Neal Stephenson


I’d like Stephenson even if he didn’t write books about monastics and alchemists … as it is, he’s a great writer, and certainly rich material for my pseudo-lit-crit / cognitive anthropology research interests.  Anathem (2008) especially … I love that the main character is a representative of a social group with all the trappings of religious monasticism, but Stephenson limits “real” religion to a tertiary character who appears quite late, and then only as a tangential contrast to the protagonist.

So, insofar as this blog is meant to loosely supplement the book, it’s only fair to give NS a chance to “respond.”  Here’s a talk he gave at Gresham College on the nature of science fiction as a genre.  Lots of food for thought.  Note that he seems to characterize the distinction between genre and “mundane” literature as a matter of personal identity of members of a community, not primarily as a function of some detail of the stories themselves.  (That’s how I got around the problem of 1) even the professional sf writers and editors find it difficult to define “genre” science fiction, 2) no two literary critics agree on the requisite characteristic, yet 3) we all seem to know it when we see it.)  I was also intrigued by his contrast between gSF and mysteries and romance, in the different ways in which each (now) permeate popular culture.  Watch it HERE (

For those who aren’t yet a fan, HERE‘s ( a 2008 interview on a Boston U. website (source of the above pic, btw), given around the time that Anathem was published.  My favorite part relates to his situating Anathem in the history of gSF:  I love the image of an extended collaboration between new authors and the authors they cut their teeth on, what cog anth would describe as a “cumulative cultural evolution” of ideas:

Bostonia: In what ways was Anathem influenced by other science-fiction work?

Stephenson: One is the characters. The main characters of this book are young adults. They’re in that phase where they’re grown up, they’re physically mature, but there’s still a lot about their lives that’s not settled yet — what they’re going to do for a living, are they going to get married — that kind of thing. And Heinlein wrote a few books centered around characters who were in that situation. I was consciously reaching back to that a little bit when I laid out the cast of characters for this book, because I knew that it was going to be a lot about people who sat around and thought about heavy ideas. It gives you a little bit more traction for getting into these people and identifying with them if they’re dealing with very normal young-people issues while they’re thinking about the heavy ideas. So there’s that. The indebtedness of this book to science fiction is so systemic and thorough that it’s kind of hard to relate particulars. But the important thing that I’d want to get across is there is that indebtedness, and that it couldn’t have existed without the literature of SF that came before it.


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