Neal Stephenson: Anathem

 

Neal Stephenson's long-awaited new novel, Anathem, was published in September, and went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Set not on Earth, but on a planet called Arbre that is similar to our own in many ways, Anathem is narrated by Erasmus, a young man who has lived much of his life as an "avout" -- a member of a monastic community comprised not of religious believers but of philosophers and mathematicians. Inventing a political and intellectual history, as well as an ingenious vocabulary, for his imagined world, Stephenson has composed a work of enormous speculative dimensions that is enlivened with both ideas and adventure. As the plot unfolds, Erasmus and his confreres are called out of their cloister and into the service of the unlearned, fearsome, technology-infested "Saecular" world to help defend Arbre from the threat posed by the mysterious forces of an alien power. In style if not substance, the book represents something of a departure from Stephenson's earlier novels, which include Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and the three volumes of the Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. 

 

A week after Anathem appeared, I sat down with its author in the offices of his publisher for an extended conversation. What follows is an edited transcript of our colloquy.  -- James Mustich

 

 

James Mustich: Let me start by admitting that I'd never read a word of yours until I picked up Anathem. I was so taken with it that, as soon as I finished the galley, I went on to read Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and In the Beginning was the Command Line, and I've gotten through a good part of the Baroque Cycle as well. So I spent most of my summer in the pages of your books.

 

Neal Stephenson: That's interesting.

 

JM: Anathem provides a different kind of reading experience than the earlier books, I think. In the new novel, the pace is measured; the narrative is a stately unfolding of this world that you've created, one that the reader has to assemble in his mind as he progresses. While the speculative vision of Snow Crash, say, is equally ambitious, that book is filled with what, for lack of a better word, I would call effects. Extraordinary things are happening all the time to move the plot along.

 

NS: Yes. Special effects.

 

JM: In Cryptonomicon and the novels of the Baroque Cycle, those special effects are replaced, one might say, by historical ideas, but these play a similar role, speeding a reader's course through enormous landscapes of imagination, invention, and implication. Now (and I'm getting to a question, I promise) in comments you've made about the genesis of Anathem, you've made reference to your contribution to the Long Now Foundation's Millennium Clock project -- some sketches you made some years ago that imagined a clock that controlled gates which would open at intervals of a decade, say, or a century, or every thousand years. (Editor's note: Readers will find information on the Millennium Clock, and Stephenson's sketches, at www.longnow.org/clock) This led me back to Stewart Brand's book on the undertaking, The Clock of the Long Now; in an early chapter, Brand quotes another book, Venice and Antiquity by Patricia Brown, in which the author writes notes that the Ancient Greeks distinguished two kinds of time, "kairos (opportunity or the propitious moment) and chronos (eternal or ongoing time). While the first . . . offers hope, the second extends a warning." Then Brand writes: "Kairos is the time of cleverness, chronos the time of wisdom." From what I know of your work -- which, as I've said, is kind of fresh -- Anathem seems to unfold in chronos time, its predecessors in kairos.

 

NS:  I'll buy that. I haven't read the Venice  book, but I think I take the meaning, and I think you've made a reasonable observation there.

 

JM:  Could you talk about how you came to write Anathem, and how aware you were of these differences between it and your earlier books as you composed it?

 

NS: Anathem was a conscious break from the last series of books that I wrote, which started with Cryptonomicon and then developed into the Baroque Cycle. So there was no need to write it in a style that was compatible with, or even similar to, that of those earlier books. In this case, I did think it was reasonable to start fresh and let the work find its own style as I went along. Since at the beginning we're reading about these cloistered monks who live the way they do, I thought it reasonable to have the style be kind of spare and to proceed in the deliberate, stately manner that you described. I knew that eventually the plot would thicken and that we would get into a lot more action. I think sometimes that kind of material works better and has greater impact if you build up to it rather than plunging in with lots of action and special effects on the first page.

 

JM:  Would you talk a bit about the element of time in the book? As I mentioned, I know the seed came from the clock project.

 

NS: It's worth mentioning that this is a narrated book. It's a first-person story, and the narrator is one of these monks, a young one named Erasmus who has adopted the cloistered lifestyle. So that informs the way he sees everything, the way he tells the story. Not to spoil it, but what happens is that some events come along and break into this, to use your word, stately procession of chronos time: the daily rites, the liturgy they perform, the habits that they've developed over 3,700 years of living this way. It's all broken open by unexpected things that happen over the course of the book's action.

 

JM: One thing the first-person narration does, compared to the multivalent narrative of the Baroque Cycle, is limit you to the one perspective.

 

NS:  Yes.

 

JM:  It constrains you -- or perhaps it's in fact liberating in a way -- in that, since the story is being told from a consciousness that's been shaped by this cloistered experience, the world that you can create for the reader is delimited by that experience as well. Whereas the multiple perspectives of your previous books allowed you to introduce new strands of action or idea almost at will, the narrative strategy of Anathem is different in kind. How early in the composition of the book did you settle on a first-person narrator, and how did that decision affect the creative process?

 

NS: I started from the beginning using the narrator, and it seemed to work, so I didn't seriously consider doing it otherwise. If you want to look at it from a book-engineering point of view, there are just certain practical problems that have to be solved in a book like this, and the major thing you've got to get done as a writer is to supply enough background about this imaginary world to make the book work for the reader, without having it be burdensome. Of course, different readers have different reactions to this kind of thing, so there's no solution that's going to be satisfactory for everyone.

 

But one thing, as a reader, that I don't care for very much is the sudden intrusion into the book of a kind of omniscient third-person point of view, where suddenly it just feels like the author has pulled a 3-by-5 card off of a stack of research materials and slammed its contents into the word processor. Now, in the Baroque Cycle there probably are those kinds of intrusions here and there, but in general, if I needed to impart some background information, I'd try to find some way of doing it through the eyes of characters -- what we call "point-of-view" characters.

 

In the case of Anathem, I think having the book narrated by the point-of-view character did a couple of things for me. One, it didn't give me an out, if you will. There's no way I could possibly slip into that omniscient third-person narrative voice if I am writing it all from the point of view of this one character. So as a formal constraint, I think it had desirable effects. It also keeps you from jumping around; you can't really include anything in the book that the narrator didn't personally see. So it automatically limits the amount of material that goes in -- which sounds funny when I'm speaking of a book that's as big as this one, but it could have been a lot bigger if I had decided to suddenly jump-cut to another continent or something, and show other stuff.

 

JM: Did the single consciousness, either consciously or unconsciously, shape one of the themes of the book, which is that concentration of thought -- a nurturing of thought over a long period of time -- produces a different kind of understanding of the world than is accessible to shorter spans of attention?

 

NS: Well, you're having everything explained to you by a mind that has been trained to think this way. For example, when he begins to make contact with people in the outside world and sees the way they use their cell phones and some of the other ways that they live, you're seeing all of that through his eyes as a representative member of the so-called "avout." That perspective is a useful feature, because if I describe a typical character walking down the street sipping a Big Gulp from 7/11 and talking on his cell phone, no one thinks it's remarkable because that's a very common sight in America today; but when you see exactly the same character described through the eyes of a cloistered monk, the monk is using different terminology and he is noticing things about that person that we don't notice. In reading that description, you're not only learning about the person who is being described, but you're also learning something about the mind of the person who is doing the describing.

 

JM:  In your book In the Beginning was the Command Line, you write, ". . . If you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world." Because he was raised in a distinctive culture, Erasmus, when he leaves the cloister, possesses a certain set of tools that are not available to people outside in the walls (in what the book calls the "Saecular" world). The book -- quite marvelously, in my estimation, through its calm unfurling of the fabric of avout life -- has revealed what those tools are, by familiarizing us with their intellectual underpinnings. The advent of a person with these mental or conceptual tools in a world filled with people without such tools is part of what drives the book forward.

 

NS: Erasmus reestablishes contact with a close relative of his who works in a machine shop and has access to tools of another kind, and that's fascinating to him, because as a result of a series of purges and reforms that happened thousands of years ago in this world, his people really can't own any tool that's more sophisticated than a shovel or a kitchen knife. They don't even have musical instruments. In a way, it's a useful constraint for them, because it forces them to put all of their mental energy and agility into working with ideas and books instead of thinking about complicated technology.

 

JM: I found the first 100 pages or so of Anathem a little difficult -- not unpleasant, but I was conscious of struggling to keep all the elements of your invented world straight in my mind as I was reading. Then everything seemed to snap into place and I was happily lost in the book.

 

NS: That's a remarkably universal remark -- almost everyone says, "The first hundred pages were heavy sledding, and then it started happening for me." It's interesting how consistent that response has been.

 

JM: The book takes place largely on the planet Arbre, a good part of it in Erasmus's "concent," or cloister, of Saunt Edhar. How complete were the worlds of Arbre and Edhar in your head? Did you have elaborate geographies and architectural plans and the like?           

 

NS: No. Earlier in my writing career, I really wanted to write fantasy and science fiction novels. I actually wrote one that never got published that had an extremely elaborate, carefully thought-out map, as well as timelines and histories and cultures -- the whole bit. I enjoy making that kind of material up, and I've got a mind that's geared that way. I did it even back in the days when I had to do it all with a typewriter and 3-by-5 cards. So working today with computers and 3D graphics and all of the tools at one's disposal, I could see myself diving into such a project, and not emerging until ten years later, when I had complete topographic maps of the entire world, and all of that. But at this point in my life I know myself well enough to fear that outcome -- and to fear the twelve-volume series of enormous novels that would fall out of that kind of project. [LAUGHS] So I made up my mind almost immediately with this one that I would refrain from coming up with a really detailed geography for Arbre, and refrain from filling in those 3,700 years of history that followed the planet's "Terrible Events" with specific incidents and nations and wars and religions and all that.

 

The approach I just described is consistent with how the avout are going to see that world. To them, all of the detailed history is in a way boring and repetitive. They know it, they study it, they've got it written down in books. But it's all kind of beside the point to them. It's part of their expectation that the so-called Saeculum -- the world of non-book-reading, aliterate people -- is naturally going to have this kind of numbingly repetitive history, filled with the same mistakes being made over and over again, because, in the view of the avout, the Saecular people have no way to advance.

 

So I wanted to avoid the detailed history, and writing it from the point of view of the avout gave me the excuse to not have that history to hand. As a result, rather than beginning with a lengthy world-building process, I really just plunged in, and only rendered those parts of the geography and the history that were absolutely necessary to get the story told.

 

JM:  In your previous books -- I'm thinking specifically of Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle -- you set many plates spinning simultaneously, and you had to keep each of them in motion across hundreds and hundreds of pages. Eventually, you had to catch them all and put them back in the cupboard, so to speak, as the books closed. For Anathem, on the other hand, you wrote from a single point of view and only rendered, as you say, the necessary geography and history. I'm wondering if you approached sitting down at your desk to write differently as result. It seems there would be a lot of anxiety attached to constructing the earlier books, because they had so many live wires coursing through them; this time you had only one main live wire to handle. Did that alter the experience of writing in any way?

 

NS: Yes. While I wouldn't say I was anxious with the previous books, it certainly makes life interesting to keep all those plates spinning. You've got to have a plan for how you're going to get them all back down and neatly stacked without shattering them. In the case of this one, it really did develop in, to me, a very nice, kind of relaxing, organic way. I just sat down and started writing the first conversation between Orolo and the Artisan, the first thing in the book, and just moved forward from there.

 

JM:  You write with a fountain pen.

 

NS:  Yes. 

 

JM:  Have you always done that?

 

NS:  No. I started that with the Baroque Cycle. Cryptonomicon was the last thing I wrote with a word processor. What I was noticing was that I've become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly -- anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it's out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it's far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all -- you can think better of writing it. Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that's useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There's actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.

 

JM: Do you have a particular pen that you use? I ask because a few weeks ago I interviewed John Barth, and he told me that he bought a Parker 51 fountain pen in 1963, and he has used that same pen to write the first draft of all of his books for the past forty-five years.

 

NS:  Wow.

 

JM:  So I'm wondering if you have a favorite; do you stick to one, or do you use several?

 

NS:  I don't quite have a pen like Barth's. I've got this one here, which is a Waterman, that my wife gave me in, probably, 1988. So that's a twenty-year-old pen. It's got a fine nib, and I don't normally use it for first drafts. I use this for editing. I've got a couple of fat-nib pens that I tend to use for the first draft. One is an extremely high-tech Jorg Hysek pen that's made out of carbon fiber and advanced metals; it looks like a cruise missile. I wouldn't buy such a thing, but someone gave it to me, and it's my favorite for first draft stuff. Then I've got another Waterman, a Rotring, and a couple of others. I tend to do first draft in a thick nib. And I have different color of ink in each pen. Then I go back the next day with this Waterman, and do the editing pass, so I can see the contrasting colors and line widths, and kind of assemble a history in my own mind of how this page came into being.

 

JM:  I'm intrigued by the way the different nibs play roles in the process.

 

But let's get back to Anathem. I'd like to ask you about the language you've created for it. Most of the book is in straightforward, recognizable English, but many of the key philosophical and historical terms are invented cognates of familiar words . . .

 

NS:  Yes.

 

JM:  . . . but you've given them a special twist: "theoric" for "theoretical," "fraa" for "father," "saunt" for "saint." I'm wondering why you chose to do that, and what you think these terms brought to the tale that would have been lacking if you'd just done it using familiar words.

 

NS:  First of all, it's a familiar device in fantasy and science fiction to make up words. In a sense, if there aren't any made-up words, then you have to ask yourself why bother to have the tale set in a different world. Right? A different world or a different time in history means that there have to be some unfamiliar words. So to begin with, it's a quite familiar thing to people who habitually read fantasy and science fiction. Once you've trained yourself as a reader to it, it's almost as if your eyes scan down the page until you see a word you don't recognize, and you mark that; it's a tool that you as a reader will use to gain knowledge and expertise about the world that the book is set in. That would have been true even if this book were set in the future of Earth, which I thought it would be for a little while. So up to a certain point in writing the book, I hadn't made up my mind whether it was going to be in the future of Earth or in a different world that was Earth-like.

 

What tipped me over into the decision to have it set in a different world was that there is a lot of intellectual history in the book -- the history of ideas. Before too long, the characters have to delve into that history of ideas a little bit in order to solve some of the mysteries they are confronted with. So I knew that there was going to be a lot of discussion of those matters among the different characters, and they were going to be kind of learned discussions since they are learned people. If it had been set on Earth, then we'd be talking about actual philosophers and scientists, like Newton and Kant and Gödel and Mach, with perhaps some scientists of the future; both of those would have been problematic. If I had been writing about real past thinkers in the history of ideas, I would have had to get it all right, which would mean a lot more fact-checking and detailed research -- and I'd have to be careful not to leave something important out. You can't simply elide details for the sake of brevity if you take that route.

 

Then, if I had chosen to write about hypothetical future thinkers on Earth, I would have had to place myself in a position of predicting the future of ideas, which I think would have been either an act of hubris or an invitation to miserable failure. It's conventional in science fiction to predict future science -- every time you fire up the warp drive on the Enterprise, you're embedding in the story a kind of fictional future history of Earth technology; but I didn't feel as though I was equal to that task when I was dealing with the foundational ideas I wanted to treat in Anathem.           

 

So those two things together caused me to decide that I would set the book on a different world, where I wouldn't have to cope with exactly those problems. As soon as I made that decision, that stripped me of the usual vocabulary that we have. I couldn't talk about Platonism any more, because there wasn't a Plato in this world -- and so on. A lot of the words that you're referring to are concepts that are named after people, or places, or historical movements and schools of thought, that had to be invented in order for me to pursue that strategy.

 

JM: While we're on the theme of language, I'd like to ask you something about Snow Crash, which I listened to as an audiobook.

 

NS:  I hope you listened to the unabridged.

 

JM: Of course. [LAUGHS]

 

NS:  Okay.

 

JM:  The reader was very good. But since I listened to it, I didn't discover until afterwards, when I flipped through the book, that embedded in the text was at least one illustration from Julian Jaynes's book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a book whose starling perceptions and intuitions are certainly reflected in Hiro Protagonist's researches into Sumerian language and myth, and which, when I read it many years ago, had set my head spinning in a way that was exhilarating.

 

I'm wondering how you made the connection between the ideas about antiquity that Jaynes is exploring in that book and the modern realm of coding and hacking. It just seemed to me so inspired.

 

NS: If they showed up at all in science fiction, for a long time computers showed up in ways that were obviously at variance with how computers actually developed in the real world. It was always the giant computer the size of a city block. The whole cyberpunk thing was, I think, a movement in which the people who wrote science fiction suddenly realized that we'd gotten it wrong to that point: that computers were turning out differently than we had imagined, and we had to go back and work them into the body of science fiction. Snow Crash needs to be seen in that context. At that point in science fiction history, what we were doing was taking new ideas about information technology and seeing where we could kind of fit them in and make use of them.

 

I'd had a similar reaction to yours when I'd first read The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and that, combined with the desire to use IT, were two elements from which Snow Crash grew.

 

A third element came in when I went home for a family wedding and was hanging out with my brother-in-law, Steve Wiggins, who is a scholar of ancient Near Eastern history, and he started talking to me about the cult of the goddess Asherah. That combined in my head with the Tower of Babel story, solving some problems that I needed solved in this particular book-writing project. I don't remember the particulars of how it all came out, but those are the three elements that I plugged together in some way to generate Snow Crash.

 

JM: In the chapter of In the Beginning was the Command Line entitled "The Interface Culture," you write: "The word, in the end, is the only system of encoding thoughts -- the only medium that is not fungible, that refuses to dissolve in the devouring torrent of electronic media." Is Anathem in some ways an exploration of that theme?

 

Let me expand that a little before you answer. Earlier, you used the phrase, "an aliterate culture" to refer to the Saeculum, the world outside of the avouts' cloister. Are those of us who read, much less write, books of the scope of Anathem, books that demand and reward a certain kind of attention, retreating more and more to some monastic compound of the mind?

 

NS:  I think you've put your finger on it. It's clear that people who read books a hundred years ago just wanted some entertainment. Unless they lived in big cities with music halls nearby, reading was the only entertainment they were ever going to get. To be a reader back then was just to be a literate person who wanted to pass some time. Now, if you want to pass some time and be entertained, there are so many options that it's almost overwhelming. Just managing one's Netflix queue can become a major logistical quagmire requiring family meetings and the like.

 

JM:  Exactly. We don't even watch the movies as much as we move them around in the queue.

 

NS:  Right. Parenthetically, there was a brilliant piece in Slate a couple of weeks ago describing a survey done to find the Netflix movies that spend the most time sitting on your TV without ever being watched. Apparently, Hotel Rwanda is number one. There are a few like that.

 

JM:  I'll have to find that.

 

NS:  Anyway, there's lots of ways to be entertained, and a good many of them are more gratifying and appealing, at least at first, than sitting down and reading a book. Therefore, if you choose to read a book today, it's not like a hundred years ago, when that was your only option. Today, when you read a book, you're making a conscious decision not to play a video game, not to surf the web, not to watch a movie, not to turn on the TV. It does require a certain discipline to make that decision -- and I know, because it's getting less and less easy for me to show that discipline myself. I don't read as much as I wish I did; I don't read as much as I used to.

 

I'm not big on trying to pump big messages into my books, and to the extent they have messages, I don't feel I should hit people over the head with them, because it makes for a lousy relationship between the author and the reader. But there is clearly a kind of parallelism between the two situations we describe, of choosing to go into that quiet room and turn on the light and read the book, and going into a monastery and becoming a cloistered avout.

 

JM: This connects to the themes of a very stimulating address you delivered at Gresham College in London in May, which I watched online and recommend to anyone reading this. (Editor's note: To hear Stephenson's address, click here.) Can we talk about that a bit?

 

NS:  Sure.

 

JM:  As I told you when we sat down, I had never read a word of yours before I received the galley of Anathem a few months ago. And, despite the fact that reading is more or less what I do for a living, I find it a little harder each year, as you say you do, to summon the discipline required to keep my eyes focused on books. But this summer I read nearly 4,000 pages of your work, and I honestly haven't had so much fun reading in many years. I am not saying this to blow smoke at you, but to get at something you said in your talk at Gresham College -- bear with me another minute.

 

Now, without the enthusiastic recommendation of a colleague, I never would have opened Anathem, because I've seldom ventured into speculative fiction; and, given the pleasure I took from your books, I was examining that prejudice of mine at about the time I discovered what you had to say at Gresham about the "standard model" of our culture. Let me quote it: "What I am going to call the standard model of our culture states there is a mainstream and that, peripheral to it, inferior in intellectual content, moral stature, production values, and economic importance, some number of genres." You go on to say that "the standard model was reasonably accurate 50 years ago, but today, ethnologists from an alien culture would not find evidence of it." Yet the standard model still prevails in the way a bookstore is set up: you have Literature, and then you have Romance or Mystery or Science Fiction or whatever off to the side; there is a segregation of the stuff that is feeding people's hunger for story, while that hunger remains pervasive in the culture at large, on TV, in movies, in videogames. Literary culture, in some ways, has been an ineffective champion of book books, clinging to a small segment of "serious books" as the center of the standard model.

 

NS:  Yes. I was in Borderlands, a fine science fiction-fantasy-horror bookstore in San Francisco last week, signing books. It wasn't an event; it was what we call a drive-by, where you just walk in and you sign books and you leave. So I'm standing at the counter, which was being staffed by a lady who works there, a lovely, pleasant, helpful person. A woman came in who was out walking around the neighborhood, and she started looking around. The staff person said, "Can I help you?" The customer said, "Do you have anything here besides Science Fiction?" The staffer said, "No, this store is a Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror bookstore only." The customer said, "Well, this neighborhood is getting popular enough now that you would think that there would be enough demand to support a bookstore that would have Literature." So the staffer, much to her credit, kind of smiled and said, "This store is filled with literature," and waved her hand around. The customer was having none of it; she said, "You know what I mean," and walked out of the store. [LAUGHS]

 

JM: In the Gresham talk, you discuss how the gatekeepers of the bestseller list remake the list to reflect what their idea of a proper book is.

 

NS: [LAUGHS] Well, I'm going to have to start moderating that, since Anathem is about to be #1 on the New York Times list.

 

JM: Congratulations.

 

NS:  Thanks. Quite a shock for a book about Husserl's Metaphysics.

 

JM: [LAUGHS] And a 900-page book about Husserl's Metaphysics.  

 

NS:  I may have to eat my words there. But anyway, go ahead.

 

JM:  I'm thinking about what you said about a reader a hundred years ago, and I'm thinking as well that our idea of a "proper book" or even a literary book is a pretty new idea. Here I'll float my own potted history of literature, which will no doubt reveal my ignorance, but it wasn't until Flaubert that a book started to be taken seriously only within the echo chamber of its own creation: a book about its own writing that is read as a literary artifact as opposed to a narrative or expressive reality. And it took some time for what Flaubert began to gain currency, even in the literary world.

 

NS: Yes, I'm agreeing with you. In the 19th century, the novel was popular culture. Just at the point when movies came along, it turned into a fine art. It used to be like comic books, then people began trying to make it into something more like an oboe concerto. Which is fine. There's nothing wrong with oboe concertos or literary books. But yes, I think that the perceived split is not helpful.

 

JM: Speaking of oboe concertos, let's close with a musical coda. The advance reader's edition of Anathem came with a CD featuring some very interesting musical complements to the book. How did that come about?

 

NS:  As a way of getting into the mood for writing this book, I would go to concerts of medieval music. There are two groups in my area. One is called the Tudor Choir; it's a Seattle-based group that does Renaissance polyphony. The other one is called Cappella Romana, a Portland, Oregon-based group that does mostly Byzantine chant. It happens that there's a fellow named David Stutz who sings in both of those groups. He's a bass who lives in Seattle. Retired from Microsoft, he just does music now, as a composer and as a singer. We were going out to see a concert by Trio Medieval, another group in this vein . . .

 

 JM:  Their discs are wonderful.

 

NS:  Aren't they great? So we were going to the concert, and we had dinner beforehand, and I told David about Anathem, which at that point was still a pretty new project. We hatched the idea of trying to create the music that these people -- Erasmus and the other avout -- would sing to glorify not a religious idea, but an idea from mathematics or physics, or just any idea that was important to them. David immediately took the bit in his teeth and started thinking about how to do this. The first piece he did, as a sort of trial, just to see if it was feasible at all, used the digits of pi; he just came up with an encoding, where for each of the ten digits there was a different musical phrase, and then he strung them together to make a kind of chant. And that sounded fine -- there's a Gregorian version and a Byzantine version, with different intonations.

 

Then we started getting more ambitious. We did the quadratic equation -- but when I say "we", I mean that I sat and watched and cheered David on while he did everything, and we occasionally had conversations about what mathematical ideas might make suitable fodder for this process. Over the next year-and-a-half, he generated something like ten compositions total. There's one now called "The Lament for the Third Sack" which hasn't been recorded yet. That one's not mathematical. But in all of the other cases, he began with some idea from math, and then figured out a way to encode the mathematical structure into a piece of music.

 

JM:  There was a disc with the advance, but I don't think it's with the published book.

 

NS:  That's correct. It's a little confusing, because some people were expecting to see it with the book. It's not with the book, but you can hear it at my website (Editor's note: www.nealstephenson.com/anathem/music.htm).

 

JM: On the "About the Author" page at the back of Snow Crash, you say that the book was written "as the author listened to a great deal of loud, relentless, depressing music." Do you gravitate to a certain type of music for each of your writing projects?

 

NS: Yes. I tend to compile playlists that I'll go through while I'm working on it. Music was really useful with both the Baroque Cycle and Anathem. It was easy for Anathem, because I just gathered a huge amount of different kinds of chant. Actually, I just wrote about the Anathem playlist for the New York Times. I think that's out today. (Editor's note: Click here to go to Stephenson's article about the Anathem playlist in the New York Times). For the Baroque Cycle I had some period baroque music, and some world music, you might call it, from the Arabic tradition -- whatever worked, whatever fit in with what I was writing at the time.

 

 

                                                                                                September 18, 2008

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