Novelist Neal Stephenson first received notice for his acclaimed 1992 bestseller Snow Crash, a near-future/virtual-reality adventure that had critics proclaiming him the successor to William Gibson. With the release of Cryptonomicon, a sweeping, 900-plus-page historical, mathematical, and millennial tour de force, the comparisons are running more toward Thomas Pynchon. Stephenson recently spoke with The Onion about his work.
The Onion: Why did you decide to write a novel based on cryptography and cryptanalysis, of all things?
Neal Stephenson: I guess it was some kind of masochistic impulse. Crypto is math, which is the least likely subject for a novel that's going to achieve any kind of mass popularity. I don't know… Occasionally, I just feel this impulse to write something that's very weird. And it seemed that writing a novel with math at the center of it was a good way to relieve that impulse. And it's important: It's obscure, and it's hard to understand, but it's been really important. I just thought it was worth taking a crack at.
O: So it was more of a personal thing than any sort of foresight that it would become more important in this age of electronic communication and digital cash, and things like that.
NS: I'd been getting hints for a long time that it was getting important in that way, but I don't do anything like market research. It's not about anticipating what's going to be hot and writing to that market. That hasn't worked for me. It's more like, "Hmm, this looks like it's going to be very important. Why? Why is it becoming important? And is it or isn't it interesting that it's important? If it's interesting, then maybe it's a fertile place for a fiction writer to go. What will I find if I go there for a while?"
O: Speaking of going places, I found the book somewhat informed by the globe-trotting South Pacific experiences you wrote about in "Mother Earth Motherboard," your Wired article [which dealt with the practice and engineering in laying transoceanic data cables].
NS: It was, more than I expected it to be. I thought of the Wired project as a way to physically get me into a part of the world I was interested in. Once I was there, I went off on my own nickel on my own time, and looked at some things I was curious about. But it turned out that the whole undersea-data-cable-laying scene was more relevant to the book itself than I had thought it would be. That's basically because cables are the dominant way information moves now, and any book that pertains to the Internet and Internet privacy can't really address it without digging down and eventually talking about the fundamental physical wiring that moves all that information.
O: It's striking how much more capable and go-getting and driven your '40s characters are compared to the ones you set in the present day.
NS: Well, yeah. And I think it's pretty obvious why that was. You didn't have to spend a lot of time gazing at your navel back in the '40s—no hang-ups about, "Am I doing the right thing?" And even if you did have hang-ups, chances are that someone was giving you direct orders and not leaving you much choice in the matter. So, yeah, it's amazing to read about that era and see these people decisively going off and putting everything into accomplishing certain goals. Whereas now, the fashionable way to be is to have a kind of cool, jaded sort of ennui. Which is understandable, but it does make a lot of people now seem kind of pallid compared to the people who lived in the '40s. And it's almost worse for us that that generation is so cool about it, so matter-of-fact. I suppose it's the way they were raised. If they were always bragging about it… I suppose some are that way, but for the most part, it's like, "Oh, yeah, well, we had to, you know, defeat evil. So we went and did that. Not much to say, really."
O: Your books are pretty much unique in finding the bridge between geek and cool in a lot of stereotyped groups, notably computer people.
NS: Well, in WWII or one of those wars, they had a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. I think the modern equivalent of that is that there are no jaded, bored people in the high-tech industry, in the land of really good hardcore geeks. They all have a kind of intensity about what they're doing that makes it impossible for them to be bored or passionless. They are pretty driven, and they get a lot of joy from what they do, and it comes through, I think.
O: But it goes beyond that. You've been surprisingly kind to, say, the role-playing gamers you've portrayed.
NS: Well, you know, I used to do that. It's a hard thing to understand for outsiders, and it does seem kind of weird and geeky, but it's an important part of that culture… When you're writing fiction, it's all about trying to see things from different people's points of view. So when you read a piece of fiction where some person or some group is being completely slammed in a really one-sided way, it seems like bad fiction on the author's part. You really need to have an understanding of how people think about this stuff. You need to sympathize with just about anything.
O: Well, in doing that, you seem to have covered pretty much everybody, except habitual science-fiction-convention attendees.
NS: You know, I've been invited to some of those conventions. But little gigs like that have a negative impact on my ability to actually write. There are some really thoughtful, intelligent people in that world, but it gets hard to find them among all the people who wear rubber Vulcan ears.
O: Because people ask authors these things, what do you read?
NS: I don't read a lot of fiction. I read a lot of history. I read a lot of technical stuff…
O: You'd have to.
NS: Yeah. In terms of current fiction writers, there's a guy named Sean Stewart who writes fantasy-type books, but there not really categorizable. They're so unique that I almost can't really talk about them. But they're, you know, really good books.
O: Speaking of good books, I read The Big U, your first novel, and liked it. But the scuttlebutt is that you don't, and that you've actively kept it from being reprinted.
NS: I think it's an okay book. The cover is obviously terrible, but I'm not embarrassed. I don't hate it. It's just that there are so many other good books being written right now that I hate to see people putting the effort into tracking that thing down rather than reading better novels by less well-known authors.
O: You're a pretty serious amateur programmer.
NS: Not a lot anymore. I was doing it as recently as a couple of weeks ago, but the cowboy era is over. You can't just sit down and bang out, or most people can't sit down and bang out, a meaningful piece of software. It's more collaborative now. It's more of a grind. So when I do it now, I'm just writing silly little utility programs just to kind of stay in practice a little bit.
O: Is the programming process like writing at all?
NS: Um… [Pauses.] I don't know. I do think there is a link in that in both cases, writing fiction or writing a computer program, at any given moment you're focusing on a very specific and particular thing—one word, one line of code, whatever. You have to be conscious of what you're doing and get it right on that little level. But at the same time, you have to keep this much larger project in your mind and not forget how the particulars tie into the overriding scheme. So I do think that there is a certain kind of parallel there. But I don't know how meaningful it is.
O: Back to Cryptonomicon. Did you have any bigger, broader goals, or were you just out to write a big, strapping story?
NS: No, no real goals. If you write with goals, they tend to poke out embarrassingly. It's just that at this point in my career, it's a matter of following my instincts and writing a few pages every day, trying to preserve my momentum. Having specific goals is just not part of the picture. When I was younger, I had goals, but I didn't really know what I was doing. So I kind of tried to invent my career as I went along. I had to rationalize it, justify it. When you could be doing other things to make money, sitting around telling little stories all the time seems irrational. It seems to want justification. Now I'm to a point where I've figured out that this is what I do. It doesn't necessarily make sense, but I'm going to keep doing it. Fiction comes out the other end, and I don't ever step back and look for any kind of larger picture of what my goals are, or anything like that.
O: Does your process of writing involve constant rewriting, or are you a one-rewrite guy?
NS: I used to write stuff that was kind of a shambles. I would have to go back and fix it, which was a pain, and it was like a car that's been in a crash and fixed up in a body shop. It's just never the same. So over many, many years I started to figure it out. A lot of the better stuff I'd written, the stuff that didn't need to be fixed, was the stuff I was writing first thing in the morning. And a lot of the absolute crap I was writing that just needed to be overhauled and thrown away was what I was grinding out at two in the afternoon when I was trying to be a tough-guy writer and I was just exhausted and bored. So I just stopped. I learned to stop. I'd go down and write for an hour or two in the morning, which is enough to grind out a few pages, and if you do it every day of the year, that's enough to produce a lot of fiction. And consequently, I think the quality is higher right off the bat. It doesn't require that kind of reworking.
O: Your book reminded me a lot of action-adventure or thriller-oriented… I'm sorry if you don't care for these genre words…
NS: No! No, I'm not insulted by any of them. I was just reading a review of my book by someone of the school that it's kind of unsophisticated and almost embarrassing to include narrative in a novel, that it's kind of sentimental and old-fashioned to have something like a plot. And that's something I've never quite understood. There are all sorts of things that are supposed to go into a novel—there's characterization and use of language and ideas and a story—and it's not clear to me why some people are picking on narrative or plot as if it's an aspect of a novel that has to be done away with. I have no idea where that comes from.
O: Do you ever read your own reviews?
NS: Yeah. I'm pretty much ambivalent about reviews. It seems like a weird thing to do, because when you're reading a novel, you either get into it or you don't. The whole thing is pretty much pleasure. You care about the characters, you're interested in the plot, the pages fly by, and there's not much to say about it except, "Ooh! This book is really great! You should go read it!" If you don't get into it, you know, it seems completely pointless. If you're a normal person, at that point you put the book down. You don't read it. If you're a reviewer, you're obliged to read it. And if you're not enjoying it, you have plenty of time—especially in a 900-pager—to build up a good head of resentment at the thing. So it does seem kind of artificial. I think a lot of the reviews that show up in smaller, more local publications are going to be replaced by advice from people on the Internet. You can go to a website and look at comments on the book, and that gives you an idea of whether you should buy it. The exception, I think, is in certain standard-bearer publications like The New York Times or whatever, where they're very conscious of the fact that they're important cultural institutions, and that what they say carries the stamp of the culture they represent.
O: A lot of people are saying, "Cut 300 pages!" or "Where was his editor?"
NS: Like I was saying, you either get into it and you like it or you don't. If you do get into it, for most people it doesn't seem that long. At least I hear from most people that they get through the book without that much agony. And I know from reading big, long novels like Mason & Dixon and Infinite Jest—which was brilliant, amazing—that I was always sad when I got to the end. There is a kind of cult of brevity that a lot of people subscribe to. I don't know where it comes from. I'm speculating that maybe people have taken classes in writing where they've been trained to be minimalist, to be very pithy, and people who get jobs as writers in a journalistic setting are taught that they're supposed to write just so much and no more. That, I think, leads to a kind of attitude that when someone writes something very long, they're engaging in a disgusting show of self-indulgence. So, that's my attempt to explain an attitude I don't understand. But my own reaction to that kind of criticism is, emotionally, kind of lukewarm. I'm not, like, angry and bitter about it.
O: There's been some talk that you intended Cryptonomicon to be the first book in a series.
NS: The most important thing is that it's a stand-alone novel that works all by itself. I was really trying to do that. There is enough material to think about and write about in that world that I'm not quite done yet. So I'm working on another book that has a few points in common with this one, but I'm trying to avoid saying that it's the first in a series. Above all, I'm trying to avoid the dreaded T-word, trilogy, because these things are supposed to stand or fall on their own. I know writers who just happen to write really long novels, like Sean Russell, who's a Canadian writer of epic fantasy stuff—and again, it's not, you know, unicorns, just really good writing. But his books are very, very long. Big epic stories. And they tend to get broken in half, although there's no structural reason. It's just a technical issue having to do with how big a book can physically be.
Read the first 75 pages of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, as well as his insightful, entertaining essay about computer operating systems ("In The Beginning Was The Command Line") at www.cryptonomicon.com.