Sunday, November 15, 2015


Neal Stephenson's Anathem is my least favorite of his books. This is high praise, of course, as his Cryptonomicon is my favorite book. As the Wikipedia article states, his works touch on mathematics, cryptography, philosophy, currency, and history of science. And indeed, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle do touch on all those things, in detail, wonderfully imbricated. Unfortunately, and this is my main complaint, Anathem is just about philosophy. It takes place in a parallel-ish universe and the meat of the story consists of philosophical teaching/exploratory dialogues, starting from the barest of first principles. The point is that they get somewhere, I know, and I don't want to spoil it for the uninitiated. It's excellent, interesting, and it includes a joke that still makes me chuckle aloud to think about. (I'd quote it here, but it's a total spoiler. It has to do with a protractor.)

This reread made me think, again, how much I would have loved to live in a parallel universe where research universities are self-sufficient cloisters, and the university-seeky people are all welcomed inside and valued for their functional abilities. Gender is no obstacle. Everything fits together nicely, it's very satisfying.

I am uniquely privileged in this academic universe to be natively fluent in English, the effective language of scholarship in my field (and most others). I am reminded of this when I watch my colleagues switch from idle conversation (French) to academic conversation (English) --- somehow, my language, which for most of my life has been the only language used around me, is a special tool that my colleagues had to acquire in the course of their studies. It's as if I grew up in some secluded enclave where Latin were the language of daily usage: I would seem more academic, sure, but... it's weird. Sometimes when I zone out at work it is because I am imagining everyone around me speaking Latin. Or French! --- you know, the language of (mathematical) scholarship up until very recently! But mostly my Anathem-inspired daydreams are about everyone speaking Latin, and they involve weird grammatical constructions to backwards-translate the computer science terms that derive from Latin roots, at the distance of many centuries' semantic shifts.

This is a bit of a scattershot post, but I'll finish it with a long quote and then call it a day. This quote tries to simultaneously explain and motivate the lives of cloistered scholars, and also the development of the novel's story, and of all novels' stories, and maybe of all stories altogether. Also of society. It recurses to a meta-level I am currently unequipped to dissect. Translations of book-specific terms provided in [brackets]. Page 355 onwards:
So I looked with fascination at those people... and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who'd made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day's end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn't live without story had been driven into the concents [academic cloisters] or into jobs like Yul's [ad-hoc wilderness guide]. All others had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Saeculars [non-academics] were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end in which you played a significant part? We avout [academics] had it ready-made because we were a part of this project of learning new things. Even if it didn't always move fast enough... , it did move. You could tell where you were and what you were doing in that story.
It's interesting to note, on reflection, that even inside this novel there is a special branch of academics solely devoted to removing people from their own research-story by providing evidence (and citations) of prior academics who already discovered (and published!) the same results. But the scholar-monks keep going anyway, powered, I suppose, by the same magical brain-pixie-dust that powers me and all my coworkers and all academic colleagues across the world. (A thirst for knowledge?)

I haven't read Seveneves yet, but it's in my queue. I hope it has more of Stephenson's particular type of episodic writing; I prefer it to his straightforward novels.

This post's theme word is gradgrind, "someone who is solely interested in cold, hard facts." The gradgrind's conversational tactics were unorthodox.

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