Neal Stephenson and Anathem

Jacket Copy, the L.A. Times’ book blog, just posted bits of Neal Stephenson interviews old and new.

My favorite questions relate to Snow Crash and geography:

S.T.: What made you set “Snow Crash” in L.A.?
Neal Stephenson: At the time I was living in New Jersey, and I was really in the space between Philly and New York. So I was in this place where there really was no city center: You could drive for hours in either direction and see the same landscape repeating itself, of strip malls, and…. I don’t think I’d ever lived in anything like that before. You read science fiction, and it’s always on a giant urban core, or it’s on a space station — but from where I’m sitting that’s not the future. From where I’m sitting, the future is this landscape of low-rise sprawl. I think I put it in L.A. — it’s been a long time — because it gave me more options. You have the entertainment industry there, you’ve got high-tech, the Pacific Rim factor…. It just gave me more surface area.

S.T.: You’ve been in the Northwest for a long time now — Seattle’s working for you?
Neal Stephenson: It is really working for me. I like this kind of weather. I like the neighborhoods. There are a lot of interesting people around because of the high-tech world here. And there’s a gritty, practical side to the city that’s easy to miss. But it really informs the way the city works. I think of about the time of the dot-com bubble bursting, there was a crab boat that went down in the Bering Sea — the entire crew was lost. It put everything in perspective. Nobody was whining about the high-tech [bust] anymore.

I just moved from Seattle to Tucson, and although I don’t entirely agree with Stephenson’s comment about Seattle’s grittiness, he nailed the point about interesting people and neighborhoods. Tucson, on the other hand, is vastly more akin New Jersey: endless strip malls and roads until the desert begins. Everything manmade looks pathetic, rundown, and designed to interact with other machines rather than the people who presumably operate said machines. In short, it’s like Snow Crash without the technological wonderful. The designers failed to take into account Jane Jacobs‘ lessons about cars—like many Western cities. Seattle and Portland are the two primary exceptions.

If you’re going to read Stephenson, begin with Cryptonomicon, then go back to the science fiction, and skip the Baroque cycle, which is too much idea and too little story, and what story does exist is sublimated to improbably coincidences and thin dramatizations of debate from that time. But he’s another author so marvelous that his best excuses his worst. Expect to hear more about Anathem.

If that’s not enough Neal Stephenson, see Salon’s fluffy but approving piece, the fuller piece from the L.A. Times, Wired’s preparation guide, and Discover Magazine’s discussion of ends that occurs at the beginning of its review.

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