This article is an analysis of recurring themes in Neal Stephenson’s literary corpus and consequently contains spoilers for most of his published works, including Snow Crash, the Diamond Age, Anathem and Seveneves. That said, it is this writer’s opinion that the following article can be enjoyed by both Stephenson fans and by those unfamiliar with his writings.
Neal Stephenson may eventually be remembered as the most subversive Sci-Fi author of his generation.
Stephenson is well known for his wild, vivid realizations of the future, and the weird accuracy of those visions. Today in 2015, virtual reality developers still reference his concept of the Metaverse, a sort of VR-Internet which he described in Snow Crash (1992), as an inspiration. Nanotechnology has no more rigorous champion in fiction than Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995). And I suspect that a coming wave of space colonization enthusiasts have just been seeded by his recently released Seveneves (2015).
But I feel that the popular focus on the technologies he portrays in his stories does a disservice to his canon. His technological extrapolations are fun, but Stephenson’s most interesting and subversive contributions lie in his sociological and political thinking.
We first examine Snow Crash. The first chapter shoves the socio-political story directly in your face. The protagonist speeds his tricked-out batmobile-esque vehicle down corporation-owned freeways in an attempt to deliver his precious cargo to a corporation-owned suburban compound on time. The penalty for a late delivery? Death. His employer? The Mafia. His precious cargo? Pizza.
This is how we’re introduced to the anarcho-libertarian (or anarcho-capitalist perhaps) future of Snow Crash. The CIA is a corporation and the U.S. government still technically exists but nobody knows who the President is. The nation is carved up into a million “franchulates” – somewhere between a franchise and a consulate representing some corporation or distributed megachurch or ethno-nationalist entity with the muscle to lay claim to property. (Citizenship in Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong carries many benefits.)
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the America of Snow Crash referred to in the media as a libertarian dystopia, and I think calling it a dystopia entirely misses Stephenson’s point. After all, a typical dystopian science fiction tale will (or should) unambiguously take whatever ideology it’s trying to address to the mat and demonstrate its horrors through object lessons. Snow Crash doesn’t do that at all. Rather, it depicts a very well functioning world which just happens to seem terrifying to late-20th-century readers.
I very intentionally say “terrifying” rather than some other negative adjective like “horrifying” because there’s nothing too horrifying about what we are shown in these pages. At least, real-life 21st-century America is roughly as horrifying as Snow Crash. We don’t have to worry about extortion by private security forces, but I think our public police force is more than making up the difference – at least according to the media. We don’t have to worry about rogue agents with nuclear bombs – oh wait, yes we do. Oh, okay, I’ve got it: we don’t have to worry about insanely powerful cult leaders (like the story’s charismatic L. Bob Rife) wielding their influence to destroy countless lives oh fuck it.
In short, Snow Crash shows us a libertarian world that we find viscerally frightening and then forces us to reflect on the fact that our world is just as frightening. We’re just used to it. If he was trying to make a libertarian dystopia, Stephenson should have made it much worse. I conclude from this that he wasn’t trying to do any such thing.
I want to emphasize what a downright forgiving picture of anarcho-libertarianism/capitalism this paints in its uniquely sly, subversive way. The aforementioned pizza delivery boy for the Mafia who works under constant threat of death? That sure sounds bad! But, well, nobody’s forcing him to work for the Mafia. He takes the pizza delivery job because it’s really highly paid. The Mafia is, after all, just as legitimate as any other business in a world without centralized authority or rule of law. The Mafia is successful at pizza delivery because it has a very, very, very clear incentive structure for its deliverymen: deliver pizzas on time, get paid well; be late, get murdered. Maybe this still sounds horrible to you, but it’s essentially isomorphic to dozens of extremely dangerous yet high-paying jobs that exist in the present day, with the exception that in real life the danger is (usually) not due to intentional murder. Still. Risk-reward.
We move on to The Diamond Age. The world of this story is dominated by the presence of nanotechnology. Every material object is absurdly cheap, bordering on free. Yet there is still an enormous underclass of stateless individuals (“thetes”), including our protagonist Nell. Why? Well, turns out you naturally end up with haves and have-nots even in a post-scarcity world. To hammer home this lesson, Stephenson sets atop the hierarchy of this world a group known as the Neo-Victorians. The Neo-Victorians have lords and knights; ladies are expected to stay home and raise the children; despite the ability to build anything they could want, they choose to wear old-fashioned, handmade dresses and shoes and bowler hats. My favorite Stephenson term of all time is “equity lord,” meaning somebody who has the title of Lord because they are an equity holder in the corporation which constitutes the economic footprint of Neo-Victorian society.
Where Snow Crash seemed at first blush to be an anarcho-libertarian dystopia, The Diamond Age seems almost like some kind of Reactionary dystopia, except where exactly are the dystopian elements? Yes, there’s a huge underclass – there’s an equally huge underclass today, and factory workers in the modern Third World are materially worse off than the poor of The Diamond Age. At least the thetes of the story have their bread and circuses and free housing.
Pause for a moment and consider that if some random billionaire company owner in the real world were to wake up one day and fancy that his employees should refer to him as Lord CEO, and bow to him in the hallways while muttering “m’lord,” he would get his way. People wouldn’t like it, but they would probably get used to it. The difference between a modern big-C-Capitalist and a Victorian Lord isn’t economic or even social, it’s just fashion. Hierarchy is hierarchy, and it’s unfashionable to want to be called “lord” in the early 21st century. If it were suddenly fashionable again, we’d be enthusiastically cheering Lord Musk’s latest rocket launch and/or electric sedan, and Lady Gaga’s name would cease to be ironic.
Locked in economic (and eventually military) contest with the Neo-Victorians are the Chinese Confucian phyle. While the Neo-Victorians are largely Anglo-Saxon technologists who embrace a Victorian social and material aesthetic, the Confucians are a largely ethnic Han Chinese group who embrace the principles of Confucian hierarchy as it existed before the British made China a de facto colony, complete with Mandarins and corporal punishment and strict patriarchy. So the two dominant social and economic powerhouses in the story adhere to extremely rigid, patriarchal, Reactionary social codes. The story doesn’t leave us wondering why this is, either – we’re told through the conversations of the characters that when nation-states and traditional economic models fail, people fall back on ethnic homogeneity, conservative and traditional gender roles, and harshly regressive penal codes in order to establish the unity, cohesiveness, and strength needed to compete in a chaotic world.
Okay – so The Diamond Age looks like a Reactionary vision of the future and Snow Crash looks like a Libertarian vision of the future. Neither are particularly dystopian, at least not compared to reality, but nor are they sugar-coated utopian fantasies. They are more like semi-serious extrapolations, evenhanded simulations of what those socio-political systems might turn into. (The Snow Crash setting is often played for laughs, yet much of our modern world also evokes laughter at its absurdity.) And yet the societies presented in these books are almost diametrically opposed on an ideological level. Snow Crash shows humans continuing to exist and do alright in a Libertarian world of pure-ish freedom; The Diamond Age features people struggling and ultimately getting by in a Reactionary world of starkly centralized, hierarchical power. Neither comes out the winner. We’ve got both sides of that “order vs. freedom” axis on display here and they both look … well, they end up looking weirdly similar to each other, when it comes to the daily life of the average thete.
(I think there is a pretty solid reason for this. There aren’t really many stable regions of possibility-space of human societies that don’t quickly collapse into totalitarianism. If you asked 100 Libertarians to set up 100 different perfect, ideal Libertarian societies, 99 of them would be dictatorships ruled by sociopathic thugs within a year. It’s very difficult to design a system which is both totally decentralized and stable through time. In engineering we’d call this an unstable equilibrium point. In order for Stephenson to depict a semi-realistic libertarian world, he has to stipulate that it exists on such an unstable equilibrium point.)
As my co-reviewer discusses elsewhere: on page one the moon blows up for no reason, and Earth is doomed. All life on the surface will be dead within a year. There’s barely any hope – the only conceivable path forward is, basically, to start launching rockets as fast as we can, and that won’t be fast enough to put more than a few hundred people with minimal survival infrastructure into orbit. It’s a rough situation, but I’m sure we can trust that Humanity will all come together as one in the face of this disaster and put aside our petty ahahahaha.
This story more than any other features a direct, explicit conflict between characters espousing pro-freedom/democracy/egalitarian principles and others defending order/security/hierarchy/meritocracy. Two teams shall enter a nightmarish swarm of tiny orbital habitats, one shall leave. So where does the literary simulation lead us?
The authoritarians consist of scientists, engineers and ex-military. They’re the guys who you would want in charge of a risky space mission. Note that Red Team don’t identify as authoritarians, they just want to accomplish the mission – a dangerous rendezvous with the fragmented core of the moon – and they think doing it right is more important than achieving consensus. Humanity is at stake, after all.
The collectivists consist of everybody else who was shot into orbit for various other reasons. Their plight is understandable. They mostly lack the technical skills to contribute to the mission, but that doesn’t stop them from having opinions on what needs to be done. Many of them don’t agree with the lunar rendezvous plan, for example, yet that mission requires that all available resources be devoted to it. Would you like to be dragged along on a dangerous Moon mission when you would prefer to try burning for Mars instead? Don’t you want a vote?
So naturally the two ideologies can’t cooperate. The collectivists retreat into a scattered swarm of tiny habitats, the authoritarians take the retrofitted International Space Station up to the lunar redoubt.
Both teams do pretty badly at the task of survival. The odds are stacked against them. The collectivists fly off in one direction and the authoritarians fly off in another and when they meet again, neither group is really too far behind the other in terms of body count.
The authoritarians, however, are implied to have made the right choices overall – they’re pursuing the right objectives. They’re dropping like flies, but they’re dropping like flies for a good cause. In contrast, many of the horrors experienced by the surviving collectivists are implied to have occurred because democracy-and-inclusiveness turns into naked mob rule in a survival situation.
Double-however, the collectivists prove to be instrumental in getting humanity back on its feet after the final handful of survivors reaches a safe haven. The NASA-engineer types were good for completing the mission, but the politicians are needed to run an actual society.
So ultimately neither side really comes out ahead. Authority and Liberty slug it out and it is ruled a draw. It’s almost like human nature calls for Authority in some situations and Liberty in others. Huh.
There is always a lingering question, when an author says something controversial through their stories, as to whether the author actually believes the things he’s having the characters espouse. Frankly, I don’t think Stephenson really believes any of the things the characters in Snow Crash or The Diamond Age believe. Stephenson’s view is from a higher altitude; it encompasses all of these views.
In his engrossing Anathem (2008) Stephenson depicts monasteries within which the monks exist in various levels of seclusion from the outside world. For example, there is a group that only opens its doors to the outside for one day out of every one thousand years (excepting a few instances, such as accepting unwanted infants from the outside to keep their population up during the long shut-in period). From the perspective of this group (the thousanders) the outside world evolves in stutter-step, and their records of history reflect this: one day, a liberal democracy surrounds the monastery; the next day, a vicious dictatorship, with technology having retrogressed back to Dark Ages levels; the next day, a thick forest grows up to the monastery walls with no sign of human civilization nearby.
Stephenson’s perspective is the perspective of the thousanders – ultimately timeless. He sees that we’re not sitting at the end of history, looking back with objectivity. “Glad all that messy history business is over.” We’re just as embedded in history as Napoleon, yet we view ourselves as having achieved something permanent. Stephenson’s works, as a whole, say otherwise: “The future might look like the present, extrapolated, but it might also look like the past. Modern values, modern social institutions and mores, are simply one point along a line that doesn’t end here.” Not just moral relativism – social, economic, and technological relativism.
When he’s not writing novels, Stephenson works with the Long Now Foundation, an institution which, among other things, has tried to build a clock that can keep accurate time for 10,000 years. This is more an art project, a statement, than a practical engineering endeavor. The point is that Neal Stephenson thinks on 10,000 year timescales. In this light, the socio-political institutions depicted in his books represent the long view – the outside view – on human nature.