Neal Stephenson’s SEVENEVES: Political Theory from the Future

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.

snow-crash

Snow Crash: Post-cyberpunk sword fights

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.

Don't tear the card.

Don’t tear the card.

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.

Nanomachines: There's plenty of room at the bottom, after all.

Nanomachines: There’s plenty of room at the bottom, after all.

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.)


So: Seveneves.

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.

A visual proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. If you think this is cool, you'll enjoy Anathem.

A visual proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. If you think this is cool, you’ll enjoy Anathem.

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.

@moridinamael

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  • A superb overview. It’s like seeing an oasis in the desert that someone really groks what he’s doing.

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  • adrm

    Never read any Stephenson. I will now though. Intriguing article, thank you.

  • Polynices

    Typo alert: Snow Crash was 1992 not 1985. I’d be really sad if it was 1985 because that would mean I somehow missed reading it for 7 years. 🙂

  • random_observer_2011

    Well, I concede it’s probably my period biases, but although I can stretch pretty far outside the circa 2015 political culture this one did activate my circuits:

    “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.”
    I feel like the legitimizing of intentional murder as a tool of labour-management relations is a pretty major leap, even if everything else in Snow Crash can be given an analogy in our own society. I remember reading a story in Analog in which political assassination had been legalized by a US court ruling, if very specific criteria were met and payments to relatives put in escrow [Wergild, by PJ Plauger), but regular people were not subject to this sort of thing.
    On a lesser level, are their any dangerous yet high-paying jobs today that are as trivial as pizza delivery? Our society, even if prepared to accept the murder idea in principle, might yet recoil at the perceived imbalance between punishment and importance. Even if we all have imagined having a later delivery person punished.
    Beyond that, brilliant review with well chosen comparisons.

    • Eli Sennesh

      Ever heard of the Pinkertons? We fought long and hard to make sure that murder *wouldn’t* be an acceptable tool of labor-management relations!

  • Matt Freeman

    @disqus_AnA9R92m17:disqus Thanks, I appreciate that.

    @random_observer_2011:disqus As I allude to in the article, I think Stephenson plays up a lot of aspects of the Snow Crash world for humor. It’s probably his funniest and most absurd book, other than maybe The Big U. The pizza delivery boy living under threat of death is definitely meant to come off as absurd. But he’s still making a comment about the direction society is heading. We now have reality TV shows about the risk-saturated careers of crab fishermen, which takes a high-risk high-reward activity and then profits directly off the presence of danger, featuring that danger prominently in the advertising materials. In general I agree that threatening to murder people who fail at their jobs is a pretty bad idea IRL, but I think Stephenson may have been gesturing at the trend toward increasing acceptance of this type of thinking in our culture.

    @Polynices:disqus Thanks, I was so certain of the 1985 date that I didn’t bother to check. That’ll teach me.

    @adrm:disqus I recommend Snow Crash as a starting place.

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  • Eli Sennesh

    >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.

    Except that I do find myself morally horrified by *both* the dystopia of Snow Crash *and* the dystopia of Real Life. Maybe it’s just because I read Snow Crash in 2012, but I got a very real sense that, well, yeah, real life wasn’t so different, and that was because real life had actually devolved into an ultra-capitalist dystopia. Just because you live in a Burbclave doesn’t mean that world isn’t dystopian.

    >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

    Except that, well, yes they *are* heavily dystopian. These are not at all places I would buy real-estate, not for a second!

    >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.

    No. Simply incorrect. You don’t have anything there representing *actual human freedom and cooperation*. You just have the hierarchy of money and the hierarchy of hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy.

    Stephenson is a miserably bad futurist compared to, for instance, Ian Banks, because he doesn’t seem to ever come up with a future society that isn’t, socially speaking, a carbon copy of some back-asswards past society I would never want to live in — but with more toys!

    I mention Ian Banks because whatever I disagree with about the Culture (ie: the drugs and hedonism, which I find boring), Banks’ vision of utopia really did embody *freedom*, in the sense of acting according to one’s own goals and values rather than according to incentives imposed upon one by other agents.

    >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.

    Except that, again, if you compare to something like the Culture, it becomes clear that the Culture could crush these nitwits without even noticing — not due to its technology-level, but due to its ability to coordinate and cooperate. It is a very particularly human cognitive bias to believe that coercion, incentive-imposition, and basically just lots of modes of systematized violence actually constitute the most efficient way to cooperate, and will be fallen-back-on whenever something truly efficient is needed.

    We didn’t evolve to actually behave that way (difference between us and chimps, actually), and over the historical record, strict hierarchical societies haven’t actually shown any greater record of success on any particular metric than looser, more egalitarian societies — except in the minds of people who terminally value hierarchy but have to rationalize that to themselves.

    >pro-freedom/democracy/egalitarian principles and others defending order/security/hierarchy/meritocracy

    You’ve placed meritocracy on the wrong side of the divide. It is the peculiar feature of 21st century America, with its extreme inequality and barely-existent meritocracy, to try to associate the principle of meritocracy with inequality, when all previous hierarchical societies had considered meritocracy a matter of “sacrificing” something of their hierarchy by allowing “mere commoners” to advance via skills at actually making things work, which contravenes the ordinary principle that place in the hierarchy is more important than any mere entanglement with material reality.

    >The future might look like the present, extrapolated, but it might also look like the past.

    Except, of course, for when the future looks like the *future*, something caused by the present and past but ultimately substantially different. This is what Stephenson seems to have genuine trouble imagining, while Banks found it easy to just let his mind live there.

    • Rather than going point-by-point, I’ll address what I think is the root of our disagreement. I think you’re more optimistic about human nature than I tend to be. So my standards are a bit lower, perhaps. If you describe the real world as it exists as a dystopia, then in my opinion you need to have some firm basis for believing that we can do better. As the old saying goes, both Communism and Anarchy would be great political systems if people were angels, but people remain people.

      In the same vein, you mention the Culture novels as an example of a utopia worthy of the name. Setting aside the fact that plenty of people think the Culture is insidious and nullifies agency, I don’t see the Culture as a realistic mode of operation for humans without arbitrarily powerful AI overlords. And if you contend that it’s the citizens’ ability to cooperate that makes the Culture superior, then I suppose I’m not convinced that real humans could ever do that. I don’t think I’m saying anything earth-shattering by pointing out that without extremely well-engineered incentive structures, defecting is often the rational choice, so the burden of proof is on your to illustrate how there could be some culture in which humans would universally cooperate “just because.” (I’m truly asking – how do you get people to cooperate in rough situations like warfare or extreme resource scarcity without “coercion, incentive-imposition, and basically just lots of modes of systematized violence”? It would brighten my day to hear a good answer to this.)

      Re: your comment on my placement of “meritocracy” on the “Right” side of the divide. It seemed clear in the book that the real driving imperative behind (who I’m referring to as) the Authoritarians was to make sure the people with the know-how were making the decisions. These characters weren’t after Authority for its own sake, they wanted a unified hierarchy because they placed the success of the mission before the satisfaction of any individual’s preferences. So specifically within the considerations of the story, meritocracy goes along with order/security/hierarchy.

      That said, I’m pretty sure an actual Victorian Lord would say something about how you aren’t defining “merit” correctly and of course Victorian society is totally meritocratic.

      > Except, of course, for when the future looks like the *future*, something caused by the present and past but ultimately substantially different. This is what Stephenson seems to have genuine trouble imagining, while Banks found it easy to just let his mind live there.

      I guess I have exactly the opposite problem? I find Stephenson’s work refreshing because I’m not constantly rolling my eyes at how contrived his societies feel. This, in contrast to most other stories by other writers, where the societies are obviously propped up to simply flatter the author’s politics, with no concession to how individual agents in these societies would react. No matter how creative you are, if your goal is to write a story featuring humans, the characters have to act like humans.

      In closing, I’m all about defeating Moloch, but I really don’t think humans are going to do it without Elua.

      • Eli Sennesh

        >If you describe the real world as it exists as a dystopia, then in my
        opinion you need to have some firm basis for believing that we can do
        better.

        Dystopia is a sliding scale, and the evidence that we can do better is actually-existing history. We are actually on a local *increasing trend* towards more inequality, more hierarchy (for the sake of hierarchy), less cooperation, etc. This surely isn’t the kind of statement you would expect to hear from a Communist who reads futurist scifi sometimes, but alas: the system that we once called “social democracy” was actually more cooperative, more equal, more valuable, kinder, etc than our current society. That kind of society didn’t require fundamentally different humans, just as Germany, China, Japan, Colombia, and the United States all contain the same species in the present day, but have substantially different societies (to the point that people migrate from one to another). So we have the evidence of something that already existed in the near-past, something that current generations can remember.

        What makes the difference? Well, quite a lot of changes to laws and regulations, but basically, what makes the difference is a creed the social-democrats never verbalized before they didn’t have our notions of psychology and cognition: the complexity of value. They built a sociopolitical system that was designed to value many things simultaneously as first-class concerns, and trade off between them by measuring the strengths of people’s preferences about the trade-offs (in the marketplace sometimes, and in the public square other sometimes). Then the ’60s social protests offended a lot of mainstream pro-social-democracy voters, and the ’70s crisis of profitability sent government planners looking for a new economic theory. These two factors combined to yield modern neoliberalism, which basically says, “We’ll make the system profitable and able to grow by going back to the old way, of just exploiting people very hard.”

        The problem that limits this kind of system, that makes it bad even on its own terms, is that you can’t squeeze blood from a stone (see: Greece). No matter how much you evict people from their houses, take away their ability to eat, refuse to educate them, and proclaim that both they and their governments are in deep debt, they won’t actually get any more productive. You can get away with this when you have an established base of skilled labor, but as new hiring collapses, you’re left with whole professions suffering generation-gaps: the 65-year-olds can’t retire because there are no 55-year-old, 45-year-old, and 35-year-old professionals to rely on to get the work done, just 25-year-old interns. This happened because, well, nobody wanted to go into a field where they’d be treated like crap.

        Ultimately, if you want to build a whole social system on hierarchy and coercion, you actually have *more* need for robots and AI than a more humane, cooperative system: *you can’t just use humans*, because you’re too busy hurting the humans to make them into useful, efficient resources!

        In “rationalist” terms: *Fnargl* would not use a capitalist system. Fnargl would at least use a social-democratic system, if not an outright socialist one. The appeal here is that when you actually need humans to do things for you and do them well, kindness and productivity do trade-off, but only on the left side of the curve. Once you hit certain productivity maxima, you can’t actually make people more productive by reducing the kindness levels, and in fact you can only make them as productive as they used to be by being *kinder and nicer* until you hit the diminishing-returns point again.

        https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Anarchist_FAQ/What_is_Anarchism%3F/2.15

        >As the old saying goes, both Communism and Anarchy would be great political systems if people were angels, but people remain people.

        As the companion saying goes, Capitalism would be a great system if people were rational utility-maximizers, but it turns out a lot of humans actually like harming others to show status more than they like utility.

        >(I’m truly asking – how do you get people to cooperate in rough
        situations like warfare or extreme resource scarcity without “coercion,
        incentive-imposition, and basically just lots of modes of systematized
        violence”? It would brighten my day to hear a good answer to this.)

        Hey, I’m willing to bite the bullet and have an army in my socialist society. Even a draft army! Except that, no, wait, most of the time, when the world has shifted from draft armies to volunteer-professional armies, it did so for reasons of military efficiency.

        (Generally, “What would the Army do?” is a great heuristic question for addressing questions of value-neutral instrumental rationality without having to go into a parallel universe that actually contains Fnargl.)

        >Re: your comment on my placement of “meritocracy” on the “Right” side of the divide. It seemed clear in the book that the real driving
        imperative behind (who I’m referring to as) the Authoritarians was to
        make sure the people with the know-how were making the decisions.
        characters weren’t after Authority for its own sake, they wanted a
        unified hierarchy because they placed the success of the mission
        the satisfaction of any individual’s preferences. So specifically within
        the considerations of the story, meritocracy goes along with
        order/security/hierarchy.

        The map is not the territory, and fictionalized maps often address the author’s personal views more than they address real-life territory. In fiction that isn’t trying to make a social point, this is a normal part of suspension-of-disbelief. In fiction that tries to Make a Social Point, it becomes kind of grating.

        >That said, I’m pretty sure an actual Victorian Lord would say
        something about how you aren’t defining “merit” correctly and of course Victorian society is totally meritocratic.

        But of course not, certainly not “meritocratic” in our sense of professional achievement! Real hereditary nobility have always prized themselves on staying well away from any kind of economically productive work, vastly preferring to work in or run the culture sector or, most ideally, the military. They were proud to be useless!

        (This is why the actual Victorian Lords were more well-known for selling off family estates to up-and-coming new-money industrialists rising from the middle classes than for actually running the industries.)

        >I guess I have exactly the opposite problem? I find Stephenson’s work refreshing because I’m not constantly rolling my eyes at how contrived his societies feel. This, in contrast to most other stories by other writers, where the societies are obviously propped up to simply flatter the author’s politics, with no concession to how individual agents in these societies would react. No matter how creative you are, if your
        goal is to write a story featuring humans, the characters have to act
        like humans.

        This amounts to just saying you agree with Stephenson’s view of politics. Many stories have social or political systems that simply fade into the background and form part of the story world, without being themselves the stars. For example, “Lord of the Rings” has divinely-appointed kings, and nobody actually goes around saying that it was a template for a feudalist utopia.

        Actually, wrong example, because neoreactionaries, but still. The actual story is chiefly about bringing a magic Macguffin from one place to another to fight an Evil Overlord, not about pushing a particular politics (in fact, the real heroes, the Hobbits, seem to run themselves via semi-democratic elections, which is just as unremarked-upon as the divinely-appointed kings of Numenor).

        Further, I actually think that the problem here is that dystopian settings are Fun Theoretically nicer for writing stories in, in that they have a lot more unsolved problems for characters to address. On the other hand, as I was *trying* to say before neoreactionaries butted in *existing* around the place, it’s often plenty enjoyable to read a story that’s fundamentally about the characters and plot rather than about politics, and this is where a good author can easily make use of a very positive, future-oriented view of politics and economics.

        (Fun Theory exercise: people in stories always seem to have just enough money for what the reader would consider an upper-middle-class lifestyle and enough free time to engage in important things, like space travel and rescuing elf princesses, rather than slaving away at a desk job. Inferring backwards, how can we world-build a sociopolitical system that justifies the commonality of such adventuring among the citizenry?)

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  • Douglas Knight

    I don’t think that Snow Crash and the Diamond Age have different visions of the future. I think that they are basically the same vision of the future, but show different slices of it.

    They are both worlds in which no organization exhibits control over a large expanse of territory. Both worlds have islands of order amid a sea of chaos. The difference is that the second book looks at both the chaos and the order, while the first, like much cyberpunk, just mentions that islands of order and hierarchy exist. It is easy to imagine Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong among the diverse islands of order in the Diamond Age, though I must admit that the name sounds rather more libertarian than Mr Lee’s Greater Singapore.

    Both books take the sea of chaos as given. The difference is that the islands of order are intentional communities and so their inhabitants can advocate for their way of life, if we have a chance to meet them.

  • Thom Foolery

    Great essay – one that got me to remove the unread Stephenson novels from my shelves and add them to my to-read short-pile.

    “Neither are particularly dystopian, at least not compared to reality…”

    So in other words, we’re living in a dystopian present? That sentiment jibes with my experience a little more each day.

    “We’re just as embedded in history as Napoleon, yet we view ourselves as having achieved something permanent.”

    While I chuckled when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history during my undergraduate years, it took me another twenty years to grok how full of shit he was. Harder than seeing that, though, was recognizing how embedded I am in the ideology (or myth) of permanent progress; tomorrow is just the present – only moreso!

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  • don

    A great overview of a great author and thinker.