Trompler Foundation Archives

The Analog of the Rose

When I was in junior high school, one idle pursuit was to scrutinize the Greco-Latinate roots of various English compound nouns and transpose them, creating unfamiliar words of equivalent meaning, such as ipsemobile and autokinoton.  In his latest outing Anathem, Neal Stephenson does something similar, creating Arbre, a planet very similar to our Earth, complete with a philosophic history analogous to Earth’s.  In his opening Note, Stephenson explicitly states that Arbre is not Earth, but between the apocalyptic timeline given in the Note and the technology-abjuring Avout (monks) who are the primary characters, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which was set so far into humanity’s future as to be nearly unrecognizable.

Stephenson starts his Note with:  "If you are accustomed to reading works of speculative fiction and enjoy puzzling things out on your own, skip this Note."  Predictably, this set me on edge at first, expecting to struggle past omissions deliberate and not, but apparently I met Stephenson’ qualifications and enjoyed the exposition as it came.

The central premise of Anathem is a world with a monastic tradition with two obvious distinctions from those of Earth:  the Avout are (what we would call) irreligious, and the various orders have survived into the (an) Information Age largely intact. 

The latter has the economical effect of sparing Stephenson the chore of fleshing out the messy historical context(s) of Arbre, dismissing the rise and fall of empires and the tides of technological advance as bulshytt from which the Avout have rightly exempted themselves.  Of course, as the exposition makes increasingly clear, Arbran history has impacted the development of the "mathic world," and not just via the dreaded Sacks that punctuate the opening timeline.

The lack of religious devotion among the Avout as compared with Earthly monastic orders serves to make them more sympathetic to 21st century Earth geeks.  While the Avout have penance and even an Inquisition, the (relative) lack of irrational strictures go a long way towards making life in the mathic world very attractive to the Asperger set.  A notable exception is the Book, a form of penance that, while serving an important plot function, is such a monstrously nonproductive waste of resources that I’m inclined to believe Stephenson included it so as to keep the mathic world plausibly imperfect.

In exploring the ways that a monastic life might be congenial to people "accustomed to reading works of speculative fiction," Stephenson adopts what I have come to identify as his chiding tone, lifting his readers’ horizons beyond mere mastery of knowledge and subverting the archetype of Romantic Scientist-Hero.  Throughout his oeuvre, Stephenson has never missed an opportunity to target solitary male characters devoted to understanding the system of the world and demonstrated that the concerns of more "well-rounded" people cannot be so easily dismissed.  Such demonstrations usually take the form of another character (often female) upbraiding the protagonist that his intuititive and/or empathic skills are woefully inadequate, resulting in some social failing that is no less important just because it falls beyond the world-system the protagonist has defined for himself.

In Anathem, Stephenson starts by painting a very unflattering portrait of extramuros society, implying that the mathic world is the only choice for anyone who wants to know Truth.  He then baits us with a mystery whose unraveling requires our heroes to circumvent the rules of the mathic world, giving examples of intra-mathic politics that clearly favor certain schools and orders over others.  Yet Stephenson is just as insistent upon the attractions of communal living and discipline without (really) relying upon evolutionary-psychology justifications for these values.  Later plot developments provide opportunities for many different schools of the mathic world to complement and cooperate with each other, even the Sophist bulshytt artists.  In the end, the protagonists’ hope comes from their mathic discipline, not despite it.

Curiously, Stephenson’s agitation on behalf of social niceties doesn’t (wholly) extend to accommodation of religious belief.  Apparently, intellectual elitism is a vice if it results in a preference for masturbation over joining an extended family, but it’s perfectly fine if it prevents one from aping the vast majority of one’s theist neighbors.

Craftwise, Stephenson’s on top of his game in Anathem.  There aren’t so many characters that he can’t give them all sufficiently distinctive voices, the exposition of Arbre is complete without being either airy or labored, and the pacing is just about perfect.  While it’s fun trying to spot the parallels to Earthly philosophical history, the mathic world has many delightfully original elements, and Stephenson does them all justice.  The dénouement isn’t as crisp as one would like, but it’s Stephenson’s best ending since Zodiac, and I was anything but dissatisfied.

Copyright © 2009 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.