Anathem by Neal Stephenson (2008)
“Do your neighbors burn one another alive?” was how Fraa Orolo began his conversation with Artisan Flec.
Note: This review contains mild spoilers.
Anathem is what you would call a “big idea” book. In it, Stephenson creates an entire world, called Arbre, with a 3,000-year history (complete with apocalypse) and even its own languages. He tackles themes like quantum physics, parallel universes, the Platonic ideal and the existence of God. Yet Anathem is surprisingly readable, despite weighing it at almost a thousand pages.
I was trepidatious about tackling Anathem. I had heard about the made-up language and, having read books written in fictional dialects before, I expected a difficult slog. But Stephenson confines his invented words to key concepts and technologies. He also provides dictionary excerpts for relevant terms, although many words — like the title — are twists on English words and are easily deciphered from context. I even grew to enjoy the language, and so was a little startled when some French was thrown in toward the end (to a purpose, of course). My favorite word was jeejah, which is a device like a cell phone or smart phone, as ubiquitous on Arbre as here, and just as annoying to those who aren’t permanently attached to them.
Because of its history, which includes something apocalyptic called the Terrible Events, the general populace of Arbre is suspicious of new technologies or science. As a result, they have sequestered their intellectual elite in places like monasteries, where they are isolated for a year or more at a time. The avout, as they are called, are only allowed to work on theoretical science and mathematics, and cannot own or develop any technology apart from a short list of items. Depending on the “order” they belong to, the avout open their gates and mingle with the outside world for 10 days annually, each decade, each century or each millennium.
It is during the 10-year celebration of this time, called Apert, that the story begins. The protagonist is a young avout named Erasmus, who on the last day of Apert receives an unjustified punishment and is isolated from his fellow avout for several weeks. During that time, Erasmus’s teacher is expelled in a ritual called Anathem for an unexplained transgression. Investigating this, Erasmus discovers that his teacher had illicitly used technology to discover something world-changing: an alien ship orbiting the planet. Soon afterward, Erasmus and several others are called to an emergency conference regarding this first contact. But Erasmus wants to find his teacher first and sets off on a perilous road trip.
Even though Stephenson fills Anathem’s many pages with lengthy discussions of physics, math and philosophy, including a complex lecture on how parallel universes affect one another, he also throws in plenty of excitement. Besides aliens, there is a treacherous trek across the frozen Pole, some big fights, explosions, spies and conspiracy, and even a love story. But there is all that science and philosophy, too; this is no beach book. Still, it all is crucial to the story, as everything discussed in theory proves true in actuality. Be prepared by the end to be traveling across cosmoses and following multiple conflicting story lines through quantum space.
I thought it was all great fun. And while the story may have rambled on too long in places, or wandered off on unnecessary tangents, Stephenson’s world building is excellent. I was more than ready to accept Arbre as our parallel and to live there for the whole of this lengthy book.
If you like this book, you might also like: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi; A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.