by Laura Davis
One of the great things about going to a book signing is hearing the opinions and insights of other fans. So, when I went to Skylight Books in Los Angeles on Wednesday night for Neal Stephenson’s signing, I sat quietly, notebook in hand, and listened.
The guy in front of me remarked, “When I read the reviews and stuff for the Baroque Cycle, it talked a lot about pirates. I like pirates, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I start reading, I’m going along, and I’m thinking, ‘where are the freekin pirates?’ Eventually, I got to them and I loved the books, but I had to go back and re-read them.”
Another fan chimed in, “Yeah, it takes about the first 300 pages to get where he’s going, but then it clicks and it’s amazing. I kind of read them in layers and get something new out of each reading. I’ve read the Baroque Cycle 6 times now.”
While we waited, I read the first essay in Stephenson’s new book, Some Remarks. The essay is called “Arsebestos,” and it talks about how, as a child, Stephenson equated Bob Cratchit’s being tied to a desk with a low station in life, and how Scrooge’s higher status allowed him the freedom to walk around. Other movies and television programs furthered his opinion that heroes stride around free, while losers sit still. Young Stephenson put a great deal of thought into developing a career that would allow him to not be chained to a desk. So he became a writer. As with many people who spend their days working on a computer, Stephenson eventually began to suffer wrist, shoulder, and back problems. His ultimate solution was a treadmill desk, which allows him to work standing up, walking at a leisurely pace of 1-1.5 miles an hour, all day. I’ll admit it: I’m suffering desk envy.
Stephenson’s overall theme for the evening was geeks and geekdom, with some interesting tangents. He read his essay, “Turn on, Tune In, Veg out,” in which he uses the “old” vs. “new” Star Wars movies to demonstrate the difference between geeking out and vegging out. “In the 16 years that separated [The Phantom Menace] from the initial trilogy, a new universe of ancillary media had come into existence. These had made it possible to take the geek material offline so that the movies could consist of pure, uncut veg-out content, steeped in day-care-center ambience. These newer films don’t even pretend to tell the whole story; they are akin to PowerPoint presentations that summarize the main bullet points from a much more comprehensive body of work developed by and for a geek subculture.”
He goes on to liken this to our real-world state of affairs, “Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive, comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people are happy to sweat the details . . . Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.”
Stephenson also read an excerpt from his 2008 Gresham College lecture, which covers a lot of ground, but most importantly: Speculative Fiction as literature, genres, SF vs. the Mundane, and the evolution of geekdom. He talked about a very professional waiter who chucked professionalism out the window and started geeking out at the mention of Lucy Lawless, and about con-goers who needed to be told not to brandish rubber swords in the hotel elevators. “Both this waiter, and the elevator sword people are displaying a trait that is epitomized, for better or worse, by the cruel Mundane stereotype of SF fans wearing rubber Vulcan ears. In a sense, all of us—all SF Fans—are forever carrying those rubber ears around, concealed in the pockets of our business suits, military uniforms, waiter’s jackets, or doctor’s smocks. No one knows they’re there, but when we find ourselves around like-minded persons, even if they’re total strangers, we absent-mindedly reach into our pockets, pull out the ears, and slap them on. We identify ourselves as geeks. We geek out.”
Thoughtfully, Stephenson left plenty of time for questions. It’s great when authors realize that you are there because you read their books, you already have a shiny new copy of their latest book in hand, and while it’s always a treat to hear the author read a bit of it himself, the real treasure is in interacting with him.
On the Snow Crash movie, announced by Paramount in June (no release date as yet), Stephenson said, “Yeah, it’s really happening. I had a good meeting with Joe Cornish, the producer-to-be. So far, so good!”
Another reader wanted to know what inspires Stephenson’s strong, fearless female characters. He replied, “I see people like that every day. It’s my ‘fair and balanced’ account.” He almost gets it out with a straight face. “Characters like that, people like that are somewhat unusual, it gets attention. And I like people like that.”
Asked what he thought would be the next step in the evolution of man, Stephenson remarked, “I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about epigenism. We see what genes are expressed at the moment, the rest are turned off. They’re learning what makes that happen. Jack Horner, the dinosaur guy, he’s saying we don’t need to figure out how to clone a dinosaur from fossils, we’ve got chickens; let’s turn chickens back into dinosaurs. Think of all the problems we could solve if we could learn to turn genes on and off.” Sounds great, but maybe, let’s skip the part with the dinosaurs. Please?
What do you think about the Mars Rover Curiosity? “I didn’t think it would work. It kind of blew me away when it worked perfectly. But then, that leads to the awkward question: if we’re that smart, why can’t we get anything done here on earth?”
What ideas are you really excited about? “The ability to drop an atomic dune buggy on Mars with great precision!” He grins. “We’ve got a lot of capability. We’ve got companies sitting on piles of cash, and a number of problems that need to be solved. We have fallen into a faulty configuration of resources. I’m hoping we figure it out. I guess the possibilities are exciting, but right now, it’s still in the incredibly depressing phase.”
Asked his thoughts on sites like Wikileaks and movements like Anonymous, Stephenson whispers, “I think they’re wonderful.” In full voice, he continues, “They have an anarchic quality that makes them unpredictable. Like when they decided to take on child porn. Was it a cynical decision to make a PR move, or a genuine motive, like ‘God damn it, let’s do something about this’? Whatever their motives, they’re certainly energetic!”
After waiting all evening to actually speak to Neal Stephenson myself while he autographed my books, my turn finally came. I thanked him for the talk, told him how much I enjoy his work, explained why only 3 of the 4 books I brought were being inscribed (the fourth belongs to my boyfriend, but I love it more than he does, so I’m hoping to weasel it away from him later. Stephenson chuckled as he approved the plan), and then . . . I geeked out. I’d been thinking of it all evening. I couldn’t resist asking him where on earth one finds a treadmill desk.
Neal Stephenson’s parting words to me: “Treaddesk.com.”
- Neal Stephenson Official Web Site