June 2, 2009

Book review (part 2): "Anathem," by Neal Stephenson

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

Okay, so yesterday I started my special two-part look at Neal Stephenson's massive and intellectually dense new novel, Anathem; yesterday's spoiler-free half concerns only the superlatively complicated backstory that fuels this thousand-page book's plotline, and as such you will absolutely need to read it first if you haven't already, in order for many things in today's half to make sense. (And while we're on the subject, let me caution that today's essay is mildly spoilerish; while it doesn't reveal any of the specific surprises in the book's second half, it does discuss the bigger themes of what Stephenson is trying to say with the novel overall, and will therefore just naturally reveal certain information that some readers will want to remain a secret. Read yesterday's surprise-free half to simply get an idea of whether or not you'll like the book in the first place.) Because just like every other Stephenson novel, the whole reason he's developed such a complex backstory in the first place is so he can delve right into this headscratching alternate world right from page one of the actual manuscript, like a giant puzzle just waiting to be solved by the reader, a wet-dream style of writing for all my fellow hardcore fans of speculative fiction; and this being Stephenson, of course, the end-all be-all grand master of such things, of course it's going to take me fifteen hundred words just to describe this backstory mythology (what I did yesterday), and another fifteen hundred words to cover the astounding plot that makes up just the book itself (what I'll be doing today).

And in fact this brings us directly to one of the biggest complaints people make about this book (because make no mistake, there are as many people who hate this novel as love it); that just like all his other tomes, Stephenson doesn't write Anathem in a consistent style and voice throughout, but rather like a whole series of self-contained small novels stitched together, each of them with sometimes very different tones indeed. For example, the entire first 300 pages of the novel, the entire first 300 pages, does nothing but establish the massive backstory I took on here yesterday, and establish the charming, enviable lifestyle of agriculture and deep thoughts these monk-scientists have been living for the last six thousand years; and as such, then, almost nothing actually "happens" in the first 300 pages besides a whole series of Socratic dialogues between the cloistered monks, their preferred means of communication (and in their usual overanalytical way actually exists of a dozen different kinds of classified dialogues, everything from a professor schooling a student to two equals trying to solve a problem together). And that's because, in order to fully appreciate the brilliant Act Three that comes later, in which an entire series of almost supernaturally clever realizations and decisions are made concerning a growing threat to their world, one simply must establish first that this is what these monk-scientists usually do with their time anyway, is precisely sit around being supernaturally clever; and in order to fully appreciate the action-heavy Act Two of the novel, in which this growing threat forces the monks out of their citadel-fortresses for the first time in 800 years, one simply must establish just how pleasant life was for them inside the walls before the crisis, and how jealous we socially-backwards nerds should be of their usual pre-crisis status-quo.

Because let's be clear; just like thousands of other readers, I too reacted to part one of Anathem the same way I did for example to the "Hobbiton" scenes from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, with a sort of wide-eyed wonder and a constant whispering to myself of, "Cheese And Rice, what I wouldn't give to live there." And this is another common complaint about Anathem, that it's the ultimate snotty self-righteous intellectual response to all the xenophobic, superstitious, uneducated conservative mouth-breathers who took over the United States in the first decade of the 21st Century, the ones who elected Bush twice and passed the Patriot Act, who created a million-person terrorist watchlist and taught Creationism in public schools; in fact, it's a real Ayn-Randian Atlas Shrugged kind of snotty self-righteous intellectual response, a look at what exactly would happen if all the truly smart people of the world simply locked themselves away from society in general, laughing and laughing from behind their fortified walls (or perhaps just sociopathically shrugging) as the Sarah Palins and Rush Limbaughs of the world cause the very fabric of society to rip apart. It's unmistakable that Stephenson uses part one of Anathem to devastatingly criticize all the ridiculous things that happened during the Bush Regime of the early 2000s, and in fact his whole paradigm of cloistered monk-scientists is not that far off from how the actual tech world reacted to such real events as September 11th, the Iraq War and Guantanamo Bay -- by ignoring them entirely, to be specific, refusing to even acknowledge the monstrous acts being committed by their government using public tax dollars, to bury their heads in the Web 2.0/Singularity sand and never take them out, dreaming of the day when everything will somehow magically be all better, and we'll all be able to back up our brains on biological hard drives and reboot our consciousness into new clones anytime we want, So Sayeth Saint Kurzweil and Bishop Doctorow Hallowed Be Their Names Amen.

Of course, Stephenson subverts all this in Act Two, which is his whole point in having this growing threat force all the monk-scientists out into the so-called "Saecular" world; and when it comes to this 300-page section, Anathem suddenly turns into the beachiest, most airporty beach-and-airport potboiler ever invented, an endless series of Snow-Crash-style visually arresting images and righteously holy kung-fu monk ass-kicking, as our main narrator (a naive, playful 19-year-old named Erasmus) is pushed into an unbelievable globetrotting road trip, that takes him literally from their version of Seattle to Alaska and then over the north pole to Stockholm, then eventually all the way to Pompeii before finally landing in the outskirts of Rome for the once-again intellectually heavy Act Three. And in the meanwhile, the formerly sheltered "Raz" comes to realize that the Saecular world is a wholly more complicated place than he had been led to believe, full of people just as smart as any monk but just in different life circumstances, not to mention that there's a lot more petty politics within the monasteries themselves than he ever thought possible, now that the crisis is bringing out the ugly self-serving nature of so many of his formerly all-rational "brothers."

It's what turns Anathem into something much better than simply a Bush-bashing novel, because part two is all about trying to see life from the point of view of the Bush loyalists; if not to understand Sarah Palin herself, for example, to at least understand the millions of otherwise sane middle-class women who ended up with a deep empathy for her during the 2008 election, and to understand why millions of otherwise intelligent people might support a person like her, despite Palin at the beginning of that campaign being so freaking uneducated that she literally thought Africa was one giant country (just to cite one particularly cringe-inducing example). And mind you, this is at the same time that Stephenson takes on all these bigger issues I was talking about yesterday: the similarities and differences between science and religion, between reason and faith, between syntactic thought and semantic, even such schisms between monk and monk like whether this so-called "Hylaean Theoric World" of pure rational perfection is an actual place you go to after you die (as is believed by one order of monks called the Halikaarnians), or if this is a bunch of superstitious hokum (as believed by a different order of monks known as Procians...and this is to say nothing of the Lorians, who believe that there are literally no new ideas left, or the Sconics, who worship a party host from the Victorian Age who used to throw scone-filled salons for all her scientist friends, or the dozens of other "denominations" that Stephenson so cleverly creates among this "religion of science" known in general as Mathism).

And of course, let's not forget the other thing that Stephenson is doing throughout these first 600 pages as well, the thing that makes all his massive novels have such unbelievably great payoffs at their ends; every dozen pages or so he is throwing in what seems at first to be silly digressive conversations regarding such "hard science" subjects as quantum mechanics, parallel universes, genetic engineering and the like, not as diversionary tactics but because they cumulatively add up to the answer to the big giant complicated problem at the very end. (In fact, Stephenson still hasn't improved on the nearly perfect way he did such a thing in 1999's nearly perfect Cryptonomicon, what still remains the absolutely best book of his career; just like with that book, anytime you come across a conversation in Anathem that makes you think, "Hmm, that just seemed silly and pointless," those are the exact moments you should actually be paying the most attention.) This is how Stephenson gets away with such insanely dense stories in the first place, is that he literally spends a thousand pages very slowly teaching you the science you need in order to understand the climax at the end, inserted a bit at a time in the downtimes of the otherwise action-packed plots; it's why it's literally impossible to spoil the ending of Anathem, for example, because first I would have to take 50 pages to explain the scientific theories behind the subjects that make up the book's ending. (Hint -- it has to do with string theory and Godelian alternative universes, and just gets more complicated from there.) Stephenson actually takes these 50 pages to explain it all to you, only spread out over a thousand pages of volcanoes and karate and atomic-powered polar supertrains; and that's why by the end you will have a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of string theory and Godelian alternative universes, despite never sitting down and formally "studying" the subjects at any point in the manuscript itself.

So when all is said and done, Anathem turns out to be something surprisingly simple: it is Stephenson's ode to the basic subject of science itself, his impassioned plea for why the age-old "scientific process" (theorizing, testing, observing, recording without bias) is the most important idea humanity has ever come up with, why it is this process that keeps humans striving and moving forward as a species, instead of in a constant state of self-repeating superstitious apocalypse, like what happened in the thousand-year scienceless period of Western history known as The Dark Ages. The book is of course more complicated than this, but in many ways is as simple as this too; and the point is made better here than at any other time in history that an author has ever attempted to make the point, which is why today Anathem becomes only the second book of 2009 to receive a perfect score of 10 here, and why I can safely say that it is so far easily the best book I've come across this year. Reading it is a project, don't get me wrong, and you will need a schedule for finishing it just like you have a schedule for the gym; but just like all his other books, it is well worth the effort, a rare treat of a reading experience that comes along only once every several years. Don't let this particular opportunity pass you by; be sure to pick up Anathem yourself as soon as you have a chance.

Out of 10: 10

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:43 PM, June 2, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |