We have a protractor

September 20, 2010 at 2:52 pm 1 comment

| Gabriel |

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem opens with the worst instrument in the history of survey research. A monastery of cloistered science-monks is about to open its gates to the outside world for a brief decennial festival and they are interviewing one of the few ordinary people with whom they have regular contact about what they can expect outside. The questions are as vague and etic as imaginable and the respondent has a hard time interpreting them. The reason the questions are so bad is that the monks are almost completely cut off from society and the instrument has been in continuous use for millenia.

The monks call society the “secular world” which sounds strange given that these monks are atheists, but makes sense if you remember that “secular” means “in time” and in English we use this word to mean “non-religious” because St. Augustine argued that God exists outside of time and Pope Gelasius elaborated this argument to develop a theory of  the Church’s magisterium. Anyway, the monks in Anathem are so separate from society that in a very real sense they too exist outside of time. To the extent that the outside world does impinge on their experience, it is mostly with the threat of a “sack,” an anti-intellectual pogrom that tends to happen every few centuries.

Thus the novel, especially the first third, is primarily a thought experiment about what it would look like if we were to take the ivory tower as a serious aspiration. I mean, imagine never struggling to figure out what the broader impacts are of your research for purposes of a grant proposal because you’re opposed in principle to the very idea of broader impacts and strive for such perfect lack of them that you asymptotically approach “causal domain shear,” meaning that nothing in the monastery affects the outside world and vice versa. Also, you never go through tenure review because you can stay in the monastery as long as you want (intellectual deadweight are gently shifted to full-time semi-skilled manual labor). OK, there are some pretty big downsides compared to academia here on Earth. You have to do all your calculations by hand as you are forbidden computers and most other modern technology. You spend half the day chanting and gardening. Your only possessions are a bathrobe and a magic beach ball. When you break the rules they punish you by sending you into solitary for a few months to study for a field exam on gibberish. And as previously mentioned, once or twice every thousand years the yokels storm your office and lynch you.

The most easily ridiculed and stereotypically science-fiction-y aspect of the book is the abundance of neologisms. When I started reading it, I found the whole alternative vocabulary very distracting and I did a lot of on-the-fly translation from Stephenson to English. I mean, I understand the need to coin terms like “centarian” (members of a monastery whose cloistered status is relaxed only once a century) when there is no good English equivalent, but it’s mostly* gratuitous to talk about a “Counter-Bazian ark” instead of a “Protestant church,” a “jee-jaw” instead of an “iPhone,” “Syntactic Faculty” instead of “nominalism,” “Semantic Faculty” instead of “naturalism,” or “Orth” instead of “Latin.” Likewise, I found myself constantly interpreting the dates by adding 2200.** Fortunately after a few hundred pages this didn’t bother me, not so much because I thought it was justified, but because I was sufficiently acclimated to it and enjoying the novel that I didn’t notice anymore. Still, I would have preferred it if he just set the book in the future of an alternate Earth which had science monks but didn’t have a bunch of silly vocabulary.

Also, for better or worse, several of the secondary characters were basically recycled from Cryptonomicon. So the outdoorsman Yul and his tom boy girlfriend Cord are basically the same people as the outdoorsman Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy. Likewise, the asshole master Procian Fraa Lodoghir is basically the same person as the asshole celebrity postmodernist GEB Kivistik.

Oh, and there’s kung fu.

*If you want to know what I mean by “mostly,” read the book’s spoiler-tastic Wikipedia page and figure it out.

**Aside from the whole science monasteries thing, the book’s backstory closely parallels actual political and intellectual history through the “Praxic” (read: modern) age. Their dating system is pegged to a horrific nuclear war in about the year 2200 AD rather than to the foundation of the Bazian church (read: the birth of Christ). The novel’s present is 3700 years after the nuclear apocalypse, or about the equivalent of the year 6000 AD.

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1 Comment

  • 1. JenniferRM  |  September 24, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    Fortunately after a few hundred pages this didn’t bother me, not so much because I thought it was justified, but because I was sufficiently acclimated to it and enjoying the novel that I didn’t notice anymore.

    I acclimated within about 80 pages or so, and eventually started enjoying the process of tracking down the orthologs and trying to figure out what the differences were and if they were supposed to be meaningful.

    I’ve heard that The Name Of The Rose was purposefully difficult at the beginning because Umberto Eco was an arrogant ass who wanted to filter out readers who were insufficiently persistent. I’m not even sure that’s true of Eco, but I could imagine Stephenson doing something similarly “anthropic” with his readers.

    You seem right about the re-use of characters, but its also worth mentioning (I think this won’t spoil much) that the entire story arc aligns pretty well with Snow Crash. It would be interesting to know if the way this supports the theme of “finding orthologs to alternate realities” is intentional or not🙂


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