Friday, August 14, 2009


Anathem by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow, 2008)

This was my top choice among the nominees for best novel at the recent Hugo awards, announced at Anticipation in Montreal. According to the voting breakdown, Anathem finished third.

Anathem is not principally about story or ideas, although it contains plenty of both. The brilliant laser-focus is on process: how to reason, how to argue, how to integrate ideas, and when thought should lead to action.

Stephenson posits an alternate Earth, similar in many ways to our own. His mind-boggling achievement in science-fictional world-building is that he has recapitulated, in large part, Western philosophy and thought in a skewed alternate presentation that allows the reader to see it fresh. This is a hugely ambitious novel (and huge physically: the hardback is over 900 pages).

The story, for most of its duration, is set in a “math,” which is a hybrid of a college and a monastery. The book is mostly static, devoted to talking-heads. But what conversation! The characters discuss what they’ve learned, and integrate new events and concepts, covering great swaths of philosophy, math, and science.

Shaking up their understanding of the universe, and how they think their thoughts about the universe, is that great recurring theme of science fiction: first contact with aliens. The action, when it arrives two-thirds through the book, is involving and satisfying.

Realistically, there are some barriers to enjoyment of this novel: it’s huge, it’s people talking about abstract ideas, it’s not character driven, and for two-thirds of its length it’s not plot driven. For me, the only one of these that actually proves to be a drawback is that some of the characters are a little flat and various relationships move in directions that should have more emotional resonance than they do. There are some memorable characters, particularly Orolo and Jad. Another possible barrier is Stephenson's propensity for using invented terms, many of which are interesting and clever, and some of which are merely placeholders for equivalent terms. I fell head-over-heels for his term for someone who believes in Heaven and God: Deolater.

Despite these drawbacks, which are significant, this book is an amazing accomplishment. The strengths and weaknesses recall Isaac Asimov, who filled many novels with talking heads, and gave little consideration to depth of characterization. Stephenson seems well-prepared to take up the Asimovian mantle of the great explainer of concepts and ideas.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great book, fated by the nature of its central theme to be appreciated by a relatively narrow audience. Readers looking for a page-turning story may stop turning pages before the plot takes off, but it has immediate appeal for fans of grand concepts, and the SF community has considerable indulgence for books that develop ideas at length. However, as you note, this is not simply a book about ideas, or their discovery or praxis, this is a book about the epistemology and praxis of praxis.

    If meta-praxis sounds obscure, it is no surprise it did not have wide enough appeal to win the award. The treatment is actually concrete and explicit, explored masterfully in the millennia-long backstory, in the social institutions and tensions, and in the characters' outlook and discourse, but many readers will not find it engaging. It is not unlike the situation with Stanisław Lem's corpus, where many who see the point of his recurring theme (Some do not, mistaking his frequent object, the ontological question "What is consciousness?" for his principal subject, the epistemological question "How can you know?" Consider the dismaying case of Solaris (1961), where the acclaimed 1972 film omitted to treat this central theme of the book.) simply do not find it interesting.

    This must be one of the most compelling science fictional treatments of a cloistered community since Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz (1960), and is the most ambitious fictional treatment of the history of ideas that I recall, but it will appeal most to readers who find something intriguing and immediate in this question:

    What of praxis if epistemology is ontology?