Sensors and Intuitives in Neal Stephenson’s Novel, Anathem

A successful character reads like a complete person with particular thought patterns and reactions, habits and tics. The best characters are consistent and believable, a person one might encounter in real life, for better or worse. How does an author fashion the mental world of diverse but credible characters?

One option is to dip into personality theory, including the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory (MBTI). Now, I’m no MBTI expert, and I’m aware that the MBTI may not be a hardcore scientific instrument, a fact declaimed with emphasis and surety (in an entirely MBTI type appropriate fashion) by my daughter. But I find the system easy to understand and adequately complex for my purposes as an author.

Among other dichotomies, the Meyers-Briggs divides people into Sensors and Intuitives. I’ve tested close to 50/50 for all other Meyers-Briggs dichotomies, but I’ve always tested strongly as an Intuitive. And I notice the Sensor/Intuitive split socially. So I ascribe more importance to this dichotomy than to the others.

Sensors, 70% of the population, supposedly live in the real world, taking in data through their senses and perceiving their immediate environment. Real events and objects capture their attention, so their conversation runs toward meals they ate, movies they saw, objects they find appealing. Their reality exists in the past and present; the future is of less interest. Adjectives which describe Sensors include: dedicated, practical, managerial, popular, novelty seeking, bold, literal, concrete, obtuse, detail-oriented, down-to-earth, traditional.

Meyers-Briggs’s Intuitives comprise only 30% of the population. These people live in a world, not of sight and sound, but of mind. Intuitives trust their instinct, the inner voice, the gut feeling, and let instinct guide their decisions. Intuitives embrace the future and may form a vision of an ideal future. Adjectives which describe Intuitives include: imaginative, innovative, intellectual, altruistic, mystical, idealistic, free spirited, visionary, future oriented, abstract, philosophical, psychic, big-picture.

So how does the Sensor/Intuitive split play out in literature?

Not uncommonly, fictive societies perceive the Intuitives as a distinctive and dangerous caste composed of witches, prophets or mad scientists. And in the real world, Intuitives, the lonely, peculiar or overly intense in high school and in the workplace, often fare poorly because a Sensor is “who you’re supposed to be.” Workplaces claim to desire personality diversity, but in reality, a boss is more likely to hire somebody comfortable, a reflection of him or herself, hence, just given the odds, most likely a Sensor.

In Neal Stephenson’s novel, Anathem, the “avout” (many of whom read as intellectual and mystical Intuitives) live in monastery-like settlements, separated from the general population (the seculars) except for decennial (or less frequent) meet and greets.

While the Sensors, incessantly tapping on their screens and wearing their baseball caps backwards, wage wars, engage in commerce and rear children, the Intuitives theorize and garden.

Society imposed this set up on the Intuitives following a series of pesky innovations, like nuclear weaponry; best to stash the weirdos in an enclosed space. To further discourage innovation, computer access is restricted, and a separate caste, the Ita, manages all the avout’s IT issues.

After a series of unfortunate but very interesting events, the Sensors seek the Intuitive’s help, and a new era dawns. As a fan of personality diversity, I found the ending quite satisfactory.

At its core, Anathem, is a sci-fi hero saga. The novel’s stand-out feature is the world-building. In a cosmos based on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, the planet Abre is a clever reflection of our Earth. And the monastery is populated by an entertaining range of oddballs. Sure, these characters diverge into long philosophical or mathematical debates, but these passages may be skimmed without losing the plot. The plot progresses with various twists and turns, ending with a dream-like quest into multiple dimensions. Some might ask for more consistent action and less philosophic digression, but I read books featuring people contemplating at the bottom of a well, wandering the misty shore, or collecting bones in the forest. So, to me, Anathem seemed action packed.

My favorite quote from this book is:

Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs… We have a protractor.

Stephenson, Neal. Anathem (p. 358). William Morrow. Kindle Edition.

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