Monday, June 8, 2015

Notes & Quotes from Neal Stephenson's Printer's Row Talk

Photo from the Printer's Row
Twitter feed.
This past weekend was my first time at the Printer's Row Lit Fest: a lovely affair downtown, lots of books & printed sundries, lots of authors, all kinda good stuff.

I was particularly excited to see Neal Stephenson; I've really dug a lot of his work and recently got a chance to read an advance copy of his new novel "Seveneves" through the good graces of City Lit Books (whose Weird & Wonderful club recently discussed Stephenson's "Snow Crash").

"Seveneves" is truly delightful, particularly for fans of Teh Hard Ess Eff: it opens with a huge bang, Earth basically doomed within a short timeframe, and humans rush to get a viable colony in space. That's the first 500 pages or so--then the narrative jumps five thousand years ahead to show how things are going. It's really gripping if you're into this kind of thing--high amounts of realism, long passages on bits of space tech & orbital maneuvers, lots of brutal/fatalistic/pragmatic bits. And ultimately pretty hopeful, with lots of pleasing weirdness and Stephenson's delightful style--sort of droll and gonzo in equal measures, with some eyeball-kicking metaphor mixed in.

Most of the questions from the audience and "conversation with"-ist Christopher Borrelli revolved around the new novel, with a few others. Just a couple paraphrased highlights:

  • NS: "I knew the moon had to go."
  • Some talk about his desire to write a "space ark" story, and balancing the timing of the disaster--needs to be not so fast that it just vaporizes everything, but it also needs to be pressing enough that people have to do something radical. Too far in the future, and people will solve it less dramatically, or ignore it.
  •  Some talk about the moon's mythical resonances, "if you're into that kind of thing".
  • CB: "I'm kind of hesitant to give too much away here..."
    NS: "Everyone dies."
  • Borrelli brings up Melville, and the two of them talk for a bit about the extended bits of detail (whale penis, blubber harvesting technique, nailing a coin to the mast), and how if balanced correctly with the rest of the narrative these really immerse the reader. Wraps back around to what level of research & detail Stephenson used--he brings up the fact that the ISS is exhaustively documented in minute detail, that he could use that kind of data to talk for pages just about how someone has to go through a door in free-fall--but most readers are more interested in what actually happens between characters in the room. So, balancing that out.
  • Some discussion of de-extinction & re-wilding, which are kind of hot topics lately, and also what the humans in "Seveneves" need to do for themselves as well as the rest of the biosphere. Some interesting insight on heterozygosity (measure of overall healthy variation in a gene pool, a certain amount of which is needed for a population to remain fit) and the case of the black-footed ferrets which, SPOILER ALERT, were reduced to seven fertile members.
  • Some talk about science re: science fiction, with Stephenson pointing out both that a lot of SF shows a "completely ludicrous departure from scientific grounding" (FTL, teleportation etc.) and also that that is totally okay, just not what he was doing with "Seveneves".
  • Some talk about Stephenson's work with private space company Blue Origins, which was surely an influence on "Seveneves". It appears he's under some pretty serious NDAs for that, so we're left to wonder.
  • Stephenson points out the roles of both private and governmental organizations, giving a shout-out to companies like Blue Origins and Space X for the really brilliant work they're doing, but also the monumentally huge shoulders they're standing on--NASA and other state-backed projects--whose ground-breaking work was almost certainly too huge for private interests to tackle.
  • "I don't do 'based on'. I don't even know what people mean when they say 'based on' or 'inspired by'."
  • On the way that world governments come together in the face of adversity to do something smart in "Seveneves": "It's a bit of a wish fulfilment thing...except the part where 7 billion people die."
  • Given some of the hopeful aspects of "Seveneves", there's a question about why dystopian stories dominate SF so much. Stephenson gives a pretty nuanced answer, first pointing out that "to be clear, written SF still has a lot of diversity", but that yes, the big dominant media--television, film, videogames--have tended to be "repetitively, mind-numbingly" dystopian. He gives some interesting practical considerations for why this is easier, using examples like the original "Planet of the Apes": take a model of the Statue of Liberty, kick it over and throw some dirt on it, film Heston having a breakdown. Cheap & successful. Or in the recent Tom Cruise movie "Oblivion", take the freely-available plans for the Empire State Building, mock it up cheap, throw some dirt on it--boom, done. By contrast, building entire new worlds, particularly richly-detailed ones, like the world in Cameron's "Avatar" is immensely expensive and requires a lot of capital and talented time.
  • This leads into a question about whether any of Stephenson's work might be coming to film, which sounds like a negative. He says he is pretty uniquely privileged to be financially secure as a writer without having to seek those kinds of deals.
  • He also has a fascinating bit about the investment capital involved in big-budget media, film and video games, and how at those numbers OF COURSE they're going to go with sure-bets. He brings up how far in advance super-hero movies are already planned out, for example, and how some back-of-the-envelope math shows that's literally four billion dollars plus of movie production money already spoken for, and pretty much a guaranteed return. So it makes sense that produces aren't rushing to make "Snow Crash, the Film", a huge risk. This results in the big media--movies & games--being "completely captured", with more innovation to be expected from smaller, less capital-intensive media.
  • I really liked that throughout this conversation he was cognizant of the impact and size of the video game industry.
  • Some talk about his youth, growing up with a family and a neighborhood unusually high in science PhDs.
  • Asked about the presence of actual books in the far future of "Seveneves", we get a wonderful defense of the book--the codex--as a robust, highly designed bit of engineering. "Kernings and seriphs are hugely sophisticated technology."
  • Stephenson is asked about, and talks a bit about, his start as a writer, beginning with the "first book-length object that I wrote (that didn't get published" over a long spring break. He also disagrees with the received wisdom that writers should start with smaller forms--short stories etc--before moving on to novels: "Writing big things is fundamentally different from writing little's a different medium."
  • I got to ask him what survivor stories--real or fictional--he is partial to, since "Seveneves" is very much a survivor narrative, and some of his other works have focused in bits on surivors and survivalists. He immediately brings up "My Side of the Mountain" (1959 YA novel by Jean Craighead George, made into the 1969 film by James B. Clark), which is awesome--I loved that as a kid--and also the  1952 Heinlein novel "The Rolling Stones", sort of a Swiss Family Robinson in Space story. That's also pretty cool to me personally--the Heinlein "young SF" books were my first real introduction to SF proper, back in 5th grade or so.
  • Stephenson takes a moment to praise Heinlein's mastery of the craft.
  • The final question is meant positively--he's asked about the inspiration for his strong female characters, why he writes them. After pointing out that a number of his female relatives are in the audience, so of course they're the inspiration, Stephenson more seriously follows up by quoting Joss Whedon--who, asked why he writes strong women, replied "because people are still asking that." Stephenson says that it's just "reflective of the way objective reality looks to me," but then acknowledges that he hasn't done a particularly good job of gender diversity in many of his books--that one of the pleasures of "Seveneves" was having to do that, and that his female characters have too often been just "good". He says he's trying to "up my percentage of vicious, conniving female a feminist statement".
A nice talk! And I highly recommend checking out the Printer's Row Lit Fest next year if you're not already planning to.

No comments:

Post a Comment