The Bat Segundo Show: Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #245. Stephenson is most recently the author of Anathem. It is not known whether or not he “likes cake a lot.”

Condition of Mr. Segundo: He likes cake a lot.

Author: Neal Stephenson

Subjects Discussed: Seven as the ideal number of guests for dinner, William Gibson, the shift from the near future to the past, Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, science fiction about the alternative present, the various manners in which one interprets information as forms of discipline, Kurt Godel’s life at the Institute for Advanced Study, Platonism, Edmund Husserl, the Kantian influence in Anathem, units of measurement, Gene Wolfe, the use of “runcible,” using very old words to avoid the high tech feel, “aut” and auto-da-fe, devising quasi-Latin lingo, Riddley Walker, learning new words as an essential part of the experience of literature, considering the general reader, devising a script that went through the entire text to determine how many words were invented, concocting an intuitive vernacular, cognitive philosophy concerning the fly, the bat, and the worm inspired by Husserl, reader accessibility, My Dinner with Andre, the danger of getting caught up in an invented world, the snowscape journey as a side quest, finding humor in unexpected places, Ras as the anti-Enoch Root, Robert Heinlein’s YA novels, Ras’s perception of music, music and mathematics, literal and figurative meanings, Max Tegmark’s The Mathematical Universe, creating a metaverse and happy accidents, being “family-based” and types of relationships within the Avout, Laura Miller’s suggestion that Anathem is “a campus novel,” use of the first-person, narrative constraints, criticism about women as nurturers, female characters, and the risk of writing books about ideas.


Correspondent: Going back to the idea of the general reader, or the common reader — whatever we want to call the audience here — the philosophical proposition involving the fly, the bat, and the worm expressing basic cognitive abilities, and how cognitive abilities come together so that humans are a higher form of animal than other animals, this was a very clear way of expressing this particular concept of individual senses. And I’m wondering if this was something that you concocted. Or that you took from Kant. Because I actually tried to find a philosophical precedent for this as well.

Stephenson: It’s more from [Edmund] Husserl. So Husserl was an amazing guy who could just sit in his office and look at a copper ashtray, and then write at great length about all of the processes that went on in his mind when he was perceiving that ashtray, and recognizing it from one moment to the next as being the same object. And so he’s got a number of lengthy books about this, which, as you can imagine, are pretty hard to read. So the content of the dialogue, or the parable you mention — the fly, the bat, and the worm — really comes from him. But it’s me trying to write a somewhat more accessible version of similar ideas.

Correspondent: So you really wanted to be accessible in some sense, it seems to me.

Stephenson: In some sense, yeah.

Correspondent: Well, what sense exactly?

Stephenson: (laughs) Well…

Correspondent: If the reader doesn’t matter and, at the same time, there’s this accessibility here, it seems…what’s the real story? (laughs)

Stephenson: Oh no. The reader matters. The criterion is very simple. It’s got to be a good yarn. If it’s not a good yarn, then the whole enterprise fails. So I think that to have a good yarn, you’ve got to have characters that people are interested in. And they’ve got to get into situations that make for a good story. It’s okay to stop the action and have them sit down and have an interesting conversation. You know, for some reason, I always go back to the movie, My Dinner with Andre, which is a long movie consisting of two guys just sitting there talking with each other. But it’s a completely engaging and fascinating movie. That’s kind of an existence proof that you can build a good yarn that consists largely of people just having conversations. And so that was kind of my guiding — that was my guideline, I guess you could say, for trying to work that material in.

BSS #245: Neal Stephenson (Download MP3)

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Neal Stephenson Five Minute Interview

We certainly can’t compete with this, but it’s worth noting that back in late fall, Return of the Reluctant coaxed Neal Stephenson into an interview.

STEPHENSON: Five minutes, son. Can’t you see you’re cutting into my brooding time?

RotR: Okay, I’m very sorry. You’re a novelist of ideas. I’m positive you have additional wisdom to impart.

STEPHENSON: It’s all in the books and the Wiki. Do you need me to hold your hand? But if you need an example for your little article…

RotR: It’s a blog, actually.

STEPHENSON: Oh, one of those. Okay, here goes: The very design of the bench you’re sitting on right now developed out of serious scientific talks in the Netherlands. The bench is a recruiting center for libertarians, meaning that if enlightened geniuses hadn’t devised an acceptable length between the two ends, your posterior might not feel as safe and comfortable as it does right now and as it will no doubt feel tomorrow.

It is the terrorist who favors a comfy chair, while the government advocate prefers a sofa. By this I mean that only the libertarian is willing to apply sanded wood, generally coming to us from an export processing zone, to his buttocks and sit up straight, sitting down like a real man. You will not find slouched shoulders on a libertarian, nor will you find a limp penis.

These are some of the many conundrums I’ve worked out in my novel. And it is why I am so misunderstood.

RotR: But you’re asking readers to sit through 3,000 pages of scientists and philosophers talking about ideas. Surely, even you have to confess that this is a bit much for a narrative. Why didn’t you come out with a treatise? At least with Vollman, you get gripping first-person accounts in Third World nations.

STEPHENSON: I don’t need editors. Editors restrict the natural creative impulse. After the Civil War, fiction followed the logical course that science and technology did. It developed plot, characters, prose, and other stylistic devices. Out of this came the MBA program, which came into being shortly after the Manhattan Project. What I am doing is harkening back to the antebellum novels, the novels of real ideas.

RotR: Most of them are forgotten or out of print.

STEPHENSON: Have you even read System of the World?

RotR: It only came out yesterday.

STEPHENSON: Are you a member of the Libertarian Party?

RotR: No. But you remind me of a skinnier John Milius.

STEPHENSON: Well, you’re one of the many reasons I don’t do these interviews. Please dispense with your sense of humor. You might be able to accomplish something without such a frivolous personality trait.

Material Girls, Zola’s Game Theory, Tipping Points