(Wired Interview) For the prince of hacker fiction, looking backwards is another way of seeing the future. Neal Stephenson has always been fascinated by history. Cryptonomicon explored the science of secrets during World War II, and The Diamond Age riffed on Victorian sensibilities. Now he’s looking backward even further. He spent the last seven years immersed in the 17th century, working on a three-book series set during the scientific revolution.
Certainly, The Baroque Cycle has scope: The ancestors of Cryptonomicon characters cross paths with Isaac Newton and his peers against a backdrop of several continents, a couple of wars, and one fundamental change in the way humans view the world. In the context of the 1600s, Stephenson examines the nature of money, the interdependency of Europe, and the consequences of transformative scientific advances. The writing schedule is ambitious, too: The first book, Quicksilver, is out this month, and the next two will follow at six-month intervals. Stephenson took the time to tell Wired why, if you’re a hacker, the 17th century was the place to be.
WIRED: What made you decide to write about the 17th century?
STEPHENSON: Cryptonomicon is explicitly a historical novel – half of it is set during World War II. The work I did in that book about the history of computing gave me the sense that there was more to be done in that vein. Around that time, someone mentioned to me that Newton had spent the last 30 years of his life running the British mint, and that interested me because Cryptonomicon had a lot to do with the nature of money. The fact that it all happens around the time of the scientific revolution makes it that much richer.
Some people would say that something of comparable magnitude just happened in Silicon Valley. Do you see any parallels?
During the information revolution, it became possible for those with an engineering mentality to control large amounts of capital. So people who, if they’d been born a generation or two earlier, would’ve ended up sitting in a little office at IBM pushing a T-square around ended up becoming captains of industry. From that point of view, it seems like there’s been this revolutionary change that’s occurred within our lifetimes, but there are precedents. The power of engineers and scientists waxes and wanes. In the ’90s, we went through a period when that influence became very large, but those times may be over, at least for a little while.
The heroes in your books are often hackers. Did you see the roots of that mentality in Newton and his contemporaries in the Royal Society?
Yeah. Something happened where a bunch of these people found each other, and they just seemed to do everything within 20 or 30 years. They did it all. It must have been a remarkable time to be alive. If you have a scientific or hackerish personality, I can’t imagine anything better than being there for one of those Royal Society meetings.
Newton is such an enigmatic figure. Richard S. Westfall, his biographer, wrote that only another Newton could really hope to understand him.
He was so far in front of everyone else at the time that they didn’t quite know what to make of him. Even today, professional mathematicians are still in awe of things he did. It was a losing proposition for me to pretend that I could get inside his head, so I didn’t try.
A decade after Snow Crash, how do you feel when people still refer to you as cyberpunk?
Oh, it’s a great label. You get to wear black leather jackets and mirrored shades and be hip and cool as long as cyberpunk is hip and cool. But I think I’ve been recategorized as post-cyberpunk, so that’s over.
Is cyberpunk over?
The best I can muster is that for a while, information technology was incredibly important, yet it had been ignored or gotten wrong by science fiction. There was this vast terrain of virgin territory, and there was a land rush. Now the revolutionary nature of that technology has become familiar. To make the obligatory social criticism kind of comment here, the bursting of the Internet bubble has proven that information technology is just another technology.
Snow Crash was seminal in the way it imagined an immersive virtual world. Do you see any of your vision in games like EverQuest?
For the most part, Snow Crash turned out to be a failed prediction. People have shown limited interest in immersive 3-D technology, so I think it worked better as a novel than as a prognostication. But it provided a reasonable, coherent picture of a particular kind of entertainment technology. That sort of vision is valuable to engineers. Because of the way institutions work, an engineer ends up working on one part of a system but doesn’t get to stand back and see the big picture. When engineering types speak highly of some science fiction writer, usually it’s not because that person predicted the future. Rather, it’s because he or she put together disparate ideas into a coherent vision that could be used as a road map by the people who are actually deploying such a technology.