In my previous posts I have been trying to see ANATHEM in terms of a more general tendency that includes philosophy, physics, and science fiction. Given that our global paradigm or image of thought is no longer monism (Platonism) how can we avoid falling into the multiplication of meaningless language games (relativism)? The multiplication of worlds at the object-level mirrors the multiplication of formalisms and of language games at the meta-level. How can we accomodate both the plasticity of the real, which allows for multiple interpretations and ways of life, with its resistance, that selects out only a few possibilities as valid and viable? In the novel, the disputes between syntactics and semantics, between theors and rhetors, and also between Protans and Procians, reflect this dilemma.
Stephenson makes use of the collapse of the wave packet in quantum physics to explain how the brain as a quantum computer can choose between different Narratives and select the best outcome. This is both a physical phenomenon and an allegory in physical terms of this more general problem. I am trying to take a step back from the physical speculations that that Stephenson himself has indicated are the source of the cosmology in the book. Many critics think that fundamental physics and cosmology have become too speculative, almost abandoning any empirical confrontation with experiment. I think this is a mistaken criticism, as very often in science the speculation comes first.
It was a stroke of genius for Stephenson to make the Platonic world of ideas into one of a plurality of worlds. The idea is all at once strange, brilliant, and hilarious. Yet there is a second idea associated with this, namely that there is not just one Platonic world, but many, each with their own asssociated sub-worlds and sub-sub-worlds, and so on. This second idea, called “Complex Protism” in the novel, is developped in the third Calca, at the end of the book. Here, the simple line between two points: the world of Forms and our world is replaced by a network with multiple nodes, and the mode of existence of abstract ideas is given a quasi-materialist basis.
I would use the term “science fantasy” to describe the genre of the novel. This does not mean that the cognitive scaffolding is less scientific than in classical science fiction. I want to indicate the world-making ambition of the book, and its resemblance to the genre of Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN and its sequels. The fantasy element is the impressive world-building, including the different but parallel history of mathematics and philosophy, and the invention of different languages. The story not only does not take place on Earth, but not even in our cosmos.
If we are climbing a Hylaeatic ladder of genericity and sublimation, I would put the science of multiple worlds first, then their philosophical exploration, and then their literary (science fictional) deployment. The allegory of a pluralist-but-not-relativist image of thought resonates back and forth between these three levels.