Neal Stephenson’s new book, Anathem, sounds pretty interesting. From Steven Levy’s otherwise unsatisfying profile of Stephenson in the new Wired:
Set on a planet called Arbe (pronounced “arb”), Anathem documents a civilization split between two cultures: an indulgent Saecular general population (hooked on casinos, shopping in megastores, trashing the environment — sound familiar?) and the super-educated cohort known as the avaunt, or “auts,” who live a monastic existence defined by intellectual activity and circumscribed rituals. Freed from the pressures of pedestrian life, the avaunt view time differently. Their society — the “mathic” world — is clustered in walled-off areas known as concents built around giant clocks designed to last for centuries. The avaunt are separated into four groups, distinguished by the amount of time they are isolated from the outside world and each other. Unarians stay inside the wall for a year. Decenarians can venture outside only once a decade. Centenarians are locked in for a hundred years, and Millennarians — long-lifespanners who are endowed with Yoda-esque wisdom — emerge only in years ending in triple zeros.
Shades of Wall-E and Idiocracy. Another tidbit from the article: Stephenson works part-time for Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures building inventions.
When I mentioned Neal Stephenson here in February, several people recommended starting with the smaller Snow Crash rather than plunging head-long into Cryptonomicon or the Baroque Cycle. When I ran across a copy in my own household (who knew that we had one?), I picked it up and barely put it back down until I had finished. I mean — come on! — the main character’s name is Hiro Protagonist, but Stephenson has the chops to back that sort of cheesy bullshit up:
The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car’s tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator’s car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady’s thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.
Why is the Deliverator so equipped? Because people rely on him. He is a roll model. This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world. When it gets down to it — talking trade balances here — once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here — once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel — once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity…
Aside from the entertaining writing, Snow Crash (excerpt) is packed full of ideas. Stephenson gives the reader as much to think about as do the authors of recent non-fiction books like Blink, The Wisdom of Crowds, etc. And whereas Steven Johnson gets a bunch of shit for winkingly calling his book “Everything Bad is Good for You” and suggesting that this miserable culture we’re stuck with might be good for us in some way, readers of Snow Crash might say, “hmm, that’s an interesting idea” and ruminate on it without feeling the need to completely disagree with the whole premise of the book. Is fiction better at presenting ideas in a non-theatening manner than non-fiction? Maybe Gladwell’s next book should be a novel?
Neal Stephenson on the larger lessons of Star Wars. “Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.”