Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hey, Hey, We're the Monks

Anathem by Neil Stephenson, William Morrow, Kindle version, 2008.

So here’s my history with Neil Stephenson's works:

Never read Zodiac or Big U. Thought the first fifty pages of Snow Crash were brilliant, but it trailed off after that. Loved the first fifty pages of Diamond Age, then drifted off after that, not finishing. So I had an idea that Mr. Stephenson wrote a great first fifty pages, then slacked a bit after getting the gig.

Then Cryptonomicon. Good book, filled with juicy bits, but now he no longer had to do the first fifty pages, so it started in low gear and stayed there for the duration. Great bits, but at the end, I had to fess up that I didn’t quite get a “what have we learned” sort of moment (OK, independent systems beat organized systems, but that’s kind of meta).

Loved the Baroque Cycle, but by this time I knew what I was getting into, so I was very tolerant of the (regular) digressions into British coinage and the anachronisms (turning Jack Shaftoe’s entrance into Paris into a Hollywood musical was inspired, but purely playing to the crowds). The series became my "vacation books" - to be lugged around when I knew I would have a lot of down time. I think it took me longer to read it than it took Mr. Stephenson to write it.

Now Anathem. Probably his best work to date. It is his best story as a story, in that it has a strong narrative flow. Also missing his more detailed digressions, sending his more detailed mathematical proofs to the back of the book and its appendices.

The book is a about aliens, monks, mathematics and philosophy. In an alternate world of Arbre, progress has halted for thousands of years at a particular level of technology, with advanced science being relegated to monastic organizations. Erasmus is a monk in one of those organizations, and we get a good feel for monastic life before something strange makes orbital insertion and all rolling hell breaks loose.

Stephenson builds his own jargon for a religious order on an alien word, and does a fantastic job, in that his jargon evokes both religious and scientific meanings at the same time. Erasmus belongs to a math, which evokes mathematics, mass, and myth, and is a member of a concent, a nice conflation of convent and concentration. Such words-you-almost-understand pepper the volume, and while it has a nice glossary in the back, by the time you reach it you know most of them through usage.

Stephenson also plays fair with the reader. We get to know things as Erasmus gets to know him, and his slightly out-of-it nature means we get a lot of background in the outside world as a result of his actions. The object in orbit kicks up a lot of dust in that outside world, to the point that astronomy is banned within the maths, then the panicky Saecular Powers bring in the learned brothers and sisters to solve the problem.

Erasmus and his fraas and suurs within the math are more rounded characters than I have seen before, and while I expected them to be merely replaceable viewpoints, they all developed into characters I recognized by the end. This goes for those in the outside world as well. There is a brief whiff of Hogwarts in some of the monkish proceedings, as Erasmus is just the young man to be in the right place at the right time, but it serves to keep the story humming along.

Stephenson also provides probably some of the best-grounded arguments against advanced technology I've heard. His Saeculars make sense in their embrace of a technology lower than they might otherwise have, and he comes up with a good excuse for how to keep technology at a slightly-advanced for 21st century level. They aren't bad guys, which also nice. And he explains why all that jargon sounds so similar to our own, and why Arbre is like our world but different.

It is an elegant, straightforward read. At first I credited the Kindle I was reading it on, but the fact is that the story pulls the reader through smoothly. The writing is almost sparse in places given the scope he has taken on. The ending verges on 2001-inside-the-monolith head trips, but in the end Stephenson delivers an excellent book that not only presents a good tale, but bulls its way through most of Terran philosopher, from Plato to Descartes to Schrodinger.

My one regret? It being electric bits, I cannot pass it along to someone else so they can enjoy. That's a downside of the Kindle, turning everyone into end users, but such is the nature of Saecular plots of the panjandrums.

More later,