Neal Stephenson, Anathem (2008)

Anathem

Author: Neal Stephenson

Title: Anathem

Format: Ebook

Pages: 937

Series: –

“They knew many things but had no idea why. And strangely this made them more, rather than less, certain that they were right.”

Neal Stephenson is a prolific writer, known for his SF and speculative fiction novels (for some reason lack of dragons or other mythological creatures seems to exclude one from the fantasy genre 😉), all of them full of alternatively mind-bending or awe-inspiring ideas, and all incredibly long, even considering the current market conditions. I have reviewed on this blog his 2015 SF novel Seveneves, which dealt with the consequences of an improbable but possible event – the shattering of  Earth’s Moon and the subsequent fallout of the debris on the Earth’s surface. I admired the sheer scientific drive of this novel and enjoyed its far-reaching plot – to a point 😉. Seveneves is a brilliant example of the opportunities and pitfalls inherent in literary imbalance – namely, the dominance of ideas over plot and character development, not to mention certain scientific facts, like the pace of evolution; and yet, it remains a flawed but intellectually highly rewarding, thought-provoking read. Looking for something similarly intellectually stimulating, I was encouraged by Bart at Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It to try another of Stephenson’s critically acclaimed bricks and Bart’s favorite – Anathem.

Forewarned in foreword by the author, I jumped straight in, eager to immerse myself in the highly conceptualized and yet absolutely addictive world of Arbre – and this is the course of action I would advise any potential readers to take. The process of figuring out what’s going on in Anathem and how it relates to our own reality, constitutes at least half of the fun the novel offers. And a lot of fun it is indeed, especially for those philosophically minded, who enjoy nothing more than a riveting peregrination through the philosophical origins of the Western culture now and then.

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Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit (2016)

Ninefox Gambit

Author: Yoon Ha Lee

Title: Ninefox Gambit

Format: Paperback

Pages: 512

Series: Machineries of Empire #1

This year started out very well – at least with regards to my SF reading 😉 I have only had the misfortune of reading one dud during these first two months of 2020, and it was fantasy, which I’ll definitely scour in a scathing review sometime in the future – but as this review deals with a violent military SF of the highest order, I shall focus on that with all the delight and diligence it deserves.

Ninefox Gambit, the first installment in Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, presents a world in which math is the language of magic. Or, more precisely, where math begets magic – as long as there are people who absolutely believe in this possibility. The magic of math – of geometry and probability, of statistics and analysis – is a lethal one. The unforgiving inevitability of right angles and straight lines alters the fabric of the universe, creating temporal pockets of reality where life becomes impossible. Radiation, mutation, extreme temperatures – whatever you like, whatever you deem necessary, is at the tips of your fingers. The only thing you need to do is to have enough soldiers to make a meaningful formation and keep it despite constant winnowing by the opposite forces – and, of course, social belief.

Here’s where things become tricky. The power of the mathematical magic is based on popular belief. It can be upheld only through meticulously calculated and obsessively observed rituals and modes of behavior dictated by a uniformly accepted calendar: such and such number of days in a week; such and such day a sacred one; such and such rituals falling on certain dates; such and such number of human sacrifices made when occasion demands. The belief must be absolute and unquestioned; it must form the foundation of the people’s worldview, must be inculcated from the start and rigorously, continuously reinforced. Otherwise you’re bound to find calendrical rot at the core of your perfectly oiled and ticking empire – a dissident movement, a desperate revolution against the totalitarian society which treats an individual only as a replaceable cog in the machine.

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Neal Asher, The Line of Polity (2003)

The Line of Polity

Author: Neal Asher

Title: The Line of Polity

Format: Paperback

Pages: 485

Series: Agent Cormac 2

This review was promised in our summary post for 2019, so I actually twisted my right arm with my left to sit down and write it in the middle of sunny summer ;).

Having reviewed both the first installment, Gridlinked, and the third installment, Brass Man, I’m in a bit of a pickle when it comes to choosing the content for this entry. Probably, it would be sufficient to say that The Line of Polity was the book that thoroughly and inevitably sold me on Asher’s Polity universe, and even if I don’t agree with all the political and ideological views of the author, I plan to remain a devoted fan.

Polity is not as pleasant and safe place as Banks’ Culture, nor is it as boring ;). The immense and mind-bogglingly diverse universe (..and I’m sure I could find another -verse fitting here :P) containing Polity, the human society ruled by nearly omniscient AIs, is a wonderful treat for all SF fans. But Asher goes further than just worldbuilding, however impeccable: he creates a world alive – rife with conflict, ambitions, and emotions, not only human, but also AI. And for a series featuring amazing battle sequences, both in the space and on the ground, Asher spends a lot of time considering the sentience. True, his AIs are very human, but reading Polity books I have a feeling they are this way by design, and not simple lack of thought or convenience. After all, they have been created by humans, influenced by the constant contact with humans, and, in a world where alien sentient races are considered more of a myth or a cautionary tale from the past than reality, AIs remain in a direct relation to humans. This relation can morph into a myriad different constellations: a mirror image, a role model, a dependent, spoiled child, a doted-upon prodigy, a master, an apprentice, a pest, a threat, a hobby… Asher deftly shows the variety of responses possible between sentient beings, each of which has something the other doesn’t possess, and subtly incorporates them into his tightly woven narrative.

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