Nerd World Book Club: Anathem, Parts 6-10; or, The iPhone Is a Jeejah

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In an effort to shed the very last of our regular readers, I am pressing on with a near-liveblog of my reading of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. (This follows up on the last installment for Parts 1-5.)

I have entered a stage familiar to me from other Stephenson books, a state of deep immersion where I carry the thing around all the time and read it while walking, talking on the phone, operating heavy machinery, etc., and can’t think about anything else. I’m like Sammann with his beloved jeejah. It’s not like there’s a historical vice-presidential debate going on or anything.

Hence these notes, thoughts, impressions, etc. which will be incomprehensible unless you’re reading along with me. Massive spoilers for Parts 6-10 follow.

OK, when we last left our heroes they had just been Evoked from the cozy Eden of the concent and thrust out into the big scary post-apocalyptic world of Arbre. At least they have Fraa Jad the magic Millennarian to keep them company. Let’s take this chapter by chapter.

6. Peregrin Just when I was getting comfortable and oriented in the concent and my Orth was just about passable, now I have to start all over again grokking the rest of the world and learning Fluccish! I spent most of this chapter just figuring out which of the various extramuros dudes were which (w/ only partial success, but I’m kind of banking on some of them dying anyway) and finally figuring out what an Ita is (basically a glorified IT-specialized fid — I get it now, ITa, clever) and skimming for news about the Cousins and for anything cool that Fraa Jad might possibly say. I kinda wish that I’d paid more attention to Orolo before he got Thrown Back. I didn’t really get what a big deal he is to all the Fraas. (This feeling is only going to grow more pronounced as the book goes on.)

OK, Fraa Jad is up to chapter 9 in the punishment book? I think I love him.

7. Feral There’s a whole lotta sledging going on. I feel like we’ve wandered into The Golden Compass for a bit. And see? Extramuros dudes dying. Good thing I didn’t spend too much time getting to know them.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who skimmed lightly over the whole Kelx/Bazian schism till Erasmas hit the big mob violence scene. This sequence gave me vivid flashbacks to Hiro’s throwdown with the New South African racists in Snow Crash. If only Raz had a katana, there would be some righteous decapitating going on! As it is the Ringing Vale avouts brought enough asskickery for everyone. I got your Emergence right here, buddy.

Cut to Jesry in orbit. We’re a long way from Saunt Edhar. (Somewhere in the back of my mind a Muppets voice is saying: Fiiiids … iiiiin … spaaaaaace!) You gotta love Jesry: that dude doesn’t back down from anybody, in any situation, under any gravitational conditions. I’m really glad they sent the Warden out to meet the Geometers instead of Jesry. Sucker got planed!

8. Orithena It’s really gratifying the way Stephenson develops Raz from being kind of a loser, with zero emotional intelligence, who’s convinced everybody else is smarter than him, into somebody who can step up to a big giant steel door and come up with the goods. “This is not a math” — I would pay $10.50 to see that moment on film. Though there seems to be an unwritten rule somewhere that states that no Stephenson movie will ever be filmed. Maybe that’s O.K. There definitely wouldn’t be enough theorics in the movie version.

Hot Suur alert! You know she’s not named Spry for nothin’. If you know what I’m saying. And I think you do.

Somebody who knows something about geometry should clear up for me whether or not the Teglon has something to do with Penrose tiling. And I’m going to refrain from commenting on Evenedrician datonomy, because if I did somebody might point out that my understanding of it is deficient, and that would be personally wounding.

The death of Orolo. That’s another $10.50 right there, if anybody in Hollywood is reading this.

9. Inbrase Man, it’s good to be back in a concent, any concent, after all that scary drama. And even better, it’s good to be back with Saunt Edhar’s Original Clock-Winding Crue (I am so starting a hip-hop collective under that name). It’s kind of like Entourage, where Vince is Jesry, and Erasmas is E, the solid, relatable one. I guess Arsibalt is Turtle and Lio is Drama? Look, it’s not a perfect analogy.

Ala, you ignorant slut. I can’t believe you liaised with Jesry. I mean, I can. It makes perfect sense. But dammit, it’s not right.

There’s a very touching moment in here, when Lio makes Erasmas see what a brutal discipline they’ve been under all their lives, or at least since they were collected. No Anathem in 1,000 years? “You and I grew up in a tough town, brother.” Straight outta Edhar’s, yo. But that’s why their theorics is so rock solid compared to everybody else’s.

And speaking of debates: I just can’t even talk about the whole Lodoghir thing. Somebody should really rod that guy.

10. Messal “Tris was podgy and not especially good-looking, but she had the personality of a beautiful girl because she’d been raised in a math.” I get a powerful sense that Arbre, however post-apocalyptic it may be, is a nerd utopia, at least behind the walls of the mathic Discipline. I also get the feeling that Stephenson kind of wishes he lived there. I’m not sure I don’t wish I lived there. Except my math skills, while good, are not so exceptional that I’m sure I’d get Collected. Maybe I could just be one of those pathetic Unarian wannabes.

(And if you’re a Unarian, and you go through the Labyrinth, you get to be a Tenner? Is that how it works? And can somebody explain to me exactly what the Labyrinths are anyway? I think I missed that.)

Hot Suur alert! Suur Karvall. There seems to be some kind of bondage thing going on with her, with all those knots. And poor Ala (who gets a retroactive Hot Suur Alert (HSA), since I wasn’t doing them when she first appeared)! So skinny, yet so badass. I really hope she doesn’t die. She’s the Juanita of Arbre — the tough, pushy, sexy, brainy girl so familiar to Stephenson readers. She’s the Princess Leia of the Second Praxic Age! She can’t die. Can she?

I want to know more about Fraa Jad’s freaky Millennarian quantum praxis. And I also want to know how much of all this multiple-cosmi HTW theory is Stephenson’s translation of actual multiverse quantum theory into Arbrean terms, and how much of it he just made up out of his own clever brain. I’m sure there’s a generously large component that’s actually real, or at least theoretically current. I think it’s quite unfair that Stephenson can understand all that stuff, and also know how to do the things he does with words. Or maybe it’s all the same thing to him, quantum theory and novels, they’re just two manifestations of the same phenomenon, namely Fraa Jad’s all-determining Hemn-space Narratives? I’m way overthinking this, aren’t I.

(For the record, there are things that I understand about all that theorics. But on some basical level I don’t get how the world of Arbre can serve as the Hylaean Theoric World for worlds further down the Wick. I mean, the HTW is the realm of ideal forms like triangles and such. Whereas Arbre is all messy and real and non-ideal. So … ? Are down-wick worlds sort of shabby and even less ideal than Arbre? Or do the ideal forms shine more dimly from the HTW into them? I don’t even know what that would mean. Maybe this will get cleared up in an appendix.)

I totally saw the big revelation about the Matarrhites coming, miles away. I almost never spot Stephenson’s big reveals in advance, but that one he telegraphed, but good. Though I didn’t get that the experiment Erasmas and Arsibalt were doing together involved pooping. Not at first, anyway. Now I get it.

OK, the Cousins are really the Geometers, who are from Pangee, Antarct, Diasp and Quator, which are really Urnud, Laterre, Tro and Fthos. Check? Check. I don’t know how I feel about the fact that Laterre is basically Earth, or at least France, and that our pet E.T. is named Jules Verne Something. I mean, I like it, it’s a nice homage, it’s just a little odd. Those who speak some French will be able to translate Jules’s various alien exclamations as things go forward. (“Laterre” = La Terre = The Earth in French. And so on.)

And thus part 10 draws to a close, with the blowing-open of Tredeghar’s centuries-old walls via controlled demolition. Say what you like about Ala and her loose-liaising ways, she definitely knows how to run an Antiswarm.

When I started doing this, I broke up the book this way purely by chance, because 1-5 and 6-10 were nice round numbers. But it actually turned out to be a good way to do it — parts 1-5 were all Saunt Edhar’s, and 6-10 took us out into the wider world. And I have no idea where 11+ is going to take us. Somewhere cool, obviously. Stephenson is, of course, famous for bobbling his endings, but hope springs eternal. I’m 721 pages in, and already it feels like it’s going to be over too soon.