If counterculture still exists, two of its fiercest voices graduated from Boston University. In 1981, science fiction author Neal Stephenson graduated BU with a degree in Geography. Stephenson’s novels have won the Hugo and Locus awards, as well as appearing on Time’s Best Books of All Time list and the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Seventeen years later, Ian Matthias Bavitz graduated from the College of Fine Arts. Bavitz started going by the stage name Aesop Rock and was attracting serious attention in the underground rap scene by the time the new millennium rolled around.
How the BU experience helped to produce rapper Aesop Rock or science fiction author Neal Stephenson is unclear. Regardless, these writers have an unbelievably potent mixture of weirdness, humor, and modernity. Despite the fact that they graduated nearly two decades apart and that they write in two different media, Aesop Rock and Neal Stephenson have quite a lot in common.
In both cases, their labels “rapper” and “science fiction author” do not adequately describe what they do. Aesop Rock’s music is so far from other rap music, that he may as well be called something else entirely. Reducing him to his strengths (word play, vocabulary, and verbosity) on paper can only describe what is immediately obvious. It is the complexity of Aesop Rock’s writing which puts him in his own category.
In one of his most well known songs “Daylight,” he says the following in exactly 10 seconds (3:44-3:24):
Now it’s Honor and I spell it with the H I stole from Heritage
Merit crutch stolen wretched refuse of my teaming resonance
I promise: temperance towards breed with a leaning conscious
See, the creed acts sense responsive, but my sports supports the wattage, and I’m sleeping now! (Wow!)
With a reference to Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus” (which is carved on the Statue of Liberty), and a three syllable word on each line, there’s a lot to unpack in Aesop Rock’s writing. One of the most evident themes in his writing is his disdain for societal norms and the oppression of daily life. Aesop Rock feels marginalized, as he says in “9-5ers Anthem”: “I take my seat atop the Brooklyn Bridge/With a Coke and a bag of chips/To watch a thousand lemmings plummet
Just because the first one slipped.” At the same time, he is a working man, one of us. In the same song he says: “Now we the American working population/Hate the fact that eight hours a day/Is wasted on chasing the dream of someone that isn’t us.”
Perhaps marginalization is the strongest link between Aesop Rock and Neal Stephenson. Stephenson writes about people on the fringes of society. His characters see the world through the filter of the methodical world of Dungeons and Dragons. These characters are unabashed geeks, and they are the first to admit it. They use elements of nerd culture as a way to interpret life in a language which makes sense to them. In Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, a character divides all people according to the races of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Stephenson writes:
In the Tolkien, not the endocrinological or Snow White sense, Randy is a Dwarf. Tolkien’s Dwarves were stout, taciturn, vaguely magical characters who spend a lot of time in the dark hammering out beautiful things, e.g. Rings of Power. Thinking of himself as a Dwarf who had hung up his war-ax for a while to go sojourning in the Shire, where he was surrounded by squabbling Hobbits (i.e., Charlene’s friends), had actually done a lot for Randy’s peace of mind over the years.
So what separates Stephenson from other authors? Again, there are many answers: world building skills, incorporation of economics and sociology, or simply his humor. But these cannot define his writing adequately. Stephenson is pushing the very bounds of the novel as a medium. His 2008 work Anathem features many words of a language invented for the novel. Behind these words there is an ideology created from a mixture of Platonic philosophy, astronomy, and geometry. The reader is forced to slowly understand the world of Anathem through this invented language. The first 200 pages of the book are simply for the reader’s understanding. The scientific journal Nature caught on to the idea that Anathem may be more than a novel. As a result, Nature published a review of a work of fiction, something incredibly rare. Perhaps Anathem is closer to philosophy than it is fiction.
Stephenson’s writing, while highly technical, eschews the conventions of literary pretension. The similarities between Thomas Pynchon’s post modern tome Gravity’s Rainbow and Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon are shockingly apparent. Both concern technology, war, and the sex lives of strange men. Yet, Stephenson is content to be an author of genre fiction, mere Sci-Fi. He’s not afraid to use humorously colloquial writing. In Snow Crash he writes: “Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.” Out of context, this could be mistaken for very immature writing. But, many people mistake Science Fiction as something for children, something immature. The same is absolutely true of Rap music. Aesop Rock isn’t afraid to write a song about a kid who doesn’t like vegetables. He’s smart enough to push past the constraints of being a rapper as opposed to a real musician.
As a student of Boston University, I am proud. These two alumni are actively challenging pop culture. Their work consistently asks more of the audience. They ask you to forget the ideas of genre or convention. I believe that it’s not coincidence that these two graduated from BU. At times our school seems sheltered and that students value materialism over all else. Yet, there are moments when you cannot help but feel that you are at the center of something big. Be it activism or simply environment, we’re creating something.