Anathem Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, is that most odd of things: philosophical science fiction. By which I mean that in order to enjoy it fully, you really need to have at least a passing acquaintance with the history of Western philosophy from Thales on down; and the more you know, the more you’ll enjoy watching it play out. Not that this is a book of philosophy, or that you have to be a philosopher to read it. There’s plenty of action, interesting characters, and the like.

It is also a difficult book to describe without giving the game away. Heck, it’s a difficult book to describe even if you dogive the game away. But Stephenson has too much fun doling out the information for me to want to spoil it.

The book takes place in a world that is, we are assured, not our own, though there are many points of similarity. Our protagonist is one Fraa Erasmus (“Raz” to his friends) who lives an ascetic sort of life in something that seems very like a monastery, but isn’t, the Concent of Saunt Edhar.

No, I didn’t mispell that. “Saunt”, in Erasmus’ world, is a corruption of “savant”. Edhar was a great and noted thinker in his day, and the Concent, a stronghold of the “mathic world”, was founded to be a place where thinkers could do their work in seclusion, safe from the turmoils and upheavals of the Saecular World outside. Erasmus is a young fraa when we first meet him, winding (with three partners) the great clock that occupies the central tower of the Concent; he is still learning, and has yet to choose his mathic order, the path that he will follow for the rest of his life. He, like all other fraas and suurs, is free to think, to create, and to learn, but he is limited to the most basic technology (called praxic in his world): his bolt, a length of cloth that can become longer and shorter, thicker and thinner at need, that he wears as a garment; his chord, a rope-like object that can also change size, used to keep his bolt from coming off (among other things); and his ball, a soft round object that can be as small as a tennis ball or as large as a truck, but which is mostly used for sitting on. The ball can also glow to provide light.

The fraas and suurs live in almost complete isolation from the Saecular World, coming into contact with the extramurals, or “extras”, those from outside the walls, only during the time of Apert, a week-long festival that occurs once a year…or once every ten years…or once every hundred years…or once every thousand years…depending on who you are. Fraa Erasmus lives in the Decenarian Math, meaning that for him Apert will come every ten years. And as the book begins, Apert is coming; and what will it bring? Therein lies the tale.

I don’t want to say too much more, but I will say this. First, Stephenson’s world-building is phenomenal. I am literally in awe. Second, though there were one or two slow parts I enjoyed the book considerably; it’s the kind of book I’d like to read again for the first time. Third, the intellectual climax of the book is so audacious I can hardly prevent myself from giving it away. Fourth, although Erasmus and his friends have definite, strongly held points of view, with which I sometimes disagree, it never feels like Stephenson has an axe to grind. That impresses me as much as anything.

The only other book by Stephenson that I’ve read is Snow Crash, which had its moments but which I’ve never felt any need to re-read. Anathem is much, much better.

If anyone is interested, I’d gladly discuss my further thoughts about the book down in the comments.

  • By Scott, April 22, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

    I really enjoyed Anathem, and I got a lot out of it on the second reading. I wish my brain wasn’t swiss cheese, or I’d throw out some of my thoughts. Please do throw out more of yours, as they might jiggle a neuron. I’d love to hear what you thought of the climax, for example.

    I have to say I’ve enjoyed all of Stephenson’s work. I recommend trying some more. I will check the Kindle list and see what I’d personally recommend.

  • By Will Duquette, April 23, 2013 @ 6:47 am

    Hi, Scott!

    To begin with, Erasmus and company are, philosophically, scientific materialists—what the philosophers these days are beginning to call “physicalism”. Thought arises from the brain, which is a purely material thing. But mathematics, with its clearly eternal truths, naturally leads philosophers of math to a more Platonist philosophy in which some things, everlasting and immaterial, exist in the Platonic world of forms (what Erasmus and his friends call the Hyleain Theoric World). In this view, we don’t invent, say, the Pythagorean Theorem; rather, we “remember” it.

    The nifty trick Stephenson does is use the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics to provide a purely physical basis for the Platonic world of forms: we “remember” these mathematical truths by crosstalk with our counterparts in other cosmoi that are in some sense prior to ours in the multiverse. It’s a flow from their brains to ours. So everything is all physical/material. What fun!

    This doesn’t actually solve the problem for the physicalists, of course; sure, suppose we get these truths from further upstream, there still has to be some ultimate source or you get an infinite regress. But it’s an audacious solution, as I say.

  • By Scott, April 23, 2013 @ 11:39 am

    I do remember that, and I remember thinking what you describe, including the ultimate source, without all the lingo, which I’ve forgotten or never known.

    Audacious, though, as you say, and excellent fun.

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