Impressions of Anathem

It had been a while since I’d read anything by Neal Stephenson.  I liked his early stuff, but got bogged down in the Baroque Cycle, and it took me a while to get back around to him, since I had a hefty backlog of books.  But, recently I picked up Anathem and read through it; these are my impressions.

My first impression was that Anathem bore a striking resemblance to Harry Potter.  Both have orphans as heroes; both involve schools of “otherworldy” knowledge; both have larger world events that are meddled with by a spunky group of younger folk who insert themselves into the plots of their elders; both use latin-derived jargon to explain their slightly eccentric (though ultimately familiar) worlds; both educate the reader by educating the main character.  It’s an interesting dynamic, because Anathem was immediately more readable than Quicksilver had been.  I got into it faster, got hooked on it faster, and charged through it largely without interruption.  I don’t think, or claim, that Stephenson intentionally copied (or appropriated) structures from Rowling, but this kind of semiotic symmetry may help readers who are familiar with one of the works to engage with the other.  Or, it might just be a coincidence.

As I got further into the book, the second thing that struck me was that, like Cryptonomicon, it relies on a very particular and peculiar set of reader knowledges.  While it starts with basic philosophy, geometry, and linguistic play, over the course of the novel, there are a broad range of references, subtexts, and informing narratives, including (but not limited to) phenomenology, epistemology, semiotics, astronomy, theoretical spaceship designs, quantum mechanics, French, the P/NP problem, kung-fu movies, economics, sociology, and game theory.  Now, I’m sure that you could read the book and enjoy it without an in-depth knowledge of all of those topics, but it is interesting that the book posits a reader who is at least interested, if not already familiar, with that range of fields.  Just to take two, the intersection of people who are interested in linguistic theory and who are familiar with Turing machines is not a huge set.  I wonder to what extent the set of people who read Stephenson, or at least those who enjoy this particular work, could be considered a distinct sub-culture precisely because of the particular overlapping fields of interest that are necessary for a full engagement with the material.  If so, I bet most of those people also read Harry Potter.  It would probably also be a safe bet that a lot of those people read Godel, Escher, Bach.

The last impression that I will share is that once I finished the book, I found the unresolved tension between Platonism and Empiricism unsatisfying.  In many ways, Anathem is a multi-faceted defense of Platonism, which may be argued to have fallen out of favor in an increasingly materially and ephemerally-focused world.  I’m not going to argue the resolution of the main plot line (no spoilers here), but the structural model of the HTW as polycosmic quantum entanglement privileges the form over the substance.  That’s an interesting position for a writer to take, since, after all, writers are accountable for (and often obsessed by) their specific uses of language.  More than many, poets and storytellers tend to be aware of the precision of their medium; comedians are the only ones who jump to mind as being more so.  To fall back on language as an embodiment of thought, rather than as an enactment, or performance, subordinates the writer to the thinker in a very tangible way.  Matthew Arnold (in Culture and Anarchy) as early as the 19th century formed a much more interesting structure of mutuality, and the refinements of dialectics and discursive formations since then would seem to provide a much broader range of models.  It is tempting to read the work as artifact against its own structural thematics, but I fear that would lead only to a stale, Derridean conclusion.  In most circumstances, I would consider that an unnecessarily opaque and abstract point, but given the sub-culture for whom this particular book appeals, I think it is fitting.