Stephenson — Anathem (A Review)

Stephenson, Neal, Anathem, William Morrow, 2008, 937 pp.

Author Neal Stephenson has forged a substantial body of fiction in the last 15 years by combining elaborate narratives and witty, humourous dialogue with a more serious consideration of scientific and philosophical issues. Having covered nanotechnology, cryptography, and the early stirrings of Newtonian science in his more recent books, Stephenson turns now to cosmology and the nature of human consciousness in Anathem. The biggest of big pictures.

Set thousands of years in the future, Anathem is an adventure story that fits perfectly into the science fiction genre. The conflict between science and culture has led to intermittent but repeated civil conflicts, resolved finally by isolating the scientific and mathematic minds into the equivalent of walled medieval cloisters (maths). Outside the walls society waxes and wanes, prospers and collapses, while inside the walls the life of the mind continues, year after year. Comparisons with the famous 50s science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz are inevitable.

A social caste of technologists is dedicated to maintaining a very limited suite of equipment for the cloistered individuals, to minimize their impact on the secular world. Gone are the atom smashers and linear accelerators but a few simple, huge telescopes are permitted. To keep the “science” within careful limits, the technologists are forbidden to intereract directly with the “mathic” communities. Separate corridors and buildings keep the two groups aparts. Odd remnants of earlier scientific breakthroughs do remain within the cloisters … genetically engineered food plants, trees that grow paper leaves, and special clothing materials (newmatter), but the intent of the rules of cloistered life is to maintain a delicate balance with the outside world of politics and religion (the extramuros). The cloisters are left alone by the Secular world as long as they obey these rules. Periodically, an Inquisition examines every cloister to root out any violation of these ancient agreements. From time to time, men and women of the cloisters are banished to the secular world to solve some scientific problem. Apart from that, the maths are left alone as the centuries pass.

By the time in history when the story opens, the cloistered individuals have been organized into a hierarchy of temporal commitments. Using massive mechanical clocks synchronized with the Sun, the maths operate a calendar of interaction with lay people. There is a Unarian community, in which lay people commit one year of their lives to the cloister in return for an education in theoretical mathematics and certain practical skills. Once a year, the Year Gate opens and the math interacts with the outside world. Students leave and new students arrive. The next rung up are the Decenarians or ten-year folk, who commit to spending 10 years in isolation before their 10-Year Gate opens to the outside world and they have 10 days of “Apert” to interact with the surrounding community before returning to the cloister if they wish. There are also Centenarian and Millenarian adherents within each math, who commit to spending their lives in isolation from the outside world except for set times in the calendar when their communities interact with the secular world and other cloisters. Diet keeps the cloistered participants both sterile and healthy. Scholarship, and the basic chores of agriculture, construction and housekeeping, fill their days. The Centenarian portion of the cloisters is replenished with Decenarians wishing to make that scale of commitment. The Millenarian cloisters are maintained by Centenarians entering their ranks, plus the occasional supplement of unwanted newborns from the outside world.

With this premise, modelled much like European medieval society with the important role of abbeys, monasteries and nunneries on secular life, Stephenson introduces us to his protagonist, Erasmus … a young adult just finishing his first ten year hitch in the Decenarian cloister. His life within the cloister is introduced and then, with his first opportunity to visit the outside world in ten years, he reacts to the culture outside the walls and the changes that have taken place since he was a young boy. It is a culture still technically advanced, with many similarities (suitably distorted by intervening millenia) to our own. The equivalent of trucks, soft drinks, hoodies, cellphones, and reality TV are visible. Stephenson pulls our leg while playing the story straight.

Back in the cloister after his ten days of exciting and sometimes melancholy exploration, the protagonist returns to the challenges of small group politics in cloistered life. Having made the second ten year commitment, Erasmus is now required to choose an intellectual school within the Decenarian group, one of many such schools which developed over the centuries within the cloisters. He must also take a more adult role. The choices of his young friends and the interaction with their teachers now becomes the focus of the book. In the course of mundane responsibilities, Erasmus and several of his friends discover that one of their teachers has spotted an unusual stellar object in the cloister’s telescope. While they innocently try to snoop out their teacher’s efforts, the Inquisition appears and their teacher is abruptly banished from the cloister forever.

Devastated, they resolve to secretly follow up on their teacher’s research. After some months, they discover what their teacher had only seen in the vaguest of images. An alien spacecraft has entered orbit around Earth. And soon thereafter, the Inquisition swoops down, and they too are banished from the cloister … told to report to a distant cloister where thousands of scientific and mathematical minds are gathering to consider the alien craft.

But Erasmus is convinced he must first find his teacher, who has left some intellectual bread-crumbs for him to follow. His adventure begins …

Anathem is not an easy book to approach, especially if science fiction and science fantasy are not your regular fare. Stephenson attempts to give a sense of the familiar and foreign, three thousand years from now, by using a sprinkling of vocabulary that’s vaguely similar to English but still distorted from our time. For some readers, that’s a fun challenge, for others it’s a bit of a slog. I found that it took a few hundred pages for the disorienting use of these words to fall away and for the story to gather mental steam. At 900+ pages, however, there was plenty more book left!

Suffice it to say, those who enjoyed Stephenson’s earlier books (Diamond Age is reviewed on chicagoboyz here) will enjoy this one. And those whose imaginations are captured by long stretches of history … of Spengler and Toynbee ilk … will enjoy the author’s extrapolation of the 21st century confrontations between big science, politics and religion. Those who follow advanced physics, philosophy of consciousness, and cosmological theories of parallel universes will be right at home.

Stephenson throws in enough current slang and veiled wise-ass commentary to confirm he’s still the same loquacious prankster. No doubt I missed many more in-jokes than I spotted. Much like the equally-famous science fiction writer, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson is a big fan of the staple geek sex-object — the spunky socially-adept brilliant tough girl. Every man’s inner Homer Simpson therefore gets a regular airing. Anathem will appeal to both male and female readers.

One word of warning. As if channeling Monty Python’s Prince Herbert of Swamp Castle (0:55 in this Youtube clip), Stephenson is forever breaking out in song in the middle of the story. His soliloquies on the nature of human consciousness and the structure of the universe (admittedly central to the bigger plot of his book) will likely remain opaque to the vast majority of his readers. When my eyes began to cross, I just started skimming pages til the author comes back to Earth, literally. His books nonetheless stand up well as adventures in fully-imagined worlds. And to whatever extent the rest of us can keep up with the “smart guy” passages, it’s worth doing so.

In Anathem, Stephenson reiterates a “mysterian” perspective on life that can be seen in his earlier works … there’s always an implied supernatural or extranatural escape hatch of some kind for the predicament of his characters. Squaring this belief with the largely scientific and mathematical focus of his writing can make for a strange combination … described in a nutshell in reference to one of Anathem’s characters:

“He meant rather that the evolution of our minds from bits of inanimate matter was more beautiful and more extraordinary than any of the miracles cataloged down through the ages by the religions of the world. And so he had an instinctive skepticism of any system of thought, religious or theorical [sic], that pretended to encompass that miracle, and in so doing sought to draw limits around it.” [pp. 889-890]

The climax of Anathem seems to reflect ideas mulled over by the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould. How will we handle the destructive capacities of scientific discovery as the secular world becomes global and dislocated from its hidden religious moorings? How will religion and popular culture respond to the influential caste in society that communicates amongst itself with mathematics and statistical probability? Are we headed for some great rift between science and society? Or some great disaster triggered by scientific hubris?

Anathem will engage you in these issues while you work your way through another large Rabelaisian adventure. Happy reading.

3 thoughts on “Stephenson — Anathem (A Review)”

  1. If you don’t really like sci-fi but are interested in reading Neal Stephenson, I recommend reading Zodiac first, which is his shortest book and more sci-thriller than sci-fic. Its protaganist and narrator is an eco-warrior focusing on Boston’s polluted current waterways and the science is less speculative than in his: The Diamond Age (excellent) or Snowcrash (marginal). Plus it’s high drama. His best is probably Cryptonomicon, and if you’re a fan of: WWII characterizations, modern start-ups, nerds, globalization, Tolkien metaphors, any story about geniuses, maunderings on heirarchies of badasses and pure evil, or epic generational dramas then this belongs on your list… as long as you think 900 pages is not too long for one novel. Plus, you’ll read about things like “The Comity For Reformashun Of English Orthografy” in a society that desperately needs it.

  2. Best novel of the 21st Century, and may retain the title into the 25th (with the inevitable Shakespearean hiatus).

    One of the many things it offers is a way out of the banal science v religion battle of the ignorants in which many of our so-called intellectuals are currently mired.

  3. Stephenson wrote one of the better long-form essays in the old pre-Time Wired (I mostly stopped reading once Time acquired it) — Mother Earth, Mother Board — About the issues surrounding the laying of a fiber-optic cable around the world. It’s a long but fascinating piece.

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