More notes from the Stephenson Q&A

by Joey deVilla on October 25, 2003

Mark Askwith, possibly the best-known and -liked interviewer in the world of science fiction and fantasy writing, played the part of interviewer. The owner of Pages bookstore, which organized the “This is Not a Reading Series” reading series said that there “couldn’t be more perfect” choice than Askwith for the role. He then referred to Stephenson using a quote from Wired: “The dark prince of hacker fiction”, after which the two walked on and took their centre-stage seats with a table with a laptop computer between them and the large screen behind them.

Mark introduced Stephenson with a story. He met him 10 years ago in Seattle, just after Snow Crash, which was very strongly recommended to him by a young, eager and hyperactive employee of Bakka Books, a science fiction/fantasy bookstore which was then located on Queen Street West, barely three blocks from my house. This young employee was named Cory Doctorow.

(I also bought my first copy of Snow Crash at Bakka. It was in 1992, back when I was studying computer science at Crazy Go Nuts University. I didn’t meet Cory until 1995, so I have no idea if he was the one who rang my copy through the cash register. I ceratinly hope so.)

Stephenson opened by saying that the ficitious John Wilkins wrote Cryptonomicon, while the real one wrote Mercury (the archaic term for which is “Quicksilver”) in 1641. He was inspired to “go back” by a couple of things:

  • Darwin Among the Machines
  • Talks of Leibniz’ early work on computing
  • His discovery of the fact that Sir Isaac Newton ran the Royal Mint at the Tower of London during the last 30 years of his life.

Mark surprised Stephenson with by proving him with a handful of anagrams of “The Baroque Cycle”, which led to a discussion of secret messages hidden in Cryptonomicon. Stepheson mentioned that people are still looking for secret messages in Cryptonomicon’s typographical errors.

Mark then mentioned the opening of Quicksilver, which reads:

Boston Common

October 12, 1713, 10:33:52 A.M.

Mark then asked: given the limited accuracy of timepieces of the period, why be so precise, specifying the time down to the very second? Stephenson replied that he did that to “get himself into the headspace” initially, amd then later as a way of poking fun at “techno-thriller” styles of writing.

There was an interesting discussion of the clash between science and religion. Stephenson said that Wilkins was working on a book describing a new universal language for the discussion of philospohical thought (this includes science, which at that point in time was called “natural philosophy”). He had to stop writing a book, because while creating the words for every known animal, he realized that he might be contradicting the Biblical account of Noah’s Ark. The list was simply too large; there was no way that all those animals could fit into a boat having the dimensions specified in the Bible.

This sort of thing rasied all kinds of problems for that first generation of scientists who were creating a more mechanistic model of the universe. By predicting the activity of nature based on mathematic laws, where does that put God, free will and the soul?

Later parts of the Baroque Cycle will cover Newton’s and Leibniz’s search for an “out”. Both were deeply religious Christian men, and their mechanistic natural philosophy seemed to be at odds with those beliefs. Each came up with a workaround that attempted to resolve this dichotomy: Newto used an alchemical explanation, while Leibniz opted to use a strange and incorrect theory of matter. Stephenson said that he found this difference of appraoch to science and religion more interesting than the better-known argument — who invented Calculus? — between Newton and Leibniz.

The audience was given a quick tour of Stephenson’s web site. He talked about his collaboration with Applied Minds, whose long-term goal is to “figure ways to make the Internet better at explaining things to people”. “In the short term, it’s about explaining my book.” He also mentioned the wiki, which provided reader- and fan-created annotations.

The topic turned to the release dates for the next two books in the Baroque Cycle series. The manuscript for The Confusion has been complete for some time and the book will be out in about 6 months. The System of the World — “If I can get some peace and quiet, for about 4 weeks” — should be at bookstores in about a year.

During the intermission, I walked around and found the usual suspects for this sort of gathering. In one section were my housemate Paul Baranowski, longtime friend Rob Strickler and Chris Cummer. I caught up with my friends from science fiction and fantasy author scene including Jason Taniguchi, Brett Savory, Sandra Kasturi, Amanda Foubister and Karl Schroeder, people from the secret order of security programming fiends (Ian Goldberg and his fiancee Kat, Zooko and Amber Wilcox-O’Hearn as well as Steve and Shar van Egmond from the TorFun crowd. (A day after the show, I found out that GTABlogger Emma Jane Hogbin was also there — sorry I missed you, Emma!)

The show resumed with Stephenson reading a passage from Quicksilver. Mark Askwith later told me that he tried to convince him to read something from the second book to no avail. Stephenson told the audience that the Baroque Cycle is largely dialogue, which he finds unsatisfactory for unsatisfactory for readings since he “can’t do the voices”.

He chose a long descriptive passage in which Jack Shaftoe, soldier of fortune on the continent and more concerned with looting rathering than dying for King and Country, encounters some incredibly good fortune in the shape of a horse and an ostrich.

“For those of you who couldn’t care less about military history,” said Stephenson in a reassuring tone, “the whole book isn’t like this.”

After the reading came the Q&A session, which is covered in the previous blog entry.

The Q&A session was followed by the draw. Anyone who bought both the book and ticket at Pages bookstore or bought a ticket at the store and a book at the event was eligible to win one of 6 door prizes: a rebate on the price of Quicksilver, a chance to meet with Stephenson backstage and get your copy signed, and a T-shirt with this insignia:

Photo: T-shirt

Sandra Kasturi, who knew Mark Askwith, was the first winner. As they called out the second winner, Sandra passed right by my front-row seat as I whispered “fix!”. It was at that point that my ticket’s number got called.

As I stood up, Mark, who hadn’t turned off his microphone, said “Hey, it’s Joey deVilla!” Now the draw really looked fishy.

“He’s the Accordion Guy,” he explained to Stephenson, who nodded with a an expression that seemed to say “Whatever, dude.”

We were led backstage, where we had a quick signing session. I handed Sandra my camera and she took this picture and managed to get talk to Stephenson for a moment.

“That…really is an accordion, isn’t it?” he asked.

I told him that I carry it around as often as possible because great things happen whenever I do.

“At the very least, it’s a machine that can music into free beer,” which got a smile out of him.

Stephenson disappeared shortly afterwards. I emerged from behind the stage and saw Cory Doctorow’s parents, and chatted with them for a while. They were beaming with pride since Cory’s name was brought up at least twice during the show. Come to think of it, he was the only other science fiction writer mentioned. I told them that in addition to being a great writer, Cory was the best damned volunteer publicity guy I ever had.

A large group of us made tracks to Dora Keough, an Irish pub only a few doors away from the venue. I decided to share my good fortune and bought the first round for the entire group.

Here’s the science fiction/horror-writing contingent: Jason Taniguchi (also the organizer of Toronto’s “Serial Diners”), Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory…

Photo: Jason Taniguchi, Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory in the snug at Dora Keough.

The geek contingent: Rob Strickler, Paul Baranowski and Chris Cummer…

Photo: Rob Strickler, Paul Baranowski and Chris Cummer in the snug at Dora Keough.

“When the Joey train comes in, everybody rides!” I said, raising a pint of Guinness.

I ended up spending the lion’s share of the evening hanging out in the “snug” talking to Mark Askwith, his friend Bill (whom I gathered is some kind of comic art collector) and Amanda (whom I didn’t know was chairing the 2004 Ad Adstra [corrected October 25, 2003: I originally said "2005"] science fiction convention). Mark very kindly introduced me to Bill as “one of the people who make Toronto such a cool city.”

(Truth be told, Mark has done way more for Toronto’s coolness factor than I have. Way, way more.)

The topics were naturally geeky, but drifted about from Prisoners of Gravity and the companion CD-ROM I was going help develop for it, who could do the best impression of William Gibson reading the first line of Neuromancer (“Thuh skahh…wuz thuh colourrr ov tuh-luh-vision…tuned to a day-ed cheeyannel”), how someone could make a mint holding a “Sandman” convention, Mark’s incredible access to writers and comic book artists, Mark’s “Tintin and Snowy” sweater (which he wore that evening) and a touching story that featured a diaper-wearing, power-wheelchair-riding Ray Bradbury paying an artist who worshipped him a visit.

Before I left, I told Mark that I’d had my photo taken with only one of the two stars of the evening and asked him to join me for this photo:

Photo: Me and Mark Askwith in the snug at Dora Keough.

All in all, a fun evening.

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