Neal Stephenson: “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel” | Talks at Google


[MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] NEAL STEPHENSON: Thank you. I thought I would read for
something like 15 minutes. And then we’ll do Q&A,
which is what people seem to like most at these things. And then there’s
a signing program that’ll happen after that. So I’m just going
to start reading. This is fairly
early in the book. It happens, maybe, 20
years in the future. It’s four Princeton students
who are driving from east to west across the country. It’s the beginning of summer. They’ve all got internships
lined up for the summer. And so they’ve decided
to drive around and see some of the country. And they’re traveling
across the state here, which happens to be Iowa. But it could be any state
in the union, at this point. And they are passing
through an area where it’s considered advisable
to have an armed escort. So in a separate vehicle,
there’s a couple of guys– one of whom is
named Tom– who are locals who have hired themselves
out to perform the escort duty. So they’ve been driving
along for some time, seeing wind turbines. And the point-of-view
character here is Sophia. The other people
in the car are Phil and Julian and Anne-Solenne. “That was how the giant
flaming cross of the Leviticans sneaked up on her, though
the people working on it would probably have felt
that she sneaked up on them. It wasn’t actually flaming. It wasn’t even capable
of flaming yet, because it wasn’t finished. Its general size
and shape were not terribly far off from
that of a wind turbine. It was sited on the top
of what passed for a hill around here, not
to catch the wind but to be seen from a distance
as it burned in the night. Anyway, by the time she
accepted that she was actually seeing it, the thing was
less than a mile away. She can see a clutter
of pickup trucks parked around its base and some pop-up
canopies, sheltering tables where workers could
take water breaks. A row of portable
toilets stood sentry next to an office trailer. On an impulse, she opened
a voice channel to Tom. In normal circumstances, his
edit space and Sophia’s were totally disjoint. They would never encounter
each other online, never meet, never see
the same news stories. Anything that originated
from the likes of Tom would be fastidiously pruned
by the algorithms used by Sophia’s editor before
human eyes ever reviewed it. And anything that came
from Princeton or Seattle would never reach Tom’s
feet until it had been bent around into propaganda,
whose sole function was to make Tom afraid and angry. But for today’s purposes,
they had a direct channel, unfiltered, unedited. Hey, she said. How do you think those people
would feel about our dropping in for a visit? Just– you know–
in tourist mode? Copy. Stand by, Tom returned. The sound of Sophia’s voice
had broken her companions out of their media reverie. And so now came several
moments of their pushing up their glasses, being astonished
by the spectacle of the cross, talking about it, pulling
glasses back down to search for more information. There is a visitor’s center, Tom
reported, with changing rooms– probably easiest,
unless you want to have all your garments inspected. Well, if there’s
a visitors center, they must be OK with
visitors, Sophia said. Phil, Julian, and
Anne-Solenne could not hear Tom’s audio stream. And so the changing rooms
came as a surprise to them. They were in separate
trailers for men and women. All the Princetonians
knew that it would be pointless and probably
inflammatory to make inquiries about non-gender binary cases. But the idea of having to
don different garments just to set foot on a specific
property was new to them. If we don’t, they’ll have
to stone us to death, Sophia explained. And according to their
interpretation of Leviticus, the modern equivalent of
stoning people is shooting them. Oh, I get it, Phil said, because
bullets are like little rocks. Exactly– and a gun is just
a modern labor-saving device that makes it easier to throw
the little rocks really fast. Basically, to them,
every reference to stoning in the Bible is a
sort of dog whistle reference to guns. Phil was working it out. God knew guns would be invented
in the future because– omniscient. But he couldn’t insert
direct references to them in the Bible, because that would
be a spoiler for the Bronze Age audience. So he used stoning
as a placeholder. And our clothing is
immodest or something? Julian asked. Not at all. Sophia reached out,
as if to grab Julian by the scruff of the neck. Instead of which, she flipped
the collar of his t-shirt inside out so that she
could read the tag– mostly cotton but with some
Spandex, to make it stretchy, I guess. If you wore this up there,
they would have to stone– i.e. shoot you. They have something
against Spandex? Against mixing fibers. Sophia pointed to a sign mounted
to the wall above a table on which a display
of neatly folded, white, paper bunny
suits had been laid out in a range of sizes. The sign was a quote from
the Bible set in Comic Sans. You shall keep mine ordinances. Thou shalt not let
thy cattle gender with others of diverse kinds. Thou shalt not sow thy
field with mingled seed. Neither shall a garment
of diverse things, as of linen and woolen,
come upon thee– Leviticus 19, 19. Phil couldn’t get
past the first bit. Is that a proscription
of bestiality?– between different
kinds of animals? Sh, said Anne-Solenne,
for sitting nearby was a lady of perhaps
60, monitoring a table of cookies and coffee. Free, but in classic Midwest
passive-aggressive style, was a jar for
suggested donations. I guess they were anti-mule. Look– point being, we can
either strip down and have her read all the labels on
our garments, which is gross, or just change into
the bunny suits. What about him? Julian asked, gesturing
toward Tom, who was emerging from the men’s toilet. Then, realizing he had
been a little rude, he turned to address
Tom directly. Tom, are you going
to change clothes? No need, Tom said, and went into
a curious routine of patting himself in various places. All of his garb was tactical,
mil spec, rugged, and grueling, even down to
suspenders and socks. All of the tags were on
the outside, not concealed in collars and waistbands, as
was the normal practice, which wasn’t obvious. Because the tags were
tactical camo, olive drab, or what-have-you, so that
they wouldn’t stand out in a faraway sniper’s scope,
like stars in the night sky. The Princetonians now
all felt at liberty to approach and examine. The lettering and
logos on the tags were subdued tactical
colors and difficult to read until you got close. But all of them, along
with the manufacturers’ logos and the incomprehensible
laundry glyphs, bore a symbol consisting
of a block letter L with a cross-bar near the top
and flames coming out of it. It’s just easier to wear
Levitican-approved shit, he explained, because of
where I go in the line of duty sometimes. So you don’t believe it? Phil asked. Oh, fuck no, said Tom. But they do. And it’s real good
clothing– tactical. They changed into
bunny suits, but not before the cookie warden
had beckoned Sophia and Anne-Solenne over
to the refreshment table and asked them, sotto
voce, whether it was, for either of them,
that time of the month. Both answered in the negative
and exchanged a look meaning, let’s just not even go there. Later, they could
consult Leviticus as to what limits and
penalties might apply to women who were on the rag. O, the KKK libel!–
good question. Glad you asked. That is one of the
greatest misconceptions, said Ted, son of Aron,
as he was identified on the nametag clipped to
his 100% cotton tactical bib overalls. He removed this
gleaming white hardhat, as if the mere mention
of the KKK libel had put him at risk
of blowing his stack. The warm summer breeze streamed
through his thinning gray hair and might have evaporated a
small fraction of the sweat streaming over his scalp. After a moment, he
glanced up, as if checking the sky for an angry Jehovah. But nothing was there
except blue skies strewn with fluffy
clouds and the steel crossbar of a 200-foot tall
cross, not currently flaming. The pipe fitters
had not finished the work needed to
conduct natural gas out to its system of burners. My wife will skin
me, he remarked, if we don’t get under cover. Let’s duck in here, so I
can set you all straight. Why will she skin you,
Anne-Solenne asked curiously, as they followed Ted into
the shade of a pop-up canopy. Julian got distracted en
route by three lambs gambling in a makeshift chicken wire pen. Melanoma, Ted answered. I have to go into Iowa City. This remark was mumbled
in a distracted way, as he was getting a voice call,
faintly and tinnily audible to them on the flip-up
earplugs cantilevered out from the bows of
the safety glasses. He indexed those
down into his ears and answered the call,
excusing himself with a nod and donning his hard hat, as
he stepped out into the sun and ambled over toward
the livestock pen. His duties as son
of Aron apparently encompassed not just
construction management but inspection of
sacrificial lambs. A junior crew member bustled
in to accommodate the visitors. He pulled a couple of
folding chairs off of a stack and set them up at
a folding table. This was strewn with
printed documents kept from blowing away by
rocks and ammunition magazines. He rearranged those to
make a bit of space. You all can help yourselves
to water and iced tea, he said, nodding toward a
pair of insulated coolers on a smaller table nearby. Until he spoke, Sophia had
guessed he was in his late 20s. But now, she thought– 18. I’d fetch it myself,
but my hands is filthy. He held them up as
proof and flashed a grin that would
have been brilliant had his teeth been all
present and not brown. Thank you so much. We will definitely
help ourselves, Sophia said loudly
and distinctly, since the young man
had his earplugs in. The reference to Iowa City? Anne-Solenne asked. That was where they had stayed
last night, in a boutique hotel next to a tapas bar. Where the big hospital is?–
so another country to them. But they have to
go there when they get sick, like, to get
a melanoma whacked off or whatever. They can’t afford Blue
State hotel rooms or food. So they have to camp
out on the periphery and cook over propane
burners under tarps– not a fun time. Anne-Solenne nodded. Dentistry, she said? Ted has normal people teeth,
because he is old and grew up before this part of the
world got Facebooked. After that, the
people with education fled to places like
Ames, Des Moines, Iowa City– which
includes dentists. A few mainline churches used to
run charity dental clinics here where you could get a bad
tooth pulled or whatever. But those are being chased
away by these people. Not wanting to be
obvious, she glanced over at the gigantic cross. She took a sip of
iced tea and grimaced. That bad? Anne-Solenne asked. Sweet– another
cultural signifier. When we get to my aunt
and uncle’s place, they’ll serve it
unsweetened, northern style. The two women walked
slowly back to the table, taking in the scene over
by the livestock pen. Ted was explaining something
to Julian, who looked dismayed. Most of the space
around the site was given over to parking
for workers’ pickup trucks. Not a single one
had a license plate. But they were decked out
with a range of stickers– a mix and match of stars
and bars, Don’t Tread on Me, and what Phil had designated
the full Moab in the center– Remember or Remember Moab
or simply Moab, bracketed between a mushroom cloud and
a profile silhouette of a man with a bowed head. Now, let me take the bull by the
horns, as far as the KKK libel. Ted had returned from
inspecting the lambs. He set his weary bones
down into a folding chair and indicated that the
visitors should do likewise. Phil preferred to stand. He unzipped his paper
coverall down to his navel, parted it to expose his chest,
and stood sideways to them, trying to catch the breeze. Sophia cataloged it
as a microaggression– the hundredth today– not even worth noticing next
to the 20-story macroaggression that Ted and his
crew were building. You couldn’t wear underwear
beneath the bunny suit, because that would
miss the whole point, unless your underwear was
made of Levitican-certified unmingled fiber. And hers wasn’t. So her bra was down in a
locker at the checkpoint and she couldn’t unzip,
as Phil was doing. She sat down next
to Anne-Solenne. Ted’s nervous hands sorted and
stacked documents– contracts, by the look of them–
as he calmly dismantled the KKK libel. Obviously, you are not a white
person– at least, not 100%, he said, evaluating Sophia. And I don’t know about him. He cast a glance over at Julian
who was down on one knee, feeding a handful of grass
through the chicken wire to a lamb. Julian was part Chinese. There’s been all kinds of
confusion about the Leviticans. This was the church of
which he was a priest. Some kind of imagined
link to the Ku Klux Klan. Maybe it’s because of
the burning crosses, Phil suggested, deadpan, gazing
across a few yards of gravel to the massive
concrete foundation from which the cross’
steel verticals erupted. Bracketed neatly to
the structural members were tubes carrying
the natural gas from an underground pipeline. The actual burners didn’t
start until maybe 20 feet above ground level. Maybe because they didn’t
want to roast parked vehicles. Supposedly, the
KKK burned crosses, Ted said, with a
roll of the eyes. There’s no supposedly about
it, Anne-Solenne started in. What do you even– that’s like saying, supposedly,
Muhammad Ali was a boxer or, supposedly, Ford makes cars. It’s– but Sophia silence
there was a hand on the arm. There was no point. If that is even true,
it has no connection to our burning crosses, which
have a completely different significance, Ted announced. Sophia said, OK. And that is? So-called Christianity, as
it existed up until recently, is based on a big
lie, Ted explain– the most successful
conspiracy of all time. And it was all summed up in
the symbolism of the cross. Every cross you see
on a mainstream church or worn as jewelry or on
a rosary or what-have-you is another repetition
of that lie. And what is that lie exactly? Phil asked. He already knew. But he and the others all wanted
to hear a living human actually say it, just as spectacle. That Jesus was crucified. There, he’d said it. No one could speak. Ted took their
silence as a request for more in the same vein. That the Son of God, the
most powerful incarnate being in the history
of the universe, allowed himself to be scourge
and humiliated and taken out in the most disgraceful
way you can imagine. Taken out means murdered? Anne-Solenne asked. It was a rhetorical
question that Ted answered with the tiniest hint of a nod. The church that was built on
the lie of the crucifixion, Ted continued, had
two basic tenets. One was the lovey-dovey Jesus
who went around being nice to people– basically, just the
kind of behavior you would expect
from the kind of beta who would allow himself
to be spat upon, to be nailed to a piece of wood. The second was this notion
that the Old Testament no longer counted for anything. We have exposed all that as
garbage, nonsense, a conspiracy by the elites to keep
people meek and passive. The only crosses you’ll see
in our church are on fire. The symbolism of that has
nothing to do with the KKK. It means, we reject
the false church that was built upon the
myth of the crucifixion. So to be clear– all
Christianity for the last 2,000 years– Catholic, Protestant,
Orthodox, Evangelical– is just flat out wrong? Phil said. That is correct. The four gospels? Ted shook his head. That’s the first
thing the church did was enshrine those
gospels, telling the story they wanted to tell
about the meek liberal Jesus who gave food
away to poor people and healed the sick and so on. And was crucified,
Sophia prompted him. Ted nodded. And resurrected? Anne-Solenne asked. They needed some way
to explain the fact that he was still alive. So they invented all
that resurrection stuff. So where did Jesus
go after that? What did he do? Fought the Romans–
went back and forth between this world and heaven. He has the power to do that. Where is he now? We don’t know. Maybe here. He has been in eclipse
for 2,000 years. The conspiracy of the
church was powerful. They staged a fake reformation
to get people to believe that reform was possible– all a show, orchestrated
from the Vatican. So Martin Luther was
running a false flag operation for the Pope? Phil said. In that case– but he broke
off as he felt Sophia stepping on his toe under the table. He looked down at her. Having caught his
eye, she panned her gaze across
the entire scene, asking him to take it all in– reminding him that
this wasn’t Princeton. This was Ameristan, Facebooked
to the molecular level. Professor Long, she
muttered– the red card. It was a reference to one of
their teachers at Princeton who had gone so far as to print
up a wallet card for people to keep in front of them during
conversations like this one. One side of the card was solid
red with no words or images and was meant to be
displayed outward, as a non-verbal signal
that you disagreed and that you weren’t going to
be drawn into a fake argument. The other side facing the user
was a list of little reminders as to what was really going on. 1– speech is aggression. 2– every utterance has
a winner and a loser. 3– curiosity is feigned. 4– lying is performative. 5– stupidity is power.” So that’s the end
of the reading. [APPLAUSE] Thinks– so after that
cheerful introduction, it’s time to do questions. AUDIENCE: Hi, Neal. NEAL STEPHENSON: Hi. AUDIENCE: Thanks for
coming to Google. NEAL STEPHENSON:
Good to be here. AUDIENCE: My question has
to do with your book “Fall.” And I was curious, when you
were working on your book, did you consult with any
cognitive neuroscientists? Be– NEAL STEPHENSON: Other than
reading some available stuff, I didn’t. Because this is a
different approach to the science than I’ve used
in some of my other books. So for example,
in “Seven Eves,” I went to a fair amount of effort
to try to make the science kind of science-based. So I paid a lot of attention
to rocket engines and delta V’s and trajectories and
that kind of thing, because that was a
driver in the book. And in this case, I
didn’t want to go there. I didn’t think it would help
move this particular story along. So what I’m doing here is
I’m taking a particular way of thinking about what the
brain is, how it works, and just running with it. Say– OK, if I grant that–
if I say that that’s true, what kind of a story
can I write around it? So compared to some
of my other stuff, this is soft as
opposed to hard sci-fi. And if you read it in
the hopes of finding any legitimate neuroscience
or cog-sci or even computer science
content in it, you’ll probably be disappointed. AUDIENCE: OK, great– thank you. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah– thanks. AUDIENCE: I have two tattoos. One of them is this one. And I’m really looking
forward to this book. And the other one is this one– NEAL STEPHENSON: Nice. AUDIENCE: –which
you might recognize. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. AUDIENCE: I got it when I
graduated from math grad school. And I was wondering if you have
any plans for more math books, like “Anathem”? NEAL STEPHENSON: So strangely
enough, of all the books I have ever published,
that one got the highest position on the “New
York Times” best seller list. So it hit 3. And “Fall” hit 4,
which causes me to wonder if people understood
what they were getting into. [LAUGHTER] So I’m certainly not against
writing more stuff that gets into those kinds of topics. I’d say, it’s more about
philosophy of math or a– AUDIENCE: Sure. NEAL STEPHENSON:
–particular way of thing about what math is
that I’m not sure if I can get much
more mileage out of. [LAUGHS] AUDIENCE: That’s great. NEAL STEPHENSON: But thanks
for the vote of confidence, if that’s what that was. AUDIENCE: By the
way, you exactly straddled where I finished
reading last night, which– NEAL STEPHENSON: Oh, OK. AUDIENCE: Because I had
to follow along, so I wouldn’t have to reread it. But as an amateur short-fiction
writer, I drop about 9 out of 10 and what I think
are usable ideas on the floor, just for lack of time. When you write stuff
that’s 1,000 pages long, how do you decide what
ideas are worth spending that much time on? NEAL STEPHENSON: Are you
talking about the idea for a whole book? Or ideas that come
along during the– AUDIENCE: Well, I think
it’s for the whole book. I mean, you must– NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. AUDIENCE: I think I was trying
to make the point that, I’m guessing, you probably
have more ideas for things you could write about than you
have time to write about them. And so I was curious– NEAL STEPHENSON:
Yeah, not a lot more. It’s certainly not
a 1-in-10 ratio. It’s closer to 1-in-2
or maybe less than that. So usually, I’ve got
a very limited set. Sometimes, I’ve really only got
one viable idea at the moment, when I’m ready to begin
working on the next book. Sometimes, I might have two. Right now, I feel like
I’ve got maybe two. So I don’t know why that is. But maybe there’s more
of an internal culling process that goes on. AUDIENCE: I also suspect,
your attention span is longer? NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, I’m
trying to keep it that way. [LAUGHTER] It’s a challenge. Hi. AUDIENCE: Hey. So it seems that
“Fall” integrates a lot of ideas from
your other books, bringing in characters
and also concepts. Is it your last book? And if not, what’s
in the future? [LAUGHTER] NEAL STEPHENSON: Time will
tell, but it’s not intended to be my last book, certainly. It was a way to
close some loops that were open from some earlier
stuff that I’ve worked on. It all just kind of
fell together that way. And then I’ve got some
notions on what to do next. But it felt good, again, to
close some of those open action items and maybe move on
now to more new stuff. Thanks for asking. AUDIENCE: Hi. NEAL STEPHENSON: Hi. AUDIENCE: I was wondering if– well, because I think a lot of
other fantasy sci-fi authors have moved away from the
really large books, whether– I guess– it helps with
sales or shipping costs or– I don’t really know why. But you have not. And I was wondering why your
books tend to be so long? Because my guess is that
there’s a conscious decision not to split them into,
like, sequels. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. AUDIENCE: So I was wondering
if that helped with the writing process, if that’s just not the
kind of writer you want to be, or if there’s another reason. NEAL STEPHENSON:
Yeah, I think you’re right about the splitting. So “The Baroque Cycle,”
internally, is eight books. “Cryptonomicon,”
internally, is two books. “Reamde” is two. And “Fall” is two. So back in the day, it’s
possible that, instead of a smaller number of
great big fat books, that I would have been
published as a great big shelf of paperbacks. And I’m pretty agnostic as
to which approach is used. And after “The Baroque
Cycle” came out in hardcover, we pushed the idea for a while
of trying to bring it out as eight separate mass market
paperbacks, which I think would have been cool. But it didn’t work. The basic question
isn’t shipping costs or the other things
that you mentioned. The basic thing is
that people tend not to be crazy
about cliffhangers at the end of a book. And so to avoid
that, it moves you into a rhythm where you’re
trying to bring each component book to a nice neat conclusion,
while leaving the door open. Which is why you tend to see
a lot of episodic series, say, in crime fiction. At the end of each book,
the crime gets solved. And so it’s not a cliffhanger. But the door is still
open for that detective to go solve some other
case in the future. And in my case, the
stuff that I write tends not to break
down that way. It always would feel
somewhat cliffhanger-ish. And so that’s why
these things tend to get combined
together into big books. Also, people just like large– you look at “Game of Thrones”
or I was watching “Chernobyl” last night. That’s a multi-hour experience. People love that. People like big immersive
things that they can get into and spend a lot of time with. So– AUDIENCE: Gotcha–
it makes sense. NEAL STEPHENSON: Thanks. AUDIENCE: Thank you. NEAL STEPHENSON: You’re welcome. Hi. AUDIENCE: Hi, I’m Hassim
Williams, a junior now– a computer science major
at Howard University. I’ve just gone into the space
of reading science fiction. And I’ve actually just started
reading “Snow Crash,” which is my introduction to your work. But as a prolific
writer in this space, how do you think about looking
at technologies now and seeing which ones are going to be
influential and important in the future and
what consequences they’re going to have,
for better or for worse? And when you try to
think of ideas that you set 20 years or however
long in the future, do you use a
historical background? Or do you look more at observing
what’s happening now and then just taking what you think
would intuitively happen next? NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, I think
reading history is always super valuable. I think it’s the most
valuable thing you can do, as prep for fiction writing. But in books like “Snow
Crash” or “The Diamond Age,” I tend to throw
out a lot of ideas. It’s kind of a shotgun
approach, where every page has got multiple
ideas on it that seem like they would make sense. And what has happened over
time is that some things have actually been implemented in the
real world that, in some cases, resembles some of those ideas– Google Earth being a
pretty conspicuous example. So then you get into
this question of– first of all,
there’s a whole bunch of ideas in those books
that didn’t get implemented, that never became reality. And people are
very generous to me and very kind in
ignoring all of those. [LAUGHTER] And then a lot of
the stuff that does seem like it got implemented,
you can ask the question of– it’s kind of obvious, right? So Google Earth is a
thing that certainly would have been
implemented and created, regardless of whether anybody
wrote about it in a science fiction novel. But the science fiction
can conserve, I think, a useful role in a sort of
engineering environment, by creating a vision of a
thing that everyone shares. So a lot of times, in
engineering organizations, there is an enormous
amount of effort that goes into getting
everybody working on the same project
at the same time– lots of PowerPoint, lots
of planning meetings, just to get people working
toward the same shared vision. And that can be very expensive
and tedious and failure prone. But if it’s something
like that can be summed up in a fictional
setting, people read the book. And they say, OK. We’re doing that. See page 85?– what
happened there? That’s what we’re doing. And it sort of, in
some cases, makes it possible to bypass a lot of
the bureaucracy of engineering and get people working
on a shared idea. AUDIENCE: Good afternoon. I really enjoyed “Fall.” NEAL STEPHENSON: Thanks. AUDIENCE: I had a question
about the trajectory of “Fall.” About halfway through, you
start exploring mythology more within the digital realm. And coming from
Moab and Ameristan, it loses a little bit of
that external digital world. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. AUDIENCE: So I’m wondering
about that decision. And also, it seems
like the characters within that second half– you’ve set up large
characters in a few places. But a lot of the
characters coming in end up in fairly small roles. You haven’t expanded the
universe of how many people are interacting there. And so I’m wondering
why you made those choices versus,
perhaps, different ones that might have made more minor
characters more powerful or– you know, like– NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah– so the
book does take a decided turn towards the middle,
where it stops being the sort of near-future
techno thriller style and book. It’s set in our world and
turns towards being more of a high-fantasy
novel that is set in Bit World, the kind
of digital afterlife. And this was always
part of the plan. But I ended up discussing it
quite a bit with my publisher and other people I trust to give
me good advice about things, because for a lot of readers
it’s an unexpected direction that the story goes in. And a lot of people
who may be happy reading the techno thriller
part of the book suddenly find themselves reading
something very different. And it’s a bit of a weird shift. So I did some tinkering
with it to even that balance a little bit and ended up with
the result that you see there. Yeah– I think a lot of it is
just what you’re interested in. So the stuff about
Moab, Ameristan– the stuff that happens in the
real world in the first part of the book is me
trying to tee up some things that will then pay
off in an indirect way later. And the plot imposes on
me, kind of, a requirement. I need to be writing– the chronology
forces me to write things in the near future,
starting a few years from now and continuing till maybe 20
years from now and beyond. So I’m trying to do my best
to come up with a future that I feel is
plausible and that follows from where we are now. And that ends up feeling
quite topical, I think, and very engaging if that’s
what you’re interested in. And then it sort
of, like I said, turns into a different
book about halfway through. So just– that’s
the book I wrote. Yeah. AUDIENCE: Hi. Thanks for coming to Google. NEAL STEPHENSON: Sure. AUDIENCE: It’s been
great to see you. I’ve enjoyed all of your works. Especially, I liked
the hacker ethos in “Cryptonomicon”
and “In the Beginning was the Command Line.” And I think that the hacker
ethos, in particular, influenced Google’s
internal culture. It’s nice to see that reflected
in other works as well. Since you seem to
love technology, do you have personal hobby
projects you’re working on or any technologies you like
or especially don’t like? NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, I
work part-time at Magic Leap, working on some
content development R&D here in Seattle,
which enables me to exercise some
of those muscles a little bit, in various ways. And I have a basement shop with
a lot of the usual complement of maker-ish gear–
the 3D printer, the 3D router, CAD system,
and all of that stuff. So yeah, I’m always pursuing
various projects in that vein. I have family connections
into battle bots and so do a little bit
of monkeying around with that stuff. So yeah, I’m always
puttering away on maker-ish kinds
of projects, just to give me something to
do during the second half of my day. AUDIENCE: Thanks. NEAL STEPHENSON: Sure. AUDIENCE: Hi, Neal. NEAL STEPHENSON: Hi. AUDIENCE: Thanks
for coming over. NEAL STEPHENSON: Sure. AUDIENCE: Your book
“Cryptonomicon” was actually– it was one of the two
most influential books I’ve ever written. And it sort of
set me on the path that’s landed me here at Google
and what I do for a living. NEAL STEPHENSON: Read– yeah. AUDIENCE: I have two questions. Is it true that you wrote “The
Baroque Cycle” in longhand. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. AUDIENCE: Wow. [LAUGHTER] NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, it’s not
significantly harder or slower than typing it, so– AUDIENCE: Your publisher
must’ve loved it. NEAL STEPHENSON: Oh, no. I type everything in. AUDIENCE: Oh, OK. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, I
don’t present it to them in that form, although
it would be entertaining. [LAUGHTER] The manuscript is
42 inches high. AUDIENCE: Wow. NEAL STEPHENSON:
So it used to be on display at the
Science Fiction Museum over under the Space Needle. But no– I get it to a
certain point in longhand. And then I just type it into
a text document and use tech to format it and print it out. AUDIENCE: Right. Secondly, I have a
question about one of your recurring characters. And I’m sure you know who it is. Can you talk at all
about Enoch Root? NEAL STEPHENSON:
Well, sure, but I prefer not to get into him
too directly or pointedly. Because part of
what I think people find interesting about
him is the mystery and the “what the hell is this guy?” kind of thing. But he just wandered
into “The Baroque Cycle” very early, because I felt
it would be a good thing to have a wizard. AUDIENCE: It always is. NEAL STEPHENSON: It’s
almost like, how can you go wrong, having a wizard? But I wanted him to be
my wizard and for him to have some characteristics
that differentiated him from other literary wizards. And so he just kind of
took shape over time. And he shows up in “Fall.” And I think, if you
read “Fall,” you can gather some
hints as to what’s going on with him a little bit. The biblical Enoch is a
curiosity in the Bible, because he is early
enough in the Bible that they’re still telling
you when everybody dies. Like, the first– I don’t know–
dozen or so people– characters who show
up in the Bible– when they kick the bucket,
it says how old they were and when it happened. But Enoch never
dies in the Bible. AUDIENCE: Ah, OK. NEAL STEPHENSON: It just says– AUDIENCE: I thought
you were going to say, Enoch Root never dies. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah–
so you can look him up. And it’s probably
just an oversight. [LAUGHTER] But for people who spend a lot
of time poring over the Bible, for a long time, it was a
tremendously significant fact about that one character. So there is a hint. AUDIENCE: Thank you. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, thanks. AUDIENCE: Hi, thanks
for coming in. NEAL STEPHENSON: Sure. AUDIENCE: I really
enjoyed all your books. A lot of them have, kind
of, a complex structure. I was kind of curious
how you outline that. And when you write,
is it kind of linear? Or do you jump around a lot? How do you actually
pull all that together? NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah,
I tend to go sequential. I find that writing
out of sequence tends to create problems
without solving any problems. And so I like to go sequential. And I just try to
keep in my head the general idea of what is
going to happen in what order. I don’t make outlines, as such. I don’t keep a
written document that summarizes what’s
going to happen where because, frankly, it’s just
not that much information to keep in one’s head. And one’s head is an
excellent place to keep it, because you can change it
easily when it’s in your head. You don’t spend time going
through all your documents, trying to find the outline. So I just kind of make
it up as I go along– yeah. AUDIENCE: Thanks. NEAL STEPHENSON: Thanks. AUDIENCE: He asked the exact
question I was going to ask. NEAL STEPHENSON: Oh– [LAUGHTER] OK, then. Well, we got– what?– 17 minutes left. Do you have any other– AUDIENCE: So I feel that
you picked the section to read from the book perhaps
targeted towards this audience and where we are today. NEAL STEPHENSON: Mm-hm. AUDIENCE: What other
thoughts would you like us to walk away with? NEAL STEPHENSON: Well,
I think the situation we’re in right now
is a dire situation, because in kind of a fit
of absent-mindedness, we obliterated the foundation
for our civilization, which is people agreeing on
what is factual reality. And it just sort of happened. I don’t think anyone
set out to do it. But if you look at the
Constitution of the United States, for example, or
the unwritten constitution of the UK and probably
other constitutions as well, the idea is, how do you
get a bunch of people to function together
as a civilization, even though they don’t
agree about everything? But I think, what’s
always been assumed is that people would
have, basically, the same perceptions of
what factual reality was. And then they might, from there,
arrive at different opinions about what the
right policy was– how to interpret those facts. But there was at least
a shared perception of what was going on. So when we lose that– and I think that process has
been accelerated quite a bit by hostile state actors. But when we lose that ability
to agree on what reality is, then the institutions we built– the Constitution, the system
of checks and balances– they fail, because they
didn’t take that possibility into account. So I’m really interested
to see where things go now. And they could go in a bunch
of different directions. I think that, with deep
fakes, we’re at a point now where no mediated experience
can be taken at face value ever again, basically. So when television
came along or even radio came along and
began this process where millions of
people could kind of share experiences
or, through media, know things at the same time– and that’s over and now,
which is really interesting. So now, the only things you
can know and be sure really happened are things that
you personally experienced. Like, if you’re in the room with
somebody when they say a thing, you can be pretty sure
that they said it. But if you saw it on a
screen, you have no idea. It could be a deep fake. So I think that’s a really
interesting premise for science fiction going forward
is– what does society look, where you can’t
trust or believe anything that you haven’t seen
with your own eyes? Because it’s the
opposite of everything that has happened since the
advent of radio and television. I hope we’ll find a way
through and that we’ll adapt to it as a society. But right now, I’m
doing a lot of thinking about where that could take us. There’s a book that
I keep recommending. I may have done too good a job,
because nobody can get it now. But it’s called “A Culture
of Fact,” by Barbara Shapiro. And it’s about where the
idea of facts came from. So there was a point a
few hundred years ago– at least, speaking of
Western civilizations, Western cultures– that the idea
of fact didn’t really exist. And it came into existence
through a process that she thinks–
she traces it back to the way the British
judicial system worked. It was basically, how do
you develop an algorithm for determining a fact? You’re a judge in the medieval
English judicial system. You ride into some town out
in the middle of nowhere. Everyone agrees, a murder
happened six months ago. You’ve got to figure
out who did it. There’s no physical evidence. There’s no recorded evidence. So you’ve got to establish
the facts of the matter through an algorithmic process
that starts with swearing people in and interviewing
them and throwing out certain kinds of evidence,
like hearsay evidence, that are deemed unsound, and
impaneling a jury, and all that. So she traces the
idea of facts back to that algorithmic
process and then talks about how it spread from there
into scientific discourse and how people wrote
history, journalism. So it’s an interesting
book to read now, just because it talks
again about the algorithm for determining
facts as a group– that we can agree on. And from a CS point-of-view,
if there is an algorithm, then you should
be able to just– it’s just a small matter
of running software, right? [LAUGHTER] So maybe that’s a way
that we could get out of this current
mess that we’re in. Yeah? AUDIENCE: Hi, Neal. I was wondering
if you could share a bit about what
environment you’re in and tools you use when
you do your best work. What makes you productive? NEAL STEPHENSON: I
get up in the morning, try not to get super irritated
or stressed out by anything– which basically means
not exposing myself to the internet– go into a quiet place, sit down
with a pen, and try to write– pretty uncomplicated overall. It’s getting into the flow state
which, in a lot of professions, is what you have to do in
order to be productive, as many people
here probably know. AUDIENCE: If you were
born 5,000 years from now, which one of the seven
human factions or subspecies would rather want to be in? NEAL STEPHENSON:
From “Seven Eves”? I think I’d be one of the
diggers down in the ground– [LAUGHTER] –which is not one of the
seven, so it’s a trick answer. But yeah– I don’t know. They’re all different. That’s part of what
makes the book, hopefully, interesting
to people– is asking that exact question. But yeah– probably one of
the people down in the hole. Thanks. AUDIENCE: Hi. NEAL STEPHENSON: Hi. AUDIENCE: In your
earlier comments about this deconstruction
or cultural disagreement about facts, I was reminded
of “The Diamond Age,” which was kind of– the
pendulum, in some ways, was swung to a
hyper-Victorianism. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. AUDIENCE: And I’m wondering,
are those themes related? Just, are they related? Do you see a pendulum
in time, in terms of our cultural agreement
on these things? NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah, in
“Diamond Age,” it’s cleaner, in a way, because people
have just drawn boundaries and set up clear distinctions. So if you see somebody who lives
in a particular place, dressed as a particular
way, you pretty much know everything about
them, their culture, what they believe, and so on. And that’s not what
we’ve got now, right? We’re in this weird
blended kind of situation where you can encounter
someone at random who just has this radically
different view of– it’s the Thanksgiving
dinner problem. And so– yeah. It’s a related topic. But at the time I wrote that,
I thought I was still engaging in humorous exaggeration. I didn’t think it
was going to happen. So thanks. AUDIENCE: At risk of forcing
you to generalize too much how you feel– would you say you’ve gotten more
or less optimistic with time? And are there any things that,
in particular, give you hope that our problems are soluble? NEAL STEPHENSON: Well,
it’s funny, right? Because in terms of
standard of living and a lot of
measurable quantifiable indices of how we’re doing,
we’re doing really well. So that’s the weird
thing about where we are right now is that– Eric Weinstein has pointed
this out– that on one level, everything is turning to shit
and just terrible things are happening in the political
sphere, in the media sphere. And yet, for a lot of
people, it doesn’t seem to make any difference yet. It enrages us when we look
at Twitter or whatever. But it feels like the
other shoe hasn’t dropped, in terms of a radical
decline in standard of living or anything of that nature. So I think you can
certainly read it both ways. Right now, I’m super concerned
about some of the topics that I’ve been talking about. I don’t if that’s exactly the
same as being pessimistic. I think it’s definitely– so it points out areas where
change needs to happen. But that’s kind of on a
different orthogonal set of– you’ve got optimistic,
pessimistic. You’ve got complacent
versus totally enraged. So I think I’m in the kind of
enraged-optimistic quadrant– [LAUGHTER] –if that helps. But I don’t know if that’s
a rational place to be. [LAUGHTER] AUDIENCE: Hi. NEAL STEPHENSON: Hi. AUDIENCE: I have a follow
up question actually about the process of
transcribing your work from written to digital form. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. AUDIENCE: So I was curious
how much editing, if any, you do during that process? NEAL STEPHENSON: Very little. AUDIENCE: Because
I know, for myself, in things that I write– I write purely digitally. And you can almost
feel constrained when you’re editing by what
you already have on the page. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah. AUDIENCE: And so I was
wondering if you found yourself either wanting to or
holding yourself back from editing while doing
that transcription from one medium to another. NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, I
usually do some editing by hand, with pen, which goes really
fast, because you can just– “krr”– scratch things
out or whatever. And it’s good, because you
can see what has changed. You’ve got a visual
record of the edit trail. And then you’re correct
that, when I then type it in, it’s a chance for me to
do more cleanup on it. But it is just that. It tends to be just clean up
and, maybe, tossing in a phrase here and there. But by that point, it’s
pretty gelled, I would say. I’m not going to be making
big changes during that typing process. AUDIENCE: Thanks. NEAL STEPHENSON: Yeah– thanks. Hi. AUDIENCE: Kind of a
nitty-gritty question– but do the characters in
the second half of “Fall” have some correspondence to the
characters in the first half? Like the minor– I mean, do you have a
cheat sheet somewhere– like, this is Tom
from Ameristan? NEAL STEPHENSON:
Oh, well, there’s some fairly obvious
examples of that. I don’t think– there’s
not a lot hidden, if that’s what you mean. There’s some pretty
obvious examples of people who’ve crossed over. But if it’s just one of
the secondary characters in the second half, the Bit
World part, it could be anyone. Yeah. Thanks. SPEAKER: So, I think that’s it. NEAL STEPHENSON: OK. [APPLAUSE]

9 Replies to “Neal Stephenson: “Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel” | Talks at Google

  1. Very clever ruse, Google. Generating a deepfake to present a respected author ostensibly concerned about deepfakes. I know what you're up to.

  2. ie: "Younger" folks do not believe America successfully landed men on the Moon and returned them home safely.

  3. By the by: against consensus based schemes of what entails reality and the dualism between causality (for things) and history (for beings) read Theory and History by Ludwig von Mises. History is always a hypothetical because it doesn't allow for controlled reproducibility like an empirical measurement or observation of constant effects. Therefore fake reporting or biased reporting by framing and making omisions, is always a possibility in human communication of historical accounts, anyone who has read Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's In a grove knows this. As for Neal's comments at 42:50: https://youtu.be/RaXFC905–4?t=3245

  4. I had Fall on my Amazon wish list. I added it to my active cart after hearing this Google Talk episode. Can't wait to get it.

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