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[personal profile] starlady
Stephenson, Neal. Anathem. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

I absolutely loved this book. Let me also say, the fact that this book did not win the Hugo Award is all the proof that anyone - even the most dyed-in-the-wool old-school SF fan - needs to know that the Hugo Awards are completely and totally irrelevant (except when they aren't).

Having said all that, let me also make it clear that, as much as I love Stephenson, I am well aware that he is not without serious problems, some of which will be addressed later in this post. I have not yet read the techno-Orientalist fest that is The Diamond Age, and you couldn't pay me to touch The Mongoliad with a ten-foot pole. I really loved The Baroque Trilogy, though.

So, Anathem. The book follows about a year in the life of the young avout Erasmas, who is a Ten-Year member of an outpost of the order in his world that concentrates all its thinkers into one governed body consisting of people who take vows to emerge once a year, once every ten years, once every thousand years, or once ever millennium. Erasmas' tale begins in the year 3689 in which this Rule was re-established, but by the end of his tale, everything in his world, and also beyond it, has changed.

There's not much I can say specifically about this book outside of a spoiler cut, but let me say what I can. First of all, I am developing a theory that the very best science fiction makes you reconsider the world around you as you are reading it, and this is the first book in a while that I've read that does that (another one being Mira Grant's Feed, also a Hugo nominee). The intellectuals of Arbre live in convents away from the world and don't miss what they don't have, and their uncaring attitude towards the fluctuations of the Sæcular Power made me reconsider my own stance toward all of that. It's closer than one might think; indeed, I realized as I read that if someone offered me what we might term Cartas' Choice - the intellectual life away from the world, or a non-intellectual life within it - I would make that deal. I've already made that deal in some ways, and no, I don't regret it. And the fact that Arbre is so advanced, in some respects, technologically and intellectually, must be attributable to the fact that its intellectuals are free to spend all their time thinking. And because the book does reflect our world in those respects, it does make you think really hard not only about the relations between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, but also about certain uncomfortable technological truths, such as the fact that digital formats decay but vellum and parchment and papyrus last for millennia, and also for the fact that with the LHC and similar devices we are actually coming up against the hard limits of what we can actually prove with devices. Barring a paradigm-altering advance in propulsion technology (i.e. FTL travel), we will eventually find ourselves up on crags like the Thousander avout, waiting for a very slow series of data to come back to us via telescopes.

I realized, as I got to the end of the book, that part of the point of all the philosophical dialogues was to teach readers how to understand the plot developments and eventual denouement, and Stephenson, as usual, does a masterful job - I've never read anyone who's better at explaining complicated scientific, theoretical, and philosophical ideas. In particular, this book depends on some fairly advanced quantum mechanics, including the idea of the multiverse (or as they say in this book, the polycosm), and…it's brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. The other thing is that as far as I can tell, none of the quantum mechanics and philosophy in Stevenson's concepts are wrong, even if most of them are derived from untested theories. There are SFnal elements in here, of course, but at least some of them (a world actually deciding to realize an Orion Project vessel, for instance) aren't actually SFnal, they're just paths not (yet?) taken. And a lot of the SFnal elements too, I think, are actually possibly within our compass even within the current unified framework of our physics (since the HTC has in fact discovered a Higgs particle, which validates the current standard theory).

There are a number of pleasures in this book for someone like me, an atheist intellectual steeped in the philosophical-scientific tradition that Stephenson venerates enough to transform and retell in a better, more awesome form than our real-world history. I…really, okay, I have more or less been an atheist since the day in freshman year of college when they put the seven-part "proof" of the existence of God up on the board and I pointed out that for step four to make sense you had to believe in God in the first place and it's just really refreshing to read a book from the viewpoint of someone who finds theism unapologetically bizarre. However, in the interest of fairness, let me quote this passage from Stephenson's online acknowledgments that I found notable:

Anathem could easily be construed as being consistently, even stridently anti-religion. I propose a more ambiguous interpretation. The book is written entirely from the point of view of the avout, who in general take a dim view of religious-minded people, largely because the ones who tend to draw their attention are the ones whose behavior excites strong emotions of fear or contempt: the conspicuous frauds, clowns, and charlatans who are as prevalent on Arbre as they are on Earth. In the pages of the novel I have tried to hint at the existence of other religious-minded people who are little noticed and rarely remarked upon because of the comparative dignity and restraint of their beliefs and their practices. This too is meant to reflect the way things are on Earth. If I’d meant Anathem to be an anti-religion screed, I would not have dedicated it to my parents, who are lifelong attendees of mainstream Protestant college-town churches in which essentially all of the parishioners believe in evolution and would not dream of interpreting scripture literally.

I don't find theism quite as bizarre as Raz does, though again, as I said, the fact that he does find it so bizarre is somewhat unusual in SFF, I think.

It's also really refreshing to read a novel of ideas that is this laugh-out loud hilarious. Viz:

That quieted her down a little bit. But after a while, she said: "Do you need transportation? Tools? Stuff?"
    "Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs," I said. "We have a protractor."
    "Okay, I'll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and a piece of string."
    "That'd be great." (334-35)

Stephenson gets so many things about the life of the mind so exhilaratingly right. One of the things I liked about that NYT article I just linked is how it pointed out that for the past fifty years physicists have been spending their entire careers working on a model that depended on the existence of something for which they had not one single shred of material proof; whatever else they are, scientists are not unbelievers.

"You might say that the difference between us and you is that we have been infected by a vision of…another world." I'd been about to say "a greater" or "a higher" but settled for "another."
    "I don't like the infection metaphor," Arsibalt started to say in Orth. I kneed him under the table.
    "You mean like a different planet?" Dath asked.
    "That's an interesting way of looking at it," I said. "Most of us don't think it's another planet in the sense of a speculative fiction speely. Maybe it's the future of this world. Maybe it's an alternate universe we can't get to. Maybe it's nothing but a fantasy. But at any rate it lives in our souls and we can't help striving toward it." (138-39)

Reading this book was like continually turning a corner and finding myself around it, and that is, as much as SFF is unabashedly a literature that is read by people of above average intelligence, refreshing and also seductive, seductive enough that at some point I actually started to distrust it. What would society be like if people like me, like us, were walled off and away? What would it be like if we were in charge? 

So, there are so many things I loved about this book, I also feel strongly that I should talk about the parts that I didn't automatically agree with, or that I actually want to criticize. In the first place, the absolute separation of the avout from what we would call, very broadly, information technology, is on the one level an exaggeration-to-worldbuilding of a current tendency (god it's embarrassing how many of my professors cannot work technology) and on the other a provocative idea. It's true that digital technologies change the way we think, full stop - I've noticed this in my own thought and in many ways the change is already too complete to stop, let alone prevent. But on the other hand, I'm not sure that those changes are a bad thing.

My other criticisms are more critical. So, one of the distinct pleasures of this book for someone trained in the Western philosophical tradition, as I said, is the way that Stephenson freely reshapes its history in our world into a better, stronger, more pure version of itself in the world of Arbre - more gender-equal, more glorious. Jesus of Nazareth, for instance, is recast as a philosopher who expels fortune-tellers from the Temple with a garden-rake, hence Diax's Rake (which states that one should not believe a thing just because one wishes that it were true) and the rational foundation of theorics, and the two daughters of the original intellectual Cnoous, Hylaea and Dëat, are the progenitors of Science and Theism, respectively, each understood in their broadest sense. That said, though, this is obviously a hugely skewed take on the history of Earth that totally ignores every branch of science and philosophy that wasn't Euro-American. On the one level that makes sense, because only Euro-American science and philosophy, to put it bluntly, have produced nuclear bombs. On another, partly since there are apparently some aspects of Chinese thought that have relevance for quantum mechanics, this is a significant and problematic oversight.

That said, however, my attempt to call this lineage "Euro-American science and philosophy" also attempts to create stark boundaries out of what is actually a very blurry game, and many non Euro-Americans have made very distinguished contributions to our understandings of these topics since the late 19thC. Stephenson himself, in his acknowledgments, is openly deeply indebted to the late Hao Wang at multiple points. Furthermore, Stephenson notes that the Teglon tile problem in the novel is derived from a study of geometric tiling in Central Asian mosques. So, let that stand as a correction to my critique.

My other criticism is that, particularly in the first part of the book, Stephenson's skewering of our current world leads into some fairly breathtaking classism. Viz this description of the "slines," the have-nots in the essentially two-class world extramuros, beyond the walls of the avout concents:

This morning's tour group numbered about two dozen. A third of them were uniformed ten-year-olds from a Bazian Orthodox suvin, or so I guessed from the fact that their teacher was in a nun's habit. The others seemed a typical mix of burgers, artisans, and slines. The latter were recognizable from a distance. They were huge. Some artisans and burgers were huge too, but they wore clothes intended to hide it. The current sline fashion was to wear a garment evolved from an athletic jersey (bright, with numerals on the back) but oversized, so that shoulder seams hung around the elbows, and extremely long--descending all the way to the knee. The trousers were too long to be shorts and too short to be pants--they hung a hand's-breadth below the jersey but still exposed a few inches of chunky calf, plunging into enormous, thickly padded shoes. Headgear was a burnoose blazoned with beverage logos whose loose ends trailed down the back, and dark googles strapped over that and never removed, even indoors.
    But it was not only clothing that set the slines apart. They had also adopted fashions in how they walked (a rolling, sauntering gait) and how they stood (a pose of exaggerated cool that somehow looked hostile to me). (121-22)

Thanks, Neal Stephenson, for that. (Though the fact that Erasmas and his awesome sister Cord are from a sline background is emphasized.) 

It's interesting to me that Stephenson and several other prominent SF writers so unabashedly still cannot quite get over Star Trek. The fact that the combat-trained avout show up wearing red shirts is very nicely satirical, as is the description of the "Doxic Iconography," which is derived from

"A Praxic Age moving picture serial. An adventure drama about a military spaceship sent to a remote part of the galaxy to prevent hostile aliens from establishing hegemony, and marooned when their hyperdrive is damaged in an ambush. The captain of the ship was pasisonate, a hothead. His second-in-command was Dox, a theorician, brilliant, but unemotional and cold."
    "Fid Jesry, what does the Doxan Iconography say of us?"
    "That we are useful to the Sæcular Power. Our gifts are to be celebrated. But we are blinded, or crippled--take your pick--by, er…"
    "By the very same qualities that make us useful," said Fid Tulia. (49)

I did say that the picture the book paints is seductive. But also, weirdly, the fact that Stephenson (unlike every other time travel novel ever) goes out of his way to point out that causality must be preserved and the mechanism by which it would happen made me feel better about the Star Trek reboot. It's not actually possible for the Romulans to have jumped back in time and erased all the canon before that point, provided that the universe is rotating! So as much as I loved the "Grapevine Fires" vid, it's not actually (necessarily) true. (Actually, now I kind of want to write Anathem fic with Old!Spock in the Reboot cosmos.)

As for the plot denouement - I liked it. And I liked that Fraa Jad and the Millennarians appear, essentially, to have fundamentally altered four cosmi (cosmoi?) by summoning the people of Urnud to save the avout from their prisons by fundamentally altering world history. The book ends on Day Zero, Year Zero of a new reckoning, and I suspect that it'll be known as A.A., After the Advent. 

I suspect I have made it sound as if the plot is somewhat secondary, but one of the marvels of this novel is how primary its plot is, and how much the plot advances by ideas being worked out and worked on. I also marvel consistently at Stephenson's ability to introduce seemingly innocuous throwaway details that then turn out to be central to the plot. It's The Name of the Rose crossed with Gene Wolfe, in some ways, and it's amazing.


I was going to end it here, and then I started reading the Acknowledgements (which have book-ruining spoilers, so don't read them if you haven't finished the book), and then I realized that I wanted to talk about some of the actual ideas of the book, too.

In the first place, the idea that the human brain uses quantum effects to do some of what it does - Stephenson remarks that "this has been so controversial that I have found it impossible to have a dispassionate conversation about it with any learned person" - I don't actually find all that terribly controversial, or at least, not implausible as a theory. What makes me suspicious of the idea is that it seems to give humans and our brains a very significant edge over every other species in a way that seems very anthropocentric. Still, in the absence of further evidence, it does make for an interesting idea.

The convergence between mathematics, physics, logic, and philosophy that began in the 20thC is exciting to me as someone who is interested in ideas and in understanding what we know about the world, but also means that I am beyond the core competencies of my education thus far and must rely on the work of others to explain a lot of the things that Stephenson mentions in his acknowledgments. Let me just say that I find the idea of computational metaphysics to be highly intriguing, and that I don't actually have any objection to the mathematical Platonism espoused in the novel. The problem with Platonism is when it tries to go beyond maths and geometry, in my opinion; for more on this, see The Republic, which for my money is still one of the most terrifying dystopias ever described in writing.

That said, however, I do want to lodge one final objection against the stark depiction of the Procians vs. Halikaarnian split, aka the Rhetors and the Incanters, aka the Continental and the British schools of 20thC philosophy. That the Procians are the social scientists of their world is tipped off by Raz's description of the two groups to Cord thus: "One sort of glib explanation I heard once was that Rhetors could change the past, and were glad to do it, but Incanters could change the future--and were reluctant" (103). The Procians come off very badly throughout the narrative in a way that doesn't entirely surprise me. But. We do have our uses, even though in this world I'd probably be up with Orolo at the starhenge doing cosmography too.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-06 18:49 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Can't wait to finish this and read the spoilery parts of your review. OMG so good. Just got to the part where Raz realizes that Jesry got to go to space and he can't decide if he should be pissed or proud. Another 500 pages to go. :P

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-06 21:53 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Also, this paragraph from the non-spoilered paragraph makes me want to object to almost everything in it, but part of me thinks I'm better off waiting until I've finished the novel, but anyway..

There's not much I can say specifically about this book outside of a spoiler cut, but let me say what I can. First of all, I am developing a theory that the very best science fiction makes you reconsider the world around you as you are reading it, and this is the first book in a while that I've read that does that (another one being Mira Grant's Feed, also a Hugo nominee).

Okay, so I don't disagree with this being a desirable phenomenon, but I'm a little hesitant to ascribe it to 'the very best science fiction', inasmuch as I can easily point to great science fiction that doesn't aspire to this, and great realistic fiction that does. I think this also stems to my sense that I object to your first paragraph. I am loving Anathem, but The Graveyard Book won the Hugo that year, and I can't really find it in me to say that the voters were wrong. The Graveyard Book is a spectacular work of speculative fiction, in an utterly different literary tradition.

The intellectuals of Arbre live in convents away from the world and don't miss what they don't have, and their uncaring attitude towards the fluctuations of the Sæcular Power made me reconsider my own stance toward all of that. It's closer than one might think; indeed, I realized as I read that if someone offered me what we might term Cartas' Choice - the intellectual life away from the world, or a non-intellectual life within it - I would make that deal.

I think it's problematic to term it Cartas' Choice, and I'm doubtful that further reading will change my perspective on that. On several different axes it's clear that it's not a choice. It's certainly not a choice for Millenarians and Centenarians, to start. It's also not a choice for conscripts. But moreover, despite Erasmas's disparaging comments about the Saecular Power, it's clear that to some degree the avout are in the concents because it's a prison for dangerous ideas, and the Discipline exists to keep those dangerous ideas from escaping.

I've already made that deal in some ways, and no, I don't regret it. And the fact that Arbre is so advanced, in some respects, technologically and intellectually, must be attributable to the fact that its intellectuals are free to spend all their time thinking.

Well, no. It's attributable to time. Arbre's time scale of intelligent technological civilization is several thousand years longer than ours. Their Praxic Age is several thousand years in the past. They've, to borrow Newton's phrase, been standing on the shoulders of far more giants than we have. And the concents don't exist to develop knowledge and science, they exist to stifle it, or channel it in directions deemed less dangerous. At this point, the seminal event in the founding of the whole concent system appears to be the decision made by the Saecular Power toward nuclear disarmament.

And because the book does reflect our world in those respects, it does make you think really hard not only about the relations between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, but also about certain uncomfortable technological truths, such as the fact that digital formats decay but vellum and parchment and papyrus last for millennia, and also for the fact that with the LHC and similar devices we are actually coming up against the hard limits of what we can actually prove with devices.

I heard Cory Doctorow on the former topic at PhilCon last year. He argues that it's an easily overcomeable technological truth for a couple of reasons, one of which is that it's very easy to virtualize older systems.

As to the LHC comment, there's a reason we have Clarke's Laws. We are most certainly not near the limits of our ability to achieve scientific discovery through devices, just because we can't imagine what the next device will look like.

Barring a paradigm-altering advance in propulsion technology (i.e. FTL travel), we will eventually find ourselves up on crags like the Thousander avout, waiting for a very slow series of data to come back to us via telescopes.

It's possible. Or we could end up with starbases across the solar system using their better positioned telescopes to make the discovery that will give us the next leg up to the next discovery. I've learned not to doubt the power of technological advancement, when you set up a climate of intellectual freedom.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-09 00:24 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Hmm... I'm not really sure I'm comfortable agreeing with the way you're defining paradigm shift. But I'm not really clear on how exactly you're defining paradigm shift, so perhaps I'm better off asking for clarification rather than charging in with a rebuttal. How are you understanding the idea of a 'paradigm shift in terms of technological development', that you're saying that we can't see them coming?

Just to try to guide you in the right direction of my objection, it seems to me that our inability to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity inherently signifies that a paradigm shift is coming. But that is not necessarily a 'paradigm shift of technological development', which is what you're asserting is unpredictable. So I seek clarification.

As to your second point, I'll avoid saying more until I finish (up to page 700 now), but yes, I understood it to be about ideas period, because of some principle as yet to be clearly laid out to me that combining syntactics and semantics is inherently dangerous. (callback to Snow Crash, somehow?)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-11 15:41 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Finished the book!

I take your point about the concents, but only to a point - the Rule was originally self-imposed, and...well, spoilers, but I can say that they're for all ideas, period, not just dangerous ideas.

Hmm... there's a conversation between Erasmas and Emman near the end which as close as we seem to get to an explanation for the Concents, and Erasmas suggests that each time the mathic world develops technologies that threaten to destroy the world, greater restrictions are placed on their activities via the Discipline. (Take this together with clues like Orolo and Raz's much earlier Dialog in which Orolo resists the word 'Reform' to describe post-sack changes to the Discipline because it implies an improvement has taken place) Having read the whole novel, I'm not clear where you get evidence that the Rule was self-imposed, other than the fact that it's ascribed to a Saunt. It may have been voluntary in the sense that the oil industry 'voluntarily' imposes new 'self-regulations' because it finds that preferable to government regulation.

I don't know what in particular you meant when you said "spoilers, but I can say that they're for all ideas, period." The separation between the Ita and the Avout appears to be a result of post-1st sack genetic engineering run amok, which I find an adequate but disappointing reasoning. I thought there might be something more to it: With all the quantum brain stuff, I wondered if separating syntactic and semantic reasoning was intended to avoid some inevitable quantum-driven ecological byproduct of having well-trained minds thinking unfettered thoughts, but that remains rather unclear. That sentence is unclear. Let me attempt to restate: I thought it would have been interesting if it had turned out that the leakage to other cosmi was not the intentional decision of some Millenarians but the accidental but inevitable quantum byproduct of letting avout study anything they wanted. (If Anathem had borrowed its plot twist from The Gods Themselves, I suppose)

Perhaps instead you're talking of the Lorites and Meta-Lorites? In a way it's strange that they are not more the focus of the story. This sort of consciously ancient social structure sitting next to a contemporary society had me wondering from an early point how much the function of the concents was to preserve information, not merely in the vellum vs. digital sense, but in the sense of building a tradition of transmission of ideas. Obviously the Voco system does take advantage of this aspect of the concents, but I'm not as convinced as you are that this sort of isolation really produces the best scholarship or the best transmission tradition. I've spent time in Yeshivot, you see, and I've been immersed my whole life in Torah transmission traditions, and I don't actually believe that if you were to pull a dozen chachamim out of a Bnei Brak yeshiva and gave them all the information they needed to build a space ship, they could do it. The 'priesthood' of the Pendulum is a better model of what happens when you engineer that kind of isolation and put that kind of emphasis on traditional thought. Erasmas hits the nail on the head when he points out in that same conversation with Emman that every post-sack Reform brought with it grandfather clauses and exceptions. It's not the isolation that makes the avout so intellectually flexible- it's the breaks in the isolation. Apert. The Labyrinth. Tenth Night. Library Grapes. Even Anathem and Feralism.

I don't know. Do any of these thoughts make sense? I'm still digesting.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-12-31 14:03 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Hmm.. Well, i find that unconvincing because the HTC is a directed acyclic graph, which means to say that there can only be motion in one direction along its pathways anyway(the direction of greater entropy, perhaps?). Raz's world is the highest of the four because they can't see any higher without leaving Raz's world. At least, I'm pretty sure that's how it works.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-06 21:26 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
I have a feeling this is one of those books I need to reread every few years -- and I'm starting to get overdue. The strengths of the book only increase with hindsight.

(ETA: I could go back to periodically rereading Always Coming Home, alternating years with Anathem. Heh heh heh.)

Also, I'm very very glad that Stephenson has finally learned how to land his endings. I've been following his career for 22 years now, and it's SUCH a relief.

---L.
Edited (epimetheus is my middle name) Date: 2012-07-06 22:47 (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-07 14:40 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
Not yet. I'm waiting for an event like, say, being stuck on a slow boat to China. (If I hadn't been recovering from appendectomy last year, my vacation then would have been it, but, well, heavy.)

---L.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-07 06:19 (UTC)
qem_chibati: Coloured picture of Killua from hunter x hunter, with the symbol of Qem in the corner. (A cat made from Q, E, M) (Default)
From: [personal profile] qem_chibati
Saw this on network - I read this book a few years ago, and this review articulates a lot of the things that I remember liking about it really well.

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