A new theory published online suggests that American science fiction writer Neal Stephenson is Satoshi Nakamoto.
In a blog post published earlier today, Peter Suderman at Reason.com writes:
“I am not saying that Neal Stephenson is Satoshi Nakamoto. What I am saying is: Would it really be surprising if he were?”
Stephenson, for those out of the loop, is a 59-year old American writer whose work has been categorized as science fiction, cyberpunk, historical fiction, and baroque. Across numerous novels, short stories, and essays, Stephenson has explored topics like math, cryptography, linguistics, currency, philosophy, and the history of science.
His best-known works from a 35-year writing career include Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Seveneves. More recently, Stephenson has worked for Blue Origin, the private space company founded by Jeff Bezos. The inventors of the internet and the iPad, meanwhile, have both publicly claimed Stephenson as a muse.
Suderman sums up Stephenson better than I could by stating,
“He is the sort of writer whose novels include descriptions of vast nanotech defense systems, as well as of incredibly elaborate methods for eating Cap’n Crunch, complete with a special spoon. He keeps his head shaved and wears a gray-streaked goatee, a look that is part heavy metal wizard, part monk.”
That’s all great – but is there actually a chance that Stephenson is Satoshi Nakamoto? Or is this just an absurd fantasy?
Why Neal Stephenson Could Be Satoshi Nakamoto
Suderman proposes a number of reasons why Neal Stephenson could be Satoshi Nakamoto, including:
Satoshi Nakamoto and Neal Stephenson Are Interested in Similar Topics
Up above, we mentioned that Stephenson’s novels focus on several topics close to the crypto community, including math, cryptography, and currency. His work has also focused on the social and technological infrastructure of a post-government world, Asian culture, and other topics.
As Suderman explains, Stephenson’s work has also been heavily influenced by cypherpunks – just like Satoshi Nakamoto:
“His early work was heavily influenced by the cypherpunks, a coalition of hacker-technologists obsessed with cryptography, distributed information platforms, and science fiction (the title Cryptonomicon was inspired partly by the Cyphernomicon, a cypherpunk FAQ).”
You might think – big deal. Lots of people were interested in cypherpunk ideals. Satoshi was part of a global community of cypherpunks. However, certain elements of Stephenson’s stories have focused on topics surprisingly similar to bitcoin – long before bitcoin was invented.
Stephenson Describes an Anonymous Peer-to-Peer Communication System 13 Years Before Bitcoin
In his novel, The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, Stephenson describes a worldwide “media net”, which is a type of anonymous peer-to-peer communication system that allows people to transfer money. Because of this media net, nation states have collapsed because financial transactions can no longer be monitored by governments. Tax collection is impossible.
Four years after that, Stephenson published Cryptonomicon, a novel tracing the World War II origins of cryptography and the efforts of a group of 90s-era hackers to setup a system of anonymous banking and digital currency outside the reach of traditional governments.
Stephenson followed up this work with a trio of novels called The Baroque Cycle that explains the historical foundations of math, money, and modern philosophy.
Clearly, Stephenson was thinking about the possibility of a system like bitcoin, including how it would work, what kinds of impacts it would have on the world, and how people would use it.
Of course, none of this means that Stephenson had any connection to bitcoin: during the early days of the internet, lots of people were theorizing about what this new tool could do and how it could work. So what other clues do we have that Neal Stephenson is Satoshi Nakamoto?
Neal Stephenson’s Initials (NS) Are a Reverse of Satoshi Nakamoto’s Initials (SN)
Neal Stephenson isn’t a pen name: it’s the guy’s real, legal name. He was born Neal Town Stephenson. Although he has written books under the name Stephen Bury and J. Frederick George, most of his work is published under the name Neal Stephenson.
The initials ‘NS’ are a reverse of Satoshi Nakamoto’s ‘SN’ initials.
Stephenson’s Latest Work Discusses the Best Way to Distribute an Enormous Amount of Wealth
Satoshi Nakamoto is one of the wealthiest people on the planet. Satoshi likely has a stash of anywhere from 1 million to 1.3 million BTC, making him a billionaire several times over.
Stephenson’s latest two novels, meanwhile, are focused on the idea of a video game developer rising to enormous wealth and then figuring out how to distribute that wealth.
Reamde, for example, was published in 2011 just a few years after the release of the bitcoin whitepaper. The novel discusses a draft-dodging marijuana Sherpa who founded a video game company based on the idea of converting in-game gold to real-world currency. The novel discusses the challenges of moving money across national and virtual boundaries. The protagonist lives in the Pacific Northwest – just like Stephenson. By the end of the novel, the protagonist has become very rich – worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A follow-up novel called Fall follows the same protagonist at a later age. Fabulously wealthy, the protagonist is exploring ideas on how to cement his legacy, including the legal and organizational structure of foundations and how best to distribute his wealth.
Stephenson wrote this latest novel in late 2017, which is when bitcoin reached its all-time high. At this time, Nakamoto’s stash would have been worth somewhere between $20 and $30 billion. If Stephenson is Satoshi, he would have been dealing with the concept of suddenly becoming extraordinarily wealthy.
Other Stephenson Novels Hint at Bitcoin-Like Concepts
Suderman has thousands of additional words exploring the connection between Stephenson and Satoshi in various novels. Other connections between the two include:
- In Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, he imagined an online world or ‘Metaverse’ as a virtual gathering place where individuals could adopt new identities. The Metaverse provided a safe space for invention and reinvention. It also allowed criminals, entrepreneurs, and scammers to thrive. In other words, it sounds a lot like the internet we know today. The novel focuses specifically on the idea of internet anonymity, more than other sci-fi writers writing about the internet during this time period.
- Multiple Stephenson works explore the idea of an elite tech-oriented class becoming more and more superior to lower classes. In Fall, Stephenson discusses how the rich elite can afford to pay people to have customized news feeds delivered in front of them, for example. In The Diamond Age, Stephenson explores the problem of fake news and trolling. The separation between rich and poor inexorably spreads with the invention of the internet.
- Through all of these novels, Stephenson, as explained by Suderman, “maintains a keen sense not only the ways that technology might evolve but the cultural shifts it might entail, from news and social media to leadership and social structures in a virtual afterlife where people have limited senses of the self.
Final Word: Could Neal Stephenson Be Satoshi Nakamoto?
Neal Stephenson could certainly be Satoshi Nakamoto.
Of course, the homeless guy you walk past every day on the way to work could be Satoshi Nakamoto. Oprah Winfrey could be Satoshi Nakamoto. The crazy thing about Satoshi is that, even a decade after he publicly appeared online, we still have no concrete evidence connecting Satoshi with anybody.
It is clear, however, that American sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson discussed concepts closely connected to the world of bitcoin in numerous novels. Peter Suderman at Reason.com has an excellent writeup exploring all the connections between Neal Stephenson and Satoshi Nakamoto here.