Best-selling science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson's works cover everything from cryptography to Sumerian mythology. Ahead of next year's novel Seveneves, he talks about his influences, the stagnation in material technologies, and Hieroglyph, the forthcoming science-fiction anthology that he kick-started to stimulate the next generation of engineers.
What sparked your interest in science?
There were scientists in several generations of my family. My father was an electrical engineer. I grew up in the university town of Ames, Iowa, which was the best place to grow up in the history of the world, if you were a kid with an interest in science. My friends' parents had PhDs or were studying for them. Respect for science was implicit. I am drawn to 'hard' sciences because I have tools for understanding them, and it is the culture I came from.
How did you become a writer?
As a kid, I read a lot of science fiction and Classics Illustrated comics, and had a series of gifted English teachers — so it wasn't a completely alarming career choice. In college I took a mishmash of physics, geography and computer programming subjects that never added up to a marketable degree. I found myself working as a typist at the University of Iowa libraries, writing my third novel sitting on a milk crate with a fan, beer and a fancy rented typewriter. It was so hot that July that the typewriter's plastic ribbon kept sticking to its internal parts. I figured out that it only got stuck if the ribbon stood still for long enough, so I hammered the thing out. It was accepted and editor Gary Fisketjon spent a year cleaning up my “loose and baggy monster”. That became my first published novel, The Big U (1984, Harper Perennial), a broad, science-fiction-inflected satire of college life.
How much background research do you do?
I veer back and forth between trying to do the right thing and blind panic. After The Big U, I thought I would write about physics. The idea was that the huge explosion in Tunguska, Russia, in 1908, was caused by a primordial singularity — a tiny black hole — popping in and out of Earth. I had a conceit that people following it put the equivalent of a bungee cord around it and got pulled out into space. I spent years writing this thing — and it was terrible. I was so scared that I had blown my chances of being a writer that I wrote another book in 30 days. That turned out to be my second published novel, Zodiac (1988, Atlantic Monthly).
How does attending scientific meetings inform your writing?
I go on the spur of the moment. It is good to be in touch, to see what people are working on. I can also get a sense of personalities and ideas — although I try to avoid focusing on specific living people in my books.
What is Hieroglyph?
It was born from a friendly argument with Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University in Tempe. I was complaining that progress in material technology has petered out. We have taken the creativity that went into designing rockets and channelled it into information technology (IT). A lot of bright people are dedicating their lives to inconsequential things: writing apps and so on. There is a lack of grandeur. Crow said, “It's your fault. You sci-fi writers need to give us something to work on.” So the university, with my input, founded the Center for Science and the Imagination and launched Project Hieroglyph as an online forum where science-fiction authors could write in an optimistic vein, positing attainable technologies for young engineers. The collection Hieroglyph, out this month, showcases work by 20 visionaries, including astrophysicist and award-winning writer Gregory Benford, and science-fiction authors Cory Doctorow, Elizabeth Bear and Bruce Sterling. My contribution is 'Atmosphaera Incognita', about the construction of a 20-kilometre steel tower and the resulting adventures.
What do you think about the trend for apocalyptic science fiction?
In the 1950s we could see that we have a rocket and if we build a bigger rocket, we could go to the Moon. But with advances in nanotechnology and IT, there are many imponderable outcomes. It is easier to predict a gloomy one. But that has led to lazy, derivative, predictable stories, especially on television and in movies.
What do you think about the rise of anti-science feeling in the United States?
It is a surprise to me. Growing up in Ames, I went to a Methodist church filled with professors who never would have questioned the validity of evolution. I think a lot of opposition to global warming and evolution is not about science. The majority of people who identify themselves as global-warming sceptics, for example, do believe it is happening. But they think that admitting that will open the door to excessive regulation by the government. They don't come from the scientific community, where it is important to say what you mean. They come from a political community, where what really matters is the final outcome. I think it's self-destructive in the long run — people who refuse to face reality are infantilizing themselves.