Neil Stephenson in Reason

Neil Stephenson in Reason

Continuing on the Libertarian thread, I just read this interview with Neil Stephenson. Stephenson is the author of the seminal cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, which I hadn’t realized could be considered a “parody of a libertarian future”

Here’s an excerpt:

Reason: Snow Crash is almost a parody of a libertarian future. Do you think the affinity-group-based societies you outline in that book are on their way? Do you see that as a warning note, or a natural state we’re progressing toward? Stephenson: I dreamed up the Snow Crash world 15 years ago as a thought experiment, and I tweaked it to be as funny and outrageous and graphic novel–like as I could make it. Such a world wouldn’t be stable unless each little “burbclave” had the ability to defend itself from all external threats. This is not plausible, barring some huge advances in defensive technology. So I think that if I were seriously to address your question, “Do you see that as a warning note, or a natural state…?,” I would be guilty of taking myself a little bit too seriously.

Stephenson’s latest trilogy, The Baroque Cycle, spans something like 2500 pages of 17th century historical fiction. What’s particularly fascinating about Stephenson is that he’s a pattern person who follows up his inquiry with research. He then writes an interesting piece of fiction about it. 10 years after Snow Crash, he’s even more insightful with respect to the forces behind modern information society all the way back to its roots well established in the 17th century. The scope of his research gives his insight compelling perspective. For example, he makes an observation about the success of the modern United States:

For much of the 20th century it was about science and technology. The heyday was the Second World War, when we had not just the Manhattan Project but also the Radiation Lab at MIT and a large cryptology industry all cooking along at the same time. The war led into the nuclear arms race and the space race, which led in turn to the revolution in electronics, computers, the Internet, etc. If the emblematic figures of earlier eras were the pioneer with his Kentucky rifle, or the Gilded Age plutocrat, then for the era from, say, 1940 to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. […] It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn’t care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don’t belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture.

It’s a good interview, covering many topics.

I find Stephenson’s writing voice not to be detached or political as one might expect from the topics he covers. This is not a sheltered academic or policy wonk talking, pushing some abstract theory. Stephenson reveals the patterns in the context of human achievement and desire, which is much more satisfying and strangely inspiring.

Via BoingBoing.