Neal Stephenson’s Anathem reading in Toronto: notes

AnathemHere are my semi-refined but mostly raw notes from Neal Stephenson’s talk in Toronto on Oct 30, 2008 to promote his latest book Anathem.

I last saw Neal talk during his 2003 tour to promote Quicksilver – you can read Joey deVilla’s notes here for that one. Overall I enjoyed the last talk better, it seemed longer and had more interesting anecdotes, but this one was still really interesting and Mark Askwith did a great job leading the conversation. The reading this time had a lot more inflection in it compared to the monotone delivery last time, at least in the dialogue portions.

I was hoping to Twitter a few bits during the talk, but the theatre setting was nearly completely dark and my iPhone produced way too much glow. I opted instead to write stuff in Ange’s notebook (I’d forgotten mine, but hers had no lines in it which worked out better since I was writing in darkness and couldn’t follow a straight line of text. Amazingly I didn’t scrawl on top of too many lines and things were fairly legible this morning)

The night was filled with conversation about making things and systems that can survive for a thousand years. Thankfully, I don’t need this blog post to last that long, but I like posting semi-raw notes so I can review them a few years from now and see what was important enough to me to commit in writing.

To get in the mood for the book, Neal started attending renaissance themed a capella music performances.

A friend of his started trying to record actual music inspired by the book, based on the ideas of math, physics, and philosophy. He ended up with 8 or 9 pieces, composed over 2 years. A partial CD was released with the press galleys, and a full CD is for sale now, with proceeds going to the Long Now Foundation. There’s a song based on pi, and apparently a cellular automaton piece that calculates primes.

Original idea for the book came from the Long Now Foundation request in 1999 to design a clock that would last 10,000 years. Neal was in the middle of the Baroque Cycle at the time, but came back to the concept later. His sketches can be seen here.

The talk had a multimedia component: 5 short videos on what people would like to see saved for 1000 years, followed by Neal’s thoughts on them:

The works of Shakespeare: does a community need to be shaped to preserve the literary culture required to understand the work?

The abililty to transimit communications by radio: this isn’t worth much without the ability to receive communications by radio. Instructions need to propogate. Neal talked about the “Boy Scientist” articles from years ago with instructions on how to build a crystal radio using, essentially, found objects: it turns out those objects aren’t easy to find outside of a 1917 midwest American farmhouse. He started working on a modern set of instructions based on things you could find in a modern strip mall, since they were fairly ubiquitous. Never finished it.

The concept that preventing disease is better than treating it: Neal saw value in it, basically said that it’d be a tragedy for someone to have to go through what Louis Pasteur went through all over again.

A film documentary of life prior to modern technology like cell phones and computers “turning us all into robots”: 2 quotes from other people came to mind, “technology is anything that doesn’t work yet,” and “technology is anything invented after you were born.” How far back do we go? The Amish aren’t entirely anti-technology, they just choose what to accept (apparently they can use rollerblades, for example.)

The alphabet and a system of numbers: Neal commented that it was interesting to see the assumptions behind the questionnaire: the range went from preserving great works of literature to simply preserving letters.

(The book Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia by Gregory Benford was mentioned more than once)

There’s a debate in our culture about whether language or math will be eternal. Followers of Plato prefer math. In the book, Orth is a formerly dead language like Latin that was revived, but mathematical concepts seem better poised to withstand the test of time. Neal says it comes down to whether or not you believe that 3 was a prime number before humans came along and that 3 will continue to be a prime number long after humans are extinct.

There’s a tiling game in the book that’s based on aperiodic tiling. It’s a relatively modern field of mathematics, but examples aer being found in old mosques. The tiling game seemed like a way of telling the reader about mathematics in an approachable manner without the use of equations.

World building: Neal pretty much “knitted his parachute on the way down” while building the world. He wasn’t sure if the premise behind the book would lead to an interesting story, and didn’t want to spend years building an etymology, genealogy, etc to find a boring story at the end. He started with the introductory conversation at the beginning of the book and built what was needed from there. It helped to write the book from the first person perspective because he only needed to invent elements that would be visible from that characters point of view.

Why was the secular world based on Las Vegas? It seemed like the natural endpoint for our culture’s current spiral. There seems to be an infinite market for casinos and megastores.

Can our culture see beyond a fiscal quarter or a four year presidential cycle? The book’s about the dangers of a short term attention span.

It’s easier to build a culture to convey a concept than a physical object or symbol: the meaning decays quickly. As an example, biohazard symbols are supposed to be warnings, but they end up on the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms. Chemistry students today wear t-shirts with biohazard symbols on them ironically while they go into labs with unironic biohazard symbols on the walls.

Like the Baroque Cycle, Anathem was written by hand with a fountain pen. Neal prefers it because it slows him down. Ideas need time to be evaluated, and once they’ve been committed to paper, it’s harder to delete them. It’s also easier (for Neal) to cross out words or paragraphs in pen, and an artifact remains that he can come back to those ideas later to reuse (though when asked later how often that happens, he acknowledges that it almost never does, and that’s a purely theoretical advantage). The manuscript was written on blank paper, since he “tends to write pretty big and the lines are never in the right place for me.” Neal writes with different thicknesses and colours of pen for drafts and edits so there’s a layering to the work that’s visible when reviewing the manuscript.

Any ideas on the next book? That part of his brain shuts down during book tours. Using a surfer’s analogy, he’s got a fear that a perfect wave will come in while in the middle of a tour and he’ll lose an idea forever. “Frankly though, even if I had an idea, I wouldn’t tell you.”

Update: Awesome (seriously, awesome) photos by Debbie Ridpath Ohi, thanks to Mark for pointing them out via his post!






2 responses to “Neal Stephenson’s Anathem reading in Toronto: notes”

  1. Colleen Avatar

    I linked to this post for my sad little write-up on Snow Crash; I hope you don’t mind.

  2. […] Doucette took some comprehensive notes that he has posted on his blog. I won’t bother rehashing the thing here since Jason pretty much captured […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *