Earlier this week, long time sci-fi and historical fiction writer Neal Stephenson announced his plans to create a more realistic sword fighting video game, Clang. These days, when he’s not slaying his virtual enemies, he often writes about how the Internet is stifling innovation by increasing our aversion to risk, and decreasing our ability to "get big things done." I talked to Neal about everything from swordplay to sci-fi to space travel.
Tell me about Clang. How’s it going to be different?
Until recently game designers have had to make do with hardware that is designed more for first-person shooter type games, and there’s a limit to how much you can capture of realistic sword fighting when your only way to interact with a game is to push a button or pull a trigger.
So, within the last few years, a couple of changes have happened. One is that new kinds of hardware and controllers have come on the market, and another is that a lot of new information has been coming to light thanks to the work of the historical swordsmanship community about how these old martial arts systems actually work. We’re hoping that by combining those things and coming up with some new ideas in the area of user interface design that we can put together a more satisfactory and realistic kind of sword fighting.
Is this the first time you’ve done anything like this?
No, I’ve been a part-time hacker geek for quite a few years. I write in the morning, and then in the afternoon I have to find something else to do to get my mind off the book. Over the years I’ve done computer programming, electronic circuits, worked at rocket company and an invention laboratory. The people whom I hang out with tend to be not so much writers as hackers, programmers, makers and engineers. So this is kind of the oxygen I’ve been breathing for a long time. It’s partly because of that that I felt like I was seeing some opportunities in this space that were ready to be taken advantage of.
What do you think about modern gaming? Which games do you play?
I wouldn’t say I’m a super hardcore gamer, but I’ve been steady player for a lot of years. I got the first Xbox when it came out, played the Halo series, a little bit of Skyrim and some Red Dead Redemption. They all are pretty run-of-the mill games, but I enjoyed them.
As far as sword fighting goes, what’s the best thing that’s out there right now?
I won’t claim that I’ve gone and made a complete survey of all the sword games, so I can’t really give an informed answer.
Okay, now on to the Big Stuff.
Last year you wrote about how we weren’t making any serious effort in the way of innovative new space launch schemes. Have your thoughts on this changed at all with developments like SpaceX and more interest in commercial space travel?
What they’ve achieved is really spectacular. I don’t think anyone can appreciate just how difficult it really is until you’ve been inside on a development project like that, so it’s an awe-inspiring thing that they’ve done. I’d like to see people exploring other options besides chemical rockets, but there are a lot of obstacles to doing that — to make a long story short those obstacles boil down to our attitude toward risk as a society.
What’s our current attitude toward risk?
I think we’ve become far more averse to risk than earlier generations were — and people have become conservative about trying to fund and explore new ideas in a way that’s becoming a serious problem for us.
Why do you think it's such a serious problem?
That’s an interesting thing to think about. I don’t claim to have the answer — one take on it is that 50 years ago we had very limited access to information compared to the way things are now. Even the best informed decision makers were operating in a vacuum, and they knew it. They knew they had to accept a certain level of risk and make some judgment calls — and that their bosses or people responsible for evaluating them had to just accept that.
And you think the Internet is to blame?
The Internet has created a situation that we at least have the illusion that we can get unlimited information about anything now — and it may have fostered the attitude that if you take a risk and it doesn’t pan out, you should have known it, and you’re personally responsible.
So you think we were more innovative before we had all this information at our disposal?
Yes, I think that naiveté can actually have some advantages, in a strange way.
Does this make you more averse to using the Internet?
I’m developing a kind of bipolar relationship with Internet. I’m finding it harder to work because I can jump over to the screen with email, Facebook and Twitter and check those things all the time now. So I’m having to revamp my work environment and build a space that is going to be my internet-free zone, and I’m trying to get out of the habit of checking my email every five seconds too.
Does the amount of information out there make it harder for you to write about science fiction?
I think it does lead to some new situations; it’s hard to keep the reader in the dark. It can be harder to surprise the reader if they’ve got the ability to just Google everything as they go along. In a way, as writers we’re relying on the reader to buy into a certain kind of voluntary ignorance until they get to the end of the book.