Neal Stephenson writes large novels that burst at their seams with detail. In the case of his 1992 cyberpunk classic Snow Crash, or his recent, Locus award-winning Anathem, the worlds bounded within their pages deserve to be called plausible in its oldest etymological sense. Like his Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon before it, Stephenson’s newest novel, Reamde, mirrors our own world to a point of isomorphism.
Written with Stephenson’s signature coolness and unnerving knowledge and grace, the book’s plot stretches around our globe and into recursive, man-made fantasy worlds — from the Chinese port of Xiamen to T’Rain, an online battleground designed for absolute geological verisimilitude.
Full Stop spoke the author on the phone about his attention to detail, MMORPGs, and 19th-century serialized novels.
Your publisher describes Reamde as a departure — “the most accessible to date” — and I wondered if you agreed with that.
I think all my books are departures. I sort of make a point of trying to jump around a little bit because it’s quite easy, in this line of work, to find yourself trapped in a cattle chute…that you can never get out of. When I’m choosing the next thing I’m going to write, all things being equal, I tend to opt for the idea that’s different from the last couple books I’ve written. I mean, this is a thriller, but it’s certainly not the first thriller that I’ve written.
Do you think your books demand a certain curiosity about the world — that they call upon the reader to do the kind of research that you yourself have to undertake?
I think they reward curiosity. It’s an interesting question to ask whether they demand it or not. I would say that people who like to engage with the details of the historical era or the technical concepts might find these books especially rewarding to read. For me it’s a pretty straightforward thing—you know, what readers are paying for, what they’re buying and what I’m selling is a particular kind of experience: essentially one of getting immersed in another world. And it could be a very different world (as in a science fiction book), it could be the history of our world, or it could just be a story that takes place today, like Reamde. And a way to do that — a way to create that feeling of immersion and get the reader feeling like they’re really there — is to supply a lot of details that convey a feeling of immediacy.
Can you approach writing about a virtual game world, like T’Rain, in the same way you can write about a real place, like Xiamen? What was your approach to writing about each?
Well, it’s pretty obvious: in the case of Xiamen I just went there, and in the case of games I just spent some time playing them. I soaked up some of the atmosphere in both places, got a sense of how they work, what the laws of physics are in both of those places, what you can and can’t do, and what kinds of people hang around there. And I proceeded from there.
I guess there is an analogy to be made between those two. But in the case of the virtual world I wanted to present a hypothetical game that doesn’t actually exist yet, and so there I had much greater freedom to restructure there, to have the game world be what I wanted it to be. Whereas in the real-world setting, in Xiamen, I stuck much closer to the way it actually looked to me, in order to … immerse the reader in a sense of “okay, I’m really in this place, this is really the way things are.”
Did you start playing MMORPGs for the purpose of writing about them?
Well, I played Dungeons and Dragons when I was going to college, like, 32 years ago. …. And all the other games that have come along since then, on computers, are basically just digital implementations of D&D.
But do you think something has changed in the mass scaling of it — in bringing players all around the world together, as they are brought together in Reamde?
Well, sure, those changes have happened, but I’m just saying that the cast of characters and the basic mechanics of the game is all straight from the D&D world. So in that sense I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve dabbled a little bit in playing the online versions of those games, but I know I’m enough of an addictive personality that I’ve put limits on how much I’m going to let myself do that.
It’s obvious that a lot of research has gone into a broad range of topics for Reamde, as for your other books. Were there any fun things you dug up that you were forced to leave out?
One of the problem with actually physically visiting a location to do this kind of research is that you tend to gather way more than is really usable or interesting. And so I’ve actually tried to limit the amount of travel that I do because it tends to lead to overstuffed books. In the case of this one, for example, at one point someone sits down to have tea, and I ended up writing a whole page on how they make tea in Fujian province, which is different from how it’s made in other places, and that stayed in for a couple of drafts. And every time I read I thought to myself “this really doesn’t belong, it’s really got to go,” and finally it did go.
You tend to get a million of those things when you’re running around in an interesting, unfamiliar place. The process of writing the book turns into a game of “I want to include enough of that material to make the reader feel like they’re there, and not so much that they’re going to start skipping paragraphs.”
At the same time, I think the amount of detail is a strength for your writing. I think of the section in Cryptonomicon, for example, where a bicycle with a broken chain is used to explain the function of the Enigma machine — that’s a very particular detail that I don’t think a lot of other writers would focus on. Do you think going into those depths is something of a signature for you?
That was a case where a couple of things happened to come together in a serendipitous kind of way. One was that, the whole theme of the book was crypto and crypto-machines, and Enigma was a super important part of that, so it seemed like it might be okay to include some kind of detailed explanation of how that worked. And Alan Turing really did have a bicycle exactly like what I described; the numbers might be different, but essentially he had a bike that he could set up in such a way that if somebody stole it the chain would fall off after a certain distance, and that just happens to be a pretty good way to talk about what goes on in the interior of an Enigma machine.
So you put those things together, it creates a situation where I feel like it’s okay to put this in the book. It’s not going to feel intrusive, it’s not going to feel like it’s just me blathering on about some dull technical details. That’s a case where if things come together in just the right way, I as a writer decide I’m going to capitalize on that. And it can work, but if one of those elements is missing it can easily come off the wrong way.
In the appendix of the book, you include an admonishment against trying to find places in the novel via Google maps. Are people fact-checking you as they go? Is this a new, augmented kind of reading?
It showed up a little bit with the Baroque Cycle, where a lot of people who read that book were really curious — quite naturally — to know which of the characters were historical and which were just made up. So people started Googling around trying to answer those questions, and we ended up making a wiki to sort of help with that sort of thing. I think it’s okay. It’s not really high up on my list of things to worry about in life — I think that it’s better to just relax and enjoy the story.
As far as that warning, I put that in there because the landscape in Reamde is a bit like the cast of characters in the Baroque Cycle: you can Google it and some of it is there and some of it is not, and some of it is changed quite a bit from what’s real. It can just be a distraction to try to read the book in that style. I don’t know of anyone who is actually doing so; I suspect only a small percentage of them are.
So much of this book is about geography and land, and it’s a defining force for a lot of the plot. I’m thinking, for example, of the motorcyclist who becomes brain damaged simply because it’s impossible to exactly project straight roads onto a spherical Earth. Is this book more concerned with geography than the books that you’ve written previously?
Certainly the geography of London was important in the Baroque Cycle, and in Cryptonomicon I went through a lot of effort to draw maps and diagrams of some of the areas in the Philippines where these people were operating. But geography is an overt theme in this book in a way that it might not have been in the others. It’s set out very clearly in the beginning that Richard is always living in a place of exile and trying to find a piece of territory to own. That’s what drives him to acquire property in the Northwest, and later on you can see that manifested in the creation of the game, T’Rain, which is based on digitally generating a whole planet.
Do you think there’s a possibility there for fiction in the future? If a game could be defined by its geological verisimilitude, is there an opportunity for a book to be built in this same accurate, generative way?
I can see it happening not necessarily in the pure geological sense — although that would be really cool — but just in the sense that in fantasy and science fiction, authors are world creators. They start by creating a fictitious world, and then they go and tell just one story set in that world. But it’s always kind of implied that there could always be a lot of other stories as well, and that’s something that readers of that kind of fiction find highly evocative.
When I was a kid, opening a sci-fi or fantasy book with a map inside front cover was always thrilling — to look at this imaginary landscape. And it’s still thrilling. I’m still a sucker for books where the first thing you see is a map. And it’s because of this feeling that you’re going into another world.
One way of doing that is what’s described in T’Rain: taking this extremely scientific, geologically based approach to it. And maybe somebody will do that, but it doesn’t have to be that. I think we’ll see a lot more world building activity in video games as the technology gets to the point where it can support a whole world, and it may take the form of very literal, technical simulations, or it could be like what Tolkien did. Tolkien’s world, from a geological point of view, is very primitive — you look at his maps and they’re very unconvincing. They don’t look like real continents or landforms, but he was able to build out his world in other dimensions: by creating languages, by creating elaborate histories, and so on.
In an interview with the AV Club you described yourself wonderfully as “not a small-literary-novel kind of guy”. Do you see yourself working in the tradition of other writers, in the way you construct these very large narratives? (I know that Pynchon often comes up for reviewers.)
You can make an analogy to the big 19th-century writers of novels that were serialized. One of the curious features of the serialized novel — one that comes out one chapter every week, or every month, in a magazine or newspaper — is that those guys didn’t have to think too much about length issues. As long as it was a good yarn, people would keep reading it. And when you take all those chapters and bind them together into a single volume sometimes they turn out to be pretty big books. So that’s a prediction of big, broad-scope storytelling — big cast of characters, lots going on, lots of plot threads — that I happen to admire. And lots of people are still practicing it now; George R.R. Martin is obviously doing that, and I’m enjoying his stuff. And many other examples could be cited.
But I try not to do too much conscious, self-aware thinking about which tradition I’m following, or who I’m emulating, or anything like that. I will say that that 19th-century style feels more intuitively congenial to me than some others I could mention.
As soon as you mention serialized fiction, I begin to start thinking of TV series that have that same broad scope and attention to detail, such as the Wire or the Sopranos. Do you see that as another continuation of that style?
Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s a completely fascinating development to me in the last few years. This long-running, high quality series or mini-series: The Wire, or Game of Thrones, Rome, Battlestar Galactica. And it’s because that’s the only medium I know of right now that can match the novel in terms of scope and depth of storytelling. And there’s still a major imbalance in terms of the amount of effort and time it takes to make the work, but I think it’s fascinating and heartening, the way in which things have come along, and I hope we’ll see more of them.
Is your writing inspired by these series?
I don’t know what it means to be inspired. I just sit down and I write things.