Neal Stephenson on his ambitious new novel.
Back when he worked for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin spaceflight start- up in the noughties, cyberpunk luminary Neal Stephenson got interested in the fact that human- made junk orbits our Earth. So what? Better up there than here, right? Not necessarily. As bits of this junk bump into each other, there might be “a kind of exponential blow- up” in debris. If things got too bad it might become “too risky to send anything at all into orbit”.
For Stephenson, this was the starting point for his latest novel, Seveneves. “The science fiction writer in me just said, ‘ Well, why not just expand that enormously and turn it into the premise for a world?’” he explains. But there was a problem. Having come up with the notion of a disaster – specifically our Moon exploding – that would make it necessary for mankind to move to space, Stephenson wasn’t sure what to do with his scenario.
“I didn’t know if it was an idea for a book or a movie or a videogame or a television series,” he says. “I’ve actually pitched it in all of those forms over the years, but was never quite able to figure out what to do with it. Finally, about a year- and- a- half ago, I just said, ‘ Fuck it, I’m just going to write the thing as a novel and see what happens.’”
Good, because the tale of how humankind comes to move out beyond our atmosphere in earnest makes for a fine yarn, albeit one with plenty of grim happenings. In particular, there’s the moment when a “Hard Rain” of Moon rocks falls upon the Earth, wiping away our world as we’ve known it.
It would be grand to think that, were such an event to come to pass, humankind might set aside its differences. In Stephenson’s vision of the future, though, all too many of the survivors take their arguments into space. Violence and even cannibalism ensue. It’s perhaps no wonder, therefore, that one of Stephenson’s themes is how to rebuild populations that have reached a nearextinction point.
The ideas Stephenson puts forward draw on OCCUPATION: BORN: 1959 FROM: Maryland G REATEST H ITS: Among many other career highlights, the awardwinning Baroque Cycle, set in the enlightenment era and dealing with the birth of modern science ( literally science fiction…), redefined what SF might be.
R ANDOM FACT: The codename for the Kindle was “Fiona”, a reference to Stephenson’s Diamond Age ( 1995), which features an interactive book.
Novelist discussions with writer and counter- cultural figure Stewart Brand, and his wife, social enterpreneur Ryan Phelan. Both are leading lights in the Long Now Foundation, an organisation that, to quote its website, “hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long- term thinking more common”.
One of the case studies the couple are interested in, says Stephenson, is that of the black- headed ferret, a North American predator that eats prairie dogs. A dangerous specialisation. The animals’ population crashed when farmers killed all the prairie dogs. “To rebuild the species from that kind of genetic bottleneck leads to concerns about inbreeding – or what they call loss of heterozygosity,” explains Stephenson. “It’s actually a topic that is being looked at right now by geneticists: how do you start with a small population and propagate a species that’s got a sufficient amount of heterozygosity, or the opposite of inbreeding, to become viable?” Mildest of mild spoilers: in Seveneves, the solution involves genetic engineering,
That conversations with Stephenson tend to arrive at such arcane subjects isn’t a great surprise. The son of scientists, his writing since he started out in the 1980s has constantly drawn on cutting- edge research. He’s a geek, who often works part- time in the technology sector. “I can’t write eight hours a day or it all goes sour, so I pursue technical things, it’s a good way to get my mind off a book,” he says.
Currently, that means working as chief futurist with Magic Leap. The company is “building a new display technology” within the field of augmented reality, which involves “three- dimensional figments” projected into a user’s eye.
This need to get involved, you’d guess, also plays into the Hieroglyph project, which Stephenson launched in 2011, and which aims to infuse SF with an optimistic spirit that might in turn help inspire people to “get big stuff done”.
But that involves people having the necessary skills to do this. Does Stephenson think there’s enough engineering know- how in the general population? He answers by talking about technical drawing. ( Stay with us here…) Once, anyone could learn this, although it could be “tedious”. Then product design became the preserve of those who can use complex CAD ( computer- aided design) programs. “For a while, this took drafting out of the hands of anyone with a ruler and made it the exclusive preserve of a kind of technical priesthood,” he says.
Now, though, programs such as SketchUp are making design tools far more accessible. “The pendulum is swinging back the other way so that anyone can do it, but we’ve lost a lot of the seat- ofthe- pants knowledge that people used to have when they came out of a background on the farm or in the garage, places where you could do hands- on work,” he says. “It’s going to take a little while to get that back, but I hope that will happen.”
If it does, Stephenson himself, a practical optimist, will be due credit for encouraging things along.
Seveneves is on sale now.