Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stephen, son!

I was thrilled to have another chance at seeing Neal Stephenson in person - and, this time, to actually stick around for a book-signing! This was the second event in a row I've attended that's been hosted by the Booksmith; obviously, its Haight store isn't sufficiently large to accomodate the size of crowd that Neal would attract (particularly in the tech-happy Bay Area), so they held the event at the Swedish-American Hall, a nice venue in the Castro.

There seems to be a good new trend for supporting major author tours like this: you buy a "ticket" in advance of the book release from your local independent bookstore; you redeem the ticket for admittance to the event and your copy of the nice hardcover book. That's how Kepler's handled the George R R Martin event, and how Booksmith handled Neal Stephenson. It seems like a good and fairly efficient way to promote the author, reading, community, and the local-bookstore economy.

I was a bit surprised at the size of the event. Don't get me wrong, it was a great turnout, but still noticeable smaller than the 2008 one. I'm a bit curious as to why this is - the previous one had been sponsored by the foundation that does the Clock of the Long Now, and I suppose they may have had some extra publicity or something that supported the larger venue and bigger turnout. It all worked out fine, though... this way everyone got a better look at Neal, and the signing line at the end of the night was less horrendously long than it would otherwise have been.

Neal was introduced by a local radio host, who I'm afraid I'm not familiar with, but who gave a good, spirited introduction that prompted numerous scatterings of applause. The host praised Neal's work for its transformative power: it shows us where we, as a species, have been, where we're headed, and how we're getting there.

Neal gave a couple of readings from REAMDE. He lightly glossed the characters, but for the most part didn't lecture, just plunged into the words. I was irrationally disappointed at his first selection, from a scene in the first chapter, which I had read while waiting for the event to start. I suppose that I was upset at myself for having "spoiled" the reading by, um, reading the book; which is interesting, since it implies that I'd be happier about Stephenson "spoiling" the sections that I had not yet read, which seems backwards.


I needn't have worried. As was the case with Orozco's reading, Neal's delivery helped me pick up on some stuff that I'd missed when reading fifteen minutes earlier. I remembered the great line as the cousins leave the Wal-Mart along the lines of "Richard decided that Wal-Mart was not a spaceship, but rather an interdimensional portal to every other Wal-Mart in the world, and that they might as well emerge in Topeka or Cleveland." I'd missed the earlier comparison to a spaceship that opened that section, though, which nicely brackets the whole experience inside. His wonderful phrasing comes across even better in speech, as when he describes how the cousins draw up short at the threshold of the Wal-Mart, as the ironic detachment that substitutes for souls are overwhelmed by the vastness inside.

He followed this up with a description of Richard's furtive exit from the family reunion the next day, along with his experience with Black Friday traffic. Then he jumped ahead to a later section (which I haven't yet gotten to) where Richard, exiting a plane, is speaking with his corporate lieutenant, who is filling him in on the legal situation that's growing up around the REAMDE virus. This part had some GREAT lines; there was noticeable laughter throughout much of the reading, but the most and densest lines were probably from this section. Richard is an interesting character; he's the founder and nominal head of a Fortune-500 gaming company, but has retired from daily operations and so spends his time in a sort of free-floating poorly-defined role, following his bliss and only doing what he wants - but still working very hard at it. This lets him make some great observations on the detritus of corporate culture that he's involved with while simultaneously operating above. There's also a great joke somewhere in there where Richard says that T'Rain's opening scene was ripped off from the start of Google Earth, but that this didn't bother him, since he'd heard that Google Earth had gotten the idea from "some old science-fiction novel." That novel, of course, was Snow Crash. I LOVE this. In the past, elements from the world within one of his novels will interact with elements from the world of another novel, as when Cryptonomicon anticipates the Waterhouses. Here, elements from the fiction of one of his novels affects the fiction of another novel. It's a sly meta-joke, which we really don't get that often from Stephenson (at least, not that I've caught before).

Oh, and this also had a flashback to the transformation of a biker gang into a group of LARPers, which formed the foundation for the medieval armed combat at the core of T'Rain. I was delighted to catch a single brief reference to Shekondar; here I think it was the fictional alter-ego of one of the men, but I'll always remember SHEKONDAR as the fictional deity/AI from The Big U, which manifests in Fred Fine's delusions and is sort of a benevolent form of the bicameral mind dissolving that takes place throughout the Plex.


After wrapping up the reading, Neal took questions for about a good half-hour. He's... a really interesting guy. He comes across as very intense and extremely intelligent. He also has a VERY dry sense of humor, which everyone really appreciated. It's hard to describe; the closest comparison I can find is Harold Ramis's character in Ghostbusters, but even that only brushes against his style of humor. Anyways, he took particular care to understand exactly what each questioner was asking for, and visibly marshaled his thoughts as he responded. It's quite different from other Q&A periods I've seen, where speakers confronted with difficult-to-understand questioners will wait until they're able to latch onto something comprehensible and then just give a response to that.

As usual, here are my best recollections of some of the questions and Neal's answers.

"I have both the Kindle edition and the hardcover, and there are some... inconsistencies, or errors. Can you say anything about this? IS IT A CODE?!"

This had happened earlier, particularly with Cryptonomicon, which had numerous errors. This led to all sorts of theories, with a small but vocal group of people convinced that the "mistakes" actually formed some sort of code. Unfortunately, no, they're just mistakes. "Even if it WAS a code, of course, I would say that it wasn't. But it isn't."

"I loved reading about the Shaftoes and the Waterhouses, and felt like we'd really gotten to know those amazing families so well throughout Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. Do you think you might return to telling those stories, or do you feel like it's done."

Neal has a lot of fun writing these characters and telling those stories. When he finished the Baroque Cycle, he could easily see himself turning 90 years old and releasing the 57th volume about them. (Applause.) But, he kind of wanted to try doing something else for a while. He has no particular plans; he can return to writing those stories if he wants to, or not. He had fun writing the new family in REAMDE, the Forthrasts, and thinks they're just as interesting as the Shaftoes and Waterhouses.

"For any novel that you write, how much time is spent researching, and how much actually writing?"

It depends, of course, on the book and the phase he's in. When writing the Baroque Cycle, at the beginning he was probably spending 99% of his time reading about that era and 1% actually writing. By the end of the Cycle, those ratios were pretty much reversed, and he would only "research" if he needed to find out, say, what kind of pompadour a French courtier would be wearing. REAMDE is set in the present day, so he didn't really need to do much reading at all for it, it's just stuff that he knows."

"(Someone asked a long and kind of confusing question about how Neal Stephenson dealt with such a large and complex 'estate'. At first I thought that he was getting at the intellectual-property rights associated with his books - handling licensing, fair-use, adaptations, translations, etc. - but when Neal pressed him for a more specific example, he brought up Neal's Facebook page, so I think it actually had more to do with how much of Neal's reader-facing publicity is Neal himself, and how much is done by other people affiliated with him.)"

Speaking to the specific case of the Facebook page - it is kind of an accidental thing. A while back someone had started it as a fan page, which is fine. Later on, Facebook changed their template, or whatever, and so it became seen as a more official page, which it's never really been, but people confuse it for Neal's "real" page. Separately, Neal has his own Facebook account, but it isn't a publicity thing, and he only connects with people who he actually knows. He thinks that his publisher is working something out with the existing Neal Stephenson Facebook page, so that it's no longer the responsibility of the fan who started it, and instead is managed by his publisher. He (Neal) thinks that the guy currently running it is relieved by the change.

"(I forget exactly what this question was, but do remember the response.)"

With different books, Neal is able to emphasize different parts of the writing process. All novels contain some mixture of elements like plot, characterization, stylistic writing, and so on. Anathem was a book that was very focused on philosophy. With REAMDE, Stephenson was more interested in plot. He'd had the idea in his mind for a while, and decided to just capture it in novelistic form. He doesn't write all of his books in that way, but it's an aspect that he enjoys exploring occasionally. It feels a little like The Confusion, the middle volume in the Baroque Cycle, which is pretty much all about events happening, unfolding an intricate plot.

"I recently re-read Interface, which has all sorts of interesting political elements that feel very relevant to what's going on today. Do you think you might want to revisit those kinds of books later?"

He'd had a lot of fun writing those two books, Interface and The Cobweb, with his uncle. He doesn't have any plans to co-write any other books, but that doesn't mean he won't. He thinks that REAMDE may actually be closer to those two books than any of the solo books he's done, in that they're set in the present time and very plot-oriented.

"I think that Zodiac is probably the book of yours that would lend itself best to a movie adaptation." (Neal: "I would agree with that.") "What's the status of that and any other books that might get turned into movies?"

He isn't too connected with the process. In the case of Zodiac, he sold the rights outright, and doesn't even own them any more. He thinks that Warner Brothers currently owns them, so they can do whatever they want. Getting a movie made can be a decades-long process; something's always happening, but nothing actually gets done. Some books generate more interest in movies than others - "Unlike, for example... well, anything that I've written in the past decade." (Laughter.) He's also interested in the long storytelling form that would be possible in, say, a miniseries. (Applause. I've been thinking along these lines, too - everything he's written since at least Zodiac, and possibly since Snow Crash, is so sprawling and intricate that it's practically begging for the HBO treatment.) But, nothing is currently happening there.

One person asked a long and confusing question that seemed to come down to something along the lines of, "What elements from your earlier books do you revisit in your later books?"

He doesn't have any particular plan for any of this stuff. He never re-reads his older books. The questioner had noticed that, for example, REAMDE has scenes of guys riding around in motorcycles, "Taking advantage of Canada's surprisingly lax sword laws, riding with five-foot-long Claymores strapped to their back." This had reminded the questioner of Hiro Protagonist from Snowcrash; in one of that book's many awesomely indelible scene, Hiro becomes the Baddest M*****-F***** in the Universe when he rides a motorcycle with a Katana strapped to his back. It sounds like this was more or less accidental for Stephenson, not part of some grand book-spanning thematic scheme.

"Are we going to see any more of your long-form non-fiction in the future?"

Probably not. There have been happy coincidences in the past, as when he was able to write some long-form essays around the time that Cryptonomicon came out, but it just doesn't pencil out for him to do much of that stuff. "Writing non-fiction is harder, takes longer, and doesn't pay as well as writing novels. Plus, there's all sorts of annoying things that come with non-fiction, like needing to tell the truth." That said, his publisher (I think maybe Harper-Collins?) will be releasing a collection of his non-fiction this coming year (maybe in February?), so that will be a chance to read all of that stuff. "It will be the same material as before. Just placed in a new... physical object."

"Do you read fiction, and if so, what books?"

When he's writing, he doesn't read much of anything, since he's so focused on his current book. When he has free time, he tends to binge on fiction for a while, and enjoys it. This past summer, he read through the whole Game of Thrones series (hooray!), and he's now in the same state as everyone else, irritated at needing to wait until the next book comes out to continue the story. He also read, and recommended, a novel by an author whose name I didn't recognize (sorry!). He tends to read more non-fiction, and recommended a couple of books, including 1493.

There were a few more questions, but those are the ones that I can recall a day later.

The signing itself was interesting too. I hadn't thought to bring any of my (many, many) other Stephenson books, so I just had the one copy of REAMDE. He would have signed up to two other books, and I'm not sure what ones I would have brought. Anathem and the Baroque Cycle are the only other hardcovers I have, and they're also first-editions; but, for sentimental value, I probably would have brought In The Beginning... and, heck, maybe The Big U.  Anyways... pretty much everyone stayed for the signing, and since I'd been lucky enough to sit close to the podium, that also meant I was towards the end of the signing line. Which was fine; I got through a score or so more pages.

The line snaked through the auditorium, out through the hall past the bar area where they were selling more copies of the book, and into a little foyer. Interestingly, and unlike any other signing that I remember attending, the line didn't end with Stephenson. Instead, after an employee queued up the books, they released a person at a time into the actual signing room, a large hall that felt vaguely like a church chapel. It was smaller than the auditorium, but still far larger and more spacious then the area connecting the two rooms. At any given time there were only a half-dozen or so people in there. Neal stood at a table, efficiently signing books. He was flanked by two female attendants, I presume representatives from the publisher, who took care of taking and returning the books, maintaining a bit of a buffer between Neal and the readers. And then there were the few of us waiting in the new, far shorter line. His interactions were brief, but not unpleasant; given the enormity of the crowd, he certainly couldn't have had a real conversation with everyone coming through, but he made eye contact and would exchange a few works with each person. He didn't pose for pictures, but a few people did photograph themselves standing near him after he'd moved on to the next person. For once, I'd actually thought of what I'd say, and instead of just blurting something inane like "You're awesome!", I mentioned how glad I was to see Shekondar pop up again. He almost smiled, and said, "I can't fit it into every book, but it occasionally works out."

I stayed up until way too late last night reading REAMDE. It's very good, and I see what Stephenson meant about it being a very plot-oriented book. It's very well-written, but a lot less dense than, say, Anathem or Quicksilver. With Anathem, I needed to stop every page or two to reflect on what had been said, or to re-read the preceding passage and make sure I was parsing all the terminology correctly. I'm flying through REAMDE - it's got nice meaty bits of expositional monologues, as do all of Stephenson's books, but so far everything ties in pretty directly with what seems to be the main thrust of the book; they're less lateral than those in Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon.

I've very deliberately stayed away from any talk of REAMDE: I haven't visited the Amazon page, or looked for any reviews, or read the dust jacket. I don't know exactly where it's going, but based on the 150 pages or so I've read thus far, I think it's closest in feeling to the modern-day portions of Cryptonomicon. It's set basically in the present day, just a year or two in the future; people in the book are doing things that we aren't doing in the real world, but it's all built on recognizable technology that we're capable of today. Also like Cryptonomicon, there's a tech aspect to the plot, but most of the interest comes from the business angle of that tech. It isn't so much sci-fi about new tech as fiction about the stuff that people can build using that tech, and how that can change our culture. Like Cryptonomicon, it also is pretty interested in money. (I remember Stephenson answering a question around the time that Anathem came out, to the effect that he seemed very interested in the theory behind money, which played a major role in Cryptonomicon, and also was explicitly a big part of the Baroque Cycle, particularly in Quicksilver, which explores the medieval system of currency, and The System of the World, where our modern currency is born. Stephenson had answered that the thing that was most interesting to him about money was how LITTLE it had changed. All of our monetary systems were basically created a few hundred years ago, and for all the interest around stuff like e-cash today, there really haven't been any revolutions in our concept of money for centuries. I'd taken that answer to mean that, after the Baroque Cycle, he would close off that line of inquiry similarly to how he seemed to close off his inquiry into the bicameral mind after Snow Crash; but so far, it looks like that interest is alive and well in REAMDE.)


I probably won't be checking in as frequently as I did with my progress through Anathem, just because I'm more confident in being able to hold all of REAMDE in my head without resorting to external support. So, expect a review when I'm done, but probably not interim progress reports. We'll see how much I can get away with reading over the next two weeks - I don't exactly want to rush this, but I'm loving the book so far, and would love to finish it before I feel tempted to start on the next thing.

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