I really like the way Neal Stephenson writes: it is clever and funny. But Anathem (2008) is a book I have to work at. I think the effort is worthwhile, but I’d understand if others didn’t.
I agreed in an earlier post with Margaret Atwood that her futuristic novel Oryx and Crake should be seen as speculative fiction, because it takes what is already happening and extends it, whereas science fiction changes the scientific rules to allow things that are not physically possible. On that basis, Anathem should be science fiction, but the boundaries of science and technology are in such flux that I hesitate to say that the scenario in this book is not physically possible. Quantum Theory? Philosophy? Cosmology? It has all these and more – and it is a great adventure story.
The setting for the book is the planet Arbre, which, Stephenson notes in a foreword to the reader, is in many ways similar to Earth. This planet has a recorded history longer than that of the Earth but some events in it recall those on Earth. We are now living in what in Arbre’s history is known as the Praxic Age, which was nearly three thousand seven hundred years before the events in the story. For thousands of years, groups of men and women who wish to study theorics – science and philosophy – have chosen to become avouts and live together in concents. At earlier days they were at the forefront of technological advances in areas such as sub atomic physics and gene sequencing. Since the Terrible Times, which occurred at the end of the Praxic Age, the avouts have lived almost entirely closed off from the rest of the world, following an ascetic way of life with little modern technology. The names of many recognisable things in this world are different – jeejah for mobile phone/network browser and Reticulum for the internet being two of my favourites. There is a comprehensive glossary, and key terms are defined in the text as extracts from The Dictionary, 4th edition, A.R. 3000. Stephenson has created a complete and complex society, both inside and outside the walls of the concert, in a way that I find quite brilliant.
The story follows the doings of Fraa Erasmus, first in his Concent of Saunt (as in savant) Edhar, then after he is ‘evoked’ – taken out of the concent – by the secular power to help meet a crisis threatening the planet’s future. Erasmus is an endearing character and Stephenson is a master story teller; there’s lots of exciting action to enjoy, as well as the interest of the world he has created.
I do, nevertheless, have two related problems with this book. First, it is, like all Stephenson’s books, very long, coming in at around 900 pages. Does it really need to be so long? Is this self indulgence on the author’s part? Second, some of the length comes from fairly protracted philosophical discussions among the characters. These primarily cover the views of philosophers that can be recognised as Plato and Aristotle and their successors. There is the notion ‘that the objects and ideas that humans perceive and think about are imperfect manifestations of pure, ideal forms that exist in another plane of existence’. Or, ‘Put simply’, says someone on the other side of the argument, ‘… language, communication, indeed thought itself, are the manipulations of symbols to which meanings are assigned by culture – and only by culture.’ There is also discussion of consciousness and language, and of various mathematical concepts, to say nothing of configuration space. This is a bit of a stretch for me. It would be bad enough if the real names were used, but I find having to remember which argument goes with which avout saunt distractingly difficult. Are these discussions really necessary to the plot, or are they just Stephenson having a bit of fun? They certainly slow down the pace. I can see the general relevance, but struggle with much of the detail.
Someone has created a Wiki page where everything in the story is given an earthly equivalent. This is quite interesting, but I find there is pleasure in teasing out for myself the ways in which words sound similar to other words, yet mean something rather different. The physics of how the same matter can develop in divergent ways to produce outcomes that are different but still similar is at the heart of the book, so Stephenson’s play with language mirrors this in a very pleasing way.
And his command of the technology he has (I assume) invented is awesome.