Friday, October 22, 2004

Slashdot | Neal Stephenson Responds With Wit and Humor

Roller-coaster time!
No time this morning to go into detail, but here is a corner of creative genius that is light years ahead of political pundits and science. It derives in part from comic books.
Don't laugh. Comic books are serious stuff. Did you know that the typeface you have seen on the drop-down lists a tousand times called "comic sans" is lifted directly from comics? It is. Look it up. Comic books are very much into making stuff clear and easy to grasp. That's why the lines are so clear.

I was put on the track of comics by a Neil Gaiman reference in Stephenson's interview. Gaiman's bio makes it a point to mention his comic book origins. I have to credit that root for today's pop cyberculture if only because it predated everything else and was its only counterpart in the fifties. Even with the advent of technology the cross pollenation between comics and the cyberworld has continued. Dick Tracy's wrist radio is now for sale everywhere in a not too different form .

In case you run across references to Beowulf writers and Dante writers here is an explanation:

Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It's conventional to refer to these as "commercial" novelists, but I hate that term, so I'm going to call them Beowulf writers.

But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called "literary" as opposed to "commercial" but I hate that term too, so I'm going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system.

So here we go...

To set it up, a brief anecdote: a while back, I went to a writers' conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we'd exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me
"And where do you teach?" just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another "And which distro do you use?" [Look out! This word distro is a landmine.]

I was taken aback. "I don't teach anywhere," I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. "Then what do you do?"

"I'm...a writer,' I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say,
since she already knew that.

"Yes, but what do you do?'

I couldn't think of how to answer the question---I'd already answered it!

"You can't make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make
money?" she tried.

"From...being a writer," I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn't snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable

Don't miss the account of Stephenson's three big fights with William Gibson, another writer. Here is the first one:
The first time was a year or two after SNOW CRASH came out. I was doing a reading/signing at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Gibson stopped by to say hello and extended his hand as if to shake. But I remembered something Bruce Sterling had told me. For, at the time, Sterling and I had formed a pact to fight Gibson. Gibson had been regrown in a vat from scraps of DNA after Sterling had crashed an LNG tanker into Gibson's Stealth pleasure barge in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. During the regeneration process, telescoping Carbonite stilettos had been incorporated into Gibson's arms. Remembering this in the nick of time, I grabbed the signing table and flipped it up between us. Of course the Carbonite stilettos pierced it as if it were cork board, but this spoiled his aim long enough for me to whip my wakizashi out from between my shoulder blades and swing at his head. He deflected the blow with a force blast that sprained my wrist. The falling table knocked over a space heater and set fire to the store. Everyone else fled. Gibson and I dueled among blazing stacks of books for a while. Slowly I gained the upper hand, for, on defense, his Praying Mantis style was no match for my Flying Cloud technique. But I lost him behind a cloud of smoke. Then I had to get out of the place. The streets were crowded with his black-suited minions and I had to turn into a swarm of locusts and fly back to Seattle.

Neal Stephenson's writing is classified as postcyberpunk. Postcyberpunk is heir to cyberpunk (duh), a subspecies of science fiction. Pop films springing from this genre include Bladerunner, The Terminator series, Robocop and the like. Stephenson is a wellspring of creativity, as this Slashdot interview displays.

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