Monday, June 1, 2009

Readings 2K9: Anathem

by Neal Stephenson

This is not a bad book, but I’m reluctant to go so far as to actually call it good. It’s an odd sort of science-fiction novel; it’s really a set of extended philosophical dialogues, given a few nods toward a novel form. It takes place on another world, in which human history has followed a path roughly analogous to Western civilization on Earth (with analogues for Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and so forth), though it's set a few thousand years after the point analogous to the present. Scientist-philosophers are contained within monastery-like maths, while outside their walls cultures and civilisations rise and fall. Anathem follows Erasmas, one of the inhabitants of a math; the first third or so of the book sees Erasmas getting involved with politics and mysteries within the math, the next third is a kind of father-quest in which he seeks an absent mentor-figure, and the last chunk of the book brings together and sums up all the mysteries of the setting with an adventure into space. It’s a nicely structured sf adventure story, then, with a constantly escalating series of payoffs.

Except it isn’t, really. The action, the forward movement of the plot, is sporadic at best. It seems to exist as a vehicle to move from one pseudo-Socratic dialogue to another. It’s like sf’s traditional weakness for infodumps and digressions has been apotheosized; taken to the utmost degree, it has become the main structural principle of the book, so that the novel (like a literal-minded Tristram Shandy) is composed primarily of digressions — which, it must be said, turn out in many cases to be not as digressive as they appear. Still, there’s no doubt this could have been a much shorter and more streamlined story, had Stephenson wished it.

Personally, I don’t think the book quite makes its case for its circuitous presentation of its ideas. One of the aspects of the nature of fiction lies in its difference from philosophy; fiction is philosophy in action, if you like, ideas given dramatic form. Anathem recoils from drama; even when important things happen, they tend not to be dramatic in the usual sense — hinging on human choice. Indeed, the novel’s extrapolation of its central premises suggests that choice is in a way moot; all possible outcomes of a given situation may be seen as equally valid. Which is an interesting thought-experiment, but Stephenson doesn't translate it into an interesting story structure.

Stephenson crafts the novel well on the sentence level. He coins new words, which are sometimes clumsy (and sometimes jarring) plays on standard English terms, but which occasionally bear more weight. One of the made-up words, “Suvin”, is almost certainly a reference to sf critic Darko Suvin, for example. His sentences are clever and occasionally intricate; his humour mostly works, and the book is readable enough.

The underlying science-fictional ideas are familiar. The ‘theorics’ studied at the maths are basically physics with some math and philosophy; so there's another sense here in which this is a classical science fiction story — physicists and physics students trying to save the world, in opposition to politicians and unenlightened non-scientists. It feels like a traditional sf juvenile, with students working out secrets of the world through sheer cleverness.

Unfortunately, it falls into the stereotypical pitfall of old-school science-fiction: the characters are rudimentary, to be polite. Erasmas has a crush on one character for the first two or three hundred pages, but if you don’t read closely you could easily miss it — it’s not like he actually does anything about it, or has his way of thinking affected by his emotion. Incredibly, Erasmas later discovers he’s actually in love with somebody he’s known for years; even more incredibly, we’re expected to believe that her removal from the math later that same day is a serious driving force for him. 

There’s a terminal blandness afflicting many of the characters, and it’s why at the end of the day I can’t bring myself to call this book a success. There’s nothing memorable on a human level in this novel. Even the father-figure Erasmas seeks in the novel’s middle part is flat; he works, to the extent that he works at all, only because he reminds us of mentor-figures in other stories, similar characters in similar roles in better books. This is kind of appropriate, given the notions of ideal forms Stephenson pays around with — archetypes as ideals. But in the end, all the book does is demonstrate the gap between the ideal and the real; and suggest that, in certain ways, it is the latter which is more interesting.

No comments: