Dinner with some nerd idols; what would you ask?
November 1, 2006 12:54 PM   Subscribe

How can I make the most of my dinner with Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, George Dyson, and Donna Shirley?

I'm attending an event with those luminaries, and I'm sort of at a loss as to what kinds of intelligent questions to ask (if I have the courage to ask - I'm pretty shy around well-known people).

I've read most of Stephenson's books (though I never could get through the Baroque Cycle); I know a little about George Dyson (more about his father), have read many of Greg Bear's books, and know very little about Donna Shirley.

My question(s): what would you ask in this situation? What are some good resources on these folks that I might look at before the event? I feel like this a special opportunity and I don't want to waste it by asking something stupid. Thanks, MeFi!
posted by TochterAusElysium to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wow! What a terrific opportunity! How about a technology question -- what technological breakthrough has most surprised them? What technology are they impatient for? Or something more metaphysical -- is human consciousness really a quantuum wavefront? Or, you know, you could ask something down-to-earth -- what is their favorite vacation spot?
posted by Malla at 12:59 PM on November 1, 2006

Why feel compelled to ask anything? I'd much rather get any one of them talking and just listen! You might have to nudge at the outset, or into a particular direction afterwards but let them dominate.
posted by Mutant at 1:08 PM on November 1, 2006

yeah, sit around and listen
posted by matteo at 1:10 PM on November 1, 2006

Just listen and, if the conversation brings a natural question to your mind, ask it. Don't go in with talking points.

Or you could ask them if a dude could rip his own head off.

And shit, have fun!
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 1:25 PM on November 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ask them what they've read lately that they liked. Good authors usually have good taste in books. Or interesting obscure taste at any rate.
posted by GuyZero at 1:29 PM on November 1, 2006

My god, I envy you...

Talking points, probably a bad idea, but you could certainly ask what good books they've read lately. Stephenson will definitely come with something interesting, and/or off-the-wall for an answer to that question.

Aside from that, you could pose to them the question that has haunted mankind for centuries: Could a typical young man, armed only with a knife, (say, six or eight inches long) be trained to consistently "win" fights with a grizzly bear?
posted by synaesthetichaze at 1:38 PM on November 1, 2006

I'm reminded of a question from a class I'm taking - "What's the most dystopic technology you've seen?"

I wonder, though, if technology oriented questions are really appropriate. Authors are more interested in telling stories (generally) than ruminating on technology. Still, they might have some really good insights about the social situations around new technology.
posted by heresiarch at 2:02 PM on November 1, 2006

Talking points are necessarily a bad idea; I'm not saying go into dinner with a piece of paper, but sitting down and writing down some questions you really want to ask might be a good exercise.
posted by oxford blue at 2:22 PM on November 1, 2006

The thing I would ask Stephenson is whether "Crytonomicon" was also an attempt to create a book like the one he described in Diamond Age - the somewhat subversive Young Lady's Illustrated Primer? A masked education subversively skewed towards the values of the Baron. (ie. was Crytonomicon intended to operate partially in this fashion, but aimed at geeks instead of a young lady. What were Stephenson's intentions in this regard? How successful did he thing it was?)

I personally found Cryptonomicon annoying at that level, but it's an interesting project/experiment if it's what it looks like, hence my curiousity. (I would imagine that the answer is not so much that the Diamond Age book inspired that aspect of Cryptonomicon, but that he has something like a romantic ideal of a book as potentially a treasure trove of knowledge and/or wisdom that should greatly influence for the better the lives of those that, and was trying to flex some cultural muscle in Crytonomicon along those lines).

On the topic, maybe just ask all of them something like - what do you think is the most subversive thing you've done in a book? But OTOH, maybe avoid talking shop alltogether. :)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:02 PM on November 1, 2006

"Could you pass the potatoes?"

Seriously, I don't think it's a bad idea to think of interesting questions ahead of time, but I do think it's a bad idea to plan on asking them. Sometimes the vibe is right for a non sequitur question, and if that happens, you'll have one! If it doesn't, just chill and enjoy whatever conversation happens.

In my brushes with fame, I've taken pleasure in having very mundane conversations with non-mundane people.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 4:04 PM on November 1, 2006

It might be interesting to find out what Stephenson thinks of Second Life, since they've explicitly stated that they were inspired by Snow Crash.
posted by gsteff at 4:11 PM on November 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Although he's probably been asked that many times before.
posted by gsteff at 4:12 PM on November 1, 2006

An important thing to remember is that they're going to this dinner because it's a dinner, not an interview. Grilling them on their works or their thoughts on other peoples' works or their views on where the future is taking us....outside the realm of a regular conversation, this would likely come off as annoying to someone who has to deal with it all the time.
posted by nightchrome at 4:40 PM on November 1, 2006

I'd take a few hours to read as many interviews as possible with the authors, so that I could make sure I never, ever ask any of those questions.
posted by Jairus at 4:58 PM on November 1, 2006

Mr. Stephenson
If it were me, I'd be tempted (if the conversation led that way, and I might help it go that way -- without pushing at all -- if possible) to ask him about his ideas on education and class. This would be inspired totally by the Diamond Age, of course, which I found incredibly thought-provoking and which has continued to fuel my own thinking.

Maybe something like whether he knew anything about John Edwards' "two Americas" positions (I don't particularly, but it's a good segue from politics) and (if yes) whether he feels Mr. Edwards understands class the same way he (Stephenson) does, or if there are important aspects of class -- and class mobility -- that Edwards, and maybe all modern politicians, miss.

Or whether his understanding on class, and what it really takes to improve class, has changed since he wrote that book. Safest to ask this after thinking through class-oriented aspects of Stephenson's newer books, but even if you don't have a lot of material here, could be interesting.

Does "The Diamond Age" think of leadership as something that could be cultivated specifically by a loving parental relationship (maybe everybody knew this already but me)? Or is the leadership that the main character (I forget her name) develops a result of all that, plus her experience of being alone and at the same time supported? Either way, what writings or experiences brought him to that idea? And, if you/he/someone feels that this is an important idea, does he think it would be possible [for anyone] to communicate this more concisely (understanding that the very premise of the book may be a contra-indication), perhaps with the goal of clearly laying out goals for a truly effective educational program?

Yes, I love the book. If you become his best friend, please introduce me, but I get the impression he's not too into discussing his work, preferring to do it in short bursts between books.

You can tell him that I'm very, very grateful that he takes his time.

OK, I know next to nothing about these others, but here are ideas. As others have suggested, don't work hard to fit a question in, but if the opportunity presents itself and if a question somehow fits into the conversation:

Donna Shirley
Did you read science fiction as a kid (assuming everyone will be talking about books anyway)? If so - What did you particularly like?

Greg Bear
(or any sci-fi writer) - Do you think of your work as mainly for entertainment, or as (just for example) helping people's imaginations along so they can think more creatively about the real world and solving problems in it? Does your work have any other mission to it? If not, that's OK, because of course it has a lot of value in itself, but sometimes people see their work as fitting within other contexts.

George Dyson
Does he still canoe? Does he still advocate the baidarka design? Is he tired of talking about baidarka canoes? [If not] What makes it so special?

generic good question

I read somewhere once that this type of question usually leads to interesting results - Before you [did X], how did you think it would be, and how was the actual experience different from what you expected?
posted by amtho at 5:09 PM on November 1, 2006

I'm glad to see you marked the best answer you did. Because they would probably all rather have dinner with a regular human being than a fanboy.
posted by bingo at 5:59 PM on November 1, 2006

You can ask Greg Bear about this recent challenge at CGWorld. I absolutely loved this book, so I've been following some of the WIP threads.

Eon Challenge

Ah I want to read Eon and Eternity again. Damn you too large to be read pile.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 7:51 PM on November 1, 2006

Maybe you could get an answer, once and for all, to what's up with Enoch Root? (Or, better yet, Solomon Kohan!)

But seriously, I think putting the screws to people is probably not the way to go here. Don't prepare anything, and instead just be ready to let conversations go where they will -- I'm sure it won't be difficult for interesting topics to come up. Be yourself and it'll be more memorable and enjoyable than if you try to shoehorn discussions into dinner. (On preview, most of the talking points brought up are good, and would be good conversation starters, but with any luck you will find them to be unnecessary!)
posted by headlessagnew at 8:52 PM on November 1, 2006

I'd ask them to, ala van Vogt, come up with their own new religion. The ensuing discussion would be awesome.
posted by ewkpates at 3:06 AM on November 2, 2006

Me? I'd wanna know about the future. That's what they *do*, think about the future. It's not just a day job, it's a passion with these guys--so it's not like they're tired of talking about it.

You get these folks talking, and they're going to be talking about the future. You won't have to do anything. Just enjoy, you lucky bastard.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 1:18 PM on November 2, 2006

In case anyone reads this after the fact, I wanted to follow up: I had a great time at the dinner, and sat at a table with Neal Stephenson for the meal. I was nervous, but managed to chat amiably during dinner without drooling too much. He seemed a little uncomfortable himself, but was pleasant enough. George Dyson was a nice guy, very pleasant (and good-looking, too, in person!) - we talked a bit about his family and the Project Orion photos that were posted and linked to on Boing Boing. Greg Bear and his wife are very friendly, and in fact they live close to where I live, so we chatted a while about the weather and horrible traffic. At one point, Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson and a few of us talked about the new season of Lost. There was a panel discussion after dinner, which was fascinating, though I only got to ask one question. All in all, a good time. I thank the Mefites who answered here for taking the time, and for the very good advice. I was sorely tempted to ask Neal if he thought a man could possibly rip off his own head, but as I said, he already seemed a little uncomfortable at times, and that didn't seem the sort of thing to set him at ease.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 10:30 PM on November 2, 2006 [2 favorites]

Icons of science fiction were discussing Lost? Wow, they're just like us! Thanks for the update, TAE.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 7:09 AM on November 3, 2006

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