Anathem is Referential

I am surprisingly only about halfway through Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Anathem. Of course, this has nothing to do with the book itself and is more a result of a certain baseball team’s improbable World Series win (Go Phils!), a particularly eventful election season and, of course, watching ridiculous amounts of horror films in preparation for Halloween. Also, since Stephenson only tends to put out books at a rate of about once every 3-4 years, I figure it’s a good thing to savor this one. So far, it’s excellent, and I can’t wait to see where it’s going.

There are a couple of interesting questions that keep popping into my head though, one of which has to do with the referential nature of the setting. The story takes place on an alien planet named Arbre. This planet is remarkably similar to Earth in many ways. The civilization on Arbre is a few thousand years beyond where we are, but again, there are many parallels between Arbre’s history and Earth’s history. Since it’s an alien planet, there are different names for lots of things or historical figures, but it’s often very clear who has inspired various ideas in the book. The book actually has a glossary in the back and peppers various dictionary definitions throughout the book to keep the reader up to speed on various differences between the planets. This can be a bit tricky at first, but after the initial shock, I realized that it was pretty easy to follow and even fun to puzzle out the various connections (in other words, I don’t think the glossary is as necessary in Anathem as it is in a book like Frank Herbert’s Dune, where I found it necessary to frequently reference the glossary). However, I can’t help but wonder, why place the story on an alien planet at all? Why not just set it far enough into the future that you can still hint at the various historical connections and ideas without having to specifically call them out? Perhaps there’s more to it than meets the eye. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier entry about Anathem, decoding all the references is part of the fun of SF.

And indeed, I do get a kick out of reading Stephenson’s description of Hemn Space and thinking to myself, that sounds an awful lot like a Hilbert Space! It was oddly satisfying to recognize some obscure reference like Project Orion just from the description of a cosmological observation made by some of the characters. And there are a ton of these: Protas is a philosopher who is clearly supposed to be analogous to Plato, Adrakhones is like Pythagoras, Gardan’s Steelyard is similar to Occam’s Razor, and so on. When I did a quick search, I found that there were tons of other references that I didn’t even pick up on… One of my favorite references is actually rather trivial, but it makes sense in terms of the story and it gives us SF nerds something to geek out on. (from page 47 of my edition):

“…what is the origin of the Doxan Iconography?”

“A Praxic Age moving pictures serial. An adventure drama about a military spaceship sent to a remote part of the galaxy to prevent hostile aliens from establishing hegemony, and marooned when their hyperdrive is damaged in an ambush. The captain of the ship was passionate, a hothead. His second-in-command was Dox, a theorician, brilliant, but unemotional and cold.”

The series is obviously an analog to Star Trek and Dox is clearly a reference to Spock. If I had more than 5 readers, there’d probably be one who was really into Star Trek and they’d probably be fuming right now because the description above doesn’t match exactly with the real Star Trek (I mean, duh, the Enterprise’s mission was to explore space, not to attack an alien race!). Perhaps Stephenson set the story on Arbre so that he could avoid such nitpicks and get people to focus on the story. Indeed, this wouldn’t be the first time he sought to avoid the nitpicking masses. In Cryptonomicon, Stephenson’s characters ran around using computers with the Finux operating system, an obvious reference to Linux. Stephenson has an FAQ where he explains why he did this:

> Neal, in Cryptonomicon why did you call Windows and MacOS by

> their true names but used the fictitious name ‘Finux’ to refer

> to what is obviously ‘Linux?’ Does this mean that you hate Linux?

Since Finux was the principal operating system used by the characters in the book, I needed some creative leeway to have the fictitious operating system as used by the characters be different in minor ways from the real operating system called Linux. Otherwise I would receive many complaints from Linux users pointing out errors in my depiction of Linux. This is why Batman works in Gotham City, instead of New York–by putting him in Gotham City, the creators afforded themselves the creative license to put buildings in different places, etc.

So perhaps setting the story on Arbre just affords Stephenson the creative freedom to tell the story as he sees fit, instead of having to shoehorn everything into Earth history and worry about people missing the forest for the trees. In the process, the story becomes more cognitively engaging (in the way most referential art is) because we’re constantly drawing parallels to Earth’s history.

As previously mentioned, this is a somewhat common feature of the science fiction and fantasy genres. It’s one of the reasons SF/F fans enjoy these books so much… Alas, it’s probably also why true SF doesn’t get much of a mainstream following, as I can’t imagine this sort of thing is for everybody. In any case, I’m really enjoying Anathem, and now that my various distractions have calmed down a bit, I’ll probably tear through the rest of the book relatively quickly.

5 thoughts on “Anathem is Referential”

  1. Spoilers: It doesn’t really go anywhere.

    I’ve been meaning to write a post angrily denouncing Anathem for a while, since I’m a bitter, hateful person, but I have yet to get around to doing it. Your post fills me with hope, however, since it demonstrates that there are people out there even slower than me. 😉

    Anathem could even be viewed as a sort of anti-coda to the Baroque cycle. The Baroque (Mo like Baro-shitty!) novels were set in the non-fictional past, and contained elements of fantasy; while Anathem is set in the far future and is rigidly logical.[*] Apparently Stephenson got tired of historical accuracy, and violently rebelled against anything that even resembled history.

    In my hopeful internal universe, Stephenson retired from writing after Cryptonomicon, and the tendency for my money to convert itself into cinderblock-sized tomes every few years is merely an unfortunate quirk of physics, and isn’t the result of an author churning out crap for money.

    *: Except for some stuff near the end of Anathem, which I can’t talk about because, A) spoilers, and B) Anathem takes place in a… well, I guess I can’t talk about that either.

  2. Eh??!! I thought it was fantastic.

    Stephenson does some very interesting things in Anathema…none of which we can discuss until you get through to the end.

  3. I’m working on it folks! I’ll be done soon.

    I actually kinda liked the Baroque Cycle. Quicksilver is definitely one of my least favorite of Stephenson’s books, but The Confusion was an improvement and I actually liked The System of the World a lot. None of it was as good as Cryptonomicon and I can’t think of anyone who didn’t think that those books could have used at least a little editing:p

    So far though, I really like the book a lot.

  4. Yeah – I liked the Baroque Cycle and Anathem too. Sure, it’s not Snow Crash, but *nothing* is Snow Crash.

    And I think a large part of his setting it on Arbre is what you said… but not all. 😉

  5. @Zyzzyva – Yeah, I finished the book a few days ago and I get your meaning. This sort of pattern kept showing up in the book too. There were lots of seemingly irrelevant dialogues early on in the book, but they later feature prominently in the story. Likewise, the vocabulary seems odd at first, but then you realize that he did it that way for very good reasons. Interesting. Overall, I think I liked it better than most of the Baroque Cycle, but not quite at the level of Cryptonomicon…

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