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'Metaverse' creator Neal Stephenson to speak at MIT Sunday

Book-signing to follow noted author's remarks
Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson

photo courtesy / author

Author Neal Stephenson, considered to be among today's best speculative fiction writers, will speak and sign books at MIT this weekend in an appearance that underscores the synergy between science fiction and science.

Stephenson, the author of "Snow Crash," "Cryptonomicon," "The Diamond Age" and a massive three-volume historical epic, "The Baroque Cycle," is among a group of contemporary writers who are trying to "trying to figure out the limits of what we know and where could things go," said Henry Jenkins, professor of literature and comparative media studies.

Stephenson, along with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, shifted the speculative fiction landscape from outer space and star ships to digital media and "technology that touches us," Jenkins said. "He's had an uncanny ability to understand where the debates about digital media are and to come out on the right side of them."

Stephenson's creation of the "Metaverse," an online world in Snow Crash, anticipated "Second Life," a virtual community now frequented by thousands of people. It's not that he "predicted" the future, Jenkins said, rather that people read his work and said, "Wow, we could build that."

Thus, Stephenson is among writers "who imagined a future that they also helped create."

In "The Diamond Age," which Jenkins often uses in his MIT classes, Stephenson creates a future with both nanotechnology and Victorian mores. The novel "was on top of a whole set of things that the culture was struggling with at the time he wrote," Jenkins said. "He gave such a vivid playful version of those debates in a way that pushed them forward to the next level. That's something that science fiction often does very well."

Stephenson's newest book, "Anathem" (William Morrow), centers on 19-year-old Raz who lives in a 3,400-year-old sanctuary for scientists, philosophers and mathematicians; the world outside is filled with casinos and megastores, plagued by recurring booms and busts. However, Raz and his companions must leave the monastery to attempt to avert doom for both worlds.

However farfetched the plot, such fiction has "an important relationship to a place like MIT," Jenkins said. Science fiction writers using the research of MIT experts like Nicholas Negroponte, Sherry Turkle, Hal Abelson and Mitch Resnick as "springboards for their imagination," he said.

"In turn, MIT students are reading science fiction and using those stories to inspire them to build the next technology."

Stephenson will speak from 2-3 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 21, in Building 26-100, following by a book signing. The event is open to the MIT community only. Admission is free but wristbands, required for entrance, will be distributed from 11:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m. in 32-144. Overflow viewing will be provided in 32-123. The event is sponsored by CSAIL and Microsoft Research New England.

Editor's note: A transcript of an interview with Neal Stephenson will be posted on the News Office web site on Wednesday, Sept. 24.

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