I’ve lost track of how many times I have read parts, at least, of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Yesterday, I caught something new in my reaction to a scene and I’d like to tell you about it. I’m not sure what reaction I am hoping for. I think, “Oh yeah, that happens to me, too” would be really good.
The point here is that when you read a story like this for the first time, you read very practically. There is a story being told, after all, and in Stephenson’s case a fantastic story. Let me just touch down at a few places to illustrate my point. I’ll give page numbers because I have them; it’s not because I don’t understand that different editions distribute the numbers differently.
Four guys have the job of pushing the turnstile that winds the huge clock in the tower. These same four guys since they became novices in the order. We learn that Jesry is a notorious heel-filcher. They put out a loaf of freshly baked bread and he is more likely than not to have ripped the heel off before anyone else can get to it.
This is the kind of reference J. R. R. Tolkien used so well. By referring to a “well-known reality”—everybody, apparently, knows Jesry’s affinity for bread heels— that has nothing at all to do with the plot, he suggests the depth and reality of the narrative background.
The first time I read that about Jesry, I filed it automatically as something about him I needed to know. This time, I paused only briefly to record that it was something about Jesry I already knew and also to make whatever connections occurred to me between that one trait and others described elsewhere. He is easily fascinated by new ideas, for instance, where Raz, the narrator, suffers from “fascination burnout.” By telling us those two things about Jesry, is he suggesting an impulse driven person or are these just to facts? That is not a first read kind of question, but when I go back and back, I wonder.
One of the running jokes is that an alien to Arbre (the planet on which all the action takes place) is named Jules Verne Durand. They never say he is French. There is no part of the book where it would not be a violation of time and space conventions to say that he is French. On the other hand the four guys who wind the clock hear him phonetically and Stephenson gives us what they hear phonetically. So the joke is shared between us and Stephenson, and passes right by all the characters.
Fraa Osa is giving a potent explanation of how overlapping loyalties work. It ends “…that unites us with the likes of Jules Verne Durand.”
“‘Say zhoost’,” (p. 838) answered the Laterran, (Laterre is what he calls his home planet) which we figured was his way of expressing approval.” Stephenson could have given us c’est juste and then had one of the brighter characters translate it for one of the dimmer characters, but that engages the characters. Stephenson wants it to be our joke; his and ours.
Similarly, in their spacesuit/spacecraft there is a controller with a mushroom shaped stick that could be moved in four dimensions. Durand called it (p. 785) a “joycetick.” The phonetic joke again.
Seeing the spacesuit/spacecraft for the first time, Durand proclaims, “The conception is moneyfeek (p. 775). That’s fun, but but it is more of the same kind of fun and Stephenson has more in mind for this one. Much more fun is the exchange later when everyone has been launched in space in their suits/craft and are communicating with bases on Arbre. Erasmus’s handler says, “I’m going to talk you through the process of unstrapping yourself from the S2-35B.” Erasmus replies, patiently, as I hear the line, “Up here, we call it a monyafeek.” (p. 812)
This is the communications specialist is a bunker somewhere on the surface of Arbre telling a user of the suit who is actually in combat, about his S2-35B only to have him pull battlefield rank and correct her. “It’s monyafeek,” he says. “Whatever,” she says.
Those are just for fun and are as good illustrations of the phenomenon as we need. But there is a really serious one that stopped me in my tracks the first time through and that I have luxuriated in every subsequent time.
On page 804, Erasmus is chasing a nuclear reactor he needs to catch before it hits the atmosphere and burns up. His friends see him going further and further away and presumably, make a decision about what to do. We know this only from Erasmus’s thoughts.
“They’d probably watched me drifting away, with mounting anxiety, and debated whether to send a rescue team. But they hadn’t….If it had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have been able to read their minds nor they mine. But my fraas [fellow scholars] had been raised, trained by Orolo. They had figured out that in forty-five minutes, the nuke would reappear on the other side of Arbre. Just as important, they were relying on me—entrusting me with their lives—to figure out the same thing and to act accordingly.”
Raised together under the same master thinker; working together all their lives on the clock winding project, they had reached a place where they could confidently bet their lives that each understood the other.
Wouldn’t you want to wander back through that scene now and again? I do.