Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review of Anathem, Neal Stephenson.

Several years ago a science PhD student virtually compelled me to read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I think it followed a discussion about how to get scientists to enjoy reading novels, and whether serious scientific ideas could find expression in good fiction. Despite resembling a brick, and containing not a few dense paragraphs about WWII code, the plot was good and Stephenson’s unashamedly nerdy-but-keen style had me intellectually hooked, too.

I’ve since ploughed (I choose this verb advisedly) through two of the three volumes of his Baroque Cycle that mix an evocation of the world of seventeenth century philosophy, the rise of capitalism and piratical swash-buckling. In the first two novels in the sequence I have to admit that I think that the balance of educative lecture-to-entertainment ratio is rather skewed towards the former – but hey: it got me thinking about global economics and the flow of money... In Anathem however I think he’s achieved a better balance.

On the intellectual side Anathem melds together a number of themes, particularly platonism, mathematics, quantum theory and consciousness. (In simple form: do mathematical formulae have a reality outside of our heads? Would they take the same form in parallel universes? Could such ideas be shared between universes by sentient beings?).

Stephenson also plays with ideas about how different forms of thinking deposit socially and culturally. He sets his pure scientists within monastic communities playfully reversing the historical relationship between science and religion (think what the Church would look like if Moses were replaced by Pythagoras, Jesus by Plato).

Carrying all this is a rip-roaring plot. I found echoes of older sci-fi (notably Clarke’s Rama novels, and Greg Bear’s The Way series, for example): an alien ship turns up and disturbs a planet’s culture; questions arise about how they will relate etc.. Well-worn it may be, but I think it works – especially when you factor in the kung-fu, some sympathetic characters, and a fair dose of humour. Stephenson’s invention of a whole new language, particularly when applied to philosophical ideas (‘Occam’s razor’ becomes ‘Saunt Gardan's Steelyard’), also helps to avoid the novel becoming too didactic.

Readers from a faith perspective will quickly pick up an antipathy to various expressions of religion, several of which bear an uncanny resemblance to American evangelical Christianity and others to Catholicism. However there are hints of a more sympathetic treatment of liberal forms of faith. The treatment of religion in the novel has presumably been the subject of several reader comments, as I note that Stephenson’s own website issues something of a clarification, reminding readers that the views expressed are those of the narrator, not necessarily the author. Stephenson also mentions the more liberal Christianity practised by his parents (embracing evolution and non-fundamentalistic ways of reading scripture) which he commends, noting that the book was dedicated to them.

In all, a thrilling and often funny page-turner that also got me pondering the philosophy of maths. Someone who can write a book that does both things, is clearly one talented guy.

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