Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Neal Stephenson, Anathem. New York: William Morrow, 2008.

Reviewed by John Bedell
The leading literary spokesman for the technogeek class is back with another very long, very interesting book. I read all 890 pages in less than two weeks, which, considering that I have five children and a job, implies a pretty high degree of focus. I think it’s great.

Anathem is set on a planet much like the earth. The 18-year-old narrator and the other main characters inhabit the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sort of monastery for mathematicians and philosophers – “saunt,” we are told, is a shortened form of “savant.” In this world the scientific elite is separated from the general population and forbidden to use computers or most other technology. Unable to do experiments, they devote themselves to “theorics,” which means mostly higher math, astronomy, and the philosophy that undergirds them. They have an elaborate ritual life and have raised their music, which is much like the chanting and singing of monks, to a high art. They grow their own food and manage their own affairs. The avout, as these mathematical monks are called, are divided into four classes, based on how frequently they interact with the secular world. The Unarians open their doors once every year, the Decenarians once every ten, the Centennarians once a century, and the Millenarians once a thousand.

The complex, 3000-year relationship between the secular and “mathic” worlds is laid out in some detail (you can give a lot of background in 890 pages). It seems that 700 years or so before our story civilization had grown wealthy and technologically advanced but destroyed itself through war and ecological disaster. Much of the blame was placed on the scientists who created the superweapons used in these wars, so they were banished to their “maths” and the separation between the two worlds was rigidly enforced. Since then the secular world has been relatively peaceful but technologically and economically stagnant, while the mathic world has gotten caught up in abstruse and unresolvable philosophical debates.

Much of Anathem moves quite slowly. The plot doesn’t really get going until page 250 or so, and after that there are more long patches in which very little happens. I kept reading because I found the world fascinating and because the characters talk about interesting things. Stephenson’s world is full of marvelous details. He has developed an extensive vocabulary that helps make the world feel different from earth despite the similarities. Data is “givens,” videos are called “speelies,” and video cameras are “speelycaptors.”  The sociology is particularly interesting, such as the ways different seculars feel about the avout. Some consider the avout useless fuddy-duddies, some think they are evil sorcerers, some think they have special contact with god. I never minded that little was happening, because for me just exploring this world was enough.

The plot, once it gets going, it pretty interesting. I’m not going to say anything about it, because it relies on surprises I don’t want to spoil and because it isn’t really the main point of the book anyway. The most important section of the book, I thought, was a hundred-page-long discussion revolving around the speculation that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics explains consciousness. The plot follows out certain very far-fetched real-world consequences of this idea. I didn’t always like the way Stephenson did this but, hey, this is what science fiction is about: what might happen if this crazy but possible scientific notion were true? Stephenson shows himself to be a master of this kind of writing.

The many worlds interpretation grew out of the frustration physicists have felt when they try to connect the mathematics of particle physics to a logical narrative of what is happening in the world. Quantum physics gives no absolute account of where things are or what state they are in, just probabilities. An electron might be just about anywhere in the universe; in quantum mechanics it doesn’t have a location, just a sort of cloud of probability. Nor is this just the vagueness of a guess. In some kinds of experiments the electron seems to be smeared out in space, for example, passing simultaneously through two holes in a screen. In other cases an electron seems to be in two places at once, or to have two different spin states at the same time. But if you look for the electron, for example by bouncing an x-ray off it, it has a definite location. What happens to the probability cloud that it appeared to be a millisecond before?

Nobody knows. Textbooks say that the wave function of the electron, which describes that smeared-out probability cloud, has “collapsed” to one point. As I understand it, nobody has been able to model this collapse in a rigorous mathematical way, and physicists have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the textbook description. So they have tried some very weird ways to make sense of the quantum world. The many worlds interpretation asserts that, in fact, every possible outcome does happen. Every time someone measures the spin state of an electron or measures its exact location, the world divides into many worlds, with each possible outcome happening in one of those worlds. The many worlds interpretation has some obvious problems. First of all, it seems impossible almost by definition to ever prove that it is true or false, which according to the standard definition means that it isn’t really science. There is also the Schroedinger’s cat problem: what kind of event triggers the division of the cosmos into different “world tracks”? And what about probability? What does it mean to say that one outcome is more likely than another if, in fact, every possible outcome does happen? But for Neal Stephenson’s purposes as an author, and ours as readers, it is enough that a great many scientists find the idea intriguing.

I had never before encountered the connection between the many worlds interpretation and consciousness, but since it seems, once you hear it, rather obvious, I assume that Stephenson didn’t invent the model he proposes. (One of his characters notes that people have been speculating on these topics for a thousand years.) The idea goes something like this: one way to define consciousness is to think of it as the ability to hold different models of the future in our minds at the same time. When we think about what to do, we imagine the consequences of different actions. We also think about the past, wondering how things might be different if we had made different choices. In the terms sometimes used by physicists, we are holding in our minds separate world tracks; as some philosophers have put it, we live extended in time. Recall that it is possible for subatomic particles to be, or at least to appear to be, in two different states at the same time. Such a particle exists simultaneously in two separate world tracks. This is the property that would be taken advantage of by quantum computers, should they ever be created: a transistor that can be in two states at once can do a lot more work than one that has to be in one state or the other. What if, this speculation proceeds, our brains work that way? If we hold different models of the future in our minds using the quantum properties of electrons in our brains? Why, then we are quantum computers, and our brains are able to travel some distance along parallel world tracks, existing for at least a short time in multiple universes. This ability to exist simultaneously in parallel universes defines consciousness, or at least is a key part of it, and it makes our minds fundamentally different from ordinary computers.

Whatever you think of this model, in Stephenson’s hands it makes for some fascinating conversation among his characters and some wonderfully bizarre happenings. (Suppose there were people who learned to travel along separate world tracks for more than the microseconds that most of us can, perhaps for hours or days; might not this ability to follow out the consequences of actions until they become clear before choosing one seem like a kind of sorcery?)  If you think you might like reading a novel that mixes conversations on such matters with some intense action and the exploration of a very cleverly imagined world, run out and get a copy of Anathem. If not, well, read something else.

One of the things I find most interesting about Stephenson as a writer is that he so clearly defines himself as a particular kind of person, writing for those like himself. He knows a lot about digital technology and something about math, and he looks down on those who don’t. Government comes across as a sort of conspiracy set up by those without technical knowledge to control those who do, and to take some of the wealth they create and distribute it to people who have done nothing to deserve it. Stephenson’s bestselling book so far, Cryptonomicon, features a lot of straight out anarcho-libertarian fantasy. Characters live in fortified compounds on lightly governed islands, their privacy protected from government snooping by strong cryptography, their money shielded from taxation in a completely secret international internet bank. Government agents and especially lawyers appear as irrational, power-mad goons. Brilliant codebreakers exploit the ignorance of their military bosses to carry out their own diplomatic policies, along the way making fools of those same bosses with practical jokes that the generals never even understand.

Compared to the world of Cryptonomicon, Stephenson’s new world shows some of the same tendencies, but in a more nuanced way. It seems less juvenile, less like the sort of thing dreamed up by a 20-year-old fan of Ayn Rand. Since it is presented in a more grown-up and serious way, it seems fair to treat the philosophy espoused here seriously, and to ask whether it has any value.

Stephenson puts a very high value on rational, scientific thought. In Anathem he allows some value to poetry, but in all his books he heaps abuse on religion. In one of my favorite moments in Anathem, the narrator has a discussion with a religious believer about Saunt Bly, a famous character who, centuries before, had left his math and ended up as the focus of a religious cult. The “deolater” says that he believes that Saunt Bly was expelled from the concent because he proved the existence of god. “That’s interesting,” says the narrator, “because what would really happen is that we would say ‘nice proof, Bly’ and start believing in god.”  At a wedding, the deolater preacher gave “one of his exasperating sermons, filled with wisdom and upsight and human truths, fettered to a cosmographic scheme that had bee blown out of the water four thousand years ago.” It was nice to see that Stephenson has created some interesting god-believing characters who come across as generally positive, but in the end they still suffer from that silly weakness, the inability to think in a rational and rigorous way.

The secular powers get a similar treatment. Some individual politicians are educated and sensible, and individual soldiers come across as decent guys who are very useful in an emergency, but on the whole government is a deeply frivolous enterprise. The leading avout understand the world so much more profoundly than the “panjandrums” that the notion of their following secular orders is a joke. Even the 18-year-old narrator is wiser than the political class.

I have nothing against intelligence and education, and I am myself a big fan of rational, scientific thought. But that is far different from the claim that the technical elite should rule the world. Stephenson seems to think that there is nothing to government but intelligence and rationality. I was reminded of the claim, made by the King of the Brobdignacians in Gulliver’s Travels, that there is nothing to government but goodness and common sense. But it simply is not true that scientists, even the greatest, have any special wisdom when it comes to politics. George Orwell, confronted by the claim that a more scientific education would make the English better citizens, asked why, if that was so, so many scientists of the 1920s and 1930s became communists and Nazis. In fact, over the past century highly educated, philosophically minded people have been drawn to radical politics in much greater numbers than the populace at large. In America we haven’t had a lot of communist scientists, but we have had our share of racists, John Birchers, and similar lunatics. Here’s a question to ponder: which group, scientists or ministers, has been a more important force for political good in America?

I would say that Stephenson’s own politics disprove his notion that the elite has more wisdom than the masses. Of all the competing political philosophies in the world, I think libertarianism is the stupidest. We cannot survive without government. Even Stalinism, for all its horrors, managed to work for a while. Libertarianism would never work at all. We could certainly get by with a lot less government than we have now, and I am attracted to libertarian positions on several issues. But the notion that we could get by without a strong state is simply nonsensical. Too see what would happen, you have only to look at what happened in Europe when the Roman Empire collapsed. The economy collapsed with it, the population cratered, and the survivors mostly ended up as serfs of powerful lords or great churches. Without a government stronger than the corporations, we would all end up as the serfs of corporate masters, or of individual billionaires.

Yeah, ok, it’s a novel, and I am once again indulging my habit of taking everything too seriously. But it’s Neal Stephenson’s own fault. By incorporating so much fascinating, high-level discussion of ideas into this terrific book, he has put me in a reflective, thoughtful frame of mind. How many entertaining books can do that?

October 26, 2008

From the 
Commonplace Book

The danger is not that a particular class in unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.

-- Lord Acton


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us



A Dance with Dragons


Writing about Magic

Children of Húrin

On the Road

The Magic Endures

Antioch at the BMA

Harry Potter on Film

In a Dark Wood

The Invention of Love


A Heartbreaking Work of
Staggering Genius


The Greenlanders

Modern Art and America

Pritzker Prize

Time to Abolish Art?