My new favorite author- Neal Stephenson


It started with Doug Casey’s referral to Neal Stephenson’s work. I am not sure what led me to the essay about the history of the world’s leading (although primarily, subjectively and objectively different) leading names in computers  – Microsoft and Apple. I don’t think any other single essay has influenced me so much, even if it was on a topic that people think has been resolved ( The essay “In the beginning.. there was the command line” was written in 1999) with Apple being the winner, clearly. Of course, clearly in the western countries, maybe North America or just the United states. As it turns out, Bill Gates and Microsoft were never competing to make the better computer. ( yes, that is how ignorant I was). He had already won a much harder and nearly insurmountable battle of selling people intangible ideas (Microscoft Office) in things (CDs) they had never used, did not know how to use and also didn’t know if the ideas and the ‘software’ would be ‘of’ use. Take that humungous machines, (that may be sleek now) but were never purely ‘ideas’ to improve work and home life. I concede Linux is the best and Bill Gates is the genius. But in technological writing- Neal Stephenson just rules!

I won’t get into why Linux is the best, read the essay and if you don’t want to, then you probably already disagree with me. Neither the penguin nor Excel or Open office needs your approval. I am out of the cult, that is Apple. Mentally, at least. That’s where it counts.

Obviously, that essay had to follow up with a book. But wait, I live in the ‘heartland’ of the U.S. The only bookstore in town closed down to open into a baseball cap store with particular interest in vintage baseball caps or such prints on them. Even the second hand bookstore closed. No one cares.

So, I had to wait till my trip to Portland, where I found Anathem on sale ( the exact book that Casey recommended). Stephenson lives in Seattle, and Powell is an awesome bookstore, also in the U.S.

Anathem is quite a tome, but then I read Stephen King and other than the final three volumes of Harry Potter have mostly never regretted starting a nice big fat book. It builds a relationship with the protagonist and more importantly, with the writer. I am someone who can read better when she knows either there are certainly 11 other things that require attention or she is so tired she cannot keep her eyes open. So right before the trip to Europe I began reading the book and it was my companion in the trip. I finished it two days after returning home. Hence this ode to the writer in between my trip report.

The friend who came over to Paris to see us, reads much more than I and all the time. She also reads some different stuff, though not all. She doesn’t like fat books, that’s our main difference, other than the fact she also likes Agatha Christie. I don’t like Agatha Christie. Don’t hold it against me, or do. I can’t change the fact that if there is a ‘mystery’ story I would prefer to have clues that even I could solve. Not some historical event that I couldn’t possibly know about and the killer being a blast from the past. pooh. Yes, I like Arthur Conan Doyle ( who doesn’t?).

Anyway, back to Anathem and Stephenson, she said she didn’t like it and she had only gotten to about 200 pages and got bored (its about a 1000 pg book). I was on about the 120th page, I think. I liked it even better from the 200th page and the origin of this post is what I told her after I finished reading. Of why she should try again ( us being scientists and all).

I told her I like Anathem. Its the story of an ‘avout’, a cross between a monk and a scientist. ( not a pure monk, because they are not religious). Living in relative seclusion in ‘concents’- a mix of abbey and university, from the ‘praxic’, extramuros, or the general people of the world. His kind had developed ‘new matter’, some elements not found in his planet- Arbre, but through various upheavals (sacks), led by the ‘Seculaer power’ ( the reigning government, that keeps changing from a religious leader to a democratic leader to an tyrant to all of the three), had given up the development and use of all such praxic (technologically advanced, or new) things. They are allowed to own only three technically advanced things, a bolt ( a single large piece of rectangular cloth that can be wrapped around in different ways, made of new matter), a cord ( to tie the bolt) and a sphere ( that can be made of any size, and consistency and lit up, also made of new matter.

As it turns out, the protagonist- Raz, Fraa Erasmus, later finds that several other concents have different rules (the dubious double standards in everything, I tell you!!) and their fraas and suurs ( male and female young scientists or specialists in a field, respectively) may own several different things in addition to the essential three. Some concents don’t do ‘science’ nor preserve it, they develop ways to fight like samurais, even when several decades go by without wars or open fights – these are the Valors, that appear later in the story. Other concents are dedicated to simply preserving history and historical aspects of how the Mathic world ( world inside concents) of the avouts began with the original ‘thinker’ or philosopher – Cnous and his two daughters. As in our world, it is the interpretation of what the great thinker saw and said that leads to the two basic divisions in the Arbran world- the scientific knowledge oriented avouts- who believe in the daughter named Hylaea and the faith believers – deolaters who worship the other daugher Deat as the goddess of the seculaer world. Although, there are several different types of religions or cults in that world, led by all kinds of evangelists and priests.

I liked it because I liked all the parallels it made with my world. Although, I will not go into all of them.

I feel like an avout in the Mathic world of science trying to learn and remember what is already known. Sometimes finding ‘really; new things (yes, there is a difference, really new things are really that much rarer).

In the book, the option of being an avout and giving up the praxic world is open to everyone, because the gates of the concent open every 10 years and there are other ways in which orphans and dying infants can be taken in as well. Smart children are often led to the concent by their parents. However, not all smart people become avouts, to the surprise of Raz, who finds several surprises in the seculaer world he had not anticipated. Just like one can find brilliant people in all walks of life, who we may think would have been suitable for running a laboratory on advanced physics!

His reinsertion into the seculaer world, the main adventure of this book, is comparable to the outlook of a hermit or even a tribe might think of our ‘civilized’ areas, having been in the concent for a decade since the age of about 8. His sister Cord is unlike any extramuros girl, he realizes as he sees others, and is very intelligent. He knows they share genetic material so this is to be expected, but her new boyfriend is indeed a surprise with his strange habits, yet sparkling brains.

Among the many things that had been invented by the avout in the past, before the last and third sack, was a way to manipulate genetic material. This appears several times in the story and is used to obscurely explain how some really old avouts- the Thousanders live for several centuries. It turns out to be even more meaningful when it is revealed that the thousanders and their concents have a very secret pact with the seculaer power. The pact protects the planet and allows the thousanders to use their knowledge to prevent aging and disease, as an exception to the law against it. There is even a group of people- the Ita, that are a mix of CIA/FBI/ Software engineers/, whose loyalties are questionable (CIA/FBI/NSA) and they are still essential for the normal working of the concent because of their technical knowledge, but may have a double role of being their watchdogs. They are an essential component of the story.

However, the beauty of the book is, it really doesn’t know any bounds. The speculation reaches out to what I think is likely to remain the biggest unsolved mystery in my life- that of aliens, parallel universes and most importantly of what our conscience (although not dealt with directly in the book) and our consciousness is made of.

I really did like the linking of Cosmi ( several or all existing cosmoses ) using the “wick” theory, that suggests that changes in one universe or Narrative causes changes in another one or more that lie below in the ‘wick’, metaphysically (cause and effect relationship). That evolution may have been guided by such events to give rise to similar changes in different planets, that would explain the existence of human or human like beings in very many planets in different universes or solar systems. Additionally, the affected changes inside our brains ( and maybe in other beings that have brains) are really consequential. Hence, we may all collude to something similar in the end, as the cosmi above ours, in our wick go through similar phases of change, development and destruction.

This system of flow of consequences leads to several collapsible cycles where all things break down and then start anew. I especially liked  the brain existing in different Cosmi/ narratives, maybe when we sleep, at the same time ( though we may not feel so). In other words how we make decisions or suddenly arrive at them may be influenced by other parallel universes. How things may make sense after sleeping.

It is a long book. I could go on and on. But I will stop here. In one sentence, the book intertwines several fields of thought wonderfully,  facts that are universal, like the Pythagoras theorem, scientific thinking in society ( one like ours, but not quite), the necessary intrusion of political power in its manifestation and effect on the general public and finally the Orwellian nature of language- that can often lead to much misinterpretation and loss in translation, leaving the uninformed quite misled.

The book is really about how much courage and depth Neal Stephenson has, and to me, he is Fraa Orolo. The one that guides willing pupils to see the light, the beauty in a world filled with pain and hopelessness. Of feelings of being trapped, of being useless, lonely and finally of no special use. That even though we may be helpless at what the cosmos above us throwing at us this minute, the changes in our brain can be useful and used to making a difference. Just see the beauty where you can.

Oh wait, I should at least explain what the title means. Well to get anathematized, it means you are court martialed with disdain as you flouted one or more (usually more) of the laws of the Mathic world, which include contacting the extramuros in between aperts (when the gates open). So most great thinkers, later called Saunts ( like saints, but not quite), had been thrown back, even Fraa Orolo does ( simpler term for anathematized), into the seculaer world. Basically, how every great thinker is treated in a world not prepared to accept anything new. Close to burned at stake. But again, not quite.

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