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Talk: Neal Stephenson, Anathem

cvr_anathem.jpgThe Anathem book launch event sponsored by the Long Now Foundation was a bit of an organizational disaster, but I still found it a fun new experience among the many, many book talks I've been to. I love the Long Now foundation for attempting an ambitious event, including live performances of the Anathem soundtrack, cellular automata enactments, and shovel-fu, but the failures in execution were hard to overlook:

  • the event started a full hour late due to audio difficulties
  • the audio difficulties were never solved, leading to a persistent audio hum that ruined the singing
  • Danny Hillis, as important as he is, seemed to think the event was as much about him as it was Neal Stephenson, leading to annoyances like taking the microphone away from Neal Stephenson mid-answer to interject his own rambling, incoherent thoughts

Stewart Brand was much better in his role and surprisingly coherent given all that I've read about his past history. Unfortunately I missed any cellular automata enactments and shovel-fu as the delays in the event meant that it was time to get home (they weren't going to happen until after Stephenson finished signing books).

So why, then, did I have so much fun? Much of the credit goes to Susanne and Ed. As you'll read in the lengthy acknowledgements -- I joked they were put on the Web in order to save $2/book in printing costs -- Ed Zalta's work on abstract objects was part of the philosophical underpinnings of the books. Anathem's philosophy, I am told, is infused with a healthy dose of Platonism and if you try to look for contemporary works (i.e. post-Godel) in the Mathematical Platonist realm, you're bound to land at Ed's office door. Among Ed's influences in the book:

... the tree-dwelling, loincloth-wearing fraas mentioned during the Aut of Inbrase at Tredegarh are carrying out--albeit very slowly--a computation along the lines of what PROVER9 does.

How many of us can say that our computer programs come with interpretive dances?

Stephenson met with Ed during his research for the book and read his papers. He then did what novelists do, which is to mix it with theories from a bunch of different fields -- quantum mechanics, philosophy of the mind, etc.. -- and wrap a story around it. Neither Ed nor Susanne seemed offended by the end product, so it would seem that Stephenson is well-read.

I often groan as soon as the Q&A starts and someone asks, "So how do you come up with the ideas for your book?" which leads to the exact general answer you hear at any event. In this case, I got a real answer to that question, which started way back when Susanne first e-mailed me that she had an Advanced Reading Copy of the book -- she knew it would kill me inside with jealousy. It continued with discussions in our car ride up to the event, through the hours we had to kill and then the event itself. The car ride back seemed so quick as we were given one last opportunity to digest the synthesis of it all.

The interplay between popular literature and science is a creative genesis for both fields, with Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash and the Metaverse being one obvious example. We joked about the grad students that will be knocking on Ed's door in 2-3 years -- or however long it takes them to slog through 900 pages -- inspired by the new hipness of Mathematical Platonism. I've usually approached Stephenson's recent gigantic tomes with trepidation, but I'm really excited to dive into a foreign world with invented languages and synthesized philosophy. If Stewart Brand and Susanne can read it twice I think I certainly can manage it at least once.

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on September 10, 2008 12:43 AM.

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