Michael Dirda on 'Anathem'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 7, 2008


By Neal Stephenson

Morrow. 937 pp. $29.95

While thinking about Neal Stephenson's Anathem, I found myself imagining that I was one of those cartoon heroes suddenly confronted by a moral quandary. On one shoulder sits a little red devil, with a tiny pitchfork; on the other, a cherubic angel in white robes. Each whispers in my ear, and I am tugged first this way and then that. My heart is roiled, I am perplexed and unhappy, caught in a dilemma.

For the past 30 years I've been a zealous advocate for literary science fiction and fantasy, arguing that writers such as Gene Wolfe, Thomas M. Disch, John Crowley, Ursula K. Le Guin, Howard Waldrop and a handful of others are significant American authors, as well as artists of the first rank. More recently, I've been gratified to see old genre prejudices breaking down as younger writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem and Kelly Link garner mainstream honors without rejecting their fantasy and sf roots. This is as it should be: Good books are good books, period. Everything else is just marketing.

Which brings me to my quandary. Neal Stephenson has established himself as one of these genre-transcending gods, read passionately by geeks and fans, but also admired as a novelist of ideas, a 21st-century Thomas Pynchon. In the best-selling Cryptonomicon he juxtaposes code-breaking during World War II with data encryption in the era of the Internet. A three-volume " Baroque Cycle" -- half Umberto Eco mystery, half Dorothy Dunnett swashbuckler -- examines science in the 17th century. All these novels are immensely long, yet it doesn't matter to the growing band of Stephensonians. Excess is clearly the name of the game. This new novel, Anathem, arrives with a major publicity campaign that includes podcasts, e-cards, YouTube appearances, guest blogs and the relaunch of the Neal Stephenson Web site. Everyone has gone all out for Anathem. I fully expected to join the stampede.

Alas, I can't even lope slowly alongside the herd. Oh, Anathem will certainly be admired for its intelligence, ambition, control and ingenuity. But loved? Enjoyed? The book reminds me of Harold Brodkey's The Runaway Soul from 17 years ago -- much anticipated, in places quite brilliant, but ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull.

That's an awful thing to say about a novel as formidable as Anathem, but there's no getting around it. The made-up language is rebarbative (though often clever), the plot moves with elephantine slowness, and much is confusing (the process of decipherment actually drives the book, as characters and the reader Try to Figure Things Out), and every so often we just stop for a long info-dump or debate about cosmology, philosophy, semantics or similar glitzy arcana. For the most part, Stephenson's prose lacks any particular grace or beauty (at least to my ear), and while he can be mildly satirical at times, these precious moments are few. On the other hand, the descriptions -- of buildings, machines, events -- seem to go on for millennia. Sex is referred to, but never actually seen.

Alas, there's worse. I also find the book to be fundamentally unoriginal. If you've read Russell Hoban's brilliant Riddley Walker, you've seen punning word coinages done better and more poetically. If you've read Walter M. Miller Jr.'s sf classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, you know that monasteries are havens of civilization and science (in Anathem's case, of high-level mathematics and theoretical physics). Most of all, if you've read Gene Wolfe's four-part Book of the New Sun, you can appreciate how this kind of grand encyclopedic vision, with mysteries at its core, can be brought off with far more elegance, wit and artistry. All these, by the way, are masterpieces -- and not just of "their genre."

The plot of Anathem is basically this: It's the far future of an Earth-like planet called Orth. We know it's the far future because we're given a long timeline of the planet's past, and the characters repeatedly refer to major figures from their history. Now Orth's past often recalls Earth's and includes figures who resemble Plato and Descartes, movements like the Reformation, and genocidal wars. Currently, though, civilization has bifurcated: Monasteries preserve theoretical knowledge of science and mathematics, and within their walls the brothers (fraas) and sisters (suurs) live simple, highly regulated lives, winding clocks, singing religious services, tending gardens. Only occasionally do they mingle with the outside world, that "extramuros" realm of "praxis," which possesses heavy machinery, cell phones, motorized vehicles and video recorders, and yet somehow seems rather rural and 19th-century in its basic character.

After a long build-up, the established routines of the cloister of Saunt Edhar -- note the word play: "saunt" blending "savant" and "saint" -- are strangely disrupted. A revered teacher is sent into exile, and our hero, a young fraa named Erasmas, is determined to find out why. With the help of his multi-talented monastery friends, he discovers that his mentor Orolo had been studying some strange lights in the night sky. But what are they? Along the way to solving this mystery, Stephenson treats us to numerous interruptions, discourses, explanations, apologia, mathematical proofs and arguments. All these fraas and suurs are super smart:

" 'It's a typical Procian versus Halikaarnian dispute,' I said. 'Avout who follow in the way of Halikaarn, Evenedric, and Edhar seek truth in pure theorics. On the Procian/Faanian side, there is a suspicion of the whole idea of absolute truth and more of a tendency to classify the story of Cnoüs as a fairy tale. They pay lip service to Hylaea just because of what she symbolizes and because she wasn't as bad as her sister. But I don't think that they believe that the HTW is real any more than they believe that there is a Heaven." Attentive readers will actually be able to understand most of this passage. No kidding. More surprisingly, Stephenson sometimes breaks his tone by writing plainly about what sounds like today's world: "An old market had stood there until I'd been about six years old, when the authorities had renamed it the Olde Market, destroyed it, and built a new market devoted to selling T-shirts and other objects with pictures of the old market."

Eventually, Erasmas and his ragtag team all end up leaving Saunt Edhar's, called upon by the secular government to help during some undisclosed state of emergency. In the outside world, these socially naive monks undergo a variety of adventures -- at one point Erasmas is rescued from a mob by an order of kickboxing warrior priests -- and we are, in due course, treated to death rays, multiple universes and, yes, a climax in which the very fate of Orth hangs in the balance.

And that's all anyone should say about the plot. Except that the end is really hokey. What forward action the novel possesses is largely generated by the exceedingly gradual unraveling of the various mysteries associated with an alien spacecraft and the past history of Orth.

To sum up: Reading Anathem is a humbling experience. Wow, you say to yourself, this guy Stephenson really knows a lot of stuff about philosophy and physics. And he's really ingenious, too, neatly counterpointing Earth/Orth history, creating a series of elaborate puzzles that can only be solved by Encyclopedia Brown and his monastic buddies, and transcribing intellectual conversations that sound like really nerdy Caltech grad students schmoozing at 3 a.m. or Cambridge dons pontificating at high table while they wait for the Stilton to come round.

The sad thing is this: None of these more than 900 pages can have been easy to write, or even to outline. Stephenson truly is gifted in the range of material he can draw on and play with. But he is also the sort of ambitious writer who tends to go too far, which is certainly preferable to playing it safe. Still, this novel is at heart artistically simplistic, despite its techno-razzle dazzle. Sigh. The word "Anathem" -- which here refers to either a piece of religious music or an act of excommunication -- is a portmanteau of "anthem" and "anathema" -- in other words, it suggests a song of rejection. I just hate to be singing it. ·

Michael Dirda's email address is mdirda@gmail.com

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