A concept from Neal Stephenon’s sci-fi novel has been adopted by Mark Zuckerberg. The author tells Jake Kerridge why we should think harder about what it would really mean
It seems inappropriate, somehow, that my interview with the science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson is taking place over Zoom. It’s been nearly 30 years since his novel Snow Crash introduced the concept of the metaverse: a three-dimensional successor to the internet in which people adopt “avatars” (a word that Stephenson’s novel brought back to mainstream attention) to interact in a virtual-reality world. Surely, by now, the fact that I’m in London and he’s in Seattle shouldn’t prevent us sitting down to chew the fat in a bar?
We may not have to wait that long for the metaverse to come into reality, if we can believe the recent promises made by Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg. Last month he announced with much hoo-ha that the name of his company was changing from Facebook Inc to “Meta”, and dangled the prospect of a future of virtual concerts, sports and shopping trips.
Stephenson (62) has something of a Bond-villain vibe, thanks to his combination of closely shaved head and luxuriant goatee, but is also softly spoken and thoughtful. He doesn’t sound particularly excited by Zuckerberg’s nod to his concept. “I’m used to it. Almost since the moment that the book came out, people started using the term ‘metaverse’ in a general way, and a number of companies in the States have described their efforts as ‘working towards the metaverse’ or what-have-you.”
Snow Crash has had an enormous influence on Silicon Valley: Sergey Brin of Google has cited it as one of his favourite books (“That was really 10 years ahead of its time. It kind of anticipated what’s going to happen”) and the former Facebook data scientist Dean Eckles has revealed that the book was required reading for the company’s project managers at their training boot-camps.
You have to question whether Zuckerberg is wise to want to be associated with Stephenson’s vision, however. Snow Crash is set in a dystopian world in which unregulated corporations are more powerful than governments and ruthless in consolidating power: an attitude summed up in the novel by L Bob Rife, Lord of Bandwidth, the owner of the metaverse’s physical infrastructure, who observes: “You know, a monopolist’s work is never done. No such thing as a perfect monopoly. Seems like you can never get that last one-tenth of one per cent.”
In the novel some people find the metaverse so addictive that they remain permanently plugged in: the “gargoyles”, so called because of their invariably grotesque appearance. And the metaverse is also responsible for the distribution of a virus that causes computers to crash and leaves their users brain-damaged. In other words, what Zuckerberg promises in his adverts is definitely the tourist-board version of the metaverse.
If a Zuckerberg-owned metaverse does become a reality, buyer beware. “What matters isn’t the technology — is a 3D headset better than a phone? — what matters is who’s paying for it and how,” Stephenson says. “The expectation that the internet is going to be free is so ingrained now that most people never ask the very basic questions, how can this thing exist, and how can certain people be getting so incredibly wealthy from it?
“The answer is, typically, that you are the product that they are selling to somebody else, and you are essentially donating free labour to the enrichment of whoever owns that company. If you want to do that, that’s fine, but it seems like something that it would be healthy for people to question a little harder.”
Of course, one obstacle to our getting to experience the metaverse is that the human race may not last long enough to perfect the tech. The climate crisis is the theme at the heart of Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock — his 16th. It’s set not-very-far in the future, in a world in which Texas is “about as hospitable as the surface of Venus” thanks to the changes wrought by climate change: it’s so hot that people have to wear special refrigerated “earthsuits”, and ants and alligators are rampant, as are hurricanes and coronaviruses (we’re on Covid-27).
It begins with a group of the world’s movers-and-shakers converging in Texas to discuss a billionaire’s controversial scheme: building the world’s biggest gun and shooting tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, an act of solar geo-engineering designed to bring about a rapid temporary global cooling. The downside is that some parts of the Earth are better able to withstand a sudden cooling than others.
Stephenson insists that he is not banging the drum for any particular course of action to tackle climate change; he’s trying to tell a good yarn. “This is overwhelmingly the central issue for the whole world in the next 100 years — unless something even worse comes along, God forbid — and I’m billed as someone who writes books about technical scientific subject matter, so it would seem a bit odd for me to not write about this.”
Is there any room for optimism? “There are going to be some very bad events in the next few decades. From time to time, from place to place, it’s going to get so hot that large numbers of people will just die of heatstroke, or there’ll be crop failures, or there will be inundations of coastal areas by rising sea levels that will cause mass migration. The question is, will we find ways to get through all of that during the several decades it will take to bring emissions to zero, and implement massive-scale carbon-capture programmes?”
Stephenson grew up in “a college town on the prairie, isolated in that it was not part of a big urban complex”. The college in question was Iowa State University of Science and Technology, and everybody in the town seemed to work in the sciences. It was inevitable that he would have an interest in science, but there was no lack of an artistic element: “The culture there was that everybody would volunteer for the community theatre group, or play in the town band, or what have you. There was a real respect for cultural pursuits,” he says.
His novels are eccentric works crammed with information about topics that take his fancy, with the reader invited to take it or leave it. In other words, despite all the technical information, they feel wonderfully human.
Stephenson has become a totemic figure for 21st-century scientific writers. It’s partly because he is so uncompromising — if there are ideas he wants to discuss at length in his books, he makes room for them (at just over 700 pages, Termination Shock is one of his shorter works). Then again, it has to do with the quality of his imagination, the inventions he devises, which are always ingenious and sometimes prophetic (Bitcoin, 3D printing and Google Earth have all been prefigured in some way in his novels).
In addition to writing, Stephenson has worked on many scientific projects, including several years with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space-flight company in the 2000s.
With political will uncertain, is saving the human race a project best left to Bezos-esque billionaires, like the one in Termination Shock? “To be sure, billionaires can occasionally achieve big things on their own, but we’re increasingly, I think, looking to them as a sort of crutch to lean on to solve our problems, because governments and big institutions don’t seem to be that functional an more, and I don’t think that’s a great way to solve problems in general,” he says.
“I believe that the answer is not with maverick billionaires, but with institutions — but that would have made a less interesting novel.”
‘Termination Shock’ by Neal Stephenson is published by Borough Press
© Telegraph Media Group Limited (2021)
Telegraph Media Group Limited