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

Sunday, February 01, 2009

#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.

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