Late to the party: Anathem edition.
I read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem over Labor Day weekend. It’s not particularly apposite to the holiday, but it was the right book for my frame of mind. Stephenson’s scholar-monks appealed to the part of me that always wants to take my books and get away from the world, and the text rewarded me for knowing some of the math I picked up towards the end of college. I don’t foresee how this stuff — e.g. knowing that mapping the nth roots of unity on the complex plane creates regular n-gons — ever providing much beyond personal edification, but it was fun to come across it in a novel.
Here’s Alan Jacobs’ review of Anathem. I think he gets it right: the book has its shortcomings, but they’re way overshadowed by what Anathem does well. Jacobs identifies the biggest problem someone’s likely to have upon delving into any of Stephenson’s work since Crytponomicon: “He has more energy than his readers are likely to have.” It’s precisely this that’s kept me from attempting to read Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, though I might give it a shot now. But if you’ve got the energy and you like speculative fiction and thinking about Platonism, I’d say go for it. (And only a year after everyone else! This is about as with-it as I get.)
A few words on how Anathem treats one of my special interests: religion. The main characters are technology-abstinent intellectuals who live in a section of a big monastery that only opens itself to the outside world every ten years. They work out their proofs and manuscripts in chalk and paper, even though the outside world bears a significant resemblance to our own. They’re irreligious, viewing their world’s extant religions as intellectually unserious mythologies and regarding more philosophical conceptions of God as outside of the realm of things worth discussing. In short, a God who acts fully within the world is at odds with the evidence, and one who transcends it in is something that can’t be spoken of meaningfully.
But outside the monastery (or “concent,” as it’s called in this world), we run into religious characters. For some of them, religion is to philosophy and science as makeshift/DIY technology is to more advanced stuff. To use a non-book example, an old car with an engine that someone can self-repair will be more useful in certain contexts than a well-designed yet highly computerized car. Which is to say, from this perspective, religion can encode a rough form of the truth in a way that’s imprecise and saddled with inefficiency, not to mention falsehood, but it’s more adaptable to the a certain kind of person than the complicated stuff that advanced theorists have to offer. Independent spirits may judge that the rougher form of truth leaves them less in thrall to some set of gatekeepers than a theory that is beyond their reach. Or something along those lines. While this might come off as condescending when applied, I hope it’s possible to take a view like this one in a spirit of charity.
And yet a book about mathematicians and philosophers and stargazers has to grapple with its own kind of mysticism: what we often call Platonism and what Anathem calls Protism. You come across these things whose truth seems to have a mind-independent status: “three is prime,” or “a proposition and its negation can’t both be true,” or the Pythagorean theorem, or so many others. And while I could probably read for the rest of my life without finding a real answer as to whether these things are really transcendence and, if so, what that means — the possibility is a (quasi-religious) comfort.
I feel somewhat stupid for writing that last paragraph, but Anathem brought this side of me out, so I’ll let it stand.
Next up: I think I’ll be reading John Dos Passos along with the American Scene’s Fall of the USA event.