TCS Daily

The Source of the Modern World

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 7, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week's column inspired by Neal Stephenson's new novel, Quicksilver, produced an email from Stephenson's publisher, which led to me chatting with him on the telephone. The result was the following interview, done by cellphone as both of us traveled to different engagements. It's a bit on the casual side, but I found it interesting. 


TCS: What got you interested in the Seventeenth Century?


Neal Stephenson: It started with the personal stories of Newton and Leibniz. Then I started to learn about Hooke, and the other members of the Royal Society, and it kind of snowballed. There were so many things going on back then with ramifications and consequences that we feel today that I just got sucked in.


What I found interesting on a political level was that the Cromwell types were pushing a bunch of ideas that struck people as nuts at the time, but that are bedrock principles of modern society -- things like free enterprise and separation of church and state and limited government that took years to actually achieve.


Many of the people called Puritans were small businessmen and independent traders. They had a real bent toward free enterprise, and they developed a real resentment of government and taxes -- as a result, they were free traders. It's like what we see with a lot of pro-business people today.


[We then had an interesting discussion of whether the growth of self-employment today would lead to an increase in such sentiments in the modern world, though we reached
no conclusion.]


TCS: Many of the great minds in your book -- Hooke, Newton, Leibniz, etc. -- were, to put it mildly, kind of weird. But they were brilliant. I've heard a lot of people say that Richard Feynman would be too unconventional to get, or keep, a faculty position today. What about people like Newton, who was much odder? Are we sidelining our geniuses today?


NS: That's a big question. If you kind of read their "blogs" -- diaries of people like Pepys, Hooke, John Evelyn -- it's clear that they were pretty elastic, pretty adaptable, in their social arrangements. It didn't seem to faze them at all to deal with people who had odd social quirks. I think that's partly an English thing, part of having a clubby attitude. If you were a part of this club, the Royal Society, a pretty wide range of behavior was tolerated.


Today, well, I don't have enough firsthand experience with the modern academic world to have a sound opinion. But you can see examples of where really talented [eccentric] people today have been able to find a niche in the business world instead of academia.


In business, if you can make money, the personal oddities get overlooked. The bottom line is the bottom line.


In an academic setting you're looking at a different bottom line. It's a far more complex social environment that one has to navigate to get ahead, dealing with students, alumni, colleagues, the administration, and so on. I think you're onto an interesting question. It's too bad that there's not some kind of an index of eccentricity that we could use to compare the academic world and the business world over time.


TCS: Will your new website feature a blog?


NS: Not in the sense of chronological writing. Did you see the Metaweb site? That has some things in common with a blog. If someone asks a question, I can put up an answer. So that serves some bloglike functions. But to do something like that every day would totally interfere with getting books written.


TCS: I understand that you did all the writing on the Baroque Cycle books by hand, using a fountain pen. Did that make a difference?


NS: Absolutely. The key difference is that it's slower. It's like when you're writing, there's a kind of buffer in your head where the next sentence sits while you're outputting the last one. As long as it's still in your head, it's easy to manipulate that next sentence, or even to reject it. Once it's out, well. . .


When you're using a high-speed output method there's less of that. In my opinion, the first draft quality winds up being higher with a pen. It's easier to edit -- to scratch out a word is easier than backspacing over it. What this enables me to do is to get words down in a way that's closer to the final version. And it's more stable: no hard-drive crashes, accidentally deleted files, and so on.


Paper's a really advanced technology. That was brought home to me by working on this, when I read a lot of documents from that era, which were put down on really good, acid-free paper. They're all pretty much as good as they were the day they were made 300 or 350 years ago. This is not going to be true of today's electronic media in 300 years. There's a lesson there.


TCS: One of the themes in Quicksilver seems to involve the relationship between money and knowledge. I remember a scene in Stranger in a Strange Land in which Michael [the Man From Mars] suddenly understands money, and he's staggered -- he thinks it's the most beautiful thing humans have created. Do you remember that scene?


NS: I don't remember that. I read the book as a teenager, but I think I was more interested that he was sleeping with so many people. The money part must not have made an impression.


TCS: On your website, you talk about fame, and say that your fame is like being the Mayor of Des Moines -- quite famous within a group of a few hundred thousand people, but largely unknown to everyone else. As media fragment, do you think this is the future of fame?


NS: That's interesting. This is a kind of inversion of Warhol's idea, that everyone would be famous -- to everyone else -- for fifteen minutes. In the future, maybe everyone will be famous for a long time, but to a limited group.


I do think that society has a craving, hardwired in somehow, to have a few people, no more than a couple of dozen maybe, who are universally famous, people like J. Lo or Britney Spears. However, once you get beyond that level, I think it is going to be a kind of highly fragmented, focused kind of fame.


It makes for interesting situations. I'm sitting in a Marriott outside of Ypsilanti right now, and there's a dental convention here. I'm totally anonymous. I can get a drink in the bar, go down to the restaurant, whatever and nobody will recognize me. But if I went to a science fiction convention, I'd be famous in those confines and I'd probably be recognized if I went anywhere.


TCS: Any final thoughts?


NS: I'm glad you picked up on the Seventeenth Century's role as being the source of so much of the modern world. I don't think that many people appreciate that, and I think it's really fascinating stuff.


I think that it is really interesting stuff, and I hope -- as I suggested last week -- that Quicksilver will bring more popular attention to the ideas of the Seventeenth Century, ideas that may have special relevance today.



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