Neal Stephenson

Posted on September 26, 2011 by Steve

It was seven years ago that I snapped, with a CLIÉ, the photo that would become, for a while, the image for Wikipedia's article on Neal Stephenson.

Mr. Stephenson was back in D.C. this week for the National Book Festival, reading from his latest thousand-page tome, this one written not with a fountain pen but using Scrivener.

I was late for the reading but managed to catch the end and get in line for the Q&A session. The audio was a bit clumsy, with large loudspeakers pointed straight at the questioners, causing them to shrink away while Neal struggled to hear. I got the last question in.

NTS: Okay we're in overtime I'll just take one more real quick.
Q: Thanks, Neal. The word from Venezuelan state television is that Presidente Chavez intends to repatriate eleven billion dollars worth of gold reserves, most of which are now in London.
NTS: I can't hear what you're saying, sorry.
Q: [same volume, one octave higher] From Venezuela, Presidente Chavez intends to repatriate eleven billion dollars worth of gold reserves. Any comments on the logistics of that kind of a transfer?
NTS: I'm not somebody who is really competent to have an opinion about it. Interesting factoid; thanks for mentioning it.
Something makes me think Dubner, asking over a calibrated, burr-ground, skimmed and French-pressed coffee, would have gotten an answer. Commenters on both the news article and a referring blog made Stephenson connections. I'll have to settle for a chuckle from the audience.

I followed the ridiculously slow-moving author cart over to the signing table, thinking I would get one up on the other fans, only to find a hoard of them already queued up. Not content with my goofy question, I planned to present the author with my smartphone, freshly-purchased Kindle version of Cryptonomicon opened to the title page. I even brought a Sharpie in case his fountain pen didn't work on the screen protector. But the line was long, and one of the handlers mentioned that some of the authors are fussy and refuse to sign anything but their current book. I lost my nerve and bailed out.

At least I have a legitimate, searchable copy of a great novel now, so I don't have to rely on that pirate site with its copy of Randy Waterhouse's treatise on the challenges of massive international gold transfer.
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Posted by Ross D. Martin | September 26, 2011 | 07:13:06

I was one of the ones in the audience who got the question and contributed to the chuckle (mine was more of a loud guffaw). Sorry you didn't get a more fulfilling answer. NS strikes me as someone who doesn't opine off the cuff, but give him a day to think about it and he'll come up with a great answer. If he did short stories, your question would have made a great subject.

Posted by Steve | September 26, 2011 | 09:43:52

Thanks for the chuckle. The guy in the signing line behind me asked me what the deal was with the gold question. I briefly retold the whole scene in Luzon, loud enough to edify any other fans in line who hadn't read Stephenson's (first) magnum opus.

I'm curious, did you try to get him to sign your device?

Posted by Ross D. Martin | September 26, 2011 | 10:14:29

No, I ended up buying hard copies. I had this happen once before with a friend whose husband wrote a book, which I bought for my Kindle. He had just gotten some nice paper note cards and decided that would be the remedy for eBook purchasers and he sent me a signed card instead. Maybe we need to go back to autograph books instead of autographed books...

Posted by Tony | October 01, 2011 | 22:36:02

Would you say Cryptonomicon is still worth checking out after all these years, especially by someone who totally missed the boat the first time around?


Posted by Steve | October 03, 2011 | 13:38:51

The book has aged well, I think.

Perhaps the only reason I have not read it again since 2003 (apart from the 1139-page length) is that I have so often reread favorite passages in a buggy electronic copy I found somewhere. One of the Kindle features is to see which passages have been most-often highlighted by other readers, and now I have reread those sections as well.

The sample on the book's site is representative of the author's style.

Posted by Clive Watson | December 27, 2012 | 13:18:03

Back in the day, when we used to go to a fair amount of readings, the q&a was always the most hilarious/baffling part. We found that most of the questions were either statements, to which the author could choose to assign his approval or else disagree (which rarely happened, to avoid shaming the declarer),quick queries about random minutia, or flimsy segues which allowed the audience member to tell a story about his/her own life/work. The rare and refreshing one was the question which related to the work issues that address it, but from outside of it, which it sounds like yours was. I can't pretend I understand it though, as I never got far in cryptonomicon, which was often the case at such readings, too. Perhaps I should give it another go. When I started, I remember enjoying the prose, and being mildly intrigued with the subject matter, but waiting for the character(s?) to become important to me. The book held out longer than I did, which I suspect is my own fault. I enjoyed your retelling though. An author like Neal deserves to be kept on his toes by developments of the big picture going on outside of his field of vision. It's only fair.

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