Neal Stephenson talks about his climate thriller and the metaverse

Neal Stephenson’s new novel, “Termination Shock”, focuses on climate change. (Mercatus Center at GMU)

This whole metaverse thing he didn’t come out exactly like the Seattle novelist Neal Stephenson he thought it would happen when he got the idea 30 years ago.

At the time, Stephenson was preparing to write his groundbreaking science fiction novel, “Snow accident”. He was pondering how expensive it was to buy equipment for a computer art project he was working on, as opposed to how cheap it was to buy a television and watch cutting-edge programs.

What would it take to make computer equipment as cheap as a television? “The answer, of course, is that a lot of people watch TV,” Stephenson told me in an interview for Science fiction podcast which also touched on his new science fiction thriller about climate change, “Shock of the end”.

During our chat, Stephenson noted that televisions were once expensive lab items, but they became cheaper when programs like “I Love Lucy” created a huge market. Could this happen for computer graphics? Remember, this was at a time when the World Wide Web it wasn’t much more than a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.

Thus was born the metaverse, as a plot device for “Snow Crash” in 1992. Stephenson’s characters could transform into an entire world created by 3D computer graphics, offering programming as popular as 1990s television.

Fast forward to today when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg Other Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft they are advertising the metaverse as the next frontier for online interaction through computer-generated avatars.

Stephenson recognizes parallels with his idea: for example, “Snow Crash” describes users who are continuously connected to the metaverse and they end up being nicknamed “gargoyle”. But he says the main features of his planetary metaverse don’t align with what Zuckerberg and Nadella are talking about.

“They generally don’t talk about that kind of thing on a planetary scale,” Stephenson said. “The key features appear to be that this is a 3D universe that is massively multiplayer, and what you do with it depends on your business model. It seems like a lot of people are interested in virtual meetings or virtual conversations in a fixed space, which seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to want. But it’s not quite the same as the metaverse in ‘Snow Crash.’ “

While the tech world is obsessed with the metaverse, Stephenson has turned his attention to an issue he considers far more impactful for the planet: climate change, its potentially catastrophic effects, and what we can do to alleviate the upcoming crisis. These arguments are at the heart of a global summit in Rome e major legislative initiatives in Washington, DC – and I’m also at the center of “Termination Shock”.

“The efforts being made by various governments to address this problem are all welcome. Everything is useful, but people have to be realistic about how long it will take to change this, ”Stephenson said.

Cover of the book Termination Shock
“Termination Shock” is the latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s list of more than a dozen novels. (Harper Collins)

In “Termination Shock”, a billionaire steps in and creates a surreptitious scheme to cool the climate through solar geoengineering. “This is something that has been quietly talked about, I would say, in the geophysical community for a while,” said Stephenson. “But people are generally reluctant to come out and support it, for obvious reasons.”

Changing the climate can bring about great improvements in some parts of the world (for example, from cope with an Arctic melt and sea level rise) while making things worse in others (perhaps from reduce rainfall in India’s bread basket). The battle over pros and cons provides water for Stephenson’s geeky tale, which weighs just over 700 pages.

We talked about a lot more in our Fiction Science chat, including Stephenson’s recently concluded gig as Futurist leader for Magic Jump, a well-funded startup developing an augmented reality platform; the audio drama that Stephenson and his collaborators created while working on Magic Leap; plus some tips on upcoming novels and other upcoming attractions.

“I’m working on something more technological and cutting edge, but I can’t announce it yet,” Stephenson told me. “It could emerge to the surface in mid-2022”.

If you’re interested in Stephenson’s novels, tech thrillers, climate politics and its implications for the tech world, or the metaverse and extended reality, you should really listen to the entire sci-fi podcast (And consider subscribing via your favorite podcast app). Here are some other highlights to whet your appetite:

Who will lead the effort to tackle climate change? “In my book, he’s a billionaire, because he makes a good story. I don’t know how realistic that is. They are more likely to be less democratic governments, frankly. If you look at how the US and UK responded to the coronavirus, we couldn’t even get a large part of the population to agree that it was a real thing, even though people were dying by the hundreds of thousands. . … I am pessimistic about our ability to get people to agree that man-made climate change is a real thing, much less agree to take costly and difficult measures to address that problem. “

On the future of democracy: “To be clear, I’m not a big fan of undemocratic countries. I am a boy of democracy through and through. But if the question we’re talking about is, “Can big democracies like the US and the UK support costly and difficult actions to tackle climate change?” … Right now I have to be realistic and say it doesn’t seem that likely. “

On the escape ideas he works in his books, including new COVID strains, deepfake videos, sonic weapons, brain implants, and drones: “Many of the things you mentioned are only part of the picture that we are all aware of. We’ve all heard of drones, we’ve all heard of COVID, surely we’ve all heard of the pandemic. It doesn’t take a special science fiction writer brain to be aware of these things. So it’s an obvious move on my part, or any other science fiction writer, to include slightly forward-looking versions of these things in a book set in the future. “

On the factors driving the rise of the metaverse: “The way it really developed wasn’t like TV. The thing that actually became very popular and lowered the price of hardware was video games. We start seeing it with ‘Doom’, which is a true 3-D game as opposed to arcade-style 2-D. And once that takes hold, it becomes a virtuous circle that makes hardware super cheap. This is the story as I see it. The use of the term ‘metaverse’ has only become much more prevalent in the last year, and I don’t know exactly why. “

On the future of the novel: “The novel will be with us for a long, long time. It’s not going anywhere. There are so many advantages over other creative forms. One person can produce a novel on their own with virtually zero equipment. You don’t have to have software, you don’t have to have engineers, you can just do it. And it has an almost infinite amount of creative flexibility. So the novel is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play with different forms. “

The official publication date for “Shock of the end” it’s November 16th. Neal Stephenson’s National Book Tour includes an in-person (and online) appearance at Seattle City Hall at 7:30 PM PT on November 14 and a virtual appearance with Andy Weir, author of “The Martian” and other science fiction novels, presented by Third Place Books at 7:00 PM PT on November 16.

This report was originally published in Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Diary. Stay tuned for upcoming episodes of Science fiction podcast through Still, Apple, Google, Spotify, switch, pocket jets Other Radio audience. If you like Fiction Science, rate the podcast and subscribe to receive alerts for future episodes.


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