Baggott's text is ultimately an attempt to knock down one sector of the creeping pseudo-science that is increasingly masquerading as actual science in...moreBaggott's text is ultimately an attempt to knock down one sector of the creeping pseudo-science that is increasingly masquerading as actual science in academia and especially in the popular presentation of science to the public. However, the far more satisfying portion of the book is Baggott's layman's overview of the progression of scientific advancement over the first three quarters of the 20th century. While I was aware of many of the aspects and topics he covered, in many cases the exact means by which the findings were experimentally confirmed and the sequence and timing of discoveries were details that weren't known to me. The logical sequence of discoveries and the depth at which he covered them were perfect for the purpose of the material. There was enough depth for someone like myself that is conversant in physics but doesn't actually practice it himself, and yet not so much depth that you hit road blocks in understanding due to pages of mathematics that you have to digest.
The second half of the book where he tackles how we went from empirical study and observation to fantastic leaps of imagination and untestable guesses is important, but ultimately far less interesting. It's much more interesting to point out what we know, than to have to spend many pages explaining why all this crap is largely things we don't know and have no present means of knowing. However, I felt that Baggott pretty thoroughly demolished string theory and everything else built on it. That perception of course is perhaps based on the fact that I fully expected him to do so, and he's in fact preaching to the choir on that point.
Baggott fails to tackle larger problems plaguing science at the moment. The truth is 95% of all papers are crap. Peer review isn't working as advertised. Scientific ethics are at an all time low with data being often manufactured or stolen. Experiment has shown that the vast majority of papers contain no repeatable observations, which anyone who actually looked at most papers out there would be able to guess. Models with dozens of make them up as you need them unknowns are too often substituting for experiments, and too often the creation of a model is treated as a result and not a theorem. Scientists increasingly spend more time creating computer programs and staring at shadows on the wall rather than collecting evidence. Evolutionary research has gotten lost in taxonomy Just So Stories about the distant and unknowable past, with for example 50 different untestable theories about how human upright posture evolved dominating debate. Science in general is increasingly a religious mindset proclaiming its incompatibility with all other religions. Too many scientists are doing backflips trying to justify a particular religious world view rather than actually observing the universe as if answering questions like "Is there a God?" was the reason for science's existence and not a tangential private belief. Sagan style historicism, wild imaginative speculation, quasi-spiritual romanticism and political activism seems to be trumping actual investigation, lab work, or any other rigor, and the public face of science is overwhelmingly controlled by a few religious zealots as if debating whether God was real was the most important use of a scientist's time. It certainly seems to be the most economically rewarding.
And scientists actually wonder why public esteem for science is on the decline as if it was some problem with the public.
But for what he is actually able to notice from his perspective, he seems to be looking at the right stuff and asking the right questions.(less)
After digesting Stephenson's latest 937 page tome, my response basically boils down to "Meh."
Ok, maybe not, "Meh." exactly. Maybe more like, "Hmmm." I...moreAfter 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. (less)
A rather uninteresting and sometimes cheesy science-fiction thriller, most notable for its links to archaeology and its commitment to hard science. Th...moreA rather uninteresting and sometimes cheesy science-fiction thriller, most notable for its links to archaeology and its commitment to hard science. The whole story is ultimately based on an exercise in imaginative particle physics, and while the postulated physical properties are odd the author is careful to avoid explaining everything with handwavium or other magic.(less)