Gaiman and Stephenson: speculations on reading and on speculative fiction

With Neil Gaiman’s latest book (“The Ocean at the End of the Lane”) being released this past week, the internet and sci-fi/fantasy communities have gone crazy. His book signing tours are selling out left and right and the critics are singing his praises. Book Riot even declared June 18th to be “Neil Gaiman Day,” and provided a page of links including a reading guide and a fabulous list of quotes. My three favorite quotes from this list?:

“[D]on’t ever apologize to an author for buying something in paperback, or taking it out from a library (that’s what they’re there for. Use your library). Don’t apologize to this author for buying books second hand, or getting them from bookcrossing or borrowing a friend’s copy. What’s important to me is that people read the books and enjoy them, and that, at some point in there, the book was bought by someone. And that people who like things, tell other people. The most important thing is that people read… ”

A wonderful reminder from a prolific author. Most successful writers don’t seem to care about how you got the book. They care that you bothered to read it. They care that you share your experience. They care that they touched your life in some way.

“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”

I have this on my wall above my desk to remind me that, although school is my priority, it is necessary to approach it my own way and to make it fun. If I’m not creating something during my studies, I’m not expanding my learning beyond what was presented on a plate. It’d be like eating a whole meal and not bothering to digest it.

“A book is a dream that you hold in your hands.”

Both my shelf and mind are filled with dreams — ones of my own, ones others have dreamed up for me, and ones that others have dreamed up for themselves that I am lucky enough to share.  Reading and learning are steps to making those dreams come true.


Continue reading to discover this week’s literary adventures.

While I wait for the hubub to die down so that I can read the novel in peace without too much outside influence, I decided to dive into a book by another Neal — Neal Stephenson. “Some Remarks” has been sitting on my shelf since the middle of the spring semester, waiting for me to stop being “too busy” for some fun-reading. I bought this book before Mr. Stephenson’s participation in a panel at Arizona State University and hosted by the Origins Project, about storytelling and science. Other panelists included Bill Nye, Neal DeGrasse Tyson, and ASU’s very own Lawrence Krauss. The whole evening was very engaging (the videos of the event may be found on YouTube and at the bottom of this post), but the best part was being able to ask the panelists questions. Mr. Stephenson answered mine towards the end of that evening (around 36:55 on the second video): 

The question: “Please discuss speculative fiction and its role in expanding the interest in, or knowledge of, science in general.”
His answer (paraphrased): The largely inspirational science fiction (circa the Apollo program) that got us excited about NASA and space exploration has given way to a darker, more introspective type of story centered around exploration of a system built by someone else instead of around discovery and innovation. This shift seems to have coincided with a a decline in the rate of big advances in transportation, infrastructure, and exploration, etc.

In his answer Mr. Stephenson mentions his involvement in Project Hieroglyph, which promotes science fiction that “[supplies] a coherent picture of that innovation being integrated into a society, into an economy, and into people’s lives.” This is similar in goal to Intel’s Tomorrow Project writing competitions. What these projects highlight is that what we read really does impact how we think about our current and future situations. 

With these thoughts in mind, I began to read through “Some Remarks.” As Mr. Stephenson mentions in his introduction, this book is like his “best of” (or at least his “favorites of”) collection. These essays were picked for the significance they had to him and revised again to make them even better. Since the works included in this volume do not follow a chronological format, they were most likely arranged with a particular “flow” in mind. That said, I am one of those people who prefer to wander in my readings, so I skipped around to pieces as they caught my eye.

The first work I turned to was one sentence long (“Under-Constable Proudfoot”). There is not much to say without giving the story away, but I am glad to discover that even famous authors have strayed into the world of fan-fiction on occasion. For those who don’t know, fan-fiction is fiction written by someone other than the author using the original story-line, characters, etc. as the basis for their own works. Some authors, such as J.K. Rowling, have fan-fiction provided it remains a “non-commercial activity,” Others, like George R.R. Martin, are staunchly against it, calling it an invasion upon their copyright and on their own creativity. To learn more about the interaction between authors and fan-fiction, check out these articles on Flavorwire and on The Millions.


The second essay I encountered was “It’s All Geek to Me;” a discussion about classics (as in “Ancient Greece and Rome,” not “Austen, Goethe, and Rousseau”) and pop culture. Here Mr. Stephenson discusses how the seemingly odd combination of science fiction and classical history is often harshly berated by critics, and yet craved by the majority of mainstream culture. The example he focuses on is the movie 300  (it’s sequel is due out early next year) which was based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Fiction loves history; with books like Herodotus’s Histories (a nice example of mythistory) and Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire” being so well received by their contemporaries, the nostalgia for stories about times long past is never-ending. Mr. Stephenson focuses on the unnecessarily of the over-politicized reactions to this blending of genres. Though he does not mention it directly, he seems to imply that it doesn’t matter how accurate the details are or how politically correct it is — what matters is that it gets people interested in history and get them talking.


Indeed, this need to generate interest in science, history, and innovation is something he tackles in his “Gresham College Lecture” (Check out the video version of this in the links below). In this talk, Mr. Stephenson argues against the continued relevancy of the Standard Model approach to pop-culture and fiction (one “mainstream” with genres branching off) and instead suggests that there has been a shift towards a two-pronged, or bifurcated, system comprised of Speculative Fiction (encompassing science fiction, fantasy, historical dramas, etc) and Mundane Fiction (standard romance and crime). While defining these categories, Mr. Stephenson takes care to point out that the line is often blurred, but he does make a strong case for not considering SF to be a genre of mainstream culture.


Normally, I would recommend a collection of short pieces as a great place to start when exploring an author, but Mr. Stephenson’s collection is largely non-fiction works that would make the most sense to be read alongside or after reading some of his fiction works. These essays highlight his thoughts during the course of his career, but they are perhaps a little inaccessible if you are not comfortable in the science fiction/speculative fiction world. Those caveats aside, I found this collection to be fantastic if you are a fan of speculative fiction. The “Gresham College Lecture” was a particular favorite because Mr. Stephenson managed to nail down the elusive quality that draws me into a book or a movie from the speculative fiction stream. “Some Remarks” is an intelligent collection, covering an array of topics, yet precisely honed in the brevity of it’s selections.



What’s Next:

Expect a sweet treat for “Tuesday Food’s Day.”



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