Neal Stephenson Authors@Google Transcript

I had this up on my blog as a public service because nobody else had done it. I don't think anybody else has, and a few people found it at my blog, so I've put it back up here to continue the service.

The original interview is at

Authors@Google: Neal Stephenson

September 12

Compere Nerd: Hello everyone, welcome to today's Authors@Google events, it's my pleasure to introduce Neal Stephenson, you know him as the author of Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon and the Baroque cycle, and he's here to talk about his latest work, Anathem. Please join me in welcoming him to Google.

Stephenson: Thanks, I just realised I don't have to stand behind that object because I'm wearing a wireless mic. So I'll roam around, I hope it doesn't drive you crazy but I do much better if I'm kind of pacing around a lot, so if it just becomes too annoying, avert your gaze. [Laughter] I could read from the book if anyone's got a copy but... Thanks, but I'm sceptical of readings as a book-tour event because I think that bookish people are just a little bit different. I sometimes wonder what it was like to be at the meeting where the concept of the book-tour reading appearance gig thing was proposed, I can kind of see the powerpoint presentation where some clever young up-and-coming executive in the media company said "You know, people who do other kinds of art are really good at making a fuss over themselves, you know, painters have gallery openings where people come in nice clothes and look at beautiful pictures and sip cocktails and write big cheques, and people in the performing arts are exceptionally good at making a fuss over themselves - we're always seeing pictures of them prancing down red carpets in front of their adoring fans, and in order for publishing to compete in the cut-throat media sort of attention marketplace we need something that can somehow compete with that. And at that point, that person probably proposed some really cool idea which we don't know what it is, because once it had gone through different layers of cost-benefit analysis and management and descoping, what we ended up with was that someone who never goes out in public is gonna walk into a room and read out loud from a book.


And the fundamental flaw in that, as I'm sure all of you technically-inclined, bandwidth-savvy people can already see is that if all you want is to have the contents of the book imparted into your brain what you want is really to go home, sit down in your favourite chair, alone, undisturbed and simply read the book yourself, so i've always been a bit sceptical of the reading out loud from the book thing and if you don't mind I'll just kind of eschew that today, and I'll say a few words about the book for those who know nothing at all about it and then we can try to get a question and answer thing going, and that will go slowly at first because people will feel a bit awkward and then it'll get rolling and eventually the fire marshall will have to come and have to shut us down, so. The book is entitled Anathem, it's set in the distant future of a world whose history runs in parallel to that of Earth but several thousand years ago, during an era pretty similar to what we're living through now, all the sort of literate, rational people [laughter] were rounded up and herded into a system of monastic communities - these are co-ed monasteries, but they're not allowed to reproduce. The only way to get new people in the system is by a process called collecting, which is very simple: if you're living on the outside and you're one of those kids who is frequently seen curled up in a corner reading a book, you'll be taken to the gates of the nearest monastery and dropped off. So, at the time of the book, that system has been up and running for about 3700 years and it turns out that the two cultures have found ways to get along pretty happily being separate from each other - the people on the inside of these monasteries live according to a vow of poverty, the have very simple lives, they grow their own food, they don't own anything except a piece of cloth that they wrap around their bodies as a garment. And they just sit around and read, and write books and think about philosophy and mathematics and science and they do other kinds of scholarly activities. On the outside, the landscape is just sort of coast-to-coast ocean-to-oceans, walmarts, casinos and the like. Big box retail stores, I'm sure you get the picture. Over the millennia, dark ages have come and gone, there've been renaissances, world wars and so on, but for the most part it doesn't really affect the people who live on the inside of the walls.

So that's the basic setup, that's the world that the book takes place in and as the saying goes, """hilarity ensues""" when unexpected events cause some changes in that basic arrangement, so. To go right to the bare nerve, just in hopes of getting a good conversation going, I'm sure you've all seen the article "Is Google Making us Stupid?"  which is in The Atlantic a couple months ago, so that must have occasioned a bit of discussion here, I'm just guessing, and so you know, this book actually might be an interesting lens through which to think about those kinds of issues. The people on the outside of the monasteries in this world have pretty darn short attention spans and they can't tear themselves away from their little cellphone type devices and they don't know very much. The people on the inside who look upon them with a certain amount of horror and simply can't understand how anyone could live that way, so... I don't have an answer, I don't know if Google is making us stupid or not but if you noticed that article and you're interested in those topics, you could do worse than have a look at this book as maybe an entrypoint for thinking about these issues and carrying that conversation forward.

So with that, I think we should go to Q&A and the way it's going to work is that the big sort of logistical problem here is gonna be getting your questions recorded and amplified, so there is at least one microphone person, so I think I'll leave it to your discretion as to who gets the microphone, otherwise we'll have to be doing all this kind of...

Q: So from your setup what parallels do you see between your work and Atlas Shrugged?

S: I haven't read it. [General applause and break] I knew a few people in, when I was in college, who tried very hard to convert me over to Randian philosophy and I think they tried a little too hard and so I never got round to actually reading those books. I'm not necessarily opposed to it, I'm not knocking it, I just simply don't know what's in the book.

Q: I know this is a little premature, but have you started on a new book yet, or have any ideas floating around.

S: Oh, it's not premature but the way it goes is that when a book gets finished, there's about a year of non-writing stuff that I have to do. So there's editing, and copy-editing and fixing little typos in the text and there's this... And then there's recovering from this. So during that time it would be very frustrating if I got spun up on a new book project and got happy about it and got excited about it and was unable to do anything with it, so I sort of deliberately place myself into a condition of stupefaction for this period of my life and I don't think about writing and I try to do other things like changing the lightbulbs in my house and getting the oil changed and I don't have the oil-change van, I've gotta do it myself, so... [S. is taken by a screen next to him] Hi, people on the screen. Yeah, I'm talking to you, laptop man. So there are loose ideas floating around, but I have nothing going. Good question, though.

Q: So how do you think about ending your stories. They seem to run the gamut from some where the action just ends and there's others with the equivalent of a movie-ending with a 10 minute car chase.

S: Well I'm reasonably happy with all of my endings, but I know some people feel differently. [laughter] But as you've noticed, they're different, it's not always the same thing. ALl I can say is, different books end in different ways and different people have different tastes in what they want to see. So I'm well aware there are certain people freustrated with the endings of my books. But I also think that it's one of these things where people's preconcieved ideas sometimes drive the way they percieve things. So I've seen people complain, for example , that Snow Crash doesn't have a good ending, like I can't remember at the time, I told a friend of mine that the climax of SC was now longer than Moby Dick, and you know there's a helicopter that gets called down, and there's a private jet that blows up and, you know, some people die, and there's confrontations and a girl goes home with her mom... It seems like a good ending to me [chuckles] so my experience is that once you write a book or two with controversial endings and that meme gets going of "Stephenson can't write endings" that that gets slapped onto everything you do, no matter how elaborate the ending is. The Baroque Cycle I created a sort of NORAD bunker in which to write the ending - it was this complete, you know, the walls, the celling, the floor, they were completely covered with timelines and charts and all kinds of technology that I was using to bring all the plotlines together into an end, so. I think Anathem does okay in that score. I'm sure I'll be hearing from some of the Stephenson-can't-write-endings people, but I think it's got a decent enough ending on this one.

Q: Hi, I actually read Snow Crash as part of a class in college and the class was on imaginary networks and so we were drawing a lot of parallels between things in Snow Crash and recent developments like Second Life.

S: Recent develoments in what?

Q: Like Second Life

S: Oh, okay, yeah, I've heard of it.

Q: I was just wondering, I'm sure you've been asked this question before, but since you wrote Snow Crash back in, was it 91, 92, what has been your response to things like Second Life and just a lot of changes that have happened in how we use technology and the internet that could never have been predicted?

S: Yeah, 89, 90-ish was when I wrote it... I haven't been tracking it. So... I know it sounds funny, but... I went on and wrote other stuff that didn't have anything to do with massively-multiplayer virtual reality, and I kinda lost track of what was going on in that world, so I'm aware of Second Life, I hear from people who spend a lot of time there and think it's cool. I don't doubt that it is. I haven't been there myself, I haven't tried it. I've looked over the shoulders of a few people who were using it, but, you know, as time goes on I notice I'm spending an inordinate amount of time sitting on my ass staring at pixels, and it's because you can do a lot of different things that way now: you can do your mail that way, you can read the newspaper that way, and many other things and I just decided at a certain point that I just had to.... I didn't want to get involved in any new staring-at-pixel activities because there was a bunch of real-world stuff that I wasn't getting done, and Second Life looked like - I kept hearing from people that it was very involving and I'd made the personal choice that I would avoid getting really excited about it.

My answer to your question is basically disappointing in that I don't know much about what's going on in that world now and I don't have anything terribly intelligent to say about it.

Q: Heh, thank you.

S: Oh, you're welcome.


Q: I used Baroque Cycle as a quasi-textbook, kind of... I'm curious how much time you spent researching the material for that compared to writing the material.

S: Well the way it usually goes with that kind of thing is that at the beginning you're just reading. Then you get the point - and when I say you, I mean me - where you're maybe reading 90% of the time, and writing 10% of the time, then it kind of goes the other way. So, by the end of it I was only consulting reference materials when I had some incredibly specific thing that I needed to know about wigs. Or, you know, guns or something. Because I kind of had the other knowledge, the maps, the books and so on that I needed. I would say that the just-reading stuff part of it lasted maybe a year. Maybe less because there were some things I felt I could go ahead and start writing during that time. Then I must have started working on the Baroque Cycle around 2000, I finished it Christmas Eve 2004? So, I guess that enables you to sort ot bracket the amount of time I spent doing the research. I mean when it's your full-time job it goes faster. If that's all you do, think about periwigs for two months, you absorb a lot of knowledge about periwigs or whatever else it is that you're writing about.

Q: So as your full-time job, can you give us an idea of what the mechanics of your day look like when you're reading, writing, working from home, doing this.

S: Yeah, I get up, I have my tea, I read the people, I go into my office, I check email quickly just to see if there's nothing incredibly urgent that's gonna ruin my day. If my day hasn't been ruined by that point I sit down and pick up the 10 or 15 pages I wrote yesterday and... I write with a pen, so I pick up a different pen, edit those pages in a different colour of ink and by the time I'm through to the end of that, I'm sort of spun up and ready to... I try to stop in the middle of chapters or in the middle of sections rather than stopping at the end of a sequence because it's easy to get the momentum back if I do it that way, so then, if there is nothing that happens to interrupt me, I will write for 2 hours, maybe 3, and then eventually when the thick stack of pages gets thick enough, I carry it over to the computer, I type it in using... lately I've been using aquamacs, the port of emacs for OS 10 and edit that way, print it out as needed, read it and, you know, do all that other stuff. So that's kinda the process for me.

Q: Welcome to Google, thank you for coming. I'm here...

S: This is so relaxing, I don't have to decide who gets the mic.

Q: My question goes back to... you mentioned attention span. I find Wikipedia sort of amusing in terms of attention span. It's comprised of these small snippets that people with short attention spans put together, yet when you go there you can spend hours going from one to the next and I compared that to, for example, reading Charles Babbage, there's an opening exhibition in the computing historic museum that had brought one of the difference engines reconstructed, and I read back to the original, to his book and it's fascinating reading, even after 200 years, put together by one individual. So what's your take on Wikipedia and knowledge amalgamating itself into one huge place.

S: Knowledge whatting itself?

Q: Knowledge amalgamating itself into these chunks online. And then the other subquestion i

S: Do you have a recommendation for a good read that you sort of liked?

S: Oh, well. By the time I get done pontificating about question 1 I will have forgotten that, but... So rather than just go off on Wikipedia

Aud: Please do!

Q: Well... Something I'm really interested in is the... and to some extent this is going to sound really tired, so a lot of this is going to sound pretty unsurprising and unoriginal, but... I think there's something here. I'm interested in the sort of geekification of knowledge and what I mean by that is that 50 years ago, the repositories of knowledge were paper books and the brains of people who were basically paid to be university professors, researchers... that was where you would go to get hold of stuff you needed to know. All of that is still there, but there's kind of this new phenomenon of networks of geeks on the Internet who are geeks of a particular topic that they're interested in. So sometimes it can be very academic sorts of topics, but it can also be blue-collar stuff, you know, like - I saw some instructions lately on how to make your own springs - you gotta temper the steel in a particular way. A friend of mine, Charles Mann, an author of 1491 and other really cool books, related a story to me how a couple of months ago in one of his books or articles he had made some statement - I think it was about Catholic theology, mediaeval Catholic theology, that really irritated some people who were geeks of MCT because they felt it was just a repeat of an old falsehood that had been perpetuated for way too long, and they were just sick of it, and they were irritated that he had fallen for it. So suddenly he's getting emails from these people ane he's taken aback. Being the kind of guy he is, Charles went and looked it up and determined that these people were right. They're absolutely right and they're not kind of random conspiracy theorists, but they're very learned and qualified people and so he fixed it. He admitted he was wrong and fixed it and after that they decided he was a cool guy after all. [laughter] I'm sure what I've just described is kind of a recognisable phenomenon to everyone in this room - it's not only happening with MCT, but it's happening with many other topics. So I swing back and forth between being depressed about the way that traditional knowledge carrying institutions are kind of falling apart and not doing their job right and being fascinated by how their work is being taken over by these networks of geeks. I think that within these networks of geeks that the quality of the knowledge they're exchanging is probably higher because the Wikipedia page is a static thing and unless you're deliberately watching that page it can be changed without your knowing it. Whereas if it's an active conversation - if it's live- and you're part of that conversation and you say something that's wrong, people are going to jump down your throat immediately and start writing you emails in all capital letters how wrong you are. A lot of that's noise and crap but somehow that, I think, works as a way of preserving knowledge about any number of arcane subjects, or even non-arcane subjects, and that it is going to turn to something in the long run. So that's kind of, I guess, the frame of reference from which I'm trying to think about these issues right now and I can relate it to a lot of other stuff too that I should probably be... a little more interactive.

The SECOND part of your question was... uh... stuff to read. The last novel I read was The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist. Sort of a steampunk victorian novel, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I rarely miss an opportunity to plug the works of Matt Ruff or Etgar Keret who is an Israeli short fiction writer who does amazing things, things I can't comprehend like writing short things. [laughter] So I admire him for that, if nothing else, but he really is brilliant. If I think of other things I'll mention them - I read a lot of history, a lot of what I read isn't current. I love reading the works of Edward Gibbon, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire because he's such an amazing prose stylist and he's so opinionated and so mean [laughter]. So anyway, those are some ideas, we should probably move on to another question...

Q: Hi. So based on the description of your new book, I can't help but draw a parallel to the Culture Wars which are going on right now, and a certain election which is upcoming, which is drawing quite a bit of press at the moment. And wondering if you intended any kind of commentary on what is going on right now in society between people who might prefer a big box store and those who might prefer a good book.

S: Well, it's necessay to be a bit careful if because you get out-and-out political in works of art it stops being art incredibly fast and it stops being popular incredibly fast. [laughter] I'm trying to make art that's popular, so I try to leave it to the reader to make those kind of connections. It's pretty obvious to me that we're suffering in tangible and knowable ways from short attention span. Too short attention spans in thinking and behaviour. Just the whole global warming thing alone is a clear example of that, but you see it all the time in people's tendency to latch onto short-term gratification to make policies or to plan things. The whole credit crunch right now is another example. It's just, I don't know if anyone's tried to sit down and figure out how much the whole credit debacle is costing, but it must be an unbelievable amount of money and it's just tracable to people just trying to get a short-term advantage in these markets and not thinking about the long-term consequences. It's an expensive problem to the point of almost looking like cultural suicide, and maybe that's exactly what it is. Maybe we won't even be around, this culture won't even be around in a hundred years because of this problem. So I thought that was worth writing a book about, but having said all that, I'd rather leave it at that pretty high level and not try to mention any specific examples of policy decisions that might have been made differently if people were thinking a little harder. Does that answer your question? I guess was there a second part?

Q: Yes, so if you had to go for the big box store or a good book on a Sunday afternoon, which would you go for?

S: Yeah, well, that's not too hard, so. I can give you the answer that makes me look good which is "Oh yes, I'll read the great book!" but the fact is I don't read as much as I used to. I'm trying to change that but it's very difficult once you're used to emailing and being on top of things all the time, it's amazingly difficult to draw back from that and have long slabs of book-reading time.

Q: You mentioned your NORAD bunker with timelines and all such mechanisms and systems and devices by which you organise your conclusion to the book, also the middle of the book. I was about to ask how have such systems evolved over time, your own ideas, influences from other people. But you just mentioned your desire to write popular books, so is that another input in how you go about the process of writing, in choosing what happens in your books?

S: Well, the novel is a pop-culture medium. We don't think of it that way all the time because it kinda got turned into a fine art during the 20th century, but in the 19th century it was like comic books. People would famously line up around the block to get the latest issue, the latest chapter of a Dickens novel. When /The Old Curiosity Shop/, which is a Dickens book about an orphan named Nell, was being serialised, when the last chapter was still pending and it wasn't clear whether Nell was going to live or die, the ship that was carrying the last chapter of the book from England to the United States was met by people standing on the pier shouting "Is Nell alive or is she dead?". I think in /Bleak House/ Dickens used a real house, an identifiable house, as the home of the bad guy. A chapter of the book was released in which that guy did something particularly bad and an angry mob gathered in front of this house, because they could tell which house it was, and chucked things. Charles Dickens had to go out onto the balcony and tell them all to calm down and that it was all pretend. [laughter] Dumas, Alexander Dumas, was another one of these guys. He went to visit a publisher once in Paris and had a fantastic dinner, the best that Paris could provide, and the publisher said "Well, we've remodelled our house, we'd like to show you around, would you come on a little tour?" "Of course!" so they walk around the house and he's showing them the bedchambers upstairs, they get to the door of a bedchamber and the publisher says "Well, what do you think of this one?" Dumas says "Oh, it's beautiful" and the publisher says "Good, you can't leave until you've written me this book" and he pushes him in, shoves the door and locks it and proceeds to bring out more excellent French food and wine, kind of like the Google cafeteria, I guess [laughter] until Dumas has finished the novel he had promised him. That was a bit of a huge, probably annoying, digression [laughter] but the point is that the novel is fundamentally a pop-culture medium and I don't think it works very well unless it's a good yarn. Personally, I don't get into a book unless it's a good yarn, and that means it's got to have characters you care about and it's got to have a good story. That's what I mean when I say that being popular is part of it -- all I really mean is that I'm trying to have it be a good yarn that people will get into and that if I fail at that, I feel like I'm not doing my job.

Q: Speaking a bit into digressions, I think that in a recent /Wired/ article they actually described you as a bit Pynchonian in your writing, which is probably talking about complexity. So how do you decide how much you're going to go off on these descriptions of things like Van Eck Phreaking when you're writing the book rather than just mvoing the plot forward and being simplistic?

S: It depends on how you look at it. The Van Eck phreaking turns out to be a kind of hinge pin of the plot. I couldn't get to the end of that book - to the lousy end ofthat book [laughter] unless I could invoke Van Eck phreaking so it's set up in one part of the book, early on where it seems like a digression, and then later it turns out to be integral to the plot. There's a fair amount of that, I must warn you, in Anathem. I keep hearing from people who read the book and on the way they think "Okay, this is all well and good, but it's full of digressions - I'm just getting sick of all these digressions", and later on it turns out that most of them relate. That's not to say that I don't engage in digressions, but I have tried to curtail that tendency and to only do it when what looks like a digression is only going to be relevant later on down the line. I can think of some examples in earlier books where I totally failed to do that, but I'm trying to get that under control a little bit.

Q: Well, then I might be one of the minority who enjoys them.

A: Ah well, so for example, the Captain Crunch thing in Cryptonomicon is clearly a digression. [applause] So I think people can enjoy those if they're not too long and if they're funny. I try to tie it all in with the actual book.

Q: First, can you pronounce this please? [holds up sign]

S: No, because I didn't grow up there. [laughter] It's a fictional place.

Q: Okay, the other question. I found it fascinating that your earlier books were set in the future, Cryptonomicon was present and World War 2, then the Baroque cycle was in the past, in Sir Isaac Newton's time. So what was the driving factor between this reverse chronological order writing?

S: It was completely random. [laughter] There was a conscious decision with Cryptonomicon that since science fiction as a movement was coming to grips with IT... science fiction missed IT for a while and then cyberpunk was science-fiction playing catchup -- "No, wait a second, this is really important." It seemed reasonable to go back and as part of that go back to the beginnings of IT. Gibson and Sterling did that in /The Difference Engine/ and in Cryprotnomicon I'm looking at some more recent IT history with Turing and so on, Atanasoff. In the course of doing that, I just happened to learn from George Dyson's book, /Darwin among the Machines/ that Leibniz had done pioneering work in IT more than 300 years ago, which came as a complete surprise to me. I just had to do something about that. The fact that I went back in time and wrote that was not part of a plan, it was just that I got really interested in this fact that IT has a much deeper history than we generally thought it did and I wanted to address that in fiction.

Q: Along the same lines, in a fit of absentmindedness in college I got a history degree and I really enjoyed...

S: You gotta pay attention or you'll end up with a history degree! [laughter]

Q: I'm a huge fan of the Baroque cycle and I think one of the reasons is that the stuff that was clearly real lined up with all the stuff that my profs tried to make me think. In the third book I think you kinda tipped your hand a bit and said "Look, I'm self-conscious here, this history painting of the Comstock family is sorta what I'm trying to do with my book". You can call me wrong if you think that, but the question I have is -- you're obviously trying to teach us something when you write these books. The question is, when you introduce artifical character and have them interact with real characters, is that something you find that is easy for you, or do you get torments about how much stuff you should introduce from your own imagination, or do you find that it just works when you sit down and start writing?

S: I didn't feel tormented at all, so it's a zero-torment process. [laughter] Which is good, because I do it for a living. In the case of Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, the real characters were people like Turing and Newton and Leibniz, who are, and Hooke, people I can learn about, get a sense of how other people saw them, but I am relucant to try and make them the main point of view characters because I don't think I'm smart enough. It seems safer and easier to instead have characters who are maybe roughly as smart as I am who are trying to talk to them, and seeing those real historical figures through their eyes. I feel safer with that because then I can get inside the heads of my fictional characters -- that's safe, that works -- I can describe the way that, say, Isaac Newton seemed to other people and that's reasonably safe too, because people who knew him wrote down their impressions of the man. That approach worked for me, and it's just how I did it.

Q: I've always been really into your books just because of what I like to think of as your engineering background, your taste for complex systems and the topics you used to write about. I mean, you addressed this a little in the digressions part earlier, but I'm kind of curious that as an engineer who went to the other side in some way, that since you had an engineering career and a writing career, how do those things kind of relate to one another for you?

S: Well I didn't have an engineering career - I've never been paid, well, I didn't have an engineering career before a writing career. I grew up in that kind of environment, I absorbed a lot of that mindset, but as it happened, my book-writing career got going before I had to actually get a job, or at least that kind of a job. This is one of those questions that really forces me to be self-conscious and self-aware, which is a fine thing to do -- I've heard people recommend it [laughter] but I find it kind to be the enemy of literary progress, so I don't spend a lot of time thinking about this kind of thing. I will tell you that in order for me to make progress, I have to stop working around noon and then go do kind of nerdy stuff for the rest of the day. That's completely unrelated to the book project, and it can be many different kinds of things. It can be programming, or welding or fixing the wiring in my house, but for whatever reason, I've got to do something that is kind of absorbing and technical and hands-on for about half of the day to let the book-writing thing, certain background processes operate. If I'm thinking too hard about them, they won't do that.

Q: So far your major works have avoided an outer space setting. Is this an intentional choice or something you might try in the future?

S: It's in Anathem. [laughter] So... yeah. So it's there, it already happened.

Q: So Cryptonomicon, whether you intended it or not became something of a posterchild for people who believed in cryptographic anarchism and digital currency and rather than dying at the hands of government, that died at the feet of apathy. Did you really believe in that and did you anticipate that nobody would care?

S: Well, what happened was that I used to come down here from time to time and hang out with people. I came down once and everyone was talking about crypto and I came down six months later and everyone was talking about money. [laughter] And how to use crypto to make money, not in the sense of reaping profit but in the sense of actually doing currency. That seemed interesting so I started thinking about that and Cryptonomicon was the result. It's not an attempt to push a movement or anything that I necessarily believed in. I got where those guys were coming from, I think, and sort of have always tended to sympathise more with a kind of libertarian political point of view than the opposite and so that probably comes through a little bit in the work. If I had been trying to push a political viewpoint, I probably would have done so with something different. It's more an attempt to portray those kinds of people in a basically sympathetic light and by sympathetic I don't necessarily even mean that I'm proselytising in favour of what they believe, but just trying to say: Look, to those of you who aren't of this world, these people might seem very difficult to understand, and weird and geeky, but they're not - they're human beings with the usual set of interests and passions and problems. That's mostly what Cryptonomicon is about.

Q: First I wanted to thank you for making some very technical issues that are commonplace in society very accessible to some people. The attempts that you provide sometimes are great, like your description of modular arithmetic in Cryptonomicon is the best, far better than anything I ever saw in college.

S: Oh, with the bicycle chain?

Q: Yes, exactly.

S: By the way, Turing really did have a bicycle like that. So that was a real thing -- I described it, but I didn't make it up.

Q: That only reinforces my topic, which is that you clearly do a lot of research for your writing and there are a lot of non-fictional elements that play roles in your stories. Sometimes these are very challenging issues -- there are seriously gritty elements to your writing. I mean, there are parts of Quicksilver that were very difficult for me to read, especially with respect to gender roles, and things that transpired between people. Power issues were amazing in that series, between people who were royalty or simply have power over other people. Where do you decide those lines, just how far to push. You can make some people very uncomfortable because it's true, but it also pushes a boundary.

S: Well I think it's just all a matter of what I said earlier about trying to write a good yarn. You don't get dramatic tension in a story unless there's some discomfort, some source of anxiety or wanting to know how it turns out and so you've got to have that, but if you take it too far it can become too unpleasant to get through. I'm reading a book, a novel now, which I won't specify what it is, but it's got some really good bad guys in it - several of them - they're starting to get so bad that I'm finding excuses not to read the book now because I hate them so much and it gets me upset when they go out and do their bad guy things. I think it comes down to taste. The author has to make, basically, judgements of taste to decide how far to push it - how far to push it, and of course not everyone's tastes are in alignment. In some cases I may have exceeded the boundaries of good taste for certain readers but the hope is that I'm within those boundaries for enough readers to like the book.

Q: All of your books generally have pretty big thematic questions. In Snow Crash it's the idea of virtual reality and religion. In Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon it's the economics and the computation. When you're brainstorming a new book do you start with the questions you want to explore and build the yarn out of it, or do you start with the yarn and build questions into it as you go?

S: That's a good question. I think that first of all, every book is a little different so there is not necessarily an answer that applies to them all. It's kind of a catch-as-catch-can thing. You don't always get everything to line up at the same time. In the case of the most recent book, Anathem, that started out with some specific themes but I knew that those were sufficiently abstract that it would be a waste of time for me to persue the project if I couldn't get some characters and some storyline around it. In that case I, rather than starting from some big schematic outline of the book, I began by just trying to write some conversations and tell some little stories about the lives of these people and build the characters a little bit. As that went on, I started to develop a little bit of confidence that I had some good characters and could tell a good story, but for some other books that might be a different process altogether. Sometimes you just get the feeling it's working. And by you I mean me.

Q: I've noticed that a lot of sci-fi and fantasy authors will create one fictional universe in which they tell a lot of tales and others will always create a new universe. With the exception of your historical fiction, it seems you fall into the latter category. Have you ever been tempted to go back into the universe of Snow Crash and tell another story about someone else, or do you really feel you want to start fresh every time?

S: My general policy is that if I have a new idea, I go with the new idea, rather than trying to build a series. So far it seems to be the case that I have a new idea, it just seems a little healthier to proceed that way. It doesn't mean I can't ever go back, but I guess I have kind of an irrational fear of getting stuck in a rut of writing a big long series of books in the same universe. That's kind of my safety policy.

N: Before we sign off, I have a quick and almost frivolous, but still very important question. Since you write everything longhand, what's your favourite kind of pen?

S: I use different pens for different things. I have a Jorg Hysek, which is an incredibly racy kind of fancy pen that I would never go out and buy, but somebody gave it to me - it's carbon fibre and plutonium or something. [laughter] I don't really know what it's made of. I tend to use that for first draft stuff because it's got a fat nib and I can't physically carry it around because it's not got a clip -- it comes in a holster that's sewn together from hides of endangered species. [laughter] So that just has to sit on the desk, I can't carry it away. That works really nicely, then I've got this old Waterman that I've had for 25 years. It's a finer nib, I use it for editing. I've got a Rotring, another Waterman, so I haven't settled on any one that's the perfect one.

N: Well, we're about out of time, but thank you again for coming.

S: Sure, thank you.