Saturday, January 31, 2009

File Under 'Hmm'

Via Edward Champion, we learn that Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) is trying to adapt David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas for the screen, with the help of the Wachowski brothers.  Note that this article erroneously (I hope) assumes that Tykwer's adaptation will focus on only one of the novel's six narratives, and also that there's no indication of an actual production deal in place.

Champion calls Cloud Atlas 'an unfilmable novel', but I'm not sure I see how it is any more so than any other big, sprawling piece of fiction.  The nested narrative structure is unusual, but there have been plenty of films--including Run Lola Run--whose narratives were far less linear.  Unlike, say, Possession, Cloud Atlas makes the switch from story to story, period to period at only a few clearly marked locations--in that sense, the shape of the movie is predetermined, and 'all' that's left for a screenwriter is to fill in the details of each narrative.  Which of course is the problem, but it means that Cloud Atlas is no more unfilmable than Pride and Prejudice, and for much the same reasons: because there's too much going on in the novel to cram into at most three hours.  That sort of problem has been solved well on occasion, and badly much more often.  I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Recent Reading Roundup 20

After last month's frenzy, it's been a little slow on the reading (and posting) front around here recently, but here are a few books I haven't had the chance to talk about yet.
  1. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman - My reading for the last few weeks has been dominated by YA novels, but my very first foray was something of a dud, and not worth saying much about. As its title suggests, Gaiman's latest effort is a play on Kipling's The Jungle Book. In its first chapter, a toddler escapes the massacre of his family by crawling to a nearby graveyard, where the ghost residents vote to extend him their protection, and a long-dead couple adopt him and name him Nobody, Bod for short. Gaiman emulates Kipling in more than his premise--like The Jungle Book, The Graveyard Book is a series of nearly self-contained stories which follow Bod from early childhood to adulthood. In each one he explores different facets of the graveyard, makes ever more adventurous forays into the world outside its walls, and faces off against menaces, some of which bring him back in contact with the people who murdered his family. For all the dangers Bod faces, though, The Graveyard Book is a very mild, understated novel, and many of his adventures end with him being rescued by a kindly guardian. The pastiche is clever and well-done, with a minimum of Gaiman's trademark tweeness, and some scenes are extremely effective--the description of the murder of Bod's family and his narrow escape is chilling, and towards the end of the novel there's a twist that took me completely by surprise--but as a whole I'm just unclear on what the point was. The Graveyard Book is so slight that it is almost hollow, and amounts to nothing more than its witty premise. I chuckled when I read that Gaiman was planning to retell Kipling with ghosts, but the actual experience of reading The Graveyard Book never built on that chuckle, and I never got the feeling that Gaiman was trying to elicit anything more from me than that mild amusement at his clever conceit.

  2. Stoner by John Williams - I've had good experiences with NYRB Classics, including not too long ago with Beware of Pity, and Matt Cheney was positively effusive when he wrote about Stoner last summer, so my expectation were high--too high, as it turned out. Cheney is right that Williams's deceptively short novel is a great deal more engaging than it has any right being. It tells what should be a completely off-putting story, about a farmer's son in the early 20th century American Midwest who goes to college to learn a useful trade, falls in love with literature and stays on to become an academic and a teacher, and instead of making good and achieving fame and fortune, or at least comfort and happiness, as the template of the American dream teaches us to expect, suffers one crushing blow after another. He marries a woman who doesn't love him and devotes herself to making him miserable, including severing his strong bond to his daughter and driving the girl to self-destruction and alcoholism; he earns, through an act no more insidious than sticking to his principles, the enmity of a colleague who becomes the head of his department and relegates him to drudge work for the better part of twenty years; he falls in love with a graduate student, but is forced to give her up when their affair is discovered; then he gets cancer and dies.

    Stoner accepts these repeated blows with a stoic renunciation I'd be tempted to call Buddhist were it no so clearly intended as emblematic of his Midwestern roots and upbringing. Still, what makes Stoner remarkable is that it doesn't depict its protagonist as a hero or a saint, who remains unbowed while weathering the slings and arrows of outragerous fortune. There's much to dislike about William Stoner, mainly the fact that the same strength of character which allows him to tolerate his misfortunes also expresses itself as passivity and an unwillingness to stand up for people who depend on him--his lover, and even more so his daugher, whose life is destroyed while he stands by and watches, sadly comprehending her plight but unwilling to fight for her. The result is as complicated, delicate, and persuasive a portrait of an imaginary human being as I've ever encountered. Still, I can't say I found the experience of reading Stoner as transcendent as Matt Cheney did, mainly because the ambivalence we're encouraged to feel towards Stoner isn't extended to the people around him, and outright denied to his main antagonists, his colleague and his wife. The latter in particular is almost cartoonishly evil, despite the fact that she has good reason to hate her husband, who, oblivious and well-meaning, rapes her repeatedly in the first years of their marriage. This diminishes what should be the source of the novel's power, its stark realism--that Stoner's enemies are unbelievable, or at least not as believably human as he is, takes away from his humanity. Stoner is an impressive exercise in character building, but I couldn't love it as Cheney did.

  3. Eclipse 2, edited by Jonathan Strahan - After all the fuss and commotion, and despite an apparently strong first volume, the second Eclipse anthology is not much to get worked up over. The number of strong stories is about what you'd expect--I've already mentioned Daryl Gregory's "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" in my year's best short stories roundup, and Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," though a chilly thought exercise of a story, is a chilly thought exercise by Ted Chiang and therefore cooler, more inventive, and more interesting than just about anyone else's chilly thought exercises. I also liked Margo Lanagan's "Night of the Firstlings," a well-done retelling of one of the more gruesome chapters in the story of the Exodus, as well as Dave Moles's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" (not to be confused with the Cory Doctorow novel of the same name) and Jeffrey Ford's "The Seventh Expression of the Robot General." But unlike The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, in which I liked about the same number of pieces but found something to admire in very nearly every one of the stories I didn't like, the remaining stories in Eclipse 2 just left me cold, most of them taking too long to build up a premise or a setting and not doing enough with it. If you read only one of this year's original story anthologies, go for The Del Rey Book (or Fast Forward 2, which I haven't read).

  4. The Middleman: The Trade Paperback Imperative, The Second Volume Inevitability and The Third Volume Inescapability by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine - AtWQ reader Raz lent me these collections as a way of alleviating my grief for the very nearly inevitable cancellation of the series's television incarnation, though mostly what they accomplished was to make me wish even more fervently for a second season. The first and second volumes are, word for word and shot for shot, the shows' pilot (in which starving artist Wendy Watson is recruited as the sidekick of the titular superhero) and its third episode (in which Wendy first bumps heads and then helps the Middleman rescue the notorious martial artist Sensei Ping), and the third plays with characters--such as the supervillain Manservant Neville--who have also appeared on the show, but ends with the sort of upheaval that I sincerely hope isn't on the cards for the second season, if it ever happens. Still, I prefer the television version, not only because of the show's uniformly excellent cast, but because the comic's Middleman is a distant, slightly sinister authority figure, and I much prefer the more layered version of the character in the series (also, the comic is missing Wendy's fantastic, almost certainly doomed to villain-hood boyfriend Tyler, which is an unacceptable loss). Also, how's this for irony: for all the praise heaped on the series for its depiction of women and non-white characters, in the original story Wendy is white, Noser is white, and Wendy's uniform top has a midriff so bare she might as well be wearing a sports bra.

  5. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler - I think it's the combination of having just recently read the second Octavian Nothing volume, which is essentially also a story about a person who is an heir to slavery but has grown up outside of it and who finds themselves suddenly thrust into it, and having heard so many good things about Butler in general and this novel in particular, but I found Kindred somewhat underwhelming. The premise is that Dana, a young black woman living in 1976 California, finds herself repeatedly transported to the ante-bellum South, to a plantation owned by her distant ancestor, whose life she must repeatedly save in order to ensure her own existence. There are aspects of Kindred I liked very much, particularly the relationship which develops between Dana and her ancestor, Rufus, who both loves her and refuses to see her as a person, and the delicate way it examines the impossible choice forced on people who live in slavery between defiance and acquiescence, and the consequences of both not only from their owners but from the community of their fellow slaves. Still, in parts--especially when Dana talks to her husband Kevin, who at one point is transported to the past with her and faces a different set of difficulties and challenges as a white man, or when she talks to the readers through her narrative voice, Kindred feels more like a history lesson than a novel, taking too much time to explain to us the psychological effects of slavery on both owners and slaves rather than allowing us to see those effects for ourselves. Butler's writing is also somewhat on the flat side, and often undercuts her descriptions of horror and degradation. I can't help but feel that Kindred is a groundbreaking novel that has been overtaken by better efforts, such as Octavian Nothing, and perhaps Butler's own later novels.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Let's Hear It For the Girls? Sarah Connor Thoughts

A few weeks ago, Micole wrote a short piece about the qualities that make The Sarah Connor Chronicles unique in the television landscape.
I want to say something passionate and convincing about Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, something that will convince you all that this is the BEST SHOW ON TELEVISION, that will make you watch it, that will reprieve it from the imminent danger of cancelation, something about the prominence of women and women relating to women and women not talking about men and about the uncharacteristic depictions of men too
You can find my reaction at the time in the comments, concentrating mostly on the show's failings in the realm of plot while acknowledging its (sadly unusual) strengths as a depiction of women in positions of power and responsibility--strengths which are the main reason I continue to watch the show despite finding it disappointing, to the point of being almost completely unengaging, as a piece of storytelling. I've been thinking about The Sarah Connor Chronicles a bit more recently, though, and writing about it for another venue, and I've started to wonder whether even on this level the show might not leave much to be desired.

Sarah Connor's chief virtue as a depiction of women is that its female characters are the instigators, motivators, and chief actors in its story. It is, happily, no longer uncommon to encounter stories in which women are central, powerful beings, but it's still unusual, even in television series with a female main character, for that character to be the source of the show's story, the person who makes that story happen. Women can be strong, smart, commanding, and in control, but they are rarely the authors of their own life. Instead we get Dana Scully, whip-smart and capable of reducing grown men to jelly with the flick of an eyebrow, but constantly beaten and buffeted by the actions of the shadowy, male, members of the conspiracy, and--more importantly--constantly reacting to the actions of her male partner, tailoring her behavior, choices, and lifestyle to suit his desires and safeguard the things he cares about. Or we get characters like Buffy in that show's early seasons, or Sydney Bristow throughout Alias's run--brilliant tacticians who are frequently in control of the immediate choices in their lives, but who are either unaware of or powerless to affect the big picture, and therefore end up the puppets of men. Even Aeryn Sun, to my mind still the gold standard for depictions of strong women on TV, wasn't the chief mover and shaker on Farscape, and her actions were frequently determined by Crichton's choices or by her desire to ensure his safety.

I like Buffy, Dana Scully, and Aeryn Sun very much (and thought Sydney Bristow had her moments), but it was enormously refreshing to come to The Sarah Connor Chronicles and find an approach to the writing of women that put those characters at the center of the story, as its primary actors. Women, both recurring and regular, drive the show's plots, and men react to their actions and follow their lead. This is more than simply to say that women are important to either the story or the male characters. On The Sarah Connor Chronicles, women call the shots. They are the strategists and often the tacticians as well, and the male characters' choices and actions happen as a result of and a reaction to those made by the female characters. Male characters are driven by their subservience to female characters: John by his obedience to Sarah, fascination with Cameron, and affection towards Riley; Derek by his loyalty to both Sarah and Jesse. Ellison craves Sarah's guidance and leadership, and when she refuses to act towards him in that capacity, he turns to (what he believes is) another woman, Catherine Weaver, for it. Charley is torn between his loyalty to Sarah and Michelle, and though the latter's death as a result of his actions on the former's behalf was greeted with cries of refrigeration, I think it's telling that instead of galvanizing him, Michelle's death destroys Charley and takes him out of the game as Sarah's potential ally.

It's a supremely enjoyable reversal of the more common division of power and influence in television, but something that started to occur to me as one fan after another has praised the series for it is that there's an insidious flipside to Sarah Connor's constant harping on the theme of reactive men circling around far-sighted women. It buys into the fallacy that a woman's strength, perhaps even her worth, is measured by the amount of power and influence she wields over men, and that relationships between women are not important, and certainly not where one would expect to find games of power and dominance. And then I realized that there are almost no relationships between women on The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Sarah, Cameron, Jesse and Riley are, all of them, focused on John, with Jesse sparing some thought for Derek. Depictions of women whose primary emotional investment is in other women are rare on the show, and mostly relegated to guest characters (Lauren Fields and her sister in "Alpine Fields"). When Riley takes Jesse's kindness towards her in the future and immediately after their arrival in the present as an indication that they share a bond, and attempts to strengthen it, she is brutally rebuffed--to Jesse, Riley is nothing but a tool, an instrument with which she hopes to affect John.

The absence of relationships between women is a problem, but it's also such a common staple of television writing that it's hard to condemn The Sarah Connor Chronicles too harshly for it--how many other series feature women who react primarily to men, sometimes because they're the only woman in their social or professional circle, and how many of those series can boast of Sarah Connor's achievements when it comes to female characterization? I was inclined, in other words, to think of Sarah Connor as flawed but still ahead of the pack, but recently I've come to realize that I don't care about the show's female characters as much as I do the male ones, that I'm less invested in them and less interested when they're on screen.

A big part of the problem is Jesse, who embodies so many of the clichés about kickass women that the show has been so good about avoiding when it comes to Sarah and Cameron. I greatly admired Stephanie Jacobsen's performance in Battlestar Galactica: Razor, but it would seem that what I took for a deliberate choice to convey her character's crushing feelings of guilt through blankness and flat affect was actually an expression of Jacobsen's limited range, as she has consistently failed to make Jesse a person rather than a performance. She struts and pouts and heaves her bosom (and while I realize that Jacobsen is the only woman on the Sarah Connor cast to actually possess a bosom, that doesn't mean it should be on display quite so often, nor that she should be constantly lathered with makeup and hair-product), but it's very rare for her to seem like an actual human being (the exception are the flash-forward scenes in "Alpine Fields," in which Jesse's overpowering sense of her own coolness is dampened somewhat, and also slightly more justified). We're meant to believe that Jesse is a complicated person, whose manipulative plans for John are somewhat counteracted by her love for and loyalty to Derek, but she comes across as an uneasy cross between the stereotype of the kooky girl who gets away with bad behavior because she's hot and mysterious (the risible conversation about inventing new words for sex soon after her introduction) and a total psycho. Since Jesse is the prime mover and shaker in the season's most important character arc, and since she will almost certainly end up as an antagonist to Sarah, her flatness is a serious problem.

Still, Jesse is only one character, and her problematic writing and acting aren't the only reason that I'm so much more interested in what happens to John and Derek (albeit, in the latter case, for a value of interested that equals hoping desperately that he goes back to interacting with the Connors rather than Jesse, because yet another point against that character is how she flattens Derek when he's near her) than I am in the show's female characters. What I've come to realize is that, reactive and occasionally passive as they are, Derek and John are at least changing. They have character arcs. These arcs aren't particularly interesting--John enacting just about every cliché of the rebellious, angst-ridden teen--or comprehensive--Derek doesn't have an actual story, and his arc mostly consists of him rediscovering his humanity after a lifetime of sublimating it--but they exist. The characters are not in stasis, which makes them interesting.

The same can't be said of Sarah, who is still the same person she was at the end of Terminator 2--angry about the life she was deprived of but determined to do her part for humanity's survival, capable of terrible violence but saddened by that capacity. Sarah doesn't change. She doesn't grow. In fact, as the series has progressed she's receded, become a blanker and less noticeable person. She's the window through which we see the other regular and guest characters (so many of the series's stories revolve around her meeting a new person, mirroring them for our benefit), and in playing that part she's become transparent. We know what Sarah boils down to--that tension between wanting a real life and accepting the warrior's life that has been thrust upon her--and we know that she's never going to be anything more than that, so we stop noticing her there.

(An obvious counter-argument to this is to point out that Cameron has been doing nothing but changing and growing since the series, and especially the second season, started, but frankly I have trouble thinking of Cameron as a female character. She, and Catherine Weaver as well, aren't women, but robots who looks like women. It seems strange to attach a gender to a creature who isn't properly a person yet, and though clearly I can't ignore the fact that the show's writers were making a statement when they chose to portray Cameron and Weaver using female actors, part of that statement are images like this, this, and this.)

What I've come to realize is that the stasis in which Sarah is locked is baked right into the show's self-definition. The Sarah Connor Chronicles isn't a series about a human resistance against an upcoming machine takeover and nuclear apocalypse. It's a show about people who are trapped, desiring a normal life but knowing that normality is a sham, that they have a job to do that is more important that their desires or moral qualms. If that's the story you choose to tell, character stasis is an inevitable result (as, I believe, is the slackness of the show's plotting and pacing--for the show's overarching plot to move anywhere would be in direct contravention of its mandate as a story about people who are caught on the precipice of disaster). Ironically, it is precisely because they are of secondary importance to the show's plot, and to the point the writers are trying to make through it, that John and Derek are allowed to grow and change (though of course John's growth is also foreordained in the Terminator mythology). Sarah, meanwhile, has to embody the show's spirit. For her to change--to accept the burden laid on her shoulders, or cast it off completely--would be to gut the show's message.

There's something almost perverse about taking The Sarah Connor Chronicles to task for not being feminist enough. Micole is absolutely right to say that it is Buffy's heir in many respects, and most especially the seriousness with which it regards its female characters and the roles it gives them. But the same flaws that make Sarah Connor an unsuccessful story are also starting to gnaw away at its feminism. At its core, The Sarah Connor Chronicles isn't a story, something with a beginning, a middle, or an end, but an exercise in replicating a single emotional note--the sensation of being trapped, of losing one's grip on normalcy, of losing control of one's life. Too many episodes do nothing more than to regurgitate the same story told about different people, who are thrust into the glare of oncoming apocalypse and have to choose whether to cling to their old life or survive by losing who they are. Just as the show as a whole is damaged by this unwillingness to take the story forward, the characters--the female ones, who most embody this dilemma, in particular--are flattened by it. Almost every episode of Sarah Connor tells a feminist story, about a woman who is the leader of the perhaps doomed fight to save the world. When that story is repeated again and again, however, until that woman ceases to be a person and becomes a meme, never changing, never getting any closer to or farther away from her goal, it also ceases to be feminist. I used to think that my desire for better plotting on The Sarah Connor Chronicles despite its unique treatment of gender was motivated by nothing more than my love of story, and that an improvement on that front would be nothing more than icing on an already satisfying cake (albeit an icing that, when all's said and done, I prefer to that cake). Now I think the two are inextricably linked--if Sarah Connor doesn't become a better story, it'll lose both.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sometimes A Not-So-Great Notion

Well, what do you know: it's possible to be underwhelmed while expecting an anticlimax.

A while back, I came across this quote from Ron Moore in an io9 spoiler roundup:
[The revelation of the identity of the final Cylon] will never be as powerful as the build-up. I resigned myself to that a long time ago. The "Who Shot JR" of it all is an instructive lesson: No matter who it is, it's still going to be a bit of a letdown.
I considered saying something about this here at the time, but then decided that I'd already said my piece on the topic of the final Cylon. Having watched the premiere of season 4.2 (or whatever the hell we're calling it) and having had that identity revealed to me, I feel that my reaction at the time bears repeating. And it is: fuck you, asshole. How dare you make such pathetic excuses for your own incompetence? That's the kind of bullshit I expect from the writers of Lost, and even they've had the common decency to realize that that won't fly, and (by all accounts) to fix their show. Disappointment of the kind you're talking about isn't inevitable. It isn't a law of nature. It's a consequence of bad writing, and there's a very simple guideline to avoiding it: don't build up what you can't pay off. Either come up with a revelation that's worthy of the frenzy you've aroused in expectation of it, or don't orient your entire show towards it.

The ending of "Sometimes a Great Notion" wasn't disappointing because no ending could have satisfied viewers who have been waiting for months to find out who the final Cylon is. It was disappointing because it was badly done--not just the identity of the final Cylon, but the manner in which that identity was revealed, which was so muddled and confusing it actually took me a few seconds to realize what I was seeing. The word 'revelation' doesn't even seem appropriate to that mess of a scene, which is probably why the episode ended with a character literally standing up on screen to say 'look! X is the final Cylon!'

As for the rest of the episode? Eh. Like too many Battlestar Galactica episodes it was about twice as long as it needed to be and relied too heavily on histrionics to make its point. I'm also even further convinced in my pet theory that there are two kinds of women on Battlestar Galactica: the glamour girls, who are beautiful and messed up and allowed to get away with just about anything, and the ordinary girls, who are plain (well, TV plain) and competent and do boringly domestic things like be wives and mothers on top of doing their job, and somehow manage to handle all of these responsibilities with class, if only because they know that they're expected to act like adults, and that if they throw a tantrum there will actually negative consequences down the line. It's the second kind who keep dying, and not in grandly tragic ways that are ultimately rolled back, but in mundane, often grotesque or humiliating ways from which there is no return. Still, maybe this has nothing to do with men and women. The arc of Galactica's character work from day one has been to either get rid of or debase any character who tries to behave in a mature, responsible manner. It's a show full of emotional teenagers. Talk about your post-apocalyptic horror.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

It has for some time been a pet theory of mine that the common thread tying together Neal Stephenson's fictional output over the last decade is not, or at least not only, his fascination with science, technology, their development and the philosophies and worldviews that developed with them, and those philosophies and worldviews' effects on human society, but rather his desire to write an epic fantasy centering around these topics. Well, that's probably putting it too strongly, but already in my first reading of Cryptonomicon I couldn't shake the feeling that if I only poked hard enough at the novel's flesh and fat I'd be able to discern the skeleton of a fantastic story beneath them. It is, after all, a novel in which a running gag involves the main character classifying the people he meets into Tolkienian races, and there is something There and Not Quite Back Again-ish about most of the main characters' plotlines. The Baroque Cycle begins and ends with blatant Lord of the Rings homages, and in between tells the same departure of wonder story with which that novel has become synonymous, albeit from a perspective that views that departure as something positive. Now, with Anathem, the bones are poking up beneath the skin (though in no other respect could Anathem be called a skinny novel), as Stephenson mines a plot that has informed a sizable portion of the fantasy genre, from A Wizard of Earthsea to Harry Potter.

Nineteen year old Fraa Erasmas is a junior avout of the centenarian math at the concent of Saunt Edhar, about to celebrate his first Apert. Translation: Erasmas's planet, Arbre, has a history very similar to that of Earth's--an Ancient Greece analogue gives way to a Rome analogue, which adopts a Christianity analogue before its collapse ushers in a dark age which ends with a scientific and rationalist enlightenment, leading to a technological age--with one major deviation. On Arbre, the enlightenment was accompanied by the development of a semi-monastic way of life for those interested in scientific enquiry. This discipline was codified at the end of Arbre's technological age--a point roughly equivalent to our present day--when unspecified horrors were unleashed on the population, rendering much of the planet uninhabitable. A division was imposed between scientists and the rest of the population, with the former sequestering themselves for a period--a year, a decade, a century or a millennium (orphaned or unwanted babies delivered to concents replace the population of the latter)--and devoting themselves to pure science while renouncing most forms of technology and material possessions. At the end of their sequestration period, the scientists--the avout--celebrate Apert, a period of ten days during which they may venture out into what they term the Sæcular world, to learn of the work being done in other concents, reunite with the families they left behind, taste the world's pleasures, and decide whether they wish to recommit themselves to their math.

Erasmas, therefore, is in the classic starting position for the hero of a fantastic bildungsroman--the smallest possible cog in a machine of gargantuan complexity and power. As the novel opens, he has the standard complement of early adulthood problems such protagonists suffer from--an unrequited crush, friendly and not-so-friendly competition with his fellow novices, and a general uncertainty about his place in the concent. Anathem's early chapters introduce us to these problems as well as the people in Erasmas's life and the workings of the concent (by which I mean either passages which concentrate on the architecture and mechanics of the concent's millennium clock, which are tedious, or ones which describe the concent's rituals and social strata, which are very well done), but events surrounding Apert quickly force Erasmas to look beyond his personal concerns. Political tensions between various orders in the concent are on the rise, with Erasmas's mentor, Fraa Orolo, at the heart of the storm. The Inquisition, the body charged with ensuring that avout maintain their separation from the Sæcular world, come calling. The concent's telescope is suddenly declared off-limits. When Orolo is dismissed from the concent for using forbidden technology, Erasmas and his friends dedicate themselves to recreating his research, and soon discover that Arbre is being visited by an alien spaceship. Before long, they have all been sent out into the world, as avout and Sæcular join forces to puzzle out and possibly defend against these visitors.

Anathem's plot follows the standard progression of the fantastic coming of age novel. Erasmas learns, grows, deepens and complicates his relationships with his friends, family, and superiors, and finds his place in the world by becoming a mover and shaker in a new world order. This aspect of the novel is affecting and well done, but the characters themselves are nearly nonexistent. Erasmas is an affable Harry Potter-ish blank, the better for other characters to explain his world to him. His only distinguishing characteristics are loyalty--to his mentor and to his friends--and strength of will, which breeds in him the determination to carry out the tasks they set him or the ones he sets himself on their behalf. His closest friends over the course of the novel are the three young men with whom he forms the concent's bell-ringing team, Lio, Jesry, and Arsibalt. Lio, a wannabe ninja, is quite fun, but even at the very end of the novel I had trouble telling the other two apart--we're told, for example, that Jesry is the golden boy of the group, brilliant, handsome, and charismatic, but never get to see him outshine his fellows as Erasmas keeps telling us he does.

Erasmas's two love interests, Tulia and Ala, are an even worse story. Except for frequent mentions of the latter's exceptional organizational skills, we never get a sense of the difference between them, which makes Erasmas's decision to transfer his affections from Tulia to Ala completely inexplicable. The novel's most interesting characters are the ones who are more distinct types, and whose idiosyncrasies are allowed to stand in place of personalities--Fraa Jad, a crotchety millenarian avout who speaks only in riddles; Yul, a wilderness guide with a DIY obsession who helps Erasmas get across the north pole and falls in love with his sister; Barb, a novice avout who is borderline autistic; Fraa Lodoghir, who stands in opposition to everything Orolo believes in and has no qualms about using underhand rhetorical tactics to prove that his point of view is the right one.

Far more successful is Stephenson's worldbuilding. In Anathem's early chapters in particular, but throughout the novel, he focuses on describing the avout community, which in his hands becomes an intriguing mixture of monastic order and university. Like monks, Erasmas's and his friends' lives are governed by the observance of rituals, called 'auts,' which also give the novel's chapters their titles, and like the inhabitants of monasteries, a substantial portion of their time is spent doing chores to help with the concent's upkeep and keep it self-sustaining. But despite these overt parallels, the avout are not a religion. The purpose of their life in the concent is the acquisition and proliferation of knowledge, and the terms in which the pursuit of this goal are couched are reminiscent less of religious belief than of the workings of an academic institution or scientific community. The one-year maths, we learn, are the equivalent of undergraduate faculties. People from the Sæcular world often spend several years there, sometimes just to give themselves a little polish, and other times to learn and gain skills that will further their careers out in the world. Those who wish to dedicate their lives to knowledge join the ten, hundred, or thousand year maths, which are institutes of higher learning. The politics within these maths--tensions between different orders with opposing philosophies or tenets, or between individuals whose theories conflict--feel very much like tensions between rival departments or researchers in a university.

When Erasmas, who is about to come of age, is faced with choosing an order, he's courted by the New Circle, who take an administrative and political role in the concent, but has his heart set on the order of Saunt Edhar, where he can dedicate himself to intellectual pursuits (while fearing that his intellectual prowess isn't quite up to snuff)--mirroring the division between pure research and administration in many universities. When Erasmas and his friends step out of line, the concent's Warden Regulant hands out penance, but instead of twenty Hail Marys, they get to learn and memorize The Book--"crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless ... The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison infiltrate your brain". Outside the concent, society is far from feral or technologically backwards--Erasmas encounters the equivalents of cellphones, movies, GPS, and the internet during Apert--but most of the Sæculars Erasmas meets are technology users or, like his sister Cord, technicians and engineers. It is mainly within the concents that the science underlying technology is fully understood, and it is only there that the more ephemeral questions about the nature of matter, the universe, and existence itself are being pondered.

At the same time as he describes the avout community, Stephenson charts Arbre's history in the 3,700 years since the separation between avout and Sæcular was imposed, and fills in the gaps in the Earth-adjacent history preceding it. Quite shockingly for a Stephenson novel, he achieves much of Anathem's affect, and creates a sense of the weight and presence of that history, through language and wordplay. As xkcd would have it, Anathem's invented vocabulary is nothing more than an exmaple of the standard epic fantasy tendency towards same, and given that the book is so clearly being written within the boundaries of the epic fantasy form, there is some truth to this accusation, but it is also a tool Stephenson uses to both equate and differentiate Arbre from Earth. Anathem's is peppered with extracts from the Dictionary, an official avout document reedited every thousand years when the millenarian maths have their Apert, the better to acquaint their inhabitants with the changes in language and word usage. Many of these are along the same lines as the definition of 'anathem,' which serves as the novel's epigraph:
Anathem: (1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, which since the time of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy (hence the Fluccish word Anthem meaning a song of great emotional resonance, esp. one that inspires listeners to sing along). Note: this sense is archaic, and used only in ritual context where it is unlikely to be confused with the much more commonly used sense 2. (2) In New Orth, an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas).
These kinds of word games abound in the novel. 'Concent' obviously recalls 'convent,' but also has its roots in 'concentration,' as in the concentration of scientifically-minded people in a single place where they can be out of the way and easily controlled. 'Apert' is a mixture of 'apart' and 'aperture.' 'Saunt' immediately puts us in mind of 'saint,' but as we learn from a handy Dictionary reference the word is actually a corruption of 'savant.' Perhaps most entertaining is 'bulshytt,' which in Fluccish, the language of the Sæcular, means exactly what you think it means, but which in the avout language means marketing speech, the use of words and rhetoric to say nothing at all, for example when a Sæcular tries to explain to Orolo that two forms of A/V technology, speely and farspark, mean completely different things. This device, like the coupling of the monastic trappings of the avout lifestyle with its secular, intellectual purpose, helps to create a combination of familiarity and strangeness that is Anathem's most dominant emotional tone. One of the chief pleasures of the novel is the way it reveals a completely foreign history while encouraging us to find its parallels with our own. This intensifies our engagement with the novel and livens up Stephenson's frequent infodumps. Instead of being spoon-fed a history and culture, readers are encouraged to actively explore them, piecing together a massive historical-cultural puzzle.

Everything I've written so far about Anathem is accurate, but it doesn't create anything approaching a true reflection of what the book is like because it leaves out what is probably its most important feature. In between Erasmas's adventures, Anathem is a primer on the history, growth, and some of the major conflicts in Western philosophy. Erasmas has few conversations as we define the term. Most of his interactions take the form of a formal philosophical dialogue. In some cases, Erasmas is being taught or led to a conclusion. In others he's explaining to an outsider some facet of avout life or thought, and sometimes he engages in or witnesses genuine philosophical battles, in which two sides dispute over the very nature of existence (so central are these dialogues or lessons to the novel that a few of them have even been lopped off where apparently even Stephenson was persuaded that they might halt the novel's action and made into appendices).

The central philosophical dispute in Anathem is between the Halikaarnians and the Procians, who correspond to Platonic Realism, which argues that concepts and ideas have an existence independent of the people or culture grasping them, and Nominalism, which argues that abstracts are nothing but the construct of the mind, and that nothing exists outside of physical matter or human perception. In other words, is there such a thing as the number 3, or is 3 merely a social construct? Obviously, this is the kind of question that is simultaneously huge and meaningless, and its discussion in Anathem is most frequently broken down into smaller, more comprehensible issues: whether, as the Procians would have it, the Halikaarnian belief in what is essentially Plato's world of perfect forms amounts to a belief in God; whether, as some of the Sæculars Erasmas meets would have it, there is an inherent contradiction between the avout pursuit of knowledge and belief in God; most importantly, what role science and rationalism have had in the development of Erasmas's society, and what role they should have.

Anathem quickly (by which I mean a couple hundred pages in) settles into a format. Erasmas arrives at a new location or meets a new acquaintance. A philosophical discourse, often building on conclusions reached or terms established in previous conversations, is launched. Repeat. This sounds like a recipe for tedium and abstruseness, but to my surprise Anathem is the most effortlessly readable of Stephenson's novels, and an exciting, thoroughly enjoyable adventure story to boot. Though not as pyrotechnically fun as Cryptonomicon, it has an earnestness that is endearing and very hard to resist. Stephenson takes care to weave the didactic portions of the novel with adventure scenes--Erasmas and his friends defying the Inquisition to discover Orolo's secret; his journey over the north pole, following in Orolo's footsteps; a mission to space. In fact, while reading Anathem I was repeatedly struck by amazement at the fact that I had forced myself to endure 2,700 pages of The Baroque Cycle, putting up with Stephenson's convoluted plotting and endless proliferation of personality-free characters, when all I had to do was wait for Anathem to make much the same point (like Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, Anathem is about the point When It Changed. It's just that Stephenson keeps pushing that point back--from the dawn of the computer age to the Enlightenment to the discovery of the Pythagorean Theorem) so much more elegantly and enjoyably.

One possible reason for Anathem succeeding where it shouldn't and where The Baroque Cycle failed is that, unlike The Baroque Cycle, its plot takes us somewhere we hadn't been and weren't expecting to go. Every philosophical concept Erasmas learns is a building block, a puzzle piece with which he comes closer to understanding the truth about the alien ship. The Baroque Cycle, which described the past, had a clearly understood endpoint--its appeal was, or was intended to be, in its presentation of a novel interpretation of the path leading to that endpoint. The path Anathem sets us on, however, leads to a McGuffin that is a genuine delight, a piece of SFnal invention that is, if not plausible, then at least so neatly perched above the scientific and philosophical foundations established by the preceding hundreds of pages that it feels satisfyingly so, and the process of discovering it along with Erasmas similarly satisfying. Once again, by encouraging his readers to actively engage with with the novel, to conduct their own investigation parallel to Erasmas's, Stephenson transforms what might have been a dry lecture into an intellectual adventure.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing I can say about Anathem's success as a didactic work of fiction is that it has finally persuaded me to read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. I've been resistant to this extraordinarily well-received YA novel since I first read about it in Farah Mendlesohn's review for Strange Horizons. It's a good review, both in the sense that it is positive and in the sense that it clearly conveys the reviewer's reasons for liking the book. It's just that everything Mendlesohn lists as a point in Little Brother's favor, and mainly its naked didacticism, is everything that I hate most in fiction. Subsequent positive reviews only further persuaded me that Little Brother was almost calculated to arouse my hatred. Anathem's structure, however, and its blatant didacticism, are very similar to the impression I've formed of Little Brother, to the extent that I'm wondering whether, like Little Brother and several other books tipped as hot Hugo favorites this year, Anathem might not be most profitably discussed as a YA novel (its plot is certainly a staple of many books for young readers). I'm suddenly curious to see whether my enjoyment of Anathem means that I'll also enjoy Little Brother, or whether there are crucial difference between the two books that overwhelm their similar structures and goals.

I've said that strangeness dominates as Anathem's emotional tone, created by Arbre's simultaneous familiarity and foreignness, but in its first half at least this strangeness has an almost surreal quality, and contributes to the sense that Stephenson has written the novel with tongue very firmly set in cheek. The direct parallels to Earth seem almost to be daring the reader to break their suspension of disbelief, as do the frequent meta-references sprinkled throughout the novel. The introduction, with its pronunciation guide and timeline, is very nearly a parody of the ubiquity of these elements in epic fantasy (one suspects that the only reason Anathem isn't an actual book-with-map is that the map would give the game away too soon). Erasmas's friend Lio is a enthusiast of vale-lore, a fighting form invented by the monks at the concent of the Ringing Vale, who are clearly a riff on every ninja monk ever to grace a martial arts movie. After they've arrived on the alien ship, Erasmas and his friends complain that the end to their adventure isn't anything like "a spec-fic speely, where something amazingly cool-to-look-at happens", and as he's narrating his story's happy ending, Erasmas tells us that we "might find it odd that a story like this one ends with a kiss, as if it were a popular speely, or a comedy acted out on a stage" (though perhaps this is simply Stephenson poking fun at his reputation as an author who can't write a proper ending). Most prominently, the avout about to venture on their first Apert are warned to be on the lookout for Iconographies, narratives constructed about the avout which affect their perception by the Sæcular, and which parallel depictions of scientists and intellectuals in our popular culture.
The Muncostran Iconography: eccentric, lovable, disheveled theorician, absent-minded, means well. The Pendarthan: fraas as high-strung, nervous, meddling know-it-alls who simply don't understand the realities; lacking physical courage, they always lose out to more masculine Sæculars. The Klevan Iconography: theor as an awesomely wise elder statesman who can solve all the problems of the Sæcular world. The Baudan Iconography: we are grossly cynical frauds living in luxury at the expense of common man. The Penthabrian: we are guardians of ancient mystical secrets of the universe handed down to us by Cnoüs himself, and all our talk about theorics is just a smoke-screen to hide our true power from the unwashed multitude.
Anathem appears to be aware of its genre(s) and none-too-subtly mocking them while telling a story within them. About halfway into the novel, however, these meta-references are suddenly flattened by the revelation of the nature of the alien visitors, who have arrived from parallel Earths, including our own. Suddenly what seemed like a quirky and endearingly over the top parody of genre conventions has an internally consistent reason within the plot. Instead of poking fun at the linguistic obsession of fat fantasy authors, Anathem's introduction has a reason for existing that is internal to the plot. The whole book is a translation of Erasmas's narrative for readers on Earth, hence the pronunciation guide, or his odd insistence that when he uses the word 'carrot,' he doesn't mean an actual carrot but an Arbran root vegetable similar to a carrot. What seems at first like a subtle jab at secondary world fantasy is actually our earliest clue to what is actually going on. When Erasmas says that Arbre is Earth but not Earth, we assume that he's speaking poetically, but he is actually telling the stone cold truth. Similarly, the many references to genre and narratives resonate with the many-worlds revelation when it's revealed that Arbre is the platonic ideal for other worlds, and that those worlds act as platonic ideals to others.

On one level, this is very, very neat, and the revelation is very cleverly pulled off, but however smart this McGuffin is, it's hard to escape the impression that Stephenson's build-up, those early portions of the novel in which we're half befuddled and half convinced that he's having us on, are more than his literal-minded payoff could support. It's one thing to argue that every world must arrive at certain scientific and cultural milestones if its society is to make it to space, but to suggest nearly identical parallel histories and a culture that so closely resembles our own, 21st century culture--cellphones, sports jerseys, evangelicals--strains credulity. A metaphor or a gag can support these improbabilities. An earnest reading can't.

On one level these similarities are part of the main thrust of Anathem's McGuffin, that Arbre's culture has informed Earth's (though none of the characters who suggest that this influence exists ever go so far as to speculate that Arbre and Earth's cultures might be as similar as we know them to be, because none of them ever find out much about Earth itself). This, however, leaves us bumping up against the very real problem that when Stephenson writes about human civilization, what he's really talking about is Western civilization. There is no mention of any culture not descended down the Greece-Rome-Christian Europe line in Anathem, no analogues to India, China, Arabia or Persia. At best, these cultures and their contributions to science, philosophy, and the store of human knowledge exist on Arbre but are never mentioned by Erasmas, who may not even be aware of their existence. At worst, the platonic ideal of human civilization, per Stephenson, doesn't include non-white cultures.

At what should be the novel's triumphant climax, it subtly undermines itself by insisting on a rational, thought out explanation for what had seemed like over the top weirdness. In other words, at the moment when Stephenson takes what had seemed to be a generic (if distinctive in its style and topic) secondary world YA fantasy and reveals it to be good old fashioned science fiction, there's a creak of the gears that I found impossible to ignore. It isn't enough to scuttle the book, but it does leave it feeling less than whole. In spite of this, Anathem, and the moment of revelation that gave me so much pause, are both exhilarating. This isn't yet as good as Stephenson can be, but it's a welcome return to form, and a reminder of how much pleasure and enjoyment he's capable of giving his readers.