Neal Stephenson Is Tired of Dystopias at Disrupt SF | Summary and Q&A

September 13, 2016
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Neal Stephenson Is Tired of Dystopias at Disrupt SF

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In this video, author Neal Stevenson discusses his most recent book, "Seveneves," and his views on futurism, virtual reality, and the publishing industry. He touches on topics such as the inspiration behind his book, the role of dystopia in modern fiction, the potential of virtual reality as an art form, and the pressing problems that need to be solved in the world.

Questions & Answers

Q: How did it feel to have your book on Obama and Bill Gates's summer reading lists?

It was surprising and exciting. Being on Bill Gates's list led to a memorable day where I got to do a video with him in Seattle. And being on the President's reading list was a great honor, even though it was a long list of books for a vacation.

Q: Can you give a brief synopsis of "Seveneves"?

The book starts with the moon blowing up into seven large chunks, which eventually start colliding and falling to Earth as meteorites. This process will continue to accelerate and eventually wipe out all life on the surface of the Earth. The story then fast-forwards to the distant future, where the survivors have built a civilization on a space ark.

Q: How does it feel as an author to destroy the entire world in your book?

It's mostly a decision-making process for me. I wanted to handle the emotional aspect of such a catastrophic event carefully. I focused on the emotions of the people watching from space and gave them something to do to keep them busy and engaged.

Q: What is the most pernicious thing about futurism in fiction and nonfiction?

I think the dystopian trend in fiction has become a bit tired. It has become a genre that is easily accessible and marketable, but it may not be serving the same social purpose as before. Instead, it might be more useful to focus on ways to avoid dystopia and explore different futures.

Q: Why do we like dystopias so much in movies and TV shows?

One reason might be that dystopias are relatively inexpensive to create compared to building fully realized alternate realities. For example, in "Planet of the Apes," the iconic image of the fallen Statue of Liberty was probably a cost-effective way to portray a dystopian future. Furthermore, there is a certain creative lock-in that occurs in established genres, making it challenging to break free and explore new ideas.

Q: Is virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) a new art form or interaction paradigm?

I would say it's both. VR and AR have the potential to transform storytelling and the way we interact with media. In the future, we may see people at home wearing VR goggles and experiencing content in immersive ways. It's a medium that is still evolving, and it's a great opportunity for creators to experiment and do new things.

Q: Do you think video games have reached a point where the most popular ones are repetitive?

Video games, like any other medium, can fall into patterns and genres that dominate the market. For example, first-person shooters have become a dominant style, making it challenging for other types of games to break through. This is similar to what happens in other established media, where successful formulas tend to dominate.

Q: What do you think the world will look like in 20 years?

The rapid advancement of technology and how we interact with it will likely shape our future. However, it's hard to predict exactly what the world will look like in 20 years. The transition might seem slow as it happens, but when we look back, it will appear incredibly rapid. It's essential for industry insiders to adapt and embrace the changes that are coming.

Q: What are the pressing problems that need to be solved in the world today?

Global climate change is one of the most pressing problems keeping me up at night. It's a challenge that the human race hasn't faced before, and it requires urgent attention. It's essential for us to move beyond marveling at the problem and start taking significant actions to mitigate the effects. Additionally, there are social impacts and issues around the excessive use of technology and how it affects human interaction.

Q: Did science fiction ever predict something like a Donald Trump situation?

While I cannot recall a specific example, it's highly likely that science fiction has addressed similar scenarios. I'm not an expert in the genre, but I'm sure there are books that explore political and societal changes similar to what we are experiencing today.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

The publishing industry has changed significantly, and it's essential to consider the value of the middle layer – agents, editors, publicists, and marketing professionals. While self-publishing can be a viable option in some cases, it often lacks the expertise and support that traditional publishing offers. It might be worth exploring traditional publishing avenues and finding ways to get your book noticed rather than relying solely on self-publishing.


Neal Stevenson discusses his book "Seveneves" and his thoughts on futurism, virtual reality, and the publishing industry. He emphasizes the need to explore different futures instead of constantly focusing on dystopias. He believes that virtual reality has the potential to become a new art form and interaction paradigm but acknowledges the challenges in the video game industry to break free from established genres. Stevenson also highlights the urgent need to address global climate change and suggests that aspiring authors consider traditional publishing routes in order to benefit from the expertise and support provided by professionals in the industry.

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