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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Team Eckhart

I just finished reading Eckhart Tolle’s “The New Earth”. It’s a significant event, because I rarely even venture into the land of New Age books, as Borders would undoubtedly classify this, and as such this book would long have stayed out of my purview were it not for life’s intervention. In this particular case, I have my wife, my sister, and Oprah to thank for conspiring to put this book in front of my face… Powerful women, all, so it’s no wonder that, after reading & reflecting on E.T.’s work, I too feel more “powerful”.

Here’s why.

His life, as explained in the book, is not what you & I, the unenlightened might call “life” at all. His consciousness has evolved. In his world, life is a series of things. Things that happen, things that you consume, build, lust after, chase, get, don’t get, etc. It’s literally all clutter. This is not Life, a separate definition that is hard to denote with any letters, even a Capital L. As he would express it, Life just is. The things of the lowercase life are all constructs, are all structures created by our dearest friend & most insecure friend, Monsieur Ego, in a constant & desperate effort to justify his own existence. We do not need Ego to accomplish our purpose in life. Ego actually runs counter plots to this true purpose by convincing us that he is the one in charge & that his desires are what matters. Our purpose is to simply live Life, the Life that Oprah would call her Best Life, by realizing we are all Beings, and as such we are all connected to a higher Being, which E.T. describes variously with apropos but loaded words like Truth, Consciousness, Awareness, God, Self and Life.

He claims that we, before attaining consciousness (which he explains in such adroit fashion as to encompass and equalize most of the world’s religions), create and destroy in the futility of the act of defining ourselves & everything in our world on some meter or scale or reference point. My favorite part of this dialog is his discussion of how nothing is actually Better or Bigger until you decide it’s so. I totally can’t do it justice at the moment, since i only read it once & neglected to take notes. Just take it from me that this was one of the many aha!- like moments I had in the course of his 300 pages: every measurement requires a point of reference, and since society is full of Beings with independent points of reference, yours is the only one that matters, which simultaneously means that none of them do (let’s all stop short of spiraling down into the dystopic argument that society can’t function without some shared givens). There is no Good or Bad, but thinking that makes it so.

But consider that every Being is born and has a spark of life – and that, my friends, is where the similarities end. The only thing we “know” is that we are alive and others are alive. If we can realize that, accept that, and act as though it were the only Truth, everything else that causes us discontent melts away.

The most freeing section in the whole book is where he relates that to action and time. When you accept that the world and time are constructs in which you are forced to participate physically but do NOT define who you are, because YOU are more than your actions, all the risk to You/Self is moot and it’s only your Ego at play that makes you act differently. What you choose to do in any given moment is exactly the right thing to do if you are aware of the choice. Put simply, the only moment there ever is is Now, and the only Action required is the one you choose.

That is a concept that made me fall off the couch. That is some Ninja shit right there. I feel like I earned a blackbelt in like thirty different isms all at once.

Here’s where it can go a little sideways for those less introspective than even I am. Realizing that, accepting that, acting on that… In short, thinking about it (or anything for that matter) is still a lowercase life. Thinking is all Ego. Getting in touch with Life, though, is “simpler” than that. He gives us a few activities to try in the book, but my go-to kata is this: close your eyes and just feel the blood, heat & energy I your fingertips. (I learned focused breath in college yoga classes, so I take for granted that this is easy; I highly recommend learning this technique if for no other reason than it’s ability to quell anxiety & get me to sleep at night). Then let that awareness slowly creep out into your hands, into your arms, your shoulders, your core, the top of your head… that sort of trancelike state you enter when you can honestly feel that energy & not act or think about anything else… that is the Awareness with a Capital A that E.T. says connects us all. It’s the only thing that connects us all, but the point is that we are all connected. However you choose to manifest that Life, whatever God you choose (if any), whatever clothes you wear, whether you’re for Team Edward or Team Jacob (note from my Ego: I am the only guy who would even ATTEMPT to mix Eckhart Tolle and Twilight, and therefore I am awesome), all those decisions are yours and all of them insignificant in the pursuit of Life, Happiness, Zen, Nirvana, Heaven, or Valhalla (what up Nordic readers!).

All you gotta do is let go. The only moment there ever is is Now, and the only Action required is the one you choose. There is no Good or Bad, but thinking that makes it so.

I apologize for the heady meta vapors you’re now wafting in, but this post serves three purposes. First and foremost, to document my own thoughts on this book. It hasn’t turned me into Superman or Oprah or even Dr. Phil, but whatever potential I had that I felt was untapped or that I wasn’t “allowed” to tap, which caused me to worry I was wasting myself, or at least that others were thinking I was wasting myself… Well, none of that matters. And holy jumping Jesus in a jumpsuit did it make a difference in my life.

Second purpose of this post is to tell you about it. Spread the germs of consciousness, I suppose. Without becoming an evangelist, I will simply say that, if you can hang with his meta-analysis (or at least aren’t totally turned off by the words meta-analysis), you will get something of value out of reading it.

Third purpose is to publicly acknowledge and accept that I am more than the sum of my actions, and so is everyone else. That, inevitably, leads to forgiveness, which is a surprising word at this time in my life. I’m afraid that’s a horse of a different color, though, so I’m postponing further public exploration of that.

My thanks to the many different Muses that manifested that book & granted me the good fortune to be able to read it. Hopefully at least one other person will choose the same experience.

Review: The Dark Knight

See my review on CliquePick & join my clique. I’m on there as handee9.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Thumbs.

Yes, only four thumbs – I figure my first movie review can’t be all five, or people won’t see my reviews as credible. That being said, I generally won’t bother reviewing a movie unless it’s a) Awesome; b) Awful; c) Getting Critical Reviews I Disagree With. In the case of ‘The Dark Knight’, see option a).

The Short Version: As a movie, it’s awesome; as the second of Nolan’s Batmans, it’s definitely the better one, but it could’ve been even better.

The Long Version:
Those of you that have seen it may not think it’s credible to only give four thumbs. Touché, dear reader. Yes, this movie is awesome for many, many reasons. I have now seen it thrice – twice on the normal screen, and most recently on IMAX – wouldn’t have bothered if it weren’t awesome. But here are three short, potentially minor, reasons it’s not a full-blown hand o’ thumbs:

1) Alfred & Bruce/Batman banter. The scenes where Bale interacts with the world’s best Alfred (Michael Caine) do NOT come off well. Personally I blame this on bad dialogue choice (since when does Alfred have stories about burning down forests & hunting bandits?) and a mediocre Bruce Wayne that Bale delivers. A respectable Batman, a refusable Bruce Wayne – I actually liked Bale as Bruce better in Batman Begins.

2) Rachel Dawes. I was actually disappointed that they brought Rachel Dawes back, but in all fairness, I never read many of the Dark Knight graphic novels, and am not invested in her arc AT ALL, so if you are, you can stop reading this part. I just think the whole Rachel/Bruce dynamic sucked a particularly large quantity of ass in this one. SPOILER ALERT: I am glad she’s dead. Yes, sad for Harvey & Bruce & Alfred, but good for the next – I’m not longing for a Vicki Vale reprise or anything, but Rachel Dawes’ character is crap. Yes, Maggie’s way better than Katie Holmes. But so is a ham on rye.

3) The 1UP Mushroom Factor. This is potentially the most important reason for withholding the fifth thumb, though also probably the most debatable. After such AWESOME performances by Heath Ledger & Aaron Eckhart & Gary Oldman, combined with the altogether awesome story arc we’re on, I’m concerned for my future as a Batman fan. What the F are the Nolans going to write next? And who the hell are they going to cast? SPOILER AGAIN: Neither The Joker OR Two-Face actually die at the end of this movie, but there’s NO WAY they could sub in anyone to replace Heath’s Joker. Even if they tried, just on principle alone (especially if he doesn’t get the Oscar he deserves) I will be against it. Sidebar Insult: If you see/saw this and don’t think Heath deserves a posthumous Oscar, kill yourself because you are an IDIOT. And Eckhart makes a great Two-Face, but he can’t carry a whole on his own. So, to 1UP Dark Knight, Nolan has to pull in … what? An awesome Penguin? A Catwoman that doesn’t suck balls as bad as Halle Berry? or a Robin that isn’t as effeminate as Chris O’Donnell? All three? He & his bro have set the bar high, & I’m just worried about their ability to man up. (My op: he’ll find a Catwoman – remember the line Lucius delivers when he gives Bruce the new dog-proof batsuit? “We talking Rottweilers or chihuahuas? It should do fine against cats.” I just don’t know what woman is up for it – and if anyone even thinks of the Jessicas (Alba/Biel), go join the No-Oscar-for-Heath crowd at the bottom of the bay. They do not belong in cinematic adventures.)

Hopefully you get why I withheld one thumb. (That’s what she said.) But my call? GO SEE THIS MOVIE. Heath’s performance alone is worth it. And I recommend the IMAX if you haven’t seen it – see it there first. If you’ve already seen it in standard format, it’s still great to see the sweeping city scenes & the bank robbery scene on an 80 foot screen. Worth the $15, anyway. I’m not the only one who thinks so – IMAX in SF has been sold out at least one showing EVERY DAY since it opened 3 weeks ago.

What are you still doing here? Go see this movie. Again.