Neal Stephenson talks about his climate thriller and the Metaverse



Neal Stephenson’s new novel “Termination Shock” focuses on climate change. (Mercatus Center at GMU)

This whole Metaverse story hasn’t turned out exactly the way Seattle novelist Neal Stephenson thought when he came up with the idea 30 years ago.

At the time, Stephenson was preparing to write his science fiction novel, “Snow Crash”. He thought about how expensive it was to buy the equipment for a computer art project he was working on, as opposed to how inexpensive it was to buy a TV and watch cutting-edge programming.

What would it take to make computer hardware as cheap as a television? “The answer, of course, is a lot of people watch TV,” Stephenson told me in an interview for the Fiction Science podcast which also touched on his new sci-fi thriller on climate change, “Termination Shock”. .

During our conversation, Stephenson noted that televisions were once expensive lab curios, but became cheaper when shows like “I Love Lucy” created a huge market. Could this happen for the infographic? Remember, this was at a time when the World Wide Web was just a glint in Tim Berners-Lee’s eyes.

This is how the Metaverse was born, as the plot for “Snow Crash” in 1992. Stephenson’s characters could turn to an entire world created from 3D computer graphics, offering such popular programming. than 1990s television.

Fast forward to today, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella present the metaverse as the next frontier for online interaction via computer-generated avatars.

Stephenson recognizes the parallels with his idea – for example, “Snow Crash” describes users who are continually logged into the metaverse and end up being nicknamed “gargoyles.” But he says the main features of his planet-wide metaverse don’t match what Zuckerberg and Nadella are talking about.

“They don’t usually talk about this stuff on a planetary scale,” Stephenson said. “The main features seem to be that this is a massively multiplayer 3D universe, and what you do with it depends on your business model. We seem to see a lot of people interested in virtual meetings or virtual conversations in a fixed space, which seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to want. But it’s not quite the same as the metaverse in “Snow Crash”.

As the tech world obsesses over the metaverse, Stephenson has turned his attention to an issue he sees as far more impacting on the planet: climate change, its potentially catastrophic effects, and what we can do to alleviate it. coming crisis. Such topics are at the center of a world summit in Rome and large-scale legislative initiatives in Washington, DC – and they are also at the center of “Termination Shock”.

“The efforts of various governments to address this issue are welcome. Everything helps, but people have to be realistic about how long it will take to turn things around, ”Stephenson said.

Termination Shock book cover
“Termination Shock” is the latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s list of over a dozen novels. (Harper Collins)

In “Termination Shock”, a billionaire steps in and sets up a surreptitious plan to cool the climate using solar geoengineering. “It’s something that has been quietly talked about, I would say, in the geophysical community for quite some time,” Stephenson said. “But people are generally reluctant to go out and defend him, for obvious reasons.”

Changing the climate can make big improvements in some parts of the world (for example, avoiding an arctic melting and sea level rise) while making it worse in others (perhaps reducing precipitation in the granary of India). The battle over pros and cons provides the water for Stephenson’s geekworthy story, which weighs in at just over 700 pages.

We talked about a lot more in our sci-fi chat, including Stephenson’s recently concluded contract as chief futurist for Magic Leap, a well-funded startup developing an augmented reality platform. ; the audio drama Stephenson and his collaborators created while working at Magic Leap; as well as some tips on future novels and other upcoming attractions.

“I’m working on something more technological and cutting edge, but I can’t announce it yet,” Stephenson told me. “It could surface in mid-2022.”

If you’re interested in Stephenson’s novels, tech thrillers, climate politics and its implications for the tech world, or the metaverse and extended reality, you should really listen to the full Fiction Science podcast (and consider subscribe through your favorite podcast app). Here are some other highlights to whet your appetite:

Who will lead the efforts to tackle climate change? “In my book, he’s a billionaire, because that makes a good story. I don’t know how realistic it is. They are more likely to be less democratic governments, frankly. If you look at how the US and UK both responded to the coronavirus, we couldn’t even get a large part of the population to agree that it was a real thing, even though people died by the hundreds of thousands. … I am pessimistic about our ability to get people to accept that man-made climate change is real, let alone take costly and difficult measures to deal with it. “

On the future of democracy: “To be clear, I’m not a big fan of non-democratic countries. I am a democracy guy to the end. But if the question we’re talking about is, “Can major democracies like the US and UK support expensive and difficult actions to tackle climate change?” … At the moment, I have to be realistic and say that it doesn’t seem so likely.

On the exit ideas he’s working on in his books – including new COVID strains, deepfake videos, sonic weapons, brain implants, and drones: “A lot of the things you mentioned are just part of the picture that we are all aware of. We’ve all heard of drones, we’ve all heard of COVID, certainly we’ve all heard of the pandemic. It doesn’t take some special kind of sci-fi writer’s brain to be aware of these things. So it’s an obvious decision on my part, or on the part of any other sci-fi writer, to include slightly future-oriented versions of these things in a book set in the future.

On the factors behind the rise of the metaverse: “The way it really developed was not like television. What has become very popular and has driven down the price of hardware is video games. We’re starting to see it with ‘Doom’, which is really a 3D arcade style game as opposed to 2D. And once that spreads, it becomes a virtuous cycle that makes the material super cheap. This is history as I see it. The use of the term “metaverse” has become much more prevalent over the past year, and I’m not sure why exactly.

On the future of the novel: “The novel will be with us for a long, long time. It’s not going anywhere. There are so many advantages over other creative forms. A person can produce a novel on their own with virtually no equipment. You don’t need to have software, you don’t need engineers, you can just do it. And he has an almost endless amount of creative flexibility. So the novel is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play with different forms. “

The official release date for “Termination Shock” is November 16. Neal Stephenson’s National Book Tour includes an in-person (and online) appearance at Seattle City Hall at 7:30 p.m. PT on November 14, and a virtual appearance with Andy Weir, author of ” The Martian ”and other science fiction novels, presented by Third Place Books at 7 p.m. PT on November 16.

This report was originally published on Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Journal. Stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, and Radio Public. If you enjoy sci-fi, please rate the podcast and subscribe to receive alerts for future episodes.



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