Saturday, July 18, 2009

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

After many, many, many (way too many...) months, I finally finished Neal Stephenson's latest tome. All 960 pages of it. And I have to say, this was probably my least favorite Neal Stephenson book.

My favorite is still probably Snow Crash. I really was jazzed about Stephenson's five minutes into the future style. Imagining a Los Angeles where housing is in such short supply that people live in public storage units? Heck, before the housing market crashed at the end of last year, that was a total possibility. I also loved the interminable Baroque Cycle in which Stephenson stepped away from the near future and went back to the past.

Given that we are now living in a world of DVRs, product placement, Twitter and the iPhone, science fiction is hard pressed to impress us these days. In an interview with William Gibson, Rolling Stone asked, "You made your name as a science-fiction writer, but in your last two novels you've moved squarely into the present. Have you lost interest in the future?" to which Gibson replied:

"It has to do with the nature of the present. If one had gone to talk to a publisher in 1977 with a scenario for a science-fiction novel that was in effect the scenario for the year 2007, nobody would buy anything like it. It's too complex, with too many huge sci-fi tropes: global warming; the lethal, sexually transmitted immune-system disease; the United States, attacked by crazy terrorists, invading the wrong country. Any one of these would have been more than adequate for a science-fiction novel. But if you suggested doing them all and presenting that as an imaginary future, they'd not only show you the door, they'd probably call security."
No wonder Stephenson moved to the 1800s for inspiration! In Anathem, he bucks sci-fi and our brave new world by creating a whole new world and planet named "Arbre." Unfettered by Earthly realities--and much like J. J. Abrams copped out with the recent Star Trek reboot--Stephenson is free to create a universe of his own imaginings. Arbre is similar to Earth: cars (known as "mobes"), SUVs and trucks (known as "fetches"), smartphones (jeejahs) and the internet (aka "reticulum") all exist on the planet--along with scientific and philosophical theories that will be familiar to many students. Hey, it's not like Newton was the only one in the entire universe to have an apple fall on his head!

Speaking of science and philosophy: the cool thing about Arbe is the segregated of its "thinkers" from the general population. Children (aka "fids") are collected around their tenth birthday and are educated in concents living a monastic lifestyle dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Aha! It's Earth turned inside out with science being the new religion.

Except it isn't: Arbre has religious monasteries as well.

Between the alien cosmic neologisms and trying to find the parallels between the fictional Arbre and Earth, it was tough going for me. Add to that lengthy passages of scientific and philosophical theories and--well, let's just say there was a whole lotta skimming going on. To be honest, sneaking time to read has been difficult and there were days where I would eke out progress a sentence or two at a time.

But the real problem with Anathem was the lack of an intriguing protagonist. Eramus, the narrator of the tale, is a fairly passive character. He's certainly no Jack "The Gypsy King" Shaftoe nor is he any kind of Hiro Protagonist. Stephenson introduces us to a plethora of characters in the book, but the entire story--unlike the character jumps in The Baroque Cycle--is told from Eramus' perspective. Too bad he's such a bland and lifeless character...

Even more distressing is the lack of strong female characters in the book. Nothing like his Eliza, Y.T. or Juanita at all. Although Arbre is presented as a pretty equal society, the female characters are pretty much lacking.

And Anathem suffers from what I like to call the "Star Trek intergalactic anomaly"--which is that on all planets other than Earth, people look the same and speak the same language all over the whole planet. Sure Star Trek has Klingons and Romulans like Anathem has Arbrans, LaTerrans, etc.--but have you ever seen an episode of Star Trek where two Klingons meet up and can't understand what the other is saying because one is a "French" Klingon while the other is a "Chinese" Klingon?

Never happens!

On Arbre, people generally speak "Fluccish," although those in the concents speak "Orth," which I suppose is sort of like Latin.

The most irritating thing about this book was the lack of urgency. After the initial setting up the new world and its parameters, we find out that Arbre is being orbited by aliens. And that those aliens are fairly hostile. So what do the people of Arbre do? They pull all the best minds from within the concents, religious orders and general population and have a CONVENTION (aka "convox"). Meetings and meeting of discussions. If those discussion centered around, "What are we going to do about the hostile aliens?" it might make a bit more sense. But no, the topics of discussion explore space and time and reality. All while there are HOSTILE ALIENS orbiting the planet!!!

I mean, where is Will Smith when you need him?

If Anathem were a script, it would definitely suffer from one of the basic rules of storytelling--"Show, don't tell." Anathem spends a lot of time setting the scene--which is forgivable--and way too much time exploring theories and concepts which go nowhere. There are some great and exciting sequences in the book. Unfortunately when you're slogging through 960 pages, they are few and far between.

Although Stephenson takes a few jabs at our society via the sister planet of Arbre, what with spin and marketing and much ado about nothing being labeled "bullshytt," (there was no need to flip to the glossary to translate THAT term!), I failed to comprehend just what he was trying to convey with this novel. Science fiction, after all, usually provides an incisive and insightful look at our own state of affairs. Even the concept of parallel and multiple narratives or time tracks might have made for an interesting exploration. But even that theory gets swept away as quickly as it was introduced.

I wonder if cutting out 300 pages or so would have made a difference...With the elimination of some of the lofty erudition, Anathem would make one heck of a sci-fi story.

Maybe with Shia LeBoeuf as Eramus...

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