Open Buddha

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Neal Stephenson's Anathem and Music

By Al Jigong Billings


My advanced reader's copy of Neal Stephenson's new novel, "Anathem," arrived this afternoon. I was selected on LibraryThing to receive it in order to do a review of it on my blog and on that site. LibraryThing makes ARCs available all the time but this was the first time I've been selected to receive a book through their unknown process (probably looking at our libraries and seeing how well they match). Since Stephenson has been a favorite author of mine since I met him in Seattle when Snowcrash came out, this is quite a treat.

Anathem is a hefty tome, I must say. It is 935 pages long, in true Mt. Stephenson fashion. The man must be paid by the word! Many have said this before (including me). I expect that I'll enjoy every minute of reading it though.

According to leaked information (from the catalog), the synopsis of the novel is:

Since childhood, Raz has lived behind the walls of a 3,400-year-old monastery, a sanctuary for scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians—sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, unpredictable "saecular" world that is plagued by recurring cycles of booms and busts, world wars and climate change. Until the day that a higher power, driven by fear, decides that only these cloistered scholars have the abilities to avert an impending catastrophe. And, one by one, Raz and his cohorts are summoned forth without warning into the Unknown.

Neither Amazon, Harper Collins' own site, nor the back of the book confirm or deny this but it would seem to be true based on information below. This Livejournal entry by Gretta Cook from last September contains some information from when she met him as well. Concerning the book, it states:

"He's writing a science fiction novel unrelated to Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. It's set on another planet and has aliens and so on. It's really about Platonic mathematics, but he needed the aliens and space opera-ish elements to spice it up a little bit, just like the pirates kept people engaged in the Baroque books."

The book came with a CD of music, which I must say was surprising. It says it is "IOLET: Music from the World of Anathem." There are seven tracks:

  1. Aproximating Pi
  2. Thousander Chant
  3. Proof Using Finite Projective Geometry
  4. Cellular Automata
  5. Quantum Spin Network
  6. Sixteen Color Prime Generating Automation
  7. Deriving the Quadratic Equation

Each of these is between four and eleven and a half minutes long. There is a note with it stating that "In order to conform to the practices of the avout, this disc contains music composed for and performed by voices alone."

I've just listened to several of the songs on this CD and, frankly, this is some weird shit. I say this without reservation. The musical styles are all over the map except that they all only use human voices (and occasionally hands). Some of it is similar to Western, Christian, styles of chanting. Other tracks are more Classical vocal arrangements with singing. The rest of the tracks seem to be heavily influenced by Eastern, Buddhist, styles of chanting, especially Tibetan Buddhism with its use of harmonics and overlaying voices. It varies quite a bit from song to song. Additionally, when there are recognizable words, they are not in English (nor in any language that I recognize). "Celluar Automata" is the weirdest track of this sort with multiple voices weaving in and out, along with some clapping and exclamations in an unknown language. "Thousander Chant" would be at home on some of the collections of Tibetan chanting that I have and whoever is performing it is obviously trained in the throat chanting used by Tibetans and others in Asia.

I think the song titles, at least, gives a partial sense of the thrust of the book and the monastic order within it.

Update: I did notice that the book, at the very beginning, defines the term "Anathem" as:

Anathem: (I) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, which since the tme of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy (hence the Fluccish word Anthem meaning a song of great emotional resonance, esp. one that inspires listeners to sing along). Note: this sense is archaic, and used only in a ritual context where it is unlikely to be confused with the much more commonly used sense 2. (2) In New Orth, an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas). See Throw-back. - The Dictionary, 4th edition, A.R. 3000

I would guess, given that this is the title of the book, that the music is included because of the word's (and probably those of the themes of the book) relationship to song and also to mathematics both. After all, the book is mentioned above as being about "...3,400-year-old monastery, a sanctuary for scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians—sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, unpredictable 'saecular' world..." I'll know more once I read the entire tome.