EPS Review #190 - Anathem

Anathem , by Neal Stephenson, Atlantic Books 2008, 937pp.

After the enormous and picaresque Baroque Cycle I did not expect to be reading another thousand-pager Stephenson book anytime soon, but I was wrong. This one is about a world separated for seven thousand years into a walled-off monastic-scientific culture and a popular-secular every-day world. The former is stable and progressive though technology has been restrained by various sacks from outside, while latter goes through the usual historical cycles, including nuclear winters.

The book is slow-moving, and filled with Socratic dialogs with slightly altered names. Some of these have pointlessly been moved to appendices, in an extremely minimal attempt at editing. I read them all in sequence. If you buy into Stephenson, then you buy in all the way.

Criscan went on, "Uthentine said to Erasmas, 'I see you are teaching your fids about Directed Acyclic Graphs; when are you going to move on to ones that are a little more interesting.' To which Erasmas said, 'I beg your pardon, but that's no DAG, it is something else entirely.' This affronted Suur Uthentine, who was a theor who had devoted her whole career to the study of such things. 'I know a DAG when I see one,' she said. Erasmas was exasperated, but on reflection, he decided it might be worth following up on his suur's upright. So Uthentine and Erasmas developed Complex Protism."

The monastic stability is maintained by limiting contact with the outside world. Sets of monks open their doors only once every 10, 100 or 1000 years. There are mysterious rumors about the abilities and pursuits of the Thousanders. I do not think that I am giving too much away to say that the quantum many-world theory is central to the story. The idea that the brain is a device that filters nearby quantum-possible worlds in parallel as trains of thought is a nifty one. I do not know if this is a summary of what Penrose suggested in The Emperor's New Mind because I have yet to crack that book open, and may never, to be honest.

I was genuinely thrilled by parts of this story, and even felt a sort of comfort that I last recall feeling as a very young man reading LOTR. [ Possible spoiler ] Strangely enough, for me a killer moment was the words: "[ ... ] we call it a Faraday Cage." Read it and see.

Not as funny as Quicksilver and so on, but it does make one think more than most novels do.

The hay-bale weight of this opus as it wobbled over my wrists on the train made me think for the very first time that I might like a Kindle.

You can hear the associated music, if you like. It should be to my taste, since I mostly listen to Renaissance polyphony, but alas it does not approach Josquin .

The book references the Long Now Foundation, which interests my Dubno friends.

Mike wrote:

I haven't read my copy yet due to the sheer weight. I was going to take it on my little trip to San Fran the other day but it didn't fit in my backpack. I had the same idea of getting a Kindle to deal with it but I'm going to wait until the next gen.

Neal had actually been to the Clock of the Long Now mountain and was asked to write something about it. A few years later, it is said, he wrote the book because he was inspired by the clock. The official book release was done at the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco and I missed it by a few days.

I didn't read your review other than scanning for "Long Now" because I didn't want to know anything before reading it.

Ravi wrote:

If you do go with the electronic reader route let me know. Was narrowly dissuaded from buying the Sony. Had a nice time at the Booker dinner -- will tell you more when we meet.

Tom wrote:

[ appendices ] That's how I felt about the second edition of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Instead of doing a proper rewrite, all of the revisions are in the form of footnotes. He felt that was more intellectually honest, but it was just a hassle for the reader.

[ Penrose ] I may be cracking that tome soon, though I haven't gotten very far along with Susan Blackmore's Conversations on Consciousness.