What am I reading, and why? Anathem


After finishing Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy, I moved on to Anathem, his 2008 speculative fiction novel. I use that term instead of science fiction, because (#spoilers) what begins as something like Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (a medieval mystery set in a monastery) spends a lot of time exploring profound philosophical questions, and then the alien starship arrives. It is a deft combination of historical novel, alternate history creation, and pure SF.

Why read it?

#1: It’s funny. Laugh out loud funny. The lead character needs to leave his home monastery-like thing (called a concent) and travel halfway across the world, and his older sister wants to come with him on what might be the only adventure in her life.

But after a while, she said: “Do you need transportation? Tools? Stuff?”

“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 a piece of string.”

(Most people just cite the protractor line as amusing. If you remember your classical geometry, the ruler and piece of string reference is even funnier.)

#2: A lot of good speculative fiction works by taking the world as we know it, and changing one thing around. What if the Nazis had won; what if there was a planet where it was truly dark only once every thousand years; what if firemen went around burning books; what if all human history was getting a repair part for a spaceship (or acting as a giant computer to discover the meaning of life) and so on?

Anathem begins by putting all of those who DON’T believe in God inside the monasteries, and goes from there. It isn’t just a fun idea, it makes me consider deeply about the relationship between technology and thinking: in Stephenson’s world, those who believe in God have more obvious consumer technology than those inside the concents…but when the aliens show up, the cloistered monks and nuns (they aren’t EXACTLY monks and nuns, but think of them that way) have some surprising insights.

#3: The point of science fiction is not necessarily to predict the future. But sometimes it happens. I was happily reading along with Neal, and (#spoilers) enjoyed his completely wacky description of how his created world works: there are multiple universes, and it is possible to travel between universes, but human thought is capable of crossing between and influencing events in adjacent universes through quantum processes. Ha…those crazy SF novelists: where do they get their ideas?

This fall, scientists in California and Australia published a peer-reviewed scientific paper that contains many of these same elements. As has happened before, science fiction sometimes becomes science fact.


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