This is the blog of Ant Miller, senior research manager and dilettante geek at large at the BBC.
I wail moan and cuss about the challenges and fun to be found here.
These are my personal opinions, and not those of my employer. Or anyone else here for that matter.

Friday, May 08, 2009

On Having Finished Anathem

I very rarely post about books- largely because I read such a shamefully small number of them. For some reason about three years ago I put down a book about half way through, and found everything difficult to get into since. For the next year I only read newspapers, magazines and the occasional graphic novel (best one's I read then, and they were great, were Red Son, Wanted (not bothered with the film, it was blatantly miss cast) and Top10 (which was genius in the Steve Bochco mould)). This Christmas past though I got a few books, and amongst them was Anathem, the staggeringly long tome from Neal Stephenson- a Sci Fi author who appears to be accruing 'importance'.

To limber up as it were, I had a read of Greg Egan's Diaspora- a terrifically exciting and heavily intelligent book, packed full of complex ideas of the fundamental nature of humanity, the self, and the mathematical wonders of this and other universes. Now, Egan’s work has been recommended to me by a few people over the years- all of whom I have recognised as being significantly cleverer than me, and wall of whom have raved not just about his eminently readable prose and nicely rounded characters, but also about the truly challenging intellectual leaps he invited his readers to attempt.

Diaspora delivered on all these counts, and many more, and left me vaguely euphoric, as if the hard thinking had burned a few extra calories- I’m not a hard core exercise junkie AT ALL, but if a marathon runner feels something akin to this buzz after a long jog, then I can kind of see the point.

So there we are, I’ve got my head around parallel universes, complex multidimensional visualisations, and virtual manifolds of indeterminate dimensionality.Now to Anathem.Well, soon to Anathem.

I have already read one Stephenson book by the way- I read Snow Crash, one of his early works perhaps a decade ago.I recall some really striking scenes from that one, some great ideas, and overall that it was a rollicking good read, if a little rough around the edges (did it really have a main character called ‘Hero Protagonist’ or did I dream that?).Did it blow my mind? Not really- it was good, but Vurt, which I think appeared at about the same time was in many ways a more startling book, with a better story and characterisation driving it along below the surface.

So at last, I decide to pick up the 937 pages of Anathem, and dive into the world(s) of Arbre, as seen through the eyes of young Raz. And what a delightful world it is- full of idealised conceptions of what academia might be, ought to be, with beautiful concepts of what science (or praxis, which isn’t quite science) could carefully, frugally, deliver in terms of advanced physics and biology (and something else!) over the fullness of time, if left apart from the vicitudes of the mundane, banal considerations of commerce, government, politics and other such base concerns. In fact Stephenson manages to conjure up a world almost completely devoid of the lesser aspects of human nature.

He suggests gently over the course of the novel that this might in fact be the ‘best of all possible worlds’, and indeed the revelation of the Panglosian mechanism is perhaps the most crucial element of the tale being told. Sadly I must report that the essentially nebulous way that Stephenson treats this core idea means that the book is essentially unfulfilling. Though many wonderfully complex ideas from across a wide range of science, mathematics and philosophy are brilliantly expounded, this core idea, this mysterious ‘praxis’ remains both utterly essential for the book to make any sense at all, and utterly undefined. In fact the idea itself almost unravels the very idea that there is any story to tell at all.

Now, it’s only fair to point out that my reading of the book came in distinct chunks, all of which had their own ‘flavour’ to me. I got through the first 670 pages or so in a week and a bit, and loved every minute- I strongly recall enjoying this part of the book so much that I felt that I’d quite happily read another thousand pages or more. The adventures were so wild, the ideas so delightful, the personalities given such space to roam, to expand and find their own character, that I felt that this was the sort of reading I could day in, day out without end. However, the words then ran out. Literally.

There was a printing error, and every other pair of pages between page 650 to 720 was blank- I did try and see if the was some sort of pattern to the error (a Fibonacci sequence perhaps?) but no; apparently the UK hardbacks were prone to printing errors, so I took it into Waterston’s, who ordered a replacement. So, a hiatus, and what to fill it with?

Luckily a colleague at work (the estimable Mr Mat Hammond) lent me the Greg Egan collection of stories, Axiomatic. That was a profoundly unsettling and eye opening collection, just the ticket to keep me in mental flux and keen enough for more Anathem- perhaps in fact, it rather raised the bar.

When I finally received my replacement copy of Anathem I actually found the pace of the Stephenson book to be somewhat sluggish, compared to how I remembered it. Perhaps it’s the short story/ novel switch – if often feels like a bad gear change, but I did feel that I’d picked up a book that after 650 pages had lost a bit of impetus. So anyway I ploughed on, generally enjoying the tale being told (though harbouring some growing concerns over the concepts, and even some of the science behind the ideas) until around about page 815.

By that point the pace had picked up very nicely, and some of the more esoteric ideas about the nature of reality and cognition (including a clever interjection on the nature of spam, information and noise) were being integrated well into the plot. Then I went on a work holiday trip for a couple of weeks, to Vegas and San Francisco- that was great- blogged about elsewhere. I didn’t take the book, as a kilo of paper for 55 pages of story seemed excessive on a trip with at least four different changes of base. Those 55 pages were in the back of my mind for quite a bit of those two weeks- how would the ends tie up? Would anyone survive? What were the XXXs actually doing? Could XXXs really XXX XXX? I got back, read 55 pages, and felt utterly let down.

No spoilers here- it’s a great book for 815 of 870 pages, and for all I know, if you don’t take a break, you can rattle through to the end with no sense of aching hollowness or crushing disappointment. I just can’t help feeling that he was really enjoying writing this, and the editors lent on him to get it finished. My problem is that just at the point in the story when clarrity and good storytelling could go hand in hand to make crystal clear the outcome and the fates of all the characters I'd grown close too, he uses the most oblique of conceptual slights of hand to leave much of the tale untold. Or rather, over told.

The final scenes were perhaps an attempt to round things out nicely, to give a happily ever after to the grand epic, but again this seemed hollow and frankly fruitless. If this is truely the best of all possible worlds, then the best of all possible stories lies elsewhere in the multiverse.

1 comment:

Tristan Roddis said...

A slight correction, it was 'Hiro Protagonist' who was the, err, hero protagonist in Snowcrash.

Personally, I love a bit of Neal Stephenson: if you want more, I'd heartily recommend Cryptonomicon, a rambling tale of cryptography, gold, the dot-com boom and the second world war. It features a cameo appearance by Alan Turing himself, and even an appendix explaining how to do strong crypto with only a deck of cards.

However, if you want NS at his prolix best, and are prepared for the long haul, there's always all 3 volumes of the Baroque Cycle: a historical-fiction romp around 17/18th century Europe, featuring kings, queens, pirates and physicists. At over 2700 pages, it's huge and ramshackle, but ultimately unique and brilliant.