’m the same person because I can tell a narrative, a continuous storyline that’s in my memory that connects me back to that 20 year old Neal. I was thinking about things like that and I thought that was an interesting subject matter. And then, sort of unrelated to that, I’ve just been interested in John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ for a long time. He is a fascinating person and his personal story is quite unusual. I’ve been thinking about various possible ways to somehow use ‘Paradise Lost’ or Milton in a story and decided that maybe there was a way I could wrap all of those elements together.
Alex Zhavoronkov– It often surprises me that in science fiction, people are still aging and are mortal. So in theory, if you get to that level of technological sophistication, you should be able to at least repair the damage that is caused by cosmic radiation, and many other forms of damage, so at least preserve the body in a more or less healthy state. There are many original ideas on covering longevity and biotechnology, and there are many ways to transform the human body to adapt to the environment. But for some strange reason, they do not propagate into science fiction that is dealing with space travel. So do you have any plans to go into this field and research that area?
Neal Stephenson– I haven’t thought about it until now. It would surprise me a little if nobody has gotten there yet. Because in general, I’ve always been impressed by the way science fiction writers will very rapidly pick up on new ideas and new research and find ways to tell stories. And what you just described sounds to me like an excellent premise. You could do all kinds of things with that premise.