Monday, 18 June 2012


Neal Stephenson Anathem (2008)

In praising Anathem, the Kansas City Star suggested that Neil Stephenson has reached Stephen King and J.K. Rowling territory, whilst something called the Chicago Sun-Times opined that what some folks are calling a once-in-a-decade sci-fi classic is, in fact, a best-ever genre-crushing power script that defies simple classification.


What the fuck is a power-script?

I suppose someone called Brad might have a power-script tucked in his briefcase in between the arse futures portfolio and a manual on how to enbusiness one's potentiality by punching the air like Tom Cruise in that show me some money film.

Anyway, regardless of hyperbole, Anathem is, for better or worse, nine-hundred pages welding The Name of the Rose onto Rendezvous with Rama - sort of - providing you keep in mind that I've seen The Name of the Rose on VHS but haven't read the book so this verdict is possibly less authoritative than it may appear in the rear view mirror.

Arbre is a planet much like Earth with 7,000 years of scrupulously mapped history which plausibly yields a society wherein monasteries are full of atheist or at least agnostic monks discussing quantum theory and Platonic ideals whilst the outside world enjoys technology without wanting any more atom bombs, genetic engineering or any of that other fancy stuff thank you very much. The first half of the tale more or less comprises said monks enjoying enlightened discourse in the loose tradition of seventeenth century novels in which a couple of blokes talk about whether the sun really revolves around the Earth in the form of much speechifying. Anathem does something similar whilst remaining roughly engrossing as we learn more about the history of Arbre and dip our toes into discussion of alternate worlds and the perfect Platonic forms, all set against an evocatively monastic backdrop which feels  fifteenth century rather than extraterrestrial. Intrigue builds as the brothers and sisters discover an unidentified object in orbit of their planet which is gradually revealed as a colossal spacecraft made of gravel. This takes up the first half of the story, a lovely build up suggesting the advent of an entirely believable first contact.

Unfortunately, it flags a bit after that, once they all start doing the Arthur C. Clarke thing. The aliens turn out to be a whole lot like ourselves - due to our shared heritage as different shadows cast upon the wall of Plato's proverbial cave - and the gravel ship seems to be an intergalactic conference centre, or at least that's how it felt when I was reading about it; and after nine hundred pages I still don't have much of a clue as to why the Geometers, as the aliens are known, bothered to show up, aside from their providing a talking point by which our monks are prompted to discuss probability and really hard sums at length.

It's not bad by any means, just something of a disappointment. The first half is wonderful, the second a little dull, and most frustrating of all, the only reason I can see for this being set on an alien world is so as to provide the brief Tharg's Future Shock by revealing that one of the characters brought along on the gravel ship is from Earth just in case we were expecting to Arbre to be revealed as the distant future of our own planet. The author explains that he has translated Anathem from Orth, so most terms are likely to be closest equivalent and words like potato refer to something resembling a potato which isn't a potato as we would understand. This works so far as references to computers or mobile phones -  rendered here as syntactic devices and jeehahs - might prove distracting under the circumstances, but it also requires the reader to acclimatise to a lot of new and unfamiliar words that probably don't actually need to be new and unfamiliar words whilst nevertheless stumbling across incongruous gobbets of dialogue that apparently translate as hey, you guys are crazy! and the like. Most annoyingly, all the philosophical shite might have been a little easier to follow had I not had to spend quite so much time reminding myself which historical figure represents their Pythagoras, their Plato, and so on.

The finale is some sort of symbolic union, the marriage of two main characters - oddly lacking in impact with the female partner being someone with whom the reader is barely familiar - echoing the establishment of a new monastery combining scientific and religious schools of thought, settling an age old conflict which I'm not convinced the novel featured in significant depth. I mean it's there, but much of Anathem's disparity between secular and monastic seems cultural rather than theologically inspired.

Arthur C. Clarke did this better.

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