Skip to main content

View Diary: Book Club: Anathem by Neal Stephenson (86 comments)

Comment Preferences

  •  OK Time to do my homework here (3+ / 0-)

      1.  It's clear that the world of Anathem has passed through numerous cycles where technical civilization has risen only to collapse again. Do you think any of these past civilizations was ours?

    Others have said it - the Praxic Age, which tees up the key philosophical challenge of Anathem - Secular power, such as arms and wealth, depends on past advances in knowledge and validation by the interpreters of knowledge.

    However, new advances and interpretations of knowledge are threatening to the extant secular order. At a certain point, not only the prospect of future advances but the fact that advance occur at all becomes threatening. The new technologies - genetic engineering, nuclear power, artificial intelligence and the eerie things the Millennial Maths are up to - freak out the secular society.

    But these are toys that might be useful in an emergency like, say, a future war or crisis. It's just a question of how to keep a leash on the minds that drive philosophical progress. The ability to interpret knowledge and assemble practical solutions based on same.

    There is even a bigger issue, touched on by stories form Arbre's past - that cloistering the intelligent isn't enough. Locked up with lots of time and resources, strange things happened. Things that really freaked out the seculars - home-grown nuclear reactors and gene resequencing are the least of the outrages. So the maths were placed under ever-greater restrictions.

    And that is the tension - the Seculars need the Maths around just in case, say, an asteroid is on a collision course with the homeworld. The Maths need the Seculars to not kill them off. The compromise has been for the Maths to live isolated, subservient and very frugal lives working on abstracts.

    But it's amazing how powerful abstract notions can be, even without Stephenson's schlepping notions of wizardry into the narrative which, let's be blunt, is what the Millennial Maths up in their high sanctuaries are in this world. By the end of the novel, there's scant difference between Fraa Jad and Gandalf the Grey.

    2. The event that forms the core of the book forces the mathic and outside worlds to work together. Can you detect value added by non-mathic characters in the proposals that are created?

    While not cloistered, many people in the Secular World are educated in the Maths - doing annual concents for several years seems to be the equivalent of a liberal arts education in this society. So there are many sympathetic contacts throughout Arbre.

    Oddly though the strongest value added has to come from the discussion around why the Seculars, to the Mathics' thinking, confine themselves to breakdown-prone technologies even when so many superior alternatives are available.

    The answer - because we understand them. We can learn enough to keep them going and build replacements. Because if we return to depending on others' expertise that we can't hope to match, it's the same as slavery.

    It was a human answer to the Secular question of what to do with the sword of knowledge that is the Mathic World - sheathe it, blunt it, or break it?

      3. Stephenson spends a long piece of the novel expounding Socratic methods of argument (and alternatives) under a variety of names. Mathematical concepts like tessellation also feature heavily in the character's thinking. Were you able to follow the leaps the characters made given these insights into their thinking?

    We did tangram exercises that were, if I understand the concepts properly, simple tesselations all through spring of my 5th grade year.

    The Mathics' chief problem in the second half of he story is assessing what the motivations and goals of the Visitors and how best to address the situation. The first and most dire question being - is doing anything at all a good idea? While tedious in parts the dinner discussions are a very compelling exercise in the power of talk - focused, thoughtful participation in successive thought experiments - to yield useful interpretations building on, really, what wasn't a whole lot of hard data. And these talks took place in a period of Defcon One-type distress. Clear thinking rocks.

      4. The doors are open and the mathic world wants you! Will you step inside, and what circle would you like to join?

    From what I gather, you have to graduate from the one-year to the ten-year to the hundred-year to the thousand-year maths, though there are multiple paths up the mountain, if you will.

    Ultimately, I know myself well enough that I would be too restive for the strict discipline of the mathic world. I certainly was in my early twenties when that chance was before me to remain in our version of the mathic world.

    Also I find the notion of retreat from the data under study to be a detriment to philosophical advance. I am aware that information is passed on to the maths but it is also heavily filtered by the Mathic version of the Inquisition.

    However, reading Anathem gave me pause - that there is value to quiet contemplation, to the interpretation of knowledge and refinement of the tools used in interpretation.

    Long ago I had envisioned a life in the secular world, that perhaps in the second half of my tenure on this mortal coil a more contemplative existence would be more appropriate.

    Why can't we all just get a blog? :)

    by cskendrick on Sun Dec 19, 2010 at 05:50:50 AM PST

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site