Nerd World Book Club: Anathem, Parts 11-13: Across the Multiverse

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I finally finished Anathem this past weekend, and I feel the need to bring closure to this colossal undertaking by blogging about it. This isn’t a review, just a kind of travelogue of my reading experience. Anathem is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, but it’s also incredibly challenging and not a journey to be undertaken alone.

Fair warning, it’s 100% positive for spoilers, and 100% incomprehensible and annoying if you haven’t read the book in question.

(For the nonce earlier Nerd World postings have been eaten by the great database serpent that circles the world, but you’ll find the first two Anathem book club posts attractively displayed in the Google cache here and here.)

So Part 10 left off with Ala’s emergency plan kicking into action, blowing down the ancient walls of Tredegarh and scattering the avout to prevent their mass rodding from space. (I can’t remember now whether there are still cloistered Millennarians at Tredegarh. If so that must have been a hell of a wake-up call for them.) The Geometers sure must have brought a lot of rods. Part 11 starts with the anti-swarm kicking into high gear. It’s pretty sweet to watch Fraa Jad retile the Teglon, casually re-asserting his status as a bad-ass Incanter. That dude must never sleep.

Stephenson’s novels are notorious for coming apart a bit in the endgame, and there’s no question we see a wobble here. I found the shift into full-on Fids-in-Space mode to be cool but also quite jarring. (I wonder how much of the detail regarding low-tech monyafeek-based spaceflight comes out of Stephenson’s experience with Jeff Bezos’s space tourism startup Blue Origin.) I mean, how does it make sense to send a dude like Fraa Jad, who’s probably 300 years old, and until a few weeks ago had never been off his home crag, up into orbit? Of course it does make sense, ultimately, since he saves the day, but on the face of it it’s pretty weird. (And I know they talk about this very question directly. I still wasn’t satisfied.)

Excellent throwaway stuff on the Rampant Orphan Botnet Ecologies. There is no question in my mind that this is already actually happening.

Once they’ve got the Mirror up and running, we have a brief pause for more metaphysical reflection. I have to give it up to Stephenson in the passages that follow, he really is making that stuff pay off from early on, about Causal Domain Shear and whatnot, which I thought would be impossible — I don’t think there’s another writer (maybe Greg Egan?) who can actually transmute the abstract stuff of quantum theory into the flesh of a good story. It’s quite wonderful when Fraa Jad takes out their comm link with a screwdriver, effectively severing them from the observing consciousnesses of the ground crews and allowing them to roam Hemn space relatively freely. I assume that everything that happens for the next few hundred pages happens in a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat-like state, where multiple narrative scenarios all semi-exist concurrently, with Fraa Jad managing them Incanter-style. There will come a point where I cease to understand what’s happening at all, but it hasn’t arrived yet.

From hereon out, with the exception of some chop-socky cameos from the Ringing Valers,it’s Fraa Jad’s show. Watch FJ hacking the Geometers’ combination lock:

“How did you know the code?” I asked.

“I selected a number at random,” he said.

Awesome.

After that point I cease to have any clear notion of what is going on. I mean, I read the words, they have meaning, I get that we’re watching the playing-out of various hypothetical endings. Raz’s Everything Killers get activated. He and Jad have a sit-down with one of the Geometers’ leaders. But who decides which timeline is ultimately actualized? Fraa Jad? But can’t he find a timeline in which he, you know, doesn’t get killed? Or do they all end up taking place? I shouldn’t read books I’m too stupid to understand.

And then, Part 12, the aftermath. Which again, I am too slow to fully comprehend. Why can’t they talk about Fraa Jad out loud? If they talk about the work he did manipulating the Narratives, will that undo it? And at first they’re all worried about the Everything Killers getting set off by some Panjandrum, then they just forget all about it? And why does Fraa Lodoghir know so much all of a sudden, instead of being a dick like he was at first? I don’t get it. I feel like some sucker Unarian.

At least I get that Raz and Ala get married. I wonder if anybody else was a little sad that as part of the new world order they threw open the concents — or whatever we’re calling them now — to the outside world. I kinda loved the old sealed concents, even though yeah, sure, I suppose they must have been somewhat constraining if you actually lived in one. Plus, did they have to call the new governing authorities Magisteria? It’s like the whole thing was a prequel to His Dark Materials.

At least I have the calcas to console me. This is one story that ends with cake.

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