anathem-coverNeal Stephenson

It’s hard to categorize Neal Stephenson, who’s written everything from cyberpunk (Snow Crash) to 3,000 pages on the science and economics that created the modern world (The Baroque Cycle). Stephenson’s wide range has its best effect in the most satisfying of all his works, the remarkable journey into the future, and the past, that is Anathem.Anathem takes place on the planet Arbre, in a time that for us on Earth would be the far future. But the richest part of the world of Arbre is its riff on our past.

Like all good sci-fi, Anathem gives Stephenson a stage for social commentary and criticism. He creates a society which has split literally in two, with scholars in unchanging monastic communities, called  maths, living alongside but not along with the transient cultures of the secular world. The maths are populated by avouts, who are restricted by their 4,000 year-old discipline to purely theoretical learning. Advanced machines and technologies, known as praxis, are the provinces of the outside culture, which interacts with parts of the closed maths only for short, specified periods.

Until, that is, an alien visitor brings them uneasily together and generates the central action of the novel.

Avouts belong to groups organized by the relative frequency of their contact with the secular. Worldly students commit themselves to isolation for one year at a time, while the permanent scholars participate in direct exchanges with the outside world during “openings,” called aperts, which occur at intervals of ten, one hundred, and one thousand years. In this way, parts of a math keep themselves and their lore “safe” from outside influence for periods long enough to ensure the endurance of Arbre’s intellectual culture, no matter how disrupted or corrupted the comparatively mercurial world outside becomes.

The culture of the maths is a close cousin of our own intellectual history. The names have been changed, but the history is ours. Stoics, Platoists, realists, fundamentalists — all of them and more exist in different but recognizable form on Arbre. Stephenson creates a clever history and partial language for this parallel world.

For example, the maths are named after great scholars of the past, called Saunts (from the word savant, abbreviated St.).Scholars are avout; male avouts are fras and females surs. Savant, saint, brother, sister–the resonance with the language of our own medieval monasteries is clear, and meaningful. Avout evokes both avocation and devout.

Anathem itself combines both anthem and anathema. Word games that are more than word games abound here, and erudite mind-play of this sort is a general characteristic of all of Stephenson’s work.

Like most of Stephenson’s books, Anathem has a long and complicated plot. Stephenson is a writer who’s never met a blank page he couldn’t fill, and if there is anything negative to be said about Anathem it’s that it requires some commitment and endurance — especially in the long, long adventure story which occupies the book’s second half. But it’s quite a story.

With considerable skill, Stephenson weaves into his futuristically medieval setting a thoroughly modern encounter with beings from a series of parallel universes, whose natures and fates are closely entwined with ours. Think of Eco’s The Name of the Rose blending with Hawking’s The Grand Design and you get some idea of the ambitious reach of Anathem.

Long passages of astronomy, physics, and philosophy spin through the novel, in an intellectual exercise that centres on the clash between two fundamental world views, which argue respectively that the world reflects ideal forms (thus, an Arbran version of Platonism) and that reality is a syntactic mental exercise (a view that is consistent with the multiple-universe model).

The novel’s narrative outcome depends on the truth of quantum uncertainty, on the kinds of “temporal paradoxes” so popular on all of the Star Trek incarnations. To help the reader (and, one suspects, just for the fun of it), Stephenson includes a glossary of Arbran terms and several math-based appendices.

Reviews of the novel were quite positive, with a few exceptions from people who didn’t want to work this hard to read a novel, especially a science-fiction novel. Perhaps the most accurate and enjoyable short response was from Salon:

If you are already a fan of Stephenson, you will not be disappointed — you will be utterly engrossed. If you like a little dash of philosophy in your science fiction you will be delighted. If you wrote a dissertation on German idealism you will think you’ve died and gone to heaven. Can I hear an amen? If you don’t like philosophy, hate math and desire more character development than Kant in your fiction … best to stay away. If all of this sounds like a bit of a sci-fi robotic dog’s breakfast, it’s not. Anathem is a considerable accomplishment. It’s a one-of-a-kind book. And that’s a good kind of book to find.


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