Thursday, February 28, 2013

An Anathem for Neal Stephenson's Anathem (novel)

I enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s Anathem hugely the first time I read it. In some ways it was typical Stephenson, but the science-fictional setting and the more speculative ideas made for a more fanciful and more interesting story. On finishing the book, I mentally marked it for a re-read and put it away. Late last year I re-read his The Diamond Age, and that led to a re-reading of Anathem. Going into those re-reads my opinion was that those two are his best novels, and the re-reads did nothing to change that. If you’ve not read Stephenson and want something both enjoyable and representative of his work, Anathem and The Diamond Age are the places to start.

The second readings of both books were more leisurely and more attentive than the first ones. As such, they revealed more about the strengths and weaknesses of the story and of Stephenson in general. I’ll have more to say in a later essay about Stephenson in general; here I’m going to focus on Anathem.

Plot and background synopsis: On Arbre, mathematics and philosophy are the domain of the ‘avout’, the cloistered brothers and sisters of the Maths. There they preserve and extend knowledge of mathematics and philosophy, with few direct applications to the outside use of ‘praxis’ (technology). Fraa (brother) Erasmus is a young man in one the oldest ‘concents’, approaching adulthood and considering which specialty he will choose when the time arrives. He is a Tenner, one of a group that meets with the ‘extramuros’ (outside world) only a few days every ten years. Shortly after that ‘apert’, events occur which literally change the world, forcing the Avout and the the ‘Saecular Powers’ to work together to deal with the extraordinary circumstances that are arising. To say more would be spoilers, but this should give you a feel for where Stephenson is going both with the language and the background. The story itself hangs on both.

Like all Stephenson, Anathem is a novel of ideas. Unlike most other Stephenson, the ideas here are more speculative and more subversive. That subversion is improved and made more subtle by the vocabulary Stephenson uses. Aubre is not Earth, past or present. Its concepts and organizations have names that may lead you to think they are direct analogs to something in our world, but they are not. The title is a good example. On Aubre, the word is ‘anathem’ is a synonym both for ‘anathema’ and for ‘anthem.’ Stephenson doesn’t merge the two without reason, but saying more would push into the realm of spoilers. As such, the reader is never sure about the casual usage of a number of words which at first seem to be simple analogs for things we are familiar with, but underneath have distinct and often critical differences. The book comes with a glossary, but the meanings shouldn’t be taken any more literally than the rest of the book. Look for the context, listen to what Erasmus tells you, and bear in mind that he is very young and usually quite naive.

In Anathem the primary ideas presented are in mathematics, geometry, and philosophy. Stephenson present them in interesting but discursive discussions, and lectures. That makes Anathem a very talky book. There is scene after scene where two to many characters talk things over and argue about how the events may be related to the theories. Erasmus is a good viewpoint for this, as everyone seems to want to educate or persuade him in one way or another. If you find the topics interesting (and I did), you’ll enjoy these moments. If not, you might be tempted to skip over them looking for the plot. My advice - skim, but don’t skip. Anathem is typical Stephenson on this point. Some of the discursions are simply that, Stephenson teaching you a bit about geometry, mathematics and philosophy. He does that very well, and even the most discursive discussions are well-presented and interesting. But sometimes he actually laying groundwork for your understanding of critical points later in the book. If you skip them completely, you’ll find yourself completely lost about critical plot points. And boy, there are some big and fun plot points in there. The re-read made them clearer, and the novel hung together better the second time around.

But I won’t be reading it again, because the re-read also pointed up just how weak Stephenson is on some things. Erasmus is acted upon far more than he acts, and those actions often take place off-stage. In fact, many hugely important things take place off-stage, with Erasmus being told about them after the fact. Other things seem to have no purpose whatever except for Erasmus to wander around looking at interesting things. And yes, they are interesting things to look at, but could we get there in a less contrived fashion?

Finally, the characters are just flat. This is forgivable in that Anathem is a novel of ideas, but it’s downright painful at times. It’s a good thing that most characters have very distinctive names, because you’re not going to remember much about their personalities.

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