No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, February 21, 2009

#10: Self-Made Man -- Norah Vincent

I don't really know what it's like to be a man. I never could. But I know approximately. I know some of what it is like to be treated as one. And that, in the end, was what this experiment was all about. Not being but being received. (p. 273)

Norah Vincent wanted to see if she could pass for male: when her first experiments succeeded, she decided to attempt to live as a man for a year and a half. She took her project seriously, changing not just her physical appearance (haircut, bound breasts, fake beard, glasses, men's clothing) but -- courtesy of drama coaches -- the way she talked and moved. Norah became Ned, and Self-Made Man is the story of how Ned became increasingly different from Norah.

Ned saw that, and then I saw Ned seeing it, and then I saw myself. ... [Ned] was a mirror and a window and a prism all at the same time. (p.99)

I started reading this last year -- possibly the year before -- and set it aside, perhaps because I was bothered by one of Vincent's experiments: entering a monastery in male guise. I still don't feel happy with the morality of that, the infiltration of an all-male community that is defined by the vows of its genuine members, by retreat from exposure to the female sex.

Each chapter deals with a different 'social experiment': 'Friendship' involves becoming one of the boys on a bowling team; 'Love' is about dating women; 'Sex' is about hanging out at the local 'titty bar' (does it help that Vincent's a lesbian? apparently not); 'Life', where I faltered, is the monastery experiment; 'Work' sees Ned becoming a door-to-door salesman in a predominantly male company; in 'Self', Ned joins a men's therapy group. And in each chapter Norah/Ned sees a different side of what it's like to be male.

Dating women as a man was a lesson in female power, and it made me ... into a momentary misogynist, which, I suppose, was the best indicator that my experiment had worked. I saw my own sex from the other side, and I disliked women irrationally for a while because of it. I disliked their superiority, their accusatory smiles, their entitlement to choose or dash me with a fingertip ... Typical male power feels by comparison like a blunt instrument, its salvos and field strategies laughably remedial next to the damage a woman can do with a single cutting word: no. (p. 97)

There were a few recurring themes. Class, for one (and forgive me for framing this in British terminology: I know American society doesn't work the same way. But there's a sense of elitism, of superiority, that seems based on something I recognise as social class.) Vincent is a liberal, well-educated, middle-class individual: several of the social experiments brought her into working-class environments, and it's as though she was doubly a fraud -- not a man and not one of them.

Another theme is the all-male environment. Where there are women involved, they're the Other Side (dating) or objectified, or even objects of hatred. I'd have been interested to read about Vincent passing in a mixed-sex, less polarised setting: a hobby group, an evening class, something less loaded.

And I do wonder if she passed as well as she thinks she did: or whether people (not the men she was closest to, the men she bonded with, but those less involved) did notice, and simply didn't say anything -- for fear of embarrassment, for fear of being wrong, or just because it was none of their business.

I'm glad I continued reading to the end: the chapter about Vincent joining the men's therapy group -- a workshop / retreat based on Bly's Iron John -- was utterly fascinating, not least because it showed Vincent beginning to fall apart. Throughout the book there's a growing sense that Ned is a different person to Norah, and in the 'Self' chapter she's beginning to write about him as a distinct entity:

... I hadn't had an opportunity to find out how many of Ned's feelings about his masculinity and his place in the world were real or imagines, a genuine part of masculine experience of just the product of my female eyes filtering that experience. (p.251)

In the men's group Norah starts to feel guilty about the deception she's practicing. (This is especially interesting as by this point 'Ned' is more real than he's ever been before.) She ends up craving punishment, asking one of the men to cut her as part of a ritual 'spirit dance' where the men work through some of their issues. I thought that if I paid some penalty, some physically painful penalty for lying to [the group], then everything would be paid for; not just everything there in the group, but everything throughout the project. (p. 261) She doesn't go through with this 'penalty', but she does appreciate that her mental state's not great. Later, still apparently not realising that 18 months as an imposter -- imposters who aren't sociopaths eventually implode (p.269) -- have led to some mental health issues, she starts to think that her anti-depressants aren't working and checks herself into a hospital. With hindsight, she understands the consequences to herself of her deception rather better: I found it increasingly difficult and then impossible to keep my male and female personae intact simultaneously ... it was like trying to sustain two mutually exclusive ideas in my mind at the same time, and ... this cognitive dissonance essentially shut down my brain. (p.285)

I found the 'Self' chapter, about the men's group, most fascinating because most strange. The men's tales brought home to me some of the issues that afflict contemporary men: Vincent is sober and thoughtful about the role of both sexes in perpetuating stereotypes and gender-polarised behaviour. I don't think she's saying that any of the gender differences she found are innate, chromosome-based, biologically determined: it's more about society and the way that gender roles form a rigid framework.

The book's full of interesting observations and discussion: the different ways in which men and women treat pain, the differences in how they talk to and about one another, the body language, the unspoken intimacies of masculine bonding. How a man (or a woman pretending to be a man) assumes power, and relinquishes it.

People see weakness in a woman and they want to help. They see weakness in a man and they want to stamp it out. (p. 213)

I found Self-Made Man fascinating, occasionally immoral, occasionally deeply irritating. I wonder what male readers think of this book. I wonder if I really do -- as I believe -- have any more understanding of what it's like to be male today.

Atlas [holding up the world] can't protect himself in that position. Anybody could just walk right up to him and kick him in the balls. (p.257)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

#09: The Historian -- Elizabeth Kostova

... we historians are interested in what is partly a reflection of ourselves, perhaps a part of ourselves we would rather not examine except through the medium of scholarship: it is also true that as we steep ourselves in our interests, they become more and more a part of us. (p. 263)

There are multiple strands of narrative in The Historian, and each voice is that of a historian: the nameless, precocious primary narrator; her father Paul, now a diplomat; his tutor and mentor, Professor Rossi. All are bound together in a quest for Dracula, the inspiration for Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel but also a real historical personage -- the 15th-century prince Vlad Tepes, who fought for decades to keep his kingdom free from Ottoman rule. Dracula, it seems, is living still: he walks the earth, is supported by a team of menacing minions, and is in the habit of leaving mysterious books -- blank but for an ink-stamped dragon -- for scholars and librarians to discover.

The story's also a kind of travelogue, ranging from New England to Amsterdam, Ljubjana (referred to by its Roman name, 'Emona', in the novel), the South of France, Romania, Istanbul, Greece ... It spans generations, too, from Rossi's 1930 expeditions to the mid-Seventies 'present day' of the young female narrator. And there are several romances woven around the hunt for and the flight from Dracula.

Stoker's themes, and popular themes from vampire literature, are given new leases of life here, though sometimes in a very cursory manner: right, Heroine has started to menstruate, but that gets a single mention. Vampirism works much as Stoker described it: three strikes -- sorry, bites -- and you're undead; vampires can change shape; they fear crosses and garlic ... and, something Stoker didn't mention, they smell oddly of old books.

There's a bit of a tendency to expand the scope of vampiric legend and literature: 'a tradition that the early scholars of the [Oxford] college helped protect the countryside around here from vampires'; Shakespeare's lost tragedy The King of Tashkani in which "an evil ghost called Dracole appears to the monarch of a beautiful old city ... [and] urges [him] to drink deeply of the blood of the city's inhabitants" (p. 301)

Generally The Historian is a very readable novel, but there were some irritations. I'm unimpressed by 'funny foreigner' speak: a Turkish academic who can discuss history and politics without faltering isn't very likely to introduce someone with the phrase 'he would like to be of assassination to you' (p. 228); Paul mishears a Hungarian's 'niece' as 'ness', though that makes no sense in context. Nobody suffers jet-lag: Paul, travelling around Europe in the 1950s, never seems to launder his clothes; post-war Americans surreptitiously sneer at European dentistry, though I don't think American teeth were quite as dazzling as they are now. There's a bit too much coincidence: Paul and Helen's meeting with Bora who just happens to be sitting at the next table in a restaurant; the missed ferry that permits our Heroine to travel with a companion. Some leaps of logic that don't quite make sense: why should 'a local speciality called, whimsically, amnesia' be interpreted as a potion that causes amnesia? A small carving of a dragon (one of a great many in the novel) convinces a character, instantly, that this is the church of St George. And it seems that in all three journeys -- Rossi in 1930, Paul in the early 1950s, the Heroine in the 1970s -- there's always a religious festival in a few days, which'll give the characters an opportunity to meet colourful locals or explore remote religious sites.

Then again, there are other coincidences that don't seem to be picked up. Bora was born in 1911, so he'd have been 19 when Rossi went to Istanbul and Romania: 19 is the age when young men are inducted into $Secret Society ...

A few moral issues, or perhaps issues of characterisation, bothered me. The Heroine is remarkably unaffected by the death of someone she's seen daily, even though she must realise that it's partly because of her that he's dead. Helen calmly shoots someone she suspects of being a vampire -- "a mortal man would have been seriously wounded by such shots" -- without apparently caring about the consequences of being wrong. One character, who's been bitten by a vampire at least once, finds herself strangely tempted: but it doesn't stop her seeking those she loves. That might be an indication of the strength of the parent-child bond, which throughout the novel is explored in several ways: the close and loving relationship between Paul and the daughter he's had to raise alone; the yearning antagonism between Rossi and his child.

And of course there's Dracula. Who is a geek. (1453 books? That's one way to commemorate the fall of Byzantium ...)

Kostova brings her research to life: I seldom felt as though I was reading excerpts from a guidebook, and her descriptions of Ljubjana in particular brought back vivid memories. Her characterisation is good, too, and the novel has exemplary pacing: I genuinely found it hard to put down. Only in the very last few pages did I feel the story, the construction, faltering: the denouement felt rushed, the final chapters hasty and unrevised, and it was actually quite jarring. Overall, though, a novel that I enjoyed much more than I expected that I would.

What can you expect, he asked me tartly, when historians begin using their imaginations? (p.423)

#08: Newton's Wake -- Ken MacLeod

"Information wants to be free."
"Yeah," said Lucinda bitterly. "That's how we got into this whole fucking mess."
(p. 334)

I didn't really engage with this novel, but I think that's as much me as the book: I increasingly struggle to maintain interest in SF novels, be they never so witty and wonderful and wise.

Post-Singularity -- the Hard Rapture -- AIs and assimilated persons have progressed to posthumanity, and have departed this reality for points unknown, leaving behind a smattering of mystic artefacts. Humanity, pretty much driven off Earth by war machines, is colonising the galaxy via FTL and wormhole travel. There are three main bodies or clans: America Offline, the Knights of Enlightenment and Demokratische Kommunistbund, plus smaller organisations such as the Carlyles, a Scottish family who've prospered by controlling the 'skein' of wormholes.

The protagonist of Newton's Wake is Lucinda Carlyle, whose combat archaeology expedition to Eurydice uncovers a whole lot more than she expected: an isolated colony who've believed themselves the sole bastion of humanity, an artefact greater and more dangerous than anything she's encountered before, and a whole new set of wormholes. Plus, the slave intelligence controlling her environmental suit ("Professor Isaac Shlaim, Tel Aviv University, Department of Computer Science, deceased") has just achieved independence and surrendered itself to the Eurydiceans.

Weaving through the novel is discussion (by example) of what it means to be human. People are accustomed to taking backups before risky operations, and 'restoring' themselves if they die: Lucinda's quite proud, at one point, of never having died. There are two folk-singers from our near future, entombed in a peat bog at the moment of the Hard Rapture and resurrected; there's an ongoing thread about the possibility of reunion with their significant others, who may or may not have existed. There's a man whose closest relationship is with the AI in his spaceship, the Hungry Dragon. There's a wetware switch to reconfigure sexuality, with the net result that a gay man turned straight has sudden difficulties when describing garments: on the other hand, he might just be playing a joke on Lucinda.

There are some marvellous passages in the novel, and some fascinating characters: there's a real sense of fun about some of the more outré creations, such as playwright Ben-Ami's The Tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev, Prince of Muscovy:

ANDROPOV: The sledded Polacks grumble in their yards.
They hearken to, on short-wave radio
that turbulent priest, Pope Wojtyla,
and bide their time. The Bulgars hard
oppress their Turks. The Czechs
bounce currency abroad and Semtex too ...
GORBACHEV: .. Let's give our people what they want, which means
fast food, cheap television, cars, and Levi jeans.

I don't know if I read the novel too bittily, or too slowly, or just without sufficient engagement: there's a lot happening in it, and I found it disjointed. MacLeod's prose is always readable and frequently very funny, and he has an eye for the absurd: wide marble steps balustraded with cosmonaut caryatids and banisted with a marble sweep of stylised contrail ending in the upward swoops of chrome-plated rockets (p. 41). I'm reminded that I enjoy his writing, but I don't think this is anywhere near his best book.

Friday, February 13, 2009

#07: Every Day is Mother's Day -- Hilary Mantel

"I hardly like to explore my own mind," she said softly. "I think I imagine things. I hope I imagine them. There are connections I make between events in my life, between people, and I hope they're not real connections. I tell myself it would be too much coincidence. But coincidence is what holds our lives together." (p. 75)

Coincidence is what holds Every Day is Mother's Day together in a dark, blackly comic cat's-cradle of claustrophobic relationships and suburban hell. Prequel to Vacant Possession, the novel focusses on the Axons, Evelyn (a part-time medium given to pronouncements such as "your husband Arthur is roasting in some unspeakable hell") and her daughter Muriel. Muriel is backward, or autistic, or 'special needs': certainly neither sane nor intelligent. She's not nearly as stupid as her mother believes her to be, though, and it seems that some (all?) of the paranormal nastinesses haunting the house -- mystical and mis-spelt notes, the disappearance of raw meat, strange noises and objects in disarray -- are a result of Muriel's manipulative and creative behaviour. Muriel's certain that her mother can read her thoughts, but not all her thoughts: she takes considerable pleasure in thinking of murder. ("She has murderous inclinations," says Mrs Axon, darkly, to one of a series of hapless social workers.)

Muriel doesn't say much. In fact, almost everything she does say is given as reported speech, rather than direct speech:
"How many times have I told you about going to the door?"
Oh, once, twice, thrice, Muriel replied uncaringly.
"You dare to cheek your mother!" Tears sprang into Evelyn's eyes.
(p. 66)

When her words appear on the page, it's a turning point, an awakening.

And Muriel is pregnant. (The circumstances are only hinted in this novel, but they're part of the cat's-cradle.) Her mother -- with talk of changelings and ghosts, her fear of her own dead husband's spirit returning -- manages to conceal this fact from Social Services, including their latest social worker, Isobel Field.

Isobel is, in her own way, pretty hapless. (That's her talking, in the quotation at the top of this review.) She embarks on an affair with a married man who vows to leave his wife and three (ghastly) children. The affair is bleak in a very Seventies way: a black farce of lies, long phone calls from filthy phone boxes, excuses, service station coffee. Coincidentally, Isobel's lover's mother is a former client of Mrs Axon's. Coincidentally, Isobel's lover's sister is Mrs Axon's next-door neighbour. (They don't get along.) Coincidentally, the father of Muriel's child is ... And it's probably coincidence that places Isobel's 'Axon' file in the hands of her lover's colleague, rakish inebriate Frank: "It's all about two dotty women. It's a gift. Grist to the mill. I'm going to turn it into a novel." (p. 159)

Everything's tangled together in this nameless, isolated town. Nobody ever leaves. Perhaps it's hell. Colin plays John Souza marches on the record player, because ''you wouldn't kill yourself after that -- after you'd marched about a bit. It would be too ridiculous.'' Nobody in this novel is happy, not even the children. Nobody is especially moral. Nobody is particularly likeable.

So why read Every Day is Mother's Day? Why read Mantel's novels at all?

Her prose, bleak and comic, tellingly observed and cleverly wound, is a joy to read. Discovering those webs of connection (reminiscent of Kate Atkinson's more convoluted novels) is a fascinating journey. And there is so much that's not told: so many juxtapositions, balances and counterbalances, tit for tat.

Without causality there is no time, and there is no causality in Muriel's head. Evelyn's speech is just a noise, like the clatter of dustbin lids or the crack of bone, the incessant drip of the guttering. Events have no order, no structure, no purpose. Things happen because they must, because they can. Each moment belongs in infinity, each infinity cherishes its neighbour like turtle-doves on a bough. Muriel's heart is a mathematical place, a singularity from which, in time, everything will issue. (p. 45)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

#06: Wit's End -- Karen Joy Fowler

Rima opened her mouth to explain why she'd sent a letter to a woman she doubted was alive, and signed it with a fictional character's name. No one was more curious than she to hear what she might say. (p. 96)

Wit's End is a novel set in, and exploring, the interstices between fact and fiction. It's about writing, fanfiction, online life, family secrets; it's about brothers and sisters, cults, fandom. It's funny, sad, thought-provoking. Fowler's voice comes through warm and strong, chatting to the reader, almost gossipy.

Rima Lanisell, 29, has lost her family: mother to an aneurism, brother to a carcrash, father to illness. She goes to stay with her godmother Addison, penname A. B. Early, a successful thriller writer who lives in a beach house in Santa Cruz. The house is full of dolls' houses, each containing a murder scene from one of Addison's novels. A few are missing, presumed destroyed in the Oakland earthquake; amongst them is the house for Ice City, a murder mystery featuring Addison's star character Maxwell Lane and a murderer who -- surely coincidentally? -- has the same name as Rima's father.

Maxwell Lane is rather more successful than Addison, despite being fictional. He's featured on TV and in films (Addison doesn't care for the actor currently playing him). He receives mail: not just letters from fans, though he's the star of a great deal of fanfic (one excerpt given, extremely funny and extremely accurate pastiche), much of it pairing him with Bim -- the nickname used by both Rima's father and the murderer in Ice City. There are quite a few fans who disapprove of the way that Addison's writing Maxwell Lane, but of course that doesn't stop them eagerly awaiting her next novel, or posting Wikipedia entries about Maxwell Lane -- entries which promptly become edit wars as Addison seeks to impose her authorial veto on inaccuracies. Addison had a lot of readers of whom she did not approve. Most of them, if you really want to know. (p. 25)

Ice City -- the place rather than the novel -- is a fiction within a fiction, a bar to which Maxwell Lane escapes in times of turmoil, occupied by imaginary people: whomever Maxwell wants them to be -- people from his past, the famous, the infamous, the real, the fictional, the living, the dead. (p. 120)

Throughout the novel there's interaction between real and fictional. Ice City may or may not hold clues to a real murder. Rima finds herself writing, under the name 'Maxwell Lane', to a woman who's been sending letters to Lane. She dreams about Maxwell Lane. She encounters a woman who claims to be Pamela Price (another Ice City character) but who looks too old and raddled: Pamela Price's appearance at that particular moment is, feels Rima, too contrived to be believable. "Bad plotting there." Rima's brother is dead, a car crash: when Scorch, Addison's dog-walker, mentions the circumstances of his death -- which she learnt from Addison's blog -- Rima's taken aback: "this was not the way she liked to tell the story." She's been reinventing reality, fictionalising it, glossing it. (Incidentally, you could read Wit's End as alternate history: it's set in 2004, and the Democrats have just won the election.)

I could make a case for Rima herself being -- even within the scope of the novel -- a fictional character. (She's named after one; the heroine of Green Mansions, 'a romance of the tropical forest', published 1904). In Wit's End, Rima discovers a topic thread about herself on one of the Maxwell Lane fansites: it's hard to gauge her response as she reads posts about whether she's her father's daughter, and posts that insist she was the best character in Ice City. (But, somebody points out, she didn't appear in Ice City. Does that mean she did appear in another Maxwell Lane book? ... The forum posters certainly refer to her dead brother as a real, actual, real-world person: he's more real than Rima.) If Rima's not real, that might help to explain why she does so little; why she knows so many things without knowing how she knows them; why she's a blank slate at the beginning of the novel.

Rima was ... eager to be little herself, to do and have and feel little things. A little room of her own. A little job for Addison. Someone else's little life that she could just slide inside until all her emotions had shrunk enough to be manageable. (p.9)

And she's certainly immersed in the fictional case described in Ice City, and perhaps the real incidents that inspired it. She's unwilling to read anything new, but she can cope with rereading: "it wasn't the same as reading, not when you'd read a book as often as Rima had read Ice City." (p. 42)

There's quite a bit in here about reading. In a game of Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit, Addison insists that books trump film, and answers are judged right or wrong by reference to Tolkien's work rather than Peter Jackson's. And Addison bemoans the rise of online writing: "Why must everyone write? ... Why can't they just read? There are so many very good books, already written. Written and published." (p. 87). When she meets an honest-to-god fanfic writer (who gushes about being 'an M-and-B shipper') Addison reminds her that these characters are copyright. Though at the end of the book, she's saying (over a glass of whiskey) that "the only man I ever truly loved is the one I made up." Rima thinks "couldn't you argue she'd made up Bim too? The real one as well as the fictional one?" (p. 280)

By the end of the novel, Rima is interacting with Maxwell Lane in waking life (though you could say she's been doing that since she first read his correspondence). She knows a bit more about Addison's past, and Addison's relationship with her father, and perhaps why Addison and her father stopped being friends. She knows who Addison's father was, and she's starting to construct a new family for herself. Perhaps she's less blank: perhaps the blankness was absence of hope, or absence of social framework, or absence of her own story amid those of her father, her brother, her fictional crush.

I like to think she'll get herself a blog.

NB: The novel has been aggravatingly repackaged for UK publication with a chick-lit style cover and the title The Case of the Imaginary Detective. It is not chick-lit: don't be put off.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

#5: The Bone Key -- Sarah Monette

I have a colleague who has dreamed of the fall of Troy once a year for the past thirty years. Always on the same date and always the same dream. He doesn't excavate in Troy -- never has -- and he says there isn't a power on Earth that could make him. He dreams, you see, that he is one of the women. (p. 134)

Ten linked short stories (published in various places, online and paper, between 2000 and 2006) featuring Kyle Murchison Booth, museum archivist. Booth is a tall gangling man in his thirties, white-haired due to a family curse, repressed, neurotic, solitary, brittle: following 'a foolish and unwilling foray into necromancy' (this may or may not be the episode described in the first story, 'Bringing Helena Back') he has become 'attractive to such [supernatural] things, as a magnet is attractive to iron.' (p. 243) In the tales collected here, he encounters ghosts, ghouls, a Lovecraftian terror amid the holly bushes, an incubus (Booth is gay, by preference if not practice), a curse, and a green glass paperweight that's been made a trap.

It's hard to tell exactly when or where the stories are set. The city, somewhere in New England, seems nameless; 'The Venebretti Necklace' seems to be set sometime in the 1950s, but could be later. I think that sense of rootlessness is Booth's: that he's deliberately distancing himself from the real world, that he prefers to work in the museum, bury himself in 17th-century pamphlets, uncover -- if he must -- dark secrets from other people's pasts.

Monette's prose is measured, subtle, refined: she doesn't revel in the horrors committed or suffered by her characters, or sensationalise sex and death. In the foreward she acknowledges a debt to, and admiration of, M R James, H P Lovecraft and Henry James: her stated aim, to combine 'the psychological and psychosexual focus of that other James' with the 'old-school horror of insinuation and nuance'. There's some lovely observation in here, from Booth's own shy stammering awkwardness to the convalescents who inhabit the Hotel Chrysalis, from the severe Gothic chilliness of Booth's relatives to the flat-eyed manservant who welcomes Booth to the house of the man who, as a boy, bullied him at school.

I like the prose: there's something missing, something more I want to read, and I don't know if it's that I read the stories one after another, and want the gaps between 'em filled, or whether I want more of Booth's backstory.

#4: Anathem -- Neal Stephenson

"But how can you not be fascinated by --"
"I am fascinated ... That's the problem. I'm suffering from fascination burnout. Of all the things that are fascinating, I have to choose just one or two."
(p. 733)

I didn't do myself any favours by reading Anathem over a prolonged period; by attempting to read it all in the hardcover format rather than as e-book (seriously, if you have stomach pain this is not a good book to be reading!); by reading a section at a time. There is so much in this novel, and I found it hard to keep track: I suspect there are various sub-plots, in-jokes and developments that simply passed me by. And I'm sorry to say that I didn't enjoy it as much as I've enjoyed some of Stephenson's other work: I'm in awe of the scope, the themes, the world-building, but I didn't like it as much. Perhaps that's simply because I didn't find any of the characters especially compelling.

That said, it's a book I keep thinking about. Some of those thoughts are set out, fairly randomly, in this review.

First, there's the arc of the book that goes from the long view to the minute-by-minute. At the start of the book, Fraa Erasmus (Raz) is esconced comfortably in his math, taking a very long view of the extramuros world: when there was an economy extramuros, we could sell the honey ... when conditions outside were post-apocalyptic, we could eat it (p. 15). That long view was one of the elements that kept me questioning: what's going on within the maths, what's the disjuncture between them and the Sæcular society outside? By the climax of the book, Raz is intimately entwined in cause-and-effect, the narrative is action-packed and fast-paced, and the characters are existing in a confused state -- reminiscent of Schrodinger's cat.

Stephenson has fun exploring philosophy and metaphysics, but where he really gets into his stride is spaceship design. His generation ship reminds me of the serious, thoughtful speculations of Arthur C. Clarke and Kim Stanley Robinson: his other space-travel solution brings out my latent agoraphobia.

There's some lovely prose in here too: mushroom clouds scudding by from a low-orbit viewpoint; the beauty and mystery of the cosmos spilling out of the combination lock of a set of natural laws; the pin-pricks marking the course of an unidentified object passing between planet and sun ...

There's room for satire in here: Stephenson's comic streak comes out in descriptions of the 'slines' (baselines), the lowest class of society, with their jeejars (mobile phone equivalent), sporty clothes and thick shoes, lewd commentary on Fine Art, and tendency to spend their money on 'pornography and sugar-water'. He has a few things to say about poor GUI interfaces (devices 'not made for literate people', therefore taking longer to work out the smarter you are) and a lot to say about the crapness of the Reticulum (internet). Some of this is even germane to the plot.

And I do love the plot, which is actually pretty swashbuckling: Raz's adventures have a picaresque air to them, though I can't help feeling he doesn't engage as fully with said adventures as might someone from a different background. The plot! Polycosmic, philosophical, Snow's two cultures, quantum mechanics ... a medieval mindset (and skillset) applied to a world that's somewhat ahead of ours. The incompatability of chemistry, cosmos to cosmos! Computational chanting! (I'm listening to David Stutz's Iolet: Music from the world of Anathem as I write -- more about that here -- and I'll go with Al Billings' review: "Some weird shit".)

Stephenson's worldbuilding is admirable, not least because he's taken some staples of philosophy, mathematics, physics (Occam's Razor, the Pythagorean theorem, the Faraday cage) and reinvented them as building-blocks in the mathic world of Arbre. I'm pretty sure that I've encountered quite a few of Anathem's speculations, devices and twists in my layperson's readings on quantum mechanics and the many-worlds hypothesis. But the way Stephenson's put them together -- and his choice of viewpoint character (not that I wouldn't have liked to know more about Zh'vaern) -- is far from simplistic.

I'd need to read this again, cover to cover, to get the most from it, to explore the framework of that plot and the subtle differences and congruences. There is so much to explore. But I'm suffering fascination overload.