Neal Stephenson is the author of numerous books of speculative, historical, and science fiction, including Anathem, which we will review this Friday. We interviewed Stephenson on March 30th, backstage before The Storytellers event hosted by Lawrence Krauss, director of the Arizona State University Origins Project.
Illusion Chasers: Do you use emotions to focus the reader’s attention to specific details in your writing?
NS: It’s the basis of what I do for a living. I’m passionate about the yarn, and telling a good yarn is the backbone of anything I do narratively.
Illusion Chasers: So it’s about the plot, the story arc, more than the characters?
NS: The way you reveal character is through narrative. You can’t describe Bobby Shaftoe [a prominent character in Stephenson's Cryptonomicon] by saying: “Bobby Shaftoe has these characteristics: A, B, C, & D.” Well I guess you can, but it’s not interesting to list personality characteristics. It’s not what people read a book for—they want stories.
Illusion Chasers: Your fiction revolves around scientific discovery. Does the science or the narrative come first? Do you conceive a story from an interesting scientific fact, or do you mine science for facts to fit the story?
NS: Actually, I’m not as introspective about what I do as you might think—things come up in different ways. But I don’t feel confident about venturing into some aspect of science unless I have the story. You can describe anything as long as you have the story.
Illusion Chasers: You obviously must be a science reader. What kind do you read? Popular science? Academic articles?
NS: I read mostly the history of science because that’s what I write about. If I need to, I may go deeper into particular topics. Having studied science academically as a student and then read history of science on my own, I find that science is much more enjoyable in a historical context. Most science textbooks strip the historical context. They’ll say E=MC^2, now go do some proofs. But I find it’s easier to understand scientific concepts if you go back in history and place yourself in the shoes of the person who made that discovery. If I’m giving that context it is easier to follow and understand the arguments.
Illusion Chasers: In Anathem, the central core concept of the book is that consciousness is a quantum mechanical property. But that’s a new and controversial idea, did you read popular science articles to bone up on those concepts?
NS: Well, it’s an idea that’s actually been around for a while. The hard line position is that the brain is too wet and too warm to allow for quantum effects. But there’s the insurgent position that evolution may have found a way to take advantage of quantum effects even though it is a warm and wet environment. Chloroplasts in plants may make use of quantum superposition to do what they do. It is an open question in science. Between the mainstream—the hardliners who say it’s impossible with what we already know—and the fringe—the people who say it is possible but they use methods that are not yet generally accepted—there are people in the middle who try to figure out what may be true. It is in the middle where the good material for science fiction comes from. These are areas of current interest that can turn into a story.