Archive for Anathem

Diamond age

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by xi'an

Here is the one before last of my vacation reads! As obvious from several earlier posts, I am a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s books. e.g. Snow Crash is one of my preferred cyberpunk books (along with Neuromancer), and I consider Stephenson’s approach to the genre deeper and more scientific than Gibson‘s. So when in Lancaster I picked the Diamond Age, I was quite excited to have discovered an overlooked volume of his’! The more because the story was partly taking place in Shanghai. Alas, I am rather disappointed by the result. Indeed, the book does not read well: the “suspension of disbelief” does not operate.

The Diamond Age brims with (too many???) brilliant techno-societal ideas, colourful characters, literary references, and exciting settings, but the plot dries out much too quickly. The universe Stephenson depicts is a mix of cyberpunk centred on nanotechnologies and of steampunk with Victorian codes and attitudes. (In a sense, the Diamond Age is Dickens mixed with Gibson and van Gulik.) One of the great ideas in the Diamond Age is the “primer” that educates the central character, Nell, who has been neglected by her alcoholic mother. It is a quite compelling concept, the one of an interactive book backed by an AI and by real actors that turn Nell into a real scientist (the part about Turing machines is quite good) and cryptographer, as well as teach Chinese orphans (although it does not work so well in the latter case because of the lack of real actors).  The fact that the level of the story remains one of a fairy tale while Nell is growing up and maturing is a bit of a disappointment. What really put me off, though, half the book read, is the appearance of the Dreamers, an “unnecessary and monstrously tacky underwater sex cult” that doomed my “suspension of disbelief” for the rest of the book… (The criticisms are mostly positive, though.)

Mathematics and realism

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2010 by xi'an

I read in Liberation a rather surprising tribune (in French) by “Yann Moix, writer”. The starting point is a criticism of Stephen Hawking (and Leonard Mlodinow)’s recent book The Grand Design, With regards to its conclusion that a god is not necessary to explain the creation and the working of the Universe: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” I haven’t read Hawking’s book (although I briefly considered buying it in London last time I was there, here is a Guardian review), I had never heard before of this (controversial) writer, and I do not see the point in debating about supernatural beings (except when reviewing a fantasy book!). However, the arguments of Moix are rather limited from a philosophical viewpoint.

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Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by xi'an

One colleague of mine in Dauphine gave me Anathem to read a few weeks ago. I had seen it in a bookstore once and planned to read it, so this was a perfect opportunity. I read through it slowly at first and then with more and more eagerness as the story built on, spending a fair chunk of the past evenings (and Metro rides) into finishing it. Anathem is a wonderful book, especially for mathematicians, and while it could still qualify as a science-fiction book, it blurs the frontiers between the genres of science-fiction, speculative fiction, documentary writings and epistemology… Just imagine any other sci’fi’ book being reviewed in Nature! Still, the book was awarded the 2009 Locus SF Award. So it has true sci’fi’ characteristics, including Clarke-ian bouts of space opera with a Rama-like vessel popping out of nowhere. But this is not the main feature that makes Anathem so unique and fascinating.

“The Adrakhonic theorem, which stated that the square of a right triangle hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides…” (p. 128)

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