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Master of the long view

September 15, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE -- For all of Neal Stephenson's achievements, his most impressive may be his ability to attract a following equal parts hacker and literati. His popularity is all the more anomalous because his books are always long and often difficult. His last project, "The Baroque Cycle," was a fictional trilogy about the birth of capitalism and the history of science, set partly in 17th century London, stretching almost 2,700 pages and written with a fountain pen.

His ambitious new novel, "Anathem," imagines a world dominated by casinos, shopping malls and tire shops -- except for the walled monasteries where the devout gather to contemplate big issues in the shadow of a clock that runs for thousands of years.

They give up, needless to say, almost all contact with the secular world as well as most of its worldly pleasures.

"I had the idea that there would be people who voluntarily stay inside those walls," said Stephenson, a fit 48-year-old who looks like he should carry a broadsword, "as a way of getting away from the distractions of everyday life, of doing something in a serious way that took a long time. And one of their jobs would be to care for the clock."

Stephenson -- who with a shaved pate, mountain-man beard and pen tucked into shirt pocket seems part engineer, part aging skinhead -- clearly relishes that kind of isolation: He's not unfriendly, but over dinner on a drizzly night in Seattle, he pauses for thought in a way that makes even enthusiastic answers seem grudging, disdains small talk and peers out of obsidian-dark eyes that could bore through steel. The dreary weather in this city, where he lives with his doctor wife and two kids, allows him to think, he said.

"That idea kept coming back to me, because it still seemed fresh," he continued, "the idea that book-reading people were more and more diverging from the mainstream, that they're a separate culture invisible to media culture."

Though his books have predicted various developments -- his breakthrough, "Snow Crash," envisions Second Life as well as a balkanized, gang-torn Los Angeles that seems closer every day. But he takes no pride in this: To him, "SF," no matter where or when it's set, is really about the present.

"I bet there are wealthy, busy people who would pay money to live in a monastic setting," Stephenson said, suggesting that the process of writing -- and reading -- his extravagant books is a bit like donning habits inside high walls. "People," he added, "get their luxury in different ways. Some people like a full-body massage. But there's a number of people who really want to get into a story."



Stephenson once wrote that he comes "from a clan of rootless, itinerant hard-science and engineering professors." Born in Fort Mead, Md. -- home of the National Security Agency -- he grew up mostly in the university town of Ames, Iowa.

"I was one of these kids who would just sit there and devour huge piles of science fiction," he said. "I didn't really know any writers; I wasn't trying to take after anyone. I just knew that it would be a good gig if you could make it work."

In 1992, after attending Boston University and drifting through mindless office jobs, he published "Snow Crash," his third novel, which told of a computer virus working its way through the hacker subculture. Called by some the first "post-cyberpunk" novel, it's got energy, humor and ideas -- a subtext on the link among viruses, language and religion -- to spare. L.A. has fragmented into tiny city-states with their own laws, crime syndicates and security forces. Almost every page burns with a love of language, as well as a tendency to overwrite that was easy to forgive. "A Thomas Pynchon novel with the brakes removed," the Washington Post judged. "The Diamond Age," now in the works as a cable miniseries, arrived in 1995.

To some, his masterpiece is "Cryptonomicon," from 1999, a nearly 1,000-page excursion into World War II code-making and '90s Silicon Valley. He was compared to literary figures such as the late David Foster Wallace. The three volumes of "The Baroque Cycle" threw Puritans, alchemists and Isaac Newton into a mix that got him hailed as a would-be cultural historian.

With these books, he's one of a handful of SF writers read passionately not only by the genres' base of fanboys, Wired subscribers and libertarians but also by scholars and novelists who consider him a force in American fiction. It's not just that his prose is smooth and often witty or that his intelligence is wide-ranging and speculative, but that he wrestles with concepts -- in "Anathem," neo-Platonic philosophy -- in ways that would shame most "literary" novelists.

"He's obviously got a work ethic to admire," said Matt Ruff, a Seattle writer who shares his friend's interest in historical sword fighting. "Neal's descended from Puritans, so that's not a surprise. He can go off for five pages talking about the structure of a machine gun or a band saw that's actually entertaining."

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