Book: Anathem

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Anathem: A Novel

Author: Neal Stephenson
Publisher: Atlantic Books

Anathem is a magnificent creation: a work of great scope, intelligence, and imagination that ushers readers into a recognizable—yet strangely inverted—world.

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.


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Anathem:…an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas).

Any writer who wants to create a sense of verisimilitude about an imaginary setting must wrestle with how to convey both the similarities and differences between the created milieu and the real world. In his previous novels, Neal Stephenson has faced this test while attempting to convey an amazingly deep array of ideas and situations. From the hip nearish future of Snow Crash to the nanotech-encrusted The Diamond Age, and even in such “historical” novels as Cryptonomicon and the three volumes of the Baroque Cycle, Stephenson’s challenge has been making the alien real enough so that he can then explore the implications of various philosophical or technological issues, providing entertainment to the reader at the same time as he engages in a complex dialog about our present and our future. In Anathem, a stunning sprawl of a novel set on the planet Arbre, clever new solutions to the problem spring up in every paragraph, on every page—without which not a single line of dialogue, a single character study, would convince the reader one iota.

Among the most impressive of Stephenson’s accomplishments in this area is how quickly the reader adjusts to terms like aut and fraa and suur from the quote above. An aut is a ritual. A fraa is a male “avout,” a suur a female avout, and avout roughly means “monk.” For example, Anathem‘s narrator is the 19-year-old fraa avout Erasmus, and he lives in a “math” that is thousands of years old. The maths are more or less monasteries for scientists and philosophers, protecting accumulated knowledge from the rise and fall of civilizations outside their walls. A Saunt, or saint, is not a religious martyr but rather a “great thinker,” a lovely inversion. In another brilliant tactical move by Stephenson, the Sæcular world outside of Erasmus’ math during the events related in Anathem is as sophisticated as our own today. This creates important opportunities for contrast between the two cultures.

The mystery that emerges from Stephenson’s meticulous world building involves nothing less than a threat to the planet. It’s a truth that slowly comes into focus as Erasmus shares seemingly surface details about his life, his surroundings, and his mentor, Fraa Orolo. These early sections of Anathem are mesmerizing, the discussions among the avout both mind-blowing and hilarious. Some of the finest scenes in the novel occur as Stephenson expertly takes the reader through the rituals of Erasmus’ math. (It is difficult to think of another writer who could make a long description of a clock-winding ceremony so fascinating.)

Soon, though, Stephenson expands the scope of Anathem to include the rest of Arbre—indeed, the rest of the cosmos. Erasmus, Fraa Orolo, and others notice disturbing deviations during routine observations of the night sky. Their subsequent investigation puts them in grave danger as they acquire forbidden knowledge. As a result, Fraa Orolo and Erasmus in turn are expelled into the Sæcular World; however, while Orolo’s departure is the result of an anathem, Erasmus’ expulsion may well be part of a plan to aim a weapon at the heart of a mysterious enemy.

Ita: (1) In late Praxic Orth, an acronym…whose precise etymology is a casualty of the loss of shoddily preserved information that will forever enshroud the time of the Harbingers and the Terrible Events. Almost all scholars agree that the first two letters come from the words Information Technology, which is late Praxic Age commercial bulshytt for syntactic devices. The third letter is disputed; hypotheses include Authority, Associate, Arm, Archive, Aggregator, Amalgamated, Analyst, Agency, and Assistant.

Stephenson’s ability to create and deploy convincing terminology makes Erasmus’ story possible. But it’s his playful sense of invention in fleshing out his world, bringing to mind his youthful exuberance in Snow Crash, that gives Anathem most of its energy and makes it largely a joy to read. Calling a truck a “fetch” is merely clever, but elements like an extended discussion between students and instructor about Sæcular perceptions or the avout—“iconographies”—is in a different class altogether.

In the Muncostran Iconography, for example, a scientist is thought of as “eccentric, lovable, disheveled theorician, absent-minded, means well.” The Pendarthaan Iconography, by contrast, portrays scientists as “high-strung, nervous, meddling know-it-alls who simply don’t understand the realities; lacking physical courage, they always lose out to more masculine Sæculars.” The undeniable satirical quality of these iconographies is wedded to a practical purpose: avout who come into contact with the outside world need to understand which stereotypes, which belief systems, represent a threat to them or their maths. This initial discussion of perception and belief recurs repeatedly, a continual probing of the nature of reality and the power of the mind to construct its own version of it.

Throughout Anathem, Stephenson displays a genius for creating details that multi-task by being clever and funny and functional. This is particularly important during the middle of the novel, in which Erasmus travels across a continent to reach a rendezvous point for an expedition that may lead to answers about the threat from the heavens. The pacing that worked so well in the math seems somewhat slower during Erasmus’ journey, the theoretical conversations more ponderous. The insertion of oddly absurd yet believable elements, like “Everything Killer” weapon systems and an internet that runs on “bulshytt” and “bulshytt elimination,” helps make this slower pace more palatable.

Bulshytt: (1) In Fluccish of the late Praxic Age and early Reconstitution, a derogatory term for false speech in general, esp. knowing and deliberate falsehood or obfuscation…

The overall level of bulshytt in Anathem is relatively low. In one sense, of course, the entire novel is bulshytt of the kind expected from professional liars: game playing at a level so high that in some places the author’s imagination alone keeps the whole audacious contraption spinning in the air long after it should have cracked to pieces against the floor.

But what negative bulshytt does exist occurs because Erasmus is a deliberate, detail-oriented narrator with a somewhat understated approach. The reader is given the sense that this is part of his training, and in the context of his math this restraint works well. However, when Erasmus is out in the wider world this quality lends Stephenson’s prose an “and-then-this-happened-and-then-that-happened” quality. Erasmus maintains the same tone, whether he is describing being buried in the snow while traveling over the north pole of Arbre or narrating his narrow escape from an angry mob with the help of some truly butt-kicking “ninja” monks.

The liveliness of the ideas surrounding Erasmus’ adventures often masks this defect but cannot, for example, disguise the increasingly superficial nature of his romantic relationship with Ala, a suur avout with a pivotal role in the plans being made against the enemy. His reactions to their separation, and to the dangerous prospect she faces, become flatter and flatter, even as Ala’s own initial complexity dissipates, perhaps losing out to Stephenson’s fascination with ideas. Further, Ala’s habit of becoming emotional not only undermines the idea that Erasmus’ restraint is culture based but also makes her stereotypically “female.”

Still, these flaws seem minor in the context of the triumphs on display here. As Stephenson writes in his introduction, Anathem “is best read in somewhat of the same spirit as John L. Casti’s ‘The Cambridge Quintet,’ which is to say that it is a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth’s past and present.” In this sense, then, Anathem is a worthy successor to the ambitious Baroque Cycle. Such a reading of Anathem doesn’t excuse some of the baggy-ness of the 900-page novel, or the impassive qualities of Erasmus; but the ideas are so attractively presented, the context so perfect for their exploration, that it’s hard to find too much fault.

In the last act, Anathem also provides some unbelievably intricate space adventure—some of it attaining the audaciousness of a Roger Moore–era James Bond movie—wedded to spectacular scientific extrapolation and speculation about alternate universes. This action-oriented reprise in-the-flesh of the abstract hypotheticals discussed during the novel’s first half has the satisfying feel of watching blueprints turn into aesthetically pleasing real-world objects.

Perhaps, then, what Stephenson has accomplished with Anathem is the ultimate synthesis of techno-fascination/Geek-SF sense-of-wonder with the far more ancient general quest for knowledge about the world, and what lies beyond our grasp of it. —Jeff VanderMeer

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