Monday, 2 February 2009

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (2008)

Considerably better formed and more enjoyable than Stephenson’s prodigiously clotted Baroque books, Anathem is a pudding baked of equal parts Harry Potter, A Canticle of Leibowitz, Tolkien, Heinlein’s juveniles (or some of them) and Bertrand Russell’s History of Philosophy. A thousand pages of Fatasy, give or take. The first third is set inside the scientific convent (a 'concent' in the vocabulary of the tale) in which Erasmus, the narractor, lives. The second third moves our core characters around the larger world at great length and in great detail, and the last third reveals the working of the Big MacG. which has been slowly digesting inside the stomach of the tekst throughout. This Big-Macg (a Newfo, and the implications of same) is tastier than many, although as empty of vitamins and minerals as any I've tasted; but the main point of Stephenson’s tekst is the worldbling, which is very expensive and showy. For people who like worldbling this is presumably almost a perfect book; but those who prefer something a little less flashy, a little more substantial in aesthetic and novelistic terms, may find it tiresome.

Continuing with the downside the narractor is unusually bland, the other characters almost nonexistent and often interchangeable, and the author’s application of his styless has resulted in a great wasteland expanse of grey prose through which the ridder must trudge if s/he is to untie the spoilbinding. I found ridding an effortful process. The dialogue is prolic, clumsy and built on the principle of redundancy (‘Do you remember the total eclipse of when we made a camera oscura so that we could see it without burning our eyes?’ ‘A box,’ I recalled, ‘with a pinhole at one end and a sheet of white paper at the other.’ [281]. Try, I beg you, to imagine anybody talking like that in the real world. ‘Do you remember reading a book in which the prose is flavoured, evocative, sharp and effective? Do you remember such a book?’ ‘A binding,’ I recalled, ‘of many sheets of printed paper into a single artifact, upon which are printed the consecutive sequences words that, when taken together, tell a story.’) But it is surely beside the point to object to the tell-don't-show styless, or to the myriad annoylogisms, which are amongst the showiest elements in S.’s worldbling. My problem with the tekst can be boiled down to one focus: its monstrous and inflated infodumping. Of course I appreciate that for some ridders, and perhaps for many ridders, this 'problem' will be the whole point of the book. The entirety of the tekst is one gigantic Infodump, and that’s that.

I didn’t believe the ‘concent’ notion—either in larger sense, that such bastions of a particular sort of privilege could survive millennia against the context of international secular politics, or in terms of their internal logic (confining populations of young people of both sexes together, with the added spice of there being no risk of pregnancy, would surely result in enormous amounts of shagging. Now there’s some shagging hinted at in the novel, but it’s kept within YA bounds of propriety). My own progress through this treaclestorm of a narrative was slow, and my main emotion upon completion was relief. But for all that I can understand, and had some faint inkling of why, some readers have fallen wholly in love with this book.


ANNOYLOGISMS. Words invented or new-coined specifically for the purpose of delaying a ridder’s passage through a spoilbinder, thereby making the process much more burdensome than it need be. In some communities this term has lost its negative connotations and is used to refer to any defamiliarising or worldbuilding use of invented terminology.

BIG-MACG. A triple layered MacGuffin product, containing a higher proportion of cholesterol than a regular MacGuffin. The consumption of too many Big-Macgs may lead to fanbesity

BLOCKBLOCKER A word coined in opposition to ‘blockbuster’; a tekst that assembles massy boulder-like obstacles in the way of a ridder’s passage.

CRITIASS. Named for the Platonic dialogue in which Plato gives his eponymous speaker the opportunity to discourse upon Atlantis. Modern day Critiasses devote themselves to deprecating the inferiority of modern imaginary worlds (particularly those in contemporary Fatasy) when compared to the achievements of the classics.

DULLKEEN. An apparent oxymoron. Originally this term was used to criticize writers who imitated certain features of the ancient author ‘Tolkien’—specifically his great length, his fondness for coining new words and his simple quest-narrative structures—without imitating his sublimity, profound moral and imaginative engagement or mastery of tone and mood. In later use, when dullness itself became increasingly prized as an aesthetic virtue (cf yawngasm), Dullkeen was taken not as oxymoronic at all, but as something closer to tautology. Eventually all new imitations of Tolkienian fantasy were dullkeen.

FANBESITY. A variant of Fatasy, which may be descriptive of (a) a Fatasy novel itself, (b) to the individual whose diet consists wholly of such teksts, irrespective of their individual body-type, or (c) the state of the genre as a whole.

FATASY. Originally a contraction of the Amglish phrase ‘Fat-ass Fantasy novel’, the term in present use carries no negative associations and is merely descriptive of a genre in which the very notion of a ‘thin fantasy’ has become something of a contradiction in terms.

HARI-PARTER. Committing a form of tekstual suicide by increasingly expanding the parts of an ongoing tale until they reach such size that the guts of the story split open and spill all over the ground (see Rowmbling). Painful and grisly.

MacGUFFIN’S. Extremely successful company that provides standardized plot-devices, especially those whose exact composition is a mystery but which are appealing enough to encourage ridders to consume product.

NARRACTOR. A character who narrates. More specifically, a character whose sole focus of characterization is that s/e narrates the story in which they appear. There is usually nothing more to such a figure than a blandly generic niceness and a lot of day-to-day details that contribute to the worldbling of the story.

NEW-FO A new form of UFO. The particulars of the new-fo vary from place to place, but may include twists such that the pilots of the unidentified spacecraft turn out to be us, or that such craft travel not so much from star to star as from Platonic reality to Platonic reality.

RIDDER. An individual who reads a book in order to rid themselves of an onerous spoilbinding. In most recent usage, a person in thrall to a narrative, and usually somebody doomed to the disappointments of anticlimax.

ROWMBLING. Going interminably on and on after the manner of J K Rowling. Particularly applied to tekst that get longer and longer the more famous an author becomes. See also Hari-parter.

SPOILBINDING. A tekst that binds its ridder to its unfolding narrative by withholding ‘spoilers’.

STYLESS. Originally this word, a variant spelling of ‘stylus’, referred to the instrument of writing. In later usage, and in keeping with a general valorization of the ‘neutral’ or ‘ordinary Joe’ stylistic preferences of most readers, this became a term of praise for the writer who downplayed ‘literary’ or ‘purple’ prose.

TE DIUM. Quasi-religious song in praise of the dullness of enormously elongated narrative faldapiffle.

TEKST. A text (such as a novel) with a high 'technological' quotient that tests--as it might be, the patience, the endurance or the imagination--of a ridder.

WORLDBLING A variety of worldbuilding in which a great many details of an imaginary world are put on rather showy and vulgar display in order to impress upon the ridder the prodigious imaginative wealth of the author. The imaginative wealth of the author, it can be added, is not usually in doubt, although some critiasses, especially those that value restraint, subtlety and inflection, question the judgment of authors who indulge too blatantly in worldbling.

YAWNGASM. A strange circumstance whereby prolonged boredom leads to a state of near ecstasy. Not as unusual as you might think, actually.


Rich Puchalsky said...

Well, the book was worth it if it got you to produce so many funny neologisms. (I assume that they are yours, not his?) They were funnier without the glossary, but I suppose that if you're going for full painful criticism-via-imitation, you need a glossary.

My favorites: first, worldbling. Worldbling is a word so needed for SF criticism that I'm amazed that no one else has yet invented it. That would make someone who shows off their freestyle variations on someone else's well-known world a world-rapper, which would undoubtedly drop one p at times but not really lose any meaning thereby. Fatasy. Critiass (mostly for its glossary description, if I may be inconsistent.)

Yawngasm, though -- that started as a New Wave, experimental thing, didn't it? Report on Probability A. Or The Iron Dream, in its way. Michael Moorcock's Pyat Quartet, with its determinedly wholly unsympathetic and unchanging protagonist. The attempt to bore the reader into looking at SF within a wholly different aesthetic. Though perhaps this should be a yawnpiphany.

Adam Roberts said...

Do you know, you're right? I google 'yawngasm' and discover it's been in use for ages; not least as an actual term of clinial pathology. Well I never. If I'd known that I'd not have put that one in. Mind you, the real question is: how could I not have come across that word before? I pity myself for my sheltered existence.

Yawnpipheny is much better.

Rich Puchalsky said...

You know -- the more I read amusing criticism like this, the more I have trouble going back and re-reading SFF books which I once thought were good but now seem to be prefigure later works. Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, for instance. (And please see here. Worldbling, annoylogisms, Big-Macg, hari-parter, even the narractor -- if Wolfe was not so stylistically good at his one form of writing, maybe these would be apparently to everyone. Speaking of which: is this excellent two-decades-old piece by a Nick Lowe whom you know?

There should be another silly neologism for this form of being discredited by following works. A-gone?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I enjoyed Anathem a great deal more than you, and, as I suspect you'd agree but wouldn't see as a mitigating circumstance, I'd argue that the infodumping was the point of the book not only for its readers but for Stephenson himself, but this is just lovely. I'm stealing worldbling, to be sure, and possibly hari-parter as well.

Adam Roberts said...

Abigail: actually I ended up enjoying it more than I'm giving the impression here. After System of the World I really couldn't see myself reading another Stephenson; but this one intrigued me sufficiently (and was so highly praised by so many people) that I thought I'd give it a go. Saying it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be doubtless looks like the very acme of faint-praise-damning; but it certainly wasn't, and towards the end was something more. I found the first half very hard going; but I stepped much more briskly down the far side with increasing, if never excessive, enjoyment. Hard to say how much of that was a function of the relief promised by the fact that it would end soon.

You're right about the infodumping being the whole point, I think.

Rich: I do know Nick, who teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, where I also work; and who is both an immensely smart, extraordinarily widely read and generally brilliant individual, but also one of the unappreciated greats of SF criticism. Or, perhaps that should be 'underappreciated'. His plot coupons piece ought to be required reading for anybody interested in fantasy.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Cool, I read you mention his name somewhere and wasn't sure it was the same Nick Lowe. His plot coupons piece is really all I've read of his. Looking at his Web site, all mentions of SF have seemingly been airbrushed off. Does he have a collection of some sort anywhere?

Farah said...

Anathem is still on my shelf. It may yet stay there,

"Ridder": I almost died laughing.


Jonathan M said...

Inspired Adam :-) Simply Inspired.

Armitaj said...

@ Rich Puchalsky - Nick Lowe writes a film review column in the UK bi-monthly SF magazine Interzone (which is mentioned on his website). Some film stories (I think Armageddon was one) he sees as re-tellings of the process of putting a film project together.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Thanks Armitaj, and I'd guess it's a very interesting film column, but personally I'm not very interested in film.

SEK said...

Wait, so "faldapiffle" is a real word?

Adam Roberts said...

You won't find it in an American dictionary, no. But that's because we confiscated it after the War of Independence. That was the deal: you got to be a country in your own right, and we got to retain exclusive use of the word 'faldapiffle.' Personally I consider that a fair trade.

Tony Keen said...

Adam, I am quite enjoying Anathem, if for nothing else than the appearance of large chunks of Greek philosophy, disguised with a funny hat and a false moustache, saying "You ain't see me, right?" But this is a priceless review; I am most taken with "annoylogism".

Rich, Nick Lowe's sf criticism is largely film criticism since he stopped going to conventions in the 1980s. I don't think there's enough outside the film reviews to sustain a collection, though there are many of us who believe that a collection of the best of the film reviews is a desideratum. He's getting better appreciated now - Graham Sleight wrote an appreciation in the last-but-one Vector, and he will be the guest at the BSFA London meeting. I think it's a bit unfair to say that he's airbrushed sf off 'his website' - that's his staff page at his employer, and my staff page at my main employer doesn't mention sf either. (Also, it hasn't been updated for a couple of years, so misses some work he's been doing recently on sf and classics.)

Rich Puchalsky said...

Thanks, Tony. I hadn't meant to imply that he personally airbrushed the SF off his site -- more that, as you say, it's not the kind of thing that tends to show up on a staff page.

I've blogged further about the yawnpiphany here.

Felix said...

"(‘Do you remember the total eclipse of when we made a camera oscura so that we could see it without burning our eyes?’ ‘A box,’ I recalled, ‘with a pinhole at one end and a sheet of white paper at the other.’ [281]. Try, I beg you, to imagine anybody talking like that in the real world. ‘Do you remember reading a book in which the prose is flavoured, evocative, sharp and effective? Do you remember such a book?’ ‘A binding,’ I recalled, ‘of many sheets of printed paper into a single artifact, upon which are printed the consecutive sequences words that, when taken together, tell a story.’)"

I think the point of it was that a 'camera obscura' isn't so ordinary even in that world.
And for sake of unambiguous understanding on a mutual ground, and for training, philosophical dialogue often seems somewhat redundant by nature, since it's not a "normal" mode of talking. Parts of Plato and Aristotle might also be satirised nowadays by people who "know it anyway".
So although I noted the redundancy in parts, I have no problem with it and soon accepted it as part of a kind of aesthetics.
I've completed the first third so far, and have mixed but overall positive impressions.

Matt Powell said...

Anathem is a speculative fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, published in 2008. Major themes include the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the philosophical debate between Platonic realism and formalism.

Adam Roberts said...

Thank you for that, Matt.