Wednesday, March 25, 2009


This blog entry was conceived as a review of Neal Stephenson's new novel Anathem. I say that because half way through you may think that you've wandered into a discussion of the phenomena known as the "sense of wonder" by science fiction pundits, my own personal thoughts on the motivations that keep us reading a given book, my equally personal thoughts about writing and authorship, and the scientific and philosophical viewpoints of Roger Penrose. Despite this potential perceived digression, this entry remains a discussion of Anathem -- and of the train of emotional and philosophical musings that book set into action.

And this brief introductory paragraph serves, also, as an example of something that Anathem lacked -- perhaps inevitably so. More on that later.

Back to the book. And beware, that spoilers are going to occur. Not plot description spoilers. If you want those, google "Anathem" or just go to the book's Wikipedia page which contains a passable plot summary. My spoilers will be more in the way of indirect references to the events and concepts in the book.

Anathem is a book that I believe all science fiction authors are drawn to, at some point in their careers, write. Some get to it right away, others dance around the topic for decades. For Stephenson, known for his near-term post-cyberpunk and historical fiction, this was not the most obvious direction for his writing to take. But, as I said, it is an almost inevitable draw.

A draw to what?

To first contact.

To the first meeting of two races, peoples, biologies, civilizations, or whatever. Sometimes it is humans and bug-eyed monsters, sometimes long lost worlds, or any of a thousand other variations. But the thought of meeting life from elsewhere is an endemic and driving force among us who read, write, or think about science fiction. The reasons should be obvious, and so not need themselves be explored.

Anathem also reminds me fiercely of one of my absolute personal favorite books, Umberto Eco's masterful The Name of the Rose (if you want a more detailed discussion, and some backstory on my reading tastes, please check out my Desert Island Books post). Some similarities are almost immediately obvious. Both books are set in monasteries (of a sort). Both feature first person narratives written, ostensibly, as journals by monks living within said monasteries-of-a-sort. Both involve sub-plots investigating the relationship between cloistered and secular life. Both possess complex stories with interwoven plots and gradually unfolding layers of mystery. And both possess patient pacing that slowly build from a sedentary opening to a violent climax.

There is something interesting in this pacing, for both books, so methodical and conversational and almost plodding. Some books are page-turners. Each page, each scene, each chapter throws something new and electrifying, drawing you onward and onward toward the finish. But some books require tolerance and devotion to finish. They draw you on more subtly and more provocatively: there may be tedious periods of exposition to endure, plot twists to absorb, obtuse narrative to decipher. What keeps us reading, then?

Remember, I promised you this diversion!

I posit that there are four good reasons that keep us reading a book. There are also some less sophisticated (or less healthy) motivations -- bull-headedness, peer pressure, assignments, etc. But as for the reasons that are worth our discussion:

Excitement: This is perhaps the "simplest" reason. The book is compelling by virtue of what happens. The scenes are graphic and fast paced and transporting, by virtue of the moment-to-moment action, to another time and place. Movies do this easily and do it well, and books can muster the same sense of excitement and urgency when the fur is flying. But what if, as happens in the opening scenes of both Anathem and The Name of the Rose, the excitement just isn't there, replaced with philosophical musing or detailed backstory?

Mystery: We humans, at least those of us who enjoy science fiction, are inevitable lovers of mysteries. We want to know and understand what is going on. If we are faced with an puzzle we want to know the solution. It does not matter if the puzzle is complex (what is up with the machinations of the evil warlord?), simple (who killed the monk?), or very complex (what is the very nature of space-time?), we want an answer. Note -- one of those three is from The Name of the Rose, one from Anathem, and the warlord thing I totally made up. A book that poses a sufficiently interesting mystery -- and keeps us interested and following along with clues on the way -- can maintain interest as surely as one that as a rolling series of smack-down fight scenes. Note that I do not just mean mysteries in the sense of an episode of CSI or Matlock, but also the more general sense of "an unknown" that beckons exploration.

Threat: Once we are invested in a character or characters, we want to know that they are OK. If there is a threat of danger -- of death or injury or banishment or whatever other peril is appropriate -- we will keep reading to make sure that threat passes or is defeated. Naturally, threats and mysteries can interweave -- and good bit of excitement can be built up while illustrating the threat. And should be, since a threat must feel real to the reader, just as it does to the characters. And us fickle readers need reminding, every so often, of what perils are out there.

Sense of Wonder: Finally we get to the somewhat cryptic "sense of wonder." This is a term often used in science fiction and fantasy circles to refer to that wonderful moment in a book (or movie) when the reader/audience suddenly realizes that "It looks like we're not in Kansas any more." And there you have it -- one of cinema's most well known "sense of wonder" moments. Another inevitable classic is "That's no moon, that's a space station." Got it?

"Sense of wonder" moments (which I will henceforth call "moments of wonder") nicely pair with mysteries. Think "Jurassic Park": where are we, what is going on? Cut to Laura Dern's reaction shot (and John Williams' rather cliche score) as she sees the grazing dinosaurs. Sometimes (like Jurassic Park) the moment of wonder hits us with the grace of a sledgehammer. Sometimes it creeps in more gently (if you haven't seen Jacob's Ladder, do so, but do so early in the day in a well lighted room while surrounded by a group of close friends who will accompany you everywhere you go for the next 96 hours).

Sense of wonder is a powerful thing. It is in so many ways the opposite of a mystery -- it is a moment of revelation and often explanation. But if done right it is also a moment that opens up even further moments of mystery and wonder -- and that does so by playing on our sense of curiosity and desire to explore the unknown.

Now back to The Name of the Rose, Anathem, and a third book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clark's wonderful and fantastic (archaic and modern meanings of both words, please) alternative history that truly deserves a review of its own but must be patient and enjoy this brief appearance in a supporting role. All three are books with (depending on your viewpoint) charmingly or lumberingly methodical paces. All three are books that occasionally "go off" on tangents that seem, at the time, of little or no importance. All three rely, then, on some degree of Mystery, Threat, or Sense-of-Wonder to keep the reader going.

The Name of the Rose opens with a mystery -- a dead monk. That alone is interesting and good for a few pages. But when monks continue to die, that mystery deepens. New ones are added as the heroes pursue the responsible party. The inquisition is about to show up, and things are going to get ugly (add Threat). Someone soon tries to eliminate the nosy investigators...more threat... Eco even manages to work in a few Moments-of-Wonder, taking advantage of the 14th century setting. In the end, the sometimes tedious slog through the boring bits proves worth it -- for only by accepting and learning from the philosophical debates and discussions can the motivations behind the crimes truly be understood.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell relies much more on a sense of wonder, of a dreamy floating journey through an alternate and magic-infused England. The book leans on willfully archaic language and a Jane Austen look-and-feel that is interrupted by moments of wonder and magic to propel the reader along like a punt along the Thames (and that really is the image I have in mind). There is also threat -- the brooding malevolence of "The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair" and the foreshadowing of Clark's many footnotes.

Anathem is at least as needing of such invigorating motivations as the other books. Perhaps even more so, since its first 500 pages include a free lesson on physics and metaphysics. Normally, the chance to learn is more than enough to keep me reading. And Stephenson, I want to say clearly and loudly, is a brilliant teacher. If he wrote a non-fiction physics textbook I'd buy it in a second and probably read it twenty times. Some of my favorite moments in The Diamond Age are the allegorical tales from The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Stephenson works analogy as an instructional tool like no one I have ever read, heard, or known (and this is an area in which I am no slouch myself). And the educational moments in Anathem are as fine as any he has ever written.

There are just too many of them.

When setting a book in a monastery, even one located on an alien world, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of making every scene a dialog between two characters. That is, after all, a large part of what appears to take place in the cloistered world. Discussion. Teaching. Debate. Musing. You can muse with total focus, muse while pruning grapes, muse while eating, muse while perming penance, muse while participating in rites and rituals. And Anathem pretty much works all of these possible musing-settings.

Until I, for one, was pretty well mused out. Because, you see, these wonderfully clear moments of instruction and debate were not discussing the Earthly science and philosophy that I know. They were discussing that of Arbe, the world on which the book is set. Yes, Stephenson has the audacity to teach cosmology, physics, orbital dynamics, configuration space mathematics, cognitive psychology, and a fair bit of metaphysics all while using about 50% made up words. This is what finally got me to the hands-in-the-air point of frustration. How was I to know if a given passage, which I found interesting, was something that I could bring up in conversation with a reasonably well educated and intelligent person and have a reasonable chance that they'd know what I was talking about?

Now don't get me wrong -- Stephenson wasn't making this shit up. It was all dead-to-right academically derived thinking -- mostly that of fox (and not hedgehog) Roger Penrose. But just enough of it was changed that I knew it was different. So why, I kept asking myself, should I invest the energy necessary to put all of this together when it is only good within the context of this one novel (all be it a long novel)? If I wanted to take any of my knowledge home with me, if I wanted any of that transfer that us adult educators crow about so much, I'd have to build a key translating terms, concepts, and theoreticians between the lingo of Arbe and that of 21st century Earth.

Finally, of course, I did reach the throw-my-hands-up point. I didn't literally throw them up, but I began reading a little faster. I'd go into turbo mode -- skim whole pages at one glance looking to see if things had moved on. If they hadn't, I'd kick it forward another page and repeat until I saw some variety.

This was, I know, a morally reprehensible way of acting. But for someone with a family, a career, a house to take care of, and the crowing distractions of Google and Wikipedia present at every turn, sometimes those precious thirty or forty five minutes on the train or in bed at the end of the day feel so oppressively short that the relentless push of the clock forces us to do things we don't want to. Like skip ahead a few pages. And because of this, I know I must accept some of the blame for what follows. But some of that blame must fold back onto the author. For if the traveler is lost, it may not be that they didn't read the map, but that the map is unreadable.

What Stephenson seems to have expected would keep us going was the Sense of Wonder. Anathem is full of little moments where the differences between Arbe and Earth, and the interesting complexities of Arbe's civilization, show up. Each of these was a little kick in the backside, a boost good for a few more pages. There was also threat, brooding, quiet, indistinct, and all together insufficiently threatening. For the first few hundred pages.

Things do start to stiffen up, a little, as the book moves on but it really isn't until almost page three hundred that we start to get the good payoffs. The possibility of aliens. But we still have to noodle around another two hundred or so for things to get concrete and solid and the threat to, rather slowly, materialize. Namely, that the alines Might Not Be Nice.

By that point, however, things have gotten good and solid and there is less and less time to dawdle around with tedious discussions about science and philosophy using made up words. Instead, we have migrated into a pretty good aliens vs. humans (except that the humans aren't really humans, but rather residents of the planet Arbe, and some of the aliens, as we eventually learn, are humans) story. It kept vaguely reminding me of the old Niven/Pournelle book Footfall.

You know the schtick, an overwhelmingly powerful but aloof force is defeated by the element of surprise and cleverness by scrappy not-quite-humans. It was well implemented, and involved a few clever tricks. An almost excessively detailed deviation into orbital dynamics was part of it. And the quantum fuzziness of the multiple-worlds-theory that was so pervasive an object of discussion throughout the rest of the book kept cropping up and providing a waking-dream level of what-narrative-do-I-trust interest.

It was good, quite good. It was compelling and page turning, devoid of excessive musing and discussion. A great deal of conspiracy, potential conspiracy, and just plain confusion kept every one guessing. And it ended with a gratifying tightness and evenness of pace that is wildly out of character for Stephenson. But it wasn't quite worth the investment that I perceived as expected of me, the reader, through the first few hundred pages.

The interesting thing, in retrospect, is that if I had stuck through it and gotten full value out of Stephenson's education in the first 500 pages, I would have found the payoff in the second half of the book, and in particular over the last 150 pages, much more compelling. Instead of a "decent aliens vs. not-quite-humans story" it would have been a much more clever, tightly woven, and possibly even slightly profound aliens vs. not-quite-humans story.

So there is a lesson here, regarding the path we take when the map is nearly unreadable. Sometimes it is, perhaps, intentionally so, and the wandering journey is part of the experience. So with that said, I look forward to re-reading Anathem the next time I truly have a Great Deal of time to kill. I might pursue the audiobook, since that format is much less conducive to "yeah-whatever" fits of page turning. Audible has one, though it appears to be a full-cast recording and I am rather notorious for disliking full-cast recordings.

It is also interesting to note that my immediate reaction, after finishing Anathem was not to foreswear Stephenson as a tedious hack and to run away from any of the ideas that he was considering. No, instead I went and started googling those scientists, philosophers, and scientist/philosophers that clearly influenced the book. And, on my way out the door the following morning, I grabbed Quicksilver, book one of his vast "Baroque Cycle" trilogy. I'd started Quicksilver some time ago, and recalled liking it, but had put it down (as it turns out, based on a receipt from Bouchon that I found pressed into service as a bookmark, the interrupting factor was returning home after a few days vacation).

As I read through Wikis about Roger Penrose and his ideas I kept having retroactive "moments of wonder" -- points where I would flash back to some element in the fast paced final few hundred pages of Anathem and suddenly get it. Understand how it fit into the tangled web that Stephenson had been weaving over those first 500-700 pages. And that is why I now realize that, had I been more patient and methodical (and had Stephenson thrown me some more breadcrumbs to keep the motivation alive), the whole thing might have been much more worth the wait.