Friday 26 March 2010

Reviewlet: Anathem

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is a hefty tome, and when the first few pages involve “speelycaptors” and “jeejahs” there’s a worry that the Fictional Rule of Thumb is going to hold true, as the alt-text suggests. The language is there for a reason, though, giving etymological clues and reminders of the similarities and differences between the world of Arbre in the book and our own, so an Arbran “Saunt” has obvious parallels to a Saint, but the derivation of the word is from “Savant”. It also lets Stephenson tackle ideas without getting too bogged down in footnotes he potentially frames as:

“If Person X had never thought up Idea Y and published it in Book Z, then I never could have written this; however, please bear in mind that (a) I have no formal credentials as a philosopher, mathematician, or scientist, and (b) this is a work of fiction, not a peer-reviewed monograph. Accordingly, the manner in which I have used Idea Y here might not stand up to rigorous scrutiny; Person X, if still alive, upon seeing his or her name mentioned in an academic-looking footnote in this context, would, therefore, probably issue a public disclaimer denying all connection with me and the book, and otherwise is rolling over in his or her grave. Dear reader, please know that this footnote serves only to acknowledge an intellectual debt and to give fair credit to Person X; if you really want to understand Idea Y, please buy and read Book Z.”

Reading Anathem is like starting with Google Earth on maximum magnification right on your own back garden (or maybe a nearby monastery, if you have one to hand), and slowly zooming out and out and out, to the town, county, country, continent, further and further still, out into the Google Sky, and finally into the still-in-even-more-beta-than-most-Google-stuff Google Many Earths, where you can navigate through photographs of different realities according to the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. Excellent stuff; two thumbs up, in a box with a small flask of hydrocyanic acid and a radioactive substance.

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