The Ocean at the end of the lane

Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s Ocean

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is fantasy at its greatest.

All great fantasies are formed in response to experience. And often, the experience of trauma.

J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings takes us in to a fantasy world of elves and dragons, but it’s the depthless grief of a young man who experienced the first World War that gives the work its sombre magnificence. Tolkien signed up with twenty friends and was the only one to return from the trenches. He was a rare survivor of a lost generation, one that never truly recovered from the trauma of Passchendaele and the Somme, just as young Frodo Baggins never recovers from the trauma of carrying the One Ring to Mordor.

J G Ballard cast his fantasies in the language of science fiction, depicting one shattered urban landscape after another in novels from The Drowned World to Crash, Concrete Island and Highrise. But it was with the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1984 that Ballard’s fantasy life returned, with crystal clear insight, to reality. Ballard’s childhood was shattered by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in World War 2, his seperation for his parents and internment in a prisoner of war camp, from where he observed the swift collapse in to barbarity of the middle class English society he had grown up in. A collapse his novels recreated again and again in fantasy.

From Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and it’s satire on the crushing oppression of the British class system, to the orphaned children of Diana Wynne Jones that reflect their creator’s own turbulent childhood, great fantasy writing always has its roots in the real. And like Ballard, great fantasy writers are often at their best when they return to the reality that shaped them.

Fathers are very important in the writing of Neil Gaiman. The Sandman comics that catapulted Gaiman to cult status begin with a father inducting his son in to the mysteries of the occult, and a secret ritual to summon and entrap Morpheus of the Endless. Decades later Morpheus escapes, and the son is left trapped in endless dreams of waking. The unfolding story arc of The Sandman turns on Morpheus’ relationship with his own son, Orpheus. Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods, is adrift in the badlands of America when he is drawn in to the mystical plots of Mr Wednesday, soon revealed as the Norse god Odin, and then later as Shadow’s long absent father. Anansi Boys also features a young man attempting to come to terms with the legacy of a father who is also a god. It seems that time and again Gaiman’s fantasies return to the relationship of a son to a powerful, and often mystical, father figure.

The father in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is far from powerful or mystical. He is in fact quite ordinary and flawed. Neil Gaiman’s first novel for adults since Anansi Boys brings him closer than any other previous work to directly exploring the paternal relationship that has influenced so much of his writing. The directly autobiographical aspect pulls the story in a literary direction that, rightly or wrongly, his earlier fiction has not been recognised for. And it leaves the reader guessing, what in the novel is imagined, and what is the author’s true experience?

The novel’s narrator recounts a series of horrific events from a childhood spent in a large family house at the end of a long contry lane. The young boy’s life with sister, mother and father is mundane in its joys and tensions, until the suicide of the family’s lodger unleashes a series of supernatural manifestations. These are complicated by the Hempstocks, a neighboring family of grandmother, mother and daughter who have lived around those parts for raaaather a long time. Trinities of women are another of Neil Gaiman’s repeat motifs, but with the Hempstocks he grants them a far more central, and humane, identity than in previous manifestations. A hike in to a weird and alien environment ensues, and an ancient evil is unleashed.

The real horror in The Ocean at the End of the Lane arrives in the form of a young woman, Ursula Monkton. Employed as an au-pair for the boy and his sister, it is soon clear that Miss Monkton and her short skirts are not all they appear to be. But it is Ursula’s effect on the boy’s father that ushers in the true darkness at the heart of the book. For all its otherworldly fantasy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a simple and brutally told story of the trauma children face when confronted with the frailties of their own parents. The graphic sexuality and violence that errupt at key points in the story mean that, despite surface similarities to earlier children’s stories like Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a book for children. It is however a book that will resonate powerfully with anyone attempting to process the darker aspects of their own childhood. And in an age when childhood ends early, and often brutally, that makes it a book for almost everyone.

The narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as an older man looking back, recounts these events to us the reader in part as an attempt to understand them himself. The after effects of encounters with the supernatural, and of emotional trauma, are another central theme of Gaiman’s writing. The young Rose Walker, at the conclusion of The Doll’s House, retreats for months in to solitude to consider her encounter with both dreams and nightmares in the realm of Morpheus the Dream King. There is an aspect in all of Neil Gaiman’s fiction that is permanently at war with mundane reality and our experience of it. His early writing, on projects such as Miracleman and his collaborations with Dave McKean on Violent Cases, Signal to Noise and Mr Punch seem to step beyond fantasy and become active deconstructions of reality. The Ocean at the End of the Lane recaptures the conceptual energy of those earlier stories. Reason and common sense construct the narratives of our waking lives, but for the millions of readers drawn to Gaiman’s stories, the un-logic of dreams and fantasy are just as valid a way of understanding life, the universe, and everything.

Of all the writers creating literature today, Neil Gaiman is arguably the greatest at articulating that fantastical nature of reality. Inevitably, given the massive publicity surrounding its author and his this his latest work, some will ask if The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as a work of fantasy, can also be a work of literature. Increasingly, it is a question fading in to the oblivion of irrelevance. Like all great writers, Neil Gaiman is not constraining his vision to pre-definied notions of genre or literature. Instead, through his contribution to literature, he is redefining its boundaries to include our inner worlds of dreams and fantasy as esential ways of seeing our reality.

Continue the discussion of The Ocean at the End of the Lane with me on Twitter : @damiengwalter

Next Story — The 8 Tribes of Sci-Fi
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The 8 Tribes of Sci-Fi

Calling sci-fi a genre in 2016 is about as accurate as calling the United States one nation. In principle it’s true, but in practice things don’t work that way. While crime, romance and thrillers all remain as coherent genres of fiction, it’s been decades since sci-fi could be comfortably understood by any shared generic criteria. What do Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Seas trilogy, the fiction of Silva Moreno Garcia and the erotic sci-fi of Chuck Tingle actually have in common, beyond being nominated for major sci-fi book awards this year?

“from any objective perspective, YA is the mainstream of sci-fi today”

The answer is they all belong to one of the eight tribes of sci-fi. Call them communities, call them cultures, but don’t call them genres. These eight groupings of sci-fi writers and their fans cut across the commercial marketing categories defined by publishers, and are unified instead by shared values and interests. After talking about bookish tribes in my Guardian column recently, I thought it would be fun to pin down the tribes within sci-fi. As with any typology, overlaps and exceptions exist, but as a professional book reviewer trying to understand the complex landscape of sci-fi writing today, this is the territory I have charted.

Commercial Storytellers
As Hollywood has always known, stories that appeal to tens or hundreds of millions of people all look much alike. The commercial storytellers tell archetypal tales, with the tropes of sci-fi providing a mere stage setting. George R R Martin, Stephen King, J K Rowling, in fact almost all the authors who sell a shed-ton of books to the masses are storytellers first and foremost. These writers may scavenge ideas from various genres, but they always upscale them to tell human stories with universal human appeal.

Ninth tribe suggested by Paul Weimer. See update 1 below.

The Weirds
Most writers at some point play around with the effects that can be induced by engineering stories with internal inconsistencies, mashing together disparate metaphors, or simply being weird for weirds sake. The weirds take this as an end in itself. With China Mieville as their reigning king they were riding high for a while. However, with newer voices like Molly Tanzer’s Vermillion coming through, the American ‘bizarro fiction’ movement, and with authors including Joe Hill and Josh Mallerman rejuvenating the traditional horror genre, the Weirds are still among the most creatively interesting of the eight tribes.

Learn the 7 elements of great storytelling, join the Rhetoric of Story.

Hard Sciencers
There’s a near irreconcilable tension between the poetic values of literature, storytelling and novels, with the logic driven realms of science and technology. When Hard SF inhabits that tension, as it does in the novels of Kim Stanley Robison, and the best work of earlier masters like Robert A Heinlein, it produces some of the greatest writing of the the last century. But taken as a whole the Hard Sciencers slip easily into an ideological quest to prove science can stand alone without poetry, emotion, or human insight. From their pinnacle in the 1980s when authors like Larry Niven banged out bestseller after bestseller, the Hard Sciencers are now a dwindling minority even within areas they once dominated. But the recent success of The Martian and Gravity among other suggests that, when it remembers to tell great stories, there’s still a huge appetite for hard SF.

Military Conservatives
During it’s Golden Age sci-fi became deeply associated with the values of the American dream. As those values have unwound America’s conservatives have retreated to sci-fi as a safe space to indulge their nationalist military fantasies. Amazon’s Author Rank for science fiction is packed with military SF novels, most of them repeating the same themes of Earth under attack by aliens, through to full fledged survivalist “prepper” fantasies, most self published and appealing to a small but committed audience of Donald Trump supporting SF readers. Given their aggressive, paranoid tendencies it’s hardly surprising these fans are fighting an imaginary war against the other tribes of sci-fi by protesting the Hugo awards.

Progressive Fantasists
If you want to make the world a better place, you need a space to imagine what that place might look like. From George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, way back to Thomas More’s Utopia and even further, writers have fantasised about the possibilities of progress, both good and bad. But it was the New Wave movement of the 60s, including Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany, who began pushing the boundaries of progressive SF. The annual James Tiptree Jnr awards highlight much of the best these folks have to offer, including a recent win for Monica Byrne’s The Girl In The Road. With Charlie Jane Anders All The Birds In The Sky and Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper among a wave of recent titles presenting challenging visions and re-imaginings of our reality, progressive fantasy seems more and more like the future of sci-fi.

YA Adventurers
They say the golden age of sci-fi is 15, and by that measure young adult writers are the ones really inspiring sense of wonder in young readers today. Even putting aside big hitters like the Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent and the Maze Runner, YA is a rich field for fantastic literature. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Garth Nix’ Abhorsen series, Holly Black’s various faerie inspired tales…I could make a really really long list of great YA sci-fi all to make the point that, from any objective perspective, YA is the mainstream of scifi today. But even when YA has interesting things to say for itself, it tends to hold younger readers with archetypal adventure “coming of age” stories that, by their nature, become less interesting for older readers.

The LitFic Tourists
It’s a rare trick for a writer to be both widely read and critically acclaimed. When literary writers wander into scifi, the attempt to be both often ends up being neither. Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a huge book that sold for a hefty advance and has been duly marketed to hell and back by its publisher. But alongside its two equally huge sequels forms a vampire adventure story that suffers from being neither very scary nor particularly exciting. On the flip side the short stories of Kelly Link, which recently earned their author a place as a Pulitzer prize finalist, are sci-fi down to their genes but you could read them all and never know it. The crossover of literary and genre scifi produces some startlingly original books, but it also leads to some of the most ill conceived and downright dull chunks of wordage out there.

Sexy Beasts
Sometimes, people just want a guilt free alien wereleopard tentacle sex fantasy, and scifi is there to give it to them. Authors like Laurel K Hamilton, Charlaine Harris and of course E L James have made sexy vampire tales mainstream, but there’s a long history of raunchy, and sometimes sadly exploitative, sex fantasy in sci-fi. John Norman’s Gor novels amounted to little more than misogynistic S&M fantasies, but similar themes get more sophisticated treatment in Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy fantasy series and elsewhere. Add in the staggering popularity of dinosaur erotica and the kind of sci-fi themed smut that gave the world Space Raptor Butt Invasion, and it’s clear that no understanding of scifi today is complete without the sexy beasts.

UPDATE 1: the most excellent Paul Weimer suggests a 9th tribe, and it makes a whole lot of sense. The 9 tribes of scifi? I like it. Paul’s thinking is as follows:

The tribe I think you missed is what could be glibly called The Worldbuilders. Worldbuilders have been under stress lately, as what makes a realistic world and what doesn’t has been riven with internal strife over the roles of women and POC on the fantasy side of fantasy. But Worldbuilders, both fantasy and SF flavors, are the kind of people who see a 800 page epic fantasy or SF novel with a rich and detailed world, and dive right into it, seeking deep immersion with a world and its characters. Maps. glossaries and appendices for these books are features, not bugs. Readers of stuff ranging from Kate Elliott to Brandon Sanderson to Peter F Hamilton and James S A Corey.

UPDATE 2: some folks think Military SF has been poorly treated here. Once again THESE ARE NOT GENRES OR SUB-GENRES. Hence calling them tribes. Military SF is written and read by a number of these tribes. The Military Conservatives often pose as though they own that genre, and they certainly fill it with plenty of…interesting…books.

Next Story — Is watching Star Wars a religious experience?
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Is watching Star Wars a religious experience?

Star Wars : The Force Awakens continues a tradition of spiritual storytelling that has existed for thousands of years.

Damien Walter writes the Weird Things column for The Guardian. If you enjoy reading this essay, please consider becoming a patron.

A week out from the premiere of Star Wars : The Force Awakens and there is barely a word to describe the public excitement preceding the event. At a nearby cinema a dedicated big screen plays the latest trailer on infinite repeat. There are never less than a score of people watching the loop. As new clips hit the internet they go viral instantly, gathering up to seventy million views in a matter of hours. A recent news story revealed that a young man dying of cancer was allowed an exclusive showing of the new movie, and died five days later, his final mortal wish fulfilled.

I would call it hype, but suggesting that this level of global excitement is purely a construct of Hollywood scale marketing budgets denies the simple fact that hundreds of millions of people, of all kinds of backgrounds, are rapturous in expectation of a new Star Wars movie. It’s been this way since Disney bought the entire Star Wars franchise from its creator George Lucas — for the staggering sum of $4.05 billion — and announced a slate of seven new films, the first to be directed by none other than geek icon JJ Abrams. The stars seemed aligned for a resurrection of the Star Wars story.

I’m happy to concede that I stand near the epicentre of a cultural phenomenon that might seem less significant from outside the blast radius. I write the only dedicated national newspaper column on scifi and geek culture for The Guardian. I spend a lot of time reading, watching and commenting on things like Star Wars. I’m a 38 year old white Anglo male, which means I was born in the year Star Wars: A New Hope premiered. I have, quite literally, grown-up with the characters of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Darth Vader.

A magic carpet for a future prince.

But as much as my cultural identity is inextricably intertwined with Star Wars, I’m not a Star Wars fan. I’ve never longed to wield a lightsaber, I don’t own a collection of still-in-their packaging first edition action figurines, nor do I revert to the psychological state of an eight year old when the Millennium Falcon zooms into hyperdrive. I find myself interested less in a new Star Wars film itself, than I am in the question of why the people who are excited about Star Wars, are quite as excited as they are.

One clue comes in the form of a recent interview with The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams. Discussing the nature of the Force, the source of Luke Skywalker’s powers in the Star Wars films, Abrams reveals that he always saw this central element of the stories as something more than the inherited genetic condition later Star Wars “prequels” clearly reduce it to. In Abram’s own words, “Star Wars was never about science fiction — it was a spiritual story”.

That’s a tough word in contemporary culture — spiritual. Not many people agree on what it means, and while many find it compelling, many others are equally repulsed by it. Is Star Wars a spiritual story? There’s certainly a religious quality to the ritual of sitting in a darkened auditorium, gazing up a flickering light display in which we see the shades of unreal men and women. I think most fans of Star Wars would deny it. And yet here we are, fascinated not just by Star Wars, but by hundreds and thousands of spiritual stories.

And not for the first time.

A timeless classic.

Come back with me almost 3000 years to the part of the world now called North India. At this time the plains that stretch from the river Ganges and the ancient city of Varanasi, to the high mountains of the Himalayas and the kingdoms of Kashmir and Nepal, were home to one of the wealthiest civilisations on the earth. Rich farmlands and new agricultural techniques made for an abundant society, which in turn gave people more time for enjoyment, and in particular, for stories.

Katha evolved as the traditional Indian storytelling form. A professional storyteller called a Kathavachak recounts an epic tale, in a mixture of verse and prose, often with singing, dancing and other arts in support. Kathas are long, often told over many episodes at different sittings. Kathavachaks were people of very high status, in great demand at royal courts and the households of the wealthy, who would host a Katha as a sign of of their power and status. Katha were the cinema and the DVD box set of their day, telling hugely popular stories that have become central to Indian culture.

The Ramayana, which translated from Sanskrit means roughly, “Rama’s Journey”, is one of the very oldest and most famous Indian epics. The young prince Rama loses first his kingdom and then his wife, Sita, and must complete an epic quest to recover both. Along the path he gathers many new friends, including the monkey god Hanuman, and defeats a number of villains including the dark lord Ravana and his son Indrajit. Once the quest is completed Rama reforms his new kingdom to become an ideal state, with himself as an ideal king.

2400 years after it was first transcribed, the Ramayana became one of many influences on Star Wars. The influence of Jospeph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces on George Lucas and the writing of Star Wars is widely documented. Campbell’s insight was simple — stories from many different cultures and points in history all share archetypal elements. This idea in turn inspired Lucas to borrow many elements from ancient stories like The Ramayana. Both stories contain the same archetypal characters, a young hero-price in Rama / Luke, a virtuous princess who must be rescued in Sita / Leia, a morally ambiguous but loyal friend in Hanuman / Han Solo, and a master and servant of evil in Ravana / The Emperor and Indrajit / Darth Vader. Both stories are set in a fairy tale time long before the time of their audience, in the Ramayana the Treta Yuga of Hindu cosmology, in Star Wars a faraway galaxy, a symbol drawn from modern scientific cosmology.

While they no doubt served to entertain their audience, stories like the Ramayana and others told as Katha had a far greater significance in early Hindu culture. Vedic Hinduism sees the universe as one big story, or perhaps as an infinite collection of stories, all being dreamed by the Atman, the unifying spirit of the universe, who with its many arms and many masks, plays out every part in the drama of reality. Storytelling was an important and powerful part of ancient Hindu culture because it allowed the audience to escape the mask of their own role, and free the Atman within them to play out another role for a time. In a quite literal way, Hindu stories like the Ramayana are told to help you become someone else.

Woven into the telling of a sacred story like the Ramayana are important spiritual lessons that audiences would learn by playing them out as part of Rama’s journey. For instance, Rama’s heroic powers in the story all come because he is an avatar of the god Vishnu. The audience, by following Rama’s journey, are experiencing what it means to be a true devotee of the divine. The promise of the Ramayana was that it would in this way help those who watched it achieve spiritual liberation, the ultimate goal of Hindu practice. Hollywood marketing departments are ambitious, but even they don’t promise that watching Star Wars will take you to heaven!

But throughout human history, stories have been intricately bound up with our spiritual and religious lives. Many of the texts collected in the Bible, like the creation myths of Genesis, were written as stories long before they were coopted into Christianity. The story of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha is central to Buddhism, but there are hundreds of versions, including the Jataka tales of Buddha’s other lives. These were among the stories studied by Joseph Campbell, and through him it’s not unreasonable to suspect that Star Wars absorbed a variety of religious meanings.

And yet even as we’re gaping awe struck at the spectacle of The Force Awakens, I still doubt many of us will believe we’re in the cinema for anything more than a few hours distraction from mundane life, rather than for some quasi-spiritual experience.

The best definition of spiritual I’ve encountered is summarised in the sentence:

“They broke her spirit.”

Most people with empathy feel a dread on reading those words. Who are they? A terrible boss? An abusive husband? The Nazis? Some potent infectious disease? A doomed love affair? What is this thing called a spirit, and how can it be broken? With a little luck you’ve experienced the joy of living with a strong spirit. And if you’ve lived any length of time, no doubt you’ve also felt at least the shades if not the deep shadowlands of what it is to have your spirit broken. If so, then I hope you’ve also learned what it is to have your spirit healed, which is, as best I can communicate it, what this essay is really about.

The first Star Wars movie is called A New Hope with good reason. Think of all the broken spirits we meet in that story. Obi Wan “Ben” Kenobi, a broken old man in the desert after seeing all he believed in destroyed. Han Solo, on the run from gangsters and from his own better self. Princess Leia, her entire planet destroyed by the evil empire. Darth Vader, a once great hero, his will overpowered and his shattered body trapped in a machine. All broken spirited, and all doomed to worse yet should the powers that broke them triumph. Doomed, that is, until Luke enters their story.

Luke is the new hope of the title. It’s Luke who rouses Ben Kenobi to finish what he started. It’s Luke who rescues Leia. It’s Luke who gives Han a cause to fight for, and ultimately resurrects the spirit of Anakin Skywalker. Star Wars is such a powerful story because every beat of the movie shows us another step in each character’s story of recovering, and the healing of their spirit. Luke represents something — call it hope, call it heroism, call it whatever, we know it when we feel it — that sleeps within all of us. And when we see it on the silver screen, we feel the deep longing for it and we remember the times it has aided us.

If that isn’t a religious experience, I don’t know what is.

Is it possible we deny our spiritual attraction to Star Wars because it points ut some painful truths in our real lives? We live in a material culture that has, in many ways, made our lives more comfortable. Like the people of Northern India millennia ago, we find ourselves with time on our hands to watch great stories. But even well fed, richly clothed, and clutching our iPhones, the challenge of keeping our spirit intact is really no easier than ever. We still get sick, get old, and eventually, die. We still encounter violence and oppression. We still lose the people we love. We still need hope, and a reminder of the hero within, be it Rama or Luke, to help us on our journey.


The Masks of God

The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell, the epic four part history of world religion and its intricate relationship with myth and storytelling.

Read more about creative mythology.

Next Story — The awesome power of science fiction’s alien megastructures
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Dyson Sphere.

The awesome power of science fiction’s alien megastructures

The imaginary constructions of science fiction fill us with awe at their alien vastness. Which have you explored, and what was the most overwhelming?

Sci-fi fans call it “sensawunda”, that awe and amazement that the best science fiction stories can inspire in us. The entire world felt it recently when scientists declared that observations of a distant star might have revealed an alien megastructure. Did inhabitants of the KIC 8462852 star system encase their sun in solar panels to harvest energy? Or was this our generation’s canals on Mars moment? The sensawunda effect is so powerful that, even with scant real evidence, we are swept into believing.

Read more @ Guardian Books.

Next Story — The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview
Currently Reading - The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview

The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview

“I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird.”
~ Neal Stephenson.

IN LATE 2013 I had the opportunity to interview the author Neal Stephenson. Some Remarks, Stephenson’s collected non-fiction writing, was due for release in the UK and I was fascinated to talk to the author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon about his wider views of science, technology and contemporary culture. It happened that the interview came just at the time that CLANG, the innovative sword fighting game that Neal had championed to successful Kickstarter funding, hit a few kinks in its development. Our interview took a few twists and turns, but came out full of interesting insights in to the author’s thoughts and creative development. But, as sometimes happens with interviews, our discussion didn’t quite match the focus the commissioning technology publication had been looking for. And so, after some consideration, I’ve rescued the interview from editorial limbo to publish here in full. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Damien Walter, 2014

If you enjoy this interview you can help support my regular column on Geek Culture here.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

DW — Your non-fiction writing collected in Some Remarks displays the same fascination with technology and social change as your novels, I think that’s fair to say? Where did this fascination begin?

NS — One of the items in Some Remarks is a foreword to the posthumous re-issue of David Foster Wallace’s book Everything and More, in which I try to make the case that DFW’s work is informed by a particular sensibility peculiar to what I call the Midwestern American College Town, or MACT. I won’t try to recapitulate that argument here, but the gist of it is that I grew up in an environment that seemed utterly normal at the time and that in retrospect was almost unbelievably weird. I suppose we all have such insights when we move away from the place of our upbringing. My ancestors had been ministers, professors — or ministers and professors — for several generations back. That’s in the paternal line. On the maternal side, they were reasonably well-to-do farmers with a direct and recent connection to Geraldine Jewsbury, a very complicated Victorian author. By the way, I didn’t know about any of that when I was young, I only became aware of it in my twenties and thirties. But one assumes it has an effect.

Anyway, during the 20th century they all made a turn toward science and technology and so I ended up with a lot of academic scientists and engineers in my family. I grew up in a MACT, dominated by a university of science and technology, wherein our neighbors, the people we saw at church, the parents of my friends, etc. all tended to have (or to be studying for) Ph.Ds. Some of my friends’ fathers had worked on the Manhattan Project, and as a teenager I worked summers as a research assistant in an old Manhattan Project lab. I developed a fairly typical nerdy fascination with computers and programming, which showed up in my fiction, particularly Snow Crash; and when that book became popular among high tech people, I ended up knowing many such.

DW — How did this upbringing contribute to your talent for seeing the “big picture” of technology?

NS — To the extent that I have any talent for it, it presumably arises from the fact that I never recognized any meaningful division or conflict between science and technology on the one hand, and any other aspect of culture (literature, religion) on the other. The typical MACT is too small to allow for specialization, and so if the professors are going to have cultural events they must organize them themselves, rather than delegating the work to a separate cultural elite. Again, all of this was simply the air I breathed, and I didn’t become conscious of it until later in life.

DW — The MACT sounds like much the kind of place where many young science fiction fans came of age. Today scifi and “geek culture” are arguably the new mainstream culture of the internet connected generation. How do you rate its influence on your work?

NS — Re scifi/geek culture, this is something that I grew up with, just as a historical accident. I can still remember seeing The Hobbit for the first time, in the hands of an older boy at my school when I was in the sixth grade. This was at about the same time that I was obsessing over the original Star Trek series and watching Astro Boy cartoons. Today, of course, we would identify all of these as being touchstones of geek culture, but at the time, nothing of the sort had even been imagined. So I was left with a fascination for these strange found objects on the periphery of our culture. I could say similar things about D & D and even Star Wars. People who were fans of one of these things tended to be fans of the others, and so geek culture evolved, I think, out of a lot of random encounters in dorm rooms and subway cars, and began to snowball as the geeks got better at networking.

“when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise”

When the Internet came along and made networking easy, the whole phenomenon just exploded and has now become a dominant force in our culture. I never partook of it as heavily as some others, in the sense that I didn’t go to SF cons, have never visited Comicon, and haven’t really been involved in the relevant Internet discussion groups. Consequently, when Snow Crash popped up on the radar of geek culture and became a popular book, it took me by surprise, and in fact I wasn’t really aware that anything had happened until people began to reach me via the then-new medium of email and to address me as if I were some kind of significant person.

Its main influence on my work has been that I have felt confident that I need not keep writing the same book over and over again. I have tried to make each book different from the last. I’ve always felt confident that this would work, which is to say, that the community of readers would accept this sort of random-walk approach, and so far I have never been disappointed. From time to time I will hear from a reader who is startled by the fact that my latest book isn’t very much like the one previous, but those people seem to be outnumbered by the ones who don’t care at all, supposing they even notice.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

DW — In your 2011 essay Innovation Starvation you question if we still have the capacity to get big things done, citing the kind of technological innovation that went in to the Apollo programme. Have we lost our faith in technology to bring progress, or is there good reason to retreat from the disruption that comes with it?

NS — The particular events that set me off were the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Fukushima, both of which were examples of what I would consider old technologies that became ensconced within our system and took on permanence wildly in excess of their technical merits. The Fukushima reactors are technology from the 1960s, constructed in the 1970s. Look under the hood of a 1960s automobile, if you can find one that is still running, and compare it to a new Tesla, or even a Buick, and you can get a sense (as if you needed one) of how crazy it is to have a plant of that vintage under the control of a bureacracy as catatonic as Tepco.

“So yeah, we’ve definitely lost our faith in technology to bring progress.”

So, I would consider the state of the nuclear power industry to be a case in which an early, faulty embodiment of a new technology was pushed out into the market, leading to a quite understandable backlash from the general public as most people discarded their rose-colored glasses and created barriers to adoption of new tech. The two main barriers that were created were legal/regulatory, and cultural. I won’t elaborate on the former.

The cultural barrier is somewhat more in my bailiwick, and I’ll talk about it in a moment, but the point is that these barriers were set up too late to solve the problems that inspired their creation, and so they had the unintended consequence of locking in all of the bad stuff that had come before–grandfathering it into place, in effect–while making it impossible to build newer and better stuff. So Fukushima and many other reactors of that vintage are still there, while people trying to construct modern replacements for them can’t make headway. Even wind turbines and solar farms are difficult to build because of regulatory barriers that were put into place to control much more baleful technologies.

A lot could be said about the cultural barriers, but maybe the most succinct thing I can say is that I was browsing on my Apple TV the other day, looking for a movie to watch, and was confronted with an entire category of films labeled “Dystopian Futures.” I am old enough to remember when some of the very first dystopian SF movies came out. They wouldn’t have been called that at the time, other than by film critics writing for an elite audience. At the time it was refreshing, and extremely hip, to see depictions of futures that were not as clean and simple as Star Trek. Now, the dystopian future is the only future that is allowed to be presented in new SF films and television, and it has become so ubiquitous, and so tired, that Apple TV is deploying it as a mass marketing term right up there with “Romantic Comedies” and “Superheroes.” So yeah, we’ve definitely lost our faith in technology to bring progress.

Is there “good reason to retreat from the disruption?” Well, there’s a buried premise in the question I don’t agree with. The presumption is that the world is static–and basically hospitable–until we do something and thereby disrupt it. Which I don’t agree with at all. We live in an environment almost all aspects of which were engineered by our ancestors. The continents of Australia and the Americas, when discovered by Europeans, had been made over by systematic hunting, burning and gardening over tens of thousands of years, and didn’t exist in anything like a pristine state of nature. We live, and have always lived, in a completely manufactured environment. All we’re left with is the ability to choose between different technological strategies. It’s incoherent to point at one thing and call it a technology in contradistinction to the [implicitly non-technological] status quo ante.

Other things being equal, and speaking very broadly, newer tech tends to work better than older, which is why Apple keeps getting us to buy the latest and greatest iPhone. So, at the mass-market consumer level, we have a strange state of affairs in which people are eager to vote with their dollars, pounds and Euros for the latest tech but they flock to movies depicting a relentlessly depressing view of the future, and resist any tech deployed on a large scale, in a centralized way, such as wind turbine farms.

DW — We seem to have a lot of these negative cultural narratives about technology — the apocalypse of course, environmental collapse, but also the most negative assessment of our economic situation, that capitalism has reached its end game and technology won’t power it any further. Do we face a hard limit on our current development? What comes next?

NS — It is worth pointing out that the narratives are just that: narratives. We should begin by asking ourselves where those narratives come from and why they are that way; there’s no prima facie evidence that they have any connection whatsoever to how the future’s actually going to play out. Except, of course, insofar as they might make people so discouraged and skeptical that they become self-fulfilling prophecies.

For practical purposes, the only narratives that matter are the ones we see on screens in video games, TV series, and movies (much as I would like to believe in the power of the written word to sway the imagination, it just doesn’t have the same ability to swerve the zeitgeist as the screen-based media).

In the budget of a video game or a movie, writing is a very small wedge of the pie. The money all goes into other wedges. In both games and movies the production of visuals is very expensive, and the people responsible for creating those visuals hold sway in proportion to their share of the budget.

I hope I won’t come off as unduly cynical if I say that such people (or, barring that, their paymasters) are looking for the biggest possible bang for the buck. And it is much easier and cheaper to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth. That’s why New York keeps getting destroyed in movies: it’s relatively easy to take an iconic structure like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and knock it over than it is to design a future environment from scratch. A few weeks ago I think I actually groaned out loud when I was watching OBLIVION and saw the wrecked Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground. The same movie makes repeated use of a degraded version of the Empire State Building’s observation deck. If you view that in strictly economic terms–which is how studio executives think–this is an example of leveraging a set of expensive and carefully thought-out design decisions that were made in 1930 by the ESB’s architects and using them to create a compelling visual environment, for minimal budget, of a future world.

“…entertainment executives basically don’t care about narrative at all.”

As a counter-example, you might look at AVATAR, in which they actually did go to the trouble of creating a new planet from whole cloth. This was far more creative and visually interesting than putting dirt on the Empire State Building, but it was also quite expensive, and it was a project that very few people are capable of attempting. Only James Cameron has the clout to combine such a large budget with so much creative independence; he was able to turn Rick Carter loose on the design and create magic. But in basically every other movie, game, and TV show, the creators of the visual environment are caught in a trap where their work is expensive enough to draw scrutiny from executives who are, by and large, unwilling to take chances on anything new, and will always steer in the direction of something that is cheaper to produce and that they have seen before. And this ends up being the degraded near-future environment seen in so many dystopian movies.

That environment also works well with movie stars, who make a fine impression in those surroundings and the inevitable plot complications that arise from them. Again, the AVATAR counter-example is instructive. The world was so fascinating and vivid that it tended to draw attention away from the stars.

Compared to all of these considerations, the things that matter to literary people (character and story) are entirely secondary and are generally pasted on as an afterthought. So, what you are characterizing as “negative cultural narratives about technology” are, in my view, just an epiphenomenon of decisions made by entertainment executives who basically don’t care about narrative at all. Taking those narratives seriously is kind of like looking at a Rolls-Royce and assuming that it is made entirely out of a giant block of paint.

The “hard limit” and “what comes next?” parts of your question are where you ask me to be way more oracular than I’m comfortable attempting. There are plenty of people with money and vision who would like to build a future more interesting than “Empire State Building covered with dirt” and I don’t really see any reason in principle why this couldn’t happen. To me it seems to be largely about institutions and whether they are capable of adapting. It is easy to fall into a trap where existing institutions are productive enough to funnel money to vested interests who’d rather keep milking them in their current form than take a risk on transforming them.

DW — I want to ask about some of the revelations in recent weeks about privacy. The NSA’s Prism programme and Palantir being employed by government and major corporations has made people wonder just what else is out there that we don’t know about. The early promise of the internet seemed to be greater liberty, but as the technologies have evolved they appear to be concentrating immense power in a few hands. Which direction do you think we are heading in, and what should we be doing to effect the course of these technologies?

NS — I don’t claim to be an expert on this sort of thing, if indeed I ever was–it has been a long time since I wrote Cryptonomicon. But just on general principles, what impresses me is how easily leaked this information is. That’s not to understate the difficulties Edward Snowden is facing, but the fact is that the NSA is going to find it quite difficult to keep a lid on such activities. Much of the shock and dudgeon expressed over what Snowden revealed seems disingenuous to me. Every techno-thriller movie and TV show that I have watched in the last twenty years has assumed that the intelligence agencies had all of these surveillance capabilities and much more. And there was much indignation in the US about the FBI’s failure to predict the Boston Marathon bombings. One can’t be indignant about all of these things at once. Deep layers of cant must be scraped off of this discourse before we can even begin talking about it in any useful way.

DW — As we’ve been conducting this interview Elon Musk — who seems to me a little like a flesh and blood Tony Stark — announced his Hyperloop project. It raises the obvious question, why haven’t we already done this?

NS — According to a widespread meme that is not devoid of truth the track gauge used by modern railroads is derived from that used by horse-drawn vehicles, such as Roman chariots.

A similar point can be made about petroleum-based fuel. This had its origins in the practice of sailing around the ocean hurling pointed sticks at sperm whales and boiling their heads to make lamp fuel. When we ran out of whales, kerosene was developed as a synthetic whale oil substitute. One thing led to another and we ended up with the modern petroleum industry.

“I would urge people to consider the Hyperloop not only as a technical proposal but (…) as a question that we need to address as a technological society.”

It is a bit facile to talk this way, since there are many technical reasons why petroleum makes an excellent fuel, but it does help to illustrate the idea of technological lock-in.

Now let us consider the problem of moving humans quickly, safely, and cheaply between LA and San Francisco. The proposal least likely to get anyone fired, or publicly mocked, is to take existing rail technology and make it a little faster, and so that is the sort of plan that tends to make headway.

Elon Musk is simply pointing out that this isn’t the best way of doing it. To that point, it’s a strictly technological argument. But he’s implicitly making a more interesting point, which is that two cities such as LA and San Francisco ought to be capable of doing much, much better than that. He’s asking what happened to us as a civilization that we are unwilling to even think about doing something that is quite doable on a technical level but sufficiently different from existing technology as to pose a serious challenge to engineers, regulators, financiers, and insurers. His Hyperloop proposal is almost a kind of performance art, in that sense.

I would urge people to consider the Hyperloop not only as a technical proposal but in the way that I think Elon Musk actually intended it: as a question that we need to address as a technological society. Even if your answer is “I’m fine with Victorian railway technology, thank you very much” it’s worth musing over.

The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson

DW — The “proposal least likely to get someone fired” works as a good shorthand for many of the systematic problems that get in the way of new technology. Crowdfunding has surged forward arguably because it provides a route around some of those problems. Is this ushering in a more creative era for tech, or are there limitations to consider? Also, why sword-fighting?

NS — Crowdfunding is a thrilling development. It’s useful to keep some of its limitations in mind. There is a fairly hard upper bound on how much it’s possible to raise that way–somewhere in the low seven digits for extraordinarily successful campaigns. No one is going to build a Hyperloop with that. Preparing and running a large campaign is a full-time job for at least one person. Even if such people aren’t being paid, you have to, in some sense, subtract their their opportunity cost from the amount raised, and also factor in taxes and the cost of shipping out the donor rewards.

Once you have accepted donors’ money to do a particular thing, you actually have to do that thing, and not some other thing you thought of in the meantime. This is fine if the objective is, say, to make a film or construct a house (i.e. some project with a well-defined objective that is unlikely to evolve in the making) but if the objective is to undertake some sort of business enterprise, it can lead to a certain loss of flexibility. Most businesses adapt continuously as circumstances change. But it would be difficult to launch a Kickstarter around the premise of “here’s a team of smart people who want to do something that we’ll largely make up as we go along” because Kickstarter is oriented toward clearly definable, specific goals.

This isn’t meant to be discouraging, I’m just pointing out that, for many types of projects, it is not a replacement for a motivated, visionary investor.

In spite of this, some people go the Kickstarter route anyway just because it is a fine way to get attention for one’s project and build up a community around it. Presumably that is why Richard Garriott used Kickstarter to fund his game Shroud of the Avatar.

Typically there is an awkward gap between the size of project easily fundable by crowdsourcing, and one large enough to attract VCs. Some efforts are underway to fill that gap with Kickstarter-like schemes that actually reward contributors with equity, but this is very difficult because of complexities entailed in securities regulation.

Why swordfighting? Because I enjoy it enough to keep pursuing it, which is not true of any other sport activity I have ever tried, and so it keeps me physically active. In the end, the only real justification for any sport is to improve health by inducing one to get up and move around in a way that isn’t strictly necessary in modern technological society. I hate to reduce it to such arid terms, because in the case of swordfighting there is so much that I could say in a historical and romantic vein, but that really is the bottom line.

Originally published at on May 7, 2014.

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