Book Review: Anathem

Posted on October 22, 2008

Yes, the book is as heavy as the cover art implies! (image from Wikipedia and Amazon)

Even casual fans of speculative fiction need little introduction to Neal Stephenson, whose delightfully original imagination, combined with his instinct for technology and human nature, have helped him produce several genre-defining classics, in areas such as cyberpunk (Snow Crash), post-cyberpunk (The Diamond Age), and historical fiction (Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle). His latest work, Anathem, finds him returning to the world of science fiction, telling the tale of Erasmas, a young man whose world is about to go through some very major changes.

Unlike all of his other works, which have explored the past, present, and future of our planet Earth, Anathem takes place on Arbre, a world entirely of Stephenson’s making, but similar enough to ours to keep you guessing for the first couple of chapters. Soon enough, we learn the major difference between that world and ours – the scientific/philosophical/mathematical community has been cloistered away into “maths”, where their knowledge and discoveries can survive the cataclysmic rise and fall of the outside world (the “Saecular Power”). Every ten years, however, Erasmas’ math celebrates a festival called Apert, where the gates of the math are opened, allowing outsiders (“extras”) and the cloistered (“Avout”) to mingle for ten days; this is where the story begins. To reveal any more would spoil one of the chief pleasures of a Stephenson novel – watching the plot develop organically, spontaneously – from a few interesting ideas to a dazzling chain of events you won’t forget anytime soon.

Anathem starts slowly, deliberately, almost as if Stephenson wants you to notice every detail of the world he carefully constructs on the page. As part of this effort, Stephenson channels sci-fi greats like Frank Herbert and Gene Wolfe, inventing two languages and a whole vocabulary for the inhabitants of Arbre. Though his syntax is nowhere near as challenging as, say, Book of the New Sun, you’ll be thankful for the glossary in the back. Erasmas narrates the tale in the first person, so as you might expect of a young, disciplined, monk-like character, the prose tends to be very dry (a sharp departure from Snow Crash), and thrives on the power of understatement, even in the tensest of situations.

As the story progresses, it reveals itself to be several novels braided into one – an academic Bildungsroman (as the avout start to question their Powers That Be), a Golden Age Sci-Fi yarn (Stephenson is particularly meticulous in detailing the available technology and scientific methods), an exciting adventure story (there are some stunning fights and scenes reminiscent of The Diamond Age), and philosophical treatise –  as they examine their world without help of computers or the internet, the intellectually scrupulous avout dissect each of their thoughts and hypotheses in exhaustive, sometimes wearying detail.

There’s a reason this book is more than 900 pages – many topics, from physics, the nature of consciousness, history, and even religion (to which Stephenson is surprisingly open-minded) are discussed at length, the book even referring the reader to several appendices of proofs and theory in the back! Just like Cryptonomicon, and that book’s pedagogical discussion of cryptanalysis, readers will find it all either incredibly fascinating or irredeemably dull. As an engineer, I ate it all up, but if you think you may fall into the latter category, you might think twice about picking up this book; the climax will not make any sense unless you have at least a basic understanding of the discourse. If you’re able to keep up, you’ll experience the pleasure of many “eureka!” moments, as you piece together the logical conclusion along with Erasmas. And I do mean logical conclusion – Stephenson has blessedly given this story a proper ending! Obviously I won’t spoil it, but it neatly sows the seeds for a follow-up with Erasmas and his friends.

But even if Stephenson never takes us to Arbre again, this would easily be the most satisfying novel I’ve read this year. Finishing it comes with a sense of accomplishment. Not because the book is dense or difficult to comprehend, but because in presenting Arbre, Stephenson really is showing us our world in a different light. Ultimately, the novel is about the beauty that is human thought – how it shapes our perception of the world, how our world shapes it, and how it can serve as a singular beacon in the most unfamiliar of situations. If Descartes were around, Anathem might be among his favorites, for in the world Stephenson presents, we exist to think, and discover the secrets of the universe. And that is something to be proud of.

» Filed Under Books, Everything and Nothing

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