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. Continue reading “Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction”