Having received one of the three seals of approval needed to proceed to the next stage of the terrible life choice I've made, I decided to treat myself to a brief sojourn from it-that-must-not-be-named in order to spend some time with something not yet on any syllabus anywhere.

I first read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon four or five summers ago; three years ago I read Quicksilver and The Confusion, the first two parts of The Baroque Cycle. I finally got round to part three, The System of the World, two years ago. If you're not familiar with Stephenson's works, they're incredibly complex, extraordinarily detailed, and meticulously researched. The three volumes of The Baroque Cycle are among my favorite works of historical fiction, and they certainly top the list of modern novels set in the long eighteenth century. (If anyone can point me to more, suggestions are welcome--no more David Liss for the moment, please, unless you are absolutely sure I'd find The Whiskey Rebels compelling.) Stephenson's writing lacks emotional complexity, his female characters are generally underdeveloped, and his endings don't always pay off to the extent you'd like, but the worlds he creates and the plots he weaves through them are thoroughly engrossing. At no point over the course of The Baroque Cycle's roughly 2000 pages did I feel like I was wasting my time. In short, I'm a fan.

Stephenson's latest is called Anathem, a term mutually derived from "anthem" and "anathema." It's set well into what we would identify as our future--so much so that our own time has become ancient history. The reason I can write about this novel in a blog ostensibly dedicated to all things Enlightenment is summarized quite nicely by Stephenson himself in one the "extras" available on his website (careful if you visit; you might encounter spoilers): "the metaphysical thread linking The Baroque Cycle to Anathem begins with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s Monadology, available in various translations, online and otherwise. The idea was submerged for much of the 18th and 19th Centuries but gained currency during the 20th as the inspiration for background-independent formulations of physics." I haven't read Monadology, but I am familiar enough with its basic propositions that I can follow the line from the 18th to the 21st to whatever century Anathem takes place in.

Stephenson explores a number of fairly heady philosophies that range from Platonism and almost-but-not-entirely-un-veiled theories about Ideal Forms to twentieth and twenty-first-century formulations of quantum mechanics. I'm no philosopher, but in addition to the more easily recognized philosophies that emerged from ancient Greece as well as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers like Descartes, Liebniz, Locke, Newton, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, I managed to spot some of what I knew from my brief dalliances with general relativity, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and superstring theory. I've always found these things fascinating if a bit over my head, and there are definitely moments at which I felt myself holding on to the book for dear life, but as usual Stephenson gives you enough to keep up even if you have to let some things fall by the wayside. The protagonist, Fraa Erasmas ("fraa" is a title rather than a name, and it carries essentially the same value as our "fra," though without a religious connotation) is a nineteen-year-old student in what amounts to a kind of think-tank, so from the outset learning (mostly in the form of what characters refer to as "dialogs") is foregrounded as a matter of critical importance; characters and readers alike are clearly in for some education.

Speaking of education, students, and schools, readers of the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials series will certainly see parallels; Stephenson takes elements from both and embeds them in a much more sophisticated universe not readily accessible by younger readers. Stephenson has spoken about the failure of Rowling's works to break into what we (snooty bastards that we are) would call Literature, and with Anathem I think he's attempting to elevate the parts he likes to a higher plane. The "concent" in which much of the early action takes place reads like equal parts Pullman's Oxford and Rowling's Hogwarts, which of course were already connected; wands, magic spells, and armored bears aside, Stephenson seems to be portraying some of what might go on in such places at the graduate level. The read therefore is neither as fast nor as fun, but it is in its way far more intellectually rewarding--if, at the end, a bit joyless.

There's a bit more I'd like to say about the connection of Anathem to the Long Now Foundation, but Stephenson does it for me (again, check the website), so really this paragraph amounts to a plug for that entirely fascinating organization. I'll just say in conclusion that some critics have described Anathem as--well, dull. They're not entirely wrong; it lacks the zip of The Baroque Cycle and the immediacy of Cryptonomicon. Thus far, however, I'm thinking about Anathem more in the aftermath of reading it than I did with the others and liking it a bit more in the finish than the palate. If you've read it or are going to read it, I'd like to hear your thoughts.

For some of the weird, some of the world, and some of the words from the dictionary provided alongside both, check out the following widget. But don't watch the trailer. It's awful.

No comments: