Anathem, by Neal Stephenson: A review.

Neal Stephenson has developed something of a reputation for writing novels which are both very long, and very erudite.

Anathem is something approaching an apotheosis of this - it is 937 pages long (very slightly longer than each of the individual volumes of the Baroque Cycle), and it is based, fundamentally, on themes of metaphysics, the long-term preservation of knowledge, and the nature of consciousness.

It is also a puzzle-book in many ways - the setting is a world similar to our own (to the extent that many of our philosophers and their conceptual developments exist in their history, albeit with different names), but in our relative future, where due to various world-destabilisating technologies (sorry, in the language of Abre, praxic devices) being made possible by the interaction of academics (avout), the avout have been confined to monastic cloisters, which operate on a very long time-scale. This is basically all I can tell you without giving you clues and hints about the rest of the novel - part of the point is that the reader learns the language of Arbre, and possibly brushes up on their philosophy and physics, whilst also uncovering the root of several mysteries about the world - including some which are hinted at very close to the beginning.

One hint that I will make is to note that Neal finally justifies his stance as one of the few modern SF writers who don't seem to believe in the promise of Strong AI (this was an underlying theme of The Diamond Age, and even influences Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle and Snow Crash), holding that there is something Special about human consciousness.

No book exists in a conceptual vacuum, and there are clear connections to A Canticle for Leibowitz, and possibly Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and Book of the Long Sun sequences. Gene Wolfe probably writes better than Stephenson, but he is also trying to do a very different thing in his novels. M Miller Jr. was concerned with some similar points - both he and Stephenson are interested in the preservation of knowledge through collapse - but Stephenson is more cynical about humanity's tendency to reject knowledge through fear and (fundamentalist) religion, while Miller Jr, being Catholic, tries to present a position that religion is necessary for morality as much as science is necessary to advance knowledge.

Definitely worth reading, if you have the time and the intellectual energy for it. If you're anything like me, though, you'll wonder why you bother trying to write anything yourself afterwards (this is the mark of a great writer for me).


Nanowrimo Blues

Every year, some subset of my friends decide to embark on the Nanowrimo challenge - the yearly attempt for each author to write at least 50,000 words of creative writing in the month of November.
Every year, I'm tempted to join in - one reason Nanowrimo was founded was to give people an impetus to stick at and just write something of short novel length, overcoming their various hangups about composing something that long; this is a particular problem of mine.
And then, every year, it gets to the 1st of November, and I haven't signed up to the website yet (although I've spent too long reading the various forums, and advice posted by others, and the posts of my friends angsting about preparing to start)... and I crumble.

I spent this morning (and quite a lot of last night) frustrated, angry with myself and despairing that I'll ever be able to actually write anything of any worth of novel length (the other issue I have being that, not only does outlining a story totally kill it for me as a work, but that, except in rare situations, so does writing any scene or vignette in my mind).
There may have been some tears.

Nanowrimo isn't worth this kind of emotional investment from me, especially since it just emphasises all the hangups I already have about my total inability to produce any creative content of any worth (the SFX short story competition has a lesser effect on me, since at least I think I can write 1000-odd words before it all turns to ashes). Expect me to be avoiding any of your relevant Nanowrimo posts for the rest of November - it's not your collective faults, but it's just not good for me.