Nov 17 2008 9:13am

Anathem: what does it gain from not being our world?

Tom Shippey, who isn’t an idiot, called Neal Stephenson’s Anathem “high fantasy” in the Times. So in my second reading of Anathem in the two months since it came out, I was trying to figure out what he meant when he used that term about a book that includes spaceships and the scientific method.

Shippey defines high fantasy as:

a story set entirely in a secondary world, the creation of which is a major part of the author’s appeal and intention.

Certainly, the world of Anathem is deeply appealing. It’s not just that geeks live in giant clock-monasteries, cool as that is. It’s not the way different parts of those monasteries are enclosed for different amounts of time. It’s the angle on time that encourages. Our narrator Erasmas is only nineteen, yet it’s second nature to him to say:

When there’s an economy extramuros, we can sell the honey outside the Day Gate and use the money to buy things it’s difficult to make in the concent. When conditions are post-apocalyptic, we can eat it.


For three thousand years it had been the concent’s policy to accept any or all folding chairs and collapsible tables made available to it, and never throw any away. ... We had folding chairs made of aluminum, bamboo, aerospace composites, injection-molded poly, salvaged rebar, handcarved wood, bent twigs, advanced newmatter, tree stumps, lashed sticks, brazed scrap metal and plaited grass.

This is a large part of why I love it, and why I missed it after I finished it and wanted to read it again soon. However, this isn’t a fantasy thing. SF has worlds with funny words and customs and interestingly anthropological ways of looking at things.

Shippey also says that Stephenson intended the book to proselytise for the ideas, for potential fraas and suurs, which, if it were the case, would hardly have led him to end it the way he does.

I started thinking about why Stephenson had chosen to set the story in a different world, rather than set it four thousand years or so in our own future. There’s a good plot reason, of course, which is having people from our world show up later. But he could just as well have set it four thousand years in the future and had aliens, rather than people from our world and other cosmoses. Since the first time I read Anathem I’ve been assured by people I trust who know about science (Marissa Lingen, and Chad Orzel on his blog) that essentially the many-worlds alternate physics stuff is all wrong. While the French is cute and all that, it could have been aliens and been fine. The bit I like least about Anathem is the bit in space, the probabilistic Millenarian ex Machina stuff. So he could have lost that and not annoyed Mris and other physics people and still kept everything I adore about the book.

My general feeling is that SF is better if it’s connected to our world. I have an emotional preference for futures we could get to from here.

Nevertheless, I think it’s better for Anathem to be in its own world. There’s a way of writing fantasy where you use history but put it into a subcreated world so that you can talk about the essence of the history and not the details. Guy Gavriel Kay does this a lot, and I have done it myself.

Anathem is doing that same thing only with the history of science and natural philosophy.

That rocks.

Dave Robinson
1. DaveRobinson
He could have set it in our future, but I can think of one very good reason not to. He probably didn't want readers focusing on how we got there from here.

That would have drawn the readers' attention away from the story he was telling, where setting it elsewhere let him focus on his world without worrying about its connections to our present.
Ben H
2. dripgrind
The fact that the setting isn't a future Earth threw me at first, but the reasoning behind it becomes clear as the themes of the novel unfold.

Anathem isn't science fiction or fantasy so much as philosophy-fiction. The central idea of the mysterious nature of the Platonic/Hylaean world of ideas is underscored by the convincing presentation of how humans living in a parallel universe come to reinvent much of our philosophy.

If the characters were aliens, Stephenson would either need to: present the differences in alien physiology and psychology, which if done properly would undermine the central theme, as well as making the characters hard to relate to and adding more exposition; or use Hal Clement style aliens which act just like human beings in funny suits, which is lame. (He couldn't have used Vernor Vinge's way around this problem in A Deepness In The Sky without human mediators around).

Incidentally, I think it's wrong to complain that the multiverse/many-worlds ideas in the novel aren't based on our current understanding of physics. In the novel, the different universes are more or less Platonic versions of the ideal Platonic world, which isn't a feature of quantum mechanics or cosmology. I don't think the multiple worlds meta-cosmology in Anathem is supposed to reflect current science.

Also, is Laterre actually supposed to be our Earth? I got the impression it was a steampunky Vernian alternate, maybe a couple of hops along the DAG towards the HTC away from our Earth. Can't come up with a quote to justify that from memory, though.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
I think there's a difference between using something that isn't current science and getting cuttent science wrong, which is what I believe scientists to be saying.

I'm personally happy to take the different elements thing as poetic science.

And I thought Laterre was supposed to be our Earth, they were just talking to a Francophone. The names Godel, Jules Verne etc, were all real.
ennead ennead
4. ennead
Stephenson addressed this issue on his site.
Basically, it boils down to:

a) He wanted to avoid the cognitive charges linked to terms such as Socratic, Aristotelian, etc.

b) He says he's lazy and he didn't want to do all the research necessary not to mess some existing philosophical concepts up.

Yep. He says he's lazy!
Ben H
5. dripgrind
I think there's a difference between using something that isn't current science and getting cuttent science wrong, which is what I believe scientists to be saying.

Sure, but the HTC element shows that Stephenson isn't trying to present current science and getting it wrong.

And I thought Laterre was supposed to be our Earth, they were just talking to a Francophone. The names Godel, Jules Verne etc, were all real.

You're probably right - for some reason I got the impression that Durand wasn't just French, but from some French-dominated alternate history (that diverged after Godel and Verne).
Mimi Epstein
7. hummingrose
I thought using the French at all was lazy; I could see why he did it, but it felt like a late addition that threw me out of the whole "not our world" ethos he'd already created.
Darius Bacon
8. Darius Bacon
One gain is, it's an excuse to show us a world that's just a little bit saner overall than ours, without that having to come out of our history.

The quantum mechanics is wrong, yes. Maybe the different way QM works is supposed to be part of the 'higher' nature of the world!

I certainly thought Laterre was Earth -- it was cool how it kept you guessing about that for a while.
Alexander Gieg
9. alexgieg
Sorry if this sound obvious, but I haven't read the book so I don't know what goes on in there. Anyway, here it goes: for those who didn't catch it up, "la Terre" is literally French for "the Earth". "Laterre" then looks like a made up contraction, as if English speakers called the planet "Thearth".

And thanks for the suggestion. The book's in my reading list now. :)
Darius Bacon
10. A. C. Paul
As someone who has spent a lot of time reading and studying philosophy as well as SF&F, I can say with certainty that I loved Anathem. I've also read it twice since it came out. I find myself wishing for a sequel that's just as long and good.

And as for the science, Stephenson certainly isn't the first SF author to get the science wrong. It doesn't detract that much from what is otherwise an excellent story.
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11. heresiarch
"Shippey also says that Stephenson intended the book to proselytise for the ideas, for potential fraas and suurs, which, if it were the case, would hardly have led him to end it the way he does."

Well, he wasn't proselytising for that particular style of concents--he more or less comes out and says that that tradition has been corrupted by the Saecular Power in the Dialogue between Erasmas and Orolo over the proper use of the word "reform." But he ended it with the protagonist founding a new, uncorrupted concent. Not to mention Stephenson's association with the Long Now Foundation, around which he built a lot of his ideas. All in all, it's hard to come away with the idea that Neal Stephenson wouldn't be immensely thrilled if a concent pops up somewhere on Earth.

This is a little weird, because the other message I take away from the novel is "Hey scientists! Stop pretending like politics doesn't matter and get involved in the world!" It's an interesting tension.
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12. heresiarch
I kind of liked the French bit. Relating to the Beyond America thread, it was neat to see an arbitrarily chosen representative of Earth who wasn't English-speaking.
Sam Kelly
13. Eithin
Durand irritated me intensely - the sudden introduction of a comedy Frenchman, talking exactly the way real French people don't, broke things a bit. At least Stephenson avoided making any surrender-monkey jokes - I hate it when American authors do that.

Playing "what connection does this world have to ours?" is an old game for SF readers, but it's one I find cutesy and annoying. It's worse with pseudo-fantasy (Weis & Hickman's Death Gate Cycle, I'm looking at you... and at Pern, too) but "find out how the apocalypse happened" stories bore me. I don't want to know how they broke the old world, I want to see what's happening to this one as a result of the changes in progress.

This is, of course, one hitherto unconsidered advantage of ebooks. It's impossible to throw them across the room when they annoy you. The combination of both of these things at once in Peter David's Darkness of the Light would have led me to do just that if it had been a paper copy.

It's interesting that Anathem was labelled as high fantasy there - io9 offhandedly called it "space opera, pure and simple". My first reaction to that was something along the lines of "you what? - oh, yes, there's a spaceship in it too, isn't there..."
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14. heresiarch
Anathem's hard to put in any genre--I like dripgrind's philosophy-fiction, but it's a lonely category. Anything else in there besides Anathem and Flatland?
Niall Harrison
15. niall
The bit I like least about Anathem is the bit in space, the probabilistic Millenarian ex Machina stuff

Oh, see I liked that. And it didn't strike me as ex Machina, more just a practical demonstration of possibilities they've been talking about as theory up to that point.

I think your point about the essence of history is quite right. I also think there's another reason for setting it in an alternate world, which is it makes the theoretical cosmology discussions literal in a way that wouldn't work with aliens. This is to say that I also agree with dripgrind that I don't think Anathem is meant to be an accurate depiction of many-worlds or multiverse theory as currently argued by physicists; it's meant to be a version of a combination of the two that allows Stephenson to emphasize and play with certain philosophical ideas.

(That said, I have a friend who studied psychology and, and she's as annoyed by Stephenson's theory of mind as the physicists are by his use of multiverse/many worlds theory ...)
Ben H
16. dripgrind
Robert Sawyer also describes his books as "philosophy fiction" it seems:

And yeah, that URL looks a bit dodgy, but it's a joke about the library classification of one of his books.

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