June 1, 2009

Book review (part 1): "Anathem," by Neal Stephenson

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Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
By Neal Stephenson
HarperCollins / ISBN: 978-0-061-47409-5

Is Neal Stephenson the most brilliant living author currently in the United States of America? Oh, wait, I can answer that for you right away: Yes. Yes he is. And that's because Stephenson can do something almost no other American writer currently putting out work can; he can take a healthy dose of the popular zeitgeist at any given moment, mine it to understand the underlying fears and hopes these trendy obsessions actually express, twist it using some of the most inventive speculative fictional tropes that have ever been created, infuse it with the kind of heady, complex "pure science" usually only understood by nuclear physicists and NOVA hosts, then spit it out in these breathtakingly dense thousand-page tomes every couple of years. Of all the thousands of published writers of our generation, I'm convinced that Stephenson will be one of the mere handful still being read and studied a century from now, and there's a very good reason that so many people call him "the heir of Thomas Pynchon," the creator of his own one-man literary genre that can't be called anything else but "Stephensonian." And thus have I eagerly followed along in real time with nearly all of Stephenson's backbreakers over the decades, all the way back from the 1992 cyberpunk classic Snow Crash (the direct inspiration for the very real Second Life); then to his stunning redefinition of steampunk, 1995's The Diamond Age; then to his masterful examination of the real history of 20th-century code-breaking, 1999's Cryptonomicon; and then to his massive three-book, three-thousand-page overview of the entire beginning of both science and finance as we know them, the career-defining "Baroque Cycle" (2003's Quicksilver, 2004's The Confusion, and 2005's The System of the World).

And now, after ten days in a row of reading at least four hours each and every day, I have finally finished Stephenson's latest, the epoch-defining yet often headscratching Anathem; and in fact I found it so dense, so generation-defining, I've come to realize that I simply will not be able to make all my points in the usual thousand-word essay I normally do here regarding any given book. So instead I'm doing two essays on two days, one spoiler-free and the other spoiler-heavy (today's the spoiler-free one), the first essay devoted to nothing else but the superlatively complicated backstory, and not even touching the book's actual plot until the second essay. Because it's important right away to understand what Stephenson is trying to do with this novel, and will make your reading of it (a part-time job, I warn you now, that will take most people four to six weeks) go a lot more smoothly; he is no less than redefining the very relationship between religion and science, and methodically explaining how there's actually a lot less differences between the two than most of us think, if people would simply choose to embrace both subjects in this interrelated way.

And really, this grand a goal is not actually as big a stretch as it might seem at first; after all, according to how recent history has played out, we're hovering right around a time these days where we as a society will be creating a big giant new way for us to even think about such basic subjects as faith, reason, the meaning of life, and more. There was the Enlightenment of the 1700s, for example, which pushed atheistic rationality to the forefront of society; then the Romanticism of the 1800s, in which emotions and spirituality were brought back into style; then the Modernism (and Postmodernism) of the 1900s, where science and religion were first presented as an "either/or" proposition, where rationality and faith were first cemented in the mind as eternally struggling enemies. And now here it is, the early 2000s; so what kind of "ism" will define this age? Well, if you study the subject like I do, the pretty obvious answer is that we're set to go through a century where we profoundly redefine what the relationship is in the first place between religion and science, which is why it's not really such a surprise that Stephenson would latch onto the subject himself, a good ten or fifteen years before it becomes the dominant subject of the popular culture at large, just like all his other novels have done too.

And the way Stephenson does this is of course unexpected and magnificent, which is by creating an entire different planet called Arbre which is almost just like Earth, but different in several basic important ways. For example, the first three thousand years of Arbre's written history are almost exactly like the last three thousand years of our own (from ancient Greece to now); except that in the oldest surviving myth they have, their version of our "Remus and Romulus" tale, theirs supposedly involves a father who near the end of his life professes to having a vision of what he calls a "perfect other world," then dies before he can explain what exactly he meant. So one daughter, Deat, interprets this how the religious of Earth usually would, into terms of a "heaven" and a "god" and "angels" and the like; but the other daughter, Hylaea, takes it to mean that he glimpsed a realm of pure perfect science and reason, not so much a physical place like a "heaven" but more like a Taoist-style existence of pure energy, where instead of a deity running things who takes the form of a person, there is instead only the pure clocklike perfection of a completely rational universe.

And so all the way back to the beginning of Arbrean society, there have actually been two major ways to think of religion, not only the "deist" way which is the only one we have on Earth (known as "deolatist" in their world, after the daughter Deat), but also this "religion of science" known as Hylaeanism, later in history generalized to the more inclusive term "Mathism." And the Mathists have their own monks and their own monasteries, essentially mirroring how the study of science got its actual start in ancient Earth as well; and anytime one of these monk scientists has a sudden breakthrough, like Newton discovering gravity or Einstein discovering relativity or Pythagorus inventing his theory about triangles, this is considered the Mathic version of a miracle, or perhaps more like speaking in tongues, a sort of short, profound connection that monk suddenly has with this so-called semi-mystical world of pure rational perfection, known in their language as the "Hylaean Theoric World" (with "theorism" being their word for our "science"). And this is just inspired of Stephenson to do, I think, because this hearkens all the way back to what real Earth's first scientists actually were trying to do too, the so-called "natural philosophers" and "alchemists" of the 1600s; to them, "science" wasn't a standalone subject unto itself but rather a simple subset of religion, a way of understanding God better by intensely studying the things that God creates, and understanding how we should live our own lives by studying how such creatures as trees and animals do it out in the "natural world," a.k.a. "the world that works the way God wants the world to work, when we humans aren't using our big giant brains to screw it all up." And again, for anyone who's ever studied Eastern religions, you can see a lot of similarities between this and some of the basic tenets behind Taoism and Buddhism -- the idea that God is too infinitely complex a creature for us to ever understand, so all we can do instead is study the things that God creates, and get our cues on how to live our own lives by metaphorically interpreting God in its most purely rational form, what we now know as "scientific concepts," things like gravity and photosynthesis and DNA.

Newton and the other proto-scientists of the Baroque "Royal Society" always saw their pursuits as an offshoot of religion; it's only been in the last 150 years that science has taken on a reputation as being an abomination to God, as the insane efficiency of the scientific process (theorize, test, observe, record without bias) has meant a profoundly fast increase in scientific sophistication, to the point where scientists must now spend their entire lives studying the specific pursuit they mean to make their career just to get caught up, and now not just observe nature in action but actively manipulate it, thus "playing God" in the eyes of many instead of merely worshipping God through natural observation. All Stephenson does is merely formalize this process, on a planet much like Earth's but where he can take certain artistic liberties; on Arbre, scientists literally are monks, universities literally monasteries, where specialists literally devote their entire lives to the pursuit of specific knowledge, literally do wear robes and shave their heads and live in cloisters and everything else. Except unlike Deolatism/deism/traditional religion, commandment number one among Mathics tends to be, "It's a sin to presume that you will eventually understand everything there is to know about the world," with commandment number two being, "And it's an even bigger sin to make up stories about the things you don't understand." When all is said and done, Stephenson argues that this is really the only big difference between science and deism, with all the other conflicts playing off it in one way or another: that science is all about trying to discover what makes the world work the way it does, without tainting your observations with fictional stories regarding the way you really, really wish the world worked, while the entire point of deism is precisely to make up such comforting and easily understood fictional stories, as a way of easing the fear and threat so many feel in the face of the unknown.

And like I said, thus does the first three thousand years of Arbrean written history pass remarkably like Earth's, with their version of a Roman Empire (the "Bazian Empire") which eventually adopts Catholicism ("The Ark of Baz") as its official religion, which eventually leads to a Protestant Reformation (the "Anti-Bazians") which turns into their version of the Renaissance ("The Rebirth"), which on Arbre is when the gates of the ancient Mathic monasteries were first flung open, so that most of the science-worshipping monks could disperse themselves among the public at large, ushering in their version of our "Modern Age" or "Scientific Age" or whatever you want to call it (basically, the last 500 years of history, from the Renaissance to now), which the Arbreans call "The Praxic Age" on their world, "Praxism" being their word for "technology." And in fact Stephenson does something else really smart when laying out this alternative ancient history, which is to wisely separate what we humans know as "science" into three distinct pursuits on Arbre -- not just the scientific process (logic, rationality, etc), which is technically the only pursuit the Mathics embrace, but also the study of numbers (Earth's "mathematics") and the study of just technology, which are the pursuits the "Saecular" (non-Mathic) parts of Arbrean society mostly concentrate on, and especially when it comes to the subject of "syntactic devices" (things like computers, for example, which can be taught to "read" and "write," but don't even begin to understand the context of what they're parsing, of how to enjoy a joke or be emotionally moved by a poem).

Mathic monks instead concentrate on so-called "semantic thought," or the idea that understanding things in context is the most important pursuit in life; and thus is it that only a portion of Arbre's society understands the reasons why technology works, but doesn't actually use any of the technology their theories spawn, while a much larger portion of the population invents and uses all the technology of Arbrean society, but doesn't understand how any of it works. And also thus is it that what might seem to be very scientific people to us are actually considered blindly religious to the Arbreans, the so-called "number-worshippers" who idolize the specifics of math without understanding any of the underlying theories that make the equations work. (This would be roughly translated to Earth's technology worshippers; think of the socially-retarded Comic Book Guys of the world, who can program a computer application but don't know how to even start having a rational, polite discussion with another human being. And in fact Stephenson very cleverly uses as the ultimate example the so-called "Secret Brotherhood of the Ita" associated with each Mathic monastery, a bastardization of the old corporate "I.T. administrators," the number-worshippers who actually ensure that the monasteries and their giant central worship-clocks keep functioning, but who are physically separated from the monks so that their "tech worship" won't "poison" the Mathics' purely theoretic minds. Freaking brilliant, Stephenson.)

But see, all this is only half the backstory of Anathem; because in their timeline, right around our early 2000s is the actual Year Zero of their current calendar, because of a series of apocalyptic occurrences on Arbre in those years known simply as "The Terrible Events" (with us knowing for certain that these events take place right around their early 2000s, despite the new calendar, because of Arbre even having their version of what they call "The Three Harbingers," roughly corresponding to our World War Two, World War One, and Europe-wide political revolutions of 1848, all of them supposedly minor omens of the apocalyptic events that were to come). And for what it's worth, Stephenson leaves the details of the Terrible Events purposely murky, but highly implies that the mess started with the exact kind of accidental molecular disaster that conspiracy theorists have been crowing about this year regarding the very real Large Hadron Collider just built at CERN, the idea that we may just accidentally create a miniature black hole with the thing because of messing around with stuff we don't nearly understand yet, with Stephenson implying that this kicked off a blind panic and a series of voluntary nuclear weapon discharges in a last-ditch attempt to destroy the rapidly expanding artificial black hole, leading to all the other nuclear-armed nations of the world discharging their own weapons in their own blind panics, resulting in all the mass death and chaos and ecological disaster such events would cause.

Whatever the case, we do definitely know that what was blamed for the Events, among both the Mathics and the Saeculars, was the commingling between the two groups that defined the Praxic Age; and thus did the monk scientists retreat back into their monasteries and once again close the gates, an event known as "The Reconstitution" and that marks year one of their "modern" calendar. And thus does yet another entire three thousand years pass, three thousand years of "future history" that haven't actually happened on Earth yet, where humanity ends up progressing in two distinctly different ways; how the Saecular world essentially becomes a neverending chaos of revolutions and superstitions, a Second Dark Age ruled by an alliance of brain-dead tech worshippers and traditional Evangelicals, where skyscrapers and post-apocalyptic wars come and go faster than people can even keep track, while the Mathic monasteries become timeless closed citadels of pure theoretical thought, where monks master such impossibly dense subjects as quantum mechanics and genetic manipulation using nothing more than chalk marks on slate, stick drawings in the dirt. And thus is an uneasy truce developed between the two societies, with both pretty much agreeing to leave the other alone except when absolutely necessary; well, except for the three times in the last three thousand years when the monks got a little too full of themselves, when they started taking on scientific progressions again deemed a little too much like "playing God," at which points the now almost exclusively superstitious Saecular world rose up against what they considered the "witches" of the Mathic world and slaughtered almost all of them, known historically by the remaining Mathics as the three "Great Sacks," the last of which occurred nearly 800 years before the beginning of our current story.

Okay, got all that? Good; now we're ready for page one of the actual book. And like I said, another fifteen hundred words concerning just that subject will be coming tomorrow. I hope you'll have a chance to come by again then.

Read even more about Anathem: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:43 PM, June 1, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |