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Neal Stephenson on swordplay, space and depressing SF

Teases computer game, Snow Crash film at Black Hat keynote

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Black Hat 2012 Renowned science fiction author Neal Stephenson has given his first keynote address at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas in which he outlined his ideas for realistic swordplay in gaming, the future of the space program, and how to make science fiction slightly more optimistic.

Stephenson said he'd been a cryptography geek since he was a child, when he'd make invisible ink using lemon juice. His father was involved in signals intelligence for the US government, but after an early foray into email encryption and privacy software, the younger Stephenson now eschews such methods. While technically they work, he said, they are socially unusable for efficient communication, and he was now "relaxed and fatalistic" about online security.

Similarly, he's not a fan of social networking. He now maintains both a public and private Facebook page, but he only got on the network after discovering he had a fan page with over 10,000 fans. He's also joined Twitter in the last few months, but pronounced his disappointment with the medium.

"My dream of Twitter was that it would be full of pithy little haiku-like messages," he told interviewer Brian Krebs. "You do get a few of those, but most of it is just people embedding links that sends you off to some other website, so it doesn't save time or compress bandwidth at all."

He is, however, a hardcore gamer, pronouncing Halo as his relaxation aid of choice. He's even rigged an Xbox controller onto the arms of his elliptical machine so that he can play while working out, which he says helps make the time spent on the machine less boring.

Stephenson is a keen swordsman. He has a collection of weapons, mostly blunted for training purposes, and recently raised half a million dollars on Kickstarter to create a realistic sword fighting computer game. He's now recruiting a small band of geeks to code the system, but said that more money might be needed as "half a million doesn't get you very far in gaming."

He has also acted as a consultant for Blue Origin, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' private space venture. Stephenson said that he is only tangentially involved these days, but was full of praise for the SpaceX program set up by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk.

Simply building a rocket that works is a phenomenal achievement in itself, he said, but Musk has also overcome some other problems that people don't usually consider. Getting insurance on payloads, for example, is incredibly difficult if you don't have a track record for actuaries to study, and the regulatory issues around launching can be huge.

While private efforts to get into space are proceeding well, Stephenson said that the initial space race "tanked." That, he said, along with a slowing pace of technological advancement, had contributed to the science fiction genre shifting from the optimism of Clarke and Asimov to a darker, more dystopian bent. The first half of the 20th century had seen the development of flight, radio, television, and nuclear power, but lately new developments had been few and far between, he explained.

As part of an effort to get science fiction into a happier mode, he is taking part in a new book of optimistic SF entitled Hieroglyphs. Stephenson's contribution will be a piece about building a 20km tall skyscraper, and he is working on the practical details needed for such a project with the engineering department of the University of Arizona.

With regard to his own novels, Stephenson said he is working with the British filmmaker Joe Cornish as part of long term plans to bring his novel Snow Crash to the silver screen. Overall, however, he said that novels aren't really right for making into films and that short stories translated much more readily to film.

Stephenson said he didn't read science fiction for a long time, citing Heinlein as one of the few authors he read growing up. But in the 1980s he was inspired by the novels of Thomas Pynchon and William Gibson, who he said combined good SF with "respectable literary conventions."

He tries for the same effect in his own work, he said, and also takes care to future-proof his work as much as possible. In his most recent book REAMDE, for example, he removed all mention of iPhones or BlackBerrys and replaced them with the simple word phone, which he says will age better. ®

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