Neal Stephenson Returns!

By Stephen Cass | August 28, 2008 6:44 pm

Cover of Neal Stephenson’s AnathemSci Fi Wire has an interview with Neal Stephenson, author of The Diamond Age (one of the best nanotech novels ever), Snow Crash (one of the best cyberpunk novels ever) among others. Stephenson has a new book coming out next month titled Anathem. Stephenson talks about the inspiration for Anathem, and why he’s decided to include an introduction for readers who don’t normally read science fiction that people who do regularly read science fiction are advised to skip.

The reason for the intro is because Stephenson is trying to deal with a particular habit that science fiction readers have picked up: the willingness (even desire) to be plunged into a book where you don’t know what any of the proper nouns mean or the nature of the world the characters inhabit, with the assumption that by chapter four or so things will begin to make sense.

I think this habit developed as a natural consequence to the growth of science fiction in the first half of the 20th century: after you’ve read a whole bunch of stories it becomes a) repetitive and b) ruins the suspension of disbelief to have characters wandering around for the first few chapters finding contrived excuses to explain things to each other — after in, in the modern world (pure science fiction land to someone of a hundred years past) we don’t go around explaining the operational principles of cellphones or ATMs to each other on a regular basis. Why would a passenger onboard an interstellar cruiser of the 26th century feel compelled to stroll down to the engine room to get a refresher lecture on how the faster-than-light drive doesn’t work too well near disruptions such as supernovas and, oh, by the way, what’s that bright light outside the starboard porthole? Much better to have the passenger react in the moment as if they already knew that stars going boom screw up travel plans, and have the reader figure out the FTL connection later. But I agree with Stephenson that this can be confusing to readers who haven’t been trained to accept on faith that the author will find a way to make everything make sense eventually: it’ll be interesting to see if this “cheat sheet” experiment works in helping to bridge the gap between writing for mainstream and science-fiction-aficionado audiences.


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  1. Anathem Trailer | Science Not Fiction | Discover Magazine | September 4, 2008

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