The Supergenius at the End of the World

In Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi, democracy is an obstacle to Muskian great men saving us all.
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“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” or so Paul Simon sang over thirty years ago, without sounding altogether pleased about it. The song, “The Boy in the Bubble,” is an ambivalent paean to modern science and technology — Simon once described it as expressing “hope and dread.” Even those of us who first heard it as children on our parents’ turntables knew it: the rising, major-key chorus cannot quite dispel those ominous synth chords underneath.

In ordinary times, those mixed feelings — the hope that modern marvels will benefit us and the dread that they might not — remain mostly in the background of public life. But in times of crisis they take center stage, as political leaders come to play an outsized role in guiding us either toward catastrophe or away from it, even as they use some of the very tools that elicit both our hope and our dread: research into deadly viruses could help to end a pandemic, and could cause one; nuclear weapons may deter bad actors, and threaten mutually assured destruction.

As we have seen all too well during the Covid crisis, political leaders must make decisions based on scientific information they only dimly comprehend, and scientists are called upon to intervene in political matters for which their specialized training offers little guidance. It may seem surprising that the history of political thought has little to say about the political role of the scientific enterprise in times of crisis. One wonders if this absence has sometimes contributed to crises. For more elaborate treatments of the subject, one must look in a rather unexpected place: science fiction, which has a rich history of imagining how pandemics, thermonuclear war, global warming, resource depletion, and hostile artificial intelligence may upend the balance of power between science and politics.

And yet for all of sci-fi’s close attentiveness to arcane scientific ideas — say, the equivalence principle or the physics of traversable wormholes — the portrayals we see of how political actors might face such crises are rarely realistic. What we typically find instead are political arrangements in which knowledgeable technocrats are already comfortably ensconced in positions of authority, or narratives that leave politics offstage altogether.

In this sense, the renowned science fiction writer Neal Stephenson’s oeuvre may serve as a stand-in for the genre. For while his work draws heavily upon the tradition of political philosophy, and his plots make frequent dramatic use of catastrophic scenarios, he seems unable to present a serious account of politics as a venue for decision-making of the most consequential sort. And though he is attentive to the social and political tensions modern science often generates, particularly in democratic societies, his protagonists usually end up circumventing politics when faced with the kinds of disasters that set his plots in motion.

This is altogether a great loss. The genre of science fiction as we think of it today originally arose as part of a cultural response to the rise of scientific and technical mastery. But before it was ever a genre, it was part of a broader tradition of speculative philosophical and political thought. That today’s sci-fi — and a writer of Neal Stephenson’s caliber in particular — is unserious about crisis politics is a shame.

It should not be surprising that the philosophical tradition serves only as a limited guide to dealing with crises in which science and technology loom large. Certainly, the theme of catastrophe appears throughout the history of political thought, as Alison McQueen details in her book Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times. But it was not until the modern era and the birth of the modern scientific enterprise that political thinkers considered how scientific mastery might eventually serve as a response to crisis, or as its cause.

That, too, took time. The founders of modern science, such as Bacon and Descartes, imagined scientific advancement as a steady accumulation of knowledge leading to our continued physical and social improvement, rather than as a factor in emergencies and imminent threats. Descartes, for example, who perhaps more than any other early modern thinker focused on health and progress in medicine, was thinking more of chronic ailments and diseases than sudden plagues. It is telling that the terrible destruction wrought on the city of Lisbon by the great earthquake of 1755 — a century after Bacon and Descartes — did not provoke ideas about how technology might help us respond to natural disasters, despite the practical aims of the Baconian project, and even as the disaster generated passionate philosophical reflections among European intellectuals.

It was not until science fiction branched off from philosophy that we begin to find sustained consideration of how scientific mastery might be critical for disasters. And indeed, there was a separation to be had, for the novel ideas of the scientific revolution were at times bound up with the kind of writing we now associate with science fiction, most famously in Bacon’s story “New Atlantis.”

As Jorge Luis Borges once noted in a lecture:

Bacon was a precursor of what today we call science fiction; in his New Atlantis, he narrates the adventure of some travelers who arrive at a lost island in the Pacific on which many of the marvels of contemporary science have become realities. For example: there are ships that travel beneath the water, others that journey through the air; there are chambers in which rain, snow, storms, echoes, and rainbows are artificially created; there are fantastical zoos that exhaust the variety of all hybrids and current species of plants and animals.

These kinds of radical imaginations appear also in lesser-known works like Voltaire’s novella “Micromégas” or Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s novel The Year 2440, both of which double as works of political speculation and science fiction.

Perhaps ironically, the most vivid and elaborate accounts of the purposes to which the new science might be put are found not in the works of its advocates but of its great critic, Jonathan Swift. Gulliver’s Travels features endlessly inventive depictions of science in action, such as attempts to extract sunshine from cucumbers or transform ice into gunpowder. The book also articulates early skepticism regarding the tendency of scientists to intervene in politics. Joking about the wholly theoretical minds of the Laputan astronomers and mathematicians, Gulliver says:

What I chiefly admired … was the strong disposition I observed in them towards news and politics, perpetually inquiring into public affairs, giving their judgments in matters of state, and passionately disputing every inch of a party opinion. I have indeed observed the same disposition among most of the mathematicians I have known in Europe….

But Swift’s apprehension about the interest of scientists in politics would not become a staple of the scientific-political fiction that followed. Instead, the boundary between the two domains began to harden, with political philosophy becoming less scientific, and science fiction less political. By the twentieth century, these traditions fully diverged, as philosophy retreated into the academy, and science fiction became a popular genre. Traces of their former connection could still be felt here and there — for example in the great works of dystopian fiction like 1984 and Brave New World, both of which drew heavily on political philosophy to depict how technological advancement would serve the regime, at severe human costs.

But the science fiction of crisis is usually less about political drama than about imagining catastrophe on a grand scale, including pandemics, alien invasions, destructive technologies, bizarre natural phenomena, hostile artificial intelligence, and irreversible civilizational decline after some sort of technological disaster. Writers like Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, and M. John Harrison have placed many of their stories on a “dying Earth,” a future world undergoing the final stages of cosmological entropy — which has become a subgenre of sci-fi in its own right.

The best science fiction, however fanciful its technology or far-fetched its scientific basis, has always been grounded by its speculation about how human beings would act under extreme circumstances. Some writers, like John Crowley and Ursula K. Le Guin, tend to focus on what these extremes reveal about human nature. Others are concerned more with how human ingenuity rises to the challenge posed by disasters. And perhaps no writer in the genre has pursued the latter theme with as much sophistication and intensityas Neal Stephenson.

By Neal Stephenson
Bantam Books ~ 1992

There is no shortage of speculative fiction that functions as commentary on today’s politics and society. But Neal Stephenson may be unique in his apprehension of the public role of scientific elites and their relationship to the societies that sustain them. This is partly because his work is in many ways a kind of throwback to the past age when speculative fiction and philosophical speculation were still intertwined. We might even view Stephenson’s work as a partial return to the genre’s origins, in which Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, and others deployed highly imaginative creations to intervene in serious political and philosophical debates. (Stephenson’s massive Baroque Cycle features a number of major Enlightenment philosophers and scientists, including Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, and Isaac Newton; and in Anathem, philosophical disputes going back to Plato and the sophists prove to be critical to the novel’s plot.)

More broadly, Stephenson stands out among sci-fi novelists because in addition to the mainstream commercial and critical success he has enjoyed, he has also had a side career as a kind of roving public intellectual. His longform essays are top-notch achievements — his monumental 1999 piece “In the Beginning Was the Command Line” is as good an account of the development of modern computer operating systems and their cultural significance as you are likely to find. He has also been a vocal critic of the state of American innovation: “Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars? … I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done.” This is not coming from a billionaire tech-investor like Peter Thiel or Marc Andreessen, who have become famous for similar laments, including during the pandemic. This is Stephenson in a 2011 Wired article, where he also suggests that speculative fiction may help to inspire innovators, or to deter them by drawing too grim a picture of our technological future. And he has put his commitments into practice: through his association with the Long Now Foundation, devoted to fostering reflection on humanity’s long-term interests, including the possibility of rebuilding civilization in the aftermath of a massive catastrophe; and as an original employee of Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s aerospace company.

By Neal Stephenson
Bantam Spectra ~ 1995

As a sci-fi writer, Stephenson has been successful not just in terms of books sold, but in terms of their real-world influence. As Tyler Cowen put it, “Across more than a dozen books, he’s created vast story worlds driven by futuristic technologies that have both prophesied and even provoked real-world progress in crypto, social networks, and the creation of the web itself.” Cowen is not being hyperbolic; as Stephenson’s readers have long noticed, several of his works provide early fictional depictions of nascent technological advances — the Internet and virtual reality (Snow Crash), nanotechnology and personal tablets (The Diamond Age), and digital currency (“The Great Simoleon Caper” and Cryptonomicon).

Stephenson’s appreciation for human ingenuity pervades his writing, including his nonfiction work. He is particularly attentive to the logistical minutiae that make technological achievements possible — read his essay on the global network of underwater cables and you will never think about browsing the Internet the same way again. One reason why Stephenson’s depictions of futuristic technology feel so grounded in reality is that, when you really get into the nitty-gritty details, the tech we already possess starts to look like science fiction. More than most writers, Stephenson is interested in laying out the logistical details of how future technologies will work, whether deliveries of consumer goods by drones or the relocation of humanity into permanent geosynchronous orbital space stations. (Your mileage may vary, so this is either the most fascinating or the most enervating part of reading him.)

Even where his descriptions extend far beyond what is presently feasible, they are often based on knowable features of the physical world. For Stephenson is a true child of the Enlightenment, and behind most of his plots is a very Enlightenment question: Can human ingenuity be married to a theoretical apprehension of the laws of nature in order to bring about our material betterment (and perhaps salvation), even under truly outlandish circumstances?

By Neal Stephenson
Avon ~ 1999

A constant element of Stephenson’s fiction is his concentration on the theme of human intelligence brought to bear on dramatic crises. The archetypical Stephenson plot involves a small handful of hyperintelligent protagonists, often operating on the cutting-edge of a particular technology, who must face a problem of catastrophic proportion. And it is by now a hallmark of Stephenson’s fiction that their success in this venture tends to involve digressions into ancient Sumerian philology, seventeenth-century metaphysical philosophy, and so on.

In Snow Crash, a group of hackers (one of whom is also a ninja — don’t ask) must prevent the global proliferation of an engineered digital virus with the ability to attack the human brain’s neurolinguistic pathways.

In Cryptonomicon, we get two elite groups working across history to avert separate crises. The first is operating during the Second World War to crack the code of top-secret German messages. The second group — mostly descendants of the first — must work to deny sinister antagonists from controlling the flow of the world’s information.

By Neal Stephenson
William Morrow ~ 2008

Anathem, a book influenced by Stephenson’s work with the Long Now Foundation, is set on a kind of parallel future Earth, in which all the world’s intellectuals have entered monasteries, where they pursue a life exclusively devoted to theoretical inquiry, forbidden from employing advanced technology of any kind. Its plot revolves around the arrival in Earth’s orbit of an alien starship, with which our monkish protagonists are uniquely able to communicate in the hope of forestalling a civilization-ending war.

In Seveneves, the Moon suddenly and mysteriously begins to disintegrate, and its continued fragmentation will soon create a swarm of meteorites that will rain fire upon the Earth, wiping out all living things and rendering the planet uninhabitable for thousands of years. The bulk of the plot concerns a last-ditch effort to relocate a remnant of humanity into an orbital space station and ensure its survival under extraterrestrial conditions.

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell is, in a sense, about overcoming the greatest and most insuperable of catastrophes — death. But most of the plot revolves around the crisis of a single malevolent actor (basically a psychotic Ray Kurzweil), who hopes to bring about the Singularity by gaining mastery over the digital afterlife its protagonists have created, which is now home to millions of souls.

Though Stephenson’s characters vary widely on the surface, they all function in similar ways. Knowers and doers are one and the same, and the problem of ensuring that scientific knowledge coincides with political power is neatly sidestepped — just as the problem of determining who the knowers actually are is resolved by Stephenson himself, who designates his principal characters as the experts. He gets around the political problem by endowing his protagonists with numerous virtues in addition to their high intelligence and technical expertise: not just resourcefulness and imagination, but courage and magnanimity.

The other reason Stephenson is able to sidestep the problem of the political legitimacy and power of experts is that his heroes are consistently able to operate at a far remove from the grubby world of politics. In the essay on underwater cables, he describes the interior of a cable station like this: “a surprisingly small number of hackers wander around through untidy offices making the world run.” That is a decent summary of his understanding of things. The typical relationship of his protagonists to the larger populations in his novels is something like that of hackers and programmers to the mass of consumers for personal computers.

By Neal Stephenson
William Morrow ~ 2015

Indeed, part of what makes Stephenson bracing is his consistent rejection of the democratic spirit. Nearly all his books double as celebrations of natural aristocracy. Certain individuals are in possession of greater intelligence, drive, and pluck than others, and these are the folks who should ideally be making important decisions. This might sound depressingly like Ayn Rand, but it mostly works for Stephenson, partly because he is simply a better writer than Rand, but also because he is at bottom just a very smart guy who likes to write about other smart people, whereas Rand depicted architects and business magnates without having the slightest notion of how either type actually speaks or acts.

What consistently emerges in Stephenson’s work — and throughout much science fiction — is an implicit case for the authority of the knowers. The ordinary political problems associated with acknowledging this epistemic authority are circumvented by either the nature of the crisis, or by the simple fact that only a bare handful of characters have any idea what’s going on.

At one point in Seveneves, when discussing what the space station will require to function indefinitely, the resident genius-billionaire, who serves as a kind of non-ridiculous version of Elon Musk, remarks, “If the world were run by scientists, engineers, then this would be a no-brainer.” That is to say, in the absence of the political machinations of hacks back on Earth, the people we should want in charge might actually get something done. Of course, a character is not his author, but the plot wholly supports this position.

By Neal Stephenson
William Morrow ~ 2019

It’s not that Stephenson simply ignores the political world, but that his fiction typically finds ways to keep it conveniently offstage, even as he strives for realistic depictions of various scientific and technological innovations. In Snow Crash, for example, conventional politics is a non-factor, as the story takes place in a future where the successful rise of digital currency has fatally undermined the authority of nation-states, such that everyone lives either under quasi-anarchic conditions or under the protection of private mafias or corporations.

More intriguingly, throughout Anathem the narrator repeatedly alludes vaguely to some diplomacy that allows him and his comrades to manage the threat of alien invasion without being hindered by government authorities. It emerges that certain factions of his world’s monastic intellectuals, who possess improbable rhetorical powers, have applied those powers to persuading the world’s political leaders to grant the real actors a free hand in dealing with the crisis. Politics, in other words, amounts to the tiresome work of persuading others to accept what is best for them — that is, the decisions of those possessing the requisite expertise.

There is an excellent moment in Seveneves where the temporary leader of the Cloud Ark — humanity’s orbital refuge in space — and the resident legal expert discuss whether the detailed administrative procedures that Earth’s legal experts drafted for their new constitution will be sufficient in the event of a political crisis. When pressed, the legal expert finally concedes, “you are talking about power.” The reader has the sense that an account of politics that goes beyond red tape and petty ambition may yet be introduced, but the discussion is cut short by news that the final destruction of Earth is imminent.

By Neal Stephenson
Harper Collins ~ 2022

Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock (2021), features more of the same, this time focused on the crisis of anthropogenic global warming. The catalyst for the plot is the decision by (another) genius billionaire to geoengineer a means of cooling the planet. Once again, his technocratic solutions are undertaken by small, Fellowship of the Ring–style bands of actors rather than the Environmental Protection Agency or the State Department or what have you.

Whereas in our reality cooperative solutions to climate change have proven elusive, repeatedly stymied by not just national but international politics, Stephenson again gets around this problem by having a small handful of protagonists do an end-run around government bureaucracies, collective-action problems, and all the other stuff that makes “intro to political science” courses such a slog. And once again, it’s not that he disregards politics altogether, but that he treats it as an obstacle to be avoided rather than as the field of play itself. Unlike bureaucrat-experts like Anthony Fauci, who attempt to bolster their position before a diffident or hostile public, Stephenson’s heroes are able to go directly to the problems, no matter how grand in scale.

Crises, whether natural or manmade, elevate the status of technocrats, because they rely upon highly specialized knowledge that is critical for resolving the crisis. Indeed, much of modern society already relies upon the work of elite groups — in fields ranging from medicine to physics to engineering and beyond. And the rest of us are generally content with this arrangement, despite its implications for our place in the world.

Rebecca West remarked in her 1941 travel book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that we are in some sense worse off in our understanding of the world than any premodern peasant. Observing a modern suspension bridge, she thinks “in this mechanized age I am as little able to understand my environment as any primitive woman who thinks that a waterfall is inhabited by a spirit, and indeed less so, for her opinion might from a poetical point of view be correct.”

This is the modern bargain in a nutshell: We live in a world increasingly made by human hands, and benefit from its devices even when they lie beyond our understanding; yet when those devices fail or experience unexpected strain, this reveals an underlying political problem. Under normal conditions, what we might call the classic Enlightenment arrangement does not appear to be a problem. Our cognitive elites demonstrate their authority through superior ability to manipulate the stuff of the material world. And we acknowledge that authority, in spite of our limited understanding, because of the obvious benefits we receive from it: space flight, defensive weaponry, telecommunications, lifesaving medical interventions, and so on. At the same time, this cognitive elite does not normally seek or receive undue political power under this arrangement, but rather the freedom to pursue its inquiries without fear of persecution from religious or political authorities. Our world, in this sense, is not so far removed from the fantastical depictions of Bacon’s “New Atlantis.”

But crises disrupt this harmonious relationship, for various reasons. First, the crisis exposes the limitations of the scientific or technical mastery claimed by elites. They were unable to prevent the crisis. Their solutions are being worked out in real time, under heightened public scrutiny, and thus take on an added political dimension that, while present even under normal circumstances, would not manifest itself so clearly. And decisions in times of crisis must be made with imperfect information in a highly constrained time frame; even experts can’t outrun time.

Second, because of experts’ sophisticated work and the role it already plays in the world, there is a chance that they contributed to the crisis in the first place (as may yet prove to be the case with Covid-19). This represents a remarkable break with the past. After all, it is well known that philosophers and scientists from Socrates to Galileo to Spinoza have come up against the mores of their societies, but while causing the young to disbelieve in the gods of the city may be no minor thing, it pales in comparison to plugging Skynet into the wall.

Finally, scientific knowledge in our time has dispersed into a dizzying number of highly specialized disciplines. This has proven enormously productive — both practically and theoretically — in ways that we would likely be loath to sacrifice. But choosing the best course of action in a crisis is not a matter of specialized knowledge; it is a matter of prudential judgment, meaning it is political and not technical in nature.

The tradition of political philosophy — for all of the enormous attention it paid to establishing a new equilibrium of scientific knowledge and political power — largely did not attend to the specific problem of how such an equilibrium would hold up under the severe pressure of crisis situations. Meanwhile, modern science fiction — for which disasters are home territory — has generally treated the political world as a foreign country.

Stephenson remains an exception, given his rich intellectual background and uncommonly broad interests. But to the extent that he addresses the problem, he consistently treats the political scene as an obstacle to, rather than the venue for, the most consequential deliberation. The most important decisions are always taking place elsewhere, by the actions of an elect few.

And yet Stephenson nonetheless pays a kind of begrudging tribute to the value of political life. For all their academic credentials and scientific study, his protagonists are not the unworldly scientist-inventor-priests of Bacon’s “New Atlantis,” much less the theoreticians in Swift’s Laputa. They have something like what Thucydides described — when speaking of the Athenian general and statesman Themistocles — as “the most indubitable signs of genius…. the best judge in those sudden crises which admit of little or of no deliberation.” In other words, Stephenson’s protagonists have all of the political virtues, while being mostly and blessedly free of the burdens of actual politics. He seems to suggest, knowingly or not, that it is these virtues and not scientific expertise or technical skills that are most needful in times of crisis.

Of course, political judgment may not merit the preeminence we want to grant it. Or it may be that the specialized knowledge of the modern scientist sometimes trumps the prudence of the political leader, even when the particular scientist is otherwise deficient in character — in the way that a philandering but highly competent neurosurgeon would surely be preferable to a faithful but inept one in the operating room.

Or it may even be that, for whatever reason, political figures can no longer be counted on to possess the practical judgment to make high-stakes decisions where scientific questions are concerned.

But if, on the other hand, we remain a kind of political community needful of the political arts rightly understood, then perhaps even our degraded political leaders are in some way preferable to the rule of scientists, even in a crisis.

Alas, we lack a writer to tell that story.

David Polansky, “The Supergenius at the End of the World,” The New Atlantis, Number 69, Summer 2022, pp. 93–104.
Header image: Christopher Michel / Wikimedia

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