World of Wonders

Neal Stephenson’s massive new novel is obsessive, adolescent, and thoroughly delightful
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Editor’s Note

This article was first published by Culture11 on October 12, 2008. Reprinted with permission on

In his massive new book Anathem, Neal Stephenson does a lot of things wrong. He does a poor job of establishing and making sense of human relationships: The protagonist of Anathem, a young man named Erasmas, cares most deeply for two people, but no real groundwork is laid to account for the strength of either attachment. Some key plot elements are left utterly unclear, especially how the book’s chief characters end up playing such a central role in a story that seems too big for most of them. Stephenson has — this is true to some degree of all his books — an excessive love of describing built environments and the kind of technology we usually call “gadgetry.” And his prose, while serviceable, has its occasional significant lapses: I note especially the last sentence of the book, which is grammatically shaky at best.

But who cares? Anathem is a wonderful book whose ambitions and real achievements are such that its flaws should cheerfully be overlooked.

Stephenson began his career in 1984 with an academic satire called The Big U. It differs from his later novels by being (a) not very good, (b) unconcerned with technology, and (c) relatively short. In the next decade he moved into William Gibsonesque cyberpunk territory, most successfully in Snow Crash (1992), which with its excursions into Sumerian mythology gave a hint of things to come — those things being Stephenson’s elaborate strategies for shoehorning a great deal of his obviously voluminous reading into his fiction. In 1999’s Cryptonomicon — twice the size of Snow Crash, three times that of The Big U — you learn a heck of a lot about cryptographic strategies old and new, about pipe organs, about the origins of computers and their later developments. And whoa, isn’t that Alan Turing? Why, yes it is.

In Stephenson’s next endeavor, the Baroque Cycle — made up of three thousand-pagers — his interest in history, and especially the history of science and technology, continues and intensifies. Imagine, if you can, a vast sweeping mega-picaresque, rather like Tom Jones on crystal meth, concerned with cryptography (again), numismatics, the idea of currency, piracy of several types, and the invention of the calculus.

Any reader who made it to the end of the Cycle, whether exhilarated or exhausted or (likely) both, would have to wonder where in the world Stephenson would go next. And the answer is: nowhere in the world: elsewhere.

Anathem is set on a planet named Arbre; it is very much not Earth, though resemblances between it and our world are significant. As we are introduced to the narrative’s present-day environment, we also learn that some four thousand years earlier in Arbre’s history there had been a worldwide catastrophe known as the Terrible Events, a catastrophe ushered in by technological prowess run amuck. Recovery from these Events (“Reconstitution”) was predicated upon a strict segregation of the best technological and scientific minds from what came to be known as the Saeculum. The Saecular Power — whatever it happens to be in any given age — allows those minds to pursue their own interests but only in monastic environments known as “maths.” Those whose inclination towards “theorics” — what we would call science, analytical philosophy, and mathematics — makes them unhappy or unsettled or perhaps even dangerous in the Saecular world are allowed to enter the maths and become “avout” — people dedicated for some fixed period of time to the mathic life and not allowed during that time to venture “extramuros.” For some, life “intramuros” is a brief period of training or reflection; for others it becomes their lifetime’s calling.

(Yes, the terminology is daunting, but it is also fun. Because readers can figure out the roots of most of the words, we get the sense of an intellectual and cultural history that’s like our own but — to varying degrees in different areas — intriguingly different. Philip Pullman uses the same trick in the His Dark Materials trilogy to indicate a just-slightly-alternate world. And Stephenson has even more reason to use this technique that Pullman did.)

These avout, like Christian monks, take a vow of poverty, but one imposed by the Saecular authorities, who are determined to prevent them from acquiring and developing technology that could give them material power — the kind of power that produced the Terrible Events. The avout, then, are driven into a purely contemplative life, and have developed over the centuries (drawing on ancient practices) a system of education based on what thay call “dialog” but we would call dialectics or the Socratic method. They have also developed a complex ritual life: Much in the mathic world echoes Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game,with its focus on a very similar quasi-monastic intellectual community, but nothing more so than the way the contemplative life of the avout centers on highly mathematical forms of music.

It is important to understand that, also like Hesse’s Castalians, the avout tend not to be religious — in fact, belief in God is usually considered a straying from their proper orientation to the world, though some of the many orders of avout have so strayed. In general, religion is a phenomenon of the Saeculum; the closest analogue among the avout occurs in those orders that believe in and contemplate the Hylaean Theoric World, or HTW — what the Platonists among us would call the Forms. But only some avout are Idealists, and many others consider them naïvely mystical.

Dispersed throughout the book are extended “dialogs” on these topics: on the nature of the HTW, the relation between it and our world, the value of contemplating ideal forms, the relations between these ideal forms and music, mathematics, and physics. These dialogs alternate with scenes of dramatic adventure, involving death-defying journeys to the North Pole, strange and powerful weapons, political intrigue and espionage, and a group of awesomely cool avout from a place called the Ringing Vale (think: ninja monks). Also a love story or two, and a crisis which threatens to be as vast and transformative as the Terrible Events — but I can’t say anything more about that.

The book is also, at times, very funny, especially if you like geek-insider jokes. And if you don’t, the jokes never get in the way. They constitute a kind of lagniappe, a little something extra.

There is no doubt that some readers will be frustrated by the way the action keeps getting interrupted by the dialogs and by various extended exercises in purely intellectual problem-solving. But the relation between these very different kinds of human experience is, really, the whole point of the book. The terrifying threat faced by the book’s chief characters — who, young avout just past the “fid” or postulant stage, have an improbably central role in this pivotal and world-historical moment — is one that the Saeculum is manifestly incapable of responding to. Indeed, even if Arbre’s intellectuals had continued all along to play a technocratic role in society, and even if (a big if) their technocracy had managed to avoid generating a new set of Terrible Events, it is not clear that they could have addressed the challenge either. The most provocative thought suggested byAnathemis that a civilization could be confronted by a predicament unaddressable except by people who have been insulated from everyday life for thousands of years with nothing but chalkboards, paper, profound intelligence, and a strong sense of their own intellectual inheritance.

Stephenson has a long history of fascination with all forms of technology: Early in his career he gave primary attention to futuristic possibilities, but lately (especially in the enormous Baroque Cycle) he has been especially attentive to the achievements of earlier eras. In Anathem we get some of both. It is Stephenson’s delight to describe technologies, in detail that is always exhaustive and sometimes exhausting. Erasmas’s loving and painstaking depiction of his mathic home, the Concent of Saunt Edhar, occupies many of the book’s early pages, and I found his account utterly compelling — I had to keep resisting the urge to stop and draw maps of Saunt Edhar. But when a similarly detailed description of a still more complex built environment commenced some eight hundred pages into the novel, I was too tired to care — at that stage I didn’t relish immersion in a wholly new world, nor, I think, will many readers. At points like this Stephenson resembles no one so much as a crank inventor who can’t resist telling you everything about what’s going on in his basement workroom. In the words of the poet Blake, “Enough! or Too much.”

Others will, perhaps, have similar feelings about the dialogs, and that would be understandable, though they are done vividly indeed and I enjoyed almost all of them; the exceptions come, alas, in the latter stages of the books, where certain admittedly complex ideas are I think nonetheless belabored. But this is the problem with all of Stephenson’s books of the past decade, starting with Cryptonomicon (1999): He has more energy than his readers are likely to have.

But what a wonderful problem! Stephenson is immensely and delightedly curious about an astonishingly wide range of ideas and disciplines — from cryptography to mechanical computers and clocks to steam engines to calculus and geometry to martial arts to quantum-theoretical accounts of infinite possible worlds — and not many readers are likely to be able to catch up with it all. But even for those who fall behind there is, or should be, admiration for Stephenson’s sheer love of ideas, and his belief that fiction can be a powerful means for communicating those ideas and infecting others with a love of them — a love of them and a conviction that they matter, that, as another long-winded novelist once said, ideas have consequences.

Stephenson doesn’t get noticed by many of our best critics — it’s simply impossible to imagine a James Wood essay about Stephenson (though ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished). There will always be someone to step up and decry Stephenson’s interests as “adolescent,” simply because many adolescents (especially socially awkward male ones) are fascinated by the things that fascinate Stephenson. But then, the most “literary” of novels tend to be occupied with teasing out every implication, however subtle and even vaporous, of human relationships, and that’s an adolescent concern too, isn’t it? — just one that occupies a different subset of teenagers.

“Adolescent” is a sneer, not a critique. The important questions are these: Does Stephenson make his ideas live? Does he make us want to care about then as he does? Do those ideas matter —should they matter — to thoughtful people? Yes; yes; yes. Anathem is going to sell a hell of a lot of copies, but it’s also an important and exciting book, and deserves more serious reflection from serious people than it is ever likely to get.

Alan Jacobs, “World of Wonders,” Culture11, October 12, 2008.

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