Wired's Neal Stephenson mistakes earn wrath of nerdsAs the token Wired mag contributor in a room full of polymaths on Saturday, I had to endure a recounting of the goofs — sorry, I mean the errata — in Wired's article about "King of Sci-Fi" Neal Stephenson and his new book, Anathem. The article, by Hackers author Steven Levy, is actually a pretty good writeup of the shy but strong-minded Stephenson and his big-think projects with people like Nathan Myhrvold, Alvy Ray Smith and Danny Hillis. But if there's one place you don't want to make a typo, it's in front of a hundred thousand rabidly detail-obsessed Stephenson fans. They'll never shut up now. Rather than hear it again, I sat down with a friend of Stephenson's who helped with the book (it ships on September 9, but advance copies are floating around) and assembled this definitive list of counterfactuals in the article:
Set on a planet called Arbe (pronounced "arb"), Anathem documents a civilization split between two cultures: an indulgent Saecular general population (hooked on casinos, shopping in megastores, trashing the environment-sound familiar?) and the super-educated cohort known as the avaunt, or "auts,"
  • 1. The planet's name is spelled Arbre.
  • 2. They're the avout, not avaunt. It comes from the Latin a- + vovere, to vow. The avout are, literally, those who've vowed to follow the fictional Cartasian discipline.
  • 3. No, no, no, an aut in the book is a rite performed by the avout. Why am I huffy about this? Because Stephenson provides a 20-page glossary at the back of the book.
Their society-the "mathic" world-is clustered in walled-off areas known as concents built around giant clocks designed to last for centuries.
  • 4. Earth already has a 622 year old clock that still runs in the cathedral at Salisbury, England. The science-fiction clocks on planet Arbre are designed to last for millennia, like Danny Hillis's planned 10,000 Year Clock. Many of the clocks in Anathem are several thousand years old.
[Stephenson's] early books, a satire about big universities and an eco-thriller, were well received but not huge sellers. In search of big sales and big bucks, he collaborated with an uncle on a couple of political potboilers. "We heard that Tom Clancy had made something like $17 million the previous year and thought if we could snag 1 percent of that, we'd still be OK." They didn't come close, and in 1991, Stephenson says, his career "was moving along at low rpms." Then he wrote Snow Crash ...
  • 5. Those political thrillers, Interface and The Cobweb, postdate Snow Crash by several years — 1992, 1994 and 1996, respectively.
But hey, nobody's perfect. Anathem itself has at least one glaring mistake: Midway through, the main character describes a group of people as being treated like "movie stars." As Stephenson's previous 491 pages have made abundantly clear, the word "movie" can't possibly be in the narrator's vocabulary — on planet Arbre, they'd be speely stars. Take that, correctards!