Techno wizard also pens best-selling science fiction

by Brier Dudley

The Seattle Times (MCT)

12 September 2008


SEATTLE - If you saw Neal Stephenson on the street, you might think he’s just another geeky Seattle guy with a particularly impressive goatee.

He blends right into this town of musicians, computer scientists and creative types - so well that you might never guess he’s a best-selling science-fiction author whose prescience, technical acumen and storytelling have made him into a guru to the techno-intellectual caste.

Writing with a fountain pen in the basement of his home, Stephenson produces mind-blowing, thousand-page novels, usually centered on humble, good-hearted intellectuals caught in storms of technological, social and historical change.

Academics have compared Stephenson with Thomas Pynchon and William Gibson, although his new book that came out Sept. 9, “Anathem,” adds JK Rowling and Isaac Asimov to the mix.

“In a way, it’s like Harry Potter for grown-ups,” said Stephenson’s friend George Dyson, a Bellingham, Wash., scientific historian, author and kayak builder.

Yet, Stephenson is more than an author. He’s a jack of all trades contributing to some of the Seattle area’s most secretive and intriguing high-tech ventures, where he works part time, after his morning writing sessions.

That is, when he’s not practicing sword fighting or making armor in his underground machine shop, like Iron Man with fewer gadgets.

“He’s mild-mannered, as long as he doesn’t have a sword in his hand,” said another friend, composer and ex-Microsoft engineer David Stutz.

Lately, Stephenson’s been part of the team of inventors at Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash., idea factory started by ex-Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold, with backing from Bill Gates and others.

Before that, Stephenson spent seven years helping Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos start Blue Origin, a commercial spaceflight company in Kent, Wash.

“He’s always thinking about lots of things - he’s a pollinator, he brings ideas to the table,” Stutz explained.

Tech companies still refer to Stephenson’s 1991 novel “Snow Crash,” a thriller that popularized the concepts of virtual worlds and avatars.

Retired Microsoft executive Linda Stone said the book was required reading for her team when she started Microsoft Research’s virtual worlds group in 1994. Stone invited Stephenson to speak on campus and introduced him to computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists.

“There have been many inspiring science-fiction writers, but each has a unique thing to offer,” Stone said. “Neal is absolutely, profoundly inspiring.”

Stephenson’s recent books went back in time. He traced the genesis of computing and cryptography in the 1999 hit “Cryptonomicon.” Then he tackled the dawn of economics and globalization in the epic, three-volume “Baroque Cycle” that was finished in 2004.

“Anathem” looks into the future, while exploring philosophy, religion and social change. It’s set on a planet called Arbre and reflects Stephenson’s concerns about anti-intellectualism.

“It’s meant to be a good yarn and a story that you can dive into on its own merits. But if you want to go all interpret-y on me, there are clearly some connections between that world and the world we’re living in now,” Stephenson said, sporting a Leatherman tool in a belt holster and a formidable-looking knife handle sticking out of his jeans pocket.

“I don’t want to just sit here and rattle them all off, and beat people over the head with them, because that makes for a bad relationship between author and reader, but I think anyone who looks at it can see the points of similarity.”

A few physical similarities are obvious. It begins in a monastery that maintains a fantastic clock providing continuity through the ages. This machine was inspired by a clock that the Long Now Foundation, made up of San Francisco philosophical techies, is building to run for 10,000 years - a monument to “long-term thinking.”

When he started writing “Anathem,” Stephenson would attend concerts of renaissance and medieval chorus music by Stutz at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

“There’s something about St. Mark’s - it fits perfectly with the story of ‘Anathem’ because it’s ancient and modern at the same time,” Stephenson said.

“It has the general shape and style of a medieval church, but you get inside and you can see that the walls are poured concrete and the altarpiece is kind of a high-tech thing.

“I don’t know the right way to describe it, but it’s exactly the right mix - that, combined with the music, just got me in the right frame of mind to work on the book.”

Stutz created music appropriate to its setting, exploring “whether there would be liturgies that treated scientific truths and mathematics and philosophy as things to be revered or things to be celebrated,” he said.

The CD goes on sale this month, and Stutz will donate profits to the Long Now Foundation.

Stutz thinks “Anathem” is one of Stephenson’s best books. “It’s a great combination of big, big ideas and rollicking plot - how can you go wrong with that?”

Stephenson describes his special blend a little differently.

“There’s veg-out novels, and there’s geek-out novels,” he said. “I’m tending to write geek-out novels, although I try to put some fun stuff into them, too, so you can enjoy a little bit of vegging out between the geeky parts.”

So, what will be the lasting effect of Stephenson’s work?

“It’s hard to tell,” said Jon Lewis, an English professor at University of North Carolina, at Pembroke, who teaches Stephenson’s work in classes and published a collection of academic essays, “Tomorrow Through the Past: Neal Stephenson and the Project of Global Modernization.”

“The quality of the work is there that he’ll last and appeal to a variety of different disciplines - certainly people who are interested in artificial intelligence, computer science, cryptography - they’re interested in what Neal has to say about different subjects.”

It seems natural that Stephenson’s books would emerge from Seattle, a place where people build operating systems and airplanes, then relax by going to Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Those projects require commitment and focus, with a big payoff for those who persevere.

Stephenson, 48, was born in Maryland and raised in Iowa, where his mother was a biochemistry researcher and his father taught electrical engineering. The family had roots in the Northwest - his grandfather taught physics at Washington State University - and every summer they’d drive west for a month-long vacation in the area.

He studied physics and geography at Boston University and moved to Seattle for a few years in 1984, while his wife did her medical residency, then moved here permanently in 1991.

Tinkering came naturally to a guy raised in farm country, in a house with a workshop and with a father who built the family’s TV and electronic equipment from Heathkits. He started programming in college and still dabbles, using Mathematica software on a Mac.

“Farmers, of course, can build or fix anything,” he said.

Stephenson is not sure he has the same level of skill, but he’s sure it stirred his interest.

Friends, like Stone, were less understated.

“He’s a builder, he’s a creator, he’s part engineer, part scientist and he has this splendid imagination,” she said, adding that “there are a lot of wonderful people in the world, and even among them Neal is rare and special.”

And she hasn’t read “Anathem” yet.

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