After digesting Stephenson's latest 937 page tome, my response basically boils down to "Meh."
Ok, maybe not, "Meh." exactly. Maybe more like, "Hmmm." IAfter digesting Stephenson's latest 937 page tome, my response basically boils down to "Meh."
Ok, maybe not, "Meh." exactly. Maybe more like, "Hmmm." I wish I could say something more elegant about it, but the problem is that there isn't a lot to say about the book as a whole because the book as a whole isn't really that good or that interesting. The book as a whole is difficult to describe, because so much of the book seems like a digression from even itself that instead of a book, it's more like a lot of separate little works on a unifying theme.
That unifying theme is science, and Stephenson has a lot to say about science. And he says it, almost like he was a heretic espousing some radical concept the orthodoxy would be offended by, in code. Not only just in code, but in the form of a fictional dialogue as if he needs his own voice and opinions to be deniable. Of course, here the problem isn't so much deniability, because I'm not sure Stephenson ultimately says much of anything fresh or radical or likely to get him in trouble with the orthodoxy, as it is convincing people to read his opinions in the first place. You probably couldn't get a lot of people to read a frequently dry 937 page text on the material Stephenson is covering, but you might could if you dressed it up in the form of a science fiction story about an alternate world where the schism between science and religion occurred at the dawn of Western Civilization and both retreated to cloisters to observe their respective discipline.
More than anything, 'Anathem' reminded me of 'The Young Ladies Illustrated Primer' from 'The Diamond Age' (particularly the part where in the narrative where it illustrates fundamental concepts of computer science) only without the illustrations or the interactivity. Far more than it is a science fiction novel, the text is a primer seemingly aimed at young people most of the time, introducing concepts from philosophy, math, and science in what can only be described as a somewhat entertaining and slightly subversive way.
The most salient feature of the text to me turned out not to be the much discussed alternative language, but the fact that Stephenson had choose to tell the story in the first person - which seemed to me to be a bit of a departure - and employed what struck me as a highly unreliable narrator. Erasmus, our protagonist, is a highly naive, incredibly sheltered, idealistic, impressionable, nineteen year old to which the appellation 'man' would seem to be dubiously applied. He's essentially a physics monk, and yet he serves as our sole window the world of Stephenson's creation which colors the events with all of Erasmus's biases and naivety. I often wondered what things looked like through the eyes of his sib, or his mentor, or any number of other characters.
The second most salient feature of the text is the frequent employment of invented technical jargon - SF bullshyte, if you will - as it is employed by the residents of the world of Arbre, and in particular, the cloistered Mathic world of Arbre. This was disappointing to me, because I went based on reports I'd heard expecting a full blown invented language on par with say the street slang of Burroughs 'Clock Work Orange' or even the elvish languages of Tolkien. Instead, what I got was a really thin 'code', full of in jokes and sly references some of which I got immediately and most of which I didn't feel compelled to track down if I didn't. In most cases, they are just bullshyte (another of his jargon words, if you are wondering) relabeling of famous real world scientists and philosophers or their theorems or philosophical schools. (For example, Thelenes for Socrates; 'Thelenes' = 'The Hellenes' = 'The Greek'.) This might be fun reading if you are in to cracking the code, but I had enough of the gist of it that there seemed to be no need. Besides, Stephenson absolutely spoon feeds the reader with definitions, both in chapter headings and within the text, to the point that not only is it full of annoying exposition, but much of the fun of deciphering the text is immediately lost. Thus, the author ends up gaining very little except where it relates to his twist, such as it is (and which you can see coming three or four hundred pages away). It seems to me that if you are going to pull this sort of thing, you shouldn't talk down to the reader but trust them to understand you. But the whole book seemed a lost opportunity for depth and creativity to me, so that was par for the course.
There is little more to say about the book as a whole except that it is generally anticlimactic at every point along the way. None of the little story arcs have particularly worthwhile payoffs, and whenever you think that the story is about to become interesting it collapses again and simply pitters out.
I probably making this sound worse that it is. Bits and pieces are in isolation really interesting, and I made it through the book easily enough. But Stephenson has raised the bar for himself pretty high in my estimation, and this is I think far from his best work.
Anyway, some other random observations:
Provener: It's a beautiful building, but considering how much time the author lavishes on the details of its layout and construction, you'd think it would play a more central role in the story.
Apert: Just once I'd like some legends introduced into a story that don't turn out to be factual and central to the plot. Of all the story digressions, I'm not sure that there is one that is more frustrating than throwing Erasmus in a cell while the story advances around and without him.
Anathem: The first great crisis, which leads to Erasmus's next two quests - neither of which turn out to be all that important or interesting or even necessary except perhaps to Erasmus's peace of mind.
Voco: Pause for scientific investigation.
Peregrin: After 300 pages of exposition, the story commences in haste, if by 'haste' you mean meanders about for another 600 pages. Still, some of the best lines of the story occurs here, if you'll pardon the minor spoilers:
"Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs," I said. "We have a protractor." "Okay, I'll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and peice of string." "That would be great."
I try to avoid spoilers, but for the record, the above lines and the conjectures that they contain turn out to be not strictly true, and even more importantly I think, and ironicly, the point of writing lines like that is somewhat undermined by later events anyway.
Feral: Something must be wrong. We are having an actual adventure here.
Orithena: Don't expect any satisfying answers here.
Inbrase: Pause for scientific debate. This, ultimately, ends up leading to: more debate.
Messal: You know that you've arrived as a successful and respected author, when just as you are reaching the climax of your sci-fi adventure, you can get away with dropping an 80 page conversation into the text and still get your novel published.
Advent: Stephenson finally returns to form. Some more trade mark Stephenson adventure... with a trade mark Stephenson let down when we reach the expected climax. Also, does anyone else find it odd how often in their stories supposed ‘hard’ science fiction authors resort to magic and techno-religions (that is to say, gods, demigods, eternity and/or heaven as brought to reality by mastery of Gnostic sciences)? Talk about putting your Faith in reason.
Reconstitution: How sweet.
Calca: Did anyone else get the impression that these were originally part of the text, and that Stephenson had been forced to put them in the appendix solely because his editor finally showed some backbone and called him on it?
I suppose I should actually discuss some of the issues Stephenson raised, but I can’t manufacture enough excitement to hold a separate Suvinian Dialog (which given a pedagogue like me, ought to tell you something), so if anyone wants my take on a particular idea, they’ll have to do some prompting. ...more
Having never before read A.W. Tozer, I didn't know what to expect when I started reading this book, and if I expected anything I'm not sure that thisHaving never before read A.W. Tozer, I didn't know what to expect when I started reading this book, and if I expected anything I'm not sure that this was it.
The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life is a study in the unstudiable. It is a scrutiny of that which is inherently inscrutable. It is therefore I think doomed from the start, for the knowledge that it would convey is inexpressible and the wisdom it would impart is far beyond man's understanding. In fact, the book is filled with confessions of this very sort which made me wonder why such a futile project was attempted with such earnestness.
According to the text, Tozer believed that the failure of the church in the 20th century was largely due to a failure to properly conceive God. Tozer spends about 20 short chapters discussing the attributes of God. The real God, Tozer declares, is marked by His Majesty and this majesty is evident from His infinite nature. Whether speaking of God's power, His righteousness, His faithfulness, His knowledge, or any other attribute which is part of the nature of God, the real God is in all things unlike the things of the world in being infinite. The real God, Tozer claims, had been disconnected from the name of God so that when the church spoke his name it no longer reflected the actual God of the Heavens but rather some enfeebled and unmajestic conception of man.
This is actually a subject that I as a computer scientist take a great deal of interest in. Names are fundamentally important to the study of computer science. In computer science we are made aware of the distinction between the name and the thing that is named. The name of a thing is not the thing itself, but rather only a pointer to the thing. A name is valuable only in as much as it continues to point to the right thing. A name can become misaddressed, so that it no longer points to the thing it is supposed to. And, a name can become detached completely from anything, so that when we try to dereference it we find the name empty of meaning. So it is in fact a very real worry that we might still hold on to the name, but find that the name has no power because it no longer addresses the thing that its name is supposed to associate it with. A name that doesn't point to the thing that it labels, has lost referential power and like salt without saltiness is good for nothing.
Nothing is worse than asking directions of a null pointer.
Tozer is certainly right that the name of God can become lost. If it was not so, then God would have never warned us against using the name lightly. But if the address of the namespace of God becomes lost to us, the fault is not with God. God cannot be made null. The fault lies with us, in that we have made His name null within our namespace. But the problem herein is that if Tozer is right, and that the chief problem is that we've lost the address of God and our prayers are thereby null and ineffective, clearly no effort on our part can reinitialize that pointer. God must give us his address if we are to use it.
Which creates quite a conundrum, because how can Tozer expect to by any of his writing reinitialize the pointer to God? If Tozer is right, then all of his intellectuality and all of his logic, intelligence, and study is completely vain - even by his own account. All of the attributes of God are far beyond our understanding. Any conceptions we have of God are necessarily limited and therefore in some measure a false understanding. We cannot hope to contain the infinite within our finite understanding.
Perhaps it is for this reason that Tozer does what is I think the most fitting and valuable part of the work - he begins each chapter with prayer.
It's not so much that I think Tozer says anything that is false. I think he does a fine job reminding the reader how big God is. Or rather, I think he does as fine of job as any mere human can do speaking about the infinite to another mere mortal. This is to say, not very well at all really if the purpose is anything other than a philosopher’s game. From Tozer's writing how can we come away with a pointer to God? If the problem is really that we don't imagine God big enough and don't hold him in awe enough, then what are we to do or how could we ever have any hope of Salvation? If only those that have sufficient intellect to hold the infinite in their understanding shall be saved, then we are all doomed for there is not a one of us so bright that our own strong right brain can save us.
The truth is that we cannot be saved through the completeness of our doctrines, our studies of theology, or the correctness of our thoughts. The problem isn't so much that I disagree with Tozer; it is that I think he gets it completely backwards. The loss of the namespace of God isn't the cause of the failing of the modern church, but a symptom of it. It's not that we are not right with God because we lack a proper conception of him, but rather we have not a proper conception of God because we are not right with God. Tozer is I think trying to treat a symptom rather than a cause.
At times Tozer’s work is shockingly anti-intellectual, even to one such as myself, who can be sneeringly anti-intellectual, and yet I wonder if it doesn’t go far enough. I don’t think there is a thing here which will be convincing to anyone that needs convincing on these points. I don’t think there is anything in the text that will convince the reader of anything he is not formerly convinced of. On a purely intellectual level, I don’t think there are very many Christians who have forgotten the Majesty of God, or His infinite grace, mercy, faithfulness, or love. It’s not that we’ve forgotten how big he is when we engage in these sorts of intellectual conversations; it is that we just don’t feel it really. There is vast difference in the knowing of something in your head, and the knowing of something in your heart. The one enables you to speak eloquently on a subject, and the other empowers you to actually live as you claim to believe.
On the speaking eloquently or correctly on the subject of the unbounded matchless character of God, I think Tozer can be some help. But this is really not much help at all. What I need is some help in getting from a cold leaden too intellectual heart filled with worldly wisdom, toward really feeling the presence of God. But such an instruction manual - if anyone could provide it - never seemed to be in Tozer’s ambition. I can’t say whether or not merely thinking the right things was enough for A.W. Tozer, but it doesn’t work too well for me.
I really don't know what I was expecting when I reserved this from the library, but it wasn't this. In my defense, it sounded interesting. I thought iI really don't know what I was expecting when I reserved this from the library, but it wasn't this. In my defense, it sounded interesting. I thought it might be a discussion of sociology and history meant to inspire or empower people to build what they wanted. In fact, what I got is....
Let me back up. Just recently, Irrational Games released the latest in their series of dystopian first person shooters - 'Bioshock Infinite'. In this series visionary philosophers seek to found utopian communities based on the idea that humanity needs to be organized around a different guiding principle, and in this isolation temporarily achieve great things only to be ultimately undermined by the fundamental flaws inherent in their philosophy. In the first game, you get to live out the fantasy of killing a bunch of Ayn Randian objectivist libertarians that have mutated into monsters. In this latest game, you are pitted against fanatical American patriots who worship the founding fathers.
One of the things that greatly interests me is that the utopian communities of Bioshock look absolutely nothing like the sort of utopian communities that are actually created or desired by the sort of people whose philosophies Bioshock draws inspiration from. American religious mystics don't create high tech cities. They create something more like a Shaker village. The people inspired by American Exceptionalism didn't create isolationist flying communes, but Detroit and Chicago. The followers of Ann Rand didn't and wouldn't be interested in planned communities. They'd correctly diagnosis any sort of planned community as a de facto government and isolation as a tool of empowerment by that government. You can say many things about the Objectivists, but they aren't really into building Utopias or at least not for communities as a whole. Actual religious utopians building intentional planned communities don't tend to imagine high tech cities as a way to get spiritual. If you actually look at the history of intentional communities in the United States and the world, you find a lot of luddite religious groups, a few con artists, a great many free spirited anarchist squatters, and an endless succession of socialist communes, compounds, show cities, and planned communities. In fact, the only modern religious philosophy that has shown any consistent interest in building communities set apart from the rest of society is socialism. It's got a rich 200 year history, but if you are waiting for the Bioshock game that has a communist planned community at its heart, well, I suspect you'll be waiting a long while. Actually attacking a vibrant religion, especially one many of your friends belong too, has way too many social repercussions.
If you want a real model for the sort of communities found in Bioshock, then you couldn't really do better than this book. Instead of a discussion of the theories of social organization and how they relate to architecture, what you get in this book is a blueprint based on a theory of desirable organization. There is within the pages of this book a detailed outline of exactly how the lives of people are to be controlled in every practical aspect. Alexander has a plan for everything - where you own land, where you work, what you do, where you shop, and where you sleep. Everything is planned out in meticulous detail.
What I find particularly interesting is that what he's planning is ultimately little more than a tessellated medieval town. This is guy who has clearly gone to Europe, fallen in love with the post-medieval countryside and decided that this is the way mankind must be made to live. Grounded in pseudoscience, Alexander outlines reasoning for recreating every incidental aspect of the medieval countryside. In the real world, the complex winding tapestry of medieval fields and farms was the result of patrimony and continual subinfeudation. In Alexander's fantasy world, the thin intertwined fingers of land familiar to anyone with more than a half-dozen hours of college level course study in Medieval history are the product of science - in the same way that the huge communal government owned farms of the Soviet Union and Mao's great agricultural leap forward were the product of science.
The pattern of streets in a medieval town, the layout of semi-self-sufficient neighborhoods within larger cities, virtually every aspect of medieval culture save the central organizing cathedral at the hub is apparent in the layout. The steel I-beam doesn't exist in this world, nor does it appear the elevator, nor does electricity save in the most cursory way. This is building for the 19th century. Now, there are important topics here that could be discussed, but from his perspective in the 1970's - a time filled with socialist community planning (my cousin lived on a commune) - the writer isn't really asking the right questions or thinking about them. Instead of looking at the world's architectural diversity and really seeing it as adaptive and useful engineering, he's got his theory and by golly he's going to stick with it.
I do Alexander no injustice to claim that he is a would be tyrant of the highest degree. Alexander is well aware that his intentional planned community won't come about organically by people seeing the sense of his ideas and incorporating them into their lives from the bottom up, first building house according to his principles, then latter building complexes, and latter neighborhoods and finally cities. He well aware that his vision requires above all two things – central planning and authoritarian force. The only way to get people to do what Alexander believes is good for them is to make them do it. Every second page of the book contains an enjoinder to create laws that enforce the pattern discussed in that section, and a discussion of the necessity of doing so. Of course, every page with such an injunction also contains a 'proof' that the pattern to be enforced is really the natural one humanity prefers, which means there has to be a Satan in the garden somewhere but I didn't read the book closely enough to find evidence beyond a few attacks on 'bankers' and 'investors'. I suspect however that I'd be learning nothing additional about the book to find the answer on that subject. I've encountered too much of this sort of crap before.
Anyway, what I wanted was science. What I got was religion. There are many ironies in this text, but probably the greatest one for me is that of all the areas of American life that this book impacts (other than a few municipal codes in California), the area you can see Alexander’s theories play out to their fullest is in the design of Shopping Malls....more
I've been avoiding listing this one because there is a part of me that screams, "Why didn't you give this book 5 stars!?!?!" Certainly, that part of mI've been avoiding listing this one because there is a part of me that screams, "Why didn't you give this book 5 stars!?!?!" Certainly, that part of me has a point. I've read this book more than any other book save two - the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Generally, any book I find worth reading more than 4 or 5 times I also find worth giving 5 stars to. And, in terms of the power and sophistication of the stories contained within, the book is probably unmatched as a collection of short stories. Likewise, it offers an unparalleled glimse into the historical past. And, it has probably some of the most stirring passages in all of literature which provingly remain thrilling and moving when translated into any language. Additionally, it is a profoundly deep and philosophical book. Finally, it the core of who I choose to define myself as as a person.
So why just four stars? What compels me in all honesty to give it short marks?
To be fully honest, there are large passages particularly in the first testament - much of Jeremiah, portions of the larger prophetic works, and pretty much all of the minor prophets - that I just find boring and intractably obscure. Pushing through them is a chore, and I seldom find anything I can really chew on. I suspect that to really appreciate these passages I'd have to learn some Hebrew and put in alot more serious study than I have, but really that's not what I want from this book. When I open it, I'm not looking for lengthy vistas (though I'm happy when I find them), but a more pithy and accessible sort of knowledge - as one opening a mechanic's reference or soldier's battle handbook.
Fair warning - the book is written in frank soldierly language; I will critique it in kind.
At one level, this is a straight up 'fatherly' self-help boFair warning - the book is written in frank soldierly language; I will critique it in kind.
At one level, this is a straight up 'fatherly' self-help book. Its message is simple. Stop procrastinating, stop making excuses, and get your sorry ass to work. No tricks; no magic; just do it. This is Pressfield channeling the DI. But beyond that, and what makes this more than just a swift kick in the pants to someone that is down, is that this is fundamentally a spiritual, theological book.
I'm just not certain what sort of theology or spirit.
A lot of the basic premise will be familiar to any Christian. This could have very easily been a little Christian enchiridion about winning the fight against Sin.
Stephen Pressfield's word for sin is Resistance. It's a good word, as it well encapsulates how one experiences the phenomenon when one becomes aware of it and starts to try to fight it. As Pressfield talks about the subject, we are reminded of St. Paul’s writings on the subject of Resistance:
"For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish." - Galatians 5:17
"For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" - Romans 7: 15-25
So far so good. But while reading Pressfield is a little easier than reading St. Paul, I am also in reading it reminded of the Apology by Plato in which he has Socrates say:
"After the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be instantly detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them--thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise."
At least a third of 'The War of Art' is bullshit and bloviating. It's full of little digressions, contradictions, follies, and self-validations which it would be tedious to list here. If you are looking for wisdom, don't seek it out in this manual. If you are looking for wisdom, you'll get badly led astray here. Some of his throw it all out there lines are just downright weird and I was frequently glad he didn't bother to explain himself.
If you are looking for technique, you'll be on much more solid ground. This is a practical book by a practitioner who gets up each morning and does his best to kick the Resistance in the ass before it kicks him. Refining his theology is obviously less important than walking away from the battlefield something other than a bleeding corpse. Can't fault that.
The book is divided into three sections. The first section where he defines the enemy is the best and most solid. Aside from a few weird digressions about how artists have to abandon their friends because they are allied with the Resistance, and a weird tangent on the evils of Fundamentalism which makes me think he doesn't know any actual Fundamentalists (or much about art history) and is hence just blowing smoke out of his ass, this is really good stuff.
The second section talks about combating resistance. Again, much of this is solid provided you keep your nose unplugged so you can avoid stepping in the squishy stuff. Pressfield says that the key to combating the Resistance is to adopt what he calls the professional attitude. Essentially, the Professional stays busy. He isn't idle because he doesn't let himself be idle. He works purposefully and he never stops working. As Paul would say, "He runs the good race."
But Pressfield understands something more than that, and that is that the Professional has Faith; and furthermore, that the universe is ordered such that Faith is mysteriously rewarded. The writer sets down expecting that that inspiration, that genius, will come if he begins in good faith.
The third section is about how the professional harnesses that higher aid, which he refers to as the 'mystery'. And here is where it gets really weird, because Pressfield is quite willing to grab any metaphor he can get his hands on to describe this mystery. This is artistic indifferentism. I suppose this is fitting given that every tradition produces artists, but it makes for weird reading. Pressfield is most attracted to classical Greek theology, which makes the third section read like something that is half self-help book and half neo-Pagan new age tract. For me personally, the mix of Epicureanism with Christian theology reminds me most of the equally highly personal theology of Thomas Jefferson, save for one thing. Far more so than even Jefferson, Pressfield is convinced that this 'mystery' is active in the world and boldly proclaims: "The gods do exist. They do penetrate our earthly sphere."
Which brings us back around to that earlier quote by Plato. Because, for all the minor faults in the work, Pressfield gets it. He isn't just an arrogant asshole yelling at you to get on with it. He knows he's know wiser or better off than the rest of us, save perhaps that he's really realized that he isn't wiser or better than the rest of us and so drops the pretension and just humbly and dedicatedly does what he can do.
Then he rambles one for another 30 pages on Jungian this and territoriality that sufficient to convince us of the truth that "upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise." But it's ok, because none of that is necessary for the craft. You can get by just fine without any of it, naming the enemy, praying, and making a good start with the faith that the ending is there in the hands of some friendly Divine Muse.
Now, where did I put that half finished novel...? ...more