Tags: anathem



Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

as days pass by — Inside out

A very thoughtful post from Stuart, ostensibly about “view source”, but really about empowerment, choice, and respect.

I like that the web is made up of separate bits that you can see if you want to. You can understand how it works by piecing together the parts. It’s not meant to be a sealed unit, an appliance which does what the owner wants it to and restricts everything else. That’s what apps do. The web’s better than that.

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009


I’ve become a big Neal Stephenson fan over the years. Having a taste for cyberpunk and steampunk, I naturally enjoyed both Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. But what really surprised me was how much I enjoyed .

At first I found it frustrating to read Quicksilver—I couldn’t keep track of all the characters and all the events. So I gave up even trying to follow it all. That’s when the book really opened up. I realised that, although it’s a rollicking good adventure, it’s mostly an immersive experience. As I made my way through The Confusion and The System Of The World, I started to really look forward to getting completely lost in the 17th Century.

I was genuinely sad when I finished the three books. I didn’t want them to end. So I was already anxious for the next Neal Stephenson book to come out even before I knew about the subject matter. When I heard that Anathem would be a novel of The Long Now—a subject that has been occupying my thoughts more and more lately—I started to get really excited.

Once I had the book in my hands—and, as usual with Stephenson’s books, the hardback takes two hands and a decent set of biceps—I started to devour it. It’s very different to The Baroque Cycle but equally engaging. Not only is it saturated in Long Now thinking, it even features a version of the clock. The obvious comparison to make would be with A Canticle For Leibowitz but the similarities start and end with the set up of a “priesthood” of knowledge. Anathem very quickly becomes a philosophical tower of ideas built brick by brick, chapter by chapter.

On the one hand, I was pleased by Stephenson’s consistency. Once again, he delivered the goods: a decent yarn, well told, with good—rarely great—pose. But what really delighted me was how different this tale is. Every time I thought I had figured out where the book was going, Stephenson would yank the metaphorical rug from under my feet …often at the very moment when I believed I was getting a handle on the direction of the narrative.

The book is set in its own internally-consistent invented world. The strangeness of this disappears quickly, much like the internally-consistent invented language in Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. When new words are introduced in Anathem, it’s always for a good reason. For example, the concept of is vital to a story driven by science and philosophy but that label would make no sense on a planet where has never existed. Instead we get “the Steelyard”, a different term with a different history, but capturing the same concept. This gradual layering of alternate vocabulary has a massive payoff later in the book when two simple words provide the most thrilling rug-pulling event of the whole reading experience.

As you may have gathered, I enjoyed Anathem. While it’s true that I didn’t enjoy it in the same way that I enjoyed The Baroque Cycle, it seems completely unfair to compare 17th Century apples with alien-world oranges.

Now that I’ve finished Anathem, I’m trying to avoid going cold turkey. It’s been years since I read Cryptonomicon so I figured I’d give it another whirl. I’m enjoying it immensely (again). I’m particularly savouring the story of WWII information warfare, like this little exchange on the fictional archipeligo of Qwghlm:

May I … know … to satisfy my own … curiosity … what sort of …? the Duke says, and trails off.

Waterhouse is ready for this. He is so ready that he has to hold back for a moment and try to make a show of discretion. Huffduff.


HFDF: High Frequency Direction Finding. A technique for locating distant radio transmitters by triangulating from several points.