Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

A wizardmonkFra must venture out among the Muggles, by an author who is the Cleverest Boy.


William Morrow, 2008, 937 pages

Fraa Erasmus is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the "Saecular" world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals.

Over the centuries, cities, and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent's walls. Three times during history's darkest epochs, bloody violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet always the avout have managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. Erasmus, however, has no fear of the outside - the Extramuros - for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.

Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fras and suurs prepare to venture outside the concent's gates - opening them wide at the same time to welcome the curious "extras" in.

During his first Apert as a fra, Erasmus eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn't seen since he was "collected". But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the perilous brink of cataclysmic change.

Powerful unforeseen forces threaten the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramuros - a threat that only an unsteady alliance of Saecular and avout can oppose - as, one by one, Raz's colleagues, teachers, and friends are all called forth from the safety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster.

Suddenly burdened with a worlds-shattering responsibility, Erasmus finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of everything - as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of an unfamiliar planet...and far beyond.

My first Neal Stephenson novel was Snow Crash, which was just insanely entertaining and gonzo and bonkers and everything cyberpunk was supposed to be back in the early 90s. I then went on to read everything he'd written thus far (including The Big U, his first novel, which he thought was so bad that he tried to prevent any reprints until he found out fans were paying insane prices for used copies). Cryptonomicon remains one of my favorite novels of all time.

But I bounced hard off of his Baroque Cycle, a series I never have picked up again. Since then, I've read almost all of of his books, and he remains one of my favorite authors. That said, he doesn't knock them all out of the park.

The thing you need to know about Neal Stephenson is that he's a brilliant guy. Truly brilliant. He knows math, physics, genetics, philosophy, history, linguistics, biology... you name it, he can at least write it well enough to sound like an expert. His science fiction is full of deep, intricately-explained ideas that (from a layman's perspective) more or less check out as "hard science," even when he ventures into more esoteric ideas like time travel or the Many Worlds hypothesis.

And sometimes he just really likes to show off. He came up with some deepity ideas and he's gonna write about them. For almost a thousand pages.

Anathem is one of his most well-known novels, but the premise just did not grab me, so I didn't read it when it first came out and it's taken me thirteen years to get to it.

Anathem is not set on Earth. It's set on Arbre. Arbre is a not-Earth with not-monks and not-Churches and not-carrots and not-rabbits (seriously, the author starts with a preamble about how even though the characters in the book refer to things like "rabbits" and "carrots," they aren't really rabbits or carrots, because this isn't Earth so they're really talking about the Arbre equivalent of rabbits and carrots — yes, dude actually wrote a didactic mini-essay about calling a rabbit a "Smeerp").

After the "Not Smeerps" opening, there is a timeline going back some several thousand years, in which we learn that monastic orders called "maths" have existed through history, isolating themselves from the Muggles"sæculars" and thinking deep thoughts and having lengthy Socratic dialogs spanning centuries about the nature of reality and theoretical physics and weaponized memes, that sort of thing. The maths are not "religious" per se, they just happen to behave in almost every way like religious orders except the whole believing in God part. There are apparently a very small number of maths that do believe in God, which they debate in lengthy Socratic dialogs spanning centuries.

Every once in a while, the mathic orders invent something really dangerous, and the sæculars turn on them, burning their maths and scattering the Avout. There have been three "Sacks" in history, and each time they reconstituted under more stringent controls to prevent another Sack.

While Stephenson could (and does, repeatedly) go on for many, many oh my god so many pages of mathic dialog between the Fras (and occasionally Suurs; feminists could probably grumble a bit about the secondary status of Stephenson's female characters, who tend to have a bit of Heinleinian "super-competent and usually smarter than the male characters but ultimately there for the guy to get laid" vibe about them), the novel needs a plot and eventually one appears.

Fraa Erasmas is a young Avout who is thrust out into the sæcular world after a series of unprecedented events. His mentor is excommunicated, his girlfriend is summoned away, and all sorts of conspiratorial things seem to be afoot. Erasmas and his friends head off on a journey through the "praxic" world, trying to figure out what the big deal is that Fra Orolo saw in the sky that's threatening mathics and sæculars alike.

I'm not saying it's aliens

The story gets weirder and cleverer and what started as a bunch of not-monks debating math and philosophy in a not-monastery ends with space battles and doomsday weapons and parallel universes.

I enjoyed Anathem but... at times it just felt like Stephenson was trying to be too clever many times over, with a bit of added sneering at Muggles. I'm sure every gifted child has dreamed at one time of a life of the mind, living in intellectual contemplation with fellow geniuses. Why, oh why, must we suffer the clown world of sæcular politics and social media when we could be above it all ... um, living in monasteries. I mean, they're co-ed monasteries and there's no mandatory celibacy, but, okay, maybe we can see why Fraa Erasmas seems to enjoy eventually becoming a space marine.

This book was fun and full of thinky ideas, but like many of Stephenson's novels, it's basically a bunch of thinky ideas wrapped in a novel like vegetables wrapped in a tasty deep-fried layer of tempura.

Also by Neal Stephenson: My reviews of Reamde, Seveneves, and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O..

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, neal stephenson, reviews, science fiction

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