Anathem was my most anticipated book of the year, and it has held up to my expectations throughout my reading. It is a big book of ideas, a tumbling together of many erudite paths with a intriguing adventure plot, a speculative fiction epic. It is many good things, quite a few great things, and only a few problematic things. Highly recommended, though with reseravation (which I will get through). Easily going to take the title of Book of the Year for me. Let me break it down, some.
The novel is set in a world much like our own. Whether or not it is our own is something that you have to find out. References to philosophers much like Plato and much like Descartes are mentioned, with differences potentially coming out of a few thousand years of history. The climate and the food seems similar. The technology seems similar, though more advanced. The society seems at least roughly similar. This was the first intriguing mystery for me, finding out if this is us in 4000 years, or if this is someone like us in 4000 years, or if this is someone else now (on a different worldtrack).
The is-it-the-same-or-not-the-same game allows Stephenson to make a lot of little plays, most of them evident in the new language. The new language, in fact, is the first character you meet in the book. Before you have time to settle on who the important dramatis personae are, you are hit in the face with weird words that make you a tad uncomfortable. The words are defined, in context and in little "side notes" and in a glossary, but early on they are daunting. A good number of early bad reviews harped on the new words exclusively, and barely touched upon the plot moreso than could be garnered from the cover. The neat thing about the words, besides the fact that it helps you to immediately think of this as a different time and place and to realize that things are going to be different, is that many are playful combinations. The book's title is an interesting one: Anathem. It is the bastard child of anthem and anathema. The meaning in the novel seems to slightly play back and forth. You also have Saunt, which is a combination of savant and saint. Ita is both directly a play on IT (information technology) and eta, a japanese "untouchable" people. Reticulum, or "ret", is another word for network but also means the stomach of cud chewing animals where they store cud. Cloister brings to mind both a cluster and our use of the word cloister, meaning a secluded place (in other words, a secluded group).
Shortly after the language, you meet Fraa Erasmas, also Vit, also Raz, who is a young, stocky male who is a scholar in the Mathic world, the concent of Saunt Edhar. As seems normal for the Stephenson scholar-hero, Erasmus is talented but not too much. He is not the best in math or in science or in politics or in discipline or in martial arts. His friends often chide him for his failures in these things, but due to his well rounded friendships, he often does better than average in all of these things. His chief skill, besides a certain earnestness which causes him to put truth before bulshytt, is that he is an excellent listener. He is a Plato of sorts, a man who puts forth someone else's ideas and shapes them to use them, but whose main journey in life is to chronicle. This, of course, makes him the natural focus of such a book, in which many people have many ideas and many adventures and he is something of a center of activity that only occasionally involves him but often requires him to puzzle out what it means. He seems to make natural friends, and some natural enemies, and this could be seen as another of his skills. For those who are looking for a Captain Kirk style hero, kicking down doors so that blaster can be ready to fire; this is not the book for you. Raz is much more likely to do the right thing, barely escape alive, and then think about what this has to do with geometry.
I'm a geek, so I found him fascinating. It's not even the idea of geeks saving the world, it's the idea that geeks can make quite interesting characters when you look at us. While we laugh at bone dry jokes, and seem behind the curve of pop culture, what is it that drives a man to stay up all night working on a geometry proof, or wondering what Plato's Forms really mean, even if the answer will have no true value besides the truth itself? What about the weird ways that geeks fall in love, and handle stress, or make new friends?
The support cast is interesting, intriguing, and infuriating where appropriate. Stephenson seems to have a talent with background characters, with even seemingly minor ones feeling like real people, or at least as real as a speculative fiction story can muster. His trio of friends, the ever-talented Jesry, the martial artist Lio, and the nervous and overthinking Arsibalt, made great reading material. They work as friends, but have that classic epic feel of supporting one another's weaknesses. Fraa Jad is immense as a character and Fraa Orolo makes a good stand-in for a father. Erasmus's sister Cord is an example of that growing number of mechanageek females. Suur's Ala and Tulia are surprisingly absent, despite Stephenson's assurance that they both are affectionate for Erasmus and skilled in their own right. In fact, that's one of the weird things. Raz is quite smitten throughout a good portion of the book, and is quick to wonder about whether or not a female is flirting with him, but rarely actually writes of them. You hear about them doing some great thing off in the distance, but he ends up not hanging aroung them. Geeks, I tell you.
Now, for a plot. I'm not sure how much plot I can give away without giving too much away, so I'll keep it as light as I can. In this world, whatever world this is, most of the smart and inventive types have been placed in concents where they are separated out from society. They have little access to technology, and live a very monkish or nunnish life. They are allowed to have sexual relationships, assuming they are open with them, but they are not allowed to have contact with the outside world except for some rare occasions. The outside world, the Saecular world, as opposed to the Mathic one, is for all the people that are more into flash rather than substance. Shopping malls, big cars, sports teams, and celebrity dominates. The Mathic world looks at long term equations, and have orders that survive for hundreds of years, while the Saecular world has random upheavals and societal drifts. The flip side is that they have somewhat free reign of technology, even if they are not 100% how it works or how to best use it. This is the dividing line: a nerd's paradise, free of distraction, versus the world of Idiocracy.
Once a year, the Mathic world visits the outside world a little bit. This is called Apert (note the play between the word itself, which means opening (aperture), and apart). This lasts for ten days (with every thousandth one being longer). Those who sign up for only a year of concent life can go out every year. Then you have tenners, who only go out on the start of a new decade (Erasmus and his friends are tenners). And you have hundreders who only go out at the start of a new century. And you have thousanders, who...well, you get the point. The Discipline stops the various groups from intermingling, so you have a various degrees of isolation. To be a thousander not right at a Millenium Apert means that you will never see the outside world, again.
A good amount of the political tension around Erasmus is between those that believe that numbers and words only mean what we assign to them, and those who believe that such things have meanings in and of themselves. it is essentially an epic novel about semantic existence, an extended Wittgenstein's Poker.
Early in the novel, Apert occurs and Erasmus is free to wander around for ten days. He meets up with his sister, Cord, and witnesses his friend Lio get in a couple of fights. This is what passes for narrative progression early in the novel, a gentle social contrast and introduction of the flavor and flow of the world around them. However, shortly after we get the feel of everything, the rules start changing. Erasmus and his friend and mentor Orolo find that they are barred from using telescopes. The Inquisition seems to be involved. Soon, Orolo is expelled from the Math in the Aut of Anathem. Erasmus starts exploring, trying to dig deeper. Everytime he finds some plottwist, it seems that it's just a little too late. Eventually, his friends get called out in a ritual called Voco, where they are sent to help someone outside of their own concent (which often means they will never return). Finally, he himself is sent forth to a Convox. Rather than obey orders, though, he decides to leave the others and go and seek out the exiled Orolo after he finds out that the there is trouble brewing for the world, and Orolo's being aware of this seems connected to his banishment..
The story that follows is journey epic, first a journey across lands that are like ours but not like ours, and then a journey in a philosophical sense when some sort of truth is tried to be assigned to all the strange happenings, and then a third journey that is quite intense. Since this a novel about the powers of seclusion, it is also a novel about what happens when seclusion breaks down. Consider it an allegory for all of us who sit around and ponder things late at night. The truth of those ponderings isn't found in a second night's followup, but when we speak them outloud and thrust them agains the world. Everything that Erasmus lives for is cast out into the cold and a good deal of the journey is seeing how his adjusts to this.
The overall shape of the storyline through the ending works quite well. There is a bit, around page 600, where a few intense moments leads to a hundred page philosophical debate. This is likely to result in hair pulling, but it does work out for the best. It allows a lot of the big ideas to be fully formed before it moves into its final one hundred and fifty page dash to a conclusion. The ending is good, so those of you who say that Stephenson has no concept of how to end a novel can be proved wrong, here. The climax is confusingly appropriate. It's something of an "Ah" moment. It fits, and is heavily foreshadowed, but will no doubt leave some stumped and confused.
Then, after it is all said and done, you start to get that feeling I call "post-Anathem withdrawal" - PAW - that makes you kind of weirded out by books that don't use words like "fraa" or "theor". I'm sure it fades pretty quickly, but I've heard more than one person refer to Occam's Razor as the "Steelyard" after reading Anathem.
As said, this book is excellent. I give it a Great. However, if you prefer lighter stories, quick stories, or stories that have nothing to do with Plato, mathematics, social commentary, cosmology, and quantum mechanics, you might want to look elsewhere.
I am posting this as a possible help to those out there who saw some notice about Anathem including a CD. This is not true. The ARC (advanced reading copy, aslo called ARE - advanced review edition) did have an incomplete copy of the CD. The CD with the ARC had seven tracks, instead of the full eight, and came in a little slipcase. If you want, you can pick up ARCs on ebay and Amazon, but you'll have to dig around for them and I highly recommend you double check to make sure they include the CD with the order, rather than split them up to sell separately. If you are ordering one for the CD, though, there is an easier way. You can head over to CDBaby and get the official thing. If you don't care about the eighth track, which is the only one for female voices, you can probably find a standalone copy of the CD on eBay, as well. Just to repeat myself, though, the CD came ONLY with the ARC. The full release of the book does not, at this time, include the CD.
Just to repeat: SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. Ok, towards the end, when they are getting read to get blasted into space, why does it say "Yul" when discussing one of the people talking? Did I miss something? Or is this a case of spellcheck assuming he meant Yul when he typed out Jules? Anyone care to help me out?
Written by W Doug Bolden
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