I'm happy to report that I finally finished the 900+ page "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson, just four months (!) after starting it. I have to admit that I took breaks to read a few other things. I previously posted about the difficult, otherworldly vocabulary that Stephenson made up for this book. (For example, the "Reticulum" is similar to what we call the Web or the Internet, though you have to figure that out based on the description of a narrator who is basically a cloistered monk who never uses technology. "Jeejahs" are smart phones or mobile devices of some sort. Videos are "speelies" recorded with "speelycaptors." Those are some of the neologisms that feel apt. Not all of them do.)
Others have weighed in about the lexicon, and the book's need for editing, especially in the early chapters (here's an example from Slashdot, the bulletin board for geeks). And there's the question of the title, which looks like a typo and calls to mind Ayn Rand's completely unrelated polemical novel "Anthem," which Stephenson says he has never read (see video below). As Dave Itzkoff observed in The Times, "Anathem" is a thought experiment. It also benefits from a leisurely read. In the end, I found it to be a more satisfying novel than some of Stephenson's other enjoyable fictions. For example, his novel "Cryptonomicon," about the early roots of information technology and code-breaking during World War II, simply fell apart at the end (as Stephenson seems to acknowledge in the video below). I was dreading something similar would happen in this one.
The ending of this one is a bit confusing, for sure, what with contradictory action in the parallel worlds and the need to have a bit of a grasp of uncertainty and quantum physics and string theory, but it does hang together. Stephenson takes some of these modern physics theories to their logical limits and suggests that our conscious brains are time machines that are also able to span multiple "world tracks." He is completely serious about all of this, as you find if you consult the acknowledgments on his Web site. It would be interesting to hear him in conversation with somebody like Bob Thurman, the Columbia professor of Buddhism, who has described Bodhisattvas in precisely those terms.
The main world in the book, Arbre, seems like a nerd planet at first. The sorts of people who get caught up in very literal and geeky discussions of ideas, engineering and philosophy have been herded up and segregated in monastery-like mixed-sex "concents" -- concentration camps, essentially, surrounded by concentric walls that open only periodically.
Isolated from the ebb and flow of society outside, and barred from using its technology, they get by on pure theoretical thought, from generation to generation, for thousands of years. These communities are not religious; they dispensed with that long, long, ago. The length of time is important, because Stephenson has an obsession with long periods of time, which was part of the inspiration for this book. And it takes a long time -- at least 300 pages -- for Stephenson to build a word picture of this life, step by step. There's way too much about the forms of songs and chanting, rituals of punishment, and the social organization. Here is where he could have used better editing.
Things pick up once the narrator, Erasmus, finds himself outside in a modern world similar to our own, on a mission to help the "saecular government" (which is, actually, controlled by religious "deolators" -- believers), which is confronted with the arrival of a spaceship full of aliens. The aliens actually turn out to be from our own Earth and other parallel worlds. They are searching for a more ideal version of their own reality -- a better earth. They have a form of government remarkably similar to that aboard the Battlestar Galactica. Yes, there's an admiral.
The way the monastic thinkers come together on the outside to solve the thought experiment of alien contact is quite entertaining, as are Erasmus's adventures in a world of stupidity and conflict that is far more familiar to us than it is to his character. It is a place with all the modern ills, where illiterate people work dead-end jobs and occupy themselves staring at speelies and jeejahs all day, amid a cycle of booms, busts, wars and environmental calamities, where the Reticulum is both a tool of surveillance and revelation, enslavement and freedom. The online network is used to both rewrite history and to reveal it live everywhere in ways that the powers in control of the society cannot deny, as when Erasmus and his friends make a video of an alien crash landing as the military rushes to cover it up. The saecular power uses the Reticulum to rewrite the past. The aliens use it to learn how to conquer and infiltrate Arbre.
The obsessive and somewhat socially dysfunctional thought processes of the monastic nerds and geeks are described at length and will be familiar to anyone who has spend a lot of time among engineers, software developers, comic book collectors and the like.
In that respect, Stephenson has used fiction to write a far better nerd book than the nonfiction book "American Nerd" (which I read on a break from this one). You suspect that Stephenson might enjoy living in a concent, especially when you watch the video below. But he does reject the stifling rules that came along with herding all the nerds and geeks into one place, and Arbre ends up a freer place for them.
Most likely, if you have read this far, you would be a candidate to live there too, especially if you actually go going to his Web site to read explanations like this, and enjoy them:
The work is relevant to Roger Penrose, and has influenced, Anathem in at least five ways: Penrose posits, in The Emperor’s New Mind (ISBN 978-0192861986) and Shadows of the Mind (ISBN 978-0195106466), that the human brain takes advantage of quantum effects to do what it does. This has been so controversial that I have found it impossible to have a dispassionate conversation about it with any learned person. The dispute can be broken apart into a number of different sub-controversies, some of which are more interesting than others. The science-fictional premise of Anathem is based on the relatively weak and modest assumption that natural selection has found some way to construct brains that, despite being warm and wet, are capable of exploiting the benefits of quantum computation. Readers who are uncomfortable with the specific mechanism posited by Penrose...
In this world and on Arbre, there are two kinds of people: The kind who roll their eyes at that passage ("in at least five ways"), and the kind who have already clicked away from this blog to read the other four.
Stephenson also mentions Edmund Husserl, the founder of the Buddhist-like western philosophy of phenomenology, whose works briefly blew my mind in college, and the mathematician Kurt Gödel, somebody I hadn't really thought about since reading "Gödel, Escher, Bach" with my fellow geeks in the dorm back in 1981. I still have my dog-eared copy around here somewhere, and remember some interesting things about recursion and record players. That and the feeling that my head might explode. After reading "Anathem," your head might feel that way. And if you enjoy that, go read Stephenson's account of Gödel's work on time travel, which explains the theory behind novel's alien rocket ship and the hidden knowledge of consciousness developed over centuries by a group of monastics in the book called the lineage.
But, while Stephenson does a great job making these ideas accessible and understandable to a liberal arts brain, I think some reviewers have sold it short as a novel. There is suspense. There is politics. There is conflict. There is a satisfying resolution.
Last fall, Stephenson gave a lecture at Google, which is not only a company but a concent of sorts, with a staff of highly credentialed intellectuals who spend much of their time thinking and living within the same walls. There's an important difference: They are allowed to use our versions of speelycaptors, jeeejahs and the Reticulum. Indeed, it's their way of life.
Because I am fascinated by geek and nerd culture, I was struck by a few quotes from the video (you can watch the whole thing below):
I'm interested in the geekification of knowledge... Fifty years ago the repositories of knowledge were paper books and the brains of people who were basically paid to be university professors and researchers, and that was where you would go to get stuff you needed to know. And all of that is still there, but there's kind of this new phenomenon of networks of geeks on the Internet who are geeks of a particular topic that they are interested in. Sometimes it can be very academic sorts of topics. But it can also be blue-collar stuff. I saw some instructions lately on how to make your own springs. You have to temper the steel in a particular way....
I swing back and forth between being depressed about the way that traditional knowledge-carrying institutions are kind of falling apart and not doing their job right and being fascinated about how their work is being taken over by these networks of geeks. And i think within those networks of geeks that quality of the knowledge that they're exchanging is probably higher, because the Wikipedia page is a static thing and unless you're deliberately watching that page it can be changed without your knowing, whereas if it's an active conversation and it's live and you say something and it's wrong, people are going to jump down your throat and start writing you emails in all capital letters telling you how wrong you are...
That's all true. Here's the speely.