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(DU), 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.
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.
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.