Monday, November 10, 2008

Goodness, I've been gone long. I've been immersed in the winding path of modern tax law, et il y a une anguille sous toutes roches, as they say. Possibly.

Peculiar and jack were good enough to remember me with Stephenson's Anathem, and since I have yet to comment on the last book they gave me (Sayings of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Short version: I find your concern for the relations between goats and men disturbing), I thought I would jot down a few thoughts on this latest.

It's not his best. At the center of all his better books is a giant idea--often an idea in the Kantian sense, as something too big really to get a hold of. At this center of this book is a lot of philosophastering. To be fair, the main character and most of the others are all the sort of people who do have conversations about deep philosophical issues and then try to answer their questions with explosives, but there's only so many paraphrases of the Meno you can read before you want to shake the author and say, "I get it."

This is true. Unkind, but true.

And the science is... not good. The basics are acceptable, but his grasp of larger issues in physics seems comfused.

In its favor is the fact that even Stephenson's lesser stuff is more intelligent and engaging than just about anyone else out there. The book also offers the only convincing portrait of an active Temple of Reason I've read.

Anathem also drives home just how rare the ability to follow an argument is, and how much training it requires. The sense of when a point has been proven is a rare one, and needs much cultivation before a taste for truth (which is above all an acquired taste) is identifiable.

Finally: worth one's time, absolutely, but no Diamond Age. Which is praising with faint damns, of course.

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