Tuesday, September 16, 2008

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.

1 comment:

  1. ...please where can I buy a unicorn?