Novelist Stephenson Enters Quicksilver Era
by Ari Armstrong, October 1, 2003
Neal Stephenson captured the interest of libertarians with his novels Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, and now his "Baroque Cycle" of three historical novels promises to illuminate the scientific revolutions of the Newtonian era. In a rare public appearance, Stephenson visited the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver on September 29 to share his thoughts about his work and the release of Quicksilver, the first of the series.
When asked if he still considers himself a science-fiction writer, Stephen replied, "Yes, I absolutely do." It's impossible, however, to look only at the future of science and technology without understanding its roots, he suggested. Instead of looking only at how technology will someday influence society, he noted a number of writers have been exploring how technology is already shaping the culture. Science fiction is always looking back in time, too, Stephenson said.
"Quicksilver" is another name for mercury, and it signifies an era in which "everything became fluid and changed." He said, "We're living at the end of 350 years of steady improvement in science and technology," in a time marked by "constant change, constant improvement." That wasn't true in the time of Quicksilver. Then, it would have been difficult to predict the scientific movement would continue to expand. While the historical figures who populate Stephenson's novel stood on the shoulders of earlier thinkers, they were "the first who created an institution," he said. "They had a club" in addition to resources.
Stephenson said one impact of technology is to "give us more choices." It "makes choice more important and gives us a way to define ourselves," he said.
Stephenson avoids the libertarian label. He said when novelists become self-consciously political, "the results start to become pretty tedious." Nevertheless, he said he knew a lot of California libertarians in the '80s and '90s: "I know a lot of these people and have tried to depict the world through their eyes in a way that was fair." I asked him how he became interested in gold, and he said the techies he knew in Palo Alto over a decade ago, who had been interested in cryptography, suddenly picked up an interest in money. This developed into a central plot line of Cryptonomicon.
Somebody asked Stephenson if we are in another "quicksilver" era today. "I don't know -- I think the jury's still kind of out on that," he replied. He noted that the "concept of nation states" as formulated in the mid-1600s had a 300-year run, then the "system broke" in WWII. That war was so terrible, "such an indictment of how things were running, that nothing could be the same after that." However, Stephenson's not quite sure just how things changed, and it may not become clear for a couple hundred years. His three major novels -- The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Cryptonomicon -- each explore the notion of the dissolving nation state and the creation of new forms of governance. For instance, in The Diamond Age, people choose to belong to distinct social groups, each with independent institutions, but these groups intermingle geographically and cooperate according to a Common Economic Protocol.
Quicksilver actually contains three somewhat independent but interrelated stories. The Confusion, the second book of the series, will contain two more interwoven books, while The System of the World will include either two or three more (he hasn't worked this out yet). The set of seven or eight works was divided into three published books (the last of which will be released late in 2004) mostly for publishing reasons, Stephenson said. The Baroque Cycle is the culmination of six years of work that started with intensive research that slowly gave way to more writing, he said. His web page offers his thoughts about the book and a range of other topics.