The Billionaire’s Bard

Rob Madole explores the rationalist fictions of the tech overlords favourite author, Neal Stephenson.

If the art of Science Fiction lies in translating the plausible into the prophetic, there’s no practitioner more successful than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen sci-fi novels, techno-thrillers, and works of speculative fiction, Stephenson has developed a reputation for being something of a tech oracle—where his writing goes, so goes the future. Lately, Stephenson’s influential 1992 novel Snow Crash has been in the headlines as the origin of the term “metaverse,” the life-as-virtual-reality concept around which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has staked his company’s future. And his 1999 novel, Cryptonomicon, so accurately anticipated the possibilities of a digitally encrypted system of anonymous financial transactions that, in 2019, Stephenson had to publicly deny the (mostly tongue-in-cheek) rumor that he might in fact be Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious creator of Bitcoin.

Stephenson’s fictions have even given rise to entire product lines: the designers of both Google Earth and Xbox Live reportedly consulted Snow Crash for inspiration, while Jeff Bezos was so enamored of Stephenson’s 1995 novel, The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, that he dubbed the top-secret development team working on the Amazon Kindle “Project Fiona” after a character in the book. The idea for Blue Origin, Bezos’s commercial spacefaring company, was hashed out over coffee with Stephenson after a joint viewing of October Sky in 1999; for a time, Stephenson was the only employee. Taking into consideration the other tech billionaires who are fans of Stephenson’s work or have cited it as a major influence—the list ranges from Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Palantir’s Peter Thiel to LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffmann and Google’s Sergey Brin—it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to say that Neal Stephenson might be the most influential novelist among business tycoons since Ayn Rand.

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