Anathem By Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, New York, 2008
From my library hold list.
I have been a Stephenson fan since reading Snow Crash in the early ’90s. It is one of those books that I return to again and again and it always seems to be several steps ahead of modern techno-culture.
Anathem is 900+ pages. Reading it felt taking a step back in time and ending up thousands of years in the future.
On the planet called Ambre, Fraa Erasmas, a young Avout living in a monastery-like community called a Concent, is happy to take part in rituals he and his cohorts do not really understand. He spends most of his time in deep dialog with his teachers. Avouts are intellectuals, removed from society and all technology, like monks or nuns. Concents are walled compounds and members are grouped into Maths, based on the study of certain disciplines and on lengths of time. Members of Maths are allowed to enter society during a yearly 10 day event called an Apert. Depending on their Math, Avouts take part in this celebration every year, every ten years, or every hundred years. Then there are the Millenniums. The rest of the time Avouts are sequestered in their Concert unless called upon to help the outside world is a matter that requires scientific or theoretical problem solving.
Erasmas’ teacher, Orolo, has discovered a strange ship circling the planet and manages to take pictures of it. This sets off a series of events that has Orolo expelled from his community and the secular and political society calling on members of Concents from all over Ambre to help determine what the ship is and where it comes from.
Simple, huh? The thing about Stephenson is things are never simple. I spent the first couple hundred pages flipping back to the glossary, learning what all the terms meant. Ambre itself seems earth-like but reversed and regressed. Concents are intellectual and time is spent discussing mathematics, physics and philosophy. Thinking is their avocation and the spiritual is intellectual.
Outside, in the Sæcular world, there is commerce, technology and religion, very like our own. We learn that thousands of years of war and peace have developed this divided society. I am fascinated by Stephensen’s ability to create a world that is so like our own and yet so different. He states that his inspiration for Anathem comes from the Long Now Foundation and their 10,000 year clock. Long Now is an organization I have following for several years.
I devoured Anathem over a period of four days and only found a few bits that didn’t quite work for me. The end feels rushed and left some questions unanswered. There is no way I can write about Anathem in any way that does it justice. If you are fascinated by the history of human thought, by philosophy and science, and are a fan of science fiction you will enjoy this book.
Now I think I am ready for Stephenson’s newest novel, Reamde. It is over 1,000 pages long.