back to article Neal Stephenson on swordplay, space and depressing SF

Renowned science fiction author Neal Stephenson has given his first keynote address at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas in which he outlined his ideas for realistic swordplay in gaming, the future of the space program, and how to make science fiction slightly more optimistic. Stephenson said he'd been a cryptography geek …


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  1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Don't remind me!!

    I still have to read the REAMDE, it's on the TODO stack occupying most of my in-house BossDesk.

    > slowing pace of technological advancement, had contributed to the science fiction genre shifting from the optimism of Clarke and Asimov to a darker, more dystopian bent

    It might also have to do with the depressing conveyor belt of retards, psychos, political entrepreneurs, showmen and socialist economists runining the economy as well as foreign lands and transforming people into sizzling steaks to remain in power or in the spotlight a few months more.

    1. Aldous

      Re: Don't remind me!!

      its a good read. don't expect snow crash and you will enjoy it. mind you i bought the dead tree version instead of kindle and must of burned calories holding the thing Neal is one of those authors who's books can be classed by weight :)

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

        1. John A Blackley

          Re: Don't remind me!!

          Do you find something wrong with that?

        2. Petrea Mitchell

          Re: Don't remind me!!

          "Hugo, Dickens and those others who were paid by the chapter..."

          Not Dickens, at least-- being serialized, he had to ensure that at least something *happened* in every chapter. Whereas with REAMDE, the early pokes at voluminous fantasy novels take on a horrible irony as the book drags on and on. I'm fairly sure I have read complete books that were shorter than just the final chase scene and gunbattle alone. And I mean that seriously, literally, in terms of actual word count.

  2. Bill Neal


    Give me a good WH40k any day. StarWars and the like were fine when I was in school. As an adult I almost gave up on recreational reading until a friend introduced me to the more gothic SF that is WarHammer. Now I'm giving Games Workshop more than I ever gave good old George Lucas. The theme does seem to carry on into gaming as well, with titles like Dead Space.

    1. Dr Insanity

      Re: Dystopian

      40k fiction also has a nice way around the tech-level issues some of the other commentators have mentioned - having a nice tech-reset where all the worlds knowledge is wiped and they have to reinvent most things by reverse engineering what few (relatively) relics they have left.

      Considering it was only started as an aside for a gaming system, the 40k universe is one of the most expansive I have come across. it deals very well with the vast distances between planets so that you can have isolated story-lines that take place almost independently of the rest of the Universe, while also allowing for massive space opera story-lines that can span galaxies. such is the fickle and unpredictable nature of the Warp.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Dystopian

        >"having a nice tech-reset where all the worlds knowledge is wiped and they have to reinvent most things by reverse engineering"


        -Asimov's Foundation.

        -Herbert's Dune (okay, not all knowledge wiped out, but Herbert saves himself having to get into thinking about Artificial Intelligence too much by having all AI wiped out by pogroms in his universe's history. A theme revisited in Ian M. Bank's The Alchemist.

        -Plato's Atlantis... it seems that the 'wisdom of the ancients' is a theme that resonates with us.

        -Probably many, many more that I don't know of or can't remember.

        I haven't read any WH40K since about 1995, though it did capture my adolescent imagination, and seemed fairly rich... no doubt aided because it was issues of White Dwarf with its pages of art (both professional and fan-drawn) that I read, not the novels.

        Iain M. Bank's The Culture is his idea of a humanist utopia, though he often features characters who can't be happy living in it- any conceivable utopia would have limits and not suit everyone.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Dystopian

      > Now I'm giving Games Workshop more than I ever gave good old George Lucas.

      Your time, your money, your dignity and most likely your internal organs. In terms of being evil corporate bastards Oracle has nothing on these guys. You will be harvested for fuel at some point.

      /me goes back to muttering about how much better the 2ed rules where.

      1. Jelliphiish

        Re: Dystopian

        playing Warmachine these days..istr lots of old GW staffers doing the rules (?) and a certain Mike McVey doing the figures, well some of them ;) think 40k steampunk with cards for prompts etc. not perfect but as darn sight better than 5th ed...

      2. Graham Bartlett

        Re: Dystopian

        Too damn right!

        Although I got myself Dan Abnett's "Eisenhorn" in an airport for some light reading, and was pleasantly surprised. WH40K tends (naturally enough) to fixate on the fighting forces. But there has never been a roleplaying equivalent of WH40K (unlike the WH Fantasy setting), so it's always been pretty light on how the background of how the society works. I wasn't expecting more than a disposable flight-occupying read, but Abnett actually did an extremely good job of it.

  3. Colin Brett


    Science fiction does not age well, unless broadly written. Here are a couple of examples I'm sure regular Reg readers will recognise:

    1) In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (as originally written), Ford Prefect orders SIX pints of bitter, pays with a five pound note, and tells the landlord to keep the change. The landlord then replies "What? From a fiver?"

    2) In William Gibson's Neuromancer, Case has an ice-cold flask of pituitary glands (useful as he doesn't get his own gland removed with a knife!) and laptop/palmtop/ipod-thing with 3 Mb of "hot RAM".

    Sometimes I think these classics should be tweaked to reflect life as it is now. But then, the updates will be out of date by the end of next week anyway. I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing.


    1. wim

      Re: Age?

      Maybe 3 MB of hot RAM is enough if you system is well coded with a future hyper efficient coding language or quantum computing of whatever. See you can upgrade the surrounding in your imagination.

      Heard that kids ? Imagination, it's the thing you use when you are not watching TV.

      1. soaklord

        Re: Age?

        I thought that was called xbox. Or pwndstation. Coat please.

    2. Graham Marsden

      Re: Age?

      And whilst we're at it, why don't we update HG Wells...?!

      1. hplasm

        Re: update HG Wells...?!

        Don't! Tom Cruise might do War of the Worlds II.

    3. John Styles

      Re: Age?

      Yes, absolutely. Great Expectations was horribly dated until South Park added the robot monkeys powered by the tears of broken hearted men.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Age?

      > 1) In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (as originally written), Ford Prefect orders SIX pints of bitter, pays with a five pound note, and tells the landlord to keep the change. The landlord then replies "What? From a fiver?"

      I always assumed this was sarcasm.

      1. Joseph Bryant

        Re: Age?

        A pint would have cost about 30p at the time, so, no, not sarcasm.

        1. BorkedAgain
          Thumb Up

          Re: Age?

          ...and his reply (from memory, something like "You've got about five minutes left to spend it.") also shows that it was an unexpectedly generous tip...

          *Lies down with paper bag over head*

    5. Archibear

      Re: Age?

      If you want parts of Neuromancer that don't make sense any more, just consider the (classic) first line.

  4. Simon_Sharwood_Reg_APAC_Editor (Written by Reg staff)


    REAMDE is a good READ. But it is hardly SciFi - all the tech in it is modern, almost nothing is imagined.

    I've read it twice, but then I am a bit of a Stephenson fanboi.

    As for Dickens, Hugo, etc, Stephenson did have a waft at that model of writing in The Mongoliad, which was cracking fun. I do hope eventually gets fleshed out ...

    1. lurker

      Re: Fanboi

      At least half of his stuff isn't really SciFi, it's mostly just a label which was hung on him after Snow Crash. Cryptonomicon is his masterwork still as far as I'm concerned, and that's not SciFi at all. Neither is the Baroque Cycle, or REAMDE.

      1. Elmer Phud

        Re: Fanboi

        But it's best to read Cryptonomicon after the Baroque cycle - plates with holes, Roots, Waterhouses etc.

        1. That Awful Puppy

          Re: Fanboi

          Oh, do fsck off, I nearly got over that odd craving, then I remembered it's been almost a year, if not more, since I last read the Baroque Cycle. Well, at least I'll get some exercise out of lugging those three bastards around again.

  5. Kevin Johnston

    Sci-fi 'tech'

    I have read 'a lot' of sci-fi (I suspect in common with most El Reg followers) and if you discount the Fantasy branch then you really only have two routes for the tech to follow. It is either a generational advance on current stuff which anyone would recognise or else set far enough ahead that some radical breakthroughs have created something from the Fantasy genre. Even with the breakthroughs the storylines have to be believable and so lifestyles are not too different from now, just with flying cars.

    There is only so far writers can diverge from real life before it wierds people too much and they are not comfortable reading it. I'm sure most of you can think of examples where the author went that step too far and what had been a compelling read suddenly appears on the pile to be finished 'one day'.

    The same aspects hold with the technology in the stories, if they are extensions of existing kit they tend to blend into the story and you can skip past any minor quirks, if they are 'quantum' advances then they are likely to be central to the plot and so long as they are consistently applied you can accept them as-is.

    The past generation has been spent on expanding the capabilities of existing tech rather than inventing new stuff (even the most rabid fan would accept that the latest smartphone is a merging of existing technologies using modern processes and materials, it is not a product invented out of nothing) almost in part because the main drivers of technological advance are not nice....warfare. If you remove the advances developed by military needs or nationalistic fear it doesn't leave that many and they are well spread in time.

    Sorry, rambling on a bit there.

    1. BoldMan

      Re: Sci-fi 'tech'

      I just finished re-reading EE Doc Smith's Lensman series which was written in the 30s and 40s and its utterly brilliant how the "futuristic" technology is so archaic (computors insetad of computers, valves in stead of transistors or ICs, "bus bars" 20 feet in diameter :) ) The only thing that is really "dated" in those books is the attitude towards women :)

      1. Gerry Doyle 1

        Re: Sci-fi 'tech'

        The most glaring examples tended to be where the hero would take out his slide rule and star charts, labouriously/skillfully plot a course and *then* feed it into the computer...

    2. Nigel 11

      Re: Sci-fi 'tech'

      Actually there is at least one technological revolution in full flood right now: biotech (and GM). It's (surprisingly? ) far under most people's radar, because the main applications so far are

      - pharmaceuticals, which we don't think about until we're ill, and then either the medics can cure us, or they can't and we accept our fate. No change since the middle ages, really, except the pills work somewhat more often these days.

      - food, which we eat the same way whether it's GM or not, and most of us don't really know or care.

      - raw materials (made by bacteria, GM or just selectively bred) which then go into the same old manufacturing chains. Once upon a time, citric acid was extracted from citrus fruit.

      But one day soon, that might change dramatically. For example, on the optimistic side, what if instead of having a house built, you could just plant some seeds, and occasionally spray the developing house-treees with hormones to control the shapes of the walls and windows? Or grow GM seaweed that concentrates your element of need (Gold? Uranium? Europium?) out of the seawater, courtesy of a precisely engineered molecular sieve? Or solve global warming with a crop plant engineered to grow its roots far deeper than nature says it needs to, thereby burying lots of carbon for a long time?

      And on the pessimistic side, it could all go horribly wrong (the cliche being zombie-horror fiction).

      Some SF authors do get it, but a lot of those I've read illustrate that people who know their bioscience often don't know their physics.

  6. kyza

    For those who've read REAMDE

    ...does he actually write a proper ending? Massive Stephenson fanboi (I've read the Baroque cycle 3 times), and his endings have always left me a little flat, bar Anathem.

    Was the Baroque cycle SF? Of a kind - 'pre-science' fiction maybe?

    1. SkippyBing

      Re: For those who've read REAMDE

      The ending is handled in a similar style to Anathem so you should be ok. I really enjoyed it although I do wonder if he's exasperated at having to tie up the loose ends that he probably thinks are too obvious to need resolving!

  7. Risky
    Thumb Up

    Science Fiction?

    It's fiction about science mostly which it the tread that links his writing.

  8. Andy Farley
    Thumb Up

    Science fiction a way of examining humanity.

    Change the environment people are operating in, then see what their behaviour is. There are things that change and things that persist. The things that persist are what humanity actually is.

    Snow Crash was brilliant, but Anathem is transcendental.

    1. FartingHippo

      Re: Science fiction

      Anathem was an amazing read. The slow unfolding of the weird and wonderful - yet just familiar enough - world utterly mesmeric.

      The Diamond Age is still the daddy though.

  9. TheOtherHobbes

    Science fiction

    is pretty much the only fiction genre with a serious interest in politics and sociology.

    The science is often a bit incidental.

  10. Nigel 11

    Mirror of our times?

    The state of SF is because it's reflecting the times we live in, or extrapolating them into the future. And there's not much to be optimistic about in today's society.

    IT, for example, seems to have gone from being an enabling tool, to being a tool for repression. Omnipresent surveillance. No respect for privacy. Patent wars (that the small guys can't afford to fight). A complete disrespect for sound engineering principles, especially if they get in the way of making money in the short term. And worst, we've layered all the new infrastructure (which is frighteningly fragile) on top of old infrastructure (which was once robust, but which we're allowing to crumble, because our leaders don't understand that it supports the new stuff).

    More widely there are issues of resource depletion, population increase and ecological overload, that are almost universally regarded as "too hard" and ignored. By the time they bite so hard they cannot be ignored, it'll be far too late to fix them.

    Personally, I'd call today's reality a dystopia, and I can't see it getting any better. Pessimism is assuming it's going to get much worse very fast in the near future. A global crash (and not just the financial one, that we're already in). Thinking things are going to get a lot better very quickly isn't optimism, it's denial. Optimism is thinking that we'll muddle though, somehow.

  11. Saucerhead Tharpe

    In LEnsman a "computor" is a person, not a thing

    It's someone trained to do numbers really fast. The Display tanks are the results of caculations by mortals, not displays for devices

  12. philbo
    Thumb Up

    If he can make swordplay realistic..

    ..then I might actually buy a computer game.

    I fence foil, sabre and epée, go LARPing on occasion (not as much as I did before having children, though) and have yet to see any kind of computer game that comes close to using a real (or even a foam-padded) sword. Best of luck to the man :-)

    1. Saucerhead Tharpe

      Re: If he can make swordplay realistic..

      He had a kick starter about it with either a test rig or a mockup and yes, he means it, though it seems to be single sword rather than, say, sword and main-gauche or sword and shield

    2. Andy Farley
      Thumb Up

      Re: If he can make swordplay realistic..

      Well....realistic is a bit much to ask. However

      is coming out soon, made by the people who made

      which I've heard had a very good melee combat engine.

      *shrug* we'll see.

  13. Deebster

    If anyone's wondering if that's the Joe Cornish from The Adam and Joe Show:

    It is.

    1. FartingHippo

      Re: If anyone's wondering if that's the Joe Cornish from The Adam and Joe Show:

      I just read his bio on wiki. I had no clue that he was such a talented chap.

  14. Nigel 11

    Immortality - cause for optimism?

    Just realized, no-one seems to have mentioned the one SF dream that might make things a lot better in a hurry and which might come about in some of our lifetimes. Immortality (second-grade). It may be possible to slow down or turn off the senescence mechanism that's biologically programmed into our stem cells. If perfect, we'd then enjoy the same life-expectancy and health at 70, or 100, or 200, that we enjoyed at 30. If less perfect, we might still get a few more decades of middle-aged health. We'd still die, eventually, of accident or incurable illness or other sorts of ageing that medicine couldn't deal with. But we might start treating the future of our planet with the respect it deserves, if we knew we might be living a few hundred years longer, rather than just a few decades.

  15. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    Re: dystopian fiction

    So, the current trend in sci-fi is NOT unique.... I read a fair whack of sci-fi from say the late 1970s, that'd take place in the 1990s or 2000s.... they just assumed by then the worldwide ecology would be completely destroyed, with food riots and shortages, electricity brownouts (in lucky areas) and widespread long-term blackouts (for the rest), extreme thunderstorms in some areas with extreme drought in the rest, and of course hot hot hot. They tended to focus on either 1) Some time travel thing so someone could go back and tell the people of the 50s or so "hey, careful with that environment!" or 2) Someone trying to get a generation ship completed and off Earth before the Earth's technological civilization utterly collapses (or earth plain becomes uninhabitable.)

    As for new technologies... well, people pointing to airplane, car, nuclear power, and TV & radio forget about the modern computer, near-ubiquituous wireless communications, and all the social changes these have wrought; nanotechnology, advances in materials science, and so on. I think long-term the internet and ubiquitous cell phones are even more important than the car and airplane (long-term as travel costs increase, or once fossil fuels run short travel goes to more solar & sailing as opposed to jet engines.... the car and plane will be less signifcant, and the ability to have a nice internet teleconference will be more significant.)

    As for taking ipods and blackberrys out of the story, that is smart. Those would make the story dated for sure.

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