Book review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

The latest tome — and at 900 pages, I mean tome — from Neal Stephenson (author of Snow Crash, the Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon) is Anathem. I’m going to start with a more general review, then delve into deep spoilers after the jump.

This book is highly recommended, with the caveat that you must have an interest in philosophy and metaphysics to avoid being turned off by a few fairly large sections which involve complex debate on these topics. On the other hand, if you enjoy such exploration, this is the book for you.

Anathem is set on a planet which is not Earth, but is full of parallels to Earth. The culture is much older than ours, but not vastly more advanced because on this world scientists, mathematicians and philosophers live a cloistered life. They live in walled-off communities called Concents, with divisions within which only have contact with the outside world, and with each other, for one 10 day period out of each year, decade, century or millennium.

As such the Avout, as they are called, lead a simple life, mostly free of technology, devoted to higher learning. It’s a non-religious parallel to monastic life. In the outside “saeclular” world, people live in a crass, consumer-oriented society both like and unlike ours.

I give the recommendation because he pulls this off really well. Anathem is a masterwork of world-building. You really get to identify with these mathematical monks and understand their life and worldview. He really builds a world that is different but understandable.

One way he does this, which does frustrate the reader at first, is through the creation of a lot of new coined terms. Some terms are used without introduction, some get a dictionary entry to help you into them. The terms are of course in a non-Earth language, but they are constructed from Latin and English roots, so they make sense to your brain. Soon you will find yourself using them.

So, if you like clever, complex worldbuilding and the worlds of science and philosophy, this book, long as it is, is worth it for you. However, I will shortly talk about the ending. Stephenson has a curse — his world building is superb, and his skill at satisfying endings is not up to it. Anathem actually has a decently satisfying ending in many ways — better than he has done before. There is both an ending to the plot, and some revelations at the very end which make you rethink all you have read before in the book. This time, I find fault with the consistency of the metaphysics, and mainly because I have explored the same topic myself and found it very difficult to make it work.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that after we are shown this remarkable monastic world, events transpire to turn it all upside-down. You won’t be disappointed, but I can’t go further without getting into spoilers. You will also find spoilers in my contributions to the Anathem Wiki. That Wiki may be handy to you after you read the book to understand some of the complex components.

Here there be major spoilers

The meaning of the ending

Fifteen years ago, I started, but never finished a SF story I called “The Quantum Wizards of Zen.” In the story, top physicists were being recruited by spy agencies because they could be trained to truly understand quantum mechanics, and the Many Worlds interpretation, and choose which world they, and those around them, would end up in. This gave them something akin to magic powers. I believe that Stephenson was also exploring the same thing when he wound his plot around the Incanters such as Fraa Jad. As they attack the Daban Urnud, Jad, he says, is experiencing several worldlines or Narratives at once, with one consciousness. And he is able to select which ones that the more limited consciousness of Erasmas, his team, and indeed the whole planet will experience, and perhaps remember.

In the confusing ending, Jad takes Erasmas through a worldline where they enter the DU together, but his friends die. They progress through the ship. In one branch, they open a ball-valve and are attacked, driving Jad to trigger the neutron bomb in Erasmas’ body. In another fork, they get to meet the Admiral of the ship and learn about its history.

Then Erasmas’ awareness (but not his memories) shift to a worldline where Jad died just after launch, and he and his friends went unconscious after first breathing the DU air. They were then put in cold sleep, while the Valers carried out a successful attack on the WorldBurner Bomb that scared the DU crew so much they decided to make peace. Erasmas finds himself revived in order to witness the peace treaty and get taken home. He remembers several different worldlines. His friends of Cell 317 remember a different one, but most of the rest of the planet remembers only this final version.

It appears that the multi-cosmic Jad has chosen among the various worldlines that he was following, and decided the one where he dies after launch has the best result for everybody else, and somehow “makes it happen.”

But a number of things are unexplained. How does Erasmas have these memories, and how do the others have different ones? The book talks at length about how all the possible worlds are real, but some are lesser or make no sense because there is no way to generate them from earlier worlds. The example used is a star with a chunk of ice suddenly in the middle of it. A possible space, but not meaningful. However, the same is true of a cosmos where Erasmas’ body has been in cold storage, and the people there remember putting him there, but he remembers a trip through the DU. What of the Erasmas who lived out the final history, the one who went to the DU with his crew after watching Jad burn up in the atmosphere? Who was that being, and does anybody have his memories?

There may be a partial explanation in the Rhetors. The book simply hints that the Rhetors are counterparts to the Incanters, on the Procian side. The legends say they can manipulate memory and records. It is suggested that Lodoghir or his Thousander companions may be Rhetors, as they seem to know something about the differing memories. But there is never any hint as to how this power works. Have they altered the memories of Erasmas and his crew? Or the entire planet? And to what purpose is either done? And how is that possible based on the ability to manipulate the worldlines in the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics?

At the very start of the novel, where Orolo recruits Erasmas as an Amanuensis, and later how Jad tells Erasmas that this is why he is with him as they interview the Gan. That by observing and writing, he plays a role in deciding which Narrative is true. The irony is that Erasmas is also our narrator, and what is true is only what we perceive through him. By being a conscious observer, Erasmas allows information from one worldline to be recorded and then remain in his brain in another worldline, the finally selected one. In a private discussion, Stephenson confirmed to me that this concept is key to understanding the novel.

The other problem is that indeed, all the worldlines are real. So what does it mean for our story to see this particular semi-happy ending? Jad is absent from it, but Erasmas remembers a worldline where he and Jad interviewed the Admiral of the DU. We don’t see either of them die here; are they both still living on in that worldline? Is the entire ending simply that Jad somehow directed Erasmas’ consciousness or memories off to the different, peace-treaty worldline? If all variants of all people are real, the story had a zillion endings, and we just see one rather strange one.

This is the problem I had in my story. You can posit that consciousnesses are represented by worldlines and perhaps even that they can choose the line they will take. But the other consistent worldlines are also consciousnesses. No line is particularly special. Stephenson seems to suggest that Jad has some special ability to see more than one line at once. Does his mind merge with the other Jads whose worldlines he is seeing? Or are there no other Jads, is the one we see special, the only conscious one?

So in the end we must ask, has anything really happened? Or did everything happen? Everything happening is not particularly satisfying to a reader.

One writer at the Anathem wiki posits this plot: Jad is sent as an emmisary to explore worldlines to both solve the problem and get intelligence on the Geometers. He explores many worldlines, and then the team of Rhetors and Incanters back on Arbre will pick with him the best final shared worldline. However, because that worldline may well be one in which he is absent (and indeed this is what happens) he brings along Erasmas and the others. Erasmas is an “Amanuensis” (a term we get at the very start of the book,) a conscious being there to be an observer and record. So his brain records the intelligence interviews with the Gan, and the Rhetors keep those memories and switch him with them to the final timeline.

More Jad

It is also worth nothing that Jad clearly is a bit of a puppet master. For example, he knows for a start that Zha’vern in the Plurality of Worlds Messal is an alien. After a few nights he prompts Erasmas to unmask it, but he clearly knew before. And his other Incanter and Rhetor buddies probably knew too, and his membership in the Messal, perhaps his entire evocation, were part of the plan. He is the one given the trigger for the Everything Killers, he’s the one truly in charge of the attack on the Daban Urnud. How much of this was part of a polycosmic exploration begun perhaps even before the book starts?

The incredible journey

It is suggested that when there is to be communication between worldlines, this would happen when the lines have some affinity. Normally this would be two worldlines that just diverged on a quantum event, but in the book, we are given that it can happen on two wildly divergent lines which happen to have come closer together. It is by this means that the DU is able to jump to a universe that is so different that it has different physical constants — and thus diverged at the big bag — yet has almost identical people and cultures.

Now this is possible, but like the chunk of ice in the middle of the star, it’s ridiculously improbable. Many aspects of our evolution were just happenstance for the particular path. There would be far more worldlines with affinity that branched off just a few moments ago or a few years ago, infinitely more. And while you might posit, for purposes of a book, that one could jump to a worldline with different physics but similar people once, to do it 4 times is beyond comprehension.

The Hylean Flow

Another problem I felt unresolved is this concept of the “Wick” where the platonic ideals of science flow from one cosmos to child cosmi in a directed acyclic graph. The book spends a lot of time with discussion of why this is acyclic. Yet at the end, we are told that the Urnud cosmos received a message from the Arbre cosmos 900 years prior, which led it to do its jump, accidentally taking it, through a long path, to Arbre.

But this is in direct contradiction to the one-way flow written about so much in the book. We can only conclude:

  • The flow is not one way, and all that talk is a distraction
  • The message did not come from Arbre
  • The two comsi are not actually related in any flow diagram and thus can have two-way flow
  • It’s a logical error in the book.

Update: Stephenson says his intent was that the artificial device (the engine of the Dabun Urnud) was capable of sending information (and people) in the reverse direction, but that this would not normally happen.

The Concentration Camps

The ending which redirects the entire course of the book is the founding of Saunt Orolo’s. Erasmas declares it will not be a “Concent” because he has now learned that the creation of the Concents, and many rules of the discipline, were not voluntary. In fact, the original concents were not “convents” the way some think, but “Concentration Camps” (in the pre-Nazi sense.) A place where the dangerous scientists were put after their science almost destroyed the world. Erasmas realizes that everything he has believed — and we have believed with him, having been shown the story through his perceptions — is based on this lie. Those in the Mathic world learned to love, and even embraced their imprisonment. It’s as though the Japanese-Americans at Manzanar had decided to stay there after the war, feeling they had created a good life.

In large part, the superiority of Mathic life to Saecular that we have seen has all been coloured by how Erasmas is trained to love Mathic life. It’s not entirely false, and indeed the early Avout did have cloistered environments voluntarily before the Reconstitution which made them mandatory. But we also see the saecular world has intelligent people, complex technology and people who build it, and more than just casinos and annoying jeejahs. The Ita seem to get the best of both worlds — their science and technology, and the simple life.

More thoughts.

Now you may be thinking, “he doesn’t like the book very much.” That’s not true. In fact, I quite enjoy that the book is at a level where it can engender such discussion of its potential flaws. For those of you who have read the book, I open up this thread for discussion of these and other issues.

Some other items to consider:

  • Yes, he tries to explain it, but it never quite makes sense why Erasmas and his crew of very new Avout become so important. Why would a newly minted Asperger’s Avout like Barb be evoked? Is this all Jad again?
  • How does Orolo get declared a Saunt? He founds no order, he never published his research and in any event it was just a reworking of what others like Jad had gotten far further at. Martyrdom seems to be enough.
  • Jad knows who Zh’Vearn is all along. What is his motive, and why does he trigger his unmasking at that point? How far ahead in worldlines can Jad see? It is suggested that “his whole life has led up to this” and his life is centuries long.
  • How did they know to Evoke Jad? They should not even know the names of Millenarians.
  • What are the Rhetors, really? If they’re behind the confusing memories of the ending, we should have learned a touch more about them.
  • If people can graduate from one Math to another, how do they avoid poisoning that Math with more recent learning? I understand how they can not talk about things learned at Apert about the saeculars, but they surely can’t not talk about their field of research and all they have learned in it.

thanks for the review, Niel

thanks for the review, Niel always does an amazing job with his world constructions. Despite the spoilers, I think I'll still pick up a copy of this.

wow, I totally missed the prisoner aspect

Wow, I totally missed the prisoner aspect of the "concents." It was clear that they were not to work on technology (praxis), but it wasn't clear why.

In the many worlds interpretation, everything happens, so story telling becomes boring. Really, though, it's a question of which one you're paying attention to.

Anathem

I'm ready to start my second reading of Anathem, hoping to answer a lot of questions that I think were probably answered earlier in the story but not fully processed by my brain the first time around.

One thing that I was thinking throughout the second half of the book: Was Fraa Jad really Enoch Root? ;-)

p

As far as I can see, it is

As far as I can see, it is physically impossible for Fraa Jad to be Enoch Root.

Firstly, we can rule out the possibility of an Earth Enoch traveling back in time to Arbre (or vice versa). When the Urnud use their new ship to try go back in time, they actually end up going up to a higher cosmos. Stephenson states very explicity that, at least in Anathem rules, that the cosmos forbids traveling back in time, to prevent causality violations.

Given that Jad can't move around in time, if he were Enoch, he'd have to travel from one to the other at some point. Jad lives in the Millenarian concent, which ostensibly has been sealed for almost 700 years. At the very least, we know he was there at least 100 years before Anathem, as he mentioned teaching his fid to thatch. If we compare the Arbre timeline to the earth timeline, we know that the Urnud arrived at Earth in ~2038 (Fifty years after Godel died, in 1978). In the Earth timeline, Enoch is accounted for from as early as 1655 (Quicksilver) to as late as 2000 (Cryptonomicron). The only issue is we don't know exactly how long ago the Urnud ship left earth. We know they've been traveling for ~900 years, and Earth was the third of five stops. Jules mentions his Great-Grandfather boarded the Urnud at Earth, which would likely be no longer than 200 years ago, even with increased lifespans. Say 200, and even if we allow 100 years from the time the Urnud reached Earth to the time that Jules's great grandfather boarded the ship, that would make the events in Anathem take place no later than 2338 A.D Earth Time. That would mean the Millenarian math was sealed in about 1600 A.D. Enoch couldn't have been there, he was in Quicksilver.

This leaves two possibilities: that some time between the end of Cryptonomicron and 100 years before Anathem (a window of about 200 years), Enoch found a way to transport himself to the Arbre causal domain without the Urnud's ship, managed to make himself look like a person from Arbre and eat Arbre food, and managed to gain entry to a sealed Millenarian math. Doesn't pass the Rake.

If not this, then the only possible argument is that Enoch and Jad could exist in both causal domains, somehow linked. But this doesn't really mean anything if they're not explicitly the same person.

I thought the same thing

I thought the same thing regarding the end of the book -- that if all possible worldlines are real then there is nothing special about the worldline with which the reader is presented. However, the book is clearly implying that Fraa Jad is an incanter and is doing something special, etc. so the only way it makes sense that I can see is if all worldlines exist but, for some reason, each non-incanter human being is only conscious in one of them at a time, then what Fraa Jad was use his magic powers to make it so that lots of human beings are conscious together in a relatively good worldline. Of course, this would mean that there are an infinite number of worldlines where are all main characters qand everyone else are unconscious zombies who happen to behave as though they are conscious, which doesn't make a lot of sense.

I also still don't really understand what he was getting at with the Hylaean flow DAG ... i mean what does it mean to say that Arbre's universe is some sort of abstract world of Platonic truths for earth's universe but only a little bit. I guess I just don't see how a universe can be the universe of abstract Platonic solids etc. to a degree.

Dualism

Some of the apparent inconsistencies may make more (if still not full) sense if we assume some kind of mind-body dualism. In particular:

(1) The Hylean Flow is a one-way flow of ideas from more perfect (Platonic) worlds to lesser ones, hence the message from Arbre to Urnud. It is truly one-way, because you cannot send a mentalistic transmission from a lesser world (Urnud) to a greater one (Arbre). However, for *physical* substances, the flow is reversed: spaceships and the like can move from lesser to greater worlds, rather than the other way around. (What about the people on the spaceships, who have minds as well as bodies? Clearly their mind must tag along with their body, but this exception to the mentalistic direction of flow may seem unprincipled.)

(2) As Joe suggests, the ending really only makes sense if the "people" in other world-lines don't really have minds. Jad's gift was to concentrate everyone's consciousness in one of the relatively preferable physical cosmos.

(3) Because there is mind-body interaction, Jad's shifting of Erasmus' otherworldly consciousness back into the happier world brought with it various memories (so this shift changed the physical world from what it otherwise would have been, i.e. replacing Erasmus' this-worldly memories of Jad's earlier death, etc.). Why doesn't everyone else experience the same phenomenon? I guess because Jad never brought their consciousnesses with him into the other worlds, like he did for Erasmus.

I'm not wholly convinced this is all coherent, but it's the best sense I can make of it all.

No, no, no!

1. You and Stephenson can't have it both ways. If you move people and objects *up* the Wick, you've transferred *information* up the Wick as well.
2. Why not instead that this ending is just one of many possible endings? That conforms to the many-worlds interpretation without needing such costly hypothesis that people in "other" (and that word itself begs the question!) be mindless.
3. No, maybe that happens in other worldlines.

Thanks for the good description of the end of the book.

Thanks Brad -- I didn't get all of the end of the book...I really do think it has to be read twice to get everything. The smashing of the radio by Fraa Jad to allow the two worldlines to diverge more easily, for example, is foreshadowed some 800 pages earlier, as is the concept of the Amanuensis.

Endings

I've just finished the book and started posting some of my ideas about the endings and what they mean on the Anathem wiki, but in short here are some of my thoughts.

1. Jad, as an Incanter, can exist in several different places along the polycosm at once, but has no special control over the timelines or sequence of events themselves. He does not have the power to "bring about" a certain ending of his choosing by himself. He requires assistance in this.

2. The Rhetors are Jad's assistance in bringing about the best solution. Their power is misunderstood as "changing records" or "erasing memories." In fact, and I do think Stephenson could have been MUCH clearer about this, their power is the power to change the course of history itself. They control the flow of time.

3. The different endings seen in the book are Jad, and the Rhetors (I think led by Lodoghir) working together exploring ALL the possible outcomes in search of the "most satisfying" one, i.e. not just the one that ends peacefully but also the one that sates their intellectual curiosity. I think the different endings play out something like this: Jad dies in orbit over Arbre. This is not an optimal solution, so the Rhetors "rewind time" to a point where Jad is alive, allowing him to "jump" to a different cosmos where he survives. Cell 317 makes it to the DU, but when members of the cell begin to pass out it is, again, not an optimal solution. Jad "jumps" again to a cosmos where he and Erasmus survive, but the others die. Jad, and Erasmus make it to Sphere 1. Jad accidentally opens the portal on the DU, gets killed, and sets off the EK. Again, OBVIOUSLY, not an optimal solution. He tries another cosmos, one where he and Raz are captured and taken to the Admiral, at long last fulfilling the need of the theors to know "what the heck is going on" in the DU. It sates their intellectual curiosity. However, at this point they may realize that Jad's survival and the ability for the conflict to end peacefully are mutually exclusive as it would be clear evidence of the existence of the Incanters and Rhetors that the Geometers fear so much. The only remaining option is for the Rhetors to once again "rewind" time, for Jad to jump back to the cosmos where he dies in orbit and bring about the peaceful resolution of the conflict.

4. The reason why the survivors have memories of the alternate cosmi, is a side effect of the Rhetors' art. Just like the dinosaur in the parking garage (a Rhetor screw-up), the dinosaur could be erased from the parking garage, the evidence erased, but the people who had DIRECT interaction, who SAW the dinosaur, their minds could not be wiped. The cell members, likewise, had DIRECT interaction with Jad in timelines where he lived. Their minds could not be wiped, everyone else (who had no direct interaction with Jad) could be wiped.

5. Through out this entire process Erasmus is an amaneunsis, but not just a record keeping device, an actual conduit. His consciousness is a communication tool allowing Jad to communicate with the Rhetors left on Arbre.

Rewinding time

I don’t think the Rhetors can rewind time at all. I think NS is very deliberate in describing their power as involving changing memories and records because that is much more consistent with science and has the same result in many ways. We don’t know what they really can do in the book, but I think it is telling that the legends are described in this way. Much easier, I would say to have the legends say they can rewind time.

Now the rest of the theory on the Rhetors is interesting, but I think what NS intends is that Jad can indeed be present in “several” narratives at once. In fact, this is what he says to Earasmas, and tells him it is very difficult. To Jad lives out many of them, takes Erasmas along several of them, and then, perhaps in concert with buddies on the ground, they pick the best one which both gets knowledge and more importantly the peace treaty.

Where this fails though is that somehow some consistent narratives are more real than others, which contradicts what we learn in much of the rest of the book.

Disagree

I disagree, and here’s why. First the definitions from the book:
Incanter - a sub sect of the avout linked to the Halikaarnian orders who, according to legend, are able to alter reality through the incantation of certain coded words or phrases.
Rhetor - a legendary figure able to "change the past" through the manipulation of records and human memory.
However, remember that these definitions are imperfect, created by undereducated, superstitious saeculars, frightened slines. The definitions in the book reflect a saecular understanding of the Incanter & Rhetor powers.
Let’s say you are a deolater sline sitting in a room with an Incanter. Between you is a copper bowl with a scratch in the bottom. The next moment the scratch is gone. Wouldn’t it be your belief that the person on the other side of the table was some sort of sorcerer who just altered reality? Obviously, you haven’t studied in a math for the years it would take to fully study and understand polycosmic theory. You wouldn’t understand that he just shifted yours and his consciousness to a different cosmos where the scratch in the bowl never existed. To you it’s just magic.
Likewise, let’s say you are a different uneducated sline living next to a concent. One day you walk outside and your green mobe is now red, but it’s still yours. You know it is, because there is your jeejah charger inside, and the stain on the floor where you’re wife spilled her sugar water that one time, and your key works. You call your wife out she’s just as confused as you, so is the guy who rides to work with you everday, but you go to your job at the factory and everyone there swears up & down that your mobe has ALWAYS been red. You go to the dealership where you bought it, the paper work says you bought a RED mobe. You just know IT WAS GREEN. You have a suspicion that it’s the doing of those sneaky avout. They changed everyone’s memories of your GREEN mobe. They changed the records to say you bought a RED mobe. Just like the Incanter, what if they didn’t do exactly what you thought though? What if they really did go back in time and changed something, changed it so there were no green mobes on the dealer lot that day so you really did by a red one? The art is imperfect though, they can’t erase the original memories you have of the green mobe because you had direct interaction with it. You drove it to work every day. Your wife has ridden in it too, as has the guy that rides to work with you, but the people who just see you park it in the lot every once and a while…their memories change when the timeline changes. The Rhetors aren’t figuratively “changing the past” by changing memories of it. They are literally CHANGING THE PAST by changing the timeline.
I offer two pieces of evidence, in addition to the Dinosaur/Parking Garage I already mentioned. First, the sequence of events that passes at the end of the second to last Plurality of Worlds Messal. The members are discussing the one way flow of the Wick and comparing it to time. At this analogy Jad interrupts with his assertion that “Time does not exist.” Now I don’t think he saying time does not really exist, but saying that time does not exist in the linear, unidirectional form the other members seem to think it does. Further, I think this is a message to Lodoghir saying, “I know what you are. I know what you can do. We need to work together.” In fact, soon after this, a “moment” seems to pass between Jad and Lodoghir, where they seem to be about to come to some understanding, but before it can be put to words the messal ends. I posit that the Incanter/Rhetor alliance was formed later that night, and their plan developed. However, before the alliance/understanding can be revealed the next night, Vh’vaern is unmasked as Durand and everything goes to hell. Second, near the end, Raz, and the survivors of cell 317 have a rather cryptic conversation with Lodoghir aboard the DU, about Incanters and Rhetors working together. Realizing they’re probably under surveillance they’re smart enough to make it seem like they’re just “joking around,” when in fact they really are having a serious conversation with Lodoghir, in essence saying “We know what you are now, and what you did here.” Read those sections again and let me know what you think, keeping that slant in mind.
To answer your question about why NS doesn’t just come out and say what a Rhetor really does, remember that the book is written from a 1st person restricted point of view. The reader only knows what Erasmus knows, nothing more. It would be WAY out of character for Erasmus (with his obvious distaste of Procians…Ala now excepted) to seek out a senior Procian and acquire the entire background knowledge it would take to understand Rhetor capability. Plus, I think that would take another 600 pages or so of dialogue. NS’s editors let him get away with a lot, but I think that would be pushing it, don’t you?
Finally, I agree with you that Jad is in several cosmi at once. I over-simplified the Incanter ability there. I think Jad doing this in an attempt to sift through the possible outcomes to find the best path. “Jump” was probably the wrong verb to use when describing him moving himself and others between consciousnesses. “Sliding” to a different cosmos might have been better, or “finding.” I don’t know, how would you describe it?

Time travel is boring

While it’s possible they change the past, that is such an overworked trope of SF that I feel confident that this is not the intention. Time travel is, to put it simply, boring (and almost impossible to write well any more.) The Rhetor concept is new and more interesting.

It just makes no sense to me to to describe something in the book in a new and innovative way and have the hidden secret be that it’s just time travel.

Also, in your example, the Rhetor would have changed your own memories of the colour of the mobe so you would not be asking those questions.

I do like the theory that Erasmas keeps his memories of the lost narratives to convey intelligence where Jad can’t. That is of course very inconsistent with changing the past. If they changed the past, then nobody would have special memories (even though it is a cliche of bad time travel stories that the actual time traveller does.)

If it truly is people who can modify memories (or perhaps modify what narrative you came from, which is very similar to changing the past) then Erasmas’ story makes sense.

Unsatisfied

While I agree that there may be an element of anti-climax in my theories, I find the idea that we only see one of an infinite number of endings equally unsatisfying. Like you said yourself, what makes this Narrative so special then that it is the one we get to see. Is it because it has a "happy" ending? Who cares? What about the Narratives where everyone dies in a tragic war? What makes that any less special or real that the Final Narrative?

I can see we're just going to agree to disagree on this, and personally that is what I LOVE about NS and his books. He hints at so many things, but never comes out and gives definitive answers. Enoch Root and the power of the Solemnic Gold, being one example from the Baroque Cycle, and can anybody tell me really, for sure, what the hell happened at the end of Diamond Age? Didn't think so. In the end, final analysis, meaning, is left up to the reader, and my reading (the conclusions I draw), I don't think, can be any more or less true than what you take from the book. That is what makes NS such a special writer. Despite what people may say about the endings of his books, he leaves the answers to you, the reader, something most authors stopped doing a century or more ago.

Hell, maybe then I again I'm completely off my rocker and one of us is totally right and the other completely wrong. Or maybe were both wrong and the answer is something else entirely. Or (and see if this will blow your mind) maybe we're both right.............for the Narrative we're each in.

Rhetors Vs. Incanters

Rhetors are simply not time travelers, cannot really change the past. Look at the word. Rhetor, as in rhetoric. The art of manipulating an audience through words. Logodhir clearly doesn't believe in the HTW stuff and fights it tooth and nail. The "Madam Secretary" (forget her name) calls the arguments between Logodhir and the others as "Third Sack politics".

So, Rhetors use words to alter the past.

Now Incanters really do something special. They see the branching of worlds happening as they move forward through time, and have the ability to choose which world-track which becomes *the* world track, the one we're following. How do we know this? Remember the keypad on the door of sphere #1? Jad says he "picked the numbers at random", a 1 in 10000 chance, yet the door opens. Why did the door open on the first try? Because he saw himself fail to open it in many world-tracks and chose one where he did open it. He quickly got shot and it all went to hell, so he chose another world track where he *didn't* open the door. Once he was satisfied that an agreement between the Geometers and Arbre could be reached, he then switched to a world-track that worked out where the negotiation / agreement was possible and worked out well for everyone (except himself. He is a Saunt in my opinion, through his self-sacrifice).

Good review

Hi Brad, I like your review, I got here from your answer to my review on Slashdot. I completely agree with your reading of the book. My criticisms were really aimed at the writing more than the substance of the story. There are many interesting, even challenging ideas, but the whole thing really needs to be tightened up.

Cheers,

-- Max

Your questions

I liked the book as well. You had some interesting questions, and some seem to have answers.

"How does Orolo get declared a Saunt?" Because he discovered the Geometers ship! It was a one-liner that didn't need publication beyond the orbital elements to look at, or an image with background and time info. Getting martyred for a world changing discovery seems like plenty.

"How did they know to Evoke Jad?" The hierarchs and the inquisition communicate with the Thousanders. The details of the Evoke choice are not discussed, but the hierarchs are definitely involved.

"What are the Rhetors, really?" They are the less comprehensible faction related to the praxis leading to the Third Sack. We have the "Magician" iconography to understand the Incanters, who can do miraculous things by chanting, and possibly an example of one in Fraa Jad. The Rhetors, like the Illuminati, stay hidden from the popular view. Fortunately, Neal did not see fit to release the details of their praxis to an unready world.

The details of how the maths are populated are "complicated, and not really worth explaining" according to the author. Tulia graduated through the labyrinth from the Unary math and became a tenner as a six year old. The thousanders won't take a baby whose umbilical cord has fallen off, but Fraa Orlo would like to be found worthy to become a hundreder. I suspect Neal of a bit of arm waving, and that it would be hard to design a system that would give the desired result.

Oh,yeah, and I noticed a typo in the sentence:

"In large part, the superiority of Mathic life to Saecular that we have seen has all been *the* coloured by how Erasmas is trained to love Mathic life."

Orolo's discovery

He did discover the ship, but kept it to himself, and others made independent discovery. We don’t know who did it first.

Clearly there is some communication going on that should not be going on with thousanders, but this is not laid out in the book.

The incanters don’t actually incant, I think. That’s just their legend. Likewise the Rhetor power may be different too.

Orolo's discovery

Orolo apparently discovered the ship just before Apert, the first textual evidence is Erasmas' dream that the clock was wrong. Similarly indirect evidence indicates that what he was doing was discovered (though not necessarily correctly interpreted) in the investigation that led to his being thrown back. I don't see any evidence for an independent discovery by someone else.

I have trouble with your phrase "should not" as the rules about communication are not clearly laid out. Orolo's mention of an expectation of being interviewed through a screen in the labyrinth prior to the centenial Apert about conditions extramuros, as well as the interview in which that occurs, make it clear that the rule is not a simplistic "no contact".

Fraa Jad certainly does chant, and in ways that Erasmas finds unusual and surprising. While there are obviously no details about how their praxis is performed, I see no support for the claim that "incanters don’t actually incant". You have to dispose of their name as well as the legend before you can approach that claim.

I guess I didn't see the chanting

Yes, he does chant, but does he chant while doing his “magic.” It might just be part of their rituals.

As I read it, if Orolo discovered the ship just before Apert, and the Inquisitors shut down the Starhenge during Apert, it seems that they must have discovered it by other means. It is possible that Orolo told people from other maths about it at Apert, and that led quickly to a decision to shut down his starhenge, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It reads a lot more like, “We don’t want this getting out, shut down the starhenges” or “We don’t want any side research projects.”

As for contact, obviously there is some pre-apert investigation but I don’t think it happens very much before, just a little before. One question of discipline I find curious is graduation. Paphlagon graduates to the hundreder math, and presumably once there never speaks of anything he has learned since the last centennial — but surely he speaks of his research since then (he is not 100 years old) or what is the point of the graduation?

Rhetors

What's the problem with rhetors? The word itself seems to come directly from rhetoric (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric) and with millennia of practice it doesn't seem to much of a stretch to believe that these speakers could convince people that any description or story of the past is the truth. No magical time altering powers just very very good spin.

Not just good spin

The way I read it, the Rhetors — and we see almost nothing about them, other than to learn that Logodhir and his pals probably are Rhetors, and that Rhetor-Incanter collaboration has done great things — probably also get their ability through polycosmic manipulation. But that’s just a guess, we don’t know where they get it, other than the fact that they developed it just before the 3rd sack, just like the Incanters.

The point of graduation

You said:"surely he speaks of his research since then ... or what is the point of the graduation"

It depends on the point of having the different level Maths.

On the one hand it is clear that the Thousanders are the "best of the best" and are the likely place where the the most important new theoric discoveries are made, and apparently new praxics as well. The one-offs serve as universities for the burgers, and are apparently the least selective, with the others in between. From that point of view graduation makes a lot of sense as occurring when it is clear to the fraa or surr's peers that they no longer fit in at that level.

On the other hand, the Thousanders are the most intellectually dangerous, and (given your concentration camp idea) they are therefore locked up for the longest period. From that point of view graduation makes sense as occurring when the individuals look like they may make new discoveries.

The idea that all the levels accept infants bothers me, as it implies that they are taken in mostly to do the menial work. While there doesn't seem to be a lot of prejudice against those that fall back (a phrase that is only a partial opposite to graduate), it's something young Avout work to avoid. Most of the infants taken into the inner levels should expect that as their fate, while those who graduate to a new level are unlikely to do that.

From the way his world is constructed, Neal does not appear to believe in The Bell Curve, or at least that those conclusions don't apply to that particlular world. The Seacular world doesn't seem to suffer from the skimming of its gene pool into childlessness. Perhaps he believes that a randomly selected infant would have a decent chance to be a functional Thousander if he were raised among them.

The thousanders

I find the thousanders to be a bit of a stretch. Yes, they are the best. But they can only publish their research to others outside their math — and even to other thousanders — every thousand years. While they would generate some useful work in their isolation they would also duplicate a lot of work and go down a lot of pointless dead ends that others have gone down already.

The idea of the thousanders contradicts the core truth about science, that it is collaborative. You read other’s papers and go beyond them. You repeat or invalidate other’s experiments. NS’s is trying to make the point that isolation from the distractions of the world could bring better science and philosophy, and that could be true, but I don’t see (in the real world) that requiring more than the decenarian maths. But it’s his book so he can make it work any way he likes. The thousanders develop their magic power not so much because they are thousanders, but because they have to solve the problem of nuclear radiation without any praxis.

Let's not forget that NS is a post-modernist

Remember the name of the hero of Snow Crash? "Hero".

What's the Big Idea of Anathem? "Narratives".

I haven't had the time to fully wrap my brain arround what NS is getting at, but it does, I feel, have a lot to do with the act of writing itself. The ending of the book refers to the way an author must (usually) choose one ending. How do you write a satisfying ending, after all?

This is also a classic case of The Unreliable Narrator. The story is related to us by one Erasmus, and we are entirely at his mercy to believe that everything he says is "true." It felt true, to me. But remember what they taught us in school: All writers are liars.

For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, on so many levels.

Re: The Hylean Flow contradiction

I think you have this wrong. Its logical, within the strictures of the book, for Urnud to receive messages from Arbre. Urnud is downstream from Arbre in the Wick. The problem is of anything from Urnud reaching anything upstream of itself in the Wick. *That* violates the postulated one-way information flow.
The "physical" vs. "mental" distinction suggested by a previous post doesn't cut it. That's information too.

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