Thought vs plot

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

The narrator of Anathem is a young man, Fraa Erasmus, who is about to enter his tenth year in one of the concents that form the segragated Avout society on the planet Arbre, separate from the “saeculer” society. The fraas and suurs hold and advance disciplines that we would call philosophy, religion, science and theoretics within boundaries that have been defined by the saecular government during three previous sacks – times when the concents were attacked and/or destroyed by suspicious marauding groups. Then one day, Erasmus’ mentor Orolo discovers something in the sky… and everything changes.

So far, it sounds like a typical Sci-Fi/Fantasy plotline, but this is Neal Stephenson we’re talking about. Anathem is as much a treatise or a didactic dialogue as it is an “end of the world” plot-twister. Some reviewers have had problems with the language, and Stephenson provides a glossary at the end of the book to help them along. For me, the language wasn’t a problem – in fact, some of his neologisms were quite clever “sideways glances” at our own English language – concents, fraas, suurs, theorics, arks, avouts, saunt, incanter, and the self-evident bullshytt. Each chapter opens with a definition from the dictionary of AR 3000, that, much like the OED, reveals the life of the word through Arbre history.

In fact, it’s the sideways glancing that is probably one of the most effective tropes of the book. It’s very easy to see Earth in Arbre but with enough distortion (typical of SF, of course) that we gain the distance and wry humour of observation.

Typical of Stephenson, there are long descriptions of clock workings, slapdash building, intricate architecture, technology and the like–some of which, like the singing trees in LOTR, are probably the parts most skipped over by the non-ubergeeks. But it’s the tangle of the philosophic dialogues where I’m sure most people drift off and/or close up the book and turn on Mythbusters instead.

The theorics of the avout are historied, and a big part of avout life involves theoric smackdowns among disciplines and generations. Though some of the thought plays a role in the main plotline–the threat to civilization as they know it–it’s also the part of the book where Stephenson’s penchant for mastubatory writing is most evident. It’s not that none would be better (though what’s left could still be a good story with more umph), but that less would be better, or perhaps more concise would be better. It’s very hard to care strongly about the characters when action is frequently slowed down while they meander painfully through basic Platonic and neo-Platonic thought, Semiotics, Saussurian linguistics, Nietzchian, quantum physics and multiverse cosmology. I guess my thinking is that if they’re that damn smart, they could do it in less than 900 pages.

It’s hard to have empathy for characters conceived in such an intellectual soup. And when Stephenson tries to get to more fleshly matters, he’s horrible at it, which doesn’t help. There’s not a lot of feeling in this book, certainly not enough to really bring the plotline to life. The final scene is like an Austen finish grafted on to Ph D thesis, borg-like.

I enjoyed the language, enjoyed the “fish out of water” experiences as the avouts move into the saecular, some of the theorics (especially when the avouts use parables), but attention to the theorics is definitely at the cost of a story that could have been really good.

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