paulwitcover (paulwitcover) wrote in theinferior4,

Porno for Polymaths

With thanks to Charles Brown and Jonathan Strahan at Locus:

* * *

Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem, is mind-bogglingly ambitious. Although now that I think about it, to call any book by Stephenson mind-bogglingly ambitious is redundant. Though it's not as flat-out funny as Cryptonomicon, the intellectual pyrotechnics of Anathem are on a comparable level. And it's situated more squarely in the sf world than anything he's written since The Diamond Age—indeed, in some ways it's Stephenson's most traditional sf novel yet, verging on outright space opera. At the same time, an argument could be made—indeed, is implicit in the narrative—that it's not really science fiction at all.

xxxx Stephenson's audience has long since grown beyond the sf world, to the point where he prefaces this novel, or at least the advance reader's edition, with a note addressed to those unfamiliar with the conventions of speculative fiction. But in fact, Anathem places heavy demands upon readers regardless of their backgrounds. It is, writes Stephenson, "a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth's past and present," and he ain't kidding. This is porno for polymaths. Such readers will delight in puzzling out the historical antecedents in philosophy, science, mathematics, and art that Stephenson riffs on with his customary quicksilver genius. Others will blithely ignore them, or simply take them at face value, pulled along by a page-turning plot that features a cast of appealing young characters engaged in a race against time and their elders to avert an unparalleled planetary catastrophe.

The novel is set on an Earthlike world called Arbre—Earthlike in the sense that, in evolutionary terms, one might say that the two planets diverged from a common ancestor. That is, Arbre is not some fictionalized allegorical Earth; nor is it, like the wannabe-Earths of The January Dancer, a colony world clinging to cultural remnants of the mother planet. In the universe of Arbre, there is no Earth. Stephenson thus faces the challenge of translating Abran measurements, concepts, and even languages into equivalent Earthly terms—which means English. The title of the novel itself serves as a good example of his strategy. "Anathem" is his English rendering of a word in the classical language of Arbre, Orth, which is somewhat analogous in historical and cultural terms to Latin and Greek. It serves triple mashup duty, calling to mind not only the English words "anthem" and "anathema," but, for reasons which will become clear, the Ayn Rand novella Anthem. In addition to these meanings or associations is the Abran definition of the word, which Stephenson supplies in a quote from an Abran dictionary (such definitions of key terms appear throughout the novel). There we learn of an additional two meanings, obviously related to the English words, yet not quite the same: the first is an archaic meaning that has to do with a stirring form of liturgical music; the second refers to a ceremony by which a member of the nonreligious monastic communities, or maths, that are central to this novel may be expelled into the "saecular," or non-mathic, world. That's a lot to juggle, but Stephenson provides a helpful glossary, and in any case the network of cross-cultural linguistic associations that Stephenson deftly weaves is by and large a self-supporting one, arising almost effortlessly in our minds as we read more deeply into Anathem. And it's only one facet of the remarkably thorough, rigorous, and purposeful world-building that distinguishes the novel. 

The main character, who is also the narrator, is Erasmas, a young avout, or monk, at the Concent of Saunt Edhar. A concent is a sort of monastery consisting of concentric rings that are increasingly cut off from the outer world and each other. The gates of a concent open once each year, in a ten-day festival known as an apert, during which time outsiders are free to enter and avout are free to leave. The outermost ring of avout, the Unarians, opens each year; next is the ring of the Decenarians, which opens every tenth year; next the Centenarians, opening every hundred years; and finally the Millenarians, opening every thousand years.

Despite the rigid, ritualized separation of the categories of avout from each other, and of all the avout from the saecular world (known as the Cartasian Discipline), in extreme circumstances the walls can come down—sometimes literally. There have been three great saecular uprisings against the mathic world, culminating in violent sacks of the concents and their subsequent reorganization and reform, largely having to do with certain practical areas of mathic endeavor becoming off-limits: for example, weapons development, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence. Thus a division between theory and practice is maintained, in the hopes that theoretical advances will filter out to the saecular world slowly enough to prevent their overhasty adoption, and, in turn, the flighty trends of the saecular world will not corrupt the lofty meditations of the avout. But this division is not a suicide pact, either; in times of great threat or emergency, such as a potential asteroid impact, the ruling saecular power will summon a convox of avout from various maths and concents to brainstorm solutions.

On first encountering this quasi-religious terminology, a prospective reader might be forgiven for assuming that Stephenson is writing about religious communities. To reiterate: not so. The maths of Arbre are outgrowths of an order sprung from Cnoüs, an historical figure whose vision of a higher dimension of pure forms was taken in two different directions by his daughters, Hylaea and Deät. Hylea interpreted the vision rationally, in what we would call Platonic terms, while Deät took it as evidence of a divine order. Hylea's followers developed the mathic world of rational, logical, scientific thought, debate, and experiment, while Deät's followers established organized religions. Just as, in ancient Greece, robust competition among philosophers led to a profusion of schools, so, too, in the mathic world are there a number of schools that place their emphasis on varying approaches to theorics—the study, through science, philosophy, mathematics, logic, and music, of the dimension of pure ideas and flawless geometric forms first perceived by Cnoüs, which is called the Hylaean Theoric World, or HTW for short. These communities of avout, then, ensconced in their concents, are actually intellectuals and scientists, ivory-tower types, sealed off more or less hermetically from an outside world in which religion, superstition, and other forms of irrational thought run wild. Here is more than an echo of Rand's Anthem, as well as of Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. And of certain traditions in Gnostic and Kabalistic systems as well.
The technological level of Arbran civilization is quite high—at least equal to our own, and in some respects superior. But what's fascinating is that they've arrived at a similar technological level, and a similar theoretical understanding, by a different route. One of Stephenson's most dazzling accomplishments here is casting contemporary technology and science, from biology to physics, in Arbran terms. Essentially, he's retconned everything from evolutionary theory to quantum mechanics so that they seem like natural and inevitable outgrowths of Hylaean theorics.  He's done this not just because it's really cool, which it is, but because it's essential to the argument of the novel, just as all the cleverly distorted echoes of Earthly history and culture are essential. To say more on this subject would be to flirt with some major spoilers, but the casual implications of what Stephenson is proposing and elaborating fictionally are bound to be the subjects of many late-night debates at college campuses and science fiction conventions. 

Erasmas sees himself as a typical avout, but circumstances quickly propel him out of his comfortable niche. His friendship with an older avout, Fraa Orolo, who is what we would call an astronomer and cosmologist, leads him and a group of his friends—Unarians all, poised at the brink of an apert to choose which of the mathic schools they will apply to join—into an inadvertent (at first) contravention of the Cartasian Discipline. Orolo, in his nightly observations in the starhenge, or observatory, has seen something he should not have seen. He suffers Anathem for it, but Erasmas and the others cannot forget his example, and they set out to discover for themselves what Orolo saw in the night sky. In the process, they uncover a shocking secret—one that leads to their own expulsion from the concent, and, for Erasmas, a dangerous journey across a world that is so different from the mathic world as to be almost alien. This saecular world, a fast-paced consumerist landscape of shopping malls, advertising slogans, flash mobs, combative religions, and other garish, vulgar expressions of irrational exuberance, allows Stephenson vast latitude for satire, and though he avails himself of the opportunity, he also makes the attractions of such a lifestyle plain, even to Erasmas, whose allegiance to the mathic order is not lessened but profoundly altered as a result of his exposure. However, it's not on the ground that Erasmas will encounter the truly alien, but rather in the sky—for it seems a space ship of some kind has entered orbit about Arbre, and suddenly the carefully maintained disciplines of thousands of years will be called into question and put to a test like no other.

No mere book review can engage comprehensively with a novel like Anathem. It's too big, too complicated, too rich to reduce to a glib summary. But it's one of the most thought-provoking novels I've ever read, and also one of the most engaging. I'm still revisiting it in my mind, trying to work through the dizzying implications of what Stephenson seems to be proposing about reality and consciousness.
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