NEAL STEPHENSON occupies a unique place in the world of literature. He writes extremely smart and obscenely long novels about science, history, philosophy and mathematics. And not only does he manage to get these things published, but somehow they always become bestsellers.
His last novel, Anathem (2008) was 935 pages long, focused heavily on an alternative history of philosophical and scientific thought, featured a lengthy glossary of invented terms and had two appendices covering mathematics and one covering metaphysics. The day it came out, I bought a copy at Costco.
But one of the reasons for Stephenson's commercial success is that he is not just dedicated to ideas, he is dedicated to telling fun adventure stories. And this is the aspect of Stephenson that you are most likely to notice when reading his latest novel, Reamde (William Morrow). If this 1,044-pager looks massive, perhaps that's because Stephenson wanted to build a monument to the power of plot.
"My basic stance towards the novel," Stephenson told me over the phone, "is that the novel is first and foremost a medium of mass pop culture. It can also be a work of fine art, in the sense of, you know, ballet or an opera. But in its basic roots, it's a mass-culture phenomenon. The people who wrote those 19th-century serialized blockbuster novels understood that. They were making stories that appealed to a huge swath of the population. And they were able to entertain them and reach a lot of people, while still producing work that has literary qualities that we still find respectable today."
Stephenson's first big success as a novelist was Snow Crash in 1992, a semisatirical science-fiction novel about a pizza-delivery boy/swordsmen/hacker, set in a future United States in the process of run-away privatization, with much of the country divided into franchises of for-profit suburban micro-states.
Along with descriptions of American hyperinflation, adventures of teenaged delinquents and lengthy jaunts into Sumerian myth, Stephenson presented an early and compelling vision of a virtual online world. He wrote of people controlling "avatars" in "the Metaverse" and occasionally getting into duels to the virtual death. Snow Crash is now widely regarded as a classic, especially among the sorts of people most likely to built virtual worlds.
With Reamde, Stephenson returns to the subject of virtual worlds, but this time the setting is contemporary, and the virtual world a popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMO) called T'Rain.
The game is not all that unlike World of Warcraft, but it is designed from the ground up (literally, as it's a matter of virtual geology here) to support gold farmers—those players who grind away at the game in order to collect virtual wealth to sell to other players. While WoW cracks down on them, T'Rain embraces them, with a monetary policy that is tied to the mineral output of the world and a payment system envisioned by the game company's founder, a draft dodger and former drug smuggler, well acquainted with money-laundering.
I asked Stephenson how he came to write about an a multiplayer online game.
"I've been familiar with that world since I was playing dungeons and dragons back in my college years," he said. "Since then, there's been this ongoing process of trying to translate those types of games into more and more sophisticated electronic forms. Starting with text-based adventures and moving on up to the massively multiplayer games that exist today. And it's very easy to see the through-line that joins those games."
Stephenson also did plenty of research (much of it in World of Warcraft), and it shows. The action scenes set in T'Rain manage to feel like an accurate representation of video-game combat, while somehow remaining as tense and exciting as the action scenes set in the real world.
I asked Stephenson if he found his research subject addictive.
"Well, it's meant to be addictive," he replied. "These things are very carefully designed to have addictive qualities, and that works just as well on me as on anyone else. In my case, it's just a matter of how much time I can afford to spend feeding that addiction."
Reamde isn't just about video games. It's also about hackers, Russian mobsters, Welsh and Central Asian terrorists, and well-armed American right-wing idealists—an unlikely set of players brought into contact with one another in chain of accidents set off by the titular Chinese-made computer virus, which is cleverly designed to take advantage of the monetary infrastructure of T'Rain.
And somehow in the midst of this woolly adventure plot, one of the most compelling things in the book is the squabbles of the two fantasy novelists who are in charge of T'Rain's backstory.
One of the novelists is a Cambridge professor who lives in a castle and has his emails translated into Jacobean-era English by his groupies. He is so thorough and detail oriented that he insists on writing all of his novels first in the invented languages the characters speak—and only then translates the works into English.
The other is a derivative American hack so inhumanly prolific that it's almost grotesque. He lives in a compound with a staff that includes, most importantly, an editor and an intellectual-property lawyer.
When I asked about these characters, Stephenson told me, "They're kind of like the angel and the devil that sit on my shoulder all day long. I've just taken them and put bodies on them and given them names."
I asked him if that meant he had the tendency to produce disturbing amounts of work, like his American hack, and he answered, "I think that's unfortunately pretty clear by this point."
But what is it about the extremely long novel that Stephenson likes? The generous length of his past six novels can't just be a matter of grotesque productivity.
"Obviously, we've got a lot of entertainment options now," Stephenson said. "And many of them cater to people who've got short attention spans, or who don't have a lot of time on their hands. As novelists, there's a couple of different strategies we can take when trying to compete. We can go with the flow, and try to create work that is very brief and caters to people who want a quick hit. Or we can play to the strengths of the novel, and in my view, one of the great strengths of the novel as a medium is that it enables us to tell stories with great scope and great depth."
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