19 August 2009


Patrick at Popehat posted this vintage XKCD comic recently:

Randall Munroe's hidden caption is "Except for anything by Lewis Carroll or Tolkien, you get five made-up words per story. I'm looking at you, Anathem."

I'm going to really disagree with Munroe here. First of all, regardless of what you think about Anathem, Orwell also gets a pass. But more substantively, I didn't find the made up vocabulary for Anathem to be an impediment. I think part of the reason is that Stephenson takes care when he makes up new words. They aren't just syllables he's picked out and strung together, but allusions to English words. (I'm on shaky ground for providing examples because I had to return my copy to the library.) The title, for instance, refers to a song (or anthem) sung when a member of the community is expelled, or anathematized. Anthem + anathema = anathem. Convents becomes "concents" to associate them with the consensual, voluntary nature of being in one in this story. If anything, most of these new words just reminding me of Rastafarians replacing "oppression" with "downpression," so that when pronounced it would have the negative connotations of down rather than the positive connotations of up.

For me, Anathem wasn't even the book about cloistered intellectuals whose language through me for the biggest loop. That honor would go to The Name of the Rose. Not only are frequent passages of it in Latin, but unless you're familiar with the Fraticelli and Catharist heresies, and 13th Century church theology and internal politics, you're going to be a bit lost. Eco (or his translator) may have been using "real" words, but they're rare enough, or in foreign languages, or references to obscure enough historical characters, that it still makes it awfully hard to read without frequent consultation with reference materials.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Anathem. It was kind of slow going at first, but not as bad as Stephenson's previous effort. It ended up in a place that would have been really hard to predict from the first couple hundred pages, and I mean that in a sort of bad way. Like many SF authors, he indulges a bit too much in describing the specific devices and procedures and tactics in the story. Other than that, it was a blast.

I'm sort of getting ahead of myself -- a quick introduction to the story is needed. Anathem is about a world where the scientists and intellectuals live in monasteries, and the religious people live outside them. Of course it isn't so simple, as certain sects of the scientific orders accuse the others of being too religious because the Platonic realm of ideals is rather close to a heaven or deity. (This is pretty cool for me, since I consider myself to be a neo-Platonic Christian Humanist.) The scientists live their lives cut off from society in their monasteries, emerging once every 1, 10, 100 or 1000 years, depending on their particular vows, so that they can avoid distractions and give their lives over to seeking the truth. Because there's this relatively uninterrupted chain of intellectual pursuit, a recorded history of Anathem's world exists going back 6 or 7 millennia. This gives the story a lot of depth, as historical characters and events figure prominently in the lives of the current monastics. I really liked how Stephenson captured that aspect of continuing the investigations of the past, since that's one of the things I rather like about being a scientist: the feeling that you're connected to all the people who've come before you in your field, and you're carrying on a conversation with all your intellectual fore-bearers. I also like how the monasteries stand as little islands of constancy while civilization rises and falls and ebbs and flows and waxes and wanes. It was like a more complicated version of A Canticle for Leibowitz -- rather than the monastery standing through one historical cycle, we get a compounded oscillation of civilization outside the walls.

The story follows a young scientist, beginning just before his first opportunity to leave his monastery in 10 years. Of course he and his friends think life is a little dull, and wish they lived in interesting times. And of course, this being a novel, they get their wish. What follows are big world-spanning adventures, with lots of cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology. Again, that's great for me, because I love cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology. I can see some people being turned off by the frequent dialogs between characters about these things, but Stephenson does as good a job as anyone else fitting science lessons into his narratives. In the hands of Heinlein or Rand or Dan Brown we'd just get one character lecturing everyone else, but Stephenson has much more finesse.

Tyler Cowen said in a recent interview on Marketplace of Ideas that he only recommends a book if he gets to the end and wishes there was more. I'm happy to say I can recommend Anathem on that basis, even though it's already 1000 pages long. I'm not so sure I want a continuation of the story, as I want more stories on that world. Because we got little glimpses of 7000 years of history I'd love to go back and find out more about what else has happened on that world. There are great stories to be told about the Reconstitution, and the Sacks, and the Praxic Age.

One of the ideas in Anathem that got me curious was the notion that different orders of the monk-scientists lived together in the same monasteries. I'd really be interested how that would work out in today's Church. As devoted readers may know my father is in the process of becoming a Brother of the Holy Cross. (Though they aren't cloistered like the adherents in Anathem.) He's had some dealings with Franciscans and Dominicans, and has a lot of admiration for the Trappists (by way of Gethsemani Abbey and Thomas Merton). I'm really curious how things would work if they were all mixed together. There are many theses in organizational psychology waiting to be written about the living and working arrangements of contemporary religious orders.

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