I’m going to wager that you know someone who has read more science fiction and/or fantasy novels than I have. In fact, you might be that person. I don’t live in the world of sf/fantasy; however, I’ve been vacationing there off and on for the past several years. I know a little bit about it, but no, not as much as you or your know-it-all friend.
My attraction to sf/fantasy is the creations of other worlds. This is not surprising. I’ll be up front in saying that the world I want to live in is not this one. I also recognize that there’s a fair amount of investment in creating a world, which is why a lot of sf/fantasy stories are published in series or at least as mammoth tomes. If you’re going to invent a new world, you may as well get a number of books out of it, or at least many pages. There’s also a certain commitment that I as a reader must make in order to fully engage with this.
I’m drawn to these alternate worlds generally because I would prefer to live in those worlds. For example, I would absolutely live in the magical world of Harry Potter if I had the choice. Even with Death Eaters and dragons, I’d still choose this if it also meant I could ride a broom and perform spells and hexes. Some literary worlds I’m a little more ambivalent about hypothetically inhabiting, such as Middle-earth in Tolkien’s books and Bas-Lag in the trilogy by China Mieville. Neither place is a walk in the park.
Recently I read Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. Unlike my previous examples, it falls under the speculative fiction genre rather than the fantasy. It tips the scales at a hefty 890 pages, with another 45 pages dedicated to a glossary and three mathematical appendices. My hardcover copy could be used to bludgeon an opponent’s skull before polycosmology could erupt from anybody’s lips. The first third of the book is dedicated to describing the world that the protagonist Fraa Erasmus inhabits and its system of philosophical monasteries called concents. Arbre is a world similar to ours but with a few subtle differences. Stephenson creates new terminology to describe analogous occurrences. Jeejahs, fraas, suurs, Deolaters, and the Hylaean Theoric World: they each have corresponding realities in the world we live in, and some of their meanings can be deduced from comparable etymology.
There’s a criticism to be made about inventing new terms for things that an author could conceivably describe in the language in which the book is being written. It’s a lot of new words for a reader to pick up. The glossary is 20 pages long. It’s not every reader who will want to attempt such an endeavor. Some of my science fiction fan friends couldn’t tolerate the book because of this. I might not have attempted it if I hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed two of Stephenson’s novels already, including Cryptonomicon which at nearly 1200 pages is the longest novel I have ever read. As is turns out though, I seem to have a very long attention span for novels. Anticipating Anathem‘s bounty of new terms, I actually read the glossary first. If an author is going to go through the trouble of creating a new world, I want to at least understand it.
Let’s talk about the creation of terms first. Language literally defines the practices and values of a given civilization. If you were going to create a new world, why wouldn’t the words be different? In the practice of writing speculative fiction, you also have to think about the consistency of terminology within the given system. Arbre didn’t have Pythagoras; therefore the length of a hypotenuse isn’t determined with the Pythagorean Theorum but with the Adraknonic Theorum, named after ancient Arbran theorist Adrakhones. Arbre also has two language groups— Orth, reserved solely for monastic living, and various vernacular languages across the world, Fluccish being the one in use where most of the book takes place. Stephenson is no dummy; he makes an introductory disclaimer that while the book is translated from Arbran languages, original terminology is kept unless the difference between the Arbran object and our counterpart is so small that to use an Arbran term would be unnecessarily complicated. He cites the carrot as an example of something whose Arbran counterpart is so similar that he (the translator) may as well just call them carrots to make it easier on the reader. He also begins the book with a brief timeline of the approximately 7000 years of Arbran ontological history..
In addition to a long attention span for novels I also seem to have an ability to suspend disbelief when it comes to reading books about different worlds than my own. Once, after having read a few Harry Potter books in a row, I found myself requiring a pen that was across the room. Without pausing for thought, I said, “Accio pen!” Yes, aloud. It took me half a second to realize that the pen wasn’t going to fly across the room into my hand.
Similarly, Anathem‘s mathic system— that is to say, the social division on Arbre that places intellectuals and philosophers inside networks of monastic seclusion— infused my brain with its terms and features. I wondered if I would have been in the Edharian group or the New Circle, or if I would have been one of the Saeculars whom for whatever reason had never been properly assessed and collected as a child by the monastic orders. I even went through my romantic history and mentally categorized my relationships into Tivian liaisons and Etrevenean ones. Some of the argumentative concepts also seemed useful, and I nearly forgot that I couldn’t drop those terms in regular conversations. The Rake is Arbran shorthand for the idea that wishing something is true doesn’t make it more likely to be true, and stems from an incident when an ancient philosopher used a garden implement to brush away zealots. The Steelyard is a similar mental tool which states that when faced with two hypotheses to choose the simpler one, based on an ancient metaphor involving a scale.
I wonder if it’s just an aspect of these worlds that I’m drawn to, in the same way that Ren Faire folks obsess over only a certain spectrum of Renaissance era living. I like the part of Harry Potter that exists in Hogwarts, and I like the concents in Anathem. What does this say about me— that my true desire is to live in a cult? I hope not. No, I think what it says is that if I could, I would choose a life outside of capitalism. The concents as they are described in the beginning of the book seem like idyllic intentional communities where contemplation is favored over consumer culture. At first, it seems like a livable trade-off— sure there are rules about what documents you’re allowed to read and what technologies you can have access to, but on the other hand once you come of age your time is for the most part your own. Reading, writing, growing and preparing food, pursuing crafts or martial arts that interest you, and most importantly consulting with your peers— you can make a life of this.
I could make a life of this.
However, as with many things in life and in fiction, illusions fall away. The concents are centers of intellectual separatism which manage to successfully resist the comparably frenetic pace of cultural and technological change outside their fortified gates, but they are also themselves political entities with power and weaknesses known only to secret organizations within their walls. They maintain their perceived neutrality and separation only insofar as the outside governments decide to grant it to them, a situation not that different than an intentional community or cult on our planet that is left alone by military forces until such time that its inhabitants are deemed too dangerous or too useful.
As a result, I’m back on this planet, at least until I read another science fiction book.