Anathem (256)

(Notes on Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, 256 pages in as I come up for air. Obviously, the description is going to involve plot red herrings, but that is the point of it: To explain what I think of it right now, before the story meanders away into grander seas.)

The promise of a novel is a sojourn in an alternate world, one that differs from reality in at least some describable (if minor) and interesting way.

Now imagine a bizarro post-enlightenment Earth that discovered the sciences in a long sequence of events only subtly different from our own experiences; at times sharing everything with our collective history except the names. This world is past its technological age, and a stable segregation exists in society, Morlocks and Eloi style. The sequestered philosophers and scientists eschew technology and weather economic and structural collapses of civilization outside their cloisters, venturing outside only once in centuries or millenia, and bent on uncovering the secrets of the universe through the socratic method.

Arbre is that world, and Anathem is the promise: a giant what-if, a delicately constructed musing on what could have been of us, and on what we will possibly face in the coming centuries. It’s easily the most erudite opus of speculation I’ve ever dived into, and I’ve only just dived in.

This strange setting highlights the universals of knowledge and discovery: If we rebuilt civilization, what ideas from today would we rediscover in nearly identical form? Occam’s Razor becomes Haldan’s Steelyard, phase spaces and Poincaré maps become Hemn configurations, action principles remain action principles (The more abstract ideas retain their earth-names to avoid overwhelming the reader.)

Anathem delights in wordplay. In keeping with the overall feel (everything’s a little off), places and things have evocative names: a math is a collection of scholars, a concent is a collection of math, an aut is a ceremonial act; Anathem is an invocation (anthem) and an aut of excision (anathema). It’s just the right amount of strange to let the reader know that the rules are different here.

The most surprising thing about Anathem, coming from Stephenson’s previous novels, is the normalcy of its story. True, it’s peppered with the usual amusing and instructive asides 1, and even with appendices explaining mathematical concepts and theorems. Most of the novel so far, though, is an account of the monastic life of the protagonist and his friends–of the structure of the institution and the politicking within. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say it reads like Harry Potter with underpinnings of math and philosophy instead of magic 2. Stephenson is always intriguing, but Anathem, with its fast developing central mystery, is exciting.

Many elements of the world remain unclear at this point:

  • Why do the centenarian and millenarian maths exist? If they sequestered themselves with some grand purpose in mind, it’s not clear why.

  • Who are the various orders vying for power? What is the sæcular power?

Bar a quibble or two (dialogue is often overly expository, but I don’t see it working any other way), reading Anathem is a superlative experience, a philosophical flight of fancy piggybacking on a personal story. As the tale moves out of the monastery, I’m going to relish seeing where it goes.

  1. Although none as memorable as the bicycle chain modulo arithmetic from Cryptonomicon.

  2. This is true right down to the large vocabulary learnt from context in the books. Of course, the similarity is probably to set up the stark contrast between life in the concent and later events of much larger scale.


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