Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

cover art for AnathemOne of the joys of Anathem is the way it unfolds slowly, bit by bit, with every newly revealed detail exposing another unsuspected layer of complexity beneath. Stephenson’s world-building is on the truly fantastic level in Anathem, but it is difficult to talk about without accidentally revealing spoilers, something I am even more reluctant than usual to risk doing because a great deal of the pleasure of reading Anathem comes from the careful plotting that allows the reader to fill in the puzzle piece by piece.

How to describe Anathem? This is how I took to explaining it to my friends: if Gödel, Escher, Bach and The Name of the Rose had gotten together to produce literary offspring, the result could well have been Anathem, complete with wordplay and quirky dialogue.

The wordplay and long dialogues make up much of the first part of Anathem, which takes place in a monastic community containing mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers. They include Erasmas and his friends, who are preparing to become full members of the community. Erasmas’s world is divided into the logical, ordered world within the walls and the illogical “saecular” world outside the walls. “Saecular” is one of the words Stephenson has coined as part of his world-building and, while a glossary is included in the back of the book, I found it more enjoyable to puzzle out the meanings of the words. Puzzling out meanings is one of the things Erasmas and his friends do, especially as those inside the walls and those outside speak literally different languages.

As Anathem begins, the community in which Erasmas lives is preparing for a traditional holiday when the gates to the cloistered community open, allowing those inside to go out into the world while the “saeculars” are invited to visit and tour the community within the walls. Erasmas and his friends, who have not had any contact with the saecular world since they were children, venture outside the walls and soon sense that there are disturbing rumors circulating. Before the gates close again, Erasmas begins to suspect that forces are gathering that threaten the existence of his community from both without and within. Soon he will find himself forced to travel far beyond the walls in order to save the way of life he loves.

For those who may not have caught the reference, the name of the protagonist of Anathem refers to the humanist scholar Erasmas, a philosopher who wrote at the beginning of the Reformation and was highly critical of the established political and religious institutions of his time. This provides one of the many clues to the kind of story Stephenson has created, a story that takes the entire history of philosophy, science, and mathematics, and recontextualizes it as an SF text. Occam’s Razor, the Pythagorean Theorem, the Traveling Salesman problem, and other major landmarks of the history of thought have all been reimagined by Stephenson and formed into a text which, like the best SF, takes abstract ideas and weaves them into a narrative. As is typical of other Stephenson novels, the last quarter or so of the book picks up the pace by, in this case, somewhat abruptly turning into space opera, albeit a very intellectualized space opera that builds upon some of the ideas presented in the earlier parts of the book.

The single part of Anathem that felt underdeveloped was the epilogue, which is used to tie up some of the loose ends. Considering the story’s complexity, it would have been nice to have more details filled in. There are characters and situations that only get the briefest mention in this summarization, and it seems a bit rushed. However, it could be construed as a positive commentary that, even after over nine hundred pages, I would have liked to have spent a little bit more time in the world of Anathem.

No doubt there will be readers and reviewers who won’t like Anathem, and that shouldn’t come as any surprise, because it is a novel that expects the reader to participate in puzzling out meanings just as the protagonist must. However, if you are the sort of reader who enjoys lingering over a novel and taking time to puzzle out its complexities rather than having every plot point delivered to you like so much literary fast food, you may well enjoy this novel. If you enjoy freewheeling discussions of philosophy, logic, and mathematics, you may well love this book as much as I did.

(William Morrow, 2008)


Kestrell Rath, reviewer, is a bibliophile, owner of the Blind Bookworm page, and runs a mailing list for blind readers using new technology. She attends college in Boston.

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