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Whining about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

January 31, 2012

(This is an ill-tempered, badly written rant that will probably mean very little to anyone who has not read the book, but one of the reasons I wanted to have a blog in the first place was to give me a way to exorcize such rants from my mind, so . . . )

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is a very odd book, and one whose appeal I do not understand.

I don’t think it would be unfair to call it an piece of expository nonfiction disguised as a novel. Virtues like plot momentum, characterization, drama, verisimilitude, and the like are subordinated to exposition. The book intends to do one thing, and one thing only — it intends to expose the reader to a set of concepts and arguments Stephenson finds interesting. Stephenson is pretty explicit about this in his acknowledgements:

Anathem is best read in somewhat the same spirit as John L. Casti’s The Cambridge Quintet, which is to say that it is a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth’s past and present.

There’s nothing wrong with this as a goal. Sometimes ideas go down better when put in the mouths of characters — anyway, that’s one possible explanation for the appeal of philosophical dialogues. (Anathem, in fact, includes a lot of exchanges that sound, self-consciously, like philosophical dialogues.) And by using an entertaining story as a delivery system, an author can get concepts across to people who would never encounter them otherwise. What’s disappointing and perplexing is how flimsy Anathem‘s delivery system is, how little appeal it has on the level of pure story. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.)

The characters are made of cardboard. The dialogue is stiff and artificial, full of exposition awkwardly jammed into characters’ mouths through unconvincing “as you know, Bob” devices and the like. This is the kind of book in which characters often make jokes that are not actually funny, requiring the narrator to explain to the reader that a joke has been made — the point being not to make the reader laugh, but to convince the reader that the characters are people and not robots. The setting is a fictional alternate universe which is described in loving detail, but which is strangely uninteresting, since many features of its culture turn on, upon examination, to be features of our own world given new names. (The alternate history includes a Rome-like empire called “Baz”; Catholics are “Bazian Orthodox” and Protestants are “Counter-Bazian”; Socrates, Plato and the Sophists are “Thelenes,” “Protas” and the “Sphenics”; academic scientists/logicians are “Halikaarnians” while humanists are “Procians”; philosophy and theoretical science are “theorics”; the internet is the “Reticulum”; smartphones are “jeejahs”; Occam’s Razor is someone-or-other’s steelyard; etc.)

The plot moves at an absurdly slow pace: the plot contains a total of maybe three or four major revelations, each separated from the next by hundreds of pages of dithering and blather. There is a huge amount of scene-setting before finally, on page 300 or so, we get introduced to something that, in some science fiction novels, would appear on page 1: the characters discover that an alien spaceship is hovering over their planet! It isn’t until maybe page 600 or so that, after a huge amount of overly obvious foreshadowing involving theories of “the polycosm,” that the next big plot point drops: the spaceship is from an alternate universe!

In some science fiction novels, the alternate universe concept would just be tossed off in the course of a page or two, and things would move on. In Anathem, the concept itself is the whole point. There are, I would guess, upwards of 100 pages of dialogue in the book solely about whether alternate universes could exist, whether they could interact with the universe in which the book is set, their possible relation to a much-discussed realm of Platonic mathematical forms (the “Hylean Theoric World”), whether they can be understood by invoking the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, etc. The book does very, very little with its alien spaceships and alternate universes; it ends, so to speak, where many science fiction stories would begin. Rather than crafting stories about the effects of these concepts, it crafts a story about people who try to understand them.

Yet very little understanding is achieved. Despite all the long-winded argumentation, the key concepts and arguments remain vague. The basic line of thought that leads the characters to the alternate-universe idea in the first place is odd and questionable. (Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the aliens and their ship are made of “newmatter,” a special sort of matter that could conceivably be formed in an alternate version of the Big Bang — but which the characters also know how to produce technologically on their own planet, which would seem to render the alternate universe explanation unnecessary.) The characters talk on and on about the Hylaean Theoric World, but it is never clear exactly what the term means. A realm of perfect mathematical ideas that influences the real world? But what form would that influence take? Mathematical inspiration? The mathematical nature of fundamental physical law? Both? No one is ever quite clear on this score.

Why did this book make me angry? Because it sacrifices so much for so little gain. With 1000 pages of pure, hardcore exposition, uncorrupted by any need for likable characters or humor or action or plausibility, the least Stephenson could do was create a truly captivating web of concepts. Yet all he really gives us is a few ideas about alternate universes and Platonic forms bolstered by a few vaguely specified and unconvincing (though very, very long-winded!) arguments. The book received a good deal of high praise from reviewers for being “philosophical,” for challenging the reader to engage with big ideas. What’s funny is that the conceptual burden of Anathem is actually much lighter than that of many science fiction and fantasy novels (no — of many novels, period). Readers are capable of absorbing information at a much faster rate than Stephenson presents it; a reader of Anathem is more in danger of being bored than being overwhelmed. The difference is that in other novels, readers will gladly do the “work” of puzzling through a confusing fictional edifice as long as they have some prior investment in finding out what happens. Give people a fun protagonist or a bit of action and they’ll ingest ten Anathems worth of “theorics” without complaint. In some perverse way, maybe the very austerity of Anathem is its appeal: people (like the book’s many rave reviewers) felt that something so boring must be good for them, like eating vegetables. To me, it just felt wasteful and insulting.

(I haven’t even mentioned one of the core conceits of the setting, which is a group of academic, non-religious monasteries called “concents” that live in slow, measured contemplation in isolation from the outside world. I think the concents are a cool idea, but one that Stephenson doesn’t fully make convincing. In any case, I don’t want to go into them because the book isn’t really about them, just as it is not really about the characters. As Stephenson himself would admit, the whole setting is a pretext for conceptual exposition.)

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