Review of “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson

AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, let me say I love all other books of Neal Stephenson’s that I’ve read. In most cases, they require a hefty investment (time, weight-the books are hefty, and spiritual collateral-you need to trust him), but the reward is more often than not HIGHLY worth it, and even when it’s not you still break even.

Now, to “Anathem”… The plot, in short, “Anathem” played to me like the work that might have inspired the screenplay of Armageddon, except they had to add Bruce Willis, remove all the references to geometry & logic, replace it with faux-geology, swirl in some sex jokes, and oh yeah why not have an Anthem by Aerosmith. Take the Michael Bay out of Armaggeddon, and you have some idea what Anathem is about. People stuck in remote places doing what the world has told them to do (or more appropriately what they can’t), and then some extraterrestrial threat presents itself & the people stuck in remote places become extremely important. Anathem = spaceship containing four races of interplanetary/interdimensional life forms; Armageddon = big rock.
None of this is to say that fans of Stephenson will be disappointed. Au contraire. Of all the books I’ve read of Neal’s, this one is the beefiest. Part of the premise is that you’re reading an account of the transpirations that happened on a different world/track and it had to be translated from Orth into your language. Yes, it includes a glossary & several clips from reference books; it even includes some geometrical puzzles & proofs. ANathem smacks you with this right up front, and it may take you a week to get through the first 100 pages.
If you get that far, you will be rewarded. Yes, the “action” is dry – there are zero vestiges of Michael Bay. The humor is also quite dry, but not surprisingly so. You’re encouraged to keep reading if you can get into some of the sharpest examinations of logic, dialogue, rhetoric, philosophy, geometry & nature you’re likely to find in a work of fiction. The voice you read learns much throughout the events that happen, and it speaks in a way that makes you think you’re finally about to learn something profound if you just keep going. Right up to the end I found myself getting little snippets of what Neal’s on about, of what his worldview really is or what I’m not considering about my own; these little nuggets were just big enough to keep me hitting the feed-bar.
Well, I kept going… and frankly, the “singularity” moment I was expecting never arrived for me. I’ll admit to not being able to follow the multitude of strings of social commentary Stephenson’s woven here; some of them are obvious & omnipresent, but I found myself repeatedly questioning whether or not there’s supposed to be some parallel meaning or secondary lesson I just didn’t quite see. In the end I decided there were probably more parallels than I could know (because Neal’s much better read & smarter than me), but of those I could perceive, I can say I’ve absorbed his POV. For other readers, this book may become a How-To or a DIY narrative. Still for others, Neal may have alienated them in the first 100 pages & never given them much of a reason to keep going, and their trust may not return.
In short, not my favorite Neal book. My fave is still Cryptonomicon. But I’m glad I read Anathem, if for no other reason than to be reminded what action movies would have been like without Ben Affleck.

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Harmony is Too Pretty A Word. Try “Ballswelloquent”.

NOTE:  the below post includes references to a masturbating holy figure.  Please discontinue reading if this will offend rather than amuse.

This is one of those mornings (not Those Mornings).  One where you get up, feel pretty good, have a cup of coffee, get to the gym, and then get to work, and everything is kinda humming right along.  You feel good.  You feel like you’re in sync with the rhythm of the world, like you’re circadian rhythm is lined up right next to the sine wave of the universe… like you’re in your car, and the rest of the world is in the car next to you as you both hit the red light at the same time, and you, very cockily, rev your engine.  Like you can outgun the cosmos.

That, my friends, is what I call a Good Friday.  Not to be confused with Jesus’ Good Friday… which I’m still confused about – was it the day they all decided they couldn’t abstain from whatever they had just given up for forty days?  (First, who chooses 40 days?  That’s not a clean number at all, so I don’t think it was a choice.  King James was a bit of a censorship nut, so no one knows the real story:  I think Jesus & his Lenten posse made a bet to see who could give up stroking it the longest… like that episode of Seinfeld.  I’ll bet Paul came back within 7 minutes & said “I’m out!”, but the rest of them made it forty days, and probably could’ve kept going except Jesus called it off because he rubbed one out during an especially enlightening prayer session… on a Friday, and they all went “Good!” and immediately sowed some orthodox oats.)

It’s April 1st.  It’s snowing in NJ, and I’m spending 3 hours of my day on a conference call – yes, just ONE conference call for THREE hours.  But I’m okay with that.  I’m revving my engine, toeing the line, ready to sprint.  The only word I could reasonably come up with for this feeling of “all is right with the world” is harmony… but that’s too pretty.  It lacks machismo.  It lacks bravado.  It lacks braggadocio.  It gives no sense of the up-fuckery sentiment – like it’s so good that you feel you could easily do anything, even things you’ve never done before, and it’ll all work out, and you’ll have added your own little dose of oats (orthodox or otherwise) into the mix.  You’re doing what you’re meant to be doing, and it’s changing the world.

… maybe that’s a little too far.  But harmony is too pretty a word.  We need something braver, bolder, faster, stronger.  Something with more balls.

I submit the following recommendations as terms that could be defined, loosely, as “the feeling that you can beat the world”:





Feel free to vote or contribute your own candidate in the comments.  My personal favorite is Ballswelloquent.


Last night R & I were out and about at some happy hours (I’m still a bit sick, but dammit it was Friday) with some work friends of hers and then a few former work friends of mine, then finally just Mr. & Mrs. Iwamura-Smith.

R gets along professionally with everyone at work. But only Mrs. Smith, whom she works with (not baking pies), is someone that she hangs out with socially & on a regular basis. I brought them over to Harry’s and hung out with another BH and Timmy V., who used to also work for Big Red Healthcare. We’ve hung out & shared stories, but not frequently, and neither of them would be dudes I’d call on any random weekend to see what was going down. But Mrs. Smith’s husband, Mr. Smith, is pretty much that guy, in spite of the fact that we’ve been too busy to really hang out on any random occasion. So we officially hang out as couples, and then the Missus hang out at work and on other occasions, such as Jeans sales.

What I don’t understand, and what we discussed briefly last night at our third watering hole, was why things click with the Smiths, but not with Timmy V & BH, or with R’s colleagues Jai and Swop. It’s no revelation that relationships are different, that you get along better with some than others. But does anyone know WHY?

Here’s why I ask: I’ve been hanging out with BH & Timmy V off and on for, oh maybe 3.5 years. They’ve invited me/us on multiple camping trips, trips to Tahoe, Vegas stuff, etc. We have never gone anywhere with them, save for the occasional b-day party or Happy Hour. And no, we’ve never really invited them to go anywhere with us – not out of spite or obvious feelings of inadequate adventure, but mainly because I/we just don’t think of them when we consider hanging out with lots of people whilst being involved or traveling to take part in other activities.

It’s not like we have nothing in common. Worked for the same company, doing essentially the same things as one another, for 3 years each; lived in the Bay Area for 2+ years each; all like hiking, camping, exploring, traveling, drinking, etc.; all straight males in their mid-20s; all fairly humorous guys who just enjoy a good time.

But without a poker game, a sports event that I actually want to go to, or some other occasion that calls for a night of extreme drinking, I rarely hang out with these guys, and when I do, it’s usually them inviting me, and I rarely feel … comfortable, I guess. Almost like I’ve been invited to hang with the cool kids but don’t know any of the stuff that cool kids talk about. It’s not that juvenile, but it’s early and my analogy-of-the-day calendar is still sleepy, and my electrical metaphor producer hasn’t sobered up yet. But I go and have a good time and usually get left out of conversations so that I can nurse my beer. We didn’t invite them to the wedding (feel bad for it, but we didn’t) mainly because I don’t feel like we know them, or that we would remember if they were there. They just aren’t people that stick out in the mental family photo. (You have one of these too – when you sit and think about your friends & people that you care about, there are TONS of people there, but only a few of them are making “Oh!” faces or mooning the photog, and for me, those are the people that I recognize when I scan that photo, because they’re the ones that want me to notice them.)

Without admitting to having some sort of social anxiety disorder (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I want to leave clinical psychology out of this), I can’t expect to be one of only a few people to have these types of relationships around him. So I’m open to conjecture: what makes relationships like the ones I have with BH and (to a lesser extent) Timmy V. so uncomfortable compared to the ones I have with Shorty, Mr. Smith, Seth, Cermak, Bob, Choi, Moatzy, Sobotka, Charles, Priyesh, Danny, Dani, Erin, Meg? (Uncomfortable is an unfair word. But if Shorty, Mr. Smith, etc. are the cast of Christmas Vacation, BH & Timmy V. are the cast of The Station Agent. Or for a more direct analogy, Shorty et al = the cast of Friends; BH & Timmy V. = the cast of Monk.)

My first excited conclusion is that I’ve gone through very similar things at the same time as everyone in the latter group, and during that time we leaned on each other in one way, shape or form. Can’t think of what the psych term for that is, but it’s the whole “misery loves company” idea. Problem with that is that we didn’t just one day decide to lean on each other – we were ALREADY the sort of friends that lean on each other. Knock that idea down.

Second: drinking. But I drink, at times heavily, with all sorts of people and can’t call lots of them the same type of friends as Shorty, Priyesh, etc. Throw that baby out with the bath water.

Is it sense of humor? I can say to a great degree of certainty that the people I’m way close to are people I’m always totally comfortable laughing with, laughing at, or causing to laugh. But it’s not like BH or Timmy V DON’T have senses of humor. Though I can’t say that I ever saw either of them actually laugh to the point where they’ve bared part of who they are, or that we’ve ever shared a laugh that had its own harmony of hysterics to it———-
SIDETRACK: if it’s not already out there (Google says no), watch this ‘blog for a new theory on Laughter Harmonics – the concept of simultaneous laughter and its impact on social relationships. I believe that when you truly share a laugh with someone, you kinda transfer a part of who you are on to each other, and that makes it slightly less awkward to be socially present together. More later, now back to original programming.———-
so I won’t go so far as to completely eliminate the idea that our senses of humor are tilted just far enough off of each other that we can’t easily transition in the medium that I’m most comfortable (which is comedy… C’MON PEOPLE!).

But I also don’t really know what it was that Mr. Smith & I laugh(ed) about that has made us comfortable around each other. And the only other thing that he & I really have in common is being (almost) married and having (almost) wives that work in the building at 1 Post. Yeah, we’ve found similar interests such as Wii & running & great food & watching stand-up, but at least half of those things we found AFTER we got “there”, meaning wherever we got to that let’s us know we can just hang out and enjoy life in the same space.

I realize I was harping a bit about BH & Timmy V., but this does happen often enough that I think about it – it’s not like they represent an anomaly or anything. Attribute the focus on them only to recency of incident. But it is something I’d love to understand a little more. It’d just make me happier to know what I need from a person in order for us to be comfortable, hanging out & enjoying life in the same space.