Friday, October 3, 2008


I've been spending the last ten days immersed in Neal Stephenson's new novel Anathem, to the detriment of much music making or contemplation. At slightly more than 900 pages, and with Stephenson's imagination, there are a lot of themes and ideas at work. Briefly, Stephenson was inspired by the Millenium Clock of the Long Now Foundation to imagine a world (not Earth) where such a clock is enclosed in a monastic environment, separated from the rest of the world (called the 'Saeculum' in Stephenson's wonderful invented vocabulary) except for a brief period every year ('Apert'). In addition, other areas of the monastic ('mathic') complex are only opened once every ten years, once every hundred years, or even once every thousand years. Inside the monastery, the monks ('avout') can see civilizations rise and fall outside their walls, but except for the brief carnival-like annual periods, there is very little interaction.

Music plays a large role in the discourse about the novel, with the ritual chanting of the monks getting a fair amount of attention. Composer David Stutz has written a number of chants inspired by the novel, which is available on a CD from the Long Now Foundation, and some of which are sampled at Disquiet. But the chants are really only a part of life in the monastery, and events in the world outside the walls ('extramuros') form the plot of the novel, about which I won't say much other than it's great space opera. But the part of the novel set inside the walls is essential for appreciating the mindset of the monks, with their unusual vocabulary (definitions are scattered throughout the novel, with a glossary at the end) and the kind of philosophical musings that one would imagine in an environment isolated from 'the infinite clown-fight that was Saecular politics' and other worldly concerns. I found the novel's ambition refreshing, and at only 900 pages (compared to the 2,600 in his previous work, the Baroque Cycle), a fairly quick read.

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