21 More Stephenson

by Malcolm Redfellow

There ought to be a note here that Malcolm spent a week of his life — a week he will not get back — locked in a battle with Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. And this at the third time of asking (the previous two attempts had to be aborted when something more interesting cropped up).

This is the kind of piece that appeals to a particular nerdulent intelligence — yes, it does require considerable intellect, but Malcolm wonders whether this is an appropriate use for such developed thought processes. It also requires a boredom threshold which stretches Malcolm’s tolerances.

We should be warned by the extended “alternative history” which prefaces this mighty tome. Then we have to overcome an analogue to conventional vocabulary: this seems to get largely lost as the novel develops — either the reader has become attuned to Stephenson’s word-play, or the author himself became bored with the affectation.

There is a promising start. We find ourselves in a recognisable cloistered space (anyone who, like Malcolm, spent a couple of years at St Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, has the feel):

The Cloister was a roofed gallery around the perimeter of a rectangular garden. On the inner side, nothing separated it from the weather except the row of columns that held up its roof. On the outer side it was bounded by a wall, openings in which gave way to buildings such as the Old Library, the Refectory, and various chalk halls.

Every object I passed—the carven bookcase-ends, the stones locked together to make the floor, the frames of the windows, the forged hinges of the doors and the hand-made nails that fastened them to the wood, the capitals of the columns that surrounded the Cloister, the paths and beds of the garden itself—every one had been made in a particular form by a clever person a long time ago. Some of them, such as the doors of the Old Library, had consumed the whole lifetimes of those who had wrought them. Others looked as though they’d been tossed off in an idle afternoon, but with such upsight that they had been cherished for hundreds or thousands of years. Some were founded on pure simple geometry. Others reveled in complication and it was a sort of riddle whether there was any rule governing their forms.

We are waiting for the Mervyn Peake moment ; and sure enough, it isn’t far behind:

Looking up from a standpoint just inside the screen, one saw the vaulted Mynster ceiling almost two hundred feet above, illuminated by light pouring in through stained-glass windows in the clerestory all around. So much light, shining down onto the bright inner surfaces of the eight screens, rendered them all opaque…

The Præsidium was supported by four fluted legs of stone that rammed down through the middle of the chancel and, I imagined, through the underlying vault where the Ita looked after the movements of their bits. Moving inward we passed by one of those pillars. These were not round in cross-section but stretched out diagonally, almost as if they were fins on an old-fashioned rocket-ship, though not nearly as slender as that implies. We thus came into the central well of the Mynster. Looking up from here, we could see twice as far up, all the way to the top of the Præsidium where the starhenge was. We took up our positions, marked by rosin-stained dimples.

Compare and contrast Stephenson’s Mynster, cheek-by-jowl with the town, inhabited by “slines”, with Peake’s ruin:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

Truth to be told, more than a quantum of later writers borrowed — many heavily— from Peake.

For Malcolm, it’s all downhill from here.

The essential story is “first contact”: this entrenched monastic society where the “theors” have detached themselves from the practical and creative to find themselves threatened by a mysterious spacecraft in polar orbit. The technology of Arbre (Stephenson’s alternative world) has the technology to read the depiction of Pythagoras on the side of this craft. Oddly, the “proof” of the theorem is that taught in lower-school geometry, not the neater, mathematical proof confided to classes further up the school.

And, inevitably, there has to be the vaguest sketch of a love interest (actually a couple of them). Don’t get excited, though, there’s little saucy about Stephenson.

His extended debates about Platonism are, to say the least, tedious. Yes, there is a pertinent element to debating the nature of narrative, but padding the whole thing out to a thousand pages, complete with some incidental and show-off stuff at the end, taxes the patience of any normal and normative soul.

Conclusion: there was a decent novella (or two, or three) here.

But why climb Everest — except to prove stamina and physical fitness — if better views are to be had from Bredon Hill?