Monday, May 31, 2010

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. Harper Collins, 2008. 937 pp. 978-0-06-147409-5

... in which a group of mathematician monks save the world from annihilation.

For my first review, I decided to write about a novel I finished several months ago, simply because it was one of the more unique, interesting reads I've had in awhile.

If you have never read anything by Neal Stephenson, the first thing you should know is that he is almost never a concise author. When it comes to detail, he likes to leave no stone unturned. In Anathem, the story follows a group of young adults (the "avout") in a monastic community on an Earth-like planet. These communities, called "concents" in the novel, are refuges for people who devote their entire lives to studying math, science and philosophy. They have very little in the way of worldly possessions, and they only leave the walls of their communities once every 1, 10, 100, or 1000 years, depending on the type of concent. The people who live in the rest of the world are referred to as Saeculars, and have largely abandoned the study of most higher mathematics, science and philosophy. As a result, the outside world is depicted as being less educated and more concerned with material possessions.

The main character is a young man named Erasmas. The story starts out following his day-to-day life, including his once-in-a-decade venture out of the concent's walls. His mentor is an eccentric older man named Orolo. Orolo spends his time searching for knowledge that for some reason is discouraged by the administrators of the concent, and as a result he is expelled from the concent. Following his expulsion, events in the wider world require leaders from the Saecular world to summon avout from the concents, in order to obtain advice or knowledge from these scholars. One by one, Erasmas and his friends are summoned from their home to play a part in the events that will change the course of life on their planet.

The story is fascinating. The monastic tradition that Erasmas follows is explained in great detail, though Stephenson has a fondness for invented vocabulary. These new words aren't always explained in the body of the novel, which forces the reader to flip frequently between the main text and the glossary at the back. That can get tedious, since many of the words appear often but their meanings are hard to remember. Because of the wealth of detail, it sometimes feel like the plot is going nowhere; the first couple hundred pages are devoted mostly to laying out what Erasmas' life in the concent is like. However, I think this detail was very necessary to make the rest of the plot seem logical. If we don't understand what concent life is like, it might otherwise be hard to understand what the motives of the characters are, or why they make the choices they do.

Towards the end of the novel, the high level of detail and the great complexity of the unfolding events actually make the whole climax and resolution very muddled and confusing. I am still not entirely certain whether a crucial scene in the climax was a dream sequence, a real-world sequence, or something somewhere in-between. Also, because the whole story is told from the perspective of the young avout being set loose in the largely unfamiliar saecular world, sometimes it's hard to determine what certain objects in the saecular world are. Also, towards the end of the book we meet some characters who are from cultures totally alien to the avout, so it took me awhile to suss out who these characters were supposed to be.

Despite the confusion towards the end, this was a very interesting read, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in slightly unusual science fiction, math, or philosophy. If you're going to read it, I recommend that you read it carefully, for detail. Also, don't read it while reading something else; it's best if your attention is not split. I would also suggest that you have some familiarity with basic geometry and basic logic.


  1. I don't really see myself reading this any time soon... Philosophy makes me want to die a little. I tend to skim or not read things with excessive (any) philosophical content.

  2. It's actually far, far heavier on the math and logic than it is on the philosophy.


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