Posted by: David Stewart | July 22, 2010

Inventing a new language to be pig-headed

One of the signs of good fiction is the extent to which the author has created a world in which you can be totally immersed, even if that world is not very pleasant or you don’t fully agree with its premises.

But most fiction doesn’t require you to learn a new language.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson explores a world different from our own, one which chose to lock up its scientists and mathematicians in isolated monasteries rather than allow their technological developments to wreck their world.

Previous Stephenson books have explored concepts like cryptography in World War II (Cryptonomicon) or the development of the monetary system (The System of the World). This one explores math and philosophy.

The technical concepts don’t get too heavy. And when the story threatens to get bogged down in math, the discussion moves into an appendix. But key plot points require at least a basic understanding of the philosophical points raised.

A vast number of terms in the book are translated into an invented language, which is outlined in an appendix in the back. I found that the only way to keep up with what was going on was to keep my finger in the glossary and flip back and forth with the story. The title itself, “Anathem” is a typical example, which means both a choral song and a ceremony to curse a mathematician and kick him out of his monastery. At the same time.

But the most annoying part of Anathem’s world is that it becomes a vehicle for Stephenson to attack all spirituality and “anathematize” it. System of the World boils down at the end into a debate over God by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, and this novel positions all of the intelligent characters against spirituality, who roll their eyes if a “Deolator” (believer in God) becomes involved in the story. There is no cogent or intelligent understanding of religion, and it strikes me as short-sighted and pig-headed.

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