Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.

Purpose two: muse.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Anathem: Stephenson's Weakest Novel

Anathem is Neal Stephenson's post-Baroque-cycle novel, set in a fictionalized world resembling our own in important ways, different in certain interesting respects. Importantly, the characters, though we would consider them alien, have psychologies that are totally analogous to humans'. This is doubly interesting because Arbre, their planet, is not even in our universe.

To make up Arbre, Stephenson has developed a complete history, several cultures, novel institutions, some language and more. These are all impressive, and no doubt significant factors in its positive reception. I found it continually interesting that though the world is so different, especially the belief systems of its inhabitants, the internal psychology of the people in it completely mirrors our own. You can then speculate, as the author teasingly infers, how many parallels to find in our own history, past, future, and fictional.

It is also a terrific story.

Despite these awesome advantages, I was still disappointed. The first point of weakness was the slow start. The first 200 pages or so goes into describing the world -- not the entire world, but the world of Erasmas, the narrator. Of course, as all half-way decent novels must, the real plot starts on page one, but a discernible story-line with a direction does not take shape until you are a quarter way through. That is a long time for a reader to wait, and if I had not already been a Stephenson fan, I am not sure I would have done it.

Another weakness is a certain drone aspect to the writing. Stephenson's characters are never full-fledged, but some of them here are low points even for him. Ala, in particular, comes across as pure mystery. Ala is Erasmas' love interest, and I have no idea why he likes her, or why she likes him, other than that the author tells me. Ala ends up in some kind of executive role, not clearly defined but one of authority, and I have no idea why she is appointed to such a high position in a delicate and crucial world-scale operation. It would be like some graduate student appointed to coordinate the attack on Osama bin Laden's compound. This is true for the others as well. Erasmas ends up in the final, decisive operation, not just by himself, but miraculously along with all his closest friends. This is so unlikely that it distracts even in this fantastical setting, but at least a reader can give the author some artistic license in allowing his pre-existing characters to drive this section rather than invent and give us new ones. No such allowance exists for Ala, though: it seems she gets her position for no other reason than to impress the reader, though it succeeds only in the opposite, due to its arbitrariness.

My next point is more subtle and may only be of interest if you have already read the book, or at least read some about it. It is an issue that I thought about as I was reading the novel, which in itself means it may be a weakness that speaks to the novel's strengths, since making the reader think is a definite plus.

The avout in the mathic orders are purveyors of knowledge. They are philosophers, scientists and librarians. Stephenson gives us the impression they study all disciplines -- math, chemistry, biology, engineering, genetics -- and there are many examples of some incredible ideas, abstract and practical, that they have come up with during time. Yet, the social sciences are completely lacking from their repertoire. They do not study economics, political science, sociology, or even history, except in a meta-sense as it applies to other disciplines.

This is such a gaping oversight I was trying to find explanations. One could be that the avout are not supposed to study anything related to the saecular world. That does not hold up, because the mathic worlds have plenty of social issues of their own to study. One glaring example is when the fids graduate and have to select, or be selected into, orders. This is a process that recurs through millenia, so you would have thought the avout would have some ideas how best to go about it. Yet, Erasmas and his friends, as well as the elders involved in their selection, goes through this as if they were the first ever to encounter that problem.

Another social issue that comes up is more intricate and I found it fascinating, and thus even more disappointed Stephenson missed it. I do believe he missed it, because it comes up as an issue in the story, yet, again, it was never studied, but left alone, with no explanation why. Here it is: the mathic world, more than physical places, is a discipline involving certain rituals and creeds. The overarching theme is knowledge. Inevitably, these sometimes conflict. For instance, a biologist might want to leave the concent in order to study an organism not found within its walls, but mathic discipline does not allow it.

You would have thought the avout and the saunts would have developed theories about how to resolve this: tomes would have been written, theories developed, orders adopting this or that one and arguing, peacably, which is superior. Instead, in Anathem, these otherwise brilliant people act like sheepish doctrinairians adhering to dogma. When Orolo, Jad or Erasmas are challenged on their lack of commitment to mathic discipline, they do not have an established theory to help defend their actions, in light of it being within the reason for the existence of mathic orders, that of securing and advancing knowledge, and help the saecular world when called upon. This is a distracting omission and disappointing because it would have been so interesting to see where pursuing such a dilemma would go.

Like his other novels, Anathem is edifying. Reading Cryptonomicon, you will understand cryptography better, reading Snowcrash, you will understand cyberspace better, reading The Diamond Age, you will understand nanotechnology better. This is Stepheson's greatest strength. You will pick up clues and information through the stories, often without realizing it. Anathem is no exception. It is a great, if long-winded, story, and you will learn from it (unless you already know more about the subject than the author). I cannot say what you will learn from Anathem without spoiling it, though. If you are already a Stephenson fan, you will not want to miss it, but if not, I recommend you start with one of his other novels.

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