Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I usually don't feel the need to comment on technical or professional books, but I can't let "AntiPatterns" go without a comment. I just wrapped this treatise/catalog up last night, and am still reeling from the impact. It may be the most important book on software engineering that I've read in the past three years. The book is much older than that, but while part of me wishes I'd read it before now, I also recognize that I would not have been in a position to appreciate it before this point in my career.

Let me back up a bit. One of my all-time favorite computer science books is "Design Patterns," written by the notorious Gang of Four. I have a long and friendly relationship with this book. I first got a copy after winning the CS101 Programming Contest in Dr. Ken Goldman's class back in 1999. I knew that it was the required text for CS342, which I wouldn't be taking for another year, but I still enjoyed flipping through it and learning some new techniques. I hit the book hard once I entered Dr. Gill's class, and became an even larger fan.

Compared with almost all other fields in the arts, sciences, and engineering, CS is a very young discipline. Depending on how you count these things, we basically just have two or three generations of study and practice, and the field is evolving much more rapidly than we can establish best practices. As software grows increasingly complex, engineers keep encountering the same types of problem over and over again. These might include things like saving state in a program in a reversible way; creating a collection of objects that might be upgraded in the future; or re-using a legacy system for new development. Engineers often end up re-inventing the wheel, making mistakes as they do so. The idea behind Design Patterns is to present a collection of solutions that have been used repeatedly and successfully to solve a problem in different environments. Rather than roll the dice and try to come up with your own strategy for solving the problem, you can have more confidence in applying a well thought-out and explained approach.

Design Patterns isn't just, or even primarily, about solving problems, though. I think its greatest contribution is in establishing a shared language that engineers can use to communicate. Whether within the same organization or across entities, programmers need to expend a lot of time and energy explaining just what, exactly, they are doing; all too often the temptation is to say, "Oh, let's just look at the code," which is the truest description of what is happening, but is incredibly time-consuming and does not address the PURPOSE behind choices made in the code. Design Patterns is really about laying out a pattern language: it is a way of thinking, a way of organizing and presenting criteria, and a collection of high-level vocabulary that short-circuits tedious and confusing architectural discussions. Design Patterns has entered our vernacular to the extent where you can say, "Let's create an iterator over the widgets," and any programmer will immediately understand what you mean; or, if you suggest making a particular object a Singleton, they will not only know what course of action you are suggesting, but also can quickly grasp on their own why that may be the best solution.

One of the early, thrilling advances in my career was a summer internship I held at Raviant Networks. I remain convinced that at least part of the reason why I (a lowly sophomore) was selected for this opportunity was because I was able to speak intelligently about design patterns, giving a brief description of why the Singleton and the Memento were so elegant and useful. I still revisit this book every year or so, and while not every pattern in the entire catalog feels extremely useful, enough do to improve my craft.

With that background, you may be able to understand why I had an immediately negative reaction the first time I heard of "AntiPatterns." The purpose of the book seemed clear: it was opposed to design patterns! Those things that were making me a better engineer! Boo! Even after a co-worker read and recommended the book to me, I continued to resist - there are always enough things out there that I want to read without needing to expose my favorite texts to ridicule.

I eventually picked it up, and can report back that this book is just as important as DP. It isn't opposed to DP... well, at least not directly. The authors do have some legitimate complaints about the DP model. First of all, DP focuses on the solution catalog rather than the problems. After presenting a solution, they invent situations in which to apply it, which can feel contrived. They also complain (less compellingly, in my view) that the pattern language template is wordy and hard to understand. All that said, though, AP is fundamentally on the same page as DP. Both approaches seek to capture the collective wisdom of an industry's best minds; both seek to present that information in a useful and structured way; and both provide catalogs of their conclusions.

The "Anit-" part of "Anti-Patterns" does not, as you might think, mean "Non-Pattern" or "Against-Patterns." Rather, it means "Bad-Pattern." Anti-Patterns are recurring, chronically negative situations that arise in the software development process. Most of these will be familiar to anyone who has spent any length of time in development: Spaghetti Code. Fire Drills. Analysis Paralysis. They put the focus on the problem; then, once the problem is understood, they look at the reasons why the problem occurs and the forces that need to be resolved for the problem; finally, they present a refactored solution that can be applied to prevent the problem from arising in the first place, or to mitigate its effects once it occurs.

There are several ways in which AP feels superior to DP. Probably the most dramatic one is that, while DP focuses on software design issues, AP addresses all levels of development: from coding practices through design through systems architecture through enterprise planning through management through global strategy. I would not have been in any condition to appreciate this book a mere five years ago; I might have enjoyed the early AntiPatterns about coding, but would have thought that the bulk of the book was boring filler that didn't apply to me and was really more about politics than engineering. After spending years in a variety of sizes of companies, I understand that those political issues are incredibly important, and may have an even greater impact on the success or failure of a project than the engineers' individual technical skills. Too often I feel like I'm a craftsman who creates excellent work but is helpless to change the environment in which he produces it; this book gives me confidence that these problems can be identified and changed before they lead to disaster.

The best and most sickening part of the book is how familiar much of it feels. I've only been a professional developer for a bit over five years, but in that time I've already encountered a depressingly large number of these AntiPatterns. Management becoming obsessed with micro-levels of planning such that engineers spend much of their time producing Gantt charts and estimates instead of actually writing software? Been there. Buying software from a vendor over the technical concerns of the staff, then churning for months as it failed to deliver what sales promised? Saw that happen. Had a successful piece of demonstration software that was rushed into production without re-considering its architecture? Yup, and spent months in the bug-fixing mines as a result. A gigantic class that provides every piece of functionality in the application? Ugh, yeah.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Here too, I think it's probably a good thing that I didn't encounter AP as part of my undergraduate study. DP is a great and timeless book, applicable equally to the hobbyist programmer, the academic, and the professional developer. AP is a very different beast, focused on the real world in which commercial software gets written, and I just would not have had the context in which to understand or appreciate it before I had experienced it myself. It's kind of like the tough love school of growing up: you have to skin your knees a few times before you learn how to be careful. Now that I can recognize these problems, I am finally in a position to apply the tools this book has given me.

As with DP, the book isn't perfect. For me in particular, it seems overly focused on enterprise issues that presume huge companies that contain geographically disparate staff, a variety of technologies, and multi-year project plans. Those factors probably make the book even more valuable to people in those situations, but, while interesting, they don't provide me with a whole lot. The authors also could have helped things by providing more examples; they occasionally have a tendency to slip into lingo, and it can be hard to understand what they mean. When they do provide examples, they tend to be illuminating and well thought-out.

I checked this book out of the library, so I can't give it a permanent space on my bookshelf like I have for DP. Still, it's important enough that I want to give it that honor some day. I won't soon be forgetting the lessons it taught, though. To the extent that I become a more effective engineer and a leader of successful projects, I think I'll need to share some credit with this book.

Monday, September 29, 2008

We're All Living In An 8-Color World

As previously threatened, I have been playing through old-school Sierra games. One is a true vintage from the 1980's, the other a remake of an 18-year-old original. One is completely new to me, the other feels like a familiar friend. One is a peculiar specimen, the other a comforting piece of the well-known Sierra style.

I'm still not entirely sure why I started playing Manhunter 2. Well, largely because of the San Francisco connection, I suppose, but still. It isn't one of those games that gets written up in the lists of "best games" or "most underrated" or "great forgotten games". It has a surprisingly slight presence on the Web, which you can count on providing an incredible amount of information on even the most obscure topics; reading through reviews and reminisces, I find them to be generally positive, but not ecstatic.

The game is a real oddity. In tone, it feels far darker and more dangerous than any other Sierra franchise. Even the "Police Quest" games, which I tend to hold up as the paragon of Sierra noir, had a streak of humor and occasional goofiness to them. Manhunter, though, is just relentless... violent, gory, and dark.

It turns out that there's a good reason for this. I hadn't initially realized it, but Manhunter wasn't a "real" Sierra game: they were the publishers, but the game was actually developed by a small studio in Washington state called Evryware. It's easy to forget that early Sierra was a much more diverse operation than the focused adventure-game-producing powerhouse that they became in the late 80's and early-to-mid 90's. Among other things, they published an early Ultima game from Richard Garriott, a notorious flight simulator written by Ken Williams himself, and - news to me until just now - a text adventure (!) that would become the forerunner of Leisure Suit Larry.

So, given that this wasn't directly produced under the aegis of Sierra, that helps explain the different tone. I'm curious if that explains the gameplay as well. I have a strong mental image of what early Sierra adventure games "should" look like: a series of static screens, with your avatar positioned on the screen in third-person perspective. You move around by using the arrow keys, and type commands into a prompt at the bottom of the screen. Manhunter 2 isn't like that at all, and is far more varied. You switch between overhead maps of San Francisco, to first-person perspective (which dominates much of the gameplay), to the occasional third-person scene and the odd cut scene. There is no typing in the game. Most of the gameplay is a series of puzzles and mini-games, none of which are the same. This variety is interesting, and in some ways Manhunter can be seen as a forerunner to Wario Ware; it is also frustrating, as you are guaranteed to be frustrated at some of the games.

The puzzles are generally fine, but occasionally maddening. I had no hesitation about turning to an FAQ when I got stuck, and was almost always glad to have done so. With some games, after I read a solution I am inclined to respond, "Oh, duh! I should have been able to figure that out." That's often not the case here, though.

I'd like to jump a bit more into the plot and such, so I call your attention toward or away from the following


Let me give you an example of a good and a bad puzzle. At one point, you acquire a piece of cloth with a note attached; the note reads "Rub the jewel of heaven." That instruction is both straightforward and mysterious: it is clear that you need to run the jewel of heaven, but you don't have the foggiest idea of what that is. If you pay attention when searching an apartment, you will come across a drawing of some Chinese characters next to the English word "Heaven". Getting warmer. Still later, you enter a staircase with a variety of pictures hanging on the wall, each with a Chinese character. When you closely examine the one with the Heaven character, you will see that there is a jewel with an action indicator on it; rub it to proceed. This is the sort of puzzle that could take a long time to solve, but everything you need to do so is provided to you.

On the other hand, at one point you need to enter Mme. Tussaud's Wax Museum. It is locked. How do you get inside? Why, by whacking the midget on the head with a mallet! I mean, duh, right? I may have missed something, but I don't see how anyone could have figured that out without turning to a hint, or reverting to the hated try-using-every-item-on-every-object school of gameplay, which I loathe.

So, obviously, it wasn't the gameplay that kept me going on this game. The story was sufficiently interesting to hold my attention, and even more than that, the atmosphere. Have you noticed that, since the end of the Cold War, there has been a dramatic decline in the genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction? Most post-apoc sci-fi is not explicitly the result of an imagined nuclear war between the USA and the USSR, but with the stakes as high as they were, it seems understandable that artists' imaginations were drawn towards stark extremes.

Part of what I liked about MH2 was that its hopeless situation was also ambiguous. The Orbs, an alien race who have enslaved Earth, are horrible (there is a great and chilling sequence in the Wax Museum that provides background on what has happened to Earth since their arrival); yet you spend most of the game directly working for them. I'm still not completely certain, but I believe that "Phil", your direct nemesis through most of the game, is on the run from them, so you're basically helping one enemy any time you try to hurt the other.

Humanity has a raw deal - they're either enslaved, working in lava-threatened mines deep below the city, or confined to a single room and forced to wear the marked robe. In both cases, they are always vulnerable to the powerful Orb-controlled robots, who act as brute enforcers; or to Manhunters, who have the freedom to move around where authorized and carry out the Orbs' bidding. And yet, even the humans don't seem very sympathetic in this game. They're generally pitiful and helpless. Some of them have evidently turned to cultish activity, which makes them just as dangerous to you as the Orbs. You do what you can to ease the plight of humans, but those small gestures seem insignificant in contrast with the scope of their peril.


And then there's the whole rat thing. The plot is surprisingly complex, and I'm not certain that I completely track the whole thing. I both admire and resent the fact that they don't do straight-up exposition in this game, trusting the player to figure out the importance of what has happened. As far as I can reconstruct it, though, Noah Goring was tapped by the Orbs to solve the problem of humans dying too easily in the mines. Using the Orbs' resources, he began conducting genetic experiments on humans, mainly using victims from Chinatown. Most of these were failures, and either destroyed or quarantined on Alcatraz. Eventually, he succeeded in creating a race of rat-men. These were sufficiently hardy, but were also incredibly vicious and cruel. Some of his experiments escaped and began rampaging, killing people throughout the city, and eventually slaying Noah himself.

The climax of the game is actually pretty cool. Phil has slain the rat-king and made himself lord of the underworld. You infiltrate his lair, see the rats for yourself, and make your escape. You then travel to Alcatraz where you release all of the specimens. During the ensuing chaos, you escape in a hot-air balloon and crash into the Castle, a chateu on Telegraph Hill. Meanwhile, the freed mutants take revenge on their Orb slavers, smooshing these floating eyeballs to a sickly pulp. The castle, also known as "Hell", is where the Orbs direct their mining operations. By controlling the various gates guarding excavated tunnels, you can destroy all the below-ground robots, and force lava up through the Bank of America Building and other San Francisco landmarks. Somehow (this is the part I still don't totally understand), doing this reverses the effect of Noah's experiments, and the mutants and rats turn back into their human forms. As far as I can tell, something being sprayed from Coit Tower was sustaining the transformation, and when you destroy Coit, the transformations are reversed. This sight is a little goofy for its 8-color effect, but also weirdly poignant and distressing, particularly in the image of a rat transformed back into a man, still holding the human leg that he has been chewing; he has had his conscience restored to him, and probably will spend the rest of his life wishing he didn't have it.

Warning: The following picture contains pixelated frontal nudity. Weird, huh?

You free the underground slaves, and they plop you into a giant drill. What follows is the last and, by far, most frustrating puzzle in the game: you need to move through an enormous maze filled with lava and make your way to the surface; move one pixel too far away, and you'll die and need to start over again.

Finish the maze, and you'll experience a final chase scene, which ends the game in dramatic fashion: "THE END?"

It may surprise you to know that the answer to that question is "Yes". They never made a Manhunter 3. I think it would be cool to try and bring it back, but I'm sure it'll never happen.


Here are my tips for playing the game:

1. Make free use of the Easy Arcade Setting. Some of the mini-games are simply impossible otherwise, and hard enough on Easy. Note that you need to re-select Easy every time you die or start a new mini-game.
2. As noted above, this is a game where you can use an FAQ and feel okay with yourself.
3. Read everything. It isn't necessarily essential for the game, but is the only way to figure out what the heck is going on.
4. This is the kind of game that rewards you if you use a notebook and pen to write stuff down. Make particular note of any symbols, names, or pictures you see. It will generally be fairly obvious that something is important.

Finally, enjoy the sight of San Francisco. It's really cool to see the dark, futuristic take on this great city. From the griminess of Chinatown to the grimness of the Financial District, this is like a nightmare of the city.


With Manhunter 2 out of the way, it was time to wrap up the other sequel I was playing: Quest for Glory 2. As in my initial plays through this game, I chose to play as a Thief. In another retro nod, I used my old character handle, Shadowspawn, instead of my modern one, Cirion.

It's probably been about 12 years or so since the last time I played QFG2, so returning to it was a really great experience. That's long enough of a time that I had forgotten large parts of the plot, but I got a warm nostalgic feeling whenever I suddenly remembered what I had to do. I don't THINK that ADG changed any of the puzzles. The combat system has been redesigned (and greatly improved!), but they appear to have kept the puzzles largely intact.

I quickly got over my earlier complaints about the lack of a text parser. I still think it would have been cool, but the hybrid conversation tree captured a lot of what I wanted. Oh, quick note: if, like me, you're confused about how to how to buy stuff, you need to select the lips and click on yourself. This is also how you exchange social niceties with people, make the thief sign, and take other special actions.

The graphics look pretty nice. They are admittedly crude - I think the resolution is something like 320x200 - but I was surprised by how quickly I got over that and was transported into the world. This is a familiar feeling for me... even with incredibly primitive graphics like Ultima IV or VI, after the initial shock of wondering how anyone could stand to look at something, my imagination takes over and I swiftly become immersed in the action. Anyways - the graphics are colorful, bright, and, while not true VGA, compared to the original CGA/EGA they are relatively sharp.

You have a few choices to make when starting a game, and cannot change your mind after picking one. When selecting a conversation mode, I strongly urge the hybrid. When choosing the alley system... well, it's hard to say. I picked the "simplified" one, which was fine, but since beating the game and reading the forums, I kind of wish that I had gone with the original, which has more easter-eggs in it. Early on in the game, I was frustrated when trying to find the money changer - a very familiar feeling, and one I thought I was getting rid of by selecting the simplified alleys! It turns out that the simplified alleys do not directly line up with the map of Shapeir that you get in FACS, so I had spent a lot of time trying to reach Dinarzad from the Gate Plaza, when you can only reach her from the Adventures Guild Plaza in the simplified system. After you get the map, it becomes clearer, but of course, you need to reach Dinarzad before you can get the map. Anyways - if you do the simplified system, don't rely on the FACS map, because it will just confuse you.

Also, note that there are two versions of the game out. I had played roughly halfway through 1.0 when 1.1 was released. Saved games are NOT compatible between the two versions, so you'll need to start over if you want to do 1.1. I'd recommend getting the later version if you haven't started yet; it fixes a few bugs I ran into during the game. However, I can confirm that 1.0 is completely beatable by itself.

I found myself reminiscing a lot about my old runs through QFG2 as I played the game. I remembered various stunts I tried to play, like playing a thief character who didn't get in a single fight in the entire game (completely possible!), or trying to make a Thief/Magic User combo character (imported from QFG1) become a Paladin at the game's end. I have a hard time imagining myself doing this today. When I was growing up, new games were very rare and far between, treasured items that I might spend a year saving up for, and then would play as much as I could. That's part of what I loved so much about the QFG games: you had at least three good plays built into it, due to the different class systems, and the point system encouraged you to try again and get all 500 points. So I was quite inclined to try goofy stuff and see if I could still win the game. I don't see myself being able to ever do that with an RPG again. As my disposable income has gone up, my free time has dramatically declined; there are always a half-dozen or more games out there that I want to play, so I feel like I'm always looking ahead to the next challenge.

One peculiar side-issue is the question of maximizing. Each game had a cap on how many points you could earn in any given skill - 100 points in the first game, 200 points in the second, and so on. I ended up maximizing a lot of my stats and skills, but not all of them. I've been trying to decide whether this is more or less maximizing than I would have done in the old days, and honestly can't remember. I would like to find one of my old save games to see whether I obsessively raised every skill to 200, or just role-played and let the chips fall where they may.

I do remember grinding in specific situations - for example, back in QFG1, I would climb the tree outside the healer's cottage for ten minutes to raise my skill. However, I know that in that case the goal was just to get my climbing skill high enough that I could climb up to the Hermit. Would I have continued to climb to reach the magical 100? I really don't know. Maybe if I was sufficiently bored.

One other way in which playing the game years later is a very different experience: I'm now getting a lot of jokes that just flew over my head the first time. Dinarzad in particular - when I was playing through the game as a youth, I sort of had an idea that she was a "bad woman," but really didn't respond to any of her lines. Now, I read what she has to say, and go, "Oh my GOSH... I can't believe children were playing this game!" Except, of course, I know from experience that it's OK... they seem to have had that rare skill of pitching jokes that would land where they were directed, providing a knowing chuckle from adults and cluelessness from kids.

This game also reminded me how backwards my pop culture evolution has been: I almost always have experienced the parody long before I meet the original. This is especially true of music and Weird Al, but is also abundantly the case for the QFG series. I still remember writing a long story for 6th grade that was based on my adventures in Spielburg Valley, and being incredibly confused when my teacher tried to explain that Spielburg was a movie director. QFG2 has references to Casablanca, the Maltese Falcon, Marx Brothers movies, Monty Python, classic TV shows, etc. ad nauseum; other than the Marx Brothers, I hadn't seen any of that before becoming familiar through the game, and to this day I haven't seen all. It's also a safe bet that there are plenty of jokes I've missed because they parody things I don't know. This is far from a complaint; I think I get much more mileage out of the parodies than I would often get from the original (this case is even easier to make with Robot Chicken in regards to all the 1980's cartoon shows and toys I missed out on).

I found myself reflecting on the setting of the game. I really do enjoy the Arabian mysticism pervasive throughout the game, and worry a little about whether our nation's real-life adventures over there will make future generations less likely to explore this mythology. For a moment I wondered whether Sierra was trying to capitalize on the groundwork laid by Disney in "Aladdin", but I needn't have worried: QFG2 came out in 1990, and Aladdin not until two years later. Against the backdrop of the entire series progression, it becomes even more interesting to consider the variety that the Coles achieved with this franchise. Sometimes I feel like you can divide all of fantasy into two eras, BT and AT: Before Tolkien and After Tolkien. Fantasy before Tolkien was often dismissed as childish, but was also tremendously varied; it drew upon English folklore, Celtic mythology, Arabian mysticism, Eastern religions, and the occasional truly hallucinatory original vision. Since Tolkien, there has been an explosion in the quantity and quality of fantasy, but by default everyone is locked into the basic formula of "Medieval Western Europe Plus Magic," and it seems to take a conscious effort for authors to break out of that and do something original. Well, QFG is derivative, but like the best artists it steals from everyone. QFG1 is the closest they do to straight-up fantasy, but even there it has a very specific Germanic feel, like a dark fairy tale, that I find very appealing. Their choice of creatures, like kobolds and Baba Yaga, put you in a consistent world. QFG2 obviously hails from the land of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the Genie of the Lamp, and other examples of the great heritage of fantasy we have from the Middle East. (Tangent: Check out Neil Gaiman's stunning Sandman comic about the last king of Baghdad. I almost get tears in my eyes when I read it, and think about what's been lost.) A few elements carry over from the first game, like the Sauri, but even those are transformed to the desert setting, and your encounters with scorpions, djinni, ifrit, etc., ground you just as firmly in Arabia as the knockwurst put you in Germany.

I'm strongly tempted now to plow ahead with the rest of the series. As much as I love this franchise and point to its influence, I actually only ever owned the first two games. I played all the way through the third game after borrowing it from a friend, and saw a lot of the fourth by shoulder-surfing as another friend played it, but never made it very far on my own. I had even less exposure to the fifth game, just occasionally checking in as my college roommate (who had never played any of the first four games) worked his way through. Still, I have seen enough to know that they do not repeat their setting or influences. The third game taps African folklore, an underused source if there is any in the world of fantasy. I don't remember particularly enjoying this game, but I think that was mainly because there wasn't a whole lot for my thief to do. The fourth game transports you to Eastern Europe, where you get to interact with werewolves, vampires, mad scientists, etc. From the little I've seen, I think the fifth game brings you to a Mediterranean setting, which seems a fitting place to end the series - Greek mythology was, in some ways, the beginning of our culture's attempts to catalog and define our superstitions into fantasies.

It's been a fun journey. Now, back to Grand Theft Auto IV and smashing vehicles into each other!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Shiver me timbers!


Aw, heck... I'm far from the most talented pirate-speaker out there. I still wholeheartedly love it, though. Which is part of why I was so enthused when two major web sites, Google and Facebook, both rolled out pirate language versions in honor of this year's Talk Like A Pirate Day. The Facebook translation is particularly well done, and I'm enjoying Facebook much more now than I have for a while.

Since then I have encouraged others to get on board, which has caused some confusion and consternation. Apparently, the pirate thing was a special-occasion thing for TLAPD, and is no longer available to the general public. Avast, the scurvy dogs be pullin' for a trip to Davy Jones' locker! All hope is not lost, though - apparently, you can still access the Pirate version through a special Translations application.

If any of you do this and it works, great! If it doesn't offer more piraticalitudeness, let me know and I'll correct this post. If you already are a Facebook pirate, I'd suggest not switching your language if you plan to go back.

And now, let's sail into the sunset...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Shout Out Redux

I usually like to space out my gratitudes, but I need to say nice things about Warm Planet Bikes again. Last week, I somehow managed to lose the claim slip for my bike. (I'm still not sure how - I'm really careful to zip it into an inner pocket of my messenger bag - but obviously something went wrong.) This past weekend I spent three hours searching my apartment for it, and more than forty-eight hours worrying about it.

This morning, my heart was in my throat when I got off the train and walked over to their shop. I always feel horrible in these situations, as my neurotic mindset and introversion bring my to an exquisitely painful state of awkwardness. As irrational as it sounds, I'm always afraid that the other person will yell at me and make me feel even worse. Honestly, for a lot of lost things (a jacket, say, or some cash), I would have just surrendered it rather than deal with the embarrassment. This is a bike, though, and not only would it cost hundreds of dollars to replace, but I wouldn't be able to stand replacing it twice within a year. So I beat myself into a state of apologetic assertiveness and marched in the door.

As always, it turns out that I needn't have worried. The clerk was really nice and didn't give me a hard time. I'm happier than ever with the folks at Warm Planet, and feel guiltier as well. I feel like such a freeloader! I wonder if people will give these guys holiday tips like people do for their hired help - if so, they can expect a handsome donation from me.

Final thought: I've wondered this from the beginning, but why "Warm Planet"? Isn't a warm planet bad, what with global warming and all? Won't increasing the number of bicycles help cut carbon emissions, thus COOLING the planet? Or is that the point, that we need to think about how warm the planet is and act accordingly? I don't know, I'm just happy to have them here.

Friday, September 19, 2008

National Anathem

Ahhh... that hit the spot. Anathem was worth waiting for.

Looking back over the book as a whole, it is a remarkable achievement. From the size alone I could have guessed that it would be complex, filled with ideas, and impressive. What really strikes me now is how very unique it is. Its genre gets harder to define as the book goes along, which I think is part of what elevates it to the status of literature.

Let me get this out of the way since a lot of people will demand to know the answer: how is the ending? I think people will find it satisfactory. Unlike in Cryptonomicon, it feels like Stephenson has the time available to wind the story down to a conclusion instead of slamming you into one. It doesn't have anywhere near the number of loose threads left over at the end of The Diamond Age. Amusingly, Stephenson (via his narrator) directly addresses the quality of the ending in the last paragraph, pointing out (I'm sure to his readers) that any ending is bound to be arbitrary... unless the universe ends, there will always be more happening, so the best you can hope it to pick a spot where most of the important and interesting questions have been answered. He could have put it much more snidely than that to swat at this persistent criticism, but the gentleness will be appreciated, and in any case I think most people will be satisfied.

A note to the people who may be struggling through the early chapters: the amount of plot and action in the second 2/3 of the book is far higher than the first 1/3, but the book as a whole is certainly not dumbed down. The characters remain intelligent, and where possible, they continue to launch into philosophical dialogs or explanations of scientific phenomena. (I've re-learned more about physics in the last few days than I'd realized I'd forgotten, and learned it in such a way that I'm unlikely to lose sight of it again.) So, if the thought of even more talking horrifies you, be prepared; if you're like me and live for these exchanges, you have plenty more in store.

Beyond a certain point, the size and complexity of the book becomes close to unmanageable, at least for this poor reader. In the last hundred pages or so characters started (re)appearing, who I'm pretty sure I had met earlier, but who had completely slipped my mind. Who is Emman Beldo? What faction is he aligned with? Is he "good" or "bad"? How about Magnath Foral? Fortunately I'm generally able to figure things out within a few pages, but still, it's pretty amazing that I could lose track of entire characters within a week's worth of reading.

Oh, and once you reach the end of the book, you'll get to the glossary, which I think I'll probably read through in sequence, after which I'll double back and hit that Author's Note at the beginning. The Glossary provides very simple and comprehensible definitions of what looks like all the important vocabulary, people, and ideas in the story. My personal recommendation would be to be aware that it's there (between the story and the first Calca), but don't read it unless you think you have to... for example, if you come across a new word for the first time, don't immediately jump to the glossary without giving your brain a chance to puzzle out what it can mean.

Language continues to be a fascinating topic in this story, from the beginning to the very end. You see... ooh, I'd better classify this next section under


Near the end of the book, the characters start being exposed to entirely new languages. I love this part more the more I think about it. Basically, the people in the story start to undergo the same challenge that we, the readers, have been doing from the beginning, and so we can fully empathize with them. They and we must come to grip with new concepts, learn new vocabulary, and have that vocabulary continue to evolve as they learn more. They make some amusing mistakes at first, which reminded me of the pages where I had swapped gender meanings for "Fraa" and "Suur". By the end of the book, their language has become quite precise, and they have won a deeper understanding of their studies.

Stephenson's language continues to impress as well. He just has an amazing gift for inventing and turning phrases. One of my favorites in this book was "Artificial Inanity." I like this ideas more and more as I continue to unpack it. Academics in our world are pursuing the idea of Artificial Intelligence. However, what most people really want is whatever will make them the most money, and if that happens to be the opposite of intelligence, so be it. It's impossible to avoid equating the Reticulum with the Internet, and we can see Artificial Inanity in action every time we check the Spam folder on gmail.

Technology can be frustrating: how should we deal with it? The residents of Arbre are forced to contemplate the implications of a decision they made millennia ago; we on Earth may face a similar choice in my lifetime. The basic problem, as named by Alvin Toffler, is Future Shock. The pace of technological (and, I would argue, cultural) change has become so rapid that humanity is rapidly being left behind. A person can dedicate their life to understanding one small slice of technology, and not really understand how the rest of it works. The pace of change continues to accelerate; the knowledge we have spent so much time acquiring becomes obsolete; the world continues to change faster than we can come to grips with it. Arbre "solved" this problem by putting the breaks on. They drew a line in the sand and said, "No more." It's clear that culture has continued to evolve, politics has evolved, and heck, even consumer technology; but in terms of core research and insight, they have deliberately stopped the clock, as it were.

It's kind of shocking when you read, early on in the book, about the Convox to deal with an asteroid that looks like it might crash into Arbre. They deal with this problem much as we would, by starting a space program and building rockets. And then, after the problem is solved, they just stop. The space program is frozen, the avout return to their maths, and the tools are locked up again. And that happened more than 2000 years ago! I can't even comprehend of what Earth might look like 2000 years after our own space program. But I think a Thousander who knew nothing of what had happened for the previous 1000 years on Arbre might be amazed as much by what was still the same at Apert, as they were by the inconsequential things that had changed.

So what's the right solution? In general, I'm a fan of adopting to constant change, but I recognize that this can be exhausting. I can imagine that in the future we might see some "maths" of our own, but some of them may be the opposite of Stephenson's maths: rather than places where the intelligentsia go to learn, they may be places where people feel satisfied with what they have, and want to step off the treadmill to live their lives. Think of communities like the Amish.. I wouldn't be surprised if voluntary organizations like that increased in the future.

The idea of maths continues to fascinate me. Another amusing thing is that, early on in the book, I was very unclear on whether Saunt Edhar was THE math on Arbre, or merely A math. All this history of avout was presented, and I couldn't make out whether this particular set of rules had been imposed in this one place, or if it was a pattern, a model like our own university system. After we learn about the Sacks, it became clear that there had been multiple Maths, but I was still confused as to whether NOW there were still other maths. Ultimately, of course, we learn that yes, there are other maths, but it makes perfect sense that I would have been confused. Maths are not just closed off from the world; they are also closed off from one another, and each develops in isolation. Much as the Arbran's experiments with language evolve in parallel with the reader's, so does our conception of the mathic world. The things we learn about other concents surprise us, just as they surprise Erasmus. He has to adopt to auts who look, act, and think differently than Edharians, just as we need to take Ringing Valers into account. As he experiences life outside Edhar, Erasmus's worldview is expanding, in a literal sense.

So this is yet another cool technique, where we can feel what the characters feel because we're going through the same thing. It's also an excellent technique for the story - up until now, we have sort of been on training wheels, gradually getting up to speed on Stephenson's world. It's been hard going as it is; just think of how impossible it would have felt if we'd needed to deal with the multiplicity of orders, maths, and concents from the beginning! Much as learning any new subject, Stephenson has deliberately narrowed the scope of his topic; it is true, but a small piece of the truth, and something we can hope to grasp competently so we can advance to the next circle of study.

Another quote I loved comes from page 733: "That's the problem. I am suffering from fascination burnout. Of all the things that are fascinating, I have to choose just one or two." I think you can read this on multiple, equally true levels. It's a clear problem for readers - this book is so dense, and there is so much going on, that it's hard to avoid going "Wow! Cool!" on every page, and becoming totally lost as to what's happening. It's more rewarding to focus on the aspects of the book that are most interesting to you, focus your attention on that, and just appreciate the rest. However, I think I can also detect Stephenson's own voice in this. He is such an obvious polymath - I have a hard time thinking of any other author who has included such a broad range of topics in his books - and every book he writes feels like a good friend sharing his latest fascinations with you. He has the same problem we do - it's easy to get lost and just keep piling on. I can hear him saying this to himself, trying to be disciplined and keep the ideas from overwhelming the plot.

There are all sorts of ways to communicate - through speech as in Dialogs (or, later, over mealtime); through old books, over the Reticulum; and through song. I fell like I sort of glossed over this earlier, but song is an incredibly rich and versatile medium in this book. Actually, more than a medium... song is actually used to build community and bind people together. Provner is a daily ritual anchored in song that binds the community together, and the bold at the end of the book between Erasmus, Jesry, Lio and Arsibalt was rooted in those experiences of sharing voices and muscles. As he travels through the world, Erasmus can see the same sort of process at work elsewhere. An Ark might seem to be the opposite of a concent, but both build community through their singing. Additionally, song is used as a tool for teaching, to pass messages down from person to person, and from generation to generation. One of the most fascinating engagements with song comes at Loghar (sp?), where Erasmus muses on the mathematical aspect of song. Notes are a kind of code, and certain concepts can be expressed through song that cannot be expressed in words. I love the idea of doing a mathematical proof through song. Coolest of all is the idea of doing distributed computation by dividing a problem among choirs.

It should be clear by now that I really, really like this book. In the interest of fairness, though, I should also share my complaints about it. I have exactly two.

First, typo! (This probably should count as a good point - it's almost unbelievable that I would have spotted only a single printing error in a first edition of a book of this length.) On page 743, we read, "I want to you take notice of the bags ringing your thighs and waist." Since this is dialog, we MIGHT be able to excuse it as someone misspeaking, but the Steelyard tells us that a printer swapped two words in typesetting.

Second: I'm sorry, but I just have a really hard time buying Ala's character. Or, more precisely: based on what we have seen and that Erasmus has relayed to us, I can't really comprehend why she would have been elevated into a position of such incredible authority. Also, after we meet up with her again, I still really can't buy it. Granted, the other characters in the book play along - "Oh, yeah, Ala's really good at organizing things" - but... I dunno. It's convenient for the plot, and I just don't see the evidence for it in the text. This is actually similar to the complaint I have about a character in The Big U, the student body president (I forget her name) - in both cases, it felt kind of like Stephenson had two separate characters - one of them kind of reserved, sweet, and pleasant; the other ambitious, loquacious, driven, and charismatic - and, in a later draft, decided to squish them into one character. It's not that I dislike Ala, I just really don't get how the girl we meet on these pages would do the tasks she is said to have done.

With that out of the way, let's have some fun, and dive into the


More on language. I got a suspicion early on the Jules Verne was from Earth - with a name like that, doesn't it seem kind of obvious? And I love what happens when his (our) speech gets transliterated into Orth. Probably my favorite "mistake" is when he looks at the device used to protect them during the launch into space, and says, "It's Monyafeek!" Or, as we might spell it, "It's magnifique!" The Arbrans mistake this adjective for a noun, and since they don't have a better name for this (because it didn't even exist a short time ago), they adopt Jules Verne's term as their own, using it through the remainder of the story.

There were other cute instances like this; "joycetick" being one that particularly sticks out for me. The best and subtlest one completely passed me by, though. The most impressive example of language and thought shaping one another is the way they try to come to grips with the reality of visitors from alien worlds. Looking back over the evolution of terminology is impressive. First they were the "Cousins," reflecting the amazement that somewhere else in the universe existed a race capable of thinking, building, traveling, and proving the Pythagorean theorem. Later, as their intentions began to seem more sinister, they became the "Geometers", reflecting both their aforementioned skill at geometry and their strangeness. After they actually make contact, they have more "givens" to work with, in the form of pictures of planets and shapes on vials. The Arbrans attempt to attach meaningful names to these - Antarct, Pangaea, and so on - as their increased knowledge demands expression. Finally, after they meet Jules Verne, they are able to learn the "real" names behind each of the planets, and begin to use the alien (to their ears as well as ours) words like "Fthoth".

The really subtle and funny aspect of this is the name of the third planet, the one that Jules Verne comes from. Despite my suspicions, I was thrown off by the initial name of "Laterra" - I immediately assumed that the accent was placed on the first syllable, not the second, and so just kind of breezed past it, cleverly buried as it was between the other planet names. The word "Earth" is uttered for the first time in the entire book on page 830, at which time a lot of things clicked together into place. Among other things - of course - I realized that "Laterra" was an Arbran interpretation of "La Terra". Well done, Neal!

Of course, this also opens all sorts of questions. One thing that I had started wondering, after we learned about the Cousins but before we knew that they included Earthlings, was the Wick relationship between Earth and Arbre. My initial question was more precisely between Arbre as given in the novel "Anathem," and Earth as the planet which has people reading that book. In the Hylaean Theoric World scheme, which is more "real"? Which influences the other? The immediate reaction is, "Well, duh, we're the real ones, they're fictional." But fiction has the advantage of arguably being "purer": it can express ideas more directly than is possible in the messy busyness of our own world, which just dimly reflects those ideas. Which is more real, Plato or Plato's Cave? Most of us would say Plato; Plato would say the Cave.

That question took on another dimension once our planet entered the text. At this point it was on the same level textually as Arbre, and I could examine the relationship that way. I have to admit, I'm still a little fuzzy on the up-wick/down-wick relationship... that's something I'll need to pay more attention to if and when I re-read the book. I think part of my problem is that they go to such lengths to point out that the Wick relationship is a DAG (thank you, computer science classes, for giving me a leg-up on this part!). Information only flows in one direction. If I understand it right, though, physical matter can travel in the opposite direction. Signals from Arbre flowed through the Wick and touched off the voyage; that voyage then physically moved back to Arbre. It just seems a little weird.

Of course, in the context of this book, my confusion may be OK. Over and over again, people who question what is known and re-work their hypotheses are praised, while those who cling to old ideas out of tenacious ignorance are pitied. It could be that the Wick, while a wonderful theory that explains much more about the multiverse than conventional wisdom, still does not perfectly fit. Future generations of theors may revise the Wick to explain the flow of information and matter.

And, wow, all that Fraa Jad stuff sure was trippy! I just love it when authors cut loose with the rules of space and time, delving into the impossible. Except that, after nearly a thousand pages, Stephenson has done the ground work to make it all SEEM possible. Some aspects of the "narrative" of Jad feel familiar; in particular, the idea of affirmations borrows heavily from it. What seems really unique to me, though, is how Stephenson has attempted to present this as a scientific, rather than mystical, phenomenon. Working from the basis of quantum uncertainty, having built the idea of multiple universes, he borrows Descartes' bridge between mind and brain, develops the idea of resonance and feedback across dimensions, leading to a cool scenario where you really can live life like a video game: die, hit "restart," and try it again.

All this stuff seems impressive to me because it lets Stephenson land in the same place as almost all science fiction, but having actually earned the right to do it rather than just doing it because he was lazy. Case in point: Everyone criticizes the races in Star Trek for looking just like humans with different shaped clumps of plaster on their foreheads. Granted, there was an episode of ST:TNG that attempted to explain this by positing that all races were created by an original master race who made them in their image. The Ferengi weren't satisfied with this explanation, and I have to admit that I wasn't either. But Stephenson's polycosmic interpretation seems much more plausible, since what we're really seeing is an original universe that has percolated and delta'd through all possible branching possibilities, with the unsuccessful possibilities pruned out, and the remaining universes "clustered" together with similar Narratives sharing space with one another.

That term "Narrative" is loaded, and obviously forces us to consider the relationship between the book, the ideas in the book, us, and our thoughts while reading it. I don't think it's coincidental that a big chunk of the end of the book takes place in the weightlessness of space. For several days, the characters need to deal with being uprooted from all their familiar frames of reference. This is most obvious in the explosion of quotation marks - things become qualified "up" or "left", "falling" or "rising". When one person pushes another, are they pushing them away, or pushing themselves off? Both answers are correct, depending on what perspective you use, what frame of reference. The same task comes into play when looking at the literature. Are the Valers heroes or villains? Well, it depends on your perspective. Is Fraa Jad dead or alive? Again, it depends on your perspective - in a literal sense, what you have perceived will become your truth. In the same way that the astronauts had to learn that all their observations had to be qualified, and they had to remain capable of switching between multiple equally true explanations to survive, so should we readers retain the faculty of recognizing and appreciating multiple mutually exclusive interpretations of the same words. It's a tough way to read, and may feel unrewarding to some, but provides an exquisitely rich and deep level of engagement.

Aaaaand, because I can't stop comparing books I'm reading with other books I've recently read: how weird is it that I would have finished "To Say Nothing Of the Dog" right before this one? Granted, there is so much going on in Anathem that it might have been impossible to find a book that it did not remind me of! Still, I think it's lucky that my mind had already been primed to think about time travel, causality, and multiple universes before I cracked open Anathem. Like Connie Willis, Stephenson treats the idea of time travel respectfully. Obviously, he is fully in the multiple-cosmos camp, rather than Willis's uni-verse theory. It's really cool to see two bright authors tackle the same problem and come up with polar opposite answers that both feel well-researched and valid.


Ahhhhh... that feels good to get off my chest! As mentioned above, I think I'll chew through the extra-textual stuff for a little bit, then set this back on the shelf. Will I reread this book? Heck yeah! Probably not for a few years, though. As weird as it may sound, I actually found myself thinking nostalgically back on The Baroque Cycle while reading this, so I think I may revisit that trilogy (which I've only read once) before I tackle this again. It will be really interesting to see how much of it I can retain after a few years. I'm horrible at language - I've "learned" Spanish and Japanese through school and study, but never felt fluent in either and seem to have lost most of what I once had - but I'm good at holding on to ideas. I'm curious if I will find myself needing to re-learn the vocabulary while retaining the underlying meaning. I seem to say this about a lot of books, but it's no less true that Anathem is one of those consciousness-altering reads. I feel educated and strangely humbled by my time in this world, but also exhilarated and challenged. Can't wait for more!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Aaaaah! Murakami is coming to the Bay Area!

I almost missed it, too. I was knocking around online and stumbled across a blog warning me about this. I'd hope that it would have crossed my radar sooner rather than later, but still... we're a month out, and already the theater is close to being sold out.

I'm super psyched about this. I love author events, and Murakami just doesn't do tours like a lot of people. I'm all wound up and ready to go!

Smells Like Fid Spirit

I feel like I'm flying through Anathem. The plot really kicks off around page 250-300, shortly after my previous summary, and almost immediately hits warp speed. It's a little as if "Quicksilver" was immediately followed by "Snow Crash" in terms of the pace. Oh, he keeps the trademark dialog and digressions, but they feel like conversations in a car that is hurtling down the road at 100 MPH.

As before, I wanted to set a few thoughts down before I lose sight of them. Consider the remainder of the post


First of all, I'm pleased to report that Stephenson's wonderful writing voice is fully intact. He has a great sense of humor, and as I've previously noted, he takes an obvious joy in writing that becomes infectious when reading. Here are a few of my favorites that I happened to pass by while I had something to write on.

On page 320:
"Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs," I said. "We have a protractor."
"Okay, I'll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and a piece of string."

Haha! In case you ignored the "Mega Spoiler" warning, I should point out here that the narrator is being quite literal. It wouldn't be amusing if it was an exaggeration, but by putting the truth in just the right way, it becomes funny. Well, "truth" may be the wrong word here since this is a work of fiction, but... I think you know what I mean.

From page 329:
"That man behaves so much like a villain in a work of literature, it's almost funny," Arsibalt observed.
"Yes," said one of the Hundreders, "it's as if he's never heard of foreshadowing."

Post-modernist? Perhaps, but not in the way that makes me hate literature. Again, it's this gleeful self-awareness that Neal is bringing to the party, inviting us to join in the joke instead of pointing out how smart he is. (Neal would much rather do that by teaching us advanced quantum theory than by creating a meta-narrator.)

From page 205:
"People have a need to feel that they are a part of some sustainable project. Something that will go on without them."

The first two quotes made me laugh. This one made me stop and examine my own life. I touched on this a bit in my previous post, but this book can be consciousness-raising in the way it encourages the reader to consider the long view of their life. Not what I'll wear tomorrow, not what shows I'll watch this month, not what programs I write this year. Five hundred years from now, what influence will Chris King have left behind on this world?

I think that there are a plethora of ways people can fulfill this need. The most ancient and sustaining is that of procreation - if you create life, and pass down your genetic material along with some aspect of your values, then you can have a multiplicative effect across your society. However, you can also become part of a sustainable project by joining with some form of society. It might be a church, a government, or even a university. Individual lifespans within that society may be limited, but they are contiguous with one another, and in a way you can sense the connections back hundreds or thousands of years with those who came before, and can predict your connection with future generations as well. Just think of the emotions we can feel when talking about Abraham Lincoln, Saint Francis, or even Isaac Newton. We don't think about their physical progeny, but if we consider ourselves to be part of the same project - on the same team - then we feel a connection with them that spans centuries. And I think that this really is a need that is hard-wired into us as humans. People who don't feel like they're part of a project will feel a sense of something missing, and seek for a story that they can join their life to.

Arbre is quite like our planet. In fact, the farther I get in the book, the less convinced I become that this is NOT Earth. When you start to look at things with as long a time-span as they have, it becomes more and more conceivable that this planet may be us a million years or so in the future. They have passed through at least one ice age while keeping records, observed some movement of geography, and have all these uncanny similarities to our own history that keep cropping up. So, what if Cnous is actually a descendant of ours? What if our seven continents somehow turned into their ten? What if the Praxic age was a rediscovery of our "modern" technology?

When you take a long view as in this book, the story of history becomes more complicated. I tend to think of history as an inexorable "progress", with the occasional reversal. I mean, just look at us now! We have cell phones and the Internet and the Playstation 3. Compare that to a bunch of guys squatting around in caves a mere 6 thousand years ago, and we're looking pretty good. Against that kind of advancement, events like the Dark Ages are a kind of blip.

And yet, who's to say that we are not at some sort of high-water mark now? I think that this was a more common thought a few decades ago during the height of the cold war, but even today, it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to think of what could touch off a collapse. If climate change is not arrested and we lose our coastal cities and much of the planet starves... if rogue states acquire nuclear weapons and destroy the most productive regions of the world... if the collapse of the US economy touches off a World Depression that shuts down capital investment for a century... Any of these scenarios would make it much harder to view our civilization as a constantly expanding story of wealth and technology.

There's an interesting passage where Raz is speaking with some Extras, and casually mentions that the Praxic age would be considered a "9" on a scale of 1-10 in terms of general advancement of the civilization, and that the current age would be considered an "8". My first reaction was that it must feel weird to be in an age that was not the most advanced to that time, but as I thought about it, that's actually been true for a lot of history. Again, if you consider the last 6000 years and not just the last 200, there have been a lot of crumbled empires, widespread plagues, and intellectual diminishment that have formed like wakes behind the great advances that preceded them.

So, I keep going back and forth on whether Arbre is Earth, but I'm once again leaning towards "No", especially now that the cool prospect of quantum universes has been thoroughly endorsed. That's also a good system because it helps explain all the eerie similarities between their world and ours. I think a lot of people will alight on different details in Stephenson's world that particularly resonate with them. For me, it's the religious story. Once they start to explain the world's faith, it becomes impossible for me to not equate the Bazians with the Roman Catholic Church, the Counter-Bazians with Protestantism, and even the offshoot from the Counter-Bazians with Pentecostalism. I get the feeling that this is actually an area that Neal knows pretty well, which seems unusual for a spec-fic writer. Pentecostalism played a major (admittedly sinister) role in Snow Crash, and it's fun to see it make a return here.

I kind of feel like I'm falling into a trap when I start comparing this book with other Stephenson books. I imagine he would be impatient about this - authors want to feel like they're breaking new ground and not repeating themselves. And he IS breaking new ground, creating an extraordinary new book, but I think it becomes even better when you view it in the context of his larger career. Repetition isn't always a bad thing - much as you can layer music upon itself by crafting a theme and varying it, you can create an even more polyphonic Stephenson by viewing the works in parallel.

So, forgive me when I say that Orolo's attempts to discern the mind of the Geometers immediately cast my thoughts back to the wonderful passages with The Book in The Diamond Age. Nell learned entire systems of communication and code from first principles: sitting in a dungeon, counting chains in a series of links, she deciphered binary code, and from there to general encryption, all the way up to the problem of artificial intelligence and the Turing test. I love that passage because it shows how the mind must work when it has to learn something truly new. Well, the avout on Arbre now have a similar task before them, and the stakes are even higher. I'm fascinated by the thought that, if we made contact with an alien civilization, we would need to first understand what communication was before we could start decoding their language. I hope that our government is keeping philosophers on its staff, and not just biologists and engineers.

Tangent: besides other books of fiction, Anathem has also been great at sparking memories of my college philosophy classes. During the final dialog with Orolo, I kept thinking about Berkeley's argument that matter doesn't exist, only our perceptions. Like Raz, I thought it was absurd the first time I had to defend the idea that there actually is a physical world out there. I don't think Orolo ends up taking a purely Berkeley view of it, but in the context of communication, it is absolutely true that we don't truly "know" the vast majority of what we believe. It seems like a good habit for me to adopt: focus on thinking and talking about what I perceive and feel, not what is.

The other Stephenson book I find myself thinking about is, bizarrely, Zodiac. It took me a while to realize it, but Anathem is the first book since Zodiac to be told in the first person. Granted, the narrators could hardly be more different, but again, I think that's a good thing - it shows how flexible Neal is at coming up with different voices. Also, after we learned the name of the Ita, I kept staring at it. Sannamm... why did that sound familiar? After a little while it clicked - that unusual name looks a bit like the unusual name of the narrator in Zodiac, Sangamon. Again, there isn't much in common between these characters, but if you stretch you can find some overlap. Both are very knowledgeable about technology, both are incredibly resourceful, they each have a strange social status that lets them move between markedly different spheres, and both are often looked down upon by society.

The Ita as a class have taken some puzzling to get used to. When I first started this book I assumed that the Avout were the nerds of this world. The actual story, as I've already mentioned, is more complicated - the Avout are learners, but in a very different way from most nerds today. The Ita seem much closer to the stereotypical nerd of today - preternaturally skilled at working with computers and technology; funny-looking; isolated; very bright, but not respected by others of intelligence.

Final note before I end spoilers - Orolo's death scene is one of the coolest I have ever read in any book. Maybe THE coolest. And it is pure Stephenson. The more I think about it, the more I love it. He starts from a purely technical, almost clinical, description of physics. Then it just builds and builds. You can see a ways in advance what's coming, and watch, horrified, through Erasmus's eyes as the doom approaches. Then Orolo does some truly bad-ass stuff that makes you admire this character even more now that you realize he has only seconds to live. And then - wow. If you're going to go, it's hard to imagine a more amazing, dramatic way than that. I like to think that in the last instant his body sublimated, or turned into plasma. So long, Orolo. Thanks for being a great character.


So! I'm now at around 600 pages, and frankly I can hardly wait to wrap up this post so I can dive back in and see what happens next. The world Neal has created is absolutely amazing, and I can already see why people wouldn't want to leave it. Now, some people who read the top of this post may be a little scared off - "Wait a minute. I need to wait for about 300 pages before anything HAPPENS in this book?!" I don't want to claim that this book is for everyone, but please don't let that alone scare you off. First and most importantly, while there isn't a whole lot of plot in those early pages, they are still PACKED. Stephenson is a gifted, entertaining writer, and reading those 300 pages is like a summer course in college and an entertaining book all wrapped up in one. Second, the time he spends in setting up the characters, traditions, and world pay enormous dividends down the road once events are put in motion. The later events wouldn't have nearly their impact if you didn't realize who these people were or what was at risk.

Have you seen the movie "Gosford Park?" It's a murder mystery, but it feels like it starts very slowly. There's a lot of conversation, scenes of people going hunting or eating. For me, the most dramatic moment in the movie actually happens before the murder. The gentry are having dinner together, and after one of them makes a statement, a serving girl bursts out a contradiction. Now, if you're just reading that sentence, you would think, "So? What's the big deal?" But, by that spot in the movie, Altman has done a subtle and amazing job of immersing you into this world and its mores, so that you, the viewer, can feel the same kind of shock as the characters who have lived in that world for decades. It's a profound achievement, and one that makes you realize that nothing which came before it was wasted time.

Well, that's kind of how I feel about Anathem. Stephenson is a virtuoso storyteller, spinning an entire world into existence before our eyes. He is the Condemned Man, we are the Magistrate. I for one want him to keep on writing.

Friday, September 12, 2008

So this Fraa and this Suur walk into the concent during apert, and get planed by a fid!

Wow! Anathem is proving an amazing book. Like other Stephenson, it is brilliant, exciting, and mind-expanding while also being very unlike what has come before.

All of his other books have been set on our own planet. The Baroque Cycle and parts of Cryptonomicon imagined their fictional events as a sort of hidden text within our better-known history; The Big U, Zodiac, and the other part of Cryptonomicon could happen today; and Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (still his most-loved books by most) are set in a future after the nation-state has collapsed. Even that future is still recognizable, though, as characters make passing referenced to places and ideas that we recognize from our own world.

In Anathem, Stephenson has wiped the slate clean. His characters inhabit an alien world, unknown to any of us. It isn't just a convenient setting, either.... he has thought through the thousands of years of history behind this world, developing a complex mythology, dozens of schools of thoughts, and about a half-dozen languages. While this book is unquestionably science-fiction, the setting is strongly reminiscent of Tolkien. Stephenson doesn't share Tolkien's formal training in language, but he is a brilliant man who can become an expert at seemingly any topic, and it's impossible for me not to think of Tolkien's carefully thought-through evolution from Quenya to Sindarin when I read one of the many dictionary definitions from Anathem, tracing a word's evolution from Praxic through Old Orth, Middle Orth, New Orth, into Fluccish. It's very rough going at first, but I think the payoff is well worth it. Middle-earth gains a certain resonance once you recognize that Morgoth and Melkor reflect different societies' interpretations of the same idea. That same richness can be tasted once you have puzzled out what an aut is, and as you slide down into the world it becomes increasingly real.

Unexpectedly, I had my first challenge at the start of the Author's Note. (Well, okay, it was actually during the "Also by Neal Stephenson" page: why did they leave off "The Big U" and "In the Beginning... Was the Command Line"? And don't say that it's because the former is silly and the latter is obsolete. But that's a topic for another post.) Stephenson starts off by saying, "If you are used to reading speculative fiction and enjoy puzzling things out on your own, skip the rest of this Note." Well, I am used to reading speculative fiction and do enjoy puzzling things out on my own... but I also am used to reading Stephenson and enjoy every word I can get. I realized that I will have ample opportunities to read the book after the Note, but only a single chance to read the book without the Note, so I reluctantly flipped ahead. It looks like the Note includes a chronology of some sort, and so far I feel like I've been fairly successful in piecing that together as the story goes on.

Speaking of which: I'm now a little past the 200 page mark, and the plot proper has just started. I'm loving it! I have been jotting down little notes in my iPhone for things I want to talk about, but I can already tell that I won't be able to deal with it all at the end of the book, so I figured this would be a good time to get some of that stuff out of my system. I run the risk of making observations that will prove disastrously incorrect by the end of the book, but so be it.

The remainder of this post should count as


After the Note, the book opens with a dictionary definition. These separate sections within each part of the book. Each covers a single word, and provides a detailed etymology that covers how the word changed meaning through the millennia. The first word has two definitions. The first is lengthy and a bit strange, but still pretty easily grasped. The second is completely incomprehensible. The definition almost entirely consists of words that we don't know yet - understandably, since this is our first ever exposure to the language. This seems like a brave way to start a daunting challenge: how to bring readers into a fully realized yet almost wholly alien system.

Neal does have some mercy on us, though, and a lot of the words do have some loose cognate association with English. Sometimes these are false cognates - I had imagined early on that "Fraa" may stand in for the Germanic "Frau", and "Suur" for the English "Sir". In reality, they have the opposite associations: Fraa is a title for a man, and Suur for a woman. Other words, especially more technical ones, can be traced back to a familiar meaning. In the world of Anathem, a "Deolator" is one who believes in and worships a spiritual being; the prefix "Deo" is familiar to all of us. "Plane" follows a more convoluted route, but once you learn it, you can make the association. It started with a meaning similar to ours: a broad flat surface. It could also refer to a particular broad flat surface outside a particular city (thus evoking both our words "plane" and "plain"). Thinkers would gather on this particular plane to engage in dialogs with one another, and so a "plane" can also refer to a dialog. And, much as in English, nouns can get turned into verbs, so to "plane" some one means to utterly destroy their arguments through a rational dialog. It's a long path from that sense of "plane" (the most common one in this book) back to our own "plane", but it's a path we can follow. Because this is a Neal Stephenson book, he also has a lot of fun with language, and gives his unique perspective on such terms as "bulshytt".

And sometimes, he turns a phrase or a word in just the right way, causing me to not just think about that new word but also the one in our own world. One invention that I particularly love is "upsight". Characters will use this term in the same place where you or I might use "insight", but the more I reflect on it, it's really getting at something different. If you parse through the word, "insight" is looking into some thing, gaining knowledge and clarity about its inner workings. I might have an insight about how a particular software program works, or the meaning of a film, or the reason behind a person's hostility towards me. In contrast, "upsight" occurs when you make the transition from thinking about a particular topic, and gain understanding about some broader truth. After I have been reflecting on that software, an insight might help me fix that bug, but I may have an upsight about how bugs get introduced into programs. I could have an upsight about why film as a medium is better at telling certain types of stories than others. Or maybe getting into a fight with an individual will provide upsight into human relationships in general.

While still on the topic of language, I have been flashing back in a major way to my college philosophy classes. Neal has taken the Socratic dialog form and turned it into a major form of discourse within the math. (Sorry - a "math" is a sort of city in which people isolate themselves from the greater world.) His dialogs have a virtually identical form to those ancient Greek ones. A great teacher will profess ignorance to an arrogant young student. The teacher will ask that student a series of questions, feigning confusion and humility at the responses. As the student answers those questions, he comes to realize that he does not know what he thought he knew. The student ends up eviscerated, humiliated, and wiser. Well, "humiliated" might be a little strong - they can end that way, and dialogs do serve as a form of combat entertainment, but they are also a really strong teaching tool. We get to see Erasmus, the first-person narrator, on both the receiving and providing end of the dialog, and he has a sweet gentleness in the way he uses dialog to teach. Rather than simply telling a person something, he allows them to first realize their own shortcomings, and then work to the conclusion on their own, aided only by his questions. It's a phenomenal technique, and after reading through these passages, for the first time in my life I've thought about how it might be fun to be a teacher.

The most brilliant teachers, who found schools of thought or make great advances in pure theorics (essentially science), are honored in perpetuity with the title "Saunt". This is yet another little turn of language that I love - a Saunt is a secular Saint. Like a Saint, they will be invoked by their followers for ages; they are associated with particular concerns; and the fortunes of particular Saunts rise and fall over time based on the peoples' concerns. Overall, this really gets at Stephenson's grand project, which is to imbue the rational world (science, math, philosophy, etc.) with the same sense of grandeur and wonder that we traditionally associate with the spiritual world. I think this is something that a few people on our planet can see - perhaps when gazing through a telescope into the wonder of the galaxy, or, if you're a great nerd, when you first realize that e^(pi * i) = -1. Well, in the world of Anathem, that elevated sense seems much more common.

It's impossible for a guy like me to read this book without asking myself the question: "Would I want to live in this world? Would I want to become an Avout?" In some ways, it's a variation on one of my favorite thought experiments in college. Suppose that the United Nations decided the time was right to colonize Mars. They will be sending a ship with 1000 people on it. If you go, you will play a major part in creating a brand new society from scratch. You can influence the future direction not just of that society, but the species as a whole. The catch is, it's a one-way ticket. Your physical needs will be met, but you will never be able to return to Earth or visit the loved ones you leave behind. Do you go? Within my (admittedly small) sample group, I noticed something peculiar - every single male said that they would go, while every single female said they would not. The situation posed by Anathem is similar but distinct. You achieve a separation, but it is not as total as that offered by Mars. You gain freedom to work on what interests you, but also lose most freedoms in how you live your daily life. Perhaps most significantly, rather than creating a new system from scratch, you are joining a rich and highly developed system that has evolved over millennia. For all these reasons, I think it's less attractive to me, but I probably would still do it. I like the idea of being a decalog (allowed to visit the greater world once every ten years) more than being a hundreder (either zero or one visits in my life) or a one-off (where I think the Discipline would chafe more). And what would I do? Probably focus on making some contribution, about anything... I feel so distracted about almost everything I do, and while I love what I produce (writing this blog, for example), I'm also frustrated that I don't give as enough time to anything as I could (for instance, actually editing anything before I press "Post"). It's exciting to have varied interests and lots of projects for work and for fun, but looking back, I can only identify a handful of things I've created that feel like they have real, lasting value. Given the choice, I'd love to enter an environment where I could work only on things that really matter.

Neal, either acting out of a generous concern for tender readers or responding to pressure from his publisher, has taken the most math-intensive digressive lessons and pulled them into separate appendices, or "calca". It seems pretty clear that these were originally produced in-line as part of the text and only later moved, and I have no doubt that in "Cryptonomicon" or the Baroque cycle they would have remained there. Stephenson is (in)famous for his awesome fascinating digressions, and he seems to be tamping down on the most extreme of these for this book. People like me can immediately jump into the calca where indicated and get the "real" Stephenson experience; others can happily skip them and not lose anything from the plot of the story.

What is that plot? Well... let's see. This is a technologically advanced planet, but one that is focused on the mind as much as any external technology. The vast majority of civilization is very reminiscent of our own. Its residents wear athletic jerseys, drink enormous containers of sugared water, carry "jeejaws" that allow them to speak with other people who are far away (as well as capture "spieleys", or movies, listen to music, and otherwise act like our advanced cell phones), fly around the planet, conduct business, and so on. The focus of this book is on the exception: those people who have taken themselves outside of daily life and devote a long portion of time to quiet contemplation and study.

Early on, I found myself puzzling over the relationship between "intramuros" (within the math) and "extramuros" (the rest of the world). Specifically, given the isolation, which was more technologically advanced? I had assumed that the maths would attract the best and brightest, so all the good inventors would be inside, and the outside would be more barbaric. The actual picture turns out to be more complicated. People on the inside aren't really interested in, say, coming up with a better cell phone or a taller office building. Now, their specific interests will vary a great deal - some will focus on an abstract pursuit of truth, others in astronomy, still others in the nature of matter and genetics - all things that are less likely to interest someone looking to maximize their quarterly profit. However, the walls between inside and outside are not all that thick. When the gates open, information can flow in and out. The Discipline keeps those inside from accepting certain distracting inventions from outside, but I get the impression that over time, certain praxic (practical?) developments created within the math can lead to industrial improvements outside.

Altogether, the situation feels somewhat analogous to our university system. Those who enter the one-year math are undertaking the equivalent of a college education. They receive special training and can focus on their studies. Most people return back to the "real world," and apply those teachings to make money or change the world. Some move on towards the ten-year discipline, which is more like becoming a tenured faculty member. They work on problems that are interesting in their own right. Those solutions may or may not have any practical application. For them, it's the advancing of knowledge that is most important. A professor of Computer Science is unlikely to be distressed or even very impressed by a Playstation 3, much as a game designer is unlikely to be all that concerned about topological graphs until it proves relevant to their work.

There's an interesting part of the book where Erasmus describes an ancient division in the world between the followers of the daughters of Cnous (sp?). Deolators believe in the spiritual and supernatural, while the Hyleans (sp?) believe in abstract notions of pure geometry and math. So far so good - this division between faith and reason is ancient in our society, and it seemed natural to have that division echoed here. Stephenson does something really interesting, though, and a few pages later Erasmus is arguing that these two camps actually have a great deal in common. Both of them think it is important to not confuse the signifier with the thing being signified. For the Deolators, this meant not confusing an idol with God; for the Hyleans, it meant not confusing a particular triangle with the idea of a triangle. I really liked this concept... Stephenson takes a story that we think we all know, and then slightly twists it, granting us upsight about our own world. We tend to fixate on differences between groups of people, but the similarities can be just as important.

A few even more random thoughts:

One of the few noticeably science-fiction things Stephenson has created so far is newmatter. Once again, he treats everything matter-of-factly without calling attention to it, so it takes a while before the reader can actually understand what he's describing. Inhabitants of the Math adhere to a strict Discipline that controls their life, and among its many strictures, residents are only permitted three personal possessions: the bolt, the chord, and the sphere. I really love the idea of the sphere. It's sort of this, uh, thing that people can carry around, and turn into anything they want. They can make it into a chair to sit on, use it as a kind of armor, make it huge or tiny. He does eventually delve into the origin of newmatter, and it is perfectly rational while being perfectly incomprehensible. Basically, the residents of this planet were able to discover an entirely separate set of physical laws than the ones which govern our universe, and can bring molecules into alignment with that alternate ruleset. Utterly fascinating.

Some authors might be concerned that they are getting too large an ego. Not Neal. Every single set of pages in this entire book has the words "NEAL STEPHENSON" emblazoned across the bottom. Just in case, you know, you reached page 500 and forgot who the author was, and were too lazy to look at the cover.

Apparently, many people originally thought that the book would come with a CD from the "secular sacred" chant groups that Neal introduced us to. I'm kind of glad that I hadn't heard that, so I could not be disappointed. Actually, speaking of humility, I'm impressed that I was so successful at avoiding all information about this book. Other than the title, I've scrupulously avoided any previews, comments, or summaries, and didn't know until Tuesday night whether it was set in the future or not.

Well, that's a taste of what I've noticed after the first 200-odd pages. Once more into the breach, dear friends! I'll report more anon.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

To Say Nothing of the Story

"To Say Nothing of the Dog," by Connie Willis, is without a doubt the finest entry I have read in the genre of Sci-Fi-Mystery-Victorian-Romance.

It's the first book I've read by Ms. Willis, and I'd like to thank Brother Scott for the excellent suggestion. Once again I find myself wondering how I went for so long without even being aware of an author. Granted, I've been out of the sci-fi game for a long time (the only hard sci-fi book I remember reading in the past decade is Vernor Vinge's "The White Rabbit"), but you'd still think I'd have at least heard of someone who has won so many Hugo and Nebula awards.

From what I've seen, those awards are well deserved. Most importantly, the author can write well - she has a wonderfully realized first-person narrator, excellent prose that is descriptive without getting bogged down, and a great sense for pacing. Less obvious is her skill as a sci-fi writer. At times it is very easy to forget that this is a science fiction book at all, but that's a praise and not a slam. She has a sort of quiet approach that treats future technology matter-of-factly... much like George R. R. Martin, she doesn't stop to say, "Here is a thorough exposition of all that may seem strange!", and instead she has her main characters act as they would if they had grown up in this world, trusting the reader to catch up.

She has a great sense of humor as well. It is not an absurdist humor, which is what I usually go in for these days, but sort of a mannered self-deprecating humor. It's impossible to avoid comparing the style of this book to P. G. Wodehouse, which she deliberately honors within the text. The overall form is one of a Victorian novel, including the descriptive subtitles for each chapter, which have also recently been resurrected for humorous potential in Terry Pratchett's Moist books.

I think the one word I'd pick to sum up the book is "confident." It is the product of an author at the top of her game, exercising a skilled and effective voice, subversively educating while she entertains.


What is it about science fiction writers and the Victorian era? While reading this book, I couldn't help but think about "The Diamond Age," the phenomenal Neal Stephenson tome. In a weird way, both books are about elements of the Victorian era being brought forth into a chaotic future. In Neal's book, it's the values and mores of that age; in Connie's book, it's actual physical items. I suppose two books is too few to count as a trend, but still. Part may be the wonderful incongruity of it. Traditionally, the future is presented as almost antithetical to Victorian times, in terms of manners and social structure. At the same time, there's a weird sort of parallel in how each approaches new technology. Reading this book reminded me how exciting the recent advances of that age must have seemed; this was a time before the horrors of world war poisoned our attitude towards technology, and there was incredible optimism about mankind's potential, which was advancing rapidly through the development of the steam engine, the locomotive, the telegraph, and other world-changing inventions.

The characters in this book are very well-done in general, and phenomenally done in comparison to much of sci-fi. Ned is one of the most likable protagonists I've met recently, and it's kind of relaxing to share the head of a first-person narrator who isn't villainous, broken, or deranged. All right, Ned's occasionally a LITTLE deranged, but that only makes me appreciate him more. And Verity makes a perfect sidekick: smart and confident, with a little twinge of vulnerability. I like the trick Willis pulls off for Mrs. Schrapnell (what a wonderful, Dickensian name!) who exerts a horrifying influence over the story despite only appearing in the flesh on a few pages. Even the characters you're meant to dislike, like Tossie and Madame Irikovsky, are entertaining in their own right and fun to read.

One thing I really, really appreciated was the respect Willis shows towards time travel. Like I said above, this is kind of subversive, because this is a very tricky topic to get right, and she makes it seem almost effortless. Time travel is way too often treated as a convenient plot device without considering the huge epistemological implications it can have; prior to reading this book, the movie "Primer" was one of the only works to do it right, and that movie is one of the most incomprehensible things I've seen.

There are two ways (in my opinion) of properly dealing with time travel. The first is what you might call a predestination approach: this theory holds that there is a single, inviolate history. Time travel may be possible as long as you do not do anything in the past that would alter the course of the future. Since almost anything you do in the past (most famously including stepping on a butterfly) will have an impact, that means you are forbidden from doing anything besides observing. Taking any action is either impossible or catastrophic, because an action taken in the past might change your life in the future, preventing you from going back into the past, thus causing a paradox.

The second way might be called a quantum approach. This theory holds that, instead of a single space-time continuum, there are an infinite number of parallel universes, each only slightly varying from the others. Under this theory, you can freely travel back in time and change events, in which case you create an alternate history. Lincoln is still assassinated in our universe, but in the one you created, a mysterious stranger stopped John Wilkes Booth. The Reconstruction continued into the 20th century, and African Americans escaped decades of official discrimination.

This book's ontology actually takes a hybrid of both approaches, an intriguing idea. It doesn't treat the space-time continuum as a single static immovable thing; rather, it is almost organic, one single discrete entity that is capable of evolution and change. As they explain it within the book, the continuum has a limited ability to repair itself. Suppose that you did go back in time and save Lincoln. Your actions would have touched off other consequences: perhaps in this new history, Seward is killed, and Lincoln attends his funeral, where he catches an infection and dies in the next week. A sort of bubble forms around the alteration, but the farther you get from that bubble, the closer history comes to recovering its original trajectory, and ultimately the future remains essentially the same as before.

But what if it's a really, really big change you make, something that cannot be easily repaired? In this case, the universe shifts into a sort of quantum state, where incongruities are present: for a brief time, you can see impossibilities, where multiple possible futures compete. The universe is unstable during this time, and could theoretically tip into a paradox, but the incongruities are themselves a type of healing that allows the universe to make adjustments which mitigate the damage done.

All of this is fascinating, and almost offhandedly presented. It's impossible for me to not think about the epistemological and religious implications of such a system. Towards the end of the novel Ned wonders about free will, and makes the startling (and perhaps impossible) conjecture that free will may itself be a part of a predestinated, fateful system. Free will is itself a tool that can be used to arrive at the one true outcome. This theory is reminiscent of Mr. Schneider's "Box within a box" argument, and feels like something worth pondering.


This is one of those rare books that I can recommend almost without reservation. It isn't overly strange, it doesn't contain lots of swearing and violence, it won't offend most people's sensibilities. At the same time it is interesting, well-written and quite clever. I'd say that this book is almost mandatory for people who enjoy intelligent soft sci-fi, Agatha Christie, or P. G. Wodehouse. For the rest of you, it's a fine book that might expand your horizons a little bit.