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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Release Date: Sept. 9, 2008
Publisher: William Morrow
Age Group: Adult
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Pages: 937
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
Fraa Erasmas is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside "saecular" world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent's walls. Three times during history's darkest epochs violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet the avout have always managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity even more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. And Erasmas has no fear of the outside—the Extramuros—for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.

Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs prepare to venture beyond the concent's gates—at the same time opening them wide to welcome the curious "extras" in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmas eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn't seen since he was "collected." But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.

Powerful unforeseen forces jeopardize the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramuros—a threat that only an unsteady alliance of saecular and avout can oppose—as, one by one, Erasmas and his colleagues, teachers, and friends are summoned forth from the safety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster. Suddenly burdened with a staggering responsibility, Erasmas finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of his world—as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of the planet . . . and beyond.

The problem with talking about Anathem is that it’s best experienced if you know absolutely nothing going in. Much like Share Carruth’s film Primer, even knowing a sketch of the work’s true concept cheats you out the profound moments of discovery. With most fiction, you’re safe at least saying that it’s a zombie story, a space opera, or a high school romance. Anathem is not most fiction. The enjoyment comes from figuring out just what the novel is. The most basic, spoiler-free, first-ten-pages outline is as follows: math scholars, like some monastic orders, live separate from the world at large. Their monasteries have walls which prevent them from (mostly) even seeing the outside world. Every 10 years, the monastery gates open and their inhabitants, referred to as avout, are allowed to mix with the rest of the world for one week. If you trust me enough to take a recommendation on faith; are cool with some heavy, but well-explained, math; and are likely to enjoy a novel where a sentence like, “We’re up against >a laundry list of things that comprise the novel’s main conflict<. We have a protractor,” is a genuine threat, then I urge you to stop reading now. Those who need more convincing or have already read it, read on.

Anathem reminds me a bit of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and not just because of the exhaustive glossary at the end. Both novels present totally alien worlds and attempted some things that, at the time, were completely new to me. While Dune may or may not be the first epic, sprawling sci-fi opera of its kind, I’m fairly confident that Anathem is the first philosophical thriller. I don’t mean a thriller that has some philosophical implications. I mean a thriller where the action is the philosophical discussions themselves. Every debate and line of inquiry slowly builds on previous concepts and prepares both the avout and the reader for the moment when all of the threads finally come together and are either proved or disproved during the novel’s climax. The novel’s climax is one of the most surprising I’ve read in terms of both form and content. For those who aren’t sold on a book whose main action occurs in lengthy debates, there are also (spoiler alert): a sect of ninja mathematicians, secret societies complete with centuries-old conspiracies, and aliens. While there are a few missteps along the way, such as a possible terrorism plot that’s introduced within the final 10 pages and never resolved, the originality and overall cohesion of the plot and philosophy are impressive and worth the read.

Stephenson does some cool things with language in the novel. He creates an alternate language for lots of our common words, such as cellphones being referred to as “jeejahs.” While this technique is somewhat annoying at first, its purpose becomes clear once the characters we’re following leave their monasteries. The world they’re entering is alien to them, and by making us think of items like cell phones and computers by using different words, we’re forced to experience how alien the technology is to the avout. The avout’s unfamiliarity with much of the outside world also allows Stephenson an avenue for exposition and world-building that doesn’t seem forced: all of the avouts’ questions are logical and natural.

If the book has a weakness, it’s the characters, although I consider them a strength. Many of the characters are one-note and I could see a reader being disappointed by their lack of depth. However, each of the characters is also a voice for one strand of viewpoint of mathic philosophy. The variety of characters actually rounds out the living, evolving philosophical ideas that are the novel’s center and provide color to the novel’s true main character: the world of Arbre. 

Anathem may take a few hundred pages to get going, but scenes from the beginning of the novel are still paying off well into page 900. I must say that Anathem is one of my favorite novels of recent memory, not only because of Stephenson’s creativity, but also because of the sheer testicular fortitude of his storytelling.

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