Neal Stephenson Talks to io9 About Religion, Aliens, and Spoilers

Today Neal Stephenson's long-awaited new novel Anathem hits the bookstores. We've already told you that this tale of science monks on another planet is cool, action-packed, and thought-provoking — probably one of the best novels of Stephenson's career, which already includes lauded titles like Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Cryptonomicon. Though Stephenson usually likes to hole up with his ideas and avoid the spotlight, he's having what the characters in Anathem would call an "Apert," a time that comes every few years when he opens up and talks to the public about his work. We were lucky enough to get a chance to talk to Stephenson during his Apert, and asked about Anathem, as well as a few questions about Earth. (Warning: There are a few spoilers ahead.)

One of the charming things about Stephenson is that, though he writes incredibly intellectual novels, at heart he's clearly a fan of the adventurous side of the stories he's spinning. It's very rare for novelists (and even readers) to worry about spoilers in books — at least, it's rare for book reviewers to issue spoiler warnings, and few readers complain about book spoilers. Not so with Stephenson. When I asked him a few questions about ideas in Anathem that hinged on what happens in the final third of the novel, he seemed mildly alarmed. "First of all, this is a spoiler, so I hope you'll warn your readers!" he exclaimed at one point. I like the idea of book spoiler warnings being as important as spoiler warnings about crap like the new JJ Abrams TV series Fringe.

When he's not worrying about spoiler warnings, however, Stephenson is tackling weighty topics like the conflict between science and religion. Stephenson told Wired magazine that the clash between Anathem's scientific Avout and religious Deolators was partly inspired by the anti-science politics of the Christian-oriented Bush Administration in the United States. Many of the main characters in the novel are essentially scientists trying to deal with a society full of Deolaters, people who believe in a god. And yet in the end, the scientists and Deolaters wind up forging an alliance. They have to work together to progress.

I asked Stephenson about this alliance between Avout and Deolators, and he said:

I'd take issue with your reading of the book here. I don't really think that the scientists and the Deolaters forge an alliance. To me this sounds like an unduly feel-good reading of the book. During the last half of the book they work together under the terms of the Reconstitution, which is a 3700-year-old document. At the very end, we see a few tentative bridges being constructed between the avout and a minority of Deolaters who happen to be unusually compatible with them. But it's way too strong to say that they are forging an alliance.

Since Stephenson's already mentioned that the novel is at least a tip of the hat to Earthly politics, I wondered whether he sees any reconciliation possible between science and religion in our own culture. Does he believe this "reconciliation" would be like on Arbre, where a few Deolaters can work with the avout, but the two cultures remain essentially hostile to each other? Stephenson replied:

There are many, many examples of legitimate scientists who espouse some form of religious faith, so I don't see any essential hostility. I grew up in a community of church-going scientists and engineers. The recent science/religion fireworks are driven by a theological movement that is as controversial within Christianity as it is in secular culture.

Before Anathem, Stephenson spent several years working on the Baroque Cycle, where he recreated the so-called Enlightenment period in Western history in extremely rigorous detail. There is a similar attention to detail in his creation of the alien culture on Arbre. I asked him whether there are any similaries between creating an alien world and recreating an era in human history.

Stephenson said:

Actually, with Anathem I was pursuing a rather different strategy. I specifically didn't want this book to get bogged down in dense historical detail, so I set it on a different planet. Then I structured the narrative in such a way that I didn't have to include a lot of specific information about the planet's history. We see almost everything through the eyes of the avout, who are only a small fraction of Arbre's population, and who live apart from the day-to-day, year-to-year events of the world and have little knowledge of, and little interest in, what is going on outside of the walls. From time to time, our narrator will allude to historical events in passing, but I've tried to spare my readers from having to wade through elaborate chronicles.

In this case, writing about an alien world was quite similar to writing about human history, for the simple reason that Arbre is an Earthlike planet, and its history runs parallel to that of Earth, with a small number of key differences.

I had to get in a question about the Large Hadron Collider, because there is a distant, terrifying event in Arbre's history that sounds a lot like it was caused by a massive physics experiment to recreate the Big Bang (which is what the LHC will be doing when it starts up tomorrow). I asked Stephenson about the LHC and the Terrible Events, and he replied:

This is an interesting interpretation of what the Terrible Events might have been, but it's just one possible interpretation. I don't want to put any authorial stamp of approval on it, since I'm trying to leave the Terrible Events as ambiguous to the reader as they are to the people who live on Arbre.

I'm not competent to have an opinion as to what will happen when they turn on the LHC!

I like a scifi author who admits that he isn't competent to have an opinion on something that plenty of other, less educated, authors in his genre spout off on all the time.

Finally, I asked Stephenson a pretty detailed question about the philosophy in his novel. Most of the action in Anathem centers on how the people of Arbre deal with aliens (includng humans) who have traveled to their planet from other timelines. As the characters discuss how this has come about, they speculate that timeline travel might move in one direction — toward timelines that are closer to a kind of mathematical or philosophical ideal. I asked Stephenson whether he thinks Arbre is more "ideal" than Earth because its cultures have chosen to segregate theoretical scientists from engineers and politicians. He answered in philosophical fashion, after warning me again that "this is a huge spoiler." He then explained:

This is really a question about what you mean by the word "ideal." Philosophers and non-philosophers use it to mean different things. Non-philosophers generally use it to mean "really good," as in "this house is ideal for my family" or "I want to find the ideal job."

Philosophers use it to mean something that is more Platonic. This doesn't necessarily mean something good, just something that is closer to a pure form.

So, in that sense (the philosopher's sense) Arbre is more ideal than Earth. Not "better than" but simplified and streamlined in a way that happens to be useful for me as a novelist.

I explained that what I was really trying to get at was the way this segregation between avout and saecular on Arbre turns them into a slow-moving culture, scientifically speaking. This vision is quite different from what you see in a lot of current speculative writing, which is focused on some big singularity, some big break with history. So is Stephenson suggesting that gradual change is a more philosophically ideal way to think about history? His answer:

No. But neither am I disagreeing. This is just way more self-analysis than I ever engage in. I just write the stuff!

Now you'll just have to read the novel and decide for yourself what Stephenson means when he wrote that stuff. One of the coolest parts of Anathem is trying to puzzle out its references and layers of meaning, and that's exactly what Stephenson is hoping you'll do.

Anathem [via Amazon]