One thing that nearly always grabs my interest in any book or film is an explicit focus on storytelling itself – that can be anything from Italo Calvino’s playing with different genres/ways to tell a story in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler to the suggestion in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus that it is monks telling stories that actually keep the world stable. So when I come across a particularly intriguing passage about stories and storytelling even in works that aren’t necessarily about that, I perk up a little bit and get all happy inside.
Here’s such a passage from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which I’m currently about halfway through reading – it’s been slow only because I don’t devote nearly enough time to reading, but I am quite enjoying the world he’s built and find it difficult to put the book down when I do pick it up again. The basic premise is an earth-like world that’s split into two groups – avout and Saeculars. Avout are basically monks, people who have separated themselves from the world into places called maths where they devote their time to studying mathematics, philosophy, science, etc. Saeculars are everyone else, the regular people in the world. Basically think of it like our Middle Ages, but with science instead of religion driving the avout. (It’s pretty interesting to read as a Christian who knows something about church history – there’s a lot to recognize, for better or worse, and the interplay with the religions of the Saeculars is fascinating.)
Anyway. In this section, our main character, an avout who has been in his math for ten years with no contact with the outside world, has left the math to search for his mentor, who has recently been banished from the math. He’s interacting with Saeculars more than he has since entering the math as a child, and he’s bringing the book knowledge that he has about the world to bear on the actual world for the first time. I find his suggestion that mechanization and industrialization brought about a loss of story intriguing – compare with The Matrix‘s suggestion that human beings can’t actually live without story, so a story is created for them to keep them content.
So I looked with fascination at those people in their mobes[ref]cars[/ref], and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be[ref]meaning those in power in the Saecular world, no supernatural connotation[/ref] would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn’t live without story had been driven into the concents[ref]a bunch of maths concentrated in one place[/ref] or into jobs like Yul’s[ref]Yul’s job is a wilderness guide, transporting and guiding travelers around in the northern reaches of the Saecular world[/ref]. All others had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Saeculars were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end in which you played a significant part? We avout had it ready-made because we were a part of this project of learning new things. Even if it didn’t always move fast enough for people like Jesry, it did move. You could tell where you were and what you were doing in that story. Yul got all of this for free by living his stories from day to day, and the only drawback was that the world held his stories to be of small account. Perhaps that was why he felt such a compulsion to tell them, not just about his own exploits in the wilderness, but those of his mentors.
I especially like the line “All the story had been bled out of their lives.” So evocative.
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