Friday, 12 February 2010

Neal Stephenson: Anathem (2008)

Edition: Atlantic Books, 2009
Review number: 1396

What is Anathem about? It is about theories of consciousness. It is about quantum mechanics, particularly the many worlds interpretation. It is about the importance of pure science, how theoretical research can have practical benefits. It is about the philosophy of the relationship between the material world and thought. It is about how philosophy can be enjoyable; it is full of discussions which are essentially infodumps modelled closely on the Socratic dialogues of Plato (three of these are mathematical enough that the full discussion has been relegated to an appendix). And yet it is not pretentious in the way that science fiction about philosophy can be, in the way that (say) Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men often is. Anathem has a message, something to do with the philosophy of science, but precisely what that message is is not entirely clear, at least on one reading.

There is a lot of science fiction and fantasy which is principally about world  building: developing a fictional background in order to expound a particular idea. These worlds range from Tolkien's Middle Earth at the fantasy end to  Larry Niven's Ringworld or Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg at the hard science fiction end. And there is a lot of ver original world building in Anathem. The society on Arbre - clearly, from the note on the first page an alien planet despite the use of words such as "human" in the text - has a subculture: the "Avout". They live separated from society in what is a "math": a cross between Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study and a (secularised) closed order of monks, an academic ivory tower to the highest degree. Within these walls, a discipline is maintained so that the outside world does not disrupt the avout from their studies: they only mix with the outside once every year, decade, century, or milennium, depending on how far into the math they have enclosed themselves. The discipline does not just control talking to people from outside (or nearer to the outside, in the case of the inner divisions of the math), but the availability of written material too, and the avout do their best to ignore signs of the outside world such as tall buildings sited near the math, or the flights of aircraft overhead. I'm not convinced that the whole culture is viable economically, but it is at least unusual as a setting for a science fiction novel.

Novels which put in a lot of effort on the background - and the three writers I have mentioned are cases in point - tend to be rather sketchy on characterisation. But in Anathem Stephenson scores reasonably highly on this aspect of the fiction writer's art as well. The narrator, Erasmus or Raz, is a young Fraa (the avout are Fraas if male, Suurs if female). The plot is about how he grows up in response to some amazing events (the typical science fiction/fantasy plot, but you can't have originality in everything). He and his friends are believable, and different from one another, and this makes it easier for those readers not so interested in the philosophiy which is such an important part of the novel.

I found the ending rather disappointing; the day to day life of the avout was to me the most interesting part of the novel, even though it contained much less action. The events which disrupt this life, even though they prompt the revelation of ancient secrets and show the reader how and why the avout culture originated, are not themselves very original. Certainly, they are fairly commonplace in the science fiction genre, and they on't really make a satisfactory completion to the plot.

One thing which is common throughout Stephenson's writing career is that intelligence is good in his novels. Anathem is particularly unsubtle in this respect, but in this world of Big Brother, of American politicians who have never heard of half the countries in the world, of bankers who think that hedge funds would never fail to produce huge profits, this is a message which deserves to be heard.

Though Stephenson is an author I like a lot, and though there is much to enjoy in Anathem, I came away disappointed - 6/10.

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