As you may have gathered from some of my past writing, I’m a big Neal Stephenson fan. He is one of my favorite authors. I was discussing with Marco the other day how when reading, say, the fifth Harry Potter book, it felt like Rowling’s editor needed to step in and convince JK to tighten it up a bit. But with Stephenson, even when he’s plowing into a chapter-long tangent, you don’t mind, because he takes you interesting places. That’s not to say that Rowling is not a talented writer, but the voice that Stephenson writes with is just on a different, more stylistic level. His sometimes indulgent asides are what make him so much fun.
I’d like to talk about a concept of punishment he puts forth in his novel Anathem. It’s called the Book. A brief primer: Anathem takes place in a world similar to our own, but where scholars live a quasi-monastic life of simple means behind the walls of big stone concents, cut off from the rest of society for a period of one, ten, 100 or 1000 years. This separation allows the “avout,” as they are called, to dedicate their lives to scholarly work without distraction or interruption. While there are your typical chores and kitchen duty that can be assigned to reprimand bad behavior, there is also the Book. When an avout needs sterner discipline, the administrators can “throw the Book” at them.
The idea of the Book, as the main character Erasmas explains it, is to punish the mind of the wayward avout. It’s 12 chapters long, filled with inane, inaccurate and possibly insane content that must be memorized and tested against. Imagine a mathematician being forced to learn and apply false proofs, or a writer who must memorize incorrect definitions. The Book is designed to poison the mind, taking a sledgehammer to the foundations of an avout’s critical thinking and logical faculties. And each chapter is exponentially harder than the one before. In the novel, it’s said that only 3 men ever completed all 12 chapters, which took a lifetime, and they were all thoroughly insane when they finished. That the avout have dedicated themselves to learning makes it all the more heinous a punishment to them, as they are forced to corrupt their minds and waste their time working counter to their own life’s work.
One example Erasmas gives is a chapter full of nursery rhymes that almost, but do not quite rhyme. Another is five pages of the digits of Pi. In the novel, he is assigned the first five chapters as penance, which takes him several weeks to complete. And the idea is that, if you get in trouble again, you could get assigned even more. It is suggested that going higher can permanently damage one’s ability to process and organize information effectively.
I mention all this as prelude to my latest movie review:
Surely, if the Book were real, Chapter 6 would be the shooting script to Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon. And the less said further the better.