Friday, January 22, 2010

Anathem: The Grand Unification of Theories

While on vacation last week, I finished reading Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. And then when I got home, I started reading it again. I can't remember the last time I reread a book immediately after my first read. But Anathem is difficult for me to put down.

WARNING!  There be spoilers ahead!  If you haven't read Anathem but plan to, you may not want to read this post further until you've finished the book.

Thinking about Anathem after reading it for the first time, I realized that in some ways, it's odd that I'm so drawn to this book.  For one thing, the book shares much in common with adolescent or young adult fiction.  The narrator, Fraa Erasmas, and his friends are all young people about 18 or 19 years old, but as in much adolescent fiction, these youngsters embark on an important adventure.  Those in power place these young folk in positions of great responsibility.  Out of all the people available for a daring foray that affects the future of an entire planet, this group is chosen.  And of course, they come through.  I do like some adolescent fiction.  I've read all the Harry Potter books, and I still have a warm spot in my heart for such great works of literature as Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein.  But I don't believe I've ever felt like reading any adolescent fiction twice in a row.

The book also could fall into the category of expository fiction, fiction written to inform the reader.  I'm generally not a fan of exposition.  I recently read Robert J. Sawyer's Mindscan, and I felt that its plot was too contrived and the characters too weak to carry the exposition of the study of consciousness that obviously was the point of the book.  The problem I have with the genre is that it's difficult to make exposition interesting.  It takes a lot of literary talent to draw me into a story that basically is trying to teach me something.

The plot is nothing new.  It's a first contact science fiction novel.  There have been many before--H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds; Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End; Carl Sagan's Contact--and there will likely be many to come.  Some are interesting, and some have new twists or approach the subject in a new way.  But I've read enough of this type of book that I wouldn't expect another in the same vein to spark my interest.

So, what about Anathem has led me to read it again?  For one thing, the 7,000-year history of the fictional world of Arbre mirrors that of our planet, which makes Anathem a roman a clef.  Part of the fun of reading the book is guessing which philosopher, mathematician or physicist Stephenson is talking about when Fraa Erasmas mentions Saunt Muncoster, Saunt Protas, or Saunt Halikaarn.

Arbre as a reflection of Earth also allows for some almost snarky commentary on contemporary culture.  The avout, the people who join the cloistered 5,000-year-old mathic order, have a very long-term view.  This makes for much fun at the expense of the common conviction that whatever place and time we happen to be living is the pinnacle of human development.  For example, when Fraa Orolo interviews Artisan Quin to learn what to expect the next time the gates are open to the public, he asks,

"Who decides who is and isn't a criminal?  Does a woman with shaved eyebrows say 'you are a criminal' and ring a silver bell?  Or is it rather a man in a wig who strikes a block of wood with a hammer?  Do you thrust the accused through a donut-shaped magnet?  Or use a forked stick that twitches when it is brought near evil?"
Some of the commentary is more pointed:

     "Are people starving to death?  Or are they sick because they are too fat?"
     Artisan Quin scratched his beard and thought about that one.  "You're talking of slines, I assume?"
     Fraa Orolo shrugged.
     Quin thought that was funny.  Unlike Artisan Flec,  he was not afraid to laugh out loud.  "Sort of both at the same time," he finally admitted.
And some is just plain funny:

An old market had stood there until I'd been about six years old, when the authorities had renamed it the Olde Market, destroyed it, and built a new market devoted to selling T-shirts and other objects with pictures of the old market.  Meanwhile, the people who had operated the little stalls in the old market had gone elsewhere and set up a thing on the edge of town that was now called the New Market even though it was actually the old market.
As a system administrator who provides computer support for a mathematics department at a university, I'm especially amused by the portrayal of the Ita, the IT support caste.  They are seen by the avout as "sneaky, scheming, villainous Ita."  Polluted by their contact with the world outside the concent--the Saecular world--and by their knowledge of syntactic praxis--computer technology--the Ita are untouchables, from the point of view of the avout.

The mathic order isn't just a device to set up cultural commentary.  It's also a way of exploring a major theme of the book, the relationship between intellectuals--the avout--and nonintellectuals--the extras.  In that way, it reminds me of Hermann Hesse's Das Glasperlenspiel.  In Anathem, the relationship between avout and extras has oscillated over several millenia, between assimilation of avout into Saecular life, and isolation in concents.  The way the extras view the avout is a matter of survival to the members of the mathic order, who have endured sacks at the hands of the Saecular powers.

Anathem focuses on other uneasy relationships, as well.  Within the mathic order, there is a long-standing tension between the syntactic faculties--mathematical formalists--the followers of Saunt Proc, who hold that formal reasoning is essentially devoid of meaning, and the semantic faculties--Platonic realists--the followers of Saunt Halikaarn, who believe that symbols do carry meaning.  The majority of the avout exercise Sconic thought and thus are nontheistic, holding that theoretical speculation about anything that exists outside space and time, such as a deity, is out of bounds.  They stand in opposition to the Deolaters, anyone inside or outside the order who believes in a god or gods.  Within the category of Deolaters, there are Bazians (Catholics), counter-Bazians (Protestants), and other sects.

Like Fraa Arsibalt, one of Fraa Erasmas's friends, Stephenson's novel attempts to find common ground among all these factions.  The Arbrean legend of Cnous, Deat and Hylaea mirrors the fact that on Earth, too, religious and secular thought share the same roots.  Stephenson tries to unite some of these various points of view by mashing together the idea of other worlds found in physics, mathematics and religion.  The novel leads the reader through a series of events that suggest that the world of mathematical ideal forms may be one of the other universes in the multiverse posited by such theories from physics as the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics or various cosmological inflation theories.  Somehow, Stephenson also manages to bring the Procians, in the person of Fraa Lodoghir, and the Halikaarnians, in the person of Fraa Paphlagon, into some kind of agreement.  I'm a little hazy on that point--one of the reasons I'm rereading the book.  This sounds like heavy stuff, and there's a danger, as with all expository fiction, that exposition will kill interest.  But as Stephenson showed in his Cryptonomicon, he has a talent for leading readers through explanation in an interesting way.

Stephenson isn't trying to come up with some version of the one ultimate absolute truth.  He paraphrases Emerson:

The mystic nails a symbol to one meaning that was true for a moment but soon becomes false.  The poet, on the other hand, sees that truth while it's true but understands that symbols are always in flux and that their meanings are fleeting.
I suspect that that's what I truly love about Anathem.  Stephenson outlines his ideas in great detail, but without being dogmatic.  Instead of a religious tract handed out by annoying door-to-door proselityzers, Anathem is more on the order of a beautiful chorale, an artistic work inspired by ideas but not beholden to them.  And as Fraa Orolo observers, “Nothing is more important than that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.”

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