Neal Stephenson writes ambitious books. I got hooked with Snow Crash(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), an amazingly imaginative book about near-future virtual worlds; Zodiac(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) is required reading for anyone interested in chemistry and the environment; I had mixed feelings about Cryptonomicon(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), but only because it was two books in one, and only one of those books was excellent; The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) was a fabulously weird exploration of a New Victorian culture with nanotechnology; and
I ate up his big trilogy, The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), The Confusion(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)
, and The System of the World(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)), which I consider his best to date — historical fiction bubbling over with a fascinatingly skewed perspective on the Enlightenment. He’s definitely one of my favorite authors. He’s an acquired taste; he often seems to abandon the narrative of his book to go noodling about with strange ideas, and it can be frustrating if you read a book with the goal of getting to the end. On the other hand, all of those little distractions and detours seem to culminate in fireworks, so as long as you’re willing to go along for the ride, they’re great.
Now he has a new one out, Anathem(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and I don’t know whether I’ll be able to finish it. I’m about halfway into it, and it’s a difficult read (most of his books are), but no fireworks. It definitely has an interesting idea at the core, but it doesn’t seem to be one that translates into an interesting novel.
The premise is that it is a story of an alien culture where the philosopher-mathematicians are set aside and isolated from the general population, living in monastery-like “concents” where they live a life focused on ritual and contemplation of their work, undistracted by the outside world of saeculars or even the interests of the applied science and technology class, the itas. The life of these mathematicians very much parallels the life of monks in our world, except they aren’t religious at all — they’re even called “avout” (rather than devout) to emphasize the agnostic nature of their existence. Every once in a while, the outside world intrudes: there are regular events every decade, century, or millennium when the doors of the concents are opened and avouts briefly mingle with the extramuros, or world outside, and in times of need the saeculars will evoke individual avouts, calling them to work in their specialty in the world beyond the concent. Anathem is about a small group of avouts who are suddenly called to carry out a little peregrination after astronomers notice something peculiar in the sky.
As I admitted, I’ve only made it halfway through so far, so perhaps there is some excitement coming up, but I have to admit: the lives of scholastic hermits are excruciatingly boring. No offense intended to any mathematicians reading this, but I think even you would find these math monks tedious, since the excitement (I presume) of their discipline is only described vaguely and indirectly, since no actual math is directly described in the text (there are a couple of appendices that describe some proofs). Of course, this is a small blessing to the rest of us, because perhaps the only thing more dreary than describing the lives of obsessed mathematicians would be a book describing the actual mathematics of a collection of obsessed mathematicians. It does not, however, enthuse the reader to contemplate how easily this book could have been rendered even more uneventful and abstract.
So far, in my progress through the book, we have explored this strange world of Stephenson’s and been introduced to the life of the avout, and a small group of central characters. They have been evoked, and are crossing over the North Pole on their way to a remote continent, where, somehow, they are going to solve (I presume) they mystery of a pattern of lights observed in orbit around the world, which for some so-far unexplained reason, has unsettled many influential people among the saeculars. Not much has happened, actually. It’s a fine exercise in science-fiction world-building, especially if you are fond of dessicated academics, but as stories go…it’s a little less than enthralling.
I should mention that being halfway through it means I’m on page 450.
Like I said, I’m beginning to doubt that I will make it to the end of this epic journey. I am parched and fading, and there aren’t even any fireworks. I may bring it along on my next plane trip, but even there I fear it will only promote more napping while airborne.
The book has another flaw, which you may deduce from my summary. Stephenson is making up words like a Pentecostal on a meth/caffeine/LSD cocktail. I can understand why he’s doing it — it’s to give his philosophomathematicians an atmosphere of the cloister and the cathedral while not freighting them with any kind of religious sense — but it makes the whole book even more wearing. I got this book for fun (fireworks!), it’s already turning into a hard slog, and on top of that, I have to learn a whole new language in order to understand it? Ouch. Even the title is one of his odd hybrid words!
Randall Munroe seems to be feeling the same way I do.
This book is only for True Fans™ of Neal Stephenson, and even at that, I suspect there will be much shuffling of feet and averted eyes when it comes up for discussion at the SF cons.