I picked up Hypatia of Alexandria (Revealing Antiquity) after hearing about Agora, a film which made some waves at Cannes this year and should be showing on U.S. screens soon. It’ll be interesting seeing the movie after reading this book, as director Alejandro Amenábar’s Hypatia is exactly the type of literary Hypatia that Dzielska spends the first chapter of her book debunking.
This is a rather boring book about a really interesting subject. Hypatia, noted Alexandrian philosopher and mathematician of the fourth and fifth centuries, has variously been characterized as atheist, pagan, and consummate Neoplatonist. The causes and circumstances of her death at the hands of a Christian mob have been similarly obfuscated by a long series of historians and artists, each with their own agendas.
Dzielska goes deep into primary and secondary sources looking for answers, and what she comes back with is satisfying, if not terribly gripping. At the same time, she does a convincing job of not putting too much of her own spin on the topic. Unfortunately, Dzielska is mostly intent on arguing with other writers. The structure of her argument works against spinning a good yarn, and she puts in few or no details of what daily life in fourth century Alexandria was like.
This year’s film Hypatia is a sensuous freethinker played by Rachel Weisz, a far cry from the virginal, sexagenarian Christian of history. Weisz in a philosopher’s tribon should prove pretty easy on the eyes, but I don’t know… Judy Dench might’ve been a much better choice.
There’ve been a lot of reviews of this book since it came out, some of which you’ve probably read. Instead of giving any kind of summary, I’m simply going to say why I liked it so much. If you need it, you can get the synopsis from the New York Review of Books or io9.
There are few books which I’d rate this highly. My criteria are pretty simple, but not many writers produce anything that meets them. Anathem nails them all.
1. Scope. The book must be ambitious. It must approach a multitude of themes and problems, tackle all of them well, and give the sense in the end of having synthesized them all. I can think of only a handful of books (Gravity’s Rainbow & Midnight’s Children are two) that pull this off. Anathem not only pulls this off in the final analysis — it gives you the sense throughout that it is a novel of massive yet cogent scope.
2. Story. This is obvious, but the problem for many books is that pulling off point 1, above, makes the story incredible, wooden, impersonal, or contrived. Again, Anathem passes this test with flying colors.
3. Ideas. Stephenson’s powerful intellect is on full display here. Not only does he assimilate some really interesting takes on science and philosophy into the narrative, he’s spinning social and political theory out there as well.
4. Invention. Some negative reviews of the book have made a lot of the notion that Stephenson’s worldbuilding in Anathem is more recombinant than inventive. Bollocks, I say, for two reasons: 1) recombining in an innovative way is an entirely valid mode of invention, especially when the result is as immersive and complete as what Stephenson puts out in this book, and 2) the central conceit of the novel (and I’ll steer clear of spoilers here), which some critics maybe missed or glossed over when critiquing Stephenson on his level of invention, succeeds in explaining why the world of Anathem is — must be — so similar to our own.
I have a few quibbles with the book (again, steering clear of spoilers here), foremost among them being that one of the spacecraft in the book couldn’t theoretically achieve the velocities he proposes — at least not as the technology is understood by some of our best physicists, who spent considerable time on the problem. A spacecraft could probably come close to the speeds he suggests using a similar tech with a different fuel source, but it’s a minor hard sci-fi fail, forgivable against the overall awesomeness of the book.
So yeah, I liked it. Read it now!