July 31, 2014

Information wants to be promiscuous.

Anathem is everything I like about Neal Stephenson, and unlike any other book I’ve read. For one thing, there’s the way the author plays with language. Anathem seems to take place in a parallel universe: instead of religious scholars in convents, there are scientific avout in concents, and the theorem for calculating the length of a triangle’s hypotenuse was invented by a man named Adrakhones, not our Pythagoras. It can be a bit hard to follow at times but more than makes up for the difficulty with the excitement one feels when upon realizing one of these parallels (“Oh, that’s Plato!”).

Further complicating things is the fact that Anathem, if its history does map to our world’s, takes place several thousand years in the future. Near the dawn of the third millennium, asymptotic advances in technology put terrifying power in the hands of the brightest. Something called “The Terrible Events” happened, after which the governments of the world united in forcing the theoretically- and scientifically-inclined into cloisters called concents, free to explore their ideas but forbidden from enacting them by a ban on all but the most rudimentary technologies.

Anathem opens in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, one of these scientific cloisters, just before the festival of Apert. The Concent is made up of different maths, cohorts of scholars grouped together by how long they swear off contact with the outside, or saecular, world. Once each year on Apert, the doors to the unarian math are opened to the public and unarian avout are free to visit the outside world (and vice versa). Our narrator, Fraa Erasmus, belongs to a decenarian math, meaning the doors to his part of the concent open only every ten years, and this Apert happens to mark the end of his first ten-year stay. There are also centenarians who swear off contact with the outside world for most of their lives, and even millenarians who are brought to the Concent as infants and don’t interact except with other “thousanders”.

For the three and a half millennia it has existed, the mathic world has had a troubled relationship with its saecular counterpart, the world outside. At the start of the book, most saeculars view the avout as eccentrics—baffling characters who’ve give up a life of video games, fast food, and television just to spend their time around a bunch of old books. But there are—and at times have been a majority of—those who see the maths as something sinister. At this point in history, there have been three “Great Sacks,” revolts against the mathic world in which saeculars ransacked concents around the globe. Our narrator, Erasmus, has these events in mind when describing the beginning of Apert, in which he’d encounter the outside world for the first time in a decade:

The most interesting moment was when the gap between the gates grew just wide enough to admit a single person. Who would it be? Male or female, old or young, carrying an assault rifle, a baby, a chest of gold, or a backpack bomb?

The mathic world is basically the “ivory tower” metaphor made real. It’s often amusing how out-of-touch the avout can seem, although who could blame them given their institutionally-mandated quarantine against current information. But the upshot of this for the reader is how the avout’s unfamiliarity with what is basically our society lets them ask penetrating questions of it, rather like how a child’s “why?” can often reveal the shallowness of adult knowledge. One of my favorite scenes comes early, just before Apert, in which a decenarian avout, Fraa Orolo, is questioning a saecular, Artisan Flec, trying to ascertain how drastically things may have changed in the past decade. (If you like, I recommend listening to Stephenson read the scene himself, starting at 2:55). Fraa Orolo:

You say of course there are criminals, but if you look at a particular person, how do you know whether or not he is a criminal? Are criminals branded? Tattooed? Locked up? Who decides who is and isn’t a criminal? Does a woman with shaved eyebrows say “you are a criminal” and ring a silver bell? Or is it rather a man in a wig who strikes a block of wood with a hammer? Do you thrust the accused through a doughnut-shaped magnet? Or use a forked stick that twitches when it is brought near evil? Does an Emperor hand down the decision from his throne written in vermilion ink and sealed with black wax, or is it rather that the accused must walk barefoot across a griddle? Perhaps there is ubiquitous moving picture praxis—what you’d call speelycaptors—that know all, but their secrets may only be unlocked by a court of eunuchs each of whom has memorized part of a long number. Or perhaps a mob shows up and throws rocks at the suspect until he’s dead.

Orolo is trying to ascertain the current fashion for determining guilt or innocence, and in doing so reveals it as just that: a fashion. We moderns like to think ourselves the pinnacle of history, but how often do we rely on circular argument? We are the height of progress because look at how barbaric the past was; and how do we know the past was barbaric? Well just compare it to the present! All it takes are a few commas—putting our present understanding in a list with its real and fictional historical counterparts—to reveal its arbitrariness. It’s the most useful aspect of Anathem how Stephenson uses the conceit of future observers to put us in our place:

“I always tend to assume there’s an infinite amount of money out there.”

“There might as well be,” Arsibalt said, “but most of it gets spent on pornography, sugar water, and bombs. There is only so much that can be scraped together for particle accelerators.”

(So much for the superconducting supercollider.) And here’s a stinging account of the absurdity to which our commercialism sometimes extends:

An old market had stood there until I’d been about six years old, when the authorities had renamed it the Olde Market, destroyed it, and built a new market devoted to selling T-shirts and other objects with pictures of the old market. Meanwhile, the people who had operated the little stalls in the old market had gone elsewhere and set up a thing on the edge of town that was now called the New Market even though it was actually the old market.

But Anathem isn’t merely, or even primarily, about criticizing the present. It’s about a strange, fraught future:

We, the theors [scientists], who had retreated (or, depending on how you liked your history, been herded) into the concents [monasteries] at the Reconstitution, had the power to change the physical world through praxis [technology]. Up to a point, ordinary people liked the changes we made. But the more clever the praxis became, the less people understood it and the more dependent they became on us—and they didn’t like that at all.

We live at the dawn of a new kind of ignorance about technology. In the past, you might not have been able to craft a bow or a revolver, but anyone with eyes could see how they worked. That, however, was a world of hardware. Ours is a world of software. The average person might still be able to imagine how a drone stays airborne—jet propulsion, lift-producing wings—but not how it works. How—not yet but soon if these people don’t get their way—drones are programmed to decide which roughly human-shaped things to rain fiery death upon. As science and technology become ever less comprehensible, will there come a time when our fears outweigh our desire for their bounty? Apple famously applied the term “magic” to their devices, and it rang true. But let us not forget, Anathem contends, that we once burned people at the stake for practicing that dark art.

And if we do decide to place limits on science and technology, we’ll need to go to extreme lengths to enforce them. In Anathem’s world there are the Ita, a brilliant portmanteau of IT (information technology) and eta, the feudal Japanese underclass tasked with handling impurities in jobs like butchering and tanning. The Ita are the only ones allowed to understand and use technology to keep things running within the concents. In order to prevent their knowledge from passing dangerously to the avout, the Ita must be considered ritually unclean. Our narrator Erasmus explains:

“It’s kind of like hygiene,” I said.

“You think the Ita are dirty?”

“Hygiene isn’t really about dirt. It’s about germs. It’s to prevent the spread of sequences that are dangerous if they are allowed to propagate. We don’t think the Ita are dirty in the sense of not washing. But their whole purpose is to work with information that spreads in a promiscuous way.”

Steward Brand famously declared that “Information wants to be free.” He might just as well have said that information wants to be promiscuous.

There’s a lot more than this in Anathem’s thousand pages, a trove of philosophy, politics, and cosmological intrigue. Once the story gets going, it’s a hell of a ride. But Stephenson takes his time introducing Anathem’s world, and I’m glad he does. The world looks a lot like ours does (or could), yet it’s at once chilling and absurd. It’s left as an exercise to the reader to discern just where the similarities stop and the satire begins, and what a useful exercise that is.