Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is Neal Stephenson’s latest novel. After having toiled at The Baroque Cycle last year, Stephenson is back with a speculative fiction book. Although we can’t really say that this is a science-fiction book, it still uses elements of that genre.

Unlike The Baroque Cycle, which is composed of three separate books, Anathem is a standalone 928-page volume. Stephenson created a distinct vocabulary for this book. This makes things more challenging for the usual reader, since it forces you to check up the glossary. After a few chapters, this is no problem. Stephenson’s genre and writing is quite immersive, so I really got into the book. It took me two days to finish it.

I found the Anathem wiki very useful after having read the book. I wouldn’t recommend reading the wiki before having completed your first reading of Anathem. Spoilers are all over it and without knowing, you’ll spoil your fun.

[There is actually a trailer for this book. It’s most enjoyable once you have read the book. To be honest, it looks fan-made, but it’s still fun to watch.]

This book is the first fiction book reviewed by Nature. If you’ve read Cryptonomicon or The Baroque Cycle, you’ll know what you are getting into. Otherwise, be prepared that this isn’t an easy book to read. It’s immersive and the narrative is quite incredible, but there is a lot of mathematics, science and metaphysics included here.

Anathem takes place in a different reality or world line than ours. On a planet named Arbre, after a series of technological and social catastrophes, society has forced scientists and philosophers, the avout,  to live apart from the world. They live in concents, which are kind of like monasteries. This makes the concents almost immune to the vagaries of society. Dynasties and empires rise and fall, but the avout who are cloistered in concents live on without much change. Most technology is denied from the avout. They aren’t allowed to breed either, lest their offspring showed dangerous levels of intellect which are seen as a threat to the planet. The rest of the world is populated by slines, short for baselines, who drink sugary drinks and spend their days speaking on jeejays, handheld communication devices which include access to the Reticulum, the internet.

The avout don’t know much about the Ita, who run the infrastructure of their cloistered world. All they know is that it is taboo to interact with them in any way, shape or form. The avout participate in rites and rituals. Each year, decade, century and millennium, the doors of the concents are opened for people to visit and for the avout to enter the world for 10 days. Within the concent, there are strict guidelines. The avout graduate from Unarians to Decenarians, to Centenarian, to Millennarians.  Each mathic faction is cloistered for a different amount of time. It varies from a year, a decade, a century to a millennium.

If there is a problem in the so-called Saecular world, they can evoke avout to solve the problem. Once an avout leaves the concent, they can never return. Such is the world that a young fraa named Erasmas lives in. He’s a Decenarian and has been cloistered for about a decade. He was Collected with a few other of the books protagonists.

Anathem is an epic adventure woven together with science and philosophy. Erasmas and his friends have to save their world from peril. Throughout this book, the reader learns through the discussions or dialogs that Erasmas has with his colleagues and teachers. Stephenson broaches quantum mechanics, philosophy, metaphysics, parallel universes and the nature of consciousness this way. This is harder to follow, but ultimately quite rewarding. This book is a sort of thought experiment on what would happen if ever society were to become afraid of scientists.

The last few hundred pages are really incredible. It’s hard to describe, but the end of the Battle of the Daban Urnud is told from different world lines and doesn’t make a lot of sense until you understand that these are told from different cosmi.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s thought provoking, and even days after I’ve finished it, I’m still thinking about it. Sharing it with others is problematic yet fun, as it involves explaining the setting, which is quite different from anything else.

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Author: range

I'm mathematician/IT strategist/blogger from Canada living in Taipei.

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