What's Neal Stephenson Building Down There?

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I'm a huge Neal Stephenson fan. There, I said it. Yesterday I pointed to an article on how one fan solved a mystery related to Stephenson's book Quicksilver, last month I pointed to his best essay ever, and today I'm pointing to a new profile of Stephenson by Steven Levy from Wired. You see, Stephenson has a new book called Anathem coming out in just a few weeks, so my Stephenson-mentioning machinery is just going to run faster until I get my hands on a copy...after which I'll maintain radio silence until I've worked my way through it. (If any William Morrow publicists are reading, you could speed up this process with a well-placed Advance Reader Copy....)

Anyway, don't let my rambling fanboy anticipation get in the way of discussing this Wired profile. Levy splits time between discussion of Stephenson himself and the new Anathem, which is partially inspired by The Clock of the Long Now (yet another recent blog entry). We get a picture of Stephenson as sort of an old-school hacker, a technology enthusiast who likes to put things together in novel and amusing ways. But despite his fluency with modern technology, he also writes in longhand, builds and plays with armor, and often about archaic technologies like alchemy. Many things are being built in Neal Stephenson's basement -- from armor to science fiction, they're flowing from the same source. Here's a bit from the profile:

Stephenson spends his mornings cloistered in the basement, writing longhand in fountain pen and reworking the pages on a Mac version of the Emacs text editor. This intensity cannot be sustained all day--"It's part of my personality that I have to mess with stuff," he says--so after the writing sessions, he likes to get his hands on something real or hack stuff on the computer. (He's particularly adept at Mathematica, the equation-crunching software of choice for mathematicians and engineers.) For six years, he was an adviser to Jeff Bezos' space-flight startup, Blue Origin. He left amicably in 2006. Last year, he went to work for another Northwest tech icon, Nathan Myhrvold, who heads Intellectual Ventures, an invention factory that churns out patents and prototypes of high-risk, high-reward ideas. Stephenson and two partners spend most afternoons across Lake Washington in the IV lab, a low-slung building with an exotic array of tools and machines to make physical manifestations of the fancies that flow from the big thinkers on call there.

"In Neal's books, he's been fantastically good at creating scenarios and technologies that are purely imaginary," Myhrvold says. "But they're much easier imagined than built. So we spend a certain amount of our time imagining them but the rest of our time building them. It's also very cool but different to say, 'Let's come up with new ways of doing brain surgery.'"

That's right--brain surgery is one of the things Stephenson is tinkering with. He and his team are helping refine some mechanical aspects of a new tool, a helical needle for operating on brain tumors. It's the kind of cool job one of his characters might have.

Read the rest for a nice look at Stephenson, and a sneak-peek at his upcoming novel.

(Via Kottke.org.)

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August 22, 2008 - 9:03am
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