I’ve been reading the new Neal Stephenson doorstop, and I’m legitimately disturbed. I hope that’s the effect he was aiming for.
If you’re not familiar with Stephenson’s heap of cinderblock-size bestsellers, then I’d like to congratulate you on your successful social life and avoidance of a tech career. For thirty-some years he’s been writing these geeky thrillers that combine comic-book storytelling with engineer-style prose and a unsubtle splash of libertarian fantasy. Like a modern-day Robert Heinlein. His books are incredibly popular among Burning Man people and programmers.
For some reason I’ve read every one of them. Partly it’s the way he over-explains everything. It soothes my fucked-up neurochem. More, it’s his mythopoesis. Like Lucas or Rowling or Tolkien, he builds his stories around epic myths. He catches some archetypal current and sails upon it to his desired conclusion, and along the way he patiently explains every adjustment he makes to sail and rudder. Each novel is a memetic virus designed to conjure a transformation in the reader. Perhaps every book is, but Stephenson seems to be letting the reader in on the joke. Documenting his code.
He’s not alone in this. A lot of the writers of his generation made a point to show the magic they hid up their sleeves. The Spectacle had been shattered by the revolutions of the 60s. The upcoming cyberpunks and comic writers and gothic novelists looked to the powerful ways that writers like Tolkien and Lewis captured their Zeitgeist. They wanted to tell the myths of their era, and they wanted to teach this magic to others. But their spells were superpowered by the emerging internet, and now we all live in their world. One where “memetic magic” and “narrative warfare” are the weapons of a new world war.
This is why I’m distressed by Fall; or, Dodge in Hell . (To be fair, I’m only 250 pages into this 900-page epic. I’ll let you know if he proves me wrong.) Stephenson projects a near future where the flyover states have become Ameristan , a lawless region of poverty and warlordism, while the “reality-based community” maintains a high-tech civilization in the cities and on the interstate highways. This is all precipitated by a massive hoax that fills the internet with hyper-targeted misinformation.
(One might think the fellow is sniping SCIOPS for plot hooks. But then, who isn’t?)
This isn’t the first time Mr. Stephenson has gone full Morlock. In 2008’s Anathem , he parodies consumer society with a planet of Idiocracy types, transcended by conclaves of science-monks living in literal walled towers. It’s a tale to warm the heart of any nerd who’s ever been picked on for not participating in the arbitrary rituals of so-called society. It certainly worked on me.
The Ameristanis in Fall are not much different. They’re patriarchal types with a variety of zealous culty beliefs, people who rock Confederate flag bumper stickers in a Northern state. Truthers for the global hoax, but deniers of scientific fact. Reactionary warlords and their wizards. Worshippers of memes.
What’s troubling is that Neal Stephenson is arguably the progenitor of meme culture. In the influential Snow Crash (1992) he offered a Tower of Babel tale in which the internet connects all our brains and a single mind virus could wipe out civilization. This is basically the same setup as Fall , except that in Snow Crash our protagonist is at risk of getting the virus. The characters in Fall are immune to propaganda. Not because of mental discipline, or a memetic vaccine: they’re protected by their money.
The “reality-based community”, which Stephenson clearly thinks he is a part of, can simply afford better editors for their reality. These are literal employees, people who they trust to filter the bogus information out of their feeds and whom they pay well to do so. People with less privilege, like those idiot corn farmers in Ameristan, have to subscribe to collective “edit streams” run out of sweatshops in even more impoverished places. The quality of your editor is the quality of your reality.
Those who pay more, get better information about the world. But not only that: your editor also protects your privacy, scrubbing away all those nasty data footprints. So the reality-based community can hide, can craft their images to perfection while the plebes leak their info to persuader algorithms. Leave it to a libertarian to insert a market into your very eyes.
Stephenson is a recluse who explicitly avoids social media and even email, but online estimates claim he’s at least a millionaire. Why should he care if lowly peasants can’t afford facts? Even as his characters mouth platitudes about the tragedy of the fall of consensus reality, you can feel him rubbing his hands with glee. He’s every nerd atheist that moved from the plains to the coast and wishes his relatives would burn in secular transhumanist hell. He’s fine with the majority of people on the planet dying in storms and heat waves, as long as he and his friends can escape to their yachts, bunkers, spaceships.
Maybe his attitude eats at me because I know who he runs with. The guy has hinted in his books that he’s got some kind of spook clearances. And he’s been heavily involved with the Long Now Foundation: Anathem is an 800-page advertisement for their 10,000 Year Clock project. A mechanical clock that will last the millennia, a tribute to the godlike powers of the modern age. A memorial to the reign of the technocrats.
I used to buy into this ideology, too. It’s appealing to think that a small group of people can rise above the distractions of the day-to-day and think about the long term. To imagine ourselves as one species, on one planet, working together on common goals. But the Foundation (composed of such Valley celebs as Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and Mr. Beff Jezos himself, who donated a whole mountain to the Clock project) is inherently an elitist institution, and attracts the wealthy and the comfortable. They can afford to transcend such petty problems as rent, student debt, car troubles and health crises. They have the free time to spend drawing up charts to prove that, really, on the whole, everything is getting better for everybody! They have no need for magical thinking – they have reality .
This is the most banal of magician’s traps: to love the smell of your own bullshit. Because it’s not reality, is it. A world of protected enclaves, where facts rule? Vast badlands where tiny meme-gods squabble for dominance? This isn’t a reality, or even an imaginary future. It’s a living myth, an egregore that has dominated media discourse for the last few years. CNN and Fox News alike project that story to their devoted followers. Are you in the Russiagate, impeachment, “truckers should learn to program” reality community, or the Qanon, witchhunt, “immigrants are coming for our jobs” reality community?
Meanwhile, the degenerates on 4chan believe they elected a president by jerking off to frog cartoons. That same president probably believes that The Button is still connected to The Bomb. And the person who ignited Occupy Wall Street thinks that we need a literal miracle, on the order of Constantine seeing a cross of light in the sky and converting to Christianity, if we’re going to spark a revolution.
If your reality is too small to allow for the possible goodness of the people on The Other Team, then it’s not reality.
Everybody thinks they’re the hero of the story. Most people are trying to meet the same human needs through different fucked-up strategies they were infected with long ago. If your ideology has no room for growth, for forgiveness, for the slow and deliberate change of heart, then you call for genocide. If you will let the poorest and most vulnerable suffer under delusions and addictions, if you will make no step to understand the mind of the Other and invite them into a better world, you doom them. Especially if you know how to write books that change minds.
Magicians and prophets have always played a special role in the apocalypse. If your memes are so good that you can sell millions of copies, with that comes great responsibility. To abandon people to the abyss of fake news is cowardice.
We are all magicians now. What story are you spinning?
Thanks for reading,
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