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Interview: Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is the author of such books as Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, The Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, and Anathem. He is currently collaborating with Greg Bear and others on an online fiction project called The Mongoliad. And his latest novel, Reamde, is about a money-making scam in an online role-playing game that spins wildly out of control.

This interview first appeared in The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit io9.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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REAmDe by Neal StephensonTell us about your new novel Reamde. What’s it about?

It’s a thriller—I guess a techno-thriller is how you would pigeonhole it, if you had to pigeonhole it. The title refers to a virus that gets loose in a fictional, extremely popular massively multi-player online role-playing game, and becomes the trigger for a pretty complicated multi-threaded plotline that involves a lot of international espionage and organized crime and skullduggery of various descriptions.

The phenomenon of gold farming features prominently in this book. What is gold farming and what made you want to write a story about it?

This is a thing that, when I first became aware of it a few years ago, I simply couldn’t believe anything that weird could be real, and it really is; it’s an actual thing. In most of these online massively multi-player games, there are various kinds of virtual property that are highly prized by the hardcore players, and typically they can be purchased for gold pieces or some in-game pieces of imaginary gold. And so, if you’ve got more money than time, you can actually purchase pretend gold pieces for real money from people, typically in China but they could be anywhere, who just make it their profession to sit there all day long playing these games and acquiring as much gold and valuable virtual property as they can get their hands on, and then selling it on the open market.

So what was it about that that made you want to write about it?

Just the sheer oddity that such an industry could exist, and it’s actually quite a large industry—billions of dollars a year. The notion of working the boundary line between a real currency and a virtual currency is inherently interesting to me. I’ve been writing books for a while now that have ideas in them about gold and currency and money and what those things are, and so this dovetailed pretty naturally with that. And finally it solved a problem that I needed to have solved, which was that I’d been wanting for a while to write a story about a virus creator in an Asian country, just a kid who mischievously creates a virus that spreads all over the world and gets him into serious trouble with people from far away, and I needed a mechanism that would render that plot device logical, and in the whole virtual property economy I found that mechanism. And so by combining those two elements together I was able to create a basis for this plot that worked better than either one of those two things considered separately.

So this book revolves around an imaginary online game called T’rain. How did you dream up T’rain, and what are some of its most distinctive features?

Like a lot of people, I played Dungeons & Dragons a little bit when I was in college. And it has to be explained, I guess, that when I was in college it was pre-personal computer, pre-internet, so there’s been this ongoing process ever since then, taking games of that type and transferring them into the virtual world and making them run on computers. And it started out with very simple text-based adventures and has culminated in well-known, fully-rendered three-dimensional games like World of Warcraft, and it’s no doubt going to continue into the future. So I’ve been following that development ever since I was in college, which is thirty years or so. One of the ideas I played with a long time ago, when I got my first Macintosh, was trying to create imaginary land forms, imaginary terrain. There’s a fairly simple algorithm that you can use. You start with a flat triangle and you take the midpoint of each side of that triangle and randomly move it up or down a bit. And then you recursively apply the same treatment to the four new little triangles you first created, and if you keep that up long enough, you can create a very rough random-looking fractal landform that, to the untutored eye, kind of looks like a real landform. So I played around with that a little bit, when I got my first Mac a long time ago, and enjoyed writing this program that would generate little imaginary islands, and had thoughts of trying to build that into a role-playing game since a lot of the drudgery that goes into creating such a game has to do with building maps and trying to make realistic-looking landforms. And eventually I had to go work on other things that would actually reward my efforts a little more, but it stuck with me. And so essentially what I’ve done in Reamde is a little bit of fictional wish-fulfillment, in that I’ve taken some of those ideas and said, okay, what if those had been carried forward in a really serious way, with serious backing and serious engineering talent behind it, and turned into a really cool really fun-to-play game.

One of the fictional conceits here is that these guys decided to embrace the practice of gold farming rather than discourage it, because they know it’s going to happen anyway and they see it actually as a desirable thing, to have millions and millions of people in China playing this game all the time and creating this hard cash economy, so rather than try to suppress it they’ve integrated it into the game at the most basic level. That means that they’re interacting all the time with the real world economy and they’re settling transactions for hard currency. So that’s a cool feature of the game, and it’s a fun thing to think about, but it gets them into trouble when a criminal element starts using that feature of the game as a money-laundering system.

So is T’rain your idea of the ultimate video game, or is it just what it needs to be in order to tell the story?

I’m a little bit cautious about saying “ultimate,” because as soon as anybody says ultimate anything, something better comes around. It’s some semi-informed speculation about what a next-generation game might look like. I think there’s probably some ideas in it that could be implemented with realistic engineering resources, but I’m sure some other elements of the thing would be difficult if not impossible to actually do, either for engineering reasons or legal/regulatory reasons. I wanted it to be plausible enough to work as an element of this book’s plot that people would accept and find interesting, but I didn’t want to be so fastidious about having it be realistic and feasible as to take all the fun out of it.

You mentioned you played D&D in college. Are you still a gamer, and if so what are some of your favorite games?

I play Halo when I’m exercising. See, I had these two problems. One was that when I played Halo or similar games, time would vanish. Suddenly it’s three hours later and I’m still sitting there, and I haven’t really accomplished anything other than killed a lot of aliens. So that’s a problem with video games. And another problem I was having that seemed unrelated was that technically you’re supposed to get a certain amount of aerobic exercise every day, and really the only way really to get it is to either go outside and run or else stay indoors and use a treadmill or an elliptical trainer or some other kind of apparatus like that, which is so boring that I just can’t stand it. The minutes crawl by like hours. So I thought if I combine those two things, if I play Halo while I’m exercising, then the ability of Halo to make time disappear actually becomes a huge advantage. So I set up a rig where I’ve got an Xbox in front of an elliptical trainer, and indeed it works really well. I can play the game while I’m running the trainer and I’m not conscious of the excruciating dullness, and I’m not conscious of the exercise.

And actually you incorporated that idea into Reamde.

Right. In the book we’ve got two staff writers who create the universe of the fictional game. One is a well-known fantasy novelist who used to be morbidly obese, but to save his life he started doing his work while operating a treadmill, and now he’s got such a dangerously low body fat percentage that behind his back people call him “Skeletor.” The other writer is known as D-squared, and he’s a Cambridge don who writes very elevated high fantasy stuff. The one thing they have in common is that they’re disturbingly prolific, and so both of those writers are essentially parodies of myself. They’re kind of like the angel and the devil that sit on my shoulders all day long, trying to get my attention.

Have you ever done any sort of game design? Or is that something you might do in the future?

I’ve been working on a game design project related to The Mongoliad, which is a serialized novel revolving around the concept of Western martial arts.

We interviewed Greg Bear last winter and he talked about The Mongoliad. What’s the current status of that project?

We’re a few chapters away from being done with what we’re calling “Season One.” It’s an epic historical quasi-fantasy novel set in the year 1241, and it’s got a beginning and an end, but after that end we’re going to carry it forward and have a “Season Two” and maybe a “Season Three” that’ll be sequels to the first year’s story. So we’ve been slowly pulling it together and bringing the different plot lines to their conclusion.

On Wikipedia it says that The Mongoliad grew out of you feeling dissatisfied with the authenticity of some of the sword-fighting scenes from your Baroque Cycle. What sort of details did you feel weren’t authentic enough?

In The Baroque Cycle there were some swordfight sequences, typically involving rapier and dagger, which is an extraordinarily complicated and difficult kind of sword fighting. I mean, sword fighting is hard enough just with one weapon, but when you’ve got two weapons and they’re very different—one’s a short range, one’s a long range weapon—you’re dealing with a really advanced type of martial art. And so I was trying to get information on how people actually fought with these weapons, and I wasn’t really able to find anything that felt right to me. I was writing these scenes and I felt like I was just going through the motions, and that there were obvious logical errors or inconsistencies in the scenario that I was presenting. So in the course of trying to do better research on that and learn more about it, I began just trying to act out some of these movements with a friend of mine, Pablos Holman. We made safe padded weapons and put on protective gear, and started trying to act out some of these sequences and that, to make a long story short, led us into the world of what is called “Western Martial Arts” or “Historical European Martial Arts,” which is a burgeoning field over the last ten or fifteen years. There are groups in a number of cities around the world, where people are reconstructing the martial arts that were practiced by medieval and renaissance Europeans, by going over old treatises and looking at old pictures and manuscripts and doing research on the weapons that were used—their weight, their balance, how they were handled—and reconstituting martial arts that once were extremely sophisticated and highly developed and widely practiced, but which had been dead for centuries, in many cases. So it’s out of that background that some of us got the idea that it would make sense to start building stories and legends around the great practitioners of those arts in days of yore that would be analogous to or parallel to what we’re all familiar with from the Asian martial arts world. Everyone’s seen Kung Fu movies. Everyone’s seen movies in which Japanese martial arts are presented as being these almost supernaturally highly developed techniques, and that’s fine, we don’t begrudge them that, but we think there’s plenty of room to do similar work with the Western styles of martial arts.

You mentioned that in Reamde there are these two fantasy writers, and there’s this absolutely hilarious scene about the use of apostrophes in fantasy names. Could you talk about how you came up with that scene?

There’s a tendency to use typography as a way to suggest exoticism or barbarity, and so any word that has apostrophes just sort of randomly stuck into it, or letters jammed up against each other that don’t make any sense like a q with no u after it, or a large number of consonants in a row, is used as a cheap shorthand in some cases to suggest that you’re dealing with some wild-ass alien being or some hyper-exotic fantasy culture. And so I think everyone who reads this kind of literature or plays games sees that all over the place, and we all just accept it as a well-known business practice, and as such I thought it would be ripe for some parody.

There are a few points in the book where characters suggest that fantasy tropes such as elves, dwarves, and magic rings are popular because they’re embedded in the collective unconscious. What do you actually think about that idea?

That’s just me coming out and saying things that I, at some level, believe. As an example, people seem strongly drawn to the idea of different humanoid races co-existing—elves, dwarves, gnomes, what have you—and that some of them are inherently more advanced, and others kind of live in the caves and in the woods and they’re benighted creatures in some sense. And so when you see that kind of thing showing up repeatedly in literature, and you see that readers are keen on accepting it—they’re immediately willing to embrace that as the basis for a world—it makes you wonder why. What is there about our culture that we find that kind of thing immediately plausible? And one possibility is that it dates all the way back to the time when Cro-Magnons were supplanting Neanderthals in northern Europe, and they could easily have told stories about these primitive, squat, powerful beings that lived in the caves and in the woods, and that had an uneasy relationship with the more gracile, advanced Cro-Magnons.

The title Reamde is an intentional misspelling of “Readme.” How did you decide to make that the title, and has there been any confusion with people assuming it’s a typo and correcting it?

Reamde was the first title, and then when we started talking about the book to a wider assortment of people in the publishing industry, I immediately got tired of having to tediously explain over and over again that it was a deliberate misspelling. And so for a while we were thinking of just calling it “Readme” so we wouldn’t have to keep explaining it, but after some consideration we decided maybe that wasn’t distinctive enough, and maybe a little too plaintive, and so we went back to Reamde, and I’m happy with that choice of title. The one thing that we kind of missed is that amongst ourselves we had spent so long discussing these options over the phone and what not that we all knew how it was pronounced, and it didn’t occur to us that lots of people would be a little unclear on the correct pronunciation, so during the last couple of weeks we’ve had to do a lot of explaining of how to say the name. But those are the breaks, I guess.

You recently published a piece called “Innovation Starvation” over at the World Policy Institute. What’s that article about?

It’s about the perception, which turns out to be shared by a lot of people right now, that as a society we’ve lost the ability to execute on the big stuff. So in the first two-thirds of the Twentieth Century we went from not having airplanes to walking on the moon, and we went from not having cars to cars everywhere, and many, many other examples of huge changes in our landscape created by technology. And since then it seems like, you know, we’ve had the Internet, but that’s about it, and so it’s just me asking the question of what’s going on. I don’t claim to be able to really answer that question, but one thing I can do is write science fiction stories, and so part of the idea we’re talking about now is organizing an anthology of new science fiction stories that in a sense would be throwbacks to the techno-optimistic fiction of the Golden Age, and that would present some plausible innovations that a young engineer or scientist who was just starting their career could look at and say, “Hmm, you know, if I start working on this thing today, then by the time I retire maybe it’ll actually exist.”

I heard that the people who created Second Life were inspired to do it after reading Snow Crash. Do you know if that’s true, and if any of your other works have inspired developments in the real world?

It was commonly said after Snow Crash was published that people were throwing it onto conference room tables on Sand Hill Road and saying, “This is our business plan.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I think it’s a way of saying that a lot of people did organize around it, in a certain sense. This is part of what I’m getting at with Hieroglyph. I should have mentioned before that the working title for the anthology that I mentioned is Hieroglyph, and the name comes from the notion that certain iconic inventions in science fiction stories serve kind of like hieroglyphs, and that there are these symbols on the meaning of which everyone agrees—the Clarke communications satellite, the Heinlein rocket ship that lands on its fins, the Asimov robot, and so on. And I think that what science fiction can do in cases like this is provide not just an idea for some specific technical innovation, but also supply a coherent picture of that innovation being integrated into a society and an economy. A lot of times that’s the missing element that engineers or business people need in order to actually come up with a workable plan. So in the case of Snow Crash, I think, to the extent it affected things at all, I think it did so by presenting people with a template for saying, “Okay, if we take the following list of new technologies, you know, the internet, three-dimensional rendering capabilities on computers, and a couple of other things, and we put them together in the right way, then here’s a coherent picture of what might emerge from that.” That’s what may have happened in the case of Snow Crash, if you believe some people, and who knows, maybe it could happen again in the case of some of the things that we write about in the Hieroglyph anthology.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.