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Ask Neal Stephenson 499

Our latest Slashdot interview victim... err... guest... is Neal Stephenson, author of (among others) Snow Crash, CRYPTONOMICON, the much-discussed essay, In the Beginning was the Command Line, and more recently a series of books he calls The Baroque Cycle. (Last month Slashdot reviewed the series' third volume, The System of the World.) Now you can ask Neal whatever you want. As usual, we'll send him 10 -12 of the highest-moderated questions and post his answers verbatim when we get them back.
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Ask Neal Stephenson

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  • A prediction, please (Score:5, Interesting)

    by erick99 ( 743982 ) <> on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:01PM (#10493799)
    Science fiction writers are my favorite sources of predictions for the futre of technology. So, if you had to make one predicition related to technology - something we don't entirely have now but will be ubiquitous ten years from now, what would that be?
  • by Control Group ( 105494 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:01PM (#10493810) Homepage
    First off, thank you for your writing - I read a lot of books, but very few have brought me as much satisfaction as yours.

    In any event, the question: the first book of yours I read was Snow Crash, followed by Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon. This earned you a spot in my head as an excellent author of techno/SF/cyberpunk (for lack of a more definitive, preferably singular, term). While I've enjoyed the Baroque Cycle (though I admit to not having read the The System Of yhe World yet), I also look at a novel like Snow Crash with an almost wistful nostalgia. With all that said, do you have any plans to write anything else in that genre/style, or do you feel you've explored it as far as you're interested in doing?

    • by drneil1 ( 798008 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @02:45PM (#10495720)
      I'd also be curious about any more writing along the lines of Command Line. i.e. shortish, nonfiction, essays of your opinions. Anything like that coming out in near future? Anything that you wrote previously, but hasn't seen the light of day yet?? Command Line inspired me to start learning emacs and to do as much of my work as I can outside the gui. Thanks.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:03PM (#10493824)
    Hiro Protagonist and Y.T.

    What was going through your mind at that moment?
    • by metlin ( 258108 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:31PM (#10494185) Journal
      How the fuck is this offtop? Sheesh!

      FYI moderators on crack -- those are the names of characters from Neal's book Snowcrash.

      I've thought of that too -- Neal, some of your books have very creative names, while some have common John Doe kinda names.

      Where the hell do you get your ideas for names from?

      Enoch Root, Hiro Protagonist, Y.T., ad infinitum.
      • by jeff.paulsen ( 6195 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @01:13PM (#10494730)

        Like many writers, Mr Stephenson subscribes to a name-generating service. For a reasonable fee, a quarterly list of names is sent to him. If he sees a name he likes, he calls the service and tells them which one he intends to use. The service checks to see if any other author has already claimed that name, and if not, Neal gets to use it.

        As Mr Stephenson is a very forward-thinking, technology-adept sort of person, I imagine he uses one of the more modern name services, with web access.

  • by arashiakari ( 633150 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:03PM (#10493829) Homepage
    Do you think that hacking tools should be protected (in the United States) under the second amendment?
    • by arashiakari ( 633150 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:08PM (#10493917) Homepage
      Do you think computer hacking tools should be protected (in the United States) under the second amendment? Our right to "bear arms" is designed to defend against internal tyranny as much as external invasion. With the world built around information and its interpretation, to certify accountability it will remain necessary for individuals to have the ability to subvert (when necessary) the gatekeepers to popular exposure if those gatekeepers are to be kept honest.

      If as much license were applied to the second amendment as has been claimed under the first, we would all be packing hand-held nuclear weapons. Is a port scanner or code disassembler too much to ask?
  • by 0x0d0a ( 568518 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:03PM (#10493837) Journal
    Neal, what's your Slashdot account name?
  • Book endings (Score:3, Interesting)

    by scumdamn ( 82357 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:04PM (#10493844)
    Do you ever wish you'd ended any of your books differently? Your books are usually fast paced, but as you reach the last 5-10 pages a reader begins to panic. The thought that always goes through my head is "He doesn't have enough book left to explain it all!" and usually I'm right.
    I mean, I don't want to know that Princess Nell had two kids and lived in a trailer park for the rest of her life finally dying of emphezema, but it'd be kinda nice to get just a bit more detail before being dropped off with only a bare explaination of events.
    • Re:Book endings (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Saint Aardvark ( 159009 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:31PM (#10494184) Homepage Journal
      This is already answered on his website []:

      Some readers, or so it would appear, have been dissatisfied with the endings of certain of my novels. These people often come to the reasonable-sounding but totally wrong hypothesis that I am trying, but failing, to write the sorts of endings that they would like to see.

      This is not the case. In fact, I always write the endings that I want to, and am as satisfied with my endings as I am with any other aspect of my writing. I just have an opinion about what constitutes a good ending that is at variance with some of my readers.

      I'd like to ask this question:

      Okay, so you're satisfied with your endings...why? What about them appeals to you? What is it you're going for? What constitutes a good ending for you? What don't you like in an ending?

      (And for the record, I like your books enough that I simply don't want them to end; I've never had the visceral reaction to your endings that some seem to have.)

      • Re:Book endings (Score:3, Interesting)

        Too add to this, what about having a prologue section at the end of your books? This way, the story can end the way you want, and the prologue can go about in a different style to wrap up any loose ends. Similar to the paragraph or two that appears at the end of a true-life film, to show how things turn out in the long run. What do you think?
  • Cryptonomicon Sequel (Score:4, Interesting)

    by metlin ( 258108 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:04PM (#10493852) Journal
    Do you ever plan on writing a sequel to Cryptonomicon?

    I did not think you would get into the sequel thing, since most others have trouble pulling it off. However, you did a brilliant job of it in the Baroque cycle.

    Personally, I thought Cryptonomicon ended wehere it had to, and the Baroque Cycle provided a nice view of the history behind the origins of the characters. However, I'm more curious about how you would take Cryptonomicon in the future, if you were to do so.

    Also, I'd asked you this in person when you had given a talk at Georgia Tech - about the endings of your books, to which you had replied that you were quite happy with them the way they were.

    But -- if you could have ended them differently, what kind of alternate endings do you think you would have come up with?

    • Also, I'd asked you this in person when you had given a talk at Georgia Tech - about the endings of your books, to which you had replied that you were quite happy with them the way they were.

      But -- if you could have ended them differently, what kind of alternate endings do you think you would have come up with?

      Moderators and editors - PLEASE add this thought to the highly-moderated question earlier about Neal's endings. I'd rather hear this followup, rather than waste one of of 10-12 questions on a re

      • Strange Attractor wrote ( shades of the infamous Shatner SNL skit):

        Also, I'd asked you this in person when you had given a talk at Georgia Tech - about the endings of your books, to which you had replied that you were quite happy with them the way they were.

        But -- if you could have ended them differently, what kind of alternate endings do you think you would have come up with?

        Shatner: Um... That mare had a foal?!

        Moderators and editors - PLEASE add this thought to the highly-moderated question earlier

  • by MosesJones ( 55544 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:04PM (#10493853) Homepage

    Science Fiction is normally relegated to the specialist publications rather than having reviews in the main stream press. Seen as "fringe" and a bit sad its seldom reviewed with anything more than condecesion by the "quality" press.

    Does it bother you that people like Jeffery Archer or Jackie Collins seem to get more respect for their writing than you ?
  • by kpost ( 594219 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:05PM (#10493861)
    Can you give us any details on what you're currently writing and a guess as to when we'll see it?
  • Neal,

    A lot of us fans loved it when you were in the world of pure sci-fi, though we appreciate the Baroque Cycle, we were wondering if you are going to get back into the world of cyberpunk, or future worlds, or what have you, like in The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon. What are your writing plans when the Baroque Cycle is complete?
    • I believe the connection between the Past (Baroque Cycle), the Present (and recent past) in Cryptonomicon, and the Future (yet to be written?) will be made -- we're just in the middle of it. Enoch Root *is* the same character in the Baroque books and Crypto -- that's what makes them all sci-fi. My guess is that he's a time traveler, though others have their opinions [].

      The intricate family connections also lead me to believe that the story will continue in the future, not only with the Shaftoes and Waterhous

  • The abrupt endings (Score:3, Insightful)

    by thesandtiger ( 819476 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:06PM (#10493874)
    Your books always seem to go on forever, and then rapidly accelerate and then just *stop*. What's the deal? I love the prose, love the ideas, and have read all your stuff - but this sudden impact always leaves me a bit... stunned, like a cow who's just been air-hammered between the eyes... when I finish one of your books.
  • Cryptonomicon (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Aristos Mazer ( 181252 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:06PM (#10493882)
    Can you detail which pieces of Cryptonomicon's WWII history is factual and which are fiction? How much of the team that did information hiding (leaking the code books so as to have a legitimate reason to change codes) was real?
  • Singularity (Score:5, Interesting)

    by randalx ( 659791 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:06PM (#10493888)
    What are your thoughts on Veror Vinge's Singularity [] prediction. Is it inevitable? Will humans become a part of it or be left behind by this new "species"?
    • by Cade144 ( 553696 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:30PM (#10494163) Homepage

      To expand a smidge further: as covered earlier on Slashdot [], the problem that the singularity presents to futurists is troubling. By definition the singularity is the point at which the rate of technological change is faster than can be imagined.

      How does that sort of thing bother you as an author of futurist/speculative fiction? Wouldn't you rather there be a nice crash of civilization to keep the pace of technological advancement slow enough so that predictions in your books get outpaced by the march of technological "progress"?

      Of course, given said crash of civilization, you'd best have most of your assets in gold []. And it might be unlikely that your publisher would continue writing you checks, but that's a different story.

      • Don't assume the curve is exponential, it is more likly to be a logrithmic curve and we're just on the psuedo exponential portion. there are limits to everything, nothing is truly exponential.
  • Chronology (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Digitalia ( 127982 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:07PM (#10493898) Homepage
    Of your novels, there seems to be a certain chronology. You've written novels set far in the past, like the Baroque cycle; in the present, such as Cryptonomicon; those set a decade or so into the future, like Snow Crash; and a novel set roughly half a century from now, with the Diamond Age.

    Do you plan to fill in the gaps? Will we see how the formation of a data haven specifically leads to the abolition of the government as we know it, or are these novels not meant to reference each other?
  • Enoch (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sinergy ( 88242 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:07PM (#10493903) Homepage

    Please give us some more details about Enoch Root. He's quite an amazong character, but you leave us really guessing about him. Is he the same person throughout the years? Is he the embodiment of the biblical Enoch?
    • Re:Enoch (Score:3, Informative)

      by bedford ( 814234 )
      Someone at a book signing last week in Boulder asked Neal to explain Enoch. He reply was that to explain Enoch's purpose would be to destroy it. I'm not sure what impact this has on the question you're asking, but it seemed worth mentioning anyway.
  • by Call Me Black Cloud ( 616282 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:07PM (#10493904)
    In a fight between you and William Gibson, who would win?
  • by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:07PM (#10493905) Homepage Journal
    I have asked both William Gibson and Hunter S. Thompson a question that seems especially relevant to your work, as you have combined technology with politics in the immanent future in several compelling stories. As corporations move into power vacuums vacated and created by governments, especially globally, who are the new political criminals? Do we already have corporate political prisoners? And how can we change corporatism as we slowly changed politics, to protect the rights of these criminals, and the rights of the rest of us treated as such, without justice? If we hear your answer, I will share the answers from Gibson and Thompson, each as revealing about the writers as about crime.
  • by timothy ( 36799 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:09PM (#10493928) Journal
    (On behalf of my brother, who first started pushing your books at me years before I finally read any ...)

    Mr. Stephenson:

    In some of your books, your action scenes are far detailed (and better informed) than are those of many authors, who gloss over the ways that actual physical objects, including people, interact at close range (including skateboarding, diving, fighting, and the awkwardness of in-car sex with Amy Shaftoe).

    This leads me to ask, Are you a skateboarder? Surfer? Martial Artist, and if so of what variety? (Or Rock climber, spelunker, etc.) If Yes in a general sense, how often do you participate in such things now?

    More generally, what physical activities that you find especially invigorating mentally?

  • wheeeeee (Score:4, Interesting)

    by robochan ( 706488 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:09PM (#10493931) Homepage
    First off, a hearty thank you! In The Beginning Was The Command Line was what initially got me to try Linux back in 1998 - I wanted a free tank! :o)

    It would sem that your father was a big inspiration for Command Line. What has inspired you for your other works? I've always been fascinated by the inspirations of an author's particular works, as they usually give a deeper insight to the work than just the included text.

  • Spacesflight (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Harbinjer ( 260165 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:09PM (#10493937) Journal
    I'm curious about your take on the commercial spaceflight. First, would/will you go up to space? How do you think this will impact Sci-fi writing. Its been a prominent theme in sci-fi for quite a while, but in reality, very slow to take off. So do you think it will push more stuff to looking at a "star trek" like future? Or do you think its already overemphasized in the literature?
  • by macshune ( 628296 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:10PM (#10493944) Journal
    Dear Neal, If given the chance in the future, would you go from being a 100% biological human to a cyborg? If the technology was available would you consider transforming yourself into a fully non-biological entity?

    Also, do you think that going from human to non-biological entity would be like going from an LP to a compact disc in the sense that just the platter and fidelity would change and not the tune, or would a person's humanity be replaced with something entirely different? Thanks,
  • by farrellj ( 563 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:12PM (#10493975) Homepage Journal
    I recently re-read your article "Mother Earth, Mother Board" in WIRED magazine, and it seems that a lot of research that you did for that article inspired you greatly. Many things that are touched upon in that there crop up throughout CRYPTONOMICON and the Baroque Cycle, are you planning on ever publishing a revised or expanding that article? I would love to about the research that went into the backround/backstory of those books.

  • by IvyMike ( 178408 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:12PM (#10493978)
    Since you're Neal Stephenson, I suspect the answer could be something like "surveys of ancient Sumerian accounting systems".

    If that's the case, please include a work of modern fiction or two in your list; something you think that a fan of your work might also enjoy. :)
  • by adesm ( 684216 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:13PM (#10493985)
    Neal, In interviews I have read you have stated that during the writing of Cryptonomicon you discarded a third 'future' timeline. Is there any possibility of someday bringing that timeline to light? Do you feel that the contents of that timeline still pass muster given the changes in Cryptography and official power concentration since you wrote the novel?
  • by jeblucas ( 560748 ) <jeblucas&gmail,com> on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:13PM (#10493990) Homepage Journal
    I've read most of your books, and in each of them (I believe) you refer to "Japan" as "Nippon" and "Japanese" as "Nipponese". Is this purely an affectation, or do you seriously walk around around day to day and say, "Dang, those Nipponese cars sure have swell handling." Do people look at you funny when you toss that around? Is it an icebreaker? What's the deal?
    • My wife, who is from Japan found that the use of "Nipponese" was quite bizarre and affected. At first blush, considering "Japan" in japanese is "Nippon", it seems more PC, but I can't imagine that was the inspiration for its use.
  • storygramming (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:13PM (#10493991) Homepage Journal
    You programmed computers before you wrote novels. Greg Egan shares that hyphenated career, and continues to illustrate his stories with Java applets []. Do you still program, possibly targeting the same subjects with your word processor as your compiler? As _Snow Crash_ was originally designed as an interactive game, and such landmarks as _Myst_ have regenerated as (usually bad) novels, do you see the arrival of a truly multimedia story, delivered simultaneously in multiple media, anytime soon? By whom, specifically or generally?
  • Idempotent mentoring (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:14PM (#10494000)
    Neal, I would rather simply read your books than to try to independently model your brain through ontological questioning; however, if you were to suggest some unusual reading to a much younger version of yourself, what would it be?
  • Money (Score:5, Interesting)

    by querencia ( 625880 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:14PM (#10494001)
    One of the major themes in Cryptonomicon that carried over (in a big way) to The Baroque Cycle is money. You introduced some "futuristic" views of currency and of where money might be going in Cryptonomicon, and you skillfully managed to do the same thing, while explaining some of the history of modern monetary systems, in the most recent books.

    You've obviously spent a lot of time thinking about money lately. Is there anything going on in the modern world with monetary systems (barter networks, for example) that you find particularly interesting? What do you see on the horizon with respect to money?

    PS -- thanks for the great books!
  • BeOS (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Coryoth ( 254751 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:15PM (#10494005) Homepage Journal
    When you wrote "In the Beginning was the Command Line" you were very much in love with BeOS. As nice as BeOS was, it is now mostly gone. Do you still use BeOS 5, or have you aquired YellowTab from Zeta? Or, instead have you embreaced the new UNIX based MacOS X as the OS you want to use when you "Just want to go to Disneyland"?

  • by soth12 ( 820984 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:16PM (#10494013)
    I thought it was really interesting in Snow Crash how Juanita (a Catholic) doesn't believe the story of Jesus's resurrection. She claims that it was the Church's attempt to wrest back control of the religion. I'm not Christian but the very idea is really intriguing. Was there a particular source or research for this theory? What about your perspective on religion in general?
  • by revscat ( 35618 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:16PM (#10494015) Journal
    Classic era science fiction (Heinlein, Asimov, etc.) was notably more humanistic and positivistic in tone. In works from that era, the future was bright, challenges were overcome by clever individuals, and technology and science led humanity towards ever greater accomplishments. Now, however, science fiction tends to paint a much bleaker picture of the future (and present). Why do you think this is, and do you think this is an accurate representation of potential futures?
  • is going on 5 years old. The books investrigation into the history and utility of the various OS choices seems to have been inspired by your own search for a dependable word processor. Although it was widely reported that you reverted to pen (or quill) and paper for The Baroque Cycle, have your OS preferences and evaluations changed over the last 5 years? What OS do you personally find the most value in today?
  • by timothy ( 36799 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:16PM (#10494019) Journal
    Mr. Stephenson:

    I greatly enjoy your travel stories, both non-fiction (Mother Earth, Motherboard) and in particular your descriptions of the Philipines in Cryptonomicon.

    Can you share some of the ideas you've developed for savvy trav'lin? For instance, how do you deal with carrying sufficent technology (whatever level you deem this to be) while minimizing the risk of theft, breakage, or loss by other means? Do you dress native or carry your entire warddobe? [And broader, do you travel with something close to nothing, picking up necessary items as the need arises? What do you not leave home without?]

    Do you carry any sort of self-defense means in some places, and if so What and Where?


  • by torpor ( 458 ) <ibisum@gm a i l . com> on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:16PM (#10494023) Homepage Journal
    I've always admired writers whose style implies a certain work discipline, and I may be wrong but it seems as if you have a writing environment that does you wonders. As a world famous author, you have had the opportunity to work in some very interesting places.

    My question(s) is(are) this: what is your ideal writing environment? Have you been to anywhere in particular in your travels, or have a writing setup/gig that has compelled you to really get words down, physically, ready for someone else to read?
  • by smittyoneeach ( 243267 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:17PM (#10494032) Homepage Journal
    How can we coax intelligent, thinking types like yourself and Lessig onto the ticket?
  • Causes, methods. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by greenglyph ( 814070 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:19PM (#10494053)
    Mr. Stephenson,

    I have found your works to be both illuminating and invigorating. Having said that, why do you write? That is to say, Is there an overall guiding influence to your craft as a whole, and does that somehow inform what you set out to accomplish in each novel?

    Kind Regards, Sergio A. Mora
  • by anzha ( 138288 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:19PM (#10494056) Homepage Journal

    Mr. Stephenson,

    I have been reading and finding your books interesting. However, I was wondering if there was a prediction that you felt was going to happen, but didn't...and this surprised you to no end. Was there such a prediction and what was it?

    Thank you.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:20PM (#10494059)
    How do you deal with the groupies? The people who nitpick technical details you missed, or simplified for plot reasons? How many non-spam emails from fans do you get on a normal day? How often are you recognized on the street?

    In short, what's it like being a Rock Star to the Nerds?
  • by 0x0d0a ( 568518 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:20PM (#10494062) Journal
    Neal, at one point you were a coder. Eventually, you became a writer. There are many programmers on Slashdot -- do you recommend this path to them? How do you find writing English as a profession versus writing code as a profession?
  • by ajs ( 35943 ) <ajs.ajs@com> on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:22PM (#10494085) Homepage Journal
    Earlier in your career, I heard you compared to Arthur C. Clarke for your ability to present the thoughts, fantasies and concerns of the tech-bubble-white-collar in ways that not only entertained but enlightened (where Clarke was doing the same for the aerospace and technology engineers of the 50s). This was abstract and entertaining in Snow Crash, speculative in Diamond Age and bitingly believable in Cryptonomicon.

    So my question is this: were the Baroque Cycle books just an excursion away from that synergy that you had with the high-tech common man, or the start of a long-term trend? Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying they were bad books (far from), just wondering how it fits in.
  • by SlashDread ( 38969 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:24PM (#10494095)
    Greetings to you in the name of the most high God, from my beloved country Nigeria.

    I am sorry and I solicit your permission into your privacy. I am Barrister Leonardo Akume, lawyer to the late Dr. Koffi Abachus, a brilliant Nigerian mathematician.

    My former client, late Dr. Koffi Abachus, died in a mysterious plane crash in the year 1994 on the way to a scientific conference to make an announcement of the utmost importance to mankind.

    He was planning to present a paper regarding his extensive work on data storage. It is said the data storage device he had developed, would be roughly ten times more secure compared to the latest quantum excyption techniques. The device was about the size of a steamer trunk, and stored on a privately owned island close to the coast of Nigeria. Dr Koffi Abachus is also the King of the local tribe by heritage...

    Oh well.. Should there BE a data haven? If so, where?

  • As a historian (Score:5, Interesting)

    by The Limp Devil ( 513137 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:27PM (#10494128)
    As a historian it has been interesting for me to see you tackle historical subjects (and from my period to boot). Something which often pops up when I debate with my colleagues is the constraints that our profession puts on how we portray history in writing. The demand for concrete sources for everything we write often leaves us unable to put into writing some of our understanding and conceptions of historical societies and events.

    So I wonder, how do you see us? Having gone from science fiction to historical novels, how do you view historians and how we write history?
  • Which Comes First (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Hardwyred ( 71704 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:28PM (#10494134) Homepage
    Your books always seem to be painstakingly researched. Which comes first, the desire to write the book which creates the need for the research, or the research inspiring you to write the book?
  • by cmaxx ( 7796 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:30PM (#10494165)
    How do you cope with the blank-page problem and times when the story seems to dry up in your mind? Does it ever happen to you?
  • by Russ Nelson ( 33911 ) <> on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:34PM (#10494217) Homepage
    Is there such a thing as an ending consultant? Could you perhaps employ one? I'm sure that your books would sell much better if the author line was "Story by Neal Stephanson, Ending by Whots Hisname."
    • by ediron2 ( 246908 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @03:34PM (#10496238) Journal

      I'm browsing now, looking for prior questions before posting the following:

      "What happens to you at the end of the books you write? Every one of your novels starts out breathtakingly rich and full of stuff that is some of the best near-future SF I've read in 30+ years, but staged within a context that is conventionally acceptable. But each of the few novels of yours I've read swerves wierdly in late chapters. Are you schizophrenic, is there a hidden agenda here, or what?"

      Yeah, I'm really masochistic/stupid enough to RATFC's.

      Hope you get the Q.
  • SF Depression (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mydigitalself ( 472203 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:34PM (#10494219)
    (insert all the usual kudo's here)

    Neal, I read a lot of science fiction (yourself, gibson, asher, mm smith, name a few) and as much as enjoy reading the genre I can't but help get mildly depressed by the fact that I know that all this stuff will eventually happen in some way/shape/form and I won't be around to experience it.

    And I'm not just talking about tech (eg. molly's eyes in Neuromancer) here, I'm also talking fundamental societal shifts and advancements that often underpin the great SF works.

    Do you ever get depressed or get this sinking feeling that you were born a century or two too early, and how do you deal with it?
  • by thesupermikey ( 220055 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:36PM (#10494248) Homepage Journal

    How do you see your books (Snow Crash in particular) fitting in with the greater social criticisms of our time? Is there a over arching point that you are trying to convey? How do you see your novels fitting in with the greater commentary of our culture as portrayed in cyberpunk?
  • Present Tense (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Robotech_Master ( 14247 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:37PM (#10494264) Homepage Journal
    There are very few novelists these days who write their novels in the present tense ("He gets up, goes to work"). Most people write in the time-honored past tense ("He got up, went to work.") style.

    Why did you start using the present tense after writing your first two books (The Big U, Zodiac) in past? What does it do for you that past tense does not? Was it hard to get your novels accepted by the publisher because of the unexpected tense?
  • Blue Origin (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Concerned Onlooker ( 473481 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:40PM (#10494304) Homepage Journal
    The Wikipedia lists you as a part-time advisor for Blue Origin [], a company that is working to "develop a crewed, suborbital launch system." What is it that you do for them and has the recent winning of the X-Prize by the Spaceship One team had any effect on Blue Origin's plans? What are your visions of future private space flight?
  • by Tax Boy ( 75507 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:45PM (#10494384)
    First off-- thanks for coming to the national book fair. I enjoyed your talk and thanks for signing my copy of system of the world.

    your 5 major works explore the rise and fall of the modern nation-state. The Baroque Cycle shows its genesis and rise (esp. vis a vis the development of centralized banking and modern financial systems), Crypnotomicon sows the seeds of its fall (untraceable tax havens through strong crypto and electronic "money") and Snowcrash and Diamond Age show a "post nation-state" world.

    Was it always your intent to explore this theme way back when you were writing Snowcrash, or did it grow "organically" as you started working on new books?

    Now that this theme has a beginning, middle and end, do you intend to continue exploring it in future books, or is it now "done" and time to move on to new subjects?
  • by mutewinter ( 688449 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:47PM (#10494415)
    Here we are, over a decade later Snow Crash was published. MMORPGs seem to have brought the metaverse into reality yet it is not quite the metaverse we imagined. Other virtual worlds such as Second Life and Moove seem to be a step closer to the metaverse, but both lack the simplicity and core elements to attract a huge market on the same level as instant messaging has.

    Without question, text based chat on IRC, AOL, instant messaging and elsewhere has played a major role in bringing the masses online. Ironically, in an age of high-powered video cards and broadband, internet communication it seems text-based communication still works the best. While text-based communication unquestionably has advantages over graphical forms of communication (ie, I can search usenet postings from years ago) there still are some disadvantages. Flame wars erupt on message boards over the misinterpreted connotation of an otherwise benign comment. The lack of body language and tone of voice seem to be the primary causes. In many cases, "call me now" is the only option to prevent a disaster.

    What do you feel is standing in the way of the "true" metaverse becoming reality? Or is it only a matter of time before an innovative developer brings it to us? Also, how would you feel about Digital Rights Management in a metaverse? Do you think that DRM would encourage artists to create their own works, leading to a more diverse and vibrant metaverse, or would the world be better off without it?
  • Free Pizza? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Col. Panic ( 90528 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:48PM (#10494428) Homepage Journal
    How many times have you gotten a pizza for free because it took over 30 minutes?

    And a follow-up, what do you take on it?
  • Education (Score:5, Interesting)

    by EnsilZah ( 575600 ) <> on Monday October 11, 2004 @12:56PM (#10494536)
    I am currently reading The Diamond Age.
    And i've recently finished Highschool.

    I was wondering what you think are the major flaws in the current western educational system.
    And in what ways do you think it could be improved?
  • journalism (Score:5, Interesting)

    by X_Caffeine ( 451624 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @01:13PM (#10494731)
    I was just browsing through some old issues of Wired and came across that article you wrote about laying cable in the pacific []. ITBWT Command Line is also noteworthy nonfiction; do you have any other exercies in journalism or nonfiction in mind?
  • by superdan2k ( 135614 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @01:14PM (#10494739) Homepage Journal
    As someone who switched majors from Comp Sci to English (Creative Writing), after reading Snow Crash, I'm interested to know how you view the novel in hindsight. In reading it the first time, I was blown away -- at the time it felt very much like that world was only a few decades a way, at most -- now, I re-read the book (about a dozen times now) simply for the fun factor and to study your style and the construction of your story, and I'm struck by the fact that I view a world like that as being highly highly unlikely. I'd be curious as to your opinion as to how the novel has stood the test of time, and what you'd do differently this time around.
  • by ecklesweb ( 713901 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @01:22PM (#10494827)
    In Cryptonomicon, what was the information contained in the punched sheets of gold foil? I never could find the answer to that question, and I've never run across anyone else who knew either.
  • by Sangloth ( 664575 ) <> on Monday October 11, 2004 @01:22PM (#10494834)
    In the Cryptonomicon, sometimes you use titles like Electric Till Corporation (IBM) or Finux(Linux), other times you just used the real world name like Microsoft or Mitsubishi. Were there a legal reason for using ETC instead of IBM, or was it a whim? What was the rational? Sangloth I'd appreciate any comment with a logical doesn't even have to agree with me.
  • Debt to Pynchon? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Genus Marmota ( 59217 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @01:40PM (#10494987)
    I enjoyed Cryptonomicon very much but I was constantly struck by similarites in theme and style to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Are you familiar with the book? Do you feel that Pynchon has had a significant effect on your work? Are the similarities intentional?
  • by Sgt. Pepperoni ( 242628 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @01:42PM (#10495022)

    I noticed in the first two Baroque cycle books that you're enchanted by the distillation of phosphorus from urine.

    As a matter of fact, it is described in both books with a level of detail that suggests, shall we say, first hand knowlege of the process.

    How much alchemical (and mathematical) tinkering do you do when researching your books? How do you go about researching such things...
    solo binges of ravenously devouring of source materials, or do you seek out experts early on the process to point you in the right direction?

  • by borgboy ( 218060 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @01:51PM (#10495111)
    I enjoyed you more when your stories were more concise. Is your current trend of longer stories a permanent fixture in your writing?
  • Worldview? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rbird76 ( 688731 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @01:58PM (#10495192)
    Mr. Stephenson,

    In your books (Snow Crash and Diamond Age particularly, because they deal with the future) you discuss moral and physical systems of the world - how people organize themselves to optimize their well-being or achievement or how groups work to do so. How do you think the world will organize itself in the future?
  • by Catiline ( 186878 ) <> on Monday October 11, 2004 @02:18PM (#10495447) Homepage Journal
    Having read both Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, I get the impression that you are aware that, as our society becomes more information-oriented, there will be more public and larger battles over the future of open information: both legally, as universities and companies are driven to protect (with patent and copyright) all discoveries and socially, as Peer-to-Peer and portable computing transforms the way we connect to one another.

    May we hear what your opinion is over "intellectual property" -- copyright, patents, and so forth?
  • Metaphor Shear (Score:5, Interesting)

    by anachattak ( 650234 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @02:44PM (#10495713)
    I have a question for Neal: In your essay, In the Beginning Was the Command Line, you addressed the issue of metaphor shear in OS GUIs (i.e. the symbolic elements in a GUI interface don't behave like their real world counterparts, though they initially lead you to think they will - documents disappear, etc.)

    The question: Children today interface more directly with technology by bypassing some of the metaphor elements of a GUI (i.e. kids learn how to use a computer without ever touching a typewriter and know that the "desktop" is really just a folder in a file directory). Where do you see this phenomenon leading, as younger generations learn to work with technology and associated concepts with less "intermediation"? Is this something "new", or is this the classic "older people are less willing to adopt innovative technologies"?

  • by scoobrs ( 779206 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @03:21PM (#10496110)
    From the beginning of the Internet, information has gone from being open to proprietary to closed. The DMCA has made more information illegal due to locking it and making keys illegal instead of establishing the trade secret status or copyright of the information inside. As predicted by many SF writers, people have begun to trust computers to keep real secrets. Hackers, once lauded for their abilities, are now feared for them. Diebold, for example, got embarrassed badly by having their secrets uncovered. How do you believe governments will deal with unpredictable hackers who suddenly have such powers?
  • gravity's rainbow (Score:3, Interesting)

    by notandor ( 807997 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @03:23PM (#10496133) Journal
    Is "Cryptonomicon" in any way inspired by Thomas Pynchons "Gravity's Rainbow"? While reading "Cryptonomicon", I noticed that some aspects of the book resembled some parts of Thomas Pynchons book "Gravity's Rainbow", they share parts of the humour (Cryptonomicons Giant lizards during the drug/dilerium trips) or the WW2 timeline, and both are written in a postmodernistic style. After searching a bit on the net I saw that many other people noticed this. While "Cryptonomicon" being not so philosophical and linguistic complex structured as "Gravity's Rainbow" (and thus IMO not in the same class as "Gravity's Rainbow"), it still gives a feeling of allusion to "Gravity's Rainbow" to me.
  • by Fractal Law ( 122229 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @03:30PM (#10496197)
    (Please note that I've not finished the System of the World yet)

    The conspiracy in the World War II period of Cryptonomicon travels halfway around the world with a large amount of solid gold punch cards. While the cards are being transfered, Rudy notes that the information on the gold is quite valuable; this makes sense as one wouldn't use gold to make punch cards unless the information you wanted to put on them was more valuable than the gold. These punch cards go down with their submarine, but are then later brought up by the Saftoes. Randy notices that the gold has been punched, but no mention is made of the cards after that point.

    What's on those cards?
  • by illogic ( 52099 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @03:40PM (#10496314)
    In my view, In the Beginning Was the Command Line is one of the most important documents of hacker culture ever produced -- it endows hackers with a sort of technological cosmology, explaining our activity in terms of broader cultural trends (in the real world) and consequently giving us a rather privileged position in the universe. I periodically re-read it, devotionally, as if it were a religious text. I sent a copy to a non-technical writer and she described it as "downright erotic".

    Apart from the sacred text, your novels also serve as a shared hacker mythology, honestly capturing the experience of being a geek in the midst of stories that are just really really good.

    Contrasted with the works of more consciously self-important hackers (eg. esr), your writings seem even more important because you don't seem to intend them to be. If hacking is a meritocracy, then so is writing about hacking, and your place in the pantheon has undoubtedly been earned.

    My question, then, is how you view your own relationship to the "hacker community", especially vis-a-vis esr and others who explicitly position themselves as "hacker anthropologists", and whether you consciously conceive of your role as storyteller and mythmaker... or whether you're just an geek who writes geeky things and happily discovered that other people wanted to read them.
  • by smackthud ( 116446 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @04:31PM (#10496826)
    Power appears as a broad theme in much your writing. You repeatedly show the deep impact on individuals (and groups, cultures, religions, etc.) from the direct use of influence, secrets, technology, ideology and capital.

    Have you developed any theories or ethical guidelines that you believe make power effective or not effective; and has your perspective on real life has been influenced by your own research/work in this area?
  • by mcarbone ( 78119 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @04:33PM (#10496853) Homepage
    What non-science-fiction writers have influenced you the most?

    What is your favorite novel, album, and movie in the 21st century?
  • Nipponese (Score:5, Interesting)

    by renderhead ( 206057 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @05:28PM (#10497266)
    When I first read Snow Crash, I was struck by the use of "Nippon" and "Nipponese." In my ignorance at the time, someone had to tell me that Nippon is the "real" name of what most Americans know as Japan. In the Snow Crash universe, I assumed that using the name Nippon instead was a bit of cleverness, revealing that, in this version of the future, the island nation had gained enough international influence to get everyone to call it by the preferred name.

    However, in Cryptonomicon you keep up the pattern despite the novel being set in the past and present. Even if soldiers in the Pacific theater of WWII preferred the slang "nips" to "japs," I find it difficult to accept that Randy Waterhouse and his techie friends not only say "Nippon" and "Nipponese", but that Randy even thinks in those terms.

    Do you know something that I don't about how people think and talk about Japan/Nippon, or are you trying to bring your readers around to your own preferred terminology through good, old-fashioned immersion?
  • by mcarbone ( 78119 ) * on Monday October 11, 2004 @05:36PM (#10497356) Homepage
    First off, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for the slashdot crowd. Most of us know from reading your web page that you take your time very seriously, and rarely respond directly to inquiries from fans.

    That being said, is this the best way to intelligently interact with your fans? In other words, do you believe that the slashdot moderation system, with which I'll assume you are familiar, truly pushes up the most interesting questions to the fore? Can you imagine an alternative way for a celebrity to engage in profound discourse with his fans in this many-to-one relationship?
  • by JimMarch(equalccw) ( 710249 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @06:16PM (#10497742)
    As you're well aware, the most "dangerous" aspect of strong crypto isn't it's use at the hands of Osama Yo Mama and company, it's in the ability to do private unregulated and international wire transfers that could cripple the US income tax system.

    The question is, how far will the US Gov't go to cripple crypto, and what are they doing now?

    Item: we know Microsoft got off way light at the hands of the US-DOJ. Is that because the gov't wants to encourage and popularize the sort of pathetic security Windows is famous for? Was there a quid pro quo between M$ and the NSA involving Windows backdoors?

    Item: voting machines. The top four vendors of electronic voting systems (ES&S, Diebold, Sequoia, Hart Intercivic) all run Windows as components and they all...well, suck. We know more about Diebold because we actually have the code available for download and test (google my name "Jim March" and "Diebold") due to an idiotic open FTP site on their part. The point here is that even in this app that screams "security!", piss-poor or completely missing crypto was tolerated and even promoted.

    We could go on for days.


    (And a followup: given that Cryptonomicon brought this issue to public view more than any other document in history in my opinion, have you been pressured officially as a result? I consider it one of the two most "wonderfully subversive" novels written lately; the author of the other (John Ross of "Unintended Consequences") has indeed been harassed (by the BATF).)
  • by Infonaut ( 96956 ) <> on Monday October 11, 2004 @06:44PM (#10498008) Homepage Journal
    Have you contemplated using any sort of alternative to traditional copyright for your works of fiction, such as a flavor of Creative Commons [] license? Do you feel that making money as a writer and more open copyright are compatible in the long term, or do you think that writers like Lessig who distribute electronically via CC are merely indulging in a short-lived fad?

  • by admiralfrijole ( 712311 ) on Monday October 11, 2004 @06:57PM (#10498141) Homepage
    In In The Beginning Was The Command Line, you spoke of Be's wonderous merging of user-friendlieness and a UNIX-lixe underpinning, the synergy of which made it a truly wonderful operating system.

    When Be gave up the ghost, one of the fre innovators left in the OS market died, but at the same time Apple moved to its BSD-based OS X.

    Do you think that OS X, with Aqua and apple's many consumer-friendly apps, in combination with the BSD-based Darwin is the present-day successful analoge to Be?

    And just out of curiousity, since you had a BeBox at the time, what do you use now?

Q: How many IBM CPU's does it take to execute a job? A: Four; three to hold it down, and one to rip its head off.