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Show Notes:

Neal Stephenson is a best-selling author, futurist, tech geek and swordsman whose works include Cryptonomicron, Seveneves, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash. He has also co-written several other books and graphic novels which we discuss in this episode. His latest book, Termination Shock goes into depth and detail about Sikh martial arts, which he had to research during the Covid lockdowns.

Of course, Neal’s main claim to fame is that he wrote the preface to my own Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists.

We cover an enormously wide range of topics in this episode, from fountain pens to working with Jeff Bezos building rockets. If you want to find anything in particular, the timestamps and related links are listed below:

        • [03:07] How Neal got into swords. Neal’s club in Seattle is Lonin.
        • [08:12] Ellis Amdur and Japanese martial arts.
        • [14:31] Bartitsu
        • [17:53] Silver and McBane. Note: It was Captain John Godfrey’s 1747, A Treatise Upon The Useful Science of Defence, where he said that “The Small-Sword is the Call of Honour, the Back-Sword the Call of Duty.”
        • [28:50] Indian Club training
        • [37:46] Sword fights in fiction and how to write one
        • [43:48] Working with Charles C. Mann on Cimarronin. The Manila Galleons. We mention Da’Mon Stith and episode 23 of this podcast. Here is the photo of Ellis Amdur sticking an eight foot spear into Neal’s chest:

      • [52:40] Fountain pens
      • [55:38] How Neal plots, writes and edits his books, and how he co-writes with another author
      • [1:01:09] How Neal’s books changed culture – e.g. influenced the development of the Kindle (see Fiona image above [podbean: insert link to swordschool]: Fiona is a character in The Diamond Age. Amazon used the codename ‘Fiona’ for their Kindle project.)
      • [1:03:47] Working with Jeff Bezos at Blue Origin finding better ways to power space rockets
      • [1:14:05] Bullwhips
      • [1:15:41] LAMINA1 and building a new open platform for metaverses
      • [1:28:28] The best idea Neal hasn’t acted on yet
      • [1:32:14] What Neal would do with $1 million to improve historical martial arts

Guy Windsor: I’m here today with Neal Stephenson, the author, futurist, tech geek and swordsman whose works include Cryptonomicron, Seveneves, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, Fall, or Dodge in Hell, and his latest book, Termination Shock goes into depth and detail about Sikh martial arts, amongst other things. His main claim to fame, though, is that he wrote the preface to my own Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. So without further ado, Neal, welcome to the show.


Neal Stephenson: It’s good to be here, Guy.


Guy Windsor: It’s nice to see you again. It’s been a little while since that brief hour on your balcony in Seattle while you were suffering from Covid.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. Thanks for coming. Thanks for taking a chance. And then you proceeded to get Covid the next week.


Guy Windsor: Oh, but yeah, but a week later, it definitely wasn’t you. And we were like five metres apart, outside with the wind blowing in the best direction. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t you.


Neal Stephenson: It is the future now of human social interaction that probably hasn’t been the case for hundreds of years, that when you’re talking to someone, you’re very conscious of what direction the wind is blowing.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, it’s very weird. I’ve only recently started becoming conscious of wind direction through learning to fly planes where it’s super important.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah.


Guy Windsor: But, yeah, it’s a very strange thing. Like, you’re in somebody’s garden, someone might have Covid. You want to stay up wind of them. So let’s hope you had a shower today because they’ll definitely be smelling you but not the other way around. So whereabouts in the world are you?


Neal Stephenson: Seattle.


Guy Windsor: Overlooking the beautiful waters and nice scenery?


Neal Stephenson: I live in a neighbourhood of Seattle that faces toward the lake. So that’s pretty non-specific because the lake is 25 miles long.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, we’re not trying to doxx you. Don’t worry.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, and there’s houses on both sides of it all the way around. But it’s a city of, of hills, of glacial ridges that run north, south. And so most places have got a view of something. I happen to have a view of some lake water.


Guy Windsor: Yes. And it’s very pretty. So general Seattle, that is sufficiently precise. I have actually, once, we’re talking before about guests getting the chance to edit stuff. A couple of times people have been a bit too specific about where they lived and they’ve asked me to cut it out. Yeah, you’re right to be cagey, because you don’t want a bunch of nutters showing up at your door unless they happen to be sword nutters. In this case, it’s probably all right.


Neal Stephenson: It has been known to happen.


Guy Windsor: So how did you get into the whole sword thing?


Neal Stephenson: I was always interested in it from a young age. I took fencing lessons in college from, I’m going to forget his name. A man who I later found out was a very significant fencing instructor. He passed away a few years ago and I enjoyed that and particularly enjoyed the teacher. But it wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I thought of sword fighting. It was foil. Took a bit of sabre, that was a little closer to what I had in mind. And then a few years later, I did some kendo here in Seattle. That was closer yet to my concept of sword fighting. But still, it’s a very kind of stylised protocol-bound style. And so years passed and I found myself playing with foam swords with my son who enjoyed bashing me about the knees. And I began playing with trying to build a foam sword replicas that that would stand up to serious abuse and that were of realistic weight. It was about then that I began working on the Baroque Cycle books and there’s some sword fighting action in there. I should probably jump ahead here and say that if I could go back and rewrite those books, the first thing I would do is probably make some changes to the description of the sword fighting because I think it’s all wrong. But at least I was trying to make a legit effort at learning something about historical styles. And the first one that I was interested in was rapier and dagger. Because that’s an important style used by some of the characters in the first of those books. So I found a video that was really more geared toward theatrical sword fighting, but it was something and I started trying to play around with that with some friends of mine here in Seattle. So this would have been probably around 2000, 2001, and we would meet in shitty old warehouses in Seattle’s industrial port districts and try to learn something about this. So, so that was the very beginning of it. And I can carry on from there if you would like. But I’m going to give you a chance to jump in.


Guy Windsor: It’s curious that you’re doing this stuff so early. The nineties was really the very beginning of it for most people. Some people were doing some things before that but it didn’t really start to spread until the mid-nineties.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. When was the Edinburgh Dawn Duellists scene happening?


Guy Windsor: Strictly the seed for that was when Paul MacDonald and I fought at 3:00 in the morning on the Salisbury Crags, and it must have been November 1992.


Neal Stephenson: Okay. So quite a bit earlier.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, yeah. So then we were bish bash boshing each other and basically trying to make sport fencing more realistic or trying to do more realistic fencing than sport fencing. Because I’d actually met him at a sport fencing event and we were like very simply dissatisfied with the artificiality of it. And then we got some friends to join in, and it was formally inaugurated as a club in June 1994. It developed and grew from there and it is still actually running today. I quite pleased about that.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, yeah. That was my sense was that the nineties was when anything at all began to happen.


Guy Windsor: So is this why Hiro Protagonist, incidentally the best name for the main character in a novel ever, is that why he’s basically doing kendo all the time? Because that’s what you’d done up to that point.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. So that book was written in circa 1989, 1990 and so that’s ten years before what I just described. So at that point I had done some Kendo here in Seattle, that would have been about 1986, 87. So a few years earlier. So that was the closest thing I had to some specific knowledge of that style, I shouldn’t call it a style, of Japanese sword fighting. Of course, today, I know a bit more because of having had contact with Ellis Amdur here in Seattle.


Guy Windsor: And yeah, he knows a little bit about Japanese martial arts.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, I’m told he may have dabbled in it.


Guy Windsor: Yeah. In case the listeners haven’t heard of Ellis Amdur, he has been training at the very highest levels in Japanese martial arts for about 50 years and is ungodly good with weapons.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. We could now spend the rest of the podcast on this topic. But just say that I got a chance to watch Ellis teach at VISS, Vancouver International Swordplay Symposium, a couple of years ago. And we drove up from Seattle together and we drove back down and he spent a day or so covering a kind of a small aspect of, I believe it was Araki-ryū, which has to do with a particular scenario where one person has a dagger and the other doesn’t. And so a pretty narrow, specific set of moves that you can do in that situation. So I asked him on the way back, of that martial art, how much did we see today? Was it 1%, you know, 5%, 10%, 50%? And it was a pretty small number. And then I asked him, how many Japanese martial arts there were of equivalent scope and he said there were a lot of them. So it’s a big area and if you watch these people do these styles, they’re strikingly different from one another. So Araki-ryū is lots of screaming, lots of extremely aggressive, hard hitting. You’re just trying to batter the other person down. And then there’s other styles that have an entirely different look and flow to them.


Guy Windsor: So you have access to these martial arts because I’m sure Ellis would show you some stuff if you asked him. But I happen to know that you are drawn more to George Silver and his Paradoxes of Defence. Why?


Neal Stephenson: Well, you said it was okay to ramble, so this may take a few minutes, but going back to the early aughts when we were practising in warehouses with foam, I put a lot of effort into trying to make better foam simulators, made some headway, but it was probably around ’05, ’06 that we finally connected with Angus Trim and Tinker Pierce, two sword makers of note in the Seattle area, and kind of became aware that you could get steel simulators that were good, that were of historical weight and balance, and that could stand up to some abuse. And it was also around then, a little bit later, that I went first went to WMAW, the Western Martial Arts Workshop in Wisconsin that’s run by the Chicago Swordplay Guild and got exposed to the larger Western martial arts community for the first time.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, that’s where we first met. I think it was 2007.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, I believe that’s right. I believe that’s right. And the first year I showed up, at least half the people were using wooden or even plastic wasters.


Guy Windsor: A lot of aluminium at that point as well, I think.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, that’s right. And then within a year or two, that was all gone and everyone had steel.


Guy Windsor: Hallelujah.


Neal Stephenson: So yeah, it was around then the two things that we realised were that we should be using steel because we could, because it’s better, and that longsword in particular was becoming the dominant form, or the dominant weapon, let’s say. And so at that point, we changed the name as a group to Lonin because the other groups we were in contact with, your school in Finland, the Chicago Swordplay Guild, Sean Hayes’s School, Academie Duello, etc. each of those had someone who was clearly the leader of that school, kind of the master, as it were. The lineages were all broken so we can argue about the use of that term.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, but you’re right. My school has a lot in common with these schools. And one thing that they will have in common is, yes, there’s usually a founder who is still there teaching, although my school in Helsinki has being doing just fine without me for the last six years.


Neal Stephenson: Well, no comment.


Guy Windsor: It was always designed to be that way, because if it can’t survive the loss of the founder, what’s the point?


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, for sure. So in our case, we did not have such a person. We didn’t want to pretend that we did. And so there was going to be a master-less school. And so that made us think of Ronin, the masterless Samurai. So we just mushed that together with longsword and came up with the word Lonin and we even made a little glyph. We mashed together a Norse rune and a Japanese character to express that idea. And so initially it was entirely longsword. We kind of started with German using Christian Tobler’s books and kind of moved on, started doing Fiore as well, when good translations of Fiore became available. And that continues to this day. But another thread that got started was Bartitsu, based on Tony Wolf’s scholarship in that area. So we got his books and we created a separate track within Lonin that was focussing on Bartitsu. And that kind of has slowly morphed over time. So the classical elements of Bartitsu would be jujitsu which Barton-Wright brought over from Japan combined with Vigny cane fighting and a few others, pugilism.


Guy Windsor: Defence with the bicycle.


Neal Stephenson: Defence with the bicycle and with a cane. We use the crook of the cane to hook the other guy’s leg or neck. Of all sorts of oddities. And the humour of it, the kind of Monty Pythonesque angle is part of the charm. So we would work on all of those. But the thing that’s different between Seattle in, say, 2012, 2015 versus London in the late Victorian era is that if you want to do jujitsu, it’s everywhere.


Guy Windsor: Sure.


Neal Stephenson: Both classic jiu jitsu and Brazilian jiu jitsu. And there’s lots of people around who are much, much better at that than any of us. Whereas when Barton-Wright was the only game in town, he had brought jujitsu over as this incredibly esoteric, amazing, new set of ideas. So to the extent that jujitsu is a large portion of Bartitsu, we kind of ended up asking ourselves, what’s the point of us trying to teach this? Can we even teach it in a responsible way?


Guy Windsor: Well, I think as a historical curiosity, you can. As a ‘this will keep you safe on the mean streets of Seattle’, definitely not. But as a ‘this is what they were doing in late 19th century London’, absolutely.


Neal Stephenson: You can treat it as a re-enactment of a way of teaching jujitsu from 100 years ago.


Guy Windsor: So, yes, but one questions the point.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. So our focus then by default, moved towards the la canne, the cane stuff, and so on. Which is fine. Some savate, but there’s only so much you can do in those areas without expert instruction. But we did begin to add more sword work because Nathan Barnett was part of the group and he’s part of a small but important lineage of Silver scholars that includes Stephen Hand and Paul Wagner in Australia. And so in him we had someone who could really teach that material. And it’s arguably a deviation from Bartitsu which didn’t emphasise sword work much, but Hutton, Alfred Hutton was actually the sword instructor at Barton-Wright’s School.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, although Alfred Hutton wasn’t teaching anything related to Silver.


Neal Stephenson: But Hutton wrote a book in 1899 about sword instruction, and it’s got an appendix called Defence Against an Uncivilised Enemy. These are not terms we would use today, but essentially he’s saying, I mean, it’s phrased in a pretty dry kind of sarcastic style. But he’s saying that, if you are in the military in Afghanistan and you find yourself engaged in sword combat with one of the locals, he’s not going to politely salute prior to the onset of hostilities. He’s not going to confine his movements to a narrow strip back and forth. He may do shocking things like allowing one foot to pass in front of the other.


Guy Windsor: Huh? Horror.


Neal Stephenson: He may step sideways.


Guy Windsor: Wow. That’s a bit outlandish, literally.


Neal Stephenson: He might dodge out of the way. And the style of sword fighting that we were being taught with foil is simply not going to work against people like that. So how can we learn how to fight those guys without being like them?


Guy Windsor: He doesn’t want to go and learn Pashtun martial arts.


Neal Stephenson: Right. Well, it turns out, he says, that there was this guy 300 years ago who’s as British as they come, who knew all about this. And he wrote it down in a book. It was a guy named George Silver. And someone had gotten one of Silver’s manuscripts to Hutton, and he had read it. And so that was our excuse for teaching Silver in what had started out as Bartitsu.


Guy Windsor: Because the sword instructor to the Bartitsu school can be demonstrated to have known about George Silver and therefore who knows what Silverian stuff he put in his classes. Yeah, it’s a pretty slim argument. But I mean, who needs an excuse, really? I mean, Silver’s fabulous.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. Once you start getting into it, there’s a lot of other background that supports this. As I see it, and others may disagree, there’s kind of a long running split between more duelling focussed swordplay that’s all about the thrust and lighter weapons and the kind of swordplay that active military people felt that they needed.


Guy Windsor: Sure. And one 18th century source, I’m blanking on the name of it, I’ll put it in the show notes, described smallsword as the call of honour, but backsword is the call of duty.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, which is exactly what Silver is saying. Silver is very clear that he despises the Rapier because in his mind, it’s a duellist’s weapon. And if you’re engaging in duels in London, you’re probably fighting another Englishman. And what’s the point of that? The reason we carry swords around and get good at swords is so we can fight people who are not Englishmen.


Guy Windsor: Like the French.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. Or, as he puts it, in the service of the prince.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, exactly.


Neal Stephenson: So that’s his phrase for essentially military combat. And so he’s articulating a difference that many other people before and after him had been aware of, which is that if you’re in a melee situation, multiple opponents, or defence against uncivilised enemies, whatever you want to call it, you may need a different skill set than you would need to engage in a formal one-on-one duel, where certain rules are being enforced.


Guy Windsor: Right. Okay. And you have a preference then for more military style combat over the duel?


Neal Stephenson: I do. Yeah. I don’t deprecate the other.


Guy Windsor: Sure, we all have our preferences.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. The thing that always was interesting to me and the reason I kept searching, until I found HEMA, was what’s real sword fighting like?


Guy Windsor: Right. That is the question we all have to answer. And everyone has a different answer. Because it means something slightly different to everyone. I mean, for some people, if the blades aren’t sharp, it’s not real sword fighting. For others, if it’s not a tournament, it’s not real sword fighting and so on.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. So that is the lineage that is clearly defined by Silver and carried through to McBane and many others.


Guy Windsor: Do you see an actual lineage connection between McBane and Silver? I don’t.


Neal Stephenson: Oh, no. I’m probably using the wrong word, but that kind of general thread.


Guy Windsor: That attitude. McBane’s only training came from a French smallsword and military training. Those are the two that he talks about in his book, because I edited it recently with the intention of making another audiobook out of it. So I did an audiobook for Silver. It doesn’t depend on pictures, so I thought this is a brilliant candidate for an audiobook. And I was going to do the same with McBane. And I ended up doing all the editing and then just deciding I didn’t have the energy to raise the money to pay the narrator, because I was planning on getting somebody quite well-known for the narration, so I thought it would be kind of cool to get someone like James Cosmo, for example, for the narration, and so I was talking to various agents and whatever, I thought, Oh God, I don’t know, there’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of money. And then when you’ve got the files, you’re about halfway there to actually producing the finished work. And it’s like, Yeah, I love McBane. I love him dearly. Yeah. And in fact, I am quite happy to take credit for introducing the McBane to the modern historical martial arts scene, because it was me that found him and got him copied and distributed in the re-enactment scene in Scotland in the mid-nineties.


Neal Stephenson: For those who don’t know, he’s a sort of gangster pimp.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.


Neal Stephenson: Not a mercenary, exactly, but.


Guy Windsor: Oh, he fought in kind of mercenary ways. And but he was also a gladiator, a prizefighter. Back when prizefights were fought with swords, which is the only way to do it. I mean if boxing was done swords, I’d be interested.


Neal Stephenson: And his book is full of great stuff. There are certain persons of low character who will have some dirt. They’ll put dirt in their pocket. They’ll reach in and throw it in your face to blind you, you know. Whereas a decent person would pick the dirt up off the ground.


Guy Windsor: And also make sure your opponent takes their hat off before you duel, because they may have a gun concealed in it and shoot you with it, which happened to him.


Neal Stephenson: Right. When somebody bothers to mention something like that in the book it’s probably based on experience. He got set on fire.


Guy Windsor: He got blown up by his own grenade.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. He fell down a well or was thrown down a well. It’s an amazing story.


Guy Windsor: Yeah. And now that we’re chatting about it, I am maybe, perhaps thinking about getting the energy together to actually raise the money to get it recorded. Because it is a perfect audiobook, imagine in a Highland Scots accent?


Neal Stephenson: Yeah.


Guy Windsor: That narration.


Neal Stephenson: And basically his livelihood during his military career is derived from being a pimp. So he has a string of prostitutes the whole time, with his wife.


Guy Windsor: One of several wives.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. His wife keeps showing up to drag him out of a well or, you know.


Guy Windsor: Or take him to a bunch of monks to get him healed after he’s been blown up.


Neal Stephenson: So anyway, just to kind of wrap up. The Bartitsu part of the group which is called BWAHAHAHA. The Barton-Wright Alfred Hutton Association for Historically Accurate Hoplology and Antagonistics.


Guy Windsor: I have it in my notes and I missed the last HA. Historical Antagonistics – brilliant.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. So that kind of morphed over time, just because at the end of the day, what everyone really wanted to do was sword fighting. And so the other stuff, the jujitsu, we still do some stick, but a lot of that just kind of fell by the wayside. So it ended up essentially being a backsword group. We made our own equipment. We also got heavily into Indian Club swinging as a workout.


Guy Windsor: Okay. I should mention to the listeners who haven’t had the pleasure of being in your house when he says Indian clubs, the ones I saw last time I was there are the size of tree trunks. I mean, they are literally a foot across in girth. They are insane. So we definitely need to talk about Indian clubs and Victorian callisthenics.


Neal Stephenson: Happy to. And I guess just also to close another loop the other truly remarkable thing that emerged from all this is that Tim Ruzicki, another Dawn Duellist.


Guy Windsor: That’s right. Yeah.


Neal Stephenson: Participant of old. Yeah.


Guy Windsor: He came over to Scotland to train with us for about a year, must have been about ‘98 or something like that. Lovely bloke.


Neal Stephenson: So Tim shows up on one night a week typically to teach pugilism or whatever he feels like teaching. And I think it’s an underappreciated fact of the group because you know, he runs Combat Con or co-runs Combat Con.


Guy Windsor: And I’ve had the dubious pleasure of walking my face into Tim’s extended left arm. He’s quite good at the whole punching people in the head thing.


Neal Stephenson: He is. My similar story was attempting to punch him and instead running my unprotected fist into his elbow.


Guy Windsor: Ouch.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. So that’s kind of what that group evolved into over time.


Guy Windsor: Okay. But you have a sort of a subgroup that does the Indian clubs. Is that part of the BWAHAHAHA?


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. It used to be that we used to open each practise with swinging clubs and then Andrew Somlyo, a member of Lonin who’s a physician and who spends a lot of his considerable brainpower thinking about training and physiology of exercise found some research to the effect that you should do the heavy strength training at the end, not at the beginning. So we moved that part of it to the end of each practise and then Covid happened. And in March of 2020, we sent a message out to everyone in the group saying we’re going to suspend practises for two or three weeks until this blows over.


Guy Windsor: Two or three weeks should do it.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah.


Guy Windsor: A month, tops.


Neal Stephenson: But we started doing Zoom calls and it’s hard to do sword fighting over Zoom but it’s easy to do the Indian clubs swinging and other bodyweight stuff.


Guy Windsor: Yeah. Calisthenics.


Neal Stephenson: And that became kind of a lifeline for us for the next two years. And as things changed over time, we still have three Zoom sessions per week that are exclusively devoted just to Indian clubs and bodyweight exercises.


Guy Windsor: Excellent. So what does your Indian clubs and bodyweight exercise training look like?


Neal Stephenson: Well, we kind of arbitrarily divided into four weight classes. The there’s a very light, like one or two pound style, that was popular. It was an Olympic sport in the early 20th century. And it’s very twirly and complicated and sort of artistic. So it’s like rhythmic gymnastics kind of we only know about it because one of the original members of the juggling group, The Flying Karamazov Brothers, is an expert in this, and his dad was a gymnastics teacher at UCLA. And so he learnt all of this stuff when he was a kid. And so he taught us some of those moves. But we don’t do it much. We have one member, Matthew Peterson, who’s very proficient at it, but it’s not a part of our regular routine. And then there’s what we call medium clubs, which are 2 to 3 pounds, which you can move with the small muscles of the wrist. You can move these things around. Big range of motion. Not a lot of heavy exercise, I would say. But they’re good for range of motion and some conditioning. Then we go to what we call heavy clubs, which, depending on who you are, can go anywhere from 5 to 20 pounds. Most of us are in the 10 to 15 pound range. And those are big movements where you’re recruiting all of the major muscle groups in your body, basically, to move these things around. So you’re doing some squats that recruit your lower back and your quads and so on. And the simpler movements that relied to a large extent on balance and timing, because these are heavy enough that if it goes off kilter.


Guy Windsor: You can’t catch it.


Neal Stephenson: You can’t use main strength, you can’t just use your wrist to rescue it. You’ve got to let gravity have its way. And so that’s pretty heavy exertion. And then finally there’s Gada which is a weight on the end of a stick that’s at least three feet long, two, three and a half feet. And those can be anywhere from 10 pounds on up. I’m comfortable with the 25 pounder. Some people go much higher. But there again, you’re recruiting all of the muscles in your body to move this thing around and you’re relying on timing and being able to kind of use your core. It’s a cliche, but you’ve got to activate your core to make this work. So we have a routine that that we’ve all got memorised that we go through and we use a timer. So each set of exercises runs for a specific amount of time. And the whole the whole routine goes for 20, 30 minutes.


Guy Windsor: Okay. So it’s the same thing every time.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, well, we have a different one that we do on Sundays. There’s a particular kind of squat called a Baithak squat. It’s a body weight exercise. There’s the Indian style push ups where you’re kind of swooping down and some other stuff.


Guy Windsor: So this basically just keeps you fit. Is it anything connected to Bartitsu or this just separate?


Neal Stephenson: I’m sure they did Indian Club swinging.


Guy Windsor: It was popular in the late 19th century in Britain. There was a craze for it, as I recall.


Neal Stephenson: Right. I mean, Tony Wolf could say. But they must have had clubs because that was just how you worked out.


Guy Windsor: But is it is very effective. I’ve done some sessions with you in Seattle, and I’ve actually developed my own clubs for simulating sword motions with in a confined space. It’s just a really nice way to get the shoulders moving and the rest of the body.


Neal Stephenson: It teaches you some good habits that are, I think, good for shoulder health. When you’re a sword fighting, you’re almost always holding something out in front of you. And there’s a natural tendency to want to get the weapon as close to the bad guy as possible while staying as far away from the bad guy as possible. So people tend to do a reaching out that is not good for your shoulders. So with Indian clubs, it teaches you can’t do that. You’ve got to have your shoulders back and your chest out in a very Victorian, manly kind of attitude.


Guy Windsor: Yeah.


Neal Stephenson: And so I think that if you do it right, it can help you develop good habits.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, good mechanical habits for swinging swords around, for sure. Now, you go into Sikh martial arts in quite a lot of detail in Termination Shock. Have you actually trained them or was that done from research?


Neal Stephenson: It was done from research, largely just because of Covid.


Guy Windsor: Okay.


Neal Stephenson: Again, the stuff is pretty well-documented. It is possible to do too much research.


Guy Windsor: Hang on a second, quite a few of the people that listen to the show are actually writers of fiction. So can we just highlight the fact that you just said it is possible to do too much research? Because, Hallelujah, that is so true.


Neal Stephenson: Particularly with the sword fighting. Years ago, ten or more years ago, we did the Mongoliad series of books. And I think more than one of us on that project saw it as obvious and natural that we would want to go really deep on the martial arts research. And we actually got Ellis to come in and act out a particular fight scene between a samurai and a swordsman.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, and you got me in too, to do some of the sword stuff.


Neal Stephenson: That’s right.


Guy Windsor: That was a fun project.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. Well, it turns out that that’s all fine, but actually trying to write prose describing a sword fight is difficult. It’s very easy to produce a lot of carefully researched verbiage that simply doesn’t do what you want it to do as a fiction writer.


Guy Windsor: Do you know anyone who does it well? Can you think of sword fights in fiction that you think are done well?


Neal Stephenson: Interesting question. I think Joe Abercrombie, he’s got the right idea, which is that it’s chaotic and there’s not a lot of fancy techniques. It’s random things happening and bloody and painful and frequently over very rapidly. So I don’t know if he does a lot of detailed research about these things, but I think he takes a good approach to it. But, yeah, that’s a good question.


Guy Windsor: Have you read the Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser?


Neal Stephenson: No.


Guy Windsor: Okay. Because I think that the violence in that is done extremely well. I mean, Flashman the character is this bully and coward and ne’er do well and philanderer who ends up by accident and luck with a Victoria Cross and a knighthood and the thanks of Parliament and all that sort of stuff. It all just comes out right in the end for him, but he ends up forced to fight in lots of situations. And the way the fights are described: exhausting, painful. And all the fancy stuff goes out the window.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. I think part of one of the joys of that project was watching Joseph Brassey sink his teeth into it.


Guy Windsor: And yeah, he really sort of blossomed as a writer in that situation.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. And he’s gone on to great things. So anyway, when I was working on the Termination Shot stuff, part of me was frustrated that Covid was going to make it difficult to physically engage with people who do this stuff for real. And part of me knew that it was probably for the better because, particularly in a book like that, which is trying to reach a fairly broad audience, to go into a whole lot of detail about how these fights work would have been kind of beside the point.


Guy Windsor: Yeah. There’s clearly a bunch of research like how they prepare the training hall before class by bigging it up and turning it over, all that sort of detail is really nice for the martial arts geeks who are reading. But I think there’s probably not so much of it that it slows things down too much.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. But that’s something where anyone who reads it, whether they care about martial arts or not, can get a picture of what’s going on. It relates to the development of the character. Whereas if you’re writing a ten page long description of each attack and parry and counterattack and, you know, shift of weight in a fight, that’s the point when you’re going to lose a lot of readers.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, it would actually get really boring really quickly. And in fact, when people ask me about writing sword fights, because I don’t know much about writing fiction, but I know quite a lot about sword fights and my number one top tip is don’t use any jargon. Don’t call it a madritto fendente or an oberhau or whatever. Just describe what’s happening and why anyone should care. Don’t write it for the martial artists in the audience. Write it for the people who can sort of get that sympathetic reaction to the violence that’s happening. But they’re not going to be judging it analytically, because if they do, then that’s not how you read fiction, right?


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. It’s also not how you sword fight.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, true. Very good point. On the subject of research, I have to ask, who is Charles C. Mann and why should we care?


Neal Stephenson: He’s a good friend of mine, Charles Mann. He is the author of books called 1491 and 1493, which are two of the most amazing historical books I’ve read. 1491 is about what the Americas looked like prior to the arrival of Europeans. 1493 is about the aftermath of the merging of the old and new worlds. And he’s written quite a few other books, The Wizard and the Prophet, which is about two competing strands of environmentalism. But for people who follow your podcast, 1491 and particularly 1493 are going to be probably the good places to start. And we ended up being amongst the co-authors of a graphic novel called Cimarronin, which was one of the spin outs of the whole Mongoliad project. He goes by Cam. He called me because he had come across some information about the silver trade. So there used to be a circular silver trade that China needed silver because it was their currency. They weighed it out. They didn’t mint coins. It was all by weight. And silver tarnishes over time and it goes away. And so they had an insatiable demand for silver. And Spain had huge silver mines in Mexico. And so the Spaniards would refine silver in Mexico and take it in caravans down to Acapulco and load it on ships. And those would go to Manila, another Spanish base. And then in Manila, there was a connection to Chinese traders. So Chinese traders would come down from Shaman and south eastern China with silks and porcelain and any other trade goods they could carry and trade them for silver in Manila. And then the Spaniards would load those on these huge ships, the biggest ships afloat, called the Manila Galleons, and sail those back to Acapulco. And so that trade went on for a long time. And there’s a great guy called Jameli Carrere, who’s another McBane. He’s right up there with MacBane. He went around the world and crossed the Pacific on the Manila Galleon. But the Spaniards ran into a problem, which was that up in the mountains of Mexico, there were these people called Maroons or Cimarrons, who were a mixture of indigenous people and escaped African slaves. And so the slave trade, a lot of the people who got sent over from Africa as slaves were prisoners of war who had been marched out from conflicts in the interior of Africa. And so a lot of these guys were sort of bad asses. And if they survived the process of being sent across to the new world, they would end up typically on sugar plantations. And the first thing that would happen is that the overseer would hand them a machete. So you can kind of see the failure mode in this whole scheme and as you know, Da’Mon Stith in Austin, Texas has been studying the different styles of machete fighting that emerged.


Guy Windsor: Yeah we’ve had him on the show and discussed it. I’ll put a link to that episode in the show notes.


Neal Stephenson: Great. So a lot of these guys ended up putting their machetes to non-agricultural use and running up into the mountains where they formed these communities with the indigenous people called Cimarrons. And so those people started attacking the silver caravans that were going from the mines in the mountains down to Acapulco. And so they were beginning to choke off a really important economic resource from the Spanish. The Spanish are like, where are we going to find some fighters who are capable of taking on these dudes? And fortunately they had an answer, which was that hanging around Manila and other port cities in Southeast Asia, there were a lot of Ronin who had been caught out.


Guy Windsor: Is this fact from Charles Mann’s research or is this fiction from the story?


Neal Stephenson: This is all totally factual.


Guy Windsor: Totally factual. Okay.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, totally factual. And the way that worked is, as you probably know, if you know anything about Japanese history, was that the Shogun just closed off Japan on a certain day. If you were a Japanese person outside of Japan on that day, you could never come back. So these guys were stuck and so they became mercenaries and muscle. And so the Spaniards recruited them and sent them to Mexico to fight these Maroons, these Cimarrons, and protect the silver shipments. And so Charles, Cam, had encountered all of this doing his research, and he had written a sentence in the book which was “thus did masterless Samurai from Japan find themselves wielding their katanas in the mountains of the Sierra Madre, you know, to protect the Spanish silver supply.”


Guy Windsor: Right.


Neal Stephenson: And then because it’s him, because it’s Cam. He said, oh, wait a second, what if they weren’t katanas? I assume they’re katanas and it sounds great. But I don’t know that. So he called me up and he asked me, Neal, what would they have used, katanas or some other thing? I said, well, I don’t know. But I know the guy who knows. And so we called Ellis and got his opinion on it. And then we all kind of had the same idea, which was we have to do a comic book. And so we got together with Mark Teppo, who is one of the other co founders of the whole Mongoliad thing. And we made the Cimarronin comic book together.


Guy Windsor: Wow. Okay. And I mean, there are echoes of this in Cryptonomicron and the Baroque Cycle. I remember in Cryptonomicron there is a mention of the Cathedral in Manila, has these stones that came over as ballast on these ships.


Neal Stephenson: Right. Yeah. They would take the ballast stones out because these ships by the time they finished their first crossing, they were all ready to be scrapped. And so they would just pull the stones out and use them for building. I’ll send you a picture. We choreographed a fight between Kitazume, the samurai in the story and someone else. And I had to be the poor sap who was the loser of that fight. And so I’ve got a picture of me up in the Lonin loft, lying sprawled out on my back. And Ellis has an eight foot spear in my chest, he’s sort of holding forth with his other hand. He’s explaining what he just did to me, to some amused onlookers.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, that’s definitely one for the show notes, brilliant. Yeah. All right. We’ve mentioned the Baroque Cycle a few times, and you famously wrote the whole thing out by hand. So you know I’m a bit of a fountain pen geek, so can I just ask for the benefit of the fountain pen geeks out there, what kind of pen do you favour for that sort of thing?


Neal Stephenson: I’m just putting this on my to do list. Well, I used several pens. And so I have a few relatively broad nib pens, about four of them, that I keep loaded with different colours of ink. And so I’ll rotate through. So I can tell when I go back and look at the manuscript, okay, here’s where I stopped one day and started the next day. And that also just keeps the pens from drying up when they get used in rotation. And then I’ll go back over. I have a couple of other pens with finer nibs that I use for editing. So that’s kind of that process. I’ll go grab it. My favourite one is this, which is a Jorg Hysek, very modern aero styled pen, with carbon fibre barrel and you unscrew.


Guy Windsor: That’s a thing of beauty.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. It’s very nice. It was a gift some years ago. So to me it has got the best performance. It just feels good. It’s a fairly broad nib. Also got this Waterman, which is also a nice pen once it gets going, but it tends to stick and I have to shake it down. And then this is a Rotring, again, sort of an industrial style German pen. That’s another one of mine. And then this is one of my newer pens.


Guy Windsor: Oh pretty.


Neal Stephenson: It’s a Diplomat Aero. It’s great. It’s very heavy. It’s just a massive pen.


Guy Windsor: It’s got like heat treated steel, is it? You get these kind of rainbow colours.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. They flame treated it to get that iridescent look going. So there’s that. And then when I’m editing, I’ve got an old waterman and I’ve got this, I don’t know what it is, it’s a cheaper pen, but I keep it loaded with red ink so I can see where I’ve made edits.


Guy Windsor: Right.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. I’ve got another one that’s broken.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, you just made the pen geeks very happy. Thanks for that. So I know you’ve done quite a lot of co-writing, for example, with J. Frederick George, your uncle, and also with Nicole Galland for D.O.D.O. How does that work with your handwriting process?


Neal Stephenson: So I started the handwriting thing in earnest with Baroque Cycle. So the, the stuff with my uncle was earlier and it was just all computers. The only serious cowriting I’ve done in the fountain pen era has been with Nicki, Nicole Galland, on D.O.D.O. And there again, I may have done some composition with fountain pen, but I always type it in anyway, so I’ll do a couple of editing passes with pen and then maybe a week after it’s originally committed to paper is about the time I get around to typing it in.


Guy Windsor: Okay, so you type in as you go. You don’t write the entire thing and then type out the whole thing.


Neal Stephenson: There’s just no need to. I mean, it’s good to sort of keep up with it. So if I’ve got a few minutes of spare time I can type in some stuff and do some editing as I go. So in the case of Nicki, she’s just an absolute pro. And I knew that from working with her on the Mongoliad that she would just be a flawless collaborator. And and we traded off big chunks at a time. So she would send me some stuff, “over to you,” and maybe a month or two later I would get back to her with what I had written.


Guy Windsor: So had you planned the whole thing out first and then divided up who does what bit? Or did you take half and half or how did you do it?


Neal Stephenson: There were there were bits I think it was understood I would do. Anything with kind of fake science was my bailiwick. And then there were extended historical sections that is kind of her. It’s kind of what Nicki does. One thing that made the collaboration easier was that it’s an epistolary novel. So everything is in the form of debriefing reports in a bureaucratic system or emails or what have you. So it’s naturally.


Guy Windsor: Naturally split up into pieces with different voices.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, chunks, yeah.


Guy Windsor: But did you plan it all and then work within the plan, or make it up as you went along?


Neal Stephenson: It was a lot of talking on the phone, I would say, and arriving at a shared idea as to what was going to happen next. So in our heads, we both had an understanding of what was going to happen, in what order. But I think both of us are comfortable with not over planning or over speccing these things. You know, there’s simply no need. The plot of the book isn’t that complicated. And so any reasonably intelligent person should be able to carry it around in their head while they’re working on it.


Guy Windsor: Okay. I’m laughing because, you know William Golding famously planned his novels, as he says, down to the last flicker of an eyelash.


Neal Stephenson: Wow.


Guy Windsor: And other people, they start with a blank page and an idea as to what the story is going to be like and they just go from there. So you seem to be much closer to the discovery writing process than you are to the planning process. Which surprises me because you’re very scientific and methodical in your approach a lot of the time to other things.


Neal Stephenson: I do think it’s very useful to have a notion of what the last chapter is going to look like. And so, you know, in the case of D.O.D.O., we knew that certain things were going to have to get resolved in certain ways or in any book. And then that does provide some structure to work within. But how you get there, I think you’re basically missing a lot of great opportunities if you hew too rigidly to an idea that you came up with during the first two weeks of the project.


Guy Windsor: Interesting. Okay. Well, I’m very glad you said that. You just made some of my friends very happy. You probably pay no attention to it whatsoever, but in the kind of broader fiction writing community. There’s a lot of.


Neal Stephenson: Pantsers versus.


Guy Windsor: Yeah, plotters versus pantsers, or discovery writers versus planners or whatever. It seems to me a completely unnecessary and totally contrived argument because presumably you write your novels however best suits you and everyone is going to be different in that regard no matter what. So your novels often inspire changes to the culture. Like, Snow Crash gave us the metaverse and the idea for Google Earth and the term “avatar”, or at least popularised the term “avatar” in that context and people credit Cryptonomicron with really lighting a fire under the idea of cryptocurrency and so on. So what do you think of what other people have done with the seeds you have planted?


Neal Stephenson: You know, unless somebody does something that’s just egregiously terrible, I tend to accept the compliment and move on. This didn’t become a thing I ever had to think about until after The Diamond Age was published and I began to hear from a number of people who were inspired by the young lady’s illustrated primer. I would get email. You know, “I’m part of a group that’s going to build the primer, do you want to work with us?” That kind of thing. And it turned out that they were all doing very different things. And so it occurred to me that the best approach was to not strongly back any one particular interpretation, unless it was obviously wrong. But by endorsing one group’s work, you’re kind of…


Guy Windsor: un-endorsing the others.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah.


Guy Windsor: So you create your art and how people respond to it is up to them.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. There’s another picture I could show you of when started building the Kindle. The codename for the project was Fiona, who was a character in The Diamond Age. And then about the same time they started constructing their campus, they started putting up these buildings in a particular neighbourhood of Seattle. And the buildings were named after important words or concepts, in the history of the company. And so the building where they housed a lot of the Kindle related stuff is just called Fiona. So I can send you a picture of me standing in front of that building. It’s these giant letters, ten feet tall.


Guy Windsor: Oh, please do.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. So, that’s an example of it’s just best to let people do what they’re going to do and not try to back any particular horse.


Guy Windsor: Sure. Although it must be work like that that led to you getting hired for Blue Origin.


Neal Stephenson: It’s one of these weird things where I had just known Jeff Bezos for a few years at that point.


Guy Windsor: How come?


Neal Stephenson: We’d met at a dinner party and started talking about rockets and it’s kind of like swords. Everyone’s sort of interested in them. But you can tell if you start talking to a random person you just met about swords within a very short period of time you can tell whether they’re an ignoramus or who just thinks swords are cool, or someone who actually knows something about swords.


Guy Windsor: Or an ignoramus who thinks they know something about swords, which I run into quite a bit.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, that’s the trickier situation. It is the same with rocket stuff. So we knew that about each other. And so we had gone to see The Rocket Boys or October Skies. There’s a book and a movie. I can never remember which is which. The movie is called October Sky, and the book was called The Rocket Boys. But we had gone to see it in 1999 because we knew our wives would be bored to death by it. And then we went and had coffee, and he said he’d always wanted to start a rocket company and I said, well, why don’t you start it today? And he did. That’s not me exerting a lot of influence.


Guy Windsor: That was just the final straw.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. I mean, he had wanted to do it explicitly since he was five years old. So I think if I contributed anything, it was just the notion that even if he didn’t have time to really do a rocket company in a serious way, because at the time he was still building Amazon, there was still a lot of questions in people’s minds as to whether it would survive at all.


Guy Windsor: This is like 2000, right?


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, 1999. But why not have just a few people quietly kind of doing some laying groundwork and thinking about possible approaches? So that was the first entity called Blue Operations LLC, which had five, six, eight employees for a number of years.


Guy Windsor: What problem were they trying to solve?


Neal Stephenson: Basically not a lot had seemingly changed since in 50 years. You know, if you look at just the big rockets of the Saturn V, I still don’t think the Saturn V has been exceeded. It will be soon, but it’s still people doing the same stuff. And so had there been any changes in technology in the intervening 50 years that would open the door to some new way of launching stuff into space.


Guy Windsor: All right. So they were basically trying to solve the problem that it’s very, very expensive to get stuff off the planet.


Neal Stephenson: Are chemical rockets really the best we can do? Or might there be other technologies that are now worth pursuing? And the first thing that happens when you start to study that in a systematic way is you learn that there are no new ideas and that nerds have been obsessing over this for 100 years. And so it’s really a case of you can come up with some idea that you think is really cool, but inevitably you’ll find that some Russian guy came up with the same idea in 1936 and figured out all the math. So it really becomes almost more of a process of tracking that stuff down and evaluating it in the light of modern technologies.


Guy Windsor: So what was your involvement with the company? What were you doing for them?


Neal Stephenson: Well, I went and I acquired a machine shop. I participated in finding the first building, you know, moved the machines into it. A lot of really nuts and bolts stuff just to get some kind of work environment built where we could make things and work on things. And then evaluating these different, like typically we would find people who were expert in a particular form of propulsion technology. So for example the late Dr. Jordan Care was an expert in a kind of rocket that’s powered from the ground with lasers.


Guy Windsor: Oh, I’ve never heard of this.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, he put a bunch of lasers on the ground along the path that the rocket is going to take. The rocket has a heat exchanger on one side that is aimed down toward the ground, and the lasers all converge there, fire on it and heat up hydrogen. And so you can put more energy into the hydrogen that way than you can by burning.


Guy Windsor: I see. I was wondering what was the point of heating it up? Okay. So does it actually work? Can that be done?


Neal Stephenson: Well, Jordan Care pursued it to the extent he had could get resources for a while. There’s no reason in principle it couldn’t be done. It’s just one of these things where it would require a big engineering effort to make it work and during the Cold War, trillions of dollars were put into making chemical rockets. So you’re kind of having to compete with that. You’ve got a pretty high bar that you’ve got to reach. So there’s another version of a similar thing that instead of using lasers, it uses microwaves. That’s the same idea.


Guy Windsor: So that means basically you need less fuel in the rocket so the whole thing weighs less, so you can put more payload on for the same total mass of rocket, is that right?


Neal Stephenson: It is an exponential dependency. So the effectiveness of an engine is measured in a number called specific impulse which is measured in seconds. And the best you can get by burning chemicals like liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen is in the low four hundreds. And people have spent billions of dollars trying to eke out a few more seconds of specific impulse. But this system could have done 800 or better.


Guy Windsor: Wow.


Neal Stephenson: So it’s twice as much specific impulse. But because that is fed into an exponential equation, the increase in payload that you can get as a result is much more than a factor of two.


Guy Windsor: Wow. Okay. So in Seveneves when they are escaping off the planet because extinction is occurring, you sort of indulged your fascination for orbital mechanics and rocketry and whatnot in that section of the book. That’s where that came from.


Neal Stephenson: Well, I mean, yeah, I knew about that stuff as a result of, of working in Blue Origin, for sure. Then just some of the details, well, I think what you find is that if you go a little into some of the nitty gritty science and engineering of these things, you’ll encounter things that you never would have thought of, but that that add a feeling of reality to the story. So there was a really important moment where I went and visited a company called Planetary Resources. It’s an asteroid mining company in Seattle that sadly is not operating anymore. But a lot of rocket geeks there were kind of brainstorming some of the ideas that show up in the part of the book that you’re talking about. And one of those is that orbits are ellipses and they can be very elongated. And the planet that you’re orbiting is way down at one end of the ellipse, way down at one end. And so in a really elongated orbit, you spend a lot of time way out in the middle of nowhere, just kind of slowly parking around. And then you accelerate inward and you get to the planet that you’re circling and you whip around that planet at tremendous speed and go shooting back off into space. You’re weightless the whole time, so you don’t experience acceleration, but visually, what you would see is the planet kind of rushing toward you and snapping past. And so I use that in the story because it’s a physical reality. It’s true, it’s not made up. But it’s a really cool visual.


Guy Windsor: Yeah. And it reminds one a little bit of that Star Trek movie where they have to slingshot around the sun to get the speed up, because I never understood what that meant in Star Trek until I read Seveneves. Then it was like, oh, they weren’t just making that up, that does actually work.


Neal Stephenson: Now, in that case, what they’re trying to do is change their direction. They want to make a right angle turn or something. And so it’s a slightly different manoeuvre, but it’s the same idea. You want to come really close and a lot of changes happen in a short period of time.


Guy Windsor: So what’s with the bullwhip thing?


Neal Stephenson: So bullwhips are technology has been around for thousands of years that can accelerate objects through the speed of sound. Which is a remarkable fact.


Guy Windsor: There are bullwhips hanging on the wall behind me. I’m an Indiana Jones fan, what can I say?


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. So that was one of the things that I looked at. It was almost more of a symbolic move. I mean, I didn’t actually think that we’d be making giant steel bullwhips to launch things into space.


Guy Windsor: That would be very cool.


Neal Stephenson: It’s a way of saying, look, let’s think about some really out of the box ideas. So I actually got a bullwhip from, what’s it called? David Morgan.


Guy Windsor: Oh, yeah.


Neal Stephenson: A company in Seattle. I went there and bought it from Will Morgan, his son, and studied the physics of those and how they how they work and that’s another hour and a half.


Guy Windsor: A huge rabbit hole we could dive into it. Yeah.


Neal Stephenson: The first person who really studied it was a Scottish guy named Aitken, John Aitken, in the 1870s, he was a protege of the Thompsons, the Lord Kelvin and his brother. And so the knowledge of how those things work goes way back.


Guy Windsor: You worked for Blue Origin for a while. And then you worked for Magic Leap for a bit doing narrative stuff with them, I think. But now you’re working with a company called LAMINA1. And I’ve had a look at the website, and I’ve read it, because I do my research before I do these interviews. Honestly, I have no clue what LAMINA1 is about.


Neal Stephenson: So this crypto stuff is pretty abstract and I’m reasonably proficient at science and maths, but it’s still hard for me to follow as well. The thing about crypto is that if you get one thing wrong, you’re just fucked. And so you have to really know what you’re doing. It is not a good dilettante activity.


Guy Windsor: Is this the investing or the building of crypto?


Neal Stephenson: The actual building of it. But there’s a there’s an idea called a layer one blockchain was just means a new chain, one that that you start. Bitcoin was the first layer one, Ethereum, Avalanche. Others you may have heard of. There’s thousands of them, but only a few that have really become significant. When you do a layer one, you can build additional layers of functionality on top of a layer one. And many people do. But you’re always working with the built-in constraints in the engineering decisions that were made when the layer one was created. You can’t change that. So if you do a layer one, you can engineer it and tweak it, if you know what you’re doing, so that it’s optimal for a particular set of goals. And particular goal that we’re interested in is trying to support an open metaverse where people could kind of use the infrastructure that we’re going to build to create their own places and objects in the metaverse and hopefully do so profitably. So I’m working with Peter Vessenes, who’s an early Bitcoin guy, and he’s a crypto. He’s got fully legit maths and crypto chops of his own and knows a lot of people in the space. And so purpose of LAMINA1 is to build this new chain that we hope will be a useful tool for people who want to do metaverse building.


Guy Windsor: So I’m trying to think of the best way to put it in really properly non-mathematical layman crypto terms. So basically you’re trying to build like a toolkit for people to create their own versions of metaverses, as they can do for socialising or creating games or sword fighting even or anything else.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. The first layer one was bitcoin, which is money. That’s pretty much all it does. It’s built in such a way that it consumes a lot of energy. Another well-known one that came on later is Etherium, which is a currency like Bitcoin, but it adds new functionality in the form of smart contracts. So it’s not just money, but it’s actually a system for channelling payments, in a sort of automated way. And every few years there’s a new major innovation that comes along and adds some new. So if you think about what it would take to build an experience in the metaverse. We don’t say game, we say experience, but you could think of it as a game. You’ve got a virtual environment that’s populated with avatars. It’s got buildings. It’s got environments. You know, there’s a bunch of stuff that has to be placed there in order to make it work. And each element of that is a fairly complicated bundle of art assets and sound and programming that has to be created by someone. And so those people aren’t going to do that unless they get paid. Like most of the people who know how to do that are employed, happily or otherwise, in the game industry. So, you know, sorting out all of the, who’s responsible for what and who should get paid if the thing is successful is a fairly complicated matter.


Guy Windsor: So LAMINA1 makes that more accessible to people who want to build stuff in it. And how is it different from Zuckerberg’s metaverse horror?


Neal Stephenson: I don’t know that much about what those people are doing because we don’t talk to each other. But the basic question you have to think about when you’re using any service or website is how is this being paid for? And so when I go to the Steam store or the Epic store and buy a video game that’s quite transparent. It says here’s this game, here’s what it’s like. It costs $12. So I give them my credit card and they get money. Money disappears from my bank account. I have the game. It’s all very clear. In the case of social media sites, you never spend any money. It’s always free. And so you do need to ask yourself, there’s a line in Harry Potter where someone says, I think it’s Mr. Weasley says, never trust anything if you can’t make out where it keeps its brain. And so there’s a similar adage, I can’t remember who said it first, on the Internet, which is that if you’re on a website and you can’t figure out what the product is, the product is you.


Guy Windsor: Yeah. Sounds like something a Jaron Lanier might say.


Neal Stephenson: It wasn’t Jaron, but it was somebody else. And I need to settle this because I keep quoting this. You can find it easily. I don’t know what Meta is planning and how they intend to make money off what they’re doing, but if they’re using the same model as they used for Facebook, well, it’s advertising but it’s deeper than just advertising.


Guy Windsor: It’s what Jaron says as “behaviour of users modified and made into an empire for rent”, otherwise known as “bummer” for short.


Neal Stephenson: Okay, so you know your Jaron and so I don’t need to belabour that. With an open system anyone can do whatever they want. You can’t impose top down controls on how it gets used. But we would certainly hope that the different economic model would prevail in the metaverse that we’re talking about.


Guy Windsor: So it’s like the difference between YouTube, which I quit some years ago because I dislike their model, and Vimeo where I am the customer and they host my videos for me and I pay them for that and that makes me very comfortable and there’s no ads. Whereas on YouTube I’m producing content to sell ads for YouTube. That doesn’t sound like a good plan to me.


Neal Stephenson: You’re constantly shilling your own channel, just begging with people to click ‘like and subscribe’.


Guy Windsor: Because then you get this fraction of the advertising revenue. The numbers just don’t add up for me at all because the amount of money that the companies are paying for the ads, they must be making more money than that from the product or it wouldn’t be worth running the ads. And YouTube is getting most of that money and giving some tiny fraction of it to the content creators. If you have to get, like, 10 million viewers to make any kind of money, yeah, it’s horrible.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. There’s no guarantees. You know, making a living is always hard, but at least we can set it up in such a way that it’s an understandable economic transaction and not some mysterious skulduggery going on behind the scenes with your personal data.


Guy Windsor: Okay. So, you’re building a transparent platform for people to build their own metaverses on. And you will monetise it in some way, probably by those metaverse creators paying for the service, I would guess?


Neal Stephenson: Well, tokenomics or crypto economics takes a while to get used to. So basically these tokens circulate and have value to the extent that they’re being exchanged for goods and services. So we know that dollars and pounds and euros have value because people use them to buy potatoes and gasoline. So in the case of a currency that’s used in the metaverse, what people would be buying would be experiences or elements of experiences. And if that happens, if that actually happens, then those tokens have value. And if you own tokens, you make money or you own money.


Guy Windsor: Yeah. So, let’s say I have a sword club where we would sit around and drink virtual brandy and smoke virtual cigars and chat about swords in an erudite manner, of course. People would pay to be members of that club and the club would pay land rent to LAMINA1 for the use of the land that it is built on.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. That would be a model that makes sense to me. There will probably be others as well.


Guy Windsor: So I mean in my head, you’re a sword fighting dude who writes books because those are the two ways that we tend to interact, right? So what are you bringing to LAMINA1, if that’s not a rude question? If it is a rude question I should ask it anyway.


Neal Stephenson: That’s okay. So roles in companies tend to be fairly well understood. They have to be. So I’m the chairman. The role of a chairman is typically to maintain overall strategic direction.


Guy Windsor: Oh right, so you are on the managing board.


Neal Stephenson: Typically a chairman of the board might meet with the CEO and senior staff a few times a year and check in and see how things are doing. Are we on the right track? Are we emphasising the right things, but leave day to day operation to them. So that’s a reasonably good fit with my capabilities. I’ve learned through various interactions with the corporate world that I’m not particularly good at day to day management of things just because I get bored and I’m just not good at it. I’m not terrible at it, but I’m not as good as far as what we need. So there’s that. But I’m also going to be doing some work on the creative side, trying to actually build some specific experiences that hopefully will show what this could look like. Why it’s interesting, tell some interesting stories. And that also is it feels like a reasonably good fit with things I know about.


Guy Windsor: And so you’re bringing Snow Crash to life, basically.


Neal Stephenson: That gets us into incredibly complicated questions about the IP.


Guy Windsor: I was being cheeky, don’t worry. That was one of the cool things about Snow Crash, although actually I went more for the Sumerian stuff than I did for the computer stuff, as you might imagine.


Neal Stephenson: Well, you’ll be glad to know that we’re coming out with a new edition in November. It’s got some material added, some flashback material concerning the Sumerian stuff.


Guy Windsor: Fantastic. Oh, I shall certainly pick up a copy. So basically, we’ll be able to build the black sun and have sword fights in it.


Neal Stephenson: Hope so.


Guy Windsor: Fantastic. Okay. All right. So you do those different things. One of those things I don’t think is actually listen to this podcast, shame on you, but everyone else will know what’s coming next. Everybody who does listen regularly, because I tend to ask a couple of standard questions at the end. The first of which is what is the best idea you have not acted on?


Neal Stephenson: Not acted on at all?


Guy Windsor: Or not acted on yet. I mean, how you interpret the question is kind of up to you. Like what project or idea or thing in the back of your head is like I really want to do that one day?


Neal Stephenson: I’ve always wanted to pursue the whip stuff, the standing chain loops more. And I’ve actually put some work into it, so I have acted on it. I just keep getting sidetracked.


Guy Windsor: By standing chain, are we talking like high level physics or bullwhip cracking?


Neal Stephenson: Bullwhip cracking.


Guy Windsor: Oh, fantastic. Oh, right. Okay.


Neal Stephenson: So you can build a loop of rope or chain that just stands up by itself because of the physics. It’s the same physics that powers the bullwhip.


Guy Windsor: Huh? So what would you do with it?


Neal Stephenson: It’s really just more of a curiosity. It’s more of an art project.


Guy Windsor: Okay.


Neal Stephenson: So I’ve got some ideas about carbon, but I’m also trying to act on those. So it wouldn’t be right to say I haven’t acted on them.


Guy Windsor: Well, yeah. I mean, the whole of Termination Shock is all about carbon capture versus geoengineering with sulphur. If people are interested in your ideas on that, I think is it fair to say that you just go read Termination Shock because you sort of cover it all in there? Or do you actually agree with how the novel turned out?


Neal Stephenson: Well, I don’t think anyone thinks that solar geoengineering is the real solution. But that’s why it’s interesting. Novels in which everyone agrees about, tend not to be interesting novels, but novels in which people are arguing and fighting about things, that’s a different thing. So what we really need to do is extract unbelievable amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. And so if solar geoengineering has a role, it’s just to keep everyone from dying while we do that.


Guy Windsor: Right. So it’s like a delaying tactic.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah.


Guy Windsor: Yeah. It’s giving you more time to practise your standing whip thing. What’s it called again?


Neal Stephenson: Well, I call it Aitkenator because of this Scottish guy I mentioned, John Aitken. He actually built these things and wrote about them. Wrote a big paper about them.


Guy Windsor: Aitkenator. So the best are that you haven’t acted on, is that you’re going to build an Aitkenator.


Neal Stephenson: I would like to, but.


Guy Windsor: Fantastic.


Neal Stephenson: If you’re capable of building an Aitkenator, you’re probably capable of doing other things that are maybe more useful. Okay, so we’ll see. We’ll see. And then just in the kind of literary or creative domain, I really would like to see a television series made of the Baroque Cycle.


Guy Windsor: Oh, God, yes, me too.


Neal Stephenson: It’s a bit of a pipe dream.


Guy Windsor: Honestly, of all of your novels, apart from its gigantic length, it’s probably the most filmable.


Neal Stephenson: That’s what I think. And if you think in terms of long running TV, like Game of Thrones or whatever, the length is a feature, not a bug.


Guy Windsor: Right. Well, I would really like to see that happen.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, me too.


Guy Windsor: But yeah, though we do have to fix the sword fights first, Neal, come on.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, well, I know it would be an opportunity to do exactly that. So anyway.


Guy Windsor: All right, now my last question. If somebody gives you $1,000,000 or similarly like a large chunk of cash.


Neal Stephenson: Lifechanging amount of money.


Guy Windsor: Well, no, because you can’t spend it on yourself. How would you spend it to improve historical martial arts worldwide?


Neal Stephenson: Really good question. I’m kind of suspicious of top down, ‘here’s how it should be’ kind of approaches. And it wouldn’t work anyway, because there’s such a vociferous community. Trying to impose anything is going to fail.


Guy Windsor: Agreed. People have tried in the past and it did not go well.


Neal Stephenson: Right. So I think it would have to be more bottom up, enabling. Maybe some improvement in gear, but maybe there’s some really transformative work that can be done with industrial robots or something. If you could mount a simulator on a robot arm or something like that and then have a sort of training partner. Get in a lot of reps. I don’t know. It’s a great question, though.


Guy Windsor: One to think about.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, it’s a pretty energetic community and it seems like people do things. People get things done on their own. But yeah, if you could do simulations, if you could train more consistently, more satisfactorily. The problem with games is getting the feedback, the force feedback. And there’s actually ways to deal with that. But you can imagine that if you’re holding a sword hilt that’s just connected to a robot arm. These things are incredibly precise and so if you’re moving it in free air, it could just give enough feedback to feel like a sword of realistic weight.


Guy Windsor: Let’s say your imaginary opponent parries, could it actually stop your sword?


Neal Stephenson: Then it could do that, I think.


Guy Windsor: That is the problem, really, with all swordfighting I’ve ever seen on a video game. The problem is, I can’t stop your actions with my actions. And you can’t stop mine. Whereas in real life, when the swords come together, depending on exactly how they come together, there’s a fairly good chance they’re going to stop.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. I mean, by and large, people try to avoid…


Guy Windsor: Yeah, of course. But, when my attack meets your parry, my sword is forced out of its line, and sometimes it’s forced to stop.


Neal Stephenson: I’ll bet that modern robot arms are good enough, they might not be perfect, but I’ll bet they’re good enough to give you that.


Guy Windsor: So you would develop a historical martial arts appropriate robot arm sword simulator with your million dollars.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, it would take more than a million dollars.


Guy Windsor: It certainly would.


Neal Stephenson: Not a lot more. I don’t know.


Guy Windsor: Okay. Well, let’s go with that. Let’s just give you the money and see what happens. It’s imaginary money so I can give as much as I like. It’s great. I’ve given out so much money on this show, it’s fantastic. All right. Well, thank you very much indeed for joining me today, Neal. It’s been great seeing you again.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah, it’s been most enjoyable. And I hope you’re getting good use out of your falchion that I handed over to you.


Guy Windsor: Oh, have I ever. It’s there on the rack. It has this bizarre property of turning me into an evil pirate every time I pick it up. Which is why I love it.


Neal Stephenson: Yeah. Well, you’ve learnt something about yourself. Or maybe you knew that already.