A TALK WITH NEAL STEPHENSON
Neal Stephenson flew in from Seattle for two days of interviews in preparation for the Trade Paperback release of his New York Times best-selling novel CRYPTONOMICON. We met with him on a grey morning in his suite at the Omni Hotel where he was sitting on a gold upholstered loveseat and finishing his second cup of coffee. Neal rolled his eyes when we asked him if there were any movie deals in the works for his novels, evidently nothing is happening at the moment. He also told us that he recently tested his home made kyak (built from designs and parts created by George Dyson, the son of the famous physicist Freeman Dyson) in Lake Washington and the Puget Sound. An introspective man, Neal thinks carefully before he speaks with knowledge and a hint of dry wit.
Q: CRYPTONOMICON deals with the
importance of cryptography during World War II and the present day. What
makes cryptography such an important issue to you?
A: If I could give a quick answer to that I wouldnít have to write these great big long novels about it. In writing these books, you can think of it as a way of trying to explore why I do think its important or even if it is important. Clearly, computers are a big deal. There was a trend in science fiction during the eighties where science fiction turned away from rocket ships and laser guns as its topic of choice and became more interested in computers.
I think were still on that topic, still trying to figure out what computers are, how they change us why we use them and its become evident to me when I looked into the history of computers that they had this intimate relationship with cryptography going back a long way. You could say that writing books about it is a way to explore that relationship.
I could try to get really profound here and say that it has something to do with the process of writing books in general, which is a matter of encoding ideas in words and symbols, but thatís sort of a level of navel gazing I will leave to much more sophisticated literary critics.
Q: Your next novel Quicksilver,
goes further into the history of cryptography and its role. What can readers
Q: Will we see a relationship between the characters in CRYPTONOMICON and Quicksilver?
A: There are familial connections between the 2 books.
Q: This is the book you are writing with a fountain pen.
A: Iíve written every word of it so far with fountain pen on paper. Part of the theory was that it would make me less long-winded, but it hasnít actually worked. I think it has improved the quality of the actual work somewhat, simply because it is actually easier to edit something on paper than on screen. So usually every page of the original manuscript has been gone over 2 or 3 times before it goes into the computer and then when I type it into the computer thatís another pass again where I can make changes if I want to.
Q: What about the future of Crypto?
A: Weíre in a strange moment right now where everyone who uses the internet seems to be cognoscente at some level that it has its weaknesses from a security standpoint. So if you sit down and talk to most people who use e-mail they are aware at some level that their e-mail really isnít private. Everyone hears about crackers breaking into systems all the time. Everyone who uses a cell phone must understand at some level that itís a radio, a walkie-talkie, and every word they say is being broadcast in a way that anyone with a scanner could pick it up and listen to it.
People know these things but nobody acts on it, which I find kind of interesting. Historically there is not a lot of actual spying on peopleís email that goes on. It happens, but it doesnít seem to be causing serious problems for very many people. The same is kind of true for cell phones.
An engineer would look at our communications system today--email, cell phones--and be horrified at all the security gaps and predict that the bad people would exploit those gaps on a massive scale and a huge market for crypto would spring out of it, but it hasnít happened. Maybe it will.
Most people living in a society seem to put certain limits on what they will and wonít do. This is a hard thing for scientists and engineers to understand, but it seems to be very true. So the theoretical market that should be there for crypto doesnít appear to be materialized. I think crypto will slowly percolate its way up and people will adopt it gradually as user friendly, cheap products, become available. But there doesnít seem to be any strong public interest in this now.
Q: I think its because a good deal of Americans have a faith in their privacy.
A: There is a product out now called Freedom, from Zero Knowledge, that works with your existing web browser to give you privacy wile surfing the internet. It has the advantage that itís transparent. You donít have to do anything. It processes all interactions with the web in such a way to give you privacy and anonymity. Iíll be interested to see whether the general public sees a need for it.
Q: Isnít the biggest invasion of privacy happening now conducted by companies targeting consumers on the web via their surfing habits?
A:I gave a talk a week ago at a conference on Computers Freedom and Privacy which was a little bit about this. The threat model for crypto people/ privacy people, has always been big brother and this feeling that the NSA would get access to all this information and set up a totalitarian system and what weíre finding in practice is that big brother does not appear to be a threat.
There are potential threats everywhere. If you went out and took a global census of everyone who was getting screwed, ripped off, reamed in one way or another, you would find that the bad guy in each case was different. It would be the local police department, or a company that is giving a man a hard time, a local branch of government, a family gone bad, a business institution, there all sorts of powers out there with the potential to turn into bad guys and press someone, but what we donít ever see is all these things coalescing into a global big brother. So the situation is much more murky, nuanced and complicated.
Q: Do you relate to any of your characters?
A: Not particularly. There arenít that many points in common between us. Writing different characters is not autobiography. It is not an attempt to put oneself in the pages of a book. Itís about trying to see the world from the point of view of someone who may be extremely different than you. Thatís a common trait of novelist: to have that ability to see things from just about anyoneís points of view which often makes them seem sort of pusillanimous. Novelists, for example, tend not to take sides in arguments very readily, as a necessity of what they do for a living they can listen to all sides of an argument and agree with all sides. Thatís what we do and people are frequently surprised by just how little I have in common with a good many characters in my books.
Q: How does the writing process work for you?
A: A good deal of the work that I do takes place in the background, which is a computer-ese way of putting it. It is a process that runs quietly at an unconscious level while I am doing other things and that goes on 24 hours a day.
The actual putting of words on paper might come out to 2-3 hours a day. Iíve found that from long experience that the best way to facilitate that process is to do that 2-3 hours of putting words on paper then stop and do something as completely different from writing as I possibly can. Specifically, to get it off my conscious mind. That can be just about anything. For me, what works is doing something of a practical nature. Playing around with technology is a convenient choice because I know how to do it and I can get the stuff I need pretty easily. Anything to get the hands busy and take the mind off the actual work in progress.
1999 The Hearst Corporation. Parental guidance suggested.