Prime Edition

AADISHT KHANNA
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

Good 'what if' fiction can open up ideas and futures unimagined

here's something special about science fiction. It is the literature of possibility, and is much less constrained by conventions than other literary genres. SF includes terrible pulp, thrillers and detective stories, and social commentary. As long as there's a "What if' at its heart, it'll still be science fiction.

What's rare is a science fiction writer who can combine these subgenres. Neal Stephenson has managed it, though. His books have mixed up cheeky satire, frenetic action, and didactic passages about topics as diverse as computational theory, Sumerian mythology, monetary policy, and the proper way to eat breakfast cereal. Along with this, he's anticipated future technology: just as Arthur C. Clarke wrote about communication satellites in a short story well before they were invented, Stephenson's Snow Crash described an application that would eventually be created about fifteen years later – Google Earth.

This column is about his last published book, Anathem, though, not Snow Crash. Anathem is Stephenson's first book which is not set on Earth. Instead, it's on a planet called Arbre, which uses a language called Orth – a device which allows Stephenson to indulge in wordplay throughout the book. The title itself refers to an invented word that combines 'anthem' and 'anathema' – and refers to a song sung when a character is exiled from his community.

{
The world of Arbre is based on delightfully cheeky premises: it’s technologically advanced, but only engineers and technicians work in general society.
But the invented vocabulary is only part of the playfulness. The world of Arbre is based on delightfully cheeky premises: it's technologically advanced, but only engineers and technicians work in general society. Scientists and philosophers are confined to 'concents' – the equivalent of monasteries – and are allowed contact with the world at large only every single, ten, hundred, or thousand years, depending on how seriously they wish to take up the discipline of pure science (or theorics) – Stephenson got the idea in 1999, when he witnessed the development of a Millennium clock with different bells that would ring every year, decade, century, or millennium. The word concent itself is a homage to that clock: along with bringing up connotations of convent, it also refers to concentric layers of the academy, each inner layer more isolated from the 'Saecular' world.

Stephenson takes the academy (or as he calls it, the 'mathic world') as monastery conceit even further, and depicts it schismed into several orders. When an alien spacecraft begins to orbit Arbre, members of the various orders feud bitterly about what this implies about the existence of Platonic ideal forms, while government officials look on with a mixture of bemusement and outrage. Eventually, the theoreticians – or 'theors' – are persuaded to actually do something, which leads to the delightful lines 'Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs. We have a protractor.'

It has lots of other such finely calibrated absurdity that had me grinning throughout the book. There was the Sconic school of thought, for instance – named after the scones served at a salon where philosophers would gather.

The contact with aliens leads to action and adventure sequences, but Anathem is primarily a novel of ideas. In more than nine hundred pages, it ambles through mathematics, optics, different ways of believing in god, the nature of consciousness and how it relates to time, and above all – Platonic forms – or cnoöns, as the Arbrans call them.

In his earlier books, his characters were archetypes and stereotypes – selfconsciously so at times. In Cryptonomicon, protagonist Randy Waterhouse thinks of himself as a Tolkienian dwarf and people around him as hobbits and wizards. This never really descends into caricature, largely because the characters responses to their situation are nuanced – but you can't shake the feeling that when Stephenson thinks of a character, he starts with the personification of an idea, not a real human being. After two decades of this, it's appropriate that he's written an entire book about the relationship between Platonic ideals and their representations.

Anathem is published by Atlantic Books.

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

 
iTv Network : newsX India News Media Academy aaj Samaaj  
  Powered by : Star Infranet