Books You Should Read : Anathem

One of the better Xmas presents I got this year was Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Anathem. I’m only around 500 pages into it (it’s 900 pages + long) but I can already enthusiastically recommend it as the best new book I’ve read all year.

Stephenson is someone whose work I admire intensely (although I’m ashamed to say I’ve still not finished his huge, 3000 page Baroque Cycle trilogy – it’s so dense that without reading it uninterrupted I can’t keep track of the many threads, and lose the plot somewhere around the 1800-page mark and have to go back to the beginning. I plan to take a week off next year and spend it just reading those books).

After the technothriller-of-sorts Cryptonomicon and the historical novel that is the Baroque Trilogy, Anathem sees Stephenson’s return to science fiction, the genre in which he made his early impact. But rather than the cyberpunk of The Diamond Age or Snow Crash, this is hard Campbellian SF with some slight fantasy-esque worldbuilding – it reminds me more than anything of Arthur C Clarke’s work, but with a much better prose style and more ideas.

Science fiction fans often defend SF as ‘the real literature of ideas’, and to an extent that’s true. Good science fiction relies more than any other genre on new ideas. Unfortunately, the ideas themselves are often relatively trivial ones – often solutions to hypothetical engineering problems. One could come up with a pretty good traditional SF plot by, for example, constructing a race that evolved on the outside of a Dyson sphere by feeding off the black body radiation it emits, working out their biology and society, then having them discover that their world has an inside.

Something like this happens in Stephenson’s novel – he has a meticulously worked out pseudo-monastical order of mathematicians (which reminded me of Logopolis, especially in their rejection of computers, but is far more well-conceived than the Doctor Who story) on a fairly detailed world coming into contact with aliens who (at the point I’ve reached) are unknowable in almost every way. So far, so ordinary.

But Stephenson is one of the few novelists I know of who is *really interested* in ideas of all sorts – cultural, political, economic, scientific and so on. Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Trilogy were linked not only by one recurring supporting character, but by the ideas Stephenson was working out (about information flow being the same as flow of value, about to what extent it is possible to represent the world symbolically, about truth and deception, about the creation of modern capitalism, and about looking at history not as a struggle between ‘great men’ but between great ideas). His other novels were similarly based around Big Ideas – and not just one per novel, but several interacting.

In this regard Stephenson reminds me of Grant Morrison, but Stephenson is the better prose stylist and has the space to work the ideas out more thoroughly (Stephenson also appears to be far more instinctually conservative than Morrison – while Morrison’s rebellion against Baby Boomer generation immediately before him tends to be in the form of fetishising youth and youth culture, Stephenson seems to wish the old hippies would just grow up and get over themselves). While Anathem presents itself as a science fiction story, the plot is merely a convenient hook on which to hang a complex net of ideas.

In this case, these start with a fairly simple neo-Platonist world view (that mathematical concepts have an existence separate from human perception, in some other level of existence), which Stephenson links with the many-worlds hypothesis in quantum physics, and with Penrose’s idea that the brain must work on a quantum level, and with mathematical concepts of phase space, to postulate a multiverse with information flow from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ levels, and with brains acting as quantum computers. In this model, our understanding of what is within the range of the possible – our mapping of the phase space – (for example the way we ‘intuitively’ know that a lead weight is more likely to fall to the floor than float in the air) comes from interference with the copies of our brains in close parallel universes.

Now, I happen to think this world view is almost certainly wrong (Platonism makes little sense to me, and Penrose strikes me as the same kind of half-bright person as Dawkins, his argument being little more than “I don’t understand thought, and I don’t understand quantum physics, so they must be the same thing”), but the way Stephenson jams the ideas together – and the many, many other ideas he throws out – is beautiful. During the action sequences I keep finding myself thinking “Oh,enough with the being rescued from a lynch mob by shaolin monks – get back to the discussion of the objective reality of Plato’s forms!”

One common criticism of this book has been the large number of words Stephenson has made up, but this is completely invalid. In a world with no Socrates or William of Ockham or Pythagoras, you can hardly have characters talking about Socratic dialogue or Occam’s razor or Pythagoras’ theorem. Many of his new coinages are very, very witty, and there’s the additional fun of dictionary entries studded throughout the text (the entry for ‘bulshytt’ is particularly worth reading).

Not that the book is perfect – the sequences where the plot is advanced through action don’t work nearly as well as those where the plot is advanced through dialogue, and Stephenson also chooses to depart from his normal method of having several viewpoint characters in interweaving plot threads, instead giving us a single first-person narrator throughout the story. While the reasons for this make a lot of sense (the readers only get hints of the big picture in tiny drips, and this is accentuated by the fact that the main character is, while hugely intelligent, a 19 year-old who’s spent almost all his life in a monastery), one of Stephenson’s biggest strengths is his ability with character. He’s particularly good at writing about a few different masculine types of personality (very non-verbal military men and introverted, logical, mathematician types) and showing the commonalities in their perceptions of the world. By showing everyone through the lens of one character’s perception, he has removed this particular string from his bow, so there are (at least in the first half) no scenes like Randy’s Cap’n Crunch-eating techniques or Laurence’s ‘fucking Mary’ plan from Cryptonomicon – where in his earlier books one comes away thinking about the ideas and about individual character moments, here what sticks in the mind isn’t so much the characters as the world – I have only a dim idea of the characters of any of the individuals in the story, but a very clear mental picture of the great Clocks, and how the doors open for Apert, and of the spaceship with its geometrical proof.

If you’re at all interested in the nature of consciousness, the nature of reality, mathematics, the possibility of contact with alien life, the possibility of parallel universes or just a good story, Anathem will set your mind ablaze in a way very few novels will.

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5 Responses to Books You Should Read : Anathem

  1. Dave Page says:

    I’d be interested to read that; I’ve finally got the energy to plough through the remaining volumes of the Baroque Trilogy, and while it’s all very entertaining and diverting, I can’t help but think that most of it is witty filler and that the trilogy would be better served condensed into one volume.

  2. I agree about Anathem, and Stephenson in general; I really think he’s one of the best living writers, and he never fails to astonish me with his books. Anathem is just amazingly excellent, and I love pretty much everything about it. Good reading.

    Oh, and Dave, I definitely disagree about the “filler” aspect of the Baroque cycle; it’s all a big, glorious concentration of Stephensonian descriptiveness, plotting, characters, and setpieces; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  3. Duncan says:

    Hh. I’m at almost the exact same point as you, maybe about p.450 or so, coincidentally, and am surprised to find myself thrilling over a book largely about geometry. Fuck, if it’s used to find spaceships, though… it’s the Boy’s Own booster I need to deal with Plato, Leibniz and them.

  4. Andrew Hickey says:

    I’ve read a chunk since then. It gets better. It turns into a story about Hypertime… (don’t worry, I’m not ‘spoiling’ anything…

  5. BruceR says:

    My experience with Anathem was as follows: about a week to read the first 200 pages, 2 days to read the last 700 pages, and 2 days to re-read the entire book. I had just finished re-reading “Snow Crash” for the first time in several years, and Anathem could not be more different, so it took a while for the world of Arbre to penetrate. (A short aside: Snow Crash just gets more relevant every time I read it – it will have to be reclassified as non-fiction pretty soon!) Anathem is certainly one of the most thought-provoking works of fiction that I’ve read in a while, and although I could certainly quibble over some aspects of the plot, there’s a whole lot to love about this book.

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