Author finds humanity in sci-fi books

Oct. 14, 2011, 12:55 a.m.
Author finds humanity in sci-fi books
Courtesy of William Morrow

The turnout on Friday night was phenomenal–not unexpected when the guest of honor was Neal Stephenson, one of the foremost science fiction writers of our day. The staff at Kepler’s had pushed aside displays of books to make room for rows upon rows of folding chairs, but there was still a crush of people sitting in the makeshift aisles and standing in the back. Stephenson, in formal, nondescript black, took the podium amidst vigorous applause and opened with a succinct plot summary of “Reamde,” his latest novel: “It’s a lot of people running around shooting each other.” It’s that, and so much more.

“Reamde” is a techno-thriller about a hostage crisis and an MMORPG, about terrorism and social networking. Stephenson read an excerpt from the beginning of the book, showcasing his characteristic crackling prose and attention to detail. The passage, which takes place at a large family gathering, was filled with wry observations on human interaction, matter-of-fact violence, exquisitely awkward encounters with distant relatives and–of course–shotguns. His delivery only added to the effect; his deadpan sardonicism was spot-on. He elicited much laughter from the audience–including the sort of nervous chuckling that betrayed how accurately his description captures human foibles. He may write speculative fiction, but his realism is spot-on.

The floor then opened for questions, and nearly half the hands in the audience went up. Stephenson discussed the process of writing, his impressive backlist and his views on the genre of science fiction as a whole. Likely due to the gradual increase in his sales figures and renown over the course of his long career, he seems fairly untouched by his celebrity. He maintains that he is still honing his craft and has not yet achieved the elusive goal of the perfect first draft (like many writers, he admits to finding revision vexing.)

He lingered on the effects of science fiction on our society. The genre is uniquely useful, he argued, because it presents a coherent vision of the future where a tangible technology brings about a slew of societal changes necessary to accommodate it. Not only is it literature in the conventional sense, it is also way to organize technologists around an idea, to get something done. (Stephenson likened it, at one point, to herding cats.) He mentioned an anthology he is putting together to inspire young engineers to create the science fiction future he and other writers have imagined; he pointed out the similarity, for example, of the iPad and other tablet devices to the PADDs of “Star Trek”, which appeared on screen over two decades ago, and floated the possibility that Steve Jobs might have been a closet Trekkie. Audience members noted that Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” was similarly prescient with regard to modern technologies such as mobile phones and Google Earth.

The last question of the night was more introspective: “Why write the next book?” Stephenson smiled enigmatically and replied, merely, “I get depressed if I don’t.”

And we are all the richer for it.

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