The Patch Interview: Author Neal Stephenson

Patch checks in with the author of "Reamde," "Cryptonomicon" and "The Diamond Age" in advance of his visit to Oak Park.

Amazon.com thinks author Neal Stephenson is an old Christian lady.  

He’ll explain why in a moment.

Stephenson (author of Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle and Snow Crash) visits Oak Park next week to talk about his new techno thriller Reamde as part of the Writers at Wright series at .


Stephenson, best-known for his genre-hopping novels, tackles tech-terrorism in Reamde, a globe-spanning spy thriller hinging on a virus that takes over your computer, then ransoms your data—with deadly consequences.

In advance of his appearance, Stephenson agreed indulge our curiosity about his books and career, then take questions from our readers.

Reader questions will run Tuesday, Sept. 27, but below, Patch talks to Stephenson about the themes in Reamde, Wikipedia wars, alternate universes and, most importantly, why Amazon thinks he’s an old Christian lady.

Q: One of your protagonists in Reamde battles fabrications,
misinformation and jokes posted on his Wikipedia page. Is this something you’ve experienced?
Stephenson: I haven’t looked at my entry recently; it just seems narcissistic and usually leads to me getting aggravated. It’s just kind of a running joke in the book. What hopefully makes it funny is that everyone who’s used Wikipedia has found stuff they believe to be wrong.

Q: Did you ever find your Wikipedia page disseminating misinformation of you?
Stephenson: I think it became pretty commonplace to categorize me as reclusive, which I found funny. But it’s just because I put up a webpage saying I couldn’t answer all my mail and I just tended to keep to myself between book tours. Once you get tagged with something like that, it tends to be repeated by anyone who Googles your name.

Q: Reamde includes a lot about the culture and business of online role playing games. Did this give license to do a lot of gaming and write it off as research?
Stephenson: I did, I did. It’s not like I hadn’t gamed before, but I had avoided some of the multi-player online stuff just because I didn’t want to wade into it. But I did wade into it after a while. It’s all completely familiar to anyone who played Dungeons and Dragons, the way I did in college. A lot of the same logic and principles underlying how the game works—I feel comfortable there. It’s mostly about remembering the right keys on the keyboard.

Q: A lot of your work deals with the places where philosophy, technology and science intersect. With that in mind, do you think mathematics is something invented by humanity or discovered by it?
Stephenson: I’m in the “discovered” camp. As you probably know, this is a major philosophical debate, which won’t be solved in either of our lifetimes. But I’m sympathetic to the Platonist viewpoint that it’s out there somewhere in the abstract and it’s not the product of the human mind. There’s no human mental activity that can change the mathematical reality.

Q: Where do you fall on theories that have come out about parallel universes, then?  Your last book, Anathem, addressed this and in some theories, every decision we make creates another universe—so human mental activity does have an impact. How do you reconcile that?
Stephenson: I was pretty skeptical about [multiple universes] until I ready David Deutsch’s book Fabric of Reality which explains quantum mechanics in a way that is understandable and makes it seem not so unreasonable. In fact, it seems more reasonable than some of the other interpretations. So that and a work from British physicist Julian Barbour are pretty compelling descriptions of multi-verse or multi-world.

Q: Anathem had its own soundtrack. What songs would you recommend for the new book?
Stephenson: I haven’t really thought about it. I guess probably more of a techno soundtrack, right? It’s a techno thriller.

Q: Was there music you listened to as you wrote it?
Stephenson: I hate to give a plug, but I’ve been using sites like Pandora that just suggest things. The three roots I started with were Crystal Method, Rage Against the Machine and Liz Phair. Those all go branching out in different directions. But then I suddenly find that I’m listening to genres I’ve never heard of, like “Global Chill.”

So a lot of times I’m not even aware of who I’m listening to, it’s just become something that’s picked out for me.

Q: Do you find Pandora to be satisfying? I find it kind of horrifying that they have me pegged.
Stephenson: On the whole, I think it does a good job. The only thing that’s confusing to it is when you change your mind, like when you’re in the mood for something different. You can kind of sense it on some level going, “Hey, I thought you liked that?”

Q: It’s like the old joke: “My TiVo thinks I’m gay.” You watch a TV show once and the algorithm puts you in a certain demographic.
Stephenson: Yeah. For martial arts purposes, I had to get some rubber cane tips, so I ordered a box of those from Amazon.com. So Amazon immediately decided I was a very old Christian lady looking for spiritual guidance.

Q: Were they right about the spiritual guidance part? [laughs]
Stephenson: Well, maybe not that kind of guidance. It’s almost like a fiendishly clever sales tactic, because it makes you want to go out and buy a lot of other stuff so you can go, “No, no, no, you’ve got me all wrong!”

Q: What did you buy to change Amazon’s mind?
Stephenson: Power tools, the complete works of Metallica…[laughs]

Neal Stephenson will appear at Unity Temple on Sept. 28, as a part of the Writers at Wright program put on by , Midwest Media, Friends of the Oak Park Public Library and Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. Tickets are $10 in advance at the Book Table or here. Your ticket also entitles you to $10 off the cover price of Stephenson's new novel, Reamde.

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