Lee's Reviews > Anathem

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
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Aug 17, 2008

bookshelves: fiction
Read in July, 2008

** spoiler alert ** Like all of Stephenson's science fiction novels, Anathem is tons of fun to read and I didn't want to come to the end. The characters and the ideas are fun and engaging.

This is a much more standard classic science fiction book than any of Stephenson's earlier ones, as far as I know. It's not especially cyberpunk, it's full of goofy made-up words like "jeejah" and "speelycaptor", and it's about a technologically advanced and religiously and politically confused planet (like our own) fighting off alien invaders.

It also seems more derivative, in strange ways. The first part reads like a press release from the Long Now Foundation, which is devoted to building a big clock that will ring its bells 10,000 years from now. The first part of this book takes place in one of those clocks. The "monastery" built into the clock is also a combination university and prep school, and the plot pretty quickly turns into Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: the teachers are acting strange and keeping secrets! The students have to form a secret order, make sense out of factional divisions among the adults, and defend the human race! Will our hero kiss the girl he has a crush on — or the girl who has a crush on him?! Then it turns into something like an old Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel when the mysterious spaceship comes and starts dropping projectiles and blowing up mountains, etc. But it keeps turning into some kind of pop science/philosophy book too, since the resolution hinges on the quantum nature of consciousness, and how information travels among multiple universes. The part where the spaceship turns out to have French people on it is original, as far as I know.

Now a few words about the Third Culture, if you don't mind. A book appeared in the 80s by that name: its thesis is that a new synthesis of science and humanities is arising that breaks the old division between the "two cultures" of science and the humanities. The new third-cultural figures are science and technology people like Danny Hillis, Nicholas Negroponte, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, and so on, who deliver new ideas about what human society is like and what the future will be like, from a position of authority conferred by their scientific expertise that traditional humanities people supposedly just don't have, because they just stare into their navels and make things up. The editor/creator of The Third Culture is one John Brockman, a literary agent who represents a long list of these science/tech authors.

His book turns out actually to be largely an attack on "postmodernists" and "cultural relativists", claiming that these people have marginalized scientists, don't believe that reality exists, and just don't make sense. Since there's a lot more to post-60s cultural theory than that, and most of it makes sense (though it's difficult), it's sensible to gather that the rancor is actually about something a little different: "postmodernism" is a political-philosophical assault on modern civilization, and its attackers are defending truth, progress and the American way of life against a barbarian horde.

I bring this up because I think the Third Culture really does exist, in the form of a thousand science/tech types who are aggressively promoting progress and Enlightenment values, whether through various Internet services or particle physics/neuroscience/genetics explanations for the confusions of the world. Neal Stephenson is its Poet Laureate. The Baroque Trilogy is a Third-Culture revisionist history of Western Modernity (but this isn't the place for that discussion), and this novel is another Third Culture fantasy.

The Long Now Foundation's slow clock project, which is the starting point for Anathem, is a major piece of T.C. imagineering. It's all about asserting the power of rationality and planning, and countering apocalyptic fears that there isn't going to be a future. Its board is a T.C. roll call: Danny Hillis, designer of oddball computers, Stewart Brand, promoter of access to technology (and "green" nuclear power), Brian Eno, electronic music guru. This novel is promotion for that project, essentially.

Meanwhile, in the novel the big clocks are also the universities, but oddly, there aren't any literature or history or anthropology people around — only science, technology and philosophy. And it's that kind of philosophy, the kind that proceeds from science and technology to more abstract conclusions about the nature of the cosmos. These scholars are pitted against various fundamentalist religious people throughout the book, just as they are on this planet, according to them — the champions of reason versus misguided, superstitious primitives; and of course at the end it's the reason people who win the day.

As you might guess, I have some problems with this ideology. Reason is indispensable but insufficient — see Saul's Voltaire's Bastards or Wiezenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason for more on this than I could possibly write. Scientific/technological instrumental reason has brought us the atom bomb, nuclear waste, atmospheric carbon buildup, DDT and plenty of other disasters with lots more yet to come. Its champions are smart, arrogant, and ignorant, and it would be a great day for all of us if they were to take philosophical critiques of modernity, and the humanities in general, a lot more seriously.

Anathem is a well-written book, and lots of fun to read, but we could do with more critical, visionary work about how to create a sustainable synthesis of rationality, humility, creativity, solidarity and basic human values, and less boosterism for the same old arrogant, hopeless death culture.
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Roberto DDT is not a disaster. That's mostly propaganda. Unless you can call saving millions of human lifes a disaster.

message 2: by Lee (new) - added it

Lee Roberto - I'm not an expert on DDT. It's clear that there's a political campaign to discredit Rachel Carson and the past campaign against DDT, as a way of undermining environmentalists' current claims, such as the need for decisive action to cut anthropogenic carbon emissions, and to protect endangered species. In other words, your post is propaganda, and I wouldn't be surprised if you're part of an organized campaign seeking out web pages with the word "DDT" in them.

Roberto Oh, right. Yeah, you got me. I am paid by a secret conspiracy to sell DDT.

I just post reviews of scifi books in my spare time, and decided, hey, let's kill two birds with one stone and get some work done at the same time!

Is DDT awesome as mother's milk? No. Did DDT save millions from horrible deaths? Yes. Have Malaria and Yellow Fever and Dengue got much worse since DDT was forbidden? Sure. Is Carson's book full of anecdotal evidence? You betcha!

message 4: by Bethtub (new)

Bethtub That he read a 9 paragraph review of a sci-fi book and the only thing he responds to is the auxillary mention of a chemical pretty much disqualifies any legitimacy. Nice eye, Lee.

Roberto Bethtub: your comment is amazingly dumb. Look at my profile. I have posted reviews on about 25 books in the last 6 months. I have even read anthem (test me ;-).

I commented on the DDT thing because:

1) I am a bit of a contrarian

2) It was a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion.

If you want to further educate yourself instead of spouting recycled paranoia, it is very simple to look up popular literature on modern (indoor) DDT usage.

OTOH, since the only companies selling DDT nowadays are chinese, perhaps you would expect the thought of them hiring an argentinian nerd to post *one* comment about DDT on a reader's review of a novel that is *not* about DDT in an english-language site, perhaps unlikely.

On the gripping hand[1:], my posts have been civil and are trivial to verify for anyone bothering to research even a little bit. The responses are, let's say, limited in thought.

[1:] see? I *am* a nerd.

message 6: by Lee (new) - added it

Lee I like all the short reviews you write, Roberto. I feel inspired to write more short ones.

I see you're an independent supporter of the DDT rehabilitation campaign - it is an organized campaign nonetheless, and not just in China. Meanwhile I could just as well have written DES, Thalidomide, or the X-Ray in place of DDT. The Bomb, nuclear waste and internal combustion are the centerpieces of the argument anyway.

ps. what's a gripping hand?

Roberto I am not a part of an organized campaign, since this was probably my first ever public post containing the DDT acronym.

I won't bother falling for any of the bait you are throwing (like, is not thalidomide a useful drug if you are *not* pregnant?. Do you own an internal combustion engine? I don't!. X-rays are awesome!).

I am just amused at the paranoia involved in believing that everyone that disagrees with someone else is a paid sock puppet.

message 8: by Lee (new) - added it

Lee How is it bait? It's beside the point that some of these inventions have uses and some of them are entertaining to a curious mind. The point is that the technocrats who brought them to us did not adequately account for the damage they would do. Proponents of science and technology who look down their noses at everyone else need to learn some humility from the harm their community has done.

Roberto Lee, who can be against x-rays? They have killed perhaps 100, and saved hundreds of millions of lifes. How are they even *arguable*?

Are you actually, really against the internal combustion engine? Are you pro-steam? Horse-carts?

That's why I called your post bait. It seems to me an obvious attempt at causing an argument. I usually have no problem with it, since my habit is eating the bait and then breaking the line, probably throwing the fisher overboard in the process.

My arguing jaws are remarkable.

message 10: by Lee (new) - added it

Lee "... And I remember our trips to the Sears, Roebuck down the block to buy shoes. That was my favorite store. I always asked to go back there, because they had a machine which let you see the bones in your feet through a green light. And I looked at my feet again and again, amazed and awed." Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones, p 41

The inventors and promoters of new technologies have not adequately accounted for the damage their inventions would do. Society as a whole has not adequately accounted for the damage done by new technologies.

Most obviously, in the cases of nuclear energy and internal combustion.

It's a very serious, ongoing problem of power and accountability, and we don't have a solution to it.

Roberto Are you against anestethics, too, because of opium abuse?

Consider how many lives are saved *daily* by x-rays. Balance that against some hypothetical foot cancer cases 50 years ago.

Feel free to avoid any modern technology (like, iron, for all I care). Feel free to live in abject poverty and die at 30.

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