I just finished reading Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem. I don't know where to start: it's a fascinating story, if occasionally slow, but that seems unavoidable given the deep ideas Stephensons expose. I'm not an avid Science Fiction reader, though I don't avoid the genre. There's just so much else to read about! (And I'm a slow reader, especially in English, which is not my first language.) But I like Stephenson's work, which I first encountered with Cryptonomicon. I ate up the Baroque Cycle, and when Stephenson showed up at Google a few weeks ago to discuss Anathem, I tuned in from the SF office. Hearing him talk about his ideas made me want to read the book even more -- but I decided to do some "homework" first, and bought Snow Crash in the same Amazon order as Anathem, and read it first.
(Warning: mild spoilers may be ahead.)
Snow Crash is fascinating, but it rings a bit hollow -- in the end I felt like it was mostly a superbly crafted fantastic adventure story. The "deep ideas" in that book felt a bit fake: the technical details of how the Metaverse works make little sense from what I know about virtual reality systems (this was corroborated by a friend who worked in the game industry for 25 years), and the idea of an "ur-language" that is like the low-level software of our brains strikes me as nonsense from what I've read about the functioning of our brains (see note above :-). The idea of a virus or anti-virus that can be fed into our brains by appealing directly to this low-level software of hackers' brains then becomes rather bizarre, and the idea of feeding this same information into non-hackers' brains via the blood utter nonsense. So then we're left with a great, dark view of a possible future where many phenomena of modern society, from the mafia's code of honor to suburbs full of bored teenagers, have become fantastically exaggerated, and a lot of cool wish-it-could-be technology, from the Metaverse to skateboards and motorcycles with "smart wheels" (why doesn't the Wikipedia article mention those?). I find it hard to believe that there are many women who would enjoy this book, it's the ultimate testosterone fantasy.
Fast-forward to Anathem. Stephenson has gotten a lot better. It's more likely that women might appreciate this book (and not just because in the end the couple "get" each other and clearly will live happily ever after). As long as they're into philosophy and not afraid of long detailed explanations of space technology. Ok, so maybe it's still mostly a guy's thing (please prove me wrong!) but it's a lot less testosterone-laden, and the technology and "deep ideas" presented are a lot more realistic.
I find it interesting that in Snow Crash the (near) future has gotten completely out of hand, while in Anathem a world is depicted that develops more or less cyclically for thousands of years: after the high point of technology (roughly, today's age) things stay more or less the same, society and prosperity going down and up cyclically without much news being added. Stephenson's explanation for this is that most people prefer to deal with technology they can understand and tinker with, like internal combustion engines, rather than the more advanced space-age stuff that most Sci-Fi authors (including Stephenson, see Snow Crash) love to make up. Although nobody seems to object to the ubiquity of cell phones connected to the Internet -- they are apparently too useful (for society, or for the plot) to ban.
I loved the puzzles for the reader, small and large, that Stephenson spreads throughout the book. I recall that in Cryptonomicon he often starts a new chapter with a minute, detailed description of an everyday phenomenon from an unexpected vantage point or using precise scientific language, which often made me chuckle. There is some of that in Anathem, but the main class of puzzles is the introduction of new vocabulary (ostensibly because the world depicted is not Earth) for familiar things. E.g. ark for church, drummon, fetch and mobe for freight truck, pick-up truck and car, syntactic device or syndev for computer, praxis for engineering, Andrakhonic theorem for Pythagorean theorem, and Gardan’s Steelyard for Occam’s Razor. (I found one place where Stephenson apparently forgot to apply global substitution and used the word "computer-generated" instead of syndev-generated.) In general the new words are remarkably easy to remember once you've figured it out -- sometimes it helps to know Latin or French (for example fraa and suur are clearly from frère and soeur).
The only stuff that's hard is the names for the various philosophical schools -- probably because I'm not really all that well-schooled in this. I can recognize the references to Plato, but that's about it. There are probably tons of references to philosophic schools of the past two centuries, but I don't know my Nietzche from my Kant, and I'm not all that well-versed in interpretations of quantum mechanics. Except I did recognize the idea of consciousness as a quantum computer as originating with Roger Penrose -- I read his book long ago, and decided I simply disagreed. The whole idea of merging together world lines in such a way that the history of one world appears in the present of another sounds like a Sci-Fi device of the same nature as travel faster than light: useful as a plot device, but not realistic.
Yes, of course it's fiction! But Stephenson really does seem to try to make everything else realistic -- the ideas he presents have roots in real science, and so does much of the technology, from the "long now" clock to the electrodynamic tether propulsion device (both mentioned in the acknowledgements). So I guess at this point we (Stephenson and I) simply disagree on the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is not something to be particularly worried about, as it's all highly speculative in the real scientific world too.
When we're talking about the nature of consciousness, I'm definitely in the camp of Douglas Hofstadter, who makes (what I think is) an eloquent point that it's just a bunch of extremely sophisticated software running on highly developed hardware, both evolved over a very long time, starting with the earliest animals that were capable of making decisions based on sensory input. I recently bought and read Hofstadter's I am a Strange Loop and loved most of it, although I had to skip some of the sentimental stuff; it made me pull out Gödel, Escher Bach and The Mind's I (both of which I'd read when I was about half my current age) and re-read much of them, enjoying them just as much as the first time (and probably understanding a lot more).
My only quibble with Hofstadter is his insistence on the importance of self-referentiality of consciousness. While I appreciate the relevance of introspection, and love the idea that the algorithms for searching our (various kinds of) memory are derived from the pattern matching algorithms originating in our sensory processing (which clearly was a precursor of consciousness), I don't believe that in order to be called "intelligent" a piece of software would necessarily have to have a concept of "I" that resembles that of a person. (And no, I don't think we're anywhere near developing such intelligent software yet -- we don't know enough about the most basic stuff like perception. For that matter, I think that the whole "Singularity" idea promoted by Ray Kurzweil is bulshytt, as the inhabitants of Stephenson's world would say.)
But I do agree with Hofstadter that there is no a priori reason why sufficiently complex (presumably layered) software couldn't be developed that has representations of real-world concepts that can be queried and updated and connected in ways very similar to the way this apparently happens in our brains. Personally, I think that one of the keys to the development of such software is better understanding of our preceptional mechanisms. Which is a long-winded segue into the work of Oliver Sacks, whose works I've also been reading recently. (I am about to dive into Musicophilia, his latest work.) Sacks writes yarns that are as accessible (or more) as Stephenson's, and almost as exciting (for me anyways), with the added value that they are science, not fiction.
I wish I could work in a reference to Richard Dawkins, whose ideals on evolution also seem highly relevant. (Even though to a 3rd generation atheist like myself his rant against organized religion seems a little over the top.) But I'll save that for later.