Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction

I took the afternoon off today to attend a symposium on Science Fiction as a Literary Genre at Gresham College. However, the main reason I went was because Neal Stephenson (author of Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, Quicksilver, etc) was the keynote speaker. Aside from being one of my favourite science fiction authors, Neal is also an excellent speaker. I last saw him give a talk at Trinity College in Cambridge a few years ago, and since he rarely makes public appearances, I was looking forward to today.

Having gone to many conferences in recent years, on subjects varying from neuroscience to space exploration to game design, I’ve seen an awful lot of bad talks, and some very good talks. The good talks tend to fall into two broad categories. The first are given by highly charismatic speakers who have spent a long time perfecting a visually rich and witty presentation, in the sense that the words and the slides merge into one. If you couldn’t see the speaker and their slides, you’d lose a lot. These guys tend to come from the technology world.

The second are those in which the speaker has more or less memorised or pre-written the entire thing, and works without any slides whatsoever. They might consult notes, or even read from them directly, but their words are so engaging that you don’t care. If you could listen to these guys on the radio, you wouldn’t lose anything – in fact, it might actually be better that way. These guys are often from the academic world.

Now, this is obviously an approximation and there are people, myself included, who fall in between these categories. One of the best talks that I ever saw was by Leon Lederman, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, and he was of the second category; a master story-teller if there ever was one, even if he does give the same talk again and again. I became convinced that this was the way to give a good talk – no slides, just words. Unfortunately I was only 18 at the time and I just didn’t have the chops to pull it off.

Over the next few years, I went to a lot of technology and gaming conferences, and saw lots of well-produced presentations. I then concluded that, since I couldn’t just rely on words alone, I had to bolster my talks with images; game design is, after all, quite a visual subject. This worked fairly well and most of the presentations I gave about Perplex City had quite a lot of slides.

Still, I wasn’t entirely happy about this; I had the niggling feeling that I was just telling people stuff rather than making them think. I also remembered how enraptured I could become in just listening to the words of a good speaker, and how that’s much more difficult to do when you’re being distracted by visuals. So I backtracked a little and that’s where I am now.

Neal Stephenson is not only a science fiction author but also an insightful writer on technology and computers; In The Beginning Was The Command Line is a very highly regarded essay on computer operating systems. You might therefore expect him to be of the first, visually-rich type of speaker. However, he is not the sort of person who keeps a blog or writes frequently on technology; perhaps tellingly, both his parents were hard scientists. And so, Neal is a speaker of the first second category – he clearly prepares his talks in detail beforehand and has few to no slides.

The title of Neal’s talk at the symposium was ‘The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture’. The subject was essentially about what makes science fiction different from, well, everything else. ‘Everything else’ used to be called ‘mainstream’, but that term is basically meaningless today. Some science fiction fans call non-fans ‘mundanes’ and so that’s the term Neal used (in an obviously joking manner).

Now, I normally don’t take notes at talks any more. I find it distracting, and generally pointless since I never read the notes again afterwards. I didn’t intend to take any notes here either, but Neal said a few things that I found so original that I had to write them down. As usual, these are imperfect, etc.

On Genres: If an alien observer were looking at Earth and trying to distinguish different genres of fiction, they would have a hard time of things. When Neal was young, westerns were the dominant genre; every weekend you could see one at the cinema, and there were always westerns on TV. Today, if a western makes it to the cinema, it’s always seen as an exceptional event (e.g. 3:10 to Yuma). So clearly westerns do not constitute a major, lasting genre – you wouldn’t find a ‘western’ section in a bookshop any more.

You would find sections for Romance and Crime though. These genres have persisted, and Neal’s thesis is that they have actually fused with other media. Romance has fused with movies, and crime has fused with TV. The most successful movies, weighted by ticket sales, all have some romantic component. Romance is like MSG – no matter the underlying food, adding MSG makes it taste better. This may have begun with Gone with the Wind, a movie that demonstrated a romance could really pull in the crowds.

As for crime, it’s the perfect engine for a TV series that needs to generate a new story every week. I would argue that this should expand to procedural dramas in general (e.g. medical dramas) but clearly the whole crime/investigation genre has dominated TV for decades; CSI is only the most recent re-invention.

On Thrillers: Bruce Sterling, another SF author, has defined a thriller as a science fiction novel that includes the President of the United States

On Vulcan Ears: Neal recently had dinner at a very nice and respectable restaurant in New York. It was the type of restaurant that had professional waiters in their 30s and 40s, not kids looking to make a quick buck. These waiters regularly hear people name-drop famous policitians and celebrities, and they are experienced enough to not miss a beat. However, when Neal mentioned Lucy Lawless (of Xena: Warrior Princess and Battlestar Galactica) their waiter immediately spun around and joined the conversation. Neal’s belief is that science fiction fans all have Vulcan ears – they might be mechanics or scientists or waiters, and they might hide them in their pockets 99% of the time, but they sense the presence of other geeks, the ears come out and all bets as to propriety are off.

On the Bifurcated Careers of science fiction actors: There are some actors who are reasonably well known to ‘mundanes’ but enormously famous to sci-fi fans. Lucy Lawless is one; Hugo Weaving (of The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings) is another. Sigourney Weaver also counts. Why do these guys keep on getting cast in science fiction movies? Neal believes it’s because they can convey the impression that they are highly intelligent. Recently, Neal was thinking of who – other than Leonard Nimoy – could convincingly portray a Vulcan. The only person he could think of was Hugo Weaving.

In general, good science fiction movies involve characters doing intelligent things. Take Aliens as an example; after unsuccessfully fighting the aliens several times, they decide that they only option is (let’s say it together) to nuke the site from orbit. It’s at this moment that we sit forward in our chairs and say, hey, that’s not a bad idea. Certainly it’s better than just getting killed. In contrast, ‘mundane’ movies often see characters do stupid things like not run away from monsters or walk into dark woods alone.

(Note: This is an interesting assertion. Is it true that science fiction movies are more intelligent than other movies? I mulled this over, and I came to a qualified ‘yes’. Clearly there are plenty of non-SF movies with highly intelligent characters – but you could argue that either they basically incorporate SF elements, or that SF movies have intelligence as a common characteristic. One for further discussion.)

On women actors: Science fiction movies and TV shows tend to have more women as lead characters than ‘mundane’ media; take Buffy, Alias, The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Aliens as prime examples. What are the unifying characteristics of these characters? They are strong, ass-kicking women. This could mean two things. One – sci-fi fans like Amazon-style women. Two – science fiction is more willing to accept strong women. Neal things it’s a mix.

On Geeking Out: Is the conclusion here that science fiction fans are more intelligent than everyone else? Neal wisely stays away from trying to define intelligence, and instead focuses on something else – geeking out. Geeks used to be called nerds, who were confined solely to the scientific and technical spheres, and they were looked down upon. Now, the term ‘geek’ can apply to effectively any field, and geeks are not just tolerated, but positively encouraged (providing they shower and only display their geekiness at socially-appropriate occasions).

Neal believes that everyone has an inner geek – you just need to talk to them long enough to figure it out. There’s the mechanic who knows everything about alloys, or the Walmart cashier who is a brilliant Civil War reconstructionist. It’s impossible for one person to know everything about everything, as Robert Heinlein used to depict his heroes. Instead, with so much knowledge in the world, people have become experts in only a few different areas – and now everyone is a geek.

If you’re interested in reading more about this, Neal has written two articles for the New York Times on similar subjects: It’s All Geek to Me on the movie 300 and Turn On, Tune In, Veg out on Star Wars.

9 Replies to “Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction”

  1. That “Vulcan Ears” part is so true! (I also love that Lucy Lawless story).

    The fact that a scientist wanted to name the planet he discovered Xena is concrete proof of this. And although the name was dropped eventually, he named the planet Eris, also referring to lawlessness. COINCIDENCE? No way! He had to put Xena somewhere!! 🙂

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