Neal Stephen­son on his am­bi­tious new novel.

SFX - - News - Words by Jonathan Wright Por­trait by REX/ Shute rst ock

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.