27 September 2008

Locus Magazine's Gary K. Wolfe reviews Neal Stephenson

from Locus Magazine, September 2008

Anathem, Neal Stephenson (William Morrow 978-0-06-147409-5, $29.95, 936pp, hc) September 2008.

Some 150 pages into Neal Stephenson's Anathem, the young narrator Fraa Erasmus (known as Raz), accused of having fraternized too closely with visiting Inquisitors in his monastic redoubt, is subjected to what he views as an unfair and extreme punishment — reading five chapters of a massive and incomprehensible tome called simply the Book, whose sole purpose is "to punish its readers." "There was no point at all to the Book, which is what made it an especially dreaded form of penance," we are told, filled with "writings that almost but did not quite make sense," and over the past 3,690 years only three students had finished it, "and all of them were profoundly insane."

These are not necessarily the thoughts you'd want to put in the mind of someone who's only a sixth of the way through your own 900-page novel, which up to this point has consisted largely of elaborate descriptions of architecture, clocks, geometric puzzles on cake-cutting, and a recapitulation of much of Western philosophy and science using an alternate invented terminology. But Stephenson is nothing if not shrewd, and in context the episode becomes a kind of self-reflexive joke, and one which, like many of the more tedious or self-indulgently didactic passages in the first half of the novel, eventually fits neatly into a clever and intricate pattern of meaning which emerges late in the story. And that story, which doesn't fully begin to take shape until nearly halfway through the novel, is indeed the full-bore SF tale which Stephenson readers have been anticipating, or perhaps more than they've been anticipating, since it plunges right into the rhetoric of old-style space opera, with spacesuited raids on a "Heavy Intercosmic Urnudan Space Bunker," weapons named Everything Killer and World Burner, hairbreadth escapes from ice crevasses, and a rotating ball-shaped escape valve that would delight an Indiana Jones production designer. There are truly ingenious reversals and unexpected narrative branchings, and, amid all the chaotic action, the background sound of all those earlier hints and portents clicking loudly into place. The novel's long conclusion, in a word, is thoroughly enjoyable, and the manner in which it unpacks the real nature of Stephenson's created world is sometimes brilliant, but getting there isn't quite half the fun.

Stephenson sets his narrative on a world called Arbre, where thousands of years earlier the scientific and philosophical community had isolated itself from the materialistic "saecular" world in monastic cloisters called "maths," which open their gates to the outside society for only ten days every year (or every ten, 100, or 1,000 years, depending on the rules of the particular math). The 18-year-old narrator, Raz, is an "avout" who was "collected" during one of these periods ten years earlier, and like any good young SF hero (going all the way back to Hugh Hoyland in Heinlein's "Universe" or Alvin in Clarke's The City and the Stars) he's a good deal more curious and adventurous than he's supposed to be, and his mentor Orolo, a bit rebellious himself, seems to encourage this. As with his Baroque Cycle novels, Stephenson modernizes his rather arcane setting by having Raz and his friends talk and act just like contemporary teenagers; when Raz learns he's been assigned the Book, for example, his responses are "This is crazy" and "You have got to be kidding!" and later a character even says, "What do you think you're doing, holding hands with my girl?" There's also a fair sprinkling of Stephenson's trademark humor, and some bits are outright hilarious. In sharp contrast to this is the elaborate terminology of Raz's world, which consists largely of slight alterations in familiar terms ("fraa" instead of "fra" and "suur" instead of "soeur" for male and female initiates, for example; "saunt" for both savant and saint; or the obvious "bulshytt") or completely invented terms for figures, ideas, and inventions which we are clearly meant to recognize ("Protas" instead of Plato, "Gardan's Steelyard" instead of Occam's razor, "Saunt Bucker's basket" instead of Faraday cage, "praxis" for technology, "polycosmic interpretation of quantum theorics" for many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, "syntactic device" for computer, "reticulum" for the Internet, etc.), or a few which are disarmingly the same as in our world ("nuclear winter"). There are scores of such terms, and Stephenson's much-needed glossary runs on for some 20 pages by itself. At first, it looks like the most elaborate game of calling a rabbit a smeerp ever put on paper.

But the reasons for this invented terminology, and for its similarities to our own, become apparent late in the novel, even if for the first few hundred pages it can make for slow going, particularly when coupled with the leisurely pace of the opening chapters; for a while it's as though we're reading a version of Eco's The Name of the Rose as reconceived by Roger Penrose or Douglas Hofstadter, and Stephenson's way of conceiving an alternate world is closer to Nabokov's Ada than to Harry Turtledove. If the Baroque Cycle detailed historical efforts to unpack "the system of the world" (as his concluding title had it), here he almost seems to be inverting the process — constructing a world to match a system. (He virtually says as much in his acknowledgments, describing the book as "a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth's past and present.") At his most ambitious he invites us to reexamine the entirety of mainstream Western philosophy through the prism of an invented world (and, while there's an undeniable undergraduate charm to this, one has to wonder if a portion of Stephenson's enthusiastic readership will soon be crediting him with inventing many of the ideas he recapitulates in this fabulous syntopicon), but in the meantime we're waiting for something to get going.

It comes as a literal breath of fresh air when Raz and his friend Jesry finally get out to explore the "extramuros" — the outside world — and we learn that this world has its own versions of shopping malls, illegal migrant workers, Internet conspiracy theorists, sports stadiums, speculative fiction, and YouTube videos ("speelycaptors"). It's an even greater relief, for SF seekers at least, when a mysterious alien spacecraft appears in orbit, leading to the unprecedented release of dozens of avouts (including one Yoda-like figure, Fraa Jad, who had been living in a part of the math which only interacts with the outer world every thousand years) in order to help the secular world confront this new threat. (At times he even talks like Yoda; when Raz, in a moment of despair during the final space adventure, asks Jad to "take me back," he responds "There is no taking, and there is no back.... Only going, and forward.")

Throughout the novel, there are enough mentions of alternate timestreams and "polycosms" to give us a hint of how the SF scenario will play out, and it plays out quite cleverly (though some of its big revelations might seem less stunning if we encountered them in an Alastair Reynolds or Greg Bear novel with less luggage), but what really gives momentum to the second half of the novel is Stephenson's sparkling talent for sequences of flat-out adventure. In the Baroque Cycle, these adventures were largely given over to the scenes involving Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, which alternated with the intellectual history bits involving Newton, Leibniz, and the invention of modern science. Here he's chosen a different structure, laying out scores of ideas in a form that abstracts them from our own history and effectively shifting both the adventures and the vaulting SFnal revelations (involving not only alternate timestreams but alternate time rates) toward the end of the book. For readers willing to sit through alternate-philosophy seminars as prerequisites for intellectual space opera, or readers who may be hypnotized by the elegance of these classic ideas as Stephenson re-imagines them, Anathem will more than repay the demands it makes, and will almost certainly become the topic of endless online seminars of its own. For others, it may become one of those classic philosophical fictions more browsed than read, more admired than engaged. In either case, its brilliance is undeniable, and for those who love world-wallowing there's even an accompanying CD (at least in the advance copies) of "Music from the World of Anathem", scored for voices alone (apparently by David Stutz). It's weird, but like the novel it turns out a lot more satisfying than you might at first suspect, and it does exactly what it sets out to do.

Read more! This is one of twenty book reviews from the September 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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