Not to put too fine a point on it, but I am a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s writing. Since I first read his groundbreaking work Snow Crash, I have eagerly awaited each new novel. So I approached his latest effort Anathem full of high expectations.
Let me assure you, Stephenson did not disappoint. From its comedic and slightly confusing start, to its verging on hopeful ending, the reader is led every step of the way by the likeable main character Erasmas, or Raz for short.
The story is set on the planet Arbre, which has a 7,089-year history that is somewhat similar to Earth’s. One of the largest differences is that there are two separate groups of people on the planet that interact under only the strictest of rules.
On one hand we have the “Saecular World,” which goes through endless cycles of booms and busts, world wars, and climate change. At the time of the story, it is a consumer culture with people forever distracted by blazing advertisements, “jeejahs” (advanced mobile phones), and all the food contains “Allswell” (a type of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant).
The people are for the most part aliterate or illiterate, and receive all their information coming from “speelys” (a type of advanced television). There are some educated people – who often become leaders – and artisans as well. Religious groups possess a lot of power, but are split into countless factions.
On the other hand, we have Raz and his friends, which live in one of many “concents” (a type of walled monastery) that are dotted around the planet. This group, called the “avout” – made up of scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians – have taken oaths to stay cloistered for one, 10, 100, or 1,000 years.
Raz, who entered the concent when he was eight years old because he liked books, is a Decenarian (Tenner), and is allowed to visit the Saecular World once every 10 years. The only other time an avout leaves the concent is when whatever government is in charge at the time needs help solving a crisis. And wouldn’t you know it, but a crisis is in the making as the story begins.
So, with that brief sketch of the novel’s story, you might see that Stephenson is working with some pretty conceptual stuff. And once he starts talking about string theory, “new matter,” and high-level math, the reader is bound to learn something whether they want to or not.
The book tackles such weighty topics as the conflict between science and religion, as well as comments on today’s culture here on Earth. Stephenson was quoted as saying, “As far as culture and politics are concerned, the important theme is long-attention-span vs. short-attention-span thinking.”
The avout, especially the Centenarians (Hundreders) or Millenarians (Thousanders), have a very different relationship with time and it allows them to do things that others can’t.
But don’t think this is all work and no play. For as much as Stephenson writes incredibly technical and challenging novels, he is also a big fan of adventure stories. Every one of his novels to date has at least one badass character, and Anathem is no different.
The reader meets the avouts from the concent of the “Ringing Vale” just at the right time. We quickly learn that they practice the concept of “vale lore” or “vlor,” a short jump from the English word valor. While some concents have been studying geometry for thousands of years, they have been working on their own unique martial arts – and they use it to devastating effect.
As great as this novel is, it is not perfect. There is a dead spot about three quarters of the way through that is tough to get through. That 50-page section – dealing with divergent realities – is the most abstract and challenging part of the book. But, once you make it through that, it is a tremendous, adrenaline-pumping race to the finish.
As you may have noticed, Stephenson created a lot of new words in the novel, so many that there is a 20-page glossary – not to mention 25 pages of math lessons that are interesting, but not strictly necessary for the reader to understand. But the words soon become second nature and you stop looking in the back about halfway through the book.
But I have to warn you, because you forget there are 45 pages of filler at the end, the grand finale may catch you by surprise. It was not the best feeling to eagerly turn the page, only to find the start of the glossary.
But, I went back and re-read the last couple pages a bit more slowly and it did provide a satisfying ending – even though I could have read at least another 100 pages.
The World of Anathem