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Anathem: Brilliance, with sides of sexism and disappointment

July 31, 2009

I finally finished Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. To recap, it’s a speculative fiction novel set on an Earthlike planet, revolving around what basically amounts to an academic — as opposed to religious — monastery.

In many respects, Anathem is an excellent book — it’s fascinating and complex, with novel or revamped ideas fairly examined from multiple perspectives. The many made-up words, which concerned me at first, were much less distracting a few chapters in (though I was still not totally clear on the philosophies of even the major sects, even at the end of the book).

Speaking of the end of the book, I found it to be extraordinarily disappointing. After its being set up for 900-some pages, I expected something much less bland, clichéd and formulaic. To say more would spoil any good parts of the ending, but it was ultimately a letdown.

What bothered me most, however, was the novel’s approach to gender and sexuality. (This isn’t necessarily to say that the author, or even the book itself, is sexist. It might possibly be an intentional display of the created society‘s cultural views on gender.)

The book, narrated by the male protagonist, portrays female characters, even the “tough” ones, as overly emotional. (“Her chest collapsed and her head drooped. The big eyes closed for a few moments. Here was where any other girl would have gone to pieces.”) And any deviation from traditional femininity is conspicuously noticed. The narrator must describe one female character, an engineer, as “unlike other women” or some variation of that at least five times. The female characters are also very, very dull (which is saying something, as characters are not the book’s strongest suit to begin with), and not one is truly essential — they could be swapped out with most anyone else.

But the sexism goes unaddressed, and when most every other intellectual debate in the book is hacked to death, one that isn’t touched won’t go unnoticed. I wonder if it is intentional. Is it simply background material that wasn’t relevant to the plotline? Was it in the orginal narrative and edited for length or clarity? (There’s a debate for another day: In fiction, especially that set in a created world, how much cultural ambience should be introduced but not explained?)

And while homosexuality is not ruled out, there are certainly no openly gay characters (or even thinly veiled closeted ones). I suppose that could be hand-waved away — it’s not Earth; maybe there are no gay people in this existence. But the author writes a full-page definition of “liaisons,” including this gem:

“Shortly before the Rebirth, several maths took the unusual step of altering the Discipline to sanction the Perelithian liaison, meaning a permanent liaison between one fraa and one suur.”

Basically that says that some institutions defined marriage as between one man and one woman. He mentions that it was unusual — perhaps a sly commentary on heteronormativity in contemporary culture? Well, maybe. On this particular subject, I don’t really mind preachiness. At best, gay-marriage opponents are poorly informed (even if some of them, including many I know personally, are nice people with good intentions). But please, Mr. Stephenson, practice what you preach — the characters in Anathem are as heteronormative as they come.

I would hate to believe this, but it’s possible that “unusual” in this case isn’t considered a bad thing. If that’s true, that makes the book almost explicitly homophobic — a strange fault for a book that is so enlightened in so many other ways. It’s possible I would be less harsh on some books, but I expected more from this one. If you can handle parallel cosmi, I think you should be able to handle “the gay.”

Despite its faults, Anathem is chock-full of redeeming qualities. All in all, it is not for the person who hates thinking. Much of the book is dedicated to analytical “dialogues” on subjects many people would dismiss as not worth considering (I wouldn’t be one of those people). Although I won’t be listing it among my favorite books anytime soon,  Anathem is worth reading, if you have the time. Just don’t expect stellar character development or a satisfying conclusion. Instead, read it for the imagination and the ideas.

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