Neal Stephenson: "My niche seems to be writing about fairly recondite material"

The Books Interview.

Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson.

One connection between your new essay collection, Some Remarks, and your fiction is the 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, who appears as a character in your Baroque Cycle series of novels. You paint an extremely attractive portrait of Leibniz here.
Leibniz was liked by a lot of people. He was particularly liked by intelligent women. There were these highly literate women from the courts who relied on him to talk to them, to have interesting conversations.

One gets the impression that women in that position were stuck in a social situation where they weren’t really encouraged or permitted to think about science or mathematics, or anything abstract. So they seemed quite grateful to have Leibniz around.

Leibniz worked across the boundary between philosophy and science. Do you admire that about him?
It’s true not just of Leibniz but most of his contemporaries that they didn’t really use the word “science”. They called it “natural philosophy”.

But in order for science to progress today, it’s necessary for it to be extraordinarily narrow in focus. I’ve known people who were on track to become professional scientists and who reached a certain point when, in order to go any further in their careers, they were going to have to specialise – and at that point they decided that’s not what they wanted to do with their lives. Specialisation is necessary but has the unfortunate side effect of putting off a lot of talented people who aren’t willing to be that focused.

You identify something you call the “Midwestern American college town” world view. Is geek culture, which you’ve written about extensively, a generalisation of that?
I think you’re on to something. Seattle is the coastal town I know best and it’s full of geeks who emerged from that kind of culture.

I’ve been reading a history of Bell Labs and a lot of the people who made the big advances at Bell Labs came from precisely this background. They were kids from Midwestern towns who tinkered with things, went to college and eventually got snapped up by Bell Labs.

The archetypal example is Claude Shannon, of information theory fame. I’d always assumed he’d come from a lofty family but in fact he was from a small town in the Midwest. In that environment, there’s a kind of openness to tinkering, a nice intersection between being formally educated in the theory of things and having ready access to farms and garages, places you can go to build things and play with physical objects. I think that was a pretty fertile environment for the development of young people who had that combination of skills.

David Foster Wallace, whom you also write about in the book, was from a similar background, wasn’t he?
That aspect of him always came through very clearly to me, as a Midwesterner. Maybe my antennae are just attuned so as to pick up that frequency, but I think certain aspects of his writing were misunderstood by people who weren’t picking up that frequency or didn’t understand where he was coming from.

People would not know what to make of some of his stylistic peculiarities. The jumping back and forth between and high and low forms of expression, for example. Some would read that as Wallace making fun of the reader. I thought that was unfortunate, because I don’t think that’s what he was up to at all.

Are you trying to save the Midwest from condescension in that piece on Wallace?
There is a certain tendency for people from that part of the country to have a bit of a chip on their shoulder and a sense of the grievance against the two coasts of the United States. Earlier in my life I was much more worried about that than I am today. I think I’ve largely let that go.

You mentioned Wallace’s mixing of the vernacular with the high-technical. Is that something you try to do in your own writing?
My niche, to the extent that I’ve got one, seems to be writing about fairly recondite material, but trying to do it in a way that develops into an enjoyable and readable story.

Neal Stephenson’s “Some Remarks” is published by Atlantic Books (£20)