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!


  1. Nice review, thanks for writing it.

    FWIW, I really enjoyed re-reading the book on a short turn-around, while the details were still in my head. Many of the philosophical underpinning and historical references to Earth jumped out and asserted themselves at that point. Go for it!

  2. Thanks for the advice! You may be right... we'll see what my schedule looks like, but if I have the opportunity, I might give it another whirl right away. I imagine that the second reading will probably go more quickly than the first, because the language should flow more easily by then.


    One thing that looked like it was going to ruin the whole book for me was that for some time it seemed like NS took care to develop that the food from other cosmos was useless to those from others. But it seemed like he was ignoring the obvious problem with the air. I breathed a sigh when he resolved that.
    Still not sure how the ship crossed cosmos though...


    It's kind of hand-waving, but I'm relatively content to dismiss the cosmos-crossing as being something that a more advanced civilization has figured out; we won't necessarily be able to understand it until our minds reach the same point. That said, I remain fundamentally confused about the DIRECTION of the cosmos crossing, how it works... are they moving towards a purer Hylean Theoric World? Is their movement up or down the Wick? And is the Wick really a DAG? At the end of the book, it sounds like information flows in one direction, while somehow matter is flowing in the other direction, which makes my brain hurt.

  5. They traveled between cosmi accidently at first by trying to go back in time -- because the 3rd Gan thought that the dream he dreamt of the 3rd sack was a vision of his race's mythical golden age in the distant past. The particular time travel mechanism that NS chose to use is a real theory from late in the career of Kurt Godel, when he was a colleague of Einstein's at Princeton; Jules Vern explains this at some point.

  6. What typo do you assume in "ringing your thighs and waist"? You perhaps conclude the word "wrist" was intended? Not so. On page 746 the spacesuit's "sanitary elimination cycle" is detailed as Arsibalt explained that they had "...inflated. Around my waist and upper thighs", to isolate the pelvic region of the body so he could "do whatever needs doing".

    Also, it took you that long to intuit "Laterra"? Seriously?

  7. No, it's in the first part of the sentence: instead of "I want to you take", it should be "I want you to take." It's a subtle goof.

    Yeah, it seriously took me that long. Kind of pathetic, huh? I had a suspicion we would be seeing Earth, but my French is so poor that I didn't make the connection with Laterra until much later.

  8. The reverberation between ITA and ETA (Japaneese) is great, so is the dialogue/philosophy side of the book. The naivette and poor language where Stephenson turns from dialogue to action and adventure is pathetic