Tuesday, September 09, 2008

An Evening With Neal Stephenson. Well, Perhaps An Hour. Well, Let's Make It A Few Minutes

I really, REALLY need to move into the city.

Tuesday night I had what felt like the chance of a lifetime: going to hear Neal Stephenson give a talk about just just-released new book Anathem. Not only is Stephenson one of my all-time favorite authors; he also is a relatively shy person who rarely ventures into public. Although I've avidly followed his career for many years, I've never seen him in public. Due to an incredibly generous person, I was able to attend an event he gave. It utterly transcended the standard book tours I'm used to, which generally consist of an author reading from their latest work, speaking for a little while about their interests, past and future writing, and then answering questions.

I knew from the start that it was going to be big. The event was held at the Regency Center in San Francisco, a classic performance space and ballroom that is used today for various events. I arrived quite a bit after the advertised 7pm start time, but there was still a really long line left around the building. No, correction: There were TWO really long lines, one for general admission, and the other for special people like me. Thanks to advance work by an ally, we didn't even have to go to the end of the special line, and were whisked inside in very little time.

There are three rooms inside the Regency, and this was held in the largest of them. It looks like a pretty nice space, and there was also a spacious lobby and annexes for bookselling. Also a cash bar, always welcome at literary events. I snagged a copy of Anathem (signed! first edition! totally worth $32.50!), then sat down to chat while I waited. And waited. And waited. This whole time I kept nervously looking at my phone as the minutes advanced. Granted, the invitation had been advertised as 7pm-11pm, but still, I had anticipated that we would kick off the event at 7, wrap up between 8-8:30, and then Neal would start signing books. I should have expected that an author of Neal's stature doesn't need to spend hours signing books, and in any case there were way too many people for him to process. With that out of the way, what could they possibly have planned for four hours?

I have to say that, while the room looked pretty nice, I was very unimpressed with the sound quality. Throughout the entire night we had to deal with buzzing, humming, interference, and general shoddiness in the sound department. This would have been bad enough, but it turned out that a significant portion of the evening would be given over to music, which is even less forgiving of undesired noise. The event organizer came out around 7:50 to explain that they were still working on the sound, and introduced the musical entertainment.

Later on, Neal would explain that when he started writing Anathem, for inspiration he would listen whenever he could to live performances of medieval and ancient sacred music. This meant frequent concerts with two groups, one out of Portland and the other out of Seattle. I wasn't totally clear on whether we were hearing one of those groups, or another group that had formed since then. After hearing him describe what they were singing about, I decided it was pretty cool. Sacred music gives glory to God; he thought it would be interesting to create secular sacred music that would give glory to mathematical principles, philosophical truths, and other "pure" secular concepts. So what we were actually hearing included a song that delivered a formula for finding prime numbers; a recitation of the digits of pi; and a few other things that I've forgotten.

So, in retrospect, cool stuff. At the beginning, though, it just sounded goofy, poorly engineered, and incomprehensible. Much like the troublemakers in the back of the room, we began making snide comments and parodies, re-imagining the chant as a computer remix or a crowd-rousing anthem. "Let me hear the ladies in the back!" "Ommmmmm, ahhhhhhh, ommmmm". "Now let me hear the fellas!" "Ommmmmm, ahhhhhh, ommmmm."

Neal finally took the stage a bit after 8, and I knew I was doomed to run out. If I was going to hit my bed before midnight, I'd need to catch the 9:30 train home, which meant leaving before 9. Still, an hour with Neal was infinity% more than I'd had before, and beggars cannot be choosers.

Neal has a sort of quiet yet powerful presence. He's rather tall and has an impressive beard, which sticks out more given his shaved scalp. He is famously shy, and has written a really interesting essay on being an introvert. However, he doesn't stammer or anything. He has a good, dry sense of humor in person that the audience just lapped up. After giving the house some time to fix the sound again, he briefly introduced the story, and announced that he would be reading something from the start of the book, "Since anything later on would not make any sense, and in any case you don't know the vocabulary yet." From here he plunged into the book.

He has a good reading voice. Not the best I've come across, but still quite good... he doesn't try for flashy moves like providing distinct voices to each of his characters, instead focusing on clearly communicating the prose. And that prose... well, I get the feeling I'll have a different impression once I've actually read it, but it struck me as a mix between "The Diamond Age" and "The Baroque Cycle". It uses a first-person narrator who isn't completely aware of what's going on, and a surprising amount of the text is concerned with people trying to overcome language and conceptual barriers that are hampering their communication. As they continue to talk, it becomes clearer that it is not just these surface-level obstacles that are causing confusion, but fundamentally different underlying goals and orientations.

After the reading came - more music! It was now explicitly clear that the orientation of the evening would consist of literary moments with musical interludes. It's a really cool idea that I applaud, except for my frustration at it cutting into limited Neal time.

I should back up here and mention that this particular event was held under the auspices of the Long Now Foundation. This is an interesting group of people who are working to change humanity's orientation so we focus on long-term instead of short-term thinking. The creator noticed that, when he was growing up in the 1960's, everyone thought of The Year 2000 as being The Future. Twenty years later, in the 1980's, 2000 was still The Future. It became even more pronounced during the 1990's, when our national brain turned towards the apocalyptic, and we seemed incapable of conceiving what would happen past The Year 2000. (Side note: it seems appropriate that "The End of History" was written around this time. Even notwithstanding changes in the global political alignment, it's hard to imagine that audacious title being written after the turn of the millennium). He became concerned that we as a species were proving incapable of long-term planning, for considering problems and projects that could span generations. The Long Now is dedicated towards re-orienting the way we view ourselves and time so we force ourselves to consider the long term.

As a way of promoting this idea, the Long Now has driven some attention to the Millennium Clock, a timekeeping device that measures time in the tens of thousands of years. As he described it, the clock does not run totally on its own. People need to prepare for it and maintain it, which requires planning that will cross decades, centuries, and millennia. I may have this wrong, but I think that the clock ticks every year, chimes every decade, and a cuckoo comes out every century. The entire scale is vast, challenging us to measure our achievements within the spans of time it alots.

Neal was involved in early discussions about the Long Now project and incorporated some of the ideas into Anathem.


In this world - and it is another world; he was careful not to set it on Earth, to make it clear that he wasn't imagining a potential future of the Long Now Foundation - a society has been built around a concept similar to the Millennium Clock. There is a - I'm not totally clear what it is yet, but it sounds like a very large city or something - that has a set of doors. The doors only open on a certain interval, say once every ten years. While they are open, anyone can freely enter or leave, but once they shut, people must remain where they are for the duration. This means that, for example, an engineer might sequester himself for a decade, during which time there will be no contact at all with the rest of the world. He will be free to work on problems that interest him and pursue his research without being distracted by everyday life.

He was careful not to give away too much of the plot, but I get the impression that this ends up being a sort of "Morlocks and Eloi" system, similar to what he described in "In the Beginning... Was the Command Line." The society's thinkers and elite nerds will gravitate towards the isolation of the inside, while the bulk of society lives freely outside. It sounds like there are certain tensions that arise between these groups. At times, the outsiders view the insiders as just curiosities or tourist attractions. But, when a very big problem looms, they rely on the geniuses inside to get them out of trouble.

I found myself thinking of the Twilight Zone episode... I think the title is "Time Enough at Last." What strikes some people as a horrifying future - being left all alone on the planet Earth with no other human being around - would, to a few, be a kind of paradise. This is the ultimate division between extrovert and introvert, and if you're all the way towards the latter end of that scale, nothing could be better than living in a world by yourself.

I'm sure there's much, much more going on in this novel - apparently people communicate by singing, and there's gotta be a ton of plot and rambling discourse thrown in there - but the idea of that long-time-based society seems interesting enough in itself to drive the novel.


In case you were curious: yes, while I was sitting there I was fully aware of the irony. The entire event was about a book largely centered around the premise that we as a species should take a long view of time, and I was obsessing over whether I'd be able to catch my 9:30 train. I guess that just makes it more memorable for me. I tried to convince myself that I was actually following the spirit of the book - "If I was thinking in the short term, I'd tell myself, 'This is awesome, I'm having fun, so I'll stay until it's over,' but instead I am taking the long view with foresight and planning and so am taking the right action to make sure I get a good night's sleep tonight." I nearly convince myself. I'm almost certain that, in the very long view, I would remember an extra 2 hours with Neal and his crazy mathematical sacred chanters more than I would remember the aggravation of paying for a long cab ride and a night with just 4 hours' sleep.

The real solution: I need to move into the city so I can do cool stuff like this without the details of life getting in the way.

In the meantime, though, I was delighted to squeeze as much Neal out of the evening as I could. I am now going to stop writing, crack open this book, and lose myself in the world that Neal has created.


  1. Hi there - the groups that Neal listens to are Cappella Romana (http://www.cappellaromana.org), a number of whose singers sang on the CD that comes with Anathem (and the composer is also a member of Cappella Romana), and the Tudor Choir (www.tudorchoir.org).

    Mark Powell
    Cappella Romana

  2. Cool, thanks for the information! I had been wishing I'd brought a notebook to write this stuff down - glad that the Internet is there to step in!

    Sadly, my copy of Anathem didn't come with a CD, but it does sound intriguing. I'll need to see if there's a way to pick one up so I can give it the attention it deserves.