This whole metaverse thing hasn’t turned out exactly how Seattle novelist Neal Stephenson thought it would when he came up with the idea 30 years ago.
At the time, Stephenson was preparing to write his science fiction novel, “Snow Crash.” I was reflecting on how expensive it would be to buy the equipment for a computer art project I was working on, as opposed to how cheap it would be to buy a television and watch state-of-the-art programming.
What would it take to make computers as cheap as a television? “The answer, of course, is that a lot of people watch TV,” Stephenson told me in an interview on the Fiction Science podcast, which also touched on his new climate change sci-fi thriller, “Termination Shock.”
During our conversation, Stephenson pointed out that televisions were once expensive lab curiosities, but they became cheaper when shows like “I Love Lucy” created a huge market. Could that happen with computer graphics? Remember, this was at a time when the World Wide Web wasn’t much more than a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye.
Thus the metaverse was born, as a plot device for “Snow Crash” in 1992. Stephenson’s characters could become an entire world created from 3D computer graphics, delivering programming as popular as 1990s television. 1990.
Fast forward to today, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella are touting the metaverse as the next frontier for online interaction via computer-generated avatars.
Stephenson acknowledges the parallels with his idea; for example, “Snow Crash” describes users who are continuously connected to the metaverse and end up being nicknamed “gargoyles”. But he says the main features of his planetary metaverse don’t align with what Zuckerberg and Nadella are talking about.
“Usually, they don’t talk about those kinds of things on a planetary scale,” Stephenson said. “The key features seem to be that it’s a 3D universe that’s massively multiplayer, and what you do with that depends on your business model. We seem to see a lot of people interested in virtual meetings or virtual conversations in a fixed space, which seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to want. But it’s not exactly the same as the metaverse in ‘Snow Crash.’
While the tech world is obsessed with the metaverse, Stephenson has turned his attention to an issue he sees as far more pressing for the planet: climate change, its potentially catastrophic effects, and what we can do to alleviate the looming crisis. Such issues are the focus of a global summit in Rome and major legislative initiatives in Washington, D.C., and are also the focus of “Termination Shock.”
“The efforts being made by various governments to address this issue are all welcome. Anything is helpful, but people need to be realistic about how long it will take to change this,” Stephenson said.
In “Termination Shock,” a billionaire steps in and sets up a surreptitious plan to cool the climate through solar geoengineering. “That’s something that’s been quietly talked about, I would say, in the geophysics community for a while,” Stephenson said. “But people are generally reluctant to come out and defend it, for obvious reasons.”
Changing the climate can bring about big improvements in some parts of the world (for example, by preventing an Arctic meltdown and a rise in sea levels) while making things worse in others (perhaps by reducing rainfall in India’s breadbasket). The battle over pros and cons provides the water for Stephenson’s geeky tale, which weighs in at just over 700 pages.
We talked about much more in our Fiction Science chat, including Stephenson’s recently completed job as futurist director of Magic Leap, a well-funded start-up developing an augmented reality platform; the audio drama Stephenson and his collaborators created while working on Magic Leap; plus some clues about future novels and other upcoming attractions.
“I’m working on something that’s more technological and cutting-edge, but I can’t announce it yet,” Stephenson told me. “It could surface in mid-2022.”
If you’re interested in Stephenson’s novels, tech thrillers, climate policy and its implications for the tech world, or the metaverse and extended reality, you should listen to the entire Fiction Science podcast (and consider subscribing through your favorite podcast ). application). Here are a few more highlights to whet your appetite:
Who will lead the effort to address climate change? “In my book, he’s a billionaire, because it’s a good story. I don’t know how realistic that is. They are more likely to be less democratic governments, frankly. If you look at the way the US and UK responded to the coronavirus, we couldn’t even get a large part of the population to agree that it was a real thing, even though hundreds of thousands of people were dying. . … I am pessimistic about our ability to get people to agree that human-caused climate change is a real thing, let alone agree to expensive and difficult steps to address that problem.”
On the future of democracy: “To be clear, I’m not a big fan of non-democratic countries. I am a type of democracy to the end. But if the question we’re talking about is, ‘Can large democracies like the US likely?’
On the exit ideas he works on in his books, including new strains of COVID, fake videos, sonic weapons, brain implants, and drones: “A lot of the things you’ve mentioned are just part of the picture we’re all aware of. We’ve all heard of drones, we’ve all heard of COVID, certainly we’ve all heard of the pandemic. You don’t need some kind of special science fiction writer’s brain to figure out those things. So it’s an obvious move for me, or any other science fiction writer, to include slightly forward-looking versions of those things in a book that’s set in the future.”
On the factors that drove the rise of the metaverse: “The way it really developed was not like television. What really became very popular and brought down the price of hardware were video games. We started to see that with ‘Doom,’ which is really an arcade-style game in 3-D instead of 2-D. And once it catches on, it becomes a virtuous circle that makes hardware super cheap. That is the story as I see it. The use of the term ‘metaverse’ has become much more widespread in the last year, and I don’t know why exactly.”
On the future of the novel: “The novel will be with us for a long, long time. Does not go anywhere. There are so many advantages over other creative ways. One person can produce a novel on their own with essentially zero equipment. You don’t have to have software, you don’t have to have engineers, you can just do it. And you have an almost infinite amount of creative flexibility. So the novel is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play with different forms.”