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 And don't say that it's because the former is silly and the latter is obsolete.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.


  1. Actually Fraa and Suur likely derive from Frater (brother) and Soror (sister), as in Fraternity and Sorority. Remember how the avout would refer to their fellow avout as "my fraa" or "my suur"

  2. That does make sense. English, Greek, Latin, French... sometimes reading Stephenson is too much like reading Joyce!