Interview with Author Neal Stephenson: 'I'm Choosing to Be Left Behind'

Some see science fiction author Neal Stephenson as a prophet. But the writer of New York Times bestselling novel "Anathem" says that even though many of his books have been prescient, he has trouble even accessing Facebook.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Stephenson, are you are prophet?

Neal Stephenson: No. I'm a man who sits alone and writes things down. And I mail them off -- now I e-mail them -- and people print them. And once every four years I emerge and do a book tour. But I'm not a prophet.

Neal Stephenson is a bestselling science fiction writer. But he says he is not prophetic, despite what many believe.
Peter von Felbert

Neal Stephenson is a bestselling science fiction writer. But he says he is not prophetic, despite what many believe.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 1994, you published, together with your uncle, a book about a president who's remote controlled by some very sinister version of the industrial military complex. Some might see that as a pretty accurate prediction of what happened in the last eight years in the US.

Stephenson: (Laughs) That book, "Interface," is obviously a satire. In it, there's a technology that connects the president's brain directly to polls. So obviously, there's some crazy, funny stuff that happens as a result. If George W. Bush had been hooked up to a system like that, everyone would love him now. Because the system would work, his policies would all be very popular. But it didn't work with him.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Twelve years ago, two years after "Interface," you published a book called "The Diamond Age" about an electronic book that educates an underprivileged little girl. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2008, electronic books were a hot topic -- and Nicolas Negroponte and his "one laptop per child" project are now trying to help underprivileged children in third world countries educate themselves with affordable laptop computers...

Stephenson: ... a lot of people have been somehow inspired by reading that book. That's nice. But the basic idea of it is just to use technology to help educate people. Which is kind of an obvious idea. It's kind of like "Snow Crash"...

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ... your 1992 book -- often cited as an inspiration for virtual worlds like "Second Life" -- about a future in which a virtual world plays a major role.

Stephenson: The ideas in "Snow Crash" are sort of obvious. Someone would want to build those things even if books like that had never been written. But books can be useful as a rallying point for people to organize their thinking. People read the story and understand the idea. So instead of saying "we would like to create a massively multi-player online role playing game community" they could just say "we want to do something like in 'Snow Crash'" and the other guy says "oh, I read that!"

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 1999 "Cryptonomicon" came out, a book about the importance of cryptography in World War II and the idea of a safe data haven in the present day where people can store their data. Today, many people are worried about privacy, about Google's hunger for information, and about the private data that governments try to obtain.

Stephenson: But it turns out that the way to have a safe haven like that is not to go to some strange country out in the ocean and dig a hole in the ground and put servers in the hole, like in the book. You just use the Internet and encrypt things. So that part of it is more poetic than anything else. Another inconvenient development that has come along since then is that if you're an evil government, the way to invade people's privacy is not by reading their encrypted files. You can get that information in a lot of other ways. And: People don't really protect their privacy. They put incredibly personal details of their lives on Facebook pages and in blog posts and e-mail. It's like they have an urge to tell everyone in the world everything that they're thinking.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 2003 and 2004, you published the trilogy "The Baroque Cycle," the third part of which ("Principia") is now coming out in German. They seem to be less prophetic -- partly because they're set in the 17th century. But they deal with, among a host of other things, the emergence of the international financial markets. Again, a topic on everybody's mind these days.

Stephenson: There will always be crashes. If I write a book in 2003-2004 about the financial markets and in 2008 there's a crash, I can't really claim it's prophetic.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Now Barack Obama has won the election, what will the US be like in the next four years?

Stephenson: My big picture view of it is that if you look back on our time, it turns out that Richard Nixon is the great political genius of the 20th century.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How's that?

Stephenson: It's not that I like him. But when he came to prominence, the Republican party was the party of the country club, the doctors, the businessmen, the stock brokers. The Democratic party was the party of the blue collar people, the union people. The south always voted Democratic. Nixon's genius move was that he came up with the southern strategy: "We won't get the unions, the blue collar guys, but we can get the south, by playing on social conservatism." So he came up with this idea of the silent majority. He was very good at stirring up people's resentment about elites. He gave this speech about his wife wearing her simple cloth coat, not a fancy fur coat. So the south and the west went over to the Republicans and that's the way it was for the last 20, 30 years. And then McCain picked Palin.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: With the same agenda?

Stephenson: Her role was obviously to get those people and she was incredibly gifted at getting them very excited. But it created a rebellion in the Republican party. Before the election, a number of prominent republicans endorsed Obama, like Colin Powell and Lawrence Eagleburger. Those people felt very uncomfortable being jumbled together with the resentful, angry, anti-elite wing of the party. In the two weeks before the election, this awkward coalition broke apart. Now the Republicans have to figure out who they are going to be, how they are going to proceed in the future. Getting the so-called base, the social conservatives, is not enough anymore.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: We're living in a time of constant technological transformation, some people have a hard time keeping up, some have already been left behind. Is there a technology that you, the technology writer, see coming that will leave you behind?

Stephenson: Facebook. I do understand Facebook and I have no trouble setting up a profile and using a social networking site. But I'm choosing to be left behind. I don't get it, it's not intrinsic to my social life in the way that it is to many younger people.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So you don't have a Facebook profile?

Stephenson: I do, but I can't get access to it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You forgot the password?

Stephenson: No someone set it up without my knowledge.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So it's about you but not by you?

Stephenson: I looked at it over somebody's shoulder once. There were all these messages for me. Even from people I know: "Hey Neal, glad to see you got a Facebook page, I've been trying to reach you!" But I had no idea this thing existed. I have a doppelganger.

Interview conducted by Christian Stöcker

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