Anathem

by Neal Stephenson

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Publisher: William Morrow
Copyright: 2008
ISBN: 0-06-147409-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 935

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Fraa Erasmas is a little less than twenty years old and is an avout of the decade math of the Concent of Saunt Edhar. As Anathem opens, he's approaching his first apert. All of those words are left for the reader to puzzle out for themselves, unless you cheat and read the glossary (which I would recommend doing only with caution, but more on that in a moment), since Erasmas, the first-person narrator of this story, writes (mostly) as if the reader is familiar with the mathic world and its concepts.

Translated into English, it means that Erasmas was brought into something akin to a scientific monastery (the "math") at around the age of nine and has been there for ten years, since his math is a decade math and therefore remains closed to all outside (sæcular) ideas and contact for periods of ten years at a time. He is still a student there, not yet declaring allegiance to one of the chapters. That's something that he will be expected to do after the first apert. Every ten years, the decade math opens its doors to the outside world for a period of ten days (apert), and the fraas and suurs can leave the math and travel through the outside world as they wish.

The start of Anathem is an exercise in alienation and reorientation. Stephenson has constructed a complex society with a long history and its own specific technical jargon and throws the reader into it with a minimum of orientation. Despite being familiar with SF novels that use this technique, I did read the preface and recommend that other readers do as well unless they particularly love piecing together a world from hints and clues. The timeline, in particular, was invaluable and something I referred to throughout the story. But even with the preface, you should expect to read the first part of Anathem interpolating meanings from context or just letting things slip past until you later come to understand them.

A lot of people bounce off of Anathem here, and it's one of the reasons why I'd been postponing reading it (the other being that it's a substantial doorstop and I wanted to give it my undivided attention). But it's really not as bad as I feared. One gets a feel for the terms fairly quickly, and the more difficult ones Stephenson defines as he goes with excerpts from a dictionary of the mathic world. I found it slightly disorienting for a chapter or two, and then it started growing on me. The terminology is sometimes different just for the sake of being different (jeejahs are indistinguishable from smartphones for all practical purposes), but usually the invented words provide either important links to the past of the constructed world of Arbre or are technical terms that add precision and clarity once you know their meanings. It can be a little bit frustrating to remember the mapping of famous theories and theorems to the Orth names, but only mildly. (And Diax's Rake is so useful of a name for something that English doesn't name that I may start using it myself.)

This is also why I recommend against reading the glossary. The definitions of terms are linked to important parts of history, which are, in turn, linked to important parts of the plot, and the glossary therefore risks spoilers. I liked having the term introduced by the frequent dictionary excerpts scattered through the chapters, and enjoyed the feeling of the terminology unfolding with the plot. The glossary is there if you really get lost, but I think the experienced SF reader (particularly if you have enough history background to pick up on the obvious parallels and start mapping bits to Greece, Rome, the Catholic Church, etc.) will be able to navigate the language without that much difficulty.

I also stopped caring about the terminology because the story is so engrossing that it pulled me right into the book, closed over me, and made Erasmas's world feel real, precious, and fascinating. Whether that's going to be true of other people is a surprisingly difficult question, and one that I'll try to tackle as part of this review. But I will say up-front that I think this is the best book that Stephenson has ever written, even better than Snow Crash, despite some undeniable flab and one extremely irritating choice.

Anathem is, at its heart, a novel about the scientific method. I think it's the first book by Stephenson that elegantly mingles his tendencies (and obsessions) as a writer with the interests (and obsessions) of the characters and makes the whole novel feel coherent. All of Stephenson's books are prone to discursive infodumps, but they've usually had to be shoehorned in around the characters. Even with the Baroque Cycle, a series full of natural philosophers, the digressions are jammed in around the plot like the filling of an over-packed box and frequently stick out at odd angles or dribble out on the floor. With Anathem, Stephenson has populated a book full of characters who have completely believable and engrossing reasons to digress into scientific debate and analysis, can put them into dialogue and thereby avoid some of the strain of the infodump, and (most importantly) largely restrains himself from narrative digressions via first-person narration and careful attention to when the characters themselves would follow the same digression.

In short, this is a book full of very smart and very well-educated people who figure things out from first principles using agreed-upon theory, thrown into an unknown and dangerous situation that requires a great deal of deep thinking, science, engineering, and philosophy. All of Stephenson's quirks are still here, on prominent display, but rarely have I ever seen a better match of writer, characters, plot, and world background than this book. I would go so far as to say that, if you don't like this book, you're unlikely to like any long Stephenson.

I haven't said a lot about the plot. Erasmas's apert is only the first part, and barely touches on any significant plot elements. It's mostly there to set some groundwork, introduce characters, and get the reader oriented. I'm not going to say much more, since the way the novel transitions from routine to unusual to emergency, and the resulting scramble to understand the emergency, is the heart and soul of this book and should not be spoiled. (I spoiled myself slightly by reading some analysis that I shouldn't have and regretted it, although it wasn't too much of a problem.) This is one of Stephenson's best-plotted novels. It develops slowly enough for the reader (and the characters) to think hard about it and make some good and bad guesses, but fast enough to stay engrossing. Most of it is very well-paced provided that you find the background of science and philosophy of science interesting. (If you don't, this is probably not a book you're going to enjoy.)

I say "most of it" because, as mentioned earlier, this book is a bit flabby. There are a couple of sections where the theory and analysis are pushed aside by exigent circumstances and more action-oriented plot elements, both of which reminded me that Stephenson is very bad at writing action sequences and both of which I wished were shorter. And there are a couple of sections where Erasmas is getting oriented to a new situation or working up the courage to do something where I wished he'd get on with it already. But for a novel of nearly 1,000 pages, the amount of tension and reader interest Stephenson maintained for me was quite impressive.

But as good as the plot is, the best part of this book is its full-bore, no-apologies embrace of understanding things. This is a book about making sense of the world, and about what it means to make sense of the world, and how you go about it, and what preconditions are required to do so. It is not, contrary to so much science fiction, a book about knowing things. The people who are already experts appear in this book, but generally only in the context of figuring out new things they've not previously been exposed to. Rather, it's a book about learning things, the thrill that comes from applying theory to understand something new, and the satisfaction of working through something from first principles or previously-established theory, arriving at testable predictions, and then testing them. It's the first novel I've read that captures some of the joy and delight that I got from reading George Gamow's One Two Three... Infinity as a child. Stephenson novels have always been about showing the reader neat things he learned, but I think previous books relied on the reader to bring their own enthusiasm. Anathem, at least for me, goes a step farther and uses the passion and approach of its characters to create that enthusiasm. It's one of those books that I not only enjoyed but went away from feeling like it made me a better person in some subtle but detectable way.

Sadly, this is also where the irritating part comes in.

I'm going to be very careful and indirect here, since the details are all extremely significant spoilers. You may want to skip to the last paragraph of this review if you want to avoid any knowledge about the end of Anathem.

Stephenson pulls several rabbits out of the hat in this book, but most of them are well-defended and nicely handled bits of misdirection. There are a few where I thought the science or engineering was dubious, but even those are usually backed with enough hand-waving about Arbre technology that I could swallow it enough for the purposes of this book. (The timeline here is very helpful in allowing one to write off a few things as unknown technology.) But he puts, at the core of the plot, one of the most scientifically dubious bits of the whole book, and there's simply no avoiding that by the end of the story.

Now, this doesn't mean that he just expects the reader to swallow it. Much of Anathem is a carefully-constructed defense of the bits he uses for the plot, and the defense is not half-bad within his fictional world. There are substantial in-book justifications for believing these techniques will work on Arbre even if they wouldn't in our scientific domain. So it's not so much the plausibility that bothered me; the idea is at least as plausible as some of the FTL drive concepts that I've swallowed without complaint. I do hold Anathem to a higher standard because the book is about science in a way that most science fiction isn't, but even with that, I think Stephenson mostly managed to dance across the thin ice he built.

The problem is more subtle but more serious: if taken seriously on its own terms, the approach Stephenson takes to the plot destroys science in his universe.

I can't really say more than that, since all of the details are huge spoilers, but the more I thought about it, the more irritated and annoyed I got. Anathem is otherwise a brilliant defense of the scientific method, and it felt like Stephenson injected a poison pill in the center of it, leading necessarily to a world where the scientific method no longer works. This does not happen on camera, or even between the pages of the book; you have to think about the implications for a while before you realize that's what happened. But once you do, it's a bitter pill to swallow, and it's hard to escape the feeling that it fundamentally undermines Stephenson's whole project here. And, to make it worse (although also oddly better in a way), I think it was unnecessary. He would have had to reconstruct the ending, but I can't shake the feeling that there were ways to write the ending, even maintaining the same character strengths, without having to pull that particular rabbit out of the hat.

Because I think it's, in the end, unnecessary, I was still able to enjoy the whole book, including the ending, despite this, but while the rest of Anathem is a wholehearted 10, that choice knocked a full point off my impression of the book. It's profoundly irritating precisely because Stephenson did such an excellent job with the rest of it.

But, that said, this book is still exceptional. I think it's the book that Stephenson was meant to write. Not only did he get the overall construction nearly perfect, he gets so many of the details right, from the history (which for a while I thought was merely clever, once I started seeing the correspondences that moved it out of the realm of pure invention, but which transitioned back to profound with later revelations in the book) to the language to the way that he excerpted some theoretic digressions into very well-done appendices. If you've ever thought of a theory as beautiful, or like reading about smart people debating the nature of understanding and knowledge, I cannot recommend this book too highly. Despite the highly irritating flaw at its center, and despite a few sections that show Stephenson is not a well-rounded writer, I think it's brilliant.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-11-17

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21