ANATHEM By NEAL STEPHENSON
Author Neal Stephenson continues to provide outstanding science fiction novels. I’ve been following his writings every since The Diamond Age turned me on the possibilities of nanotechnology. I didn’t have the endurance to make it all the way through his Baroque cycle of three books, but was impressed by another one of his historicals, Cyptonomicon. It’s too bad that the immersion 3D computer technology he championed in Snow Crash never came about, but it was a good read just the same.
Now, he’s returned to the world of hard science fiction. Anathem is a complex book, one which I hope people will read in years to come. I was lucky to grab the one I saw at the Chester County library and ended up renewing the loan just to finish it.
Anathem is about a world called Arbre which is very similar to our own planet. At some time in the distant past of Arbre, philosophy became a competing force with organized religion. After the fall of a great empire, similar to Rome, philosophers began organizing themselves into cloistered communities called “Maths” to practice their discipline away from the saecular or mundane world. The mathic world may have many “concerts” (convents) housed together or be small. They keep order by only opening the doors once a year for “apert” to the general public. However, some of the groups inside these monasteries only open their sections to the general public every ten, hundred, or even thousand years.
The world outside the concerts has continued on its merry way. Since the “avout” (those who live within the walls of the mathic world) do not reproduce, new recruits are collected from the outside. The avout are only permitted to own three things: a robe, a tie to hold it together, and a device known as a “sphere” which has a multitude of purposes. They gather each day for a service which reaffirms their community.
The book’s main character is Fra Erasamus, who has lived most of his live behind the mathic walls. Since his sect is a “tenner” he’s allowed to leave at an apert which occurs at the opening of the novel and visit the rest of the world. This allows the reader some idea as to how the saecular world contrasts to that of the mathic. But soon after he returns, many of the avout are “evoked”(summoned) by the saecular government. It won’t be telling too much to give the reason: astronomers have dedicted a giant spaceship in orbit around the planet. No one knows where it originated or what it wants.
It’s difficult writing about Anathem since Stephenson has created such a complex world. Although there are plenty of analogs to philosophies and ideas on earth, it can be difficult to identify which ones. For instance, there is much discussion about Gardan’s steelyard. It took me awhile to figure out this was the arabe to Occam’s razor. And there are similar philosophical discussions of Godel, Plato, and Michael Faraday.
The book is also filled with fascinating characters, another of Stephenson’s trademarks.
Highly recommended, this could be The Name of the Rose of SF novels.
(First written 11/2008)
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