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yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


World without suits

3 January 2011

When I finally got around to reading Anathem, my wife told me she was uninterested in reading it after me, because she thought Neil Stephenson did a mediocre job at character development.

“But that doesn’t matter,” I told her. “He’s a geek. His characters are all geeks. His readers are all geeks. He doesn’t need to put much character development into the actual writing, because we readers know what his characters are like already.”

Unfortunately, after I said that, I started noticing how true it was. Anathem (if you are not a geek, or if you are a geek who only got twenty pages into the book) is a novel whose central characters are very much like monks on a planet very much like Earth… except that the focus of the monks’ lives is not Divine service but the study of math and physics. (Also, no celibacy.) OK, fair enough, it’s a novel about geeks. But when these monkoids have contact with the world outside their walls, everyone they have to deal with is also pretty damn geeky. The narrator’s sister is a machinist. When the plot turns to political machinations, the politicians the narrator interacts with are either mucketymucks in the monastic world itself, or secular politicians who are generally sympathetic to the monks.

What really drove this home to me was a passage where the narrator describes a fascinating religion—the gist of which is that we are all characters in the mind of a condemned criminal, and if we don’t make our world a better place, then the convict will be executed and our world will vanish—and he concludes:

…[T]he Inspiration that had passed from the Innocent to the Condemned Man at the moment of her death was viral. It passed from him into each of us. Each of us had the same power to create whole worlds. The hope was that one day there would be a Chosen One who would create a world that was perfect. If that ever happened, not only would he and his world but all of the other worlds and their creators, back to the Condemned Man, would be saved recursively.

That word “recursively” kicked me out of the story. I was no longer immersed in a world where a monk disguised as a layman was attending a service in a church of a different religion. Instead I was thinking: “The author of this novel is a geek, so of course, he cannot resist the opportunity to put in something recursive.”

(Yes, I read the book all the way to the end, and I understand that part of the point of the story is that Arbre is in all respects a geekier world than Earth. Even so, the characters on stage always seem to represent the geekiest end of their world’s spectrum.)