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Plurality of Words
September 25, 2008 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Anathem, Neal Stephenson's new book, is stupendous, possibly his best.  But his acknowledgments page (summarized in the print version and as expansive as ever on the Internet Reticulum) might be even more interesting, and poignant, especially as an introduction to the niftiest piece of metaphysics in the book: the quantum effects  (PDFs) of consciousness among many worlds

Good blog post with quotes here.

Trailer.

Soundtrack for the full experience.
posted by Potomac Avenue (141 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
Uh oh. Sounds like some serious Roger Penrose handwaving type bullcrap.

I thought the Many Worlds theory was pretty much busted amongst physicists?
posted by Artw at 12:09 PM on September 25, 2008


I'm reading it now and loving it. But since my work is very seasonal an this is my busiest time of year I should do myself a favor and start over.
posted by sourwookie at 12:09 PM on September 25, 2008


I thought the Many Worlds theory was pretty much busted amongst physicists?

Physicists in this world, yes.
posted by GuyZero at 12:12 PM on September 25, 2008 [32 favorites]


I thought the Many Worlds theory was pretty much busted amongst physicists?

How would one bust that theory?
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:19 PM on September 25, 2008


It struck me as I read the acknowledgements -- particularly the gloss on Penrose -- that the 'quantum mind' is really just a sophisticated version of the soul. I suppose I should read the book, but I'm kind of at a conjectural loss to understand why anyone would thnk they could mathematically demonstrate that human-level thought isn't possible without quantum effects. It's a bit like arguing about the physics of ectoplasm.
posted by lodurr at 12:28 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


How would one bust that theory?

it's not so much busted as that other theories get all the love and research and many-worlds dies of starvation.
posted by GuyZero at 12:29 PM on September 25, 2008


How would one bust that theory?

By deciding that other interpretations of quantum mechanics fit better.
posted by Artw at 12:31 PM on September 25, 2008


This was the best book I've read in a long, long time.

A friend and I saw Neal speak the other night at a Barnes + Noble. Its funny how the first rule of author Q+A seems to be: 'establish your intelligence in front of the audience by first making a statement and then asking a leading question.' Neal just dismantled people who were trying to sound smart. He really did his research on this book - I almost see it as a philosophical treatise first and fictional novel second. As long as you can make it through the 1st hundred pages, you're in the clear.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 12:36 PM on September 25, 2008


I've read it; it's fantastic. I don't think all the metaphysics are satisfying, but in my experience the probabilities of finding a satisfactory account of the philosophy of math, the experience of free will, and interpretations of quantum physics are each individually near zero, so the probability of a single novel(!) doing all of those and more should be small. But the rigor of the characters' discussions on these subjects is quite high, so it's intellectually enjoyable even if the ultimate answers are not convincing.

It's also very funny. I can provisionally accept that it's his best yet.
posted by grobstein at 12:38 PM on September 25, 2008


lodurr: One question this book made me consider in a subtle but increasing fashion was, "To which areas of study should science limit itself?" The scientists in the book often argue about this, as they are forced by empirical observations to re-evaluate paths of inquiry they had formerly shut-off as leading to a bunch of hippie-dippie bullshytt. Just because something smells like mysticism doesn't mean it isn't science-- but no more should something be studied if it is determined that one can't say anything useful about it. It's one them, uh, predicaments.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:40 PM on September 25, 2008


It's also a lot of fun to spot allusions to mathematical and philosophical concepts that have different names in our world than in the world of Anathem. Penrose tilings wind up being relevant to the plot (though not, I think, to the argument) of the book; Godel's logic but also his philosophy of math and even his model of general relativity(!) feature quite prominently.
posted by grobstein at 12:41 PM on September 25, 2008


Big question-- if I couldn't get through Quicksilver, will I enjoy Anathem?

In Quicksilver, I wanted to get out a big red editor's marker. Maybe it's just me.
posted by gregvr at 12:42 PM on September 25, 2008 [8 favorites]


Does the Deliverator make a cameo?
posted by xmutex at 12:42 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


The "acknowledgments" page is a bit spoilery, and I wouldn't recommend reading it unless you need more convincing to read the book.
posted by grobstein at 12:42 PM on September 25, 2008


Potomac Avenue, my concern is that Penrose's work is often cited to support the idea that machine intelligence work is fruitless. The problem is that as far as I can see, it produces no testable hypotheses in that area. So it could effectively be used to cut off the research that could demonstrate its limitations.

It also seems likely to me that even if we could produce "machine" sentience, there's a huge body of people -- many of them highly regarded scientists -- who would use whatever rationales and rationalizations were required to claim that it was somehow qualitatively inferior to our own.
posted by lodurr at 12:48 PM on September 25, 2008


Penrose's faffle about quantum consciousness and microtubles is kind of busted too.
posted by Artw at 12:53 PM on September 25, 2008


Does the Deliverator make a cameo?

Or maybe a big guy with long hair, drives a motorcycle with a side car, has some facial tattooing and favors glass knives? I think his name was Alan Turing.
posted by quin at 12:54 PM on September 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


The local book review panned Anathem rather mercilessly, calling it his worst book in ages. Sounds like I have been somewhat misinformed?
posted by WinnipegDragon at 12:54 PM on September 25, 2008


Turing would have a lion.
posted by Artw at 12:55 PM on September 25, 2008


By deciding that other interpretations of quantum mechanics fit better.

Going off the cuff here, it's always been my impression that the 8 major interpretations all fit observations equally well and are merely differing philosophical attempts to describe what the equations "are really doing," so there's no real traction (yet?) for deciding that one "fits better" than another.

This thread is making me reexamine my long-held held conviction to never read anything Stephenson has written ever again. That guy shows a remarkable ability to screw the pooch at the end of his books.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:58 PM on September 25, 2008


lodurr: I am a total n00b (part of why I loved this book so bad), but from what I understood of NS's (motley) vision of consciousness, there's nothing magical about it that couldn't be duplicated by a sophisticated quantum computer.

adamschneider: It has the most apropos and satisfying ending he's ever written. I am not him, btw.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:03 PM on September 25, 2008


It's definitely worth nothing that Anathem is not written in "Stephensonese" - that informal, jokey, frequently-diverging style he tends to stick to? Not here. It's narrated in the first person by (basically) a monk, and if anything the writing isn't frenetic and kinetic enough. It's recognizably Stephenson, but even if you liked his others, you might dislike this one, and if you disliked the others, you might like this - far more than the chances of diverging on your like/dislike of any randomly selected pair of other Stephenson works.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:05 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh boy. Looks like I gotta crack this one open sometime soon.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:06 PM on September 25, 2008


not having read the book, and only just now having read the salon review linked above, I'm reminded of something particular about stephenson.

he has this whole thing in his books where there's captial E Everybody Else, and then there are capital E Engineers. in among Engineers there are also Physicists, and mathemticians and coders and the like, but for brevity I'll lump them all together as Engineers. A lot of the time it feels like the set of Everybody Else is composed wholly of dull people who Just Don't Get It. and Engineers are the People Who Get It.

In particular, I'm thinking of Cryptonomicon. I enjoyed it, and I do intend to read Anathem, but in Cryptonomicon we have pages and pages devoted to the Proper Engineer's Method Of Eating Captain Crunch. It was funny for the first couple paragraphs. But it kept going. It was, if I remember correctly, the entire chapter. And it stopped being funny. Eventually, it started being an obsessive justification, an insistance that this really was The Way To Eat Captain Crunch if you weren't an idiot.

We have pages devoted to the protagonist arguing with his ex-girlfriend's friends about why the internet is awesome. We have paragraphs about the measurable difference in efficiency between simply finding a parking spot and getting on with it and driving around looking for the optimal spot. No joke, the protagonist actually takes time to explain to his romantic interest why he's so much smarter for simply parking and walking over. And the romantic interest digs it.

There's just stuff like that all over his books and essays. I remember him writing this incredibly self-indulgent essay about how linux was like this one uber-powerful drill that only hardcore professionals use because of how powerful it is. It's this obsessive justification for being who he is, and who his fans are. It makes sense, and it's good to see some math love in books, but it's seriously overboard, to the point of wish fulfillment. The best writers (and he's a good writer, don't get me wrong but the best) may include aspects of themselves in their work, may obsessively map out their own lives even, completely absorbed in analyzing themselves. But they do it with some honesty. They see themselves as flawed, they explore those flaws in their best writing, not just their virtues.

Of course, Stephenson has done this, too. Like I said, he is a good writer. I remember being completely involved in reading about the protagonist of Cryptonomicon shaving his beard, and how he found an adult hiding underneath the hair. It was really well done. So I'm not trying to say he's a bad writer. Not at all.

But then I read this review, which starts off with the idea of a planet where all the math heads are cloistered away from the rest of society figuring out the universe and I groan to myself. Again? Now, the reiview also makes it seem like there's quite a lot more than that in there, so bully. I'll pick it up soon. But damn, man. We get it. It's hip to be square. Now stop hitting us over the head with it.
posted by shmegegge at 1:10 PM on September 25, 2008 [21 favorites]


gregvr: There is still something of the red pen about it, this is Stephenson after all. If anything it is Stephenson squared. However, it has ninja monks in space which I'm pretty sure were lacking from Quicksilver.
posted by ninebelow at 1:16 PM on September 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


shmegegge - god, he's going to be horrible once the brain eater* gets him, isn't he?

* Constant foe of SF authors as they get older, usually turns them into frothing loons with dubious political opinions.
posted by Artw at 1:20 PM on September 25, 2008 [11 favorites]


Sounds like I have been somewhat misinformed?
I thought it was good and maybe his best. I do still so love Diamond Age. I'd also just about given up on him after that trilogy.

This may be his first book with an actual ending, rather than just a stopping.
posted by john m at 1:20 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


With all the anti-intelectualism I've had to deal with my entire life, Stephenson is the bowl of ice cream at the end of an August day filled with ditch digging. Self indulgent to my math geek superiority complex, but oh so tasty. I should pick this up, even though I need to finish 'System of the World'.
posted by The Power Nap at 1:23 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Its funny how the first rule of author Q+A seems to be: 'establish your intelligence in front of the audience by first making a statement and then asking a leading question.

Come on, I like Stephenson's work, but if there's author who attracts people like this in droves, it's him.
posted by atrazine at 1:24 PM on September 25, 2008


People who ask questions at public Q&A sessions don't actually have a question about 80% of the time. They just want a chance to speak in front of an audience.
posted by GuyZero at 1:26 PM on September 25, 2008 [5 favorites]


gregvr: I broke up with Stephenson over Quicksilver. So prententious, windy, and joyless. Anathem, on the other hand, makes Stephenson my boyfriend again. This is what astonished me -- I teared up TWICE. I haven't really cared about any of Stephenson's characters since Y.T..
posted by Malla at 1:27 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I stand behind everything shmegegge said except I do think he's a bad writer. The darkened car slid out of the woods like a bad idea from the mind of a green lieutenant? Indeed. Maybe this book will change my mind. I hope so, but I doubt it.

If you want to read something Stephensonesque with an actual ending and without the awful similes and the constant "xomg geeks are awesome!!!!1!," check out Acts of the Apostles by John F.X. Sundman.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:28 PM on September 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Eventually, it started being an obsessive justification, an insistance that this really was The Way To Eat Captain Crunch

I saw that as more of a digression into one of the common traits of Engineers, which is that kind of obsession over minutiae. I mean, that sort of thing is absolutely typical in my (plentiful) experience with other scientists and engineers, and I'm certainly guilty of it myself. Sort of character-building on his part.
posted by wildcrdj at 1:28 PM on September 25, 2008


(By which I mean, if he didn't make it go on too long and seem uninteresting, it wouldn't capture the flavor of that kind of obsession to other people)
posted by wildcrdj at 1:30 PM on September 25, 2008


I with I had some sort of way to put a flashing neon border around Artw's comment.

Poor Bradbury. Heard he was a caller on a late night talk radio show a few weeks ago.
posted by JHarris at 1:30 PM on September 25, 2008


I saw that as more of a digression into one of the common traits of Engineers, which is that kind of obsession over minutiae.

and I would see it that way too if it were a unique instance in his books. it's really more that this attitude and style is ever present in his writing that bothers me.
posted by shmegegge at 1:33 PM on September 25, 2008


Am I the only person who dug the hell out of The Baroque Cycle?
posted by brundlefly at 1:33 PM on September 25, 2008 [5 favorites]


shmegege, I actually tried to raise this point to NS at an Anathem reading. I don't think I phrased my question quite right, because I couldn't get him to agree that this elevation of nerdiness over of "mundane"-ness is a theme of his writing as a whole, which as you point out it totally is. He very much agreed, however, that it is a theme of Anathem. However, I feel like it's dealt with somewhat more reasonably in Anathem than in some previous works (have you read The Big U? omg). For example, the boundary between the "mathic world" (of the monasteries) and the outside world is clearly not coextensive with the engineers-normals divide, and the first-person narrator really does try to understand the worldviews of people very different from him. This is extended even to religious points of view (though not to ignorant religious points of view). I think this represents a welcome moderation of the attitude you're identifying.
posted by grobstein at 1:33 PM on September 25, 2008


Poor Bradbury. Heard he was a caller on a late night talk radio show a few weeks ago.

WHAT?! what has my hero done? you don't understand, i worship the man but I know virtually nothing about his personal life.
posted by shmegegge at 1:33 PM on September 25, 2008


I'm a huge fan of Stephenson, but I'm finding ANATHEM to be unreadable gibberish. I can't get more than 10 pages in.

"Look at me! I can try to write like Gene Wolfe and fail miserably! Yay!"
posted by Justinian at 1:34 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I loved it. It's a big story that fits the length of the book. The first 50 or so pages can be challenging because of the made-up words, but a glossary is provided. It won't bother those who regularly read sci-fi/fantasy, but I could easily understanding folks who aren't accustomed to reading those type of books finding it hard going.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 1:39 PM on September 25, 2008


Has he started writing proper endings yet?
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:41 PM on September 25, 2008


It won't bother those who regularly read sci-fi/fantasy

You kidding? I won't cede SF credentials to anyone and I find it annoying as hell. There's nothing wrong with making up words but they should occur naturally in the course of a story. They aren't a club to bludgeon the reader with. LOOK AT ME WRITING! LOOK AT ME WRITING!

I'll give it another few tries because I usually like Stephenson so much, but so far it's just plain ridiculously self conscious and over written.
posted by Justinian at 1:47 PM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


Despite my Penrose-related grumpiness I probably will be checking this out – it sounds like it’s got a bit of a Canticle for Leiberwitz vibe to it, and I loved that - though “ninja monks in space” kind of puts me in mind of the last part of it, which I liked a hell of a lot less.

"Look at me! I can try to write like Gene Wolfe and fail miserably! Yay!"

…or maybe not.

BTW If you want a really need short story using the MWI check out Shrodingers Kitten, by George Alec Effinger. People who liked Stephensons cyberpunk stuff might want to check out Effingers other stuff, particularly the When Gravity Fails trilogy, which is just stunningly good.

/ends derail. Possibly I’m just a bit obsessed with Effinger due to getting to the end of Exile Kiss, finding out there was no more, and then finding out about the guys really quite sad personal history. I'd probably do a big old post on him If I could find some decent links.
posted by Artw at 1:47 PM on September 25, 2008 [8 favorites]


There's just stuff like that all over his books and essays. I remember him writing this incredibly self-indulgent essay about how linux was like this one uber-powerful drill that only hardcore professionals use because of how powerful it is. It's this obsessive justification for being who he is, and who his fans are.

This is precisely why he resonates with the /. crowd. I'd prefer our champion had more modesty in this regard.
posted by butterstick at 1:48 PM on September 25, 2008


Has he started writing proper endings yet?
Have you started reading threads before commenting?

I love NS, and I loved the Baroque Cycle. It was challenging to get through obviously, but great works often are. I can't wait to start Anathem. I've got my reading copy, and my fiancee gifted me with an autographed copy last week after he spoke here in Seattle. In fact I almost suggested a Seattle meet-up at the signing...but then realized I couldn't make it.
posted by vito90 at 1:50 PM on September 25, 2008


I'm a little mystified by the people who are still stuck on the "he can't write an ending" hobbyhorse. I've read everything Stephenson's written, including his two novels as Stephen Bury, and the overwhelming impression I've come away with is that Stephenson writes novels that hew closely to how life actually works out. Life doesn't stick to narrative convention: we very rarely get the kind of closure or wrap-up that we want from a given experience, and Stephenson's novels are no different.

Snow Crash, in my experience, is drastically different than his other work, and deliberately so: he's said himself that it was a kind of hail Mary of a book where he just threw everything in his head at the wall, and it wound up becoming emblematic.

Stephenson is a challenging author: he assumes a certain level of basic intellectual curiosity on the part of his readers, and I've never found him to be a casual sit-down-and-turn-my-brain-off kind of read, even with his "lighter" books like Diamond Age and Snow Crash. He likes words. He loves wordplay. And he adores big ideas. If his stylistic tics turn you off, okay, fine, don't read him, but Neal Stephenson is as accomplished a technical author as the English language has at the moment, and he has again and again proven his mastery of both the form and content of English-language fiction writing.

Anathem, in my initial opinion (I finished it last night) is an absolute masterpiece for any number of reasons: the meticulously created, absolutely enthralling world in which it's set, the sheer audacity of the plot, the philosophical inversions from our own world, and so forth and so on. However, I think it's most successful as one of the kinds of books I fell in love with as a teenager: the kind of book where you learn all sorts of things without any effort at all, and fall in love with it. I learned a hell of a lot reading Anathem, about all sorts of things, and I'll probably read it several more times.
posted by scrump at 1:52 PM on September 25, 2008 [6 favorites]


I'm a huge fan of Stephenson, but I'm finding ANATHEM to be unreadable gibberish. I can't get more than 10 pages in.

Judging from the interview he did in Wired, I think this is part of the theme of the book. I have not read it though. Can those who have suggest philosophers and scientists to bone up on before reading? I'm willing to do some prep work before tackling this monster.
posted by butterstick at 1:52 PM on September 25, 2008


He likes words. He loves wordplay. And he adores big ideas. If his stylistic tics turn you off, okay, fine, don't read him, but Neal Stephenson is as accomplished a technical author as the English language has at the moment,

Oh man. I love statements like this. Look, I dig Stephenson, and I imagine most of the people in this thread do too, but come on. Give me the list of the writers in English at the moment that you went through in your head before deciding that Stephenson is better or equal to all of them.
posted by shmegegge at 1:58 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I thought Anathem was OK. If you liked Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash and only thought the Baroque Cycle was OK, you'll probably think that this book was OK. Maybe I'm a shallow minded Neanderthal, but while this book is well written and developed, this book just wasn't that fun, which was kind of what I wanted from Stephenson.

To put it another way: After I finished reading Cryptonomicon, I flipped to the first page and read it again. I haven't had that urge with Anathem.
posted by Comrade_robot at 1:59 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is pretentious as hell, but I guess in a thread about NS pretencion is allowed especially if we agree with shmegegge's thematic assessment; I've always thought as Stepenson as being the undergraduate pre-requisite to David Foster Wallace. Either that or Steven King for people that can read.

NS is not a good author in terms of pure writing ability. He is perhaps the most entertaining author writing today. Particulary if your a techno-savvy geek.
posted by Keith Talent at 2:00 PM on September 25, 2008


Ok, a trailer for a book is just weird.
posted by zardoz at 2:00 PM on September 25, 2008


I thought the Many Worlds theory was pretty much busted amongst physicists?

Where did you read that? I was under the impression that many, if not most physicists believed some non-collapse interpretation of QM. Besides its most vocal supporter, David Deutsche, I've read that Murray Gell-Man, Steven Weinberg and Steven Hawking support that interpretation. Hawking has even supposedly described it as "trivially true."

While not every physicsist supports MWI (Penrose, for example, does not), I thought it was now considered a fairly mainstream idea.
posted by justkevin at 2:01 PM on September 25, 2008


For me Stephenson will pretty much never top “Swords don’t run out of ammo”. That’s some kind of once-a-lifetime bad-ass line to come up with.

(Though, oddly, I prefer Diamond Age to Snow Crash, and quite possibly his historical books as well)
posted by Artw at 2:03 PM on September 25, 2008


Neal Stephenson is as accomplished a technical author as the English language has at the moment

Ha.

Ha ha.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:04 PM on September 25, 2008 [4 favorites]


Steven King for people that can read.

Pff. Lazy potshot. From a writing point of view King is far superior too Stephenson.
posted by Artw at 2:05 PM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm currently reading both Anathem and Penrose's Road to Reality. I'm not the least bit surprised to read Stephenson's acknowledgement of Penrose's influence. The connecting points between the two books have been numerous. The very first was in NS's description of the footprint of the clocktower: the 8 roots of unity. Thus far I've found Anathem to be an exploration of a variety contexts in which to discuss the Platonic World: chapter one of Road to Reality. All in all, I'm happy to be working through both books at the same time.
posted by rlk at 2:05 PM on September 25, 2008


Life doesn't stick to narrative convention: we very rarely get the kind of closure or wrap-up that we want from a given experience

Which is why we have fiction... I mean it doesn't mean that everything has to be all tied up in one big bow but it should have some sort of satisfactory conclusion.

Ok, a trailer for a book is just weird.


Trailers for books are the big new thing!
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:06 PM on September 25, 2008


Justinian, I caught a lot of Book of the New Sun in here too...it just didn't bother me. Maybe because trying to write as well like Gene Wolfe and failing is more appealing than successfully aping some lesser talent?

Besides the language, both novels are concerned with the preservation of knowledge against the destructive forces that sometimes grip politics and culture. In BOTNS the books and systems therein have become arcane and unreadable. In Anathem they have survived only by a contrived system of ritual modeled by the giant slow-moving almost arbitrarily intricate clock in which they live. Like NS is answering GW's problem--how to avoid the inevitability of a dark age when more knowledge --> more power --> collapse.

I don't think its a spoiler to say that the solution they came up with on Arbe (the stark separation of the world of intellectuals and the spewing mass of gibbering rednecks that makes up the rest of the planet) isn't in the end made out to be the best solution. But, it is a solution, that sounds pretty cool sometimes when I'm the only person reading a book on the metro. Of course, my book isn't War and Peace...it has space ninjas. So who am I to talk?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:07 PM on September 25, 2008


Penrose, wacky geometer that he is, has contributed mightily to the advancement of things by 1) developing and then proselytizing many new math tricks all along his long career in order to support his unusual viewpoints, and 2) fearlessly sticking his neck out to ask really interesting questions. Which seems to me to be the path that this book follows.

And every book of spec fic should have a matched spec music history!
posted by MisterMo at 2:07 PM on September 25, 2008


grobstein: It's also a lot of fun to spot allusions to mathematical and philosophical concepts that have different names in our world than in the world of Anathem. Penrose tilings wind up being relevant to the plot (though not, I think, to the argument) of the book...

Another thought of Penrose's is that neurons physiologically work using quantum mechanics. I wasn't aware of anyone else who took it seriously, & it seemed like a handwaving argument against emulating / modelling neurons on a computer. As noted above, Tegmark's attack of it sounds pretty damning.

On preview: I'm not even keeping up. I'm not sure reading up on background material is a good idea, because it's presented well in the book & ... uh, spoilers. Philosophical spoilers? Yeah.
posted by Pronoiac at 2:10 PM on September 25, 2008


Yes, I took the Penrose tilings to be a joking nod to the other, more central Penrosian ideas.
posted by grobstein at 2:12 PM on September 25, 2008


brundlefly: "Am I the only person who dug the hell out of The Baroque Cycle?"

I loved it and was sad when the ~2700 pages were over.
posted by octothorpe at 2:16 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I thought the Many Worlds theory was pretty much busted amongst physicists?

Where did you read that? I was under the impression that many, if not most physicists believed some non-collapse interpretation of QM.


Hmm. Depending on how you interpret this it's not exactly busted but seems to be somewhere between being accepted as a possibility and being somewhat disreputable. Occam’s razor and its fundamental untestability are mentioned, though neither of those flat out disbar something from being true.
posted by Artw at 2:17 PM on September 25, 2008


I really enjoyed Snowcrash. I was put off by Zodiac but wanted to give him another try. I did that with Cryptonomicon and by the end of the book I decided I didn't want to read his work anymore, which is kind of sad because he's a great idea guy, almost as good as Philip K. Dick, but like Dick, Stephenson's writing can be painfully opaque at times, not to mention trite.

YMMV, of course, and if lots of people enjoy his work, more power to him and to those who dig his stuff.
posted by illiad at 2:20 PM on September 25, 2008


Ohh, rant about Stephenson hour! I love doing that.

I read Snow Crash when it was the early 90s and I was 18 and all this stuff seemed Right Around The Corner and like most 18 year old geeks, I loved it. I read Zodiac and The Big U and Diamond Age (which he obviously had no idea where it was going) and forgot them all pretty quickly. I also read some political thriller sci fi book he wrote under a pseudoname (Network? Interface?) I remember it really felt like he cut out 4-5 chapters in the middle and it made no sense because of that. And then... I forgot about Stephenson. I pretty much stopped reading sci-fi, and the few times I tried I found I couldn't read that crap any more. And Cyptonomicon started getting prehyped and I bought into it and I got it the first day it came out and took it home all excited... and UGH. The book was atrocious. It was every smug self satisfied geek making fist pounding arguments with cardboard cutouts who obviously can't refute them because They Are Wrong About Everything. It had Stephenson posing on that back in his CypherPunk gear looking like every late 90s obnoxious Libertarian know-it-all who was going to smash the state with the power of code.

So, is this as bad as Cyptonomicon?
posted by aspo at 2:26 PM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


oh god. that picture. with the goggles, standing on some tiny island. oh my god that picture.
posted by shmegegge at 2:28 PM on September 25, 2008


It's about 700 Billion Times Better!!!!!11 Now, I don't want to oversell it...
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:29 PM on September 25, 2008


Occam’s razor and its fundamental untestability are mentioned, though neither of those flat out disbar something from being true.

I've never understood the Occam's razor argument: "What causes myriad hypothetical probability waves to collapse, instantly at the speed of light? The observation of a conscious observer!" is not a particularly simple explanation. Admitting that other realities exist seems fairly straightforward by comparison.

It's true, there's no (practical) experiment you can do to prove that MWI is correct and another interpretation is wrong, but the reverse is also true.
posted by justkevin at 2:31 PM on September 25, 2008


Wow, schmegege and artw and others have so pegged how I feel about Stephenson.

As for his chops as a writer: He takes some fair risks with his prose, and they don't always pay off. That's not a criticism. If you want to do cool stuff, you've got to take some risks. But he doesn't seem to me to learn as much from them as I'd expect: in a technical sense, he's about where Stephen King was at the end of the 70s. Thing is, he's been working a lot longer than King had been working by then....

He's a great example of an artist who seems to me to be in a bit of a bubble. Does he workshop with anybody? Is he social with any other spec fic writers? Or other writers in general? I actually don't know the answer, but I haven't heard of anything, and if he weren't it could explain a lot about the bubbleness.

As "a writer", I still think he's interesting. Being a writer isn't entirely about the wonderful wonderfulness of your prose. Sometimes it's about your characters and your ideas. His characterization is kind of wanting and repetetive sometimes, but the characters are clearly and well drawn. And I always get a lot of ideas from his books. But for me, he's too in love with his own cleverness for me to get really caught up in his stories. (And In the Beginning Was the Command Line came off as so pompous and coming from a reality so wildly divergent from my own that I didn't make it through the first chapter.)

As for the endings thing, I think I don't get that. I didn't make it more than 2/3 through Quicksilver, but I've read Big U, Snow Crash, The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon, and all the endings seemed pretty solid to me. (Arguably there's some loose ends left untied, but the core story is always satisfactorily closed.)
posted by lodurr at 2:34 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


He's okay on endings. Doctorow, that's the guy you have to watch for endings. Sometimes I think he just wanders off after something exciting pops up on MakeZine, then his editor drops by and grabs what is on the desk. Stephenson at least makes an effort to stop at a reasonable point, if not "wrap everything up" (which rarely happens in the real world).

Qualifier: I loved Zodiac, but I'm weird. I've done the Stephen Bury stuff. I haven't touched the Baroque Cycle yet and won't until it hits paperback (love ya, guy, but not hardback love). I might do this one in hardback, maybe. I do love QM, but not at the point where we hit untestable interpretations. This might be a fine line for me.

And, as much of a sci-fi nerd, geek, etc. as I am (with accompanying complex of puppydog eagerness to show off something I know and Big Dog urge to look down at the little dogs who don't know), I find the occasional Parade of Obscurity Stephenson Recently Researched (P.O.S.R.R.) to be tiresome, whether or not I am familiar with the various bits that come marching through the plot. I don't require plot devices to be black box MacGuffins (and prefer them not to be), but I don't want a circuit diagram for them, either. Too often through Cryptonomicon I stopped and thought, "Sweet Christ, I hope I'm not that irritating when I explain something" and resolved to be less explanatory in my dealings with people who probably don't care about the inner workings of ... whatever.

Then again, maybe that's the real utility in these books. Guess I'm off to Amazon.
posted by adipocere at 2:48 PM on September 25, 2008


If "YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR SUCKS!" were made into a fragrance, what would it smell like?

I would peg it as sandalwood bottom notes, green (birch leaf? cucumber?) top notes, and a middle consisting of the scent of that annoying undergraduate whose major goal in life—second only to avoiding the shower at all cost—is to prove his superiority over his fellow students by availing himself of every smallest opportunity to argue with the prof or TA.
posted by CKmtl at 2:51 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Loved Snow Crash, loved Cryptonomicon, disowned him over the Baroque Cycle, and greatly enjoyed Anathem.

I was thrown off by the made-up words at first, but as someone else has already stated, if you make it through the first 100pp, you're good. You get all the meanings that aren't explicitly stated out of context and at least for me, really started enjoying the book. Burned through that baby in 4 days.
posted by SeanMac at 2:55 PM on September 25, 2008


I hope I don’t come over as being all “your favourite author sucks” because I quite like his stuff, and any new book buy him is defiantly an event. But there are some legitimate criticisms of him to be had. The endings one is certainly oen of them (Crytonomicon was the only one in which it really bothered me though – and TBH I can’t even remember how SotW ended).

He’s not nearly as irritating as Doctrow, and even Doctrow has written some things I flat out love (though I still contend he shot his wad novels-wise with Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom…. )
posted by Artw at 3:00 PM on September 25, 2008


adipocere, Baroque Cycle is in paperback.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:03 PM on September 25, 2008


Does he workshop with anybody? Is he social with any other spec fic writers? Or other writers in general?

No, I don't think so... he's too busy writing his doorstops to communicated with people
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:04 PM on September 25, 2008


I thought the Many Worlds theory was pretty much busted amongst physicists?

IANA Physicist but my understanding was that Many Worlds feels excessive to many researchers. It's almost an aesthetic objection: incalculable numbers of worlds are splitting from ours at ever moment and the number of possible worlds is beyond any comprehension. It seems only natural to look for a neater solution, something simpler, something that doesn't attempt to explain microscopic pheomena by creating entire universes ...

He's a great example of an artist who seems to me to be in a bit of a bubble. Does he workshop with anybody? Is he social with any other spec fic writers?

NS has stated that he avoids the public life of an author in favour of getting on with just writing. More power to him, but dear god he could use a good editor.
posted by outlier at 3:06 PM on September 25, 2008


I'm already reading this in a parallel dimension. I know this because whenever I'm doing something that's ostensibly good for me and has been enthusiastically recommended by others - such as eating raw broccoli, or learning the violin - I all of a sudden become distracted, bored, irritated, even enraged, and find myself making a violent gesture with my hands, as though I am throwing a book forcibly across the room, a bit like that leg spasm you sometimes get when you are just drifting off to sleep. This happened last night when I was doing pushups, and I guess it might have been funny to people observing, but my nose really hurts this morning.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:07 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


(I'm also maybe a bit bitter after having been burned on teh whole Idea Factory thing)
posted by Artw at 3:11 PM on September 25, 2008


turgid dahlia: I think you may have mistaken this book for Clavity's Braingrow, by Tomas Pinchion, that seminal work of indecipherable phenomenology set against the tragic loss by the Allies in WWII. That's a real tough nut to crack.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:14 PM on September 25, 2008 [5 favorites]


Clavity's Braingrow

Heh.
posted by Artw at 3:17 PM on September 25, 2008


Oh, Pynchon? Never personally touched him, but my counterpart in the Cowboy Universe did, and let's just say, I'm on the bone marrow list.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:18 PM on September 25, 2008


Just finished this book last nite, it is a MASTERPIECE.

I really want to talk about it with someone, but don't want to give away spoilers.

I noticed one mistake, and one slight inconsistency.
Did any of you notice the following:
(I'll try to explain these without giving away any details)

- about 75% thru, there's a scene where a character who is clearly NOT present is named. It's obviously a typo. But it made me do a double-take, go back a few pages and find out if i had missed this person entering the scene. It was just a line of dialog: "What is that?" so-and-so asked. But so-and-so was, in fact, hundreds of miles away at the time. And i doubt it was a result of metaphysics!

The other inconsistency i can't explain without giving too much away, so i'll have to give a

**SPOILER WARNING**

The scene with a Faraday cage. Anyone know what i'm talking about? In that scene, something happens that should not happen within a Faraday cage. And if there's some technological (or i should say praxic) reason, it isn't explained..
posted by TechnoLustLuddite at 3:19 PM on September 25, 2008


Eliezer Yudkowsky over at Overcoming Bias has a sequence of articles explaining (and arguing for) quantum mechanics and thermodynamics from the MWI perspective. Of course, I'm no quantum physicist so for all I know he may have the facts completely wrong, but he somehow manages to make many-worlds seem too elegant not to be true. Just my 2¢.
posted by teraflop at 3:22 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Look at me! I can try to write like Gene Wolfe and fail miserably! Yay!"

These days, Gene Wolfe is failing to write like Gene Wolfe. After Pirate Freedom and (especially) An Evil Guest ... I just don't know.
posted by Amanojaku at 3:23 PM on September 25, 2008


TechnoLustLuddite

With the faraday cage, yeah, it's just a total flub I think, the badges right?

It took me about 250-300 pages to get hooked on the book (I stuck with it because I trust NS to deliver) and then I blasted through the rest of it in two days and was sad when it was over. It got really good.

I've had problems with all of his stuff for one reason or another, but I'm always happy that I've read it. This book affected me the same way (or in a similar way to) reading the Aubrey/Maturin series did, YMMV.
posted by Divine_Wino at 3:43 PM on September 25, 2008


I looked around Neal's site, & spotted (an? the?) Anathem Wiki. I'm not sure how I feel about that.
posted by Pronoiac at 3:52 PM on September 25, 2008


I was thrown off by the made-up words at first, but as someone else has already stated, if you make it through the first 100pp, you're good. You get all the meanings that aren't explicitly stated out of context and at least for me, really started enjoying the book. Burned through that baby in 4 days.

But I'm not at all bothered by made up words. ONE FOR THE MORNING GLORY by John Barnes, anyone? Gene Wolfe for god's sake? I'm bothered that Neal Stephenson knows how to write good science fiction and this isn't it.

It's like an Atwood or Lessing science fiction novel; a good author who doesn't know how to write in the genre he or she is attempting to write in, and as a result ends up stumbling despite innate talent. Except that Stephenson is innately a science fictional author so it has to be a deliberate cultivation of those tropes rather than a mistake, and why would you write a bad science fiction novel on purpose? Why purposely make the mistakes of a mainstream author trying and failing to write good science fiction?
posted by Justinian at 3:59 PM on September 25, 2008


Which tropes? What mistakes?
posted by grobstein at 4:05 PM on September 25, 2008



Am I the only person who dug the hell out of The Baroque Cycle?


I loved it. It was the first Stephenson I'd ever read. I haven't enjoyed any of the others as much.

Of course, I also liked Mason & Dixon, so make of that what you will.
posted by thivaia at 4:12 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


grobstein: one of the cliched problems that mainstream authors have when writing science fiction is "incluing". That is, giving the read the information he or she needs to deal with new concepts (technology, new words, etc). They generally have one of two problems. Either far too much "as you know, bob" stuff where every new concept or word is clumsily explained when introduced so as not to spook the mundanes or just throwing a jumbled mishmash of made up words at the reader because hey, it's science fiction and that's what science fiction is about! Made up words! Names with lots of apostrophes! That sort of things!

Stephenson knows how to introduce new words and concepts but instead he takes the second approach; writing like an author who doesn't know how to write science fiction and just starts throwing out random made up words to the point that it comes across as meaningless drivel. Do I really need to have the first three pages be nothing but tossing some weird shit at me about a steelycaptor or whatever? No, I don't.

That's not how you do it and Stephenson knows better.
posted by Justinian at 4:18 PM on September 25, 2008


From whatI;ve heard it sounds a lot more Big Sci-Fi than anything else he's done - could that be part of the problem?
posted by Artw at 4:37 PM on September 25, 2008


Holy hell. I was dimly aware that Stephenson had increased his pace of publishing since the early days of Snow Crash, but the man is churning them out.

Not sure I'm enjoying his later stuff, though. Wait. Not sure I enjoyed his earlier stuff, either.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:50 PM on September 25, 2008


I have a problem finishing Stephenson's more recent books. I did finish Snow Crash back in the 90s and thought it was pretty good. I read The Diamond Age but remember nothing about it--guess it didn't make much of an impression. Cryptonomicon I read and was really enjoying until the halfway point when it started to annoy the hell out of me. As it's been pointed out, Stephenson fetishsises computer nerds, tech people, entrepreneurs, dotcom types, engineers, math geniuses, etc. It's almost like he envisions an intellectual caste system, with the geeks being the Brahmins of society. Cryptonomicon is well written and has some really entertaining parts, but this pretentiousness about this geekery was tiring.

Then I started Quicksilver, and that pretentiousness was worse than ever! Ok, Neal, we get it, we should have a nerdocracy, I agree (really!), but do you have to be so smug about it? Again, I got about to the halfway point.

That said, I think his prose is really good. This new book I flipped through at the bookstore but looks incredibly dense, but I just might finish it.
posted by zardoz at 4:54 PM on September 25, 2008


Brundelfly and Octothorpe - I loved the Baroque Cycle too and was sad when it was over.

I've got this one sitting on my desk, but haven't read it yet. I'm waiting until I have a whole stretch of time to start it - it's not exactly something you can lug on the train with you and read on the way to work.
posted by mkim at 4:57 PM on September 25, 2008


In particular, I'm thinking of Cryptonomicon. I enjoyed it, and I do intend to read Anathem, but in Cryptonomicon we have pages and pages devoted to the Proper Engineer's Method Of Eating Captain Crunch. It was funny for the first couple paragraphs. But it kept going. It was, if I remember correctly, the entire chapter. And it stopped being funny. Eventually, it started being an obsessive justification, an insistance that this really was The Way To Eat Captain Crunch if you weren't an idiot.
No wonder you hate Stephenson. As far as I can tell, you missed the entire fucking point of that passage, which was to provide a degree of insight into Randy Waterhouse's character. You're not the first person I've seen go frothing at the mouth about it, either, which just plain baffles me, because I've never had the slightest difficulty seeing the point of that passage in terms of advancing the narrative.

The more I read your opinions on Stephenson, the harder it is to avoid coming to the conclusion that you just don't get him, you're not interested in getting him, and you want to shit all over those of us who actually enjoy his writing.

Oh, and one other thing, because you called me out personally later in the thread: stick your condescending tone right up your ass. I'm not going to belabor the point, but I am abundantly qualified to render the kind of judgement I did about Stephenson's place as a great writer, and I stand by it.
posted by scrump at 4:59 PM on September 25, 2008


Thanks for that, zardoz. You explained my reaction to (late, at least) Stephenson stuff better than I could.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:59 PM on September 25, 2008


Brundlefly,

No. I love the Baroque Cycle, even though many of my fellow Stephenson fans never finished it.
posted by katiewa at 5:12 PM on September 25, 2008


Divine_Wino:
"With the faraday cage, yeah, it's just a total flub I think, the badges right?"

Yeah, the badges.

And if anyone's curious, the momentary teleportation of one character half-way across the world, with none of the other characters noticing is on page 737. Actually, i think what happens is Jules momentarily morphs into Yul... that sneaky Laterran bastard.

All snarks aside, this book is fantastic. I read it in 2 weeks, and for me that's fast! It affected my dreams. Who knows what worldtrack i would have woken up in without that?
posted by TechnoLustLuddite at 5:14 PM on September 25, 2008


the stark separation of the world of intellectuals and the spewing mass of gibbering rednecks that makes up the rest of the planet

This seems pretty far off the mark, actually. Having read the book through, I have to say that the religious folk (there's a term for them, I've forgotten it) are treated fairly sympathetically, with the exception of the Warden of Heaven. You really get a feel for a couple of characters who are obviously meant to represent hard-line fundamentalists while Erasmas is doing his round-the-world trip. This plays into something I've noticed in most of NS's books: he treats religion pretty even-handedly, recognizing that there's intelligent thought going on there (the female lead in Snow Crash, Enoch Root in the Baroque volumes and in Cryptonomicon) while giving a no-holds-barred kick to the seat of exploitive, dumbed-down religion (Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates, etc.). It's something I enjoy about his books.

Anathem didn't impress me as much as the Baroque cycle did - maybe that's simply because I'm more a history geek than a science-fiction geek, and because made-up vocabulary tends to put me off unless done by a writer with Tolkienesque skills in that area. It was still a hell of a read, and I'll probably go back to it after a few months of letting it digest.

On the matter of NS's geek elitism - I thought it was toned down significantly in this volume, despite the premise. You get a sense of how surprised Erasmas and others are when they begin to deal with the people on the "outside", and realize how these folk know stuff that they don't - important stuff, as important in their own way as the ideas that the fraas and suurs work on in their monasteries. Which is something you get a bit of with the Shaftoes in Cryptonomicon, but it was better explored here.
It reminds me of something that I think Stephenson said in an interview once (I wish I could remember enough to find a link), about how the point is not to idealize a set of "geeks" related to one field, but to realize that we are all geeks. Most people, no matter how boring or how uneducated they seem at first, often will turn out to have an obsessive interest in something or other, and in that one area they will far surpass most of their fellows, even those with PhDs in knowledge and skill. He was talking about how society is going to become a "network of geeks" of this kind, or something.
Wow, that went on longer than I thought it would. In true Stephensonian fashion, I will end it abruptly.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:25 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm not going to belabor the point, but I am abundantly qualified to render the kind of judgement I did about Stephenson's place as a great writer, and I stand by it.

For those of us who *haven't* called you out personally, would you care to elaborate?
posted by asterix at 5:27 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I love the Baroque Cycle, even though many of my fellow Stephenson fans never finished it.

Count me as one of the ones who never made it through. I thought Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost covered similar ground but did it much better.
posted by asterix at 5:35 PM on September 25, 2008


How would one bust that theory?

So on the site you're postin'... real hot-roastin'
Everything you say is fact, and not supposedin'
Neal Stephenson, ya got him feelin' leery
So don't just sit there, bust a theory...
posted by jonmc at 5:41 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


From the acknowledgments page:

It is worth pointing out that I came to the work of Deutsch and of Zalta along completely different lines of inquiry. My interest in physics brought me to the former, my interest in the Plato-Leibniz-Husserl-Gödel lineage to the latter. When both of them ended up speaking of the same philosopher, David Lewis, I got a feeling--perhaps nothing more than self-delusion--that a circle had magically closed.

Self-delusion, yes. Lewis's conception of possible worlds has absolutely nothing to do with many-world quantum theories, and by the lights of Lewis's own theory, couldn't possibly have anything to do with it.

My interest in the book is piqued, but the acknowledgments page sounds pretty naive and pop sciencey. Not that there's anything wrong with that in sci-fi.
posted by painquale at 5:52 PM on September 25, 2008


Does Anathem have real characters, or is it more Ayn Rand-style talking points on a stick moved hither and thither to move the plot forward? I enjoyed The Diamond Age and Snow Crash and even Cryptonomicon, though its smugness is now hilarious in the wake of the dot-com crash. Then I got about twenty pages into the Baroque Cycle, but couldn't stand how he was stuffing words down Ben Franklin's throat and obviously feeling oh-so-clever about it when it was basically Founding Fathers fanfic.
posted by speicus at 6:15 PM on September 25, 2008


Count me among the lovers of the Baroque Cycle. Among other things, it helped me look at London in new ways, and feel happier about living here.

I liked Cryptonomicon, found The Diamond Age OK-- but I adore Anathem. In so many ways it's the complete opposite of the sprawling, teeming genius of the Baroque Cycle-- one continuous first-person narrator as opposed to a fragmented horde of third-persons; a deliberate, meditative pace rather than a breakneck gallop over seven kinds of terrain at once.

Things I like about Anathem include the world-building; the language games; a good handful of the characters; the very real sense of tradition, history and ritual in the quasi-monastic society; and the elegance of having not only a science/religion divide but a science/technology divide.

Basically, Anathem is what you'd get if Umberto Eco had sex with Carl Sagan and the resulting child was educated by Ursula LeGuin. (I think.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:24 PM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


the acknowledgments page sounds pretty naive and pop sciencey. Not that there's anything wrong with that in sci-fi.

If you like your science fiction with ray guns and giant mutant ants, I guess. Otherwise the problem with naive pop science in SF is the same as the problem with naive pop science in any other genre of literature.
posted by Justinian at 6:27 PM on September 25, 2008


AdamCSnider: That's just what I was trying to say, albeit clumsily. Anathem's world portrays the geek-world fantasy, but then demonstrates the flaws in that fantasy, almost as if answering the critics of the other worlds he's created. My belief that this is his best work (though Diamond Age is a serious contender as well) is precisely because he moves beyond talking head debates into real characterization, and (gasp) even metafictional concerns about narrative. It's a fully adult book (no not like that! (unfortunately[?])).
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:31 PM on September 25, 2008


No wonder you hate Stephenson.

You should read the part of my comment where I said I actually love Stephenson. I can already tell this is going to be good.

As far as I can tell, you missed the entire fucking point of that passage, which was to provide a degree of insight into Randy Waterhouse's character.

No, I didn't miss it. In fact, I already pointed out why I brought it up, when somebody (civilly, mind you) brought up this very point. But go on. You're on a roll.

You're not the first person I've seen go frothing at the mouth about it, either, which just plain baffles me, because I've never had the slightest difficulty seeing the point of that passage in terms of advancing the narrative.

No no no. Frothing at the mouth is what you're doing right now. What I was doing was rationally discussing the book, and Stephenson in general.

The more I read your opinions on Stephenson, the harder it is to avoid coming to the conclusion that you just don't get him, you're not interested in getting him, and you want to shit all over those of us who actually enjoy his writing.

Maybe here's another place where I should mention that I already said I'm a fan of his. But then again, you're not going to pay attention to that, are you? You're having too much fun losing your shit.

Oh, and one other thing, because you called me out personally later in the thread:

If by "calling you out personally" you mean "responded reasonably to what you said."

stick your condescending tone right up your ass. I'm not going to belabor the point, but I am abundantly qualified to render the kind of judgement I did about Stephenson's place as a great writer, and I stand by it.

Look, let's get down to it. No matter how qualified you are to have made that point, supporting your points when someone else wants to discuss them with you (even if they disagree! holy shit!) is part of discussing a book. Even the books you really really love more than you love Star Trek. I swear to God, you slashdotters...

Think of it this way. Let's say you, being abundantly qualified to render judgment on a book, had a whole host of evidence to support your claim that Stephenson is as good a technical writer as is writing in English at this moment. Now let's say I, being abundantly qualified to go "huh?" disagree. You then, in the spirit of discussion, provide all of this evidence, thoroughly proving your point to any and everyone here that could possibly have disagreed with you. Well then you've just won over a whole bunch of people and helped them see the light. That's the best case.

But let's say you have a bunch of things to support your point, and this being a discussion of an art form the end result is that people's opinions on things differ. Nevertheless, we have an interesting back and forth, other people join in, we all feel richer for the experience. Maybe some of us change our minds a bit, maybe we don't, but in the end we all largely respect one another's opinions and move on from there. That's the worst case. That's it. That's the worst that could happen, barring some kind of foaming apeshit and totally unmerited bitch fest.

But what do we have instead? We have you acting like the comic book guy from The Simpsons (a characterization I'm willing to be you're tired of hearing people make about you), failing to make a point and instead just going off on a foaming apeshit and totally unmerited bitch fest. And the best case scenario in that one? Is you looking like an ass. So howsabout you just qualify your statement a bit, and we'll pretend this comment of yours never happened. OR, if you want, you can just not, and get on with your life. But this? This is not your best option.
posted by shmegegge at 6:34 PM on September 25, 2008 [5 favorites]


Justinian: Could you give me your opinion of the first 10 pages of Infinite Jest as well? I'm a very busy and important man.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:37 PM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


scrump, you're getting unnecessarily worked up. I don't think shmeg can be read as denigrating Stephenson fans or "hat[ing] Stephenson" -- that's a really wild exaggeration. Do you think he's lying when he says he digs Stephenson?

Furthermore, he does not question your qualifications to rate Stephenson as one of the best living writers on technique. Rather, he's asking whether you really mean it: did you really think it through and decide that Stephenson is better than X, Y, and Z great writers? You seem to think he's insulted you, but actually he's surprised you'd take this position and wants you to explain yourself. And you should. Why be content with yelling when you can present some kind of argument for Stephenson as the greatest prose stylist or whatever?
posted by grobstein at 6:38 PM on September 25, 2008


Oops guess I was late. Happy fighting. =P
posted by grobstein at 6:38 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


OK, I liked the early Stevenson. And me? I am The Guy For Whom Cryptonomicon Was Written. (That is to say, I don't know of a book that I enjoyed more, "Captain Crunch" digression and all.)

Reading the Baroque Cycle, on the other hand, was more of a painful duty.

And so I dutifully picked up Anathem the day it hit the stores - but the first few pages set off my personal 'Bat Durston' alarm. The endless array of made-up words that are just slightly off from normal English (including the damn title)? That's about the most annoying gimmick I've ever seen. I mean, really: there's just page after page of little more than what Blish identified as "calling a rabbit a smeerp". This sort of thing was ridiculed out of the genre fully a half-century ago.

It's good to hear that Anathem gets better, because the first few pages stopped me cold, and I've been actively dreading having to read this one.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:53 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Anathem doesn't recover from the problem of made-up language, because it's not a problem. It's motivated, and I think there's a strong case that it's necessary. You don't have to read the book to understand this, though, because Stephenson gives his reasons in the foreword. Roughly, the point is that the etymological structure of language is the fossil of historical patterns of thought and association, and when you use language (or read it) you pick up those patterns. Since Arbre has had a history that is much like Earth's, but subtly different, the fossilized patterns of association are different in small ways. Stephenson presents us with that from page 1 with topical words that have been tweaked in small ways. It's a device with a thematic purpose, and it works.

Other sci-fi writers might have done something superficially similar, decades ago, and that may have been a mistake and a dramatic failure. But the resemblance is meaningless and Stephenson has made this creative choice carefully and wisely.
posted by grobstein at 7:02 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Amazon recommended Anathem to me alongside Gene Wolfe's new novel An Evil Guest.

I ordered the Wolfe novel.
posted by Ritchie at 7:07 PM on September 25, 2008


But I'm not at all bothered by made up words...Gene Wolfe for god's sake?

To be fair, although I haven't read as much Wolfe as I plan to, I've read that he doesn't really make up words, he just picks up old words no one really uses anymore and dusts them off.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:44 PM on September 25, 2008


I loved this post on Crooked Timber which identified Stephenson's tendency toward Mary Sue wish-fulfillment.
posted by jayder at 8:01 PM on September 25, 2008


His best book, my arse. Judging by the first 250 pages it's about 5% as good as Snow Crash. At least it's better than his previous piss-poor trilogy. What a waste of time it was to read that unedited pile of crap. God I wish he'd get back on form. He's one of my favorite writers when he's not trying so hard to suck.
posted by w0mbat at 8:13 PM on September 25, 2008


Gene Wolfe for god's sake?

Gene Wolfe uses (at least in his Severian books) archaic words. He doesn't make them up.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:06 PM on September 25, 2008


That's about the most annoying gimmick I've ever seen. I mean, really: there's just page after page of little more than what Blish identified as "calling a rabbit a smeerp". This sort of thing was ridiculed out of the genre fully a half-century ago.

This is a good opportunity for my favourite example of this: in (from memory) Robert Forward's "Rocheworld", the alien speech is rendered in idiomatic English, as they are speaking among themselves and later when they are speaking to humans with the aid of machine translation. The aliens have 5 limbs or fingers, and so for numbers they speak of "fivety and one" and "five-fives". Thus the readers are asked to accept a translation system that can flawlessly render an alien tongue into English, but cannot convert from base-5 to base-10.
posted by outlier at 1:34 AM on September 26, 2008


Whether Many Worlds is busted amongst physicists rather misses the point that Stephenson is not a physicist but a novelist and it is called speculative fiction for a reason. I agree with the earlier comment that the acknowledgements are a bit spoilery, they are a combination of footnote and further reading to be read after the fact. Reading them up front rather takes the shine of some of the wonderful paradigm shifts within the novel.

I think Anathem is a really hard book to talk about unless you've read it (and read all of it.) It takes at least the first act of around 250 pages to fully get into it and then the story changes entirely in the second act. It also presents itself in quite an off-putting way: the new word that sound like old words, the real historical events and characters that are lightly fictionalised. Why is Stephenson doing this? All becomes clear. If you think he is just "throwing a jumbled mishmash of made up words" you've missed the point, probably because you haven't got far enough for the point to become clear.

(I did find Stephenson's assertion that only non-SF readers would need the glossary extremely dubious. I and most other SF readers I know made copious use of it. This can be irritating but it soon passes.)

Can those who have suggest philosophers and scientists to bone up on before reading?

This is unneccessary because the novel acts as its own primer on these subjects and, indeed, this is part of the point of the book. It is pedagogic fiction.

Comparisons to The Book Of The New Sun puzzle me. Wolfe is using archaic words to achieve a particular effect, Stephenson is using neologisms to achieve a particular effect, the two aims are entirely different. Not to mention that the prose, tone and story of Anathem/ are a million miles away from Wolfe. You can make a better case for similarities to A Canticle For Lieberwitz but again they are radically different books. I'm surprised no-one has mentioned the word religion since that is one of the fundamental differences between Stephenson's book and those of Wolfe and Miller. All three novels are concerned with knowledge but so are a lot of novels, although I never thought of Wolfe I did think of Umberto Eco.

(the stark separation of the world of intellectuals and the spewing mass of gibbering rednecks that makes up the rest of the planet)

As AdamCSnider says this is a pretty overblown interpretation of the mathic/saecular split and leaves Stephenson much more open to the Elitest Engineer Libertarian charge than I think he deserves. For those interested in the geek/mundane split prevalant in his writing, here is the transcript of an interesting although wrongheaded talk I heard Stephenson give on the topic at Gresham College earlier in the year.

(Oh, and if anyone is interested here is my full review of Anathem.)
posted by ninebelow at 2:37 AM on September 26, 2008


And yes, it has an ending.
posted by ninebelow at 2:38 AM on September 26, 2008


I'm going to stand by my statement, despite its overblownness.

"the solution they came up with on Arbe (the stark separation of the world of intellectuals and the spewing mass of gibbering rednecks that makes up the rest of the planet) isn't in the end made out to be the best solution"

SPOILERS BELOW

The separation is the whole point of the book. As Erasmus points out, every time there is another sack of the maths, the saecular world and hierarchs put another safeguard in place to keep the inside and outside from interacting. In the beginning, especially with Orolo's questions and the descriptions of the landscape, it seems as if all culture that isn't mathic is utterly disgusting and stupid. Then, Stephenson reveals that to be a predjudice encouraged by the Powers That Be as E. finds pockets of wisdom and sanity, even among several religious cults.

Surely everyone caught the reference towards the end to SJ Gould's Magisteria article in the names of the two governments that emerge--is he accepting the possibility of two non-overlapping worlds of thought, one full of theories based on evidence and the other full of artful rhetoric on culture and spirituality, or is he attempting to reconcile them? I don't know. Being a unreconstructed sline myself, this book filled me with hope (probably naively) that scientists might turn their attention to questions hitherto relegated to classics students and silly love songs. Now how's that for overblown?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:08 AM on September 26, 2008


Also, in case others were interested in the cloistered/sequestered human super-species aspect of the first act, I'd like to recommend another author: Scott Bakker and The Prince of Nothing trilogy. Instead, this time they emerge to subjugate the rest of the world. It's a very good, philosophical read as well.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 5:48 AM on September 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


I mean, really: there's just page after page of little more than what Blish identified as "calling a rabbit a smeerp".

Hmm... I've just read bits and pieces, but it doesn't read like 'smeerpism' to me -- it reads more like dialect-creation, aspiring to what Hoban did in Riddley Walker or Burgess in A Clockwork Orange. (Whether he pulls it off I leave to others.)
posted by lodurr at 6:26 AM on September 26, 2008


But his acknowledgments page (summarized in the print version and as expansive as ever on the Internet Reticulum)...

has two typos in the first sentence.
posted by pracowity at 8:29 AM on September 26, 2008


And yes, it has an ending.

I was willing to suspend disbelief about all the other traps he usually falls into, and was planning on buying Anathem anyway, because Cryptonomicon is 12 pounds of awesome in a ten-pound bag, and Snow Crash still prompts me to mentally capitalize the 'r' when someone intones 'they'll listen to reason,' but this aggression will not stand. The man is clearly as ill-adapted at writing denouement as he is at writing sex scenes (Neil, I cannot defend you from your detractors when your love-making interlude in the front seat of the Land rover contains the phrase 'imperial pint of semen'), and I'll be damned if I'm going to rename the conceit from "Neal Stephenson's What-The-Hell-Happened-to-the-Ending Syndrome." It's a pathology, damnit, and without a clear antecedent, we're all just chasing our tails.
posted by Mayor West at 8:50 AM on September 26, 2008


Typos? Oh, an extra comma & "Hills" instead of "Hillis."

Did you know about the typos in Cryptonomicon? There were dozens - enough that people speculated that there was information steganographically hidden in their placement. He still gets questions about the code, which he denies exists.
posted by Pronoiac at 9:04 AM on September 26, 2008


Eh, I can forgive an occasional typo, even in print. However, there are two exceptions to that rule:

When the author puts themselves in a position that greatly increases the risk of typos, and then messes up. I recently finished the second book in Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, which has a lot of Purposefully Weird Fantasy Names. The name "Kendharaja'aro" was spelled differently twice on the same page, neither of them being the same spelling as in the appendix.

They're not really typos, but "could of", "should of", "would of" make me want to stab things.
posted by CKmtl at 11:39 AM on September 26, 2008


CKmtl, depends on what you are talking about withe the "could of"/"should of". If it's there to help establish character voice, and it's consistently applied, I think things like that can be great. It can be hard to pull that off, though. Mark Twain pulled it off routinely. Stephenson can pull it off, I've always thought. I think you mostly have to have an ear for it. (And a willingness to go back and re-read your MS for inconsistencies.)
posted by lodurr at 1:01 PM on September 26, 2008


Well, I guess the fact that I'm skipping the spoilers in this thread should clue me in to fact that I've already subconsciously decided to read this book. The preservation of knowledge is a fascinating subject to me, and I'm encouraged that the people who dislike it seem to love Snow Crash. So, here you go, Neal, this is your Last Chance. Fuck this one up and we're through for good and all.

I'd like to recommend another author: Scott Bakker and The Prince of Nothing trilogy.

Oh, thank God, another Bakker fan. I was beginning to think I was the only one who'd read those books. I'm getting all antsy waiting for the Aspect-Emperor. Best fantasy I've ever read (I have yet to read the Book of the New Sun).
posted by adamdschneider at 1:04 PM on September 26, 2008


... as for typos, I'm kind of on the fence. I mean, I suppose you get the galleys, you have an obligation to read through them, but don't the publishers proof anymore? (A writer I know says that too often in the last several years she's ended up with copy editors who "want to be writing partners" [by changing her wording and editing her character-voice passages for grammar], but don't seem interested in catching actual errors.)
posted by lodurr at 1:04 PM on September 26, 2008


lodurr:

I see what you're saying about character voice; it bothers me less when the errant 'of' occurs in dialogue or character thought.

I get what the author's trying to accomplish with it. I just think the same thing could have been accomplished, at least for the way I read, by using "could've" or even "coulda". Neither of those jar me out of the little movie that I'm allowing the author to play in my head, because one is right and the other scans as an obvious attempt to express a dialect/accent. "Could of" stops the projector for a split second and makes me think "wait... wtf was that?"
posted by CKmtl at 4:13 PM on September 26, 2008


I just don't know. I'm better than 100 pages in and it is just not grabbing me the way NS's prior works have.

I've not had an issue with the vernacular, or anything like that. I just don't find myself looking forward very much to reading the next bit, like I have with past works.

Of course, it may be I "just don't get it" but I suspect this one is going on the shelf and staying there, instead of me having to buy replacement copies for all the loaners that have been read to death.
posted by Samizdata at 10:39 PM on September 26, 2008


I think good character voice writing is something you know when you see it. (And that some people just don't like in any case. That's their affair.) It's often grammatically incorrect and stylistically awkward, but there's a way in which you can sort of do it on purpose that excuses that. Even in the third person, it can be effective.

Gibson does third person character-voice shifts very well, I think -- look at the Bridge Trilogy in particular (though he's never grammatically incorrect). Stephenson generally does it very well, but I feel that he's often sloppy. In all of his books that I've read, there have been passages where he was ticking along nicely and then all of a sudden there are several awkward, inconsistent usages hanging out there messing up my flow as a reader.

As a prose stylist, with one exception that I can think of (the opening sequence in Snow Crash, of course!*), he's at his best when he goes for transparency: Let the prose disappear into the background, so you don't even notice it.

--
*It's a cliche by now, of course, but I still think it's hard to top the Deliverator's Ride (and YT's rescue) as a book-opener.

posted by lodurr at 6:47 AM on September 27, 2008


"I've been actively dreading having to read this one."

If you're being held at gunpoint, capitalize every other word in your next comment.
posted by Eideteker at 7:15 AM on September 27, 2008


I finished this and wanted to join a math; which is a good way of showing that beyond any flaws, he at least created a world that suckered me in.

(spoiler-esque)
It suckered me in so much that it really jarred when he made a couple of mistakes, including a point where the suit said "network joined" instead of "reticule joined" and he referred to a "display screen".
posted by bonaldi at 7:39 AM on September 27, 2008


After reading through once, I started reading again to see if it makes more sense the second time. Unlike most of Stephenson's other books, this one seems to have surprisingly little re-read value.

It was a lot of fun the first time, though.
posted by b1tr0t at 3:23 PM on September 27, 2008


Yeah, I'm planning to re-read it, but a lot of the fun of the first read was gradually unfolding the mysteries of the world. It's gotta be less fun if you already know all the answers.
posted by grobstein at 3:46 PM on September 27, 2008


I loved this book. Its very good. I really can see it as a mirror for the modern particularly the closed off scientific sphere which operate within government restrictions and isn't involved in the wider world and is completely unsure of its purpose.

I think one of the most interesting ideas in their was the idea of the book they have to memorize and answer questions. Its a study of increasingly successful authentication systems. Building minds so they can inherently verify authenicity in written statements, powerful.

I think the confusion do to the words actually helps the novel, it builds your mind so your constantly asking the question: So what is that? I like it.

I think if this book might be the book of the year in the most important book in the most important reading community in America.
posted by Rubbstone at 1:21 PM on October 10, 2008


It was very good (just closed the cover a minute ago) - I liked it far better than the Baroque Cycle (which I could not finish - a rare event for me).

Nothing earth shattering that I haven't read elsewhere (Greg Egan) - but a good story, nice narrative, nice characters and no super-deep-geek-dives as per Cryptonomicon (but hey - I'm a geek, I liked those).

It did not take 100 pages to hook me, only about 15 - so, better than I thought. You get used to the vocabulary very quickly.
posted by jkaczor at 9:55 AM on October 14, 2008


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