Anathem by Neal Stephenson

2013-MAR-Language-Anathem-coverI came to Neal Stephenson somewhat late when compared to a lot of other people. Mostly, I think, because I picked up 1999’s Cryptonomicon when it came out, and, even though I enjoyed it, was disgruntled that I’d read a cryptography textbook masquerading as a novel, and an adventure novel masquerading as a science fiction novel. (Possibly through no fault of its own; I suppose Mr. Stephenson didn’t shelve it in the scifi section himself.)

Regardless, I didn’t pick Stephenson up again until a few years ago, when a reread of Neuromancer put me on a cyberpunk kick, and found myself pleasantly surprised with both Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. But as the reality has moved from being a Cold War spy drama in nature to a cyberpunk world in nature, authors who got noticed for cyberpunk stopped writing cyberpunk. And since that’s what I was looking for, I didn’t come back to Stephenson until an Audible subscription and a job that consists mostly of driving had me looking for the most bang for my Audible buck. At 31 hours long, Anathem seemed like a good idea.

Anathem is a story about monks. Science-monks. Science-monks who are perhaps more strictly cloistered than any of the monasteries we know on Earth; there are several orders of these monks (“avout”) and depending on the order in question, they are only allowed access to the outside world once every year, decade, century, or millennium. (How’s that for cloistered?) Narrated by Fraa (“Brother,” I suppose) Erasmas, a young avout studying cosmology, Anathem begins during one of those holidays in which “tenners” are allowed to go out and interact with the secular world.

It is Erasmas’ first venture into the outside world since he was gathered to his science-monastery (A “math” or “Concent”) and while much in the outside world will seem familiar (and perhaps damning) to readers, we get glimpses of a world that is at least a few thousand years older than the one we know: there are items made of “newmatter,” a programmable, artificial substance, and references to the ebb and flow of civilization, complete with the suggestion that their civilization is beginning to ebb.

But underneath all that, something strange is going on. The science-monastery’s observatory has been ordered closed. A hundreder avout is called out to serve in the secular world (“evoked”).  Erasmas’ mentor is excommunicated (the titular “anathem”). Politics from the outside world, but secular and “mathic,” start to intrude upon concent life, and Erasmas and a female avout discover something unusual in the sky quite by accident during a liaison. (Avout are only forbidden procreation, not sex.)

I’m going to hit my grumbles first: You’ve probably noticed a lot of things in parenthesis and quotes up there. Anathem is loaded with words specific to its planet, Arbre, and even as a man who’s been reading science fiction and fantasy for nigh onto thirty years, it was a little bewildering at first. I’ll be honest; it almost turned me off. There’s that old adage in the Turkey City Lexicon— “Don’t call a rabbit a smeerp.” We’ve all read good works in which rabbits are smeerps (Charles Harness’ Firebird comes to mind), but if there’s one author I don’t expect to do that, it’s John C. Wright. If there’s a second, it’s Neal Stephenson. (You’ll have to forgive the flippancy there, but my reaction would’ve been about the same if JCW had done that.) Fortunately, Stephenson’s not just making crap up. His smeerpisms are close enough to English that you get the hang of it pretty quickly, and being that close to English, they feel like there’s an actual logical language behind them. (That language is “Orth,” by the way.)

Another complaint stayed with me for a long time– Much of Anathem seems like it’s written by a man who has bought into the myths of the Dark Ages, and the idea that religious people are incapable of doing science. There is, for a while, a sense of “Man, look how awesome monks are at learning when they’re not saddled with silly things like religion!” And like mindlessly calling a rabbit a smeerp, to cheaply make a setting seem more alien, Stephenson is too smart for that. Or at least he’s always come off as being too smart for that. And eventually we come to realize that the situation is more complicated than that, but it was a good 25 or 26 hours of being vaguely agitated before I got to that point.

My final grumble is more of a caveat emptor than an actual grumble: It takes about a third of the novel for the plot to start going anywhere. It’s not dawdling, per se, or anything like that, but Stephenson is nothing if not detailed. If slow burns are your thing, you won’t have a problem.

Now for the good: Like any well done slow-burn, Anathem‘s pay off is wonderful. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the two concepts that Stephenson returns repeatedly in Anathem are quantum mechanics and hylomorphism– and I can honestly say that I can’t remember ever reading a novel in which hylomorphism was a plot point.

If philosophy isn’t your thing, hylomorphism suggests that everything that exists exists in the form it does because there is a sort of existential “form” of the thing in a more real dimension than ours. Chairs participate in the form of chairs, blog posts in the form of blog posts, square things in the form of squares, etc.  (I’m butchering this, but I’m a theologian, not a philosopher.) The better a particular chair or blog post is, the more fully it participates in that form.  It’s an idea that gains some traction in Christian theology (and is useful for dealing with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation) but is otherwise mostly relegated to philosophy nerds.

At any rate, Stephenson combines quantum mechanics and hylomorphism in a very interesting way, and in what I’m coming to realize is a standard for Stephenson, he uses them to both give you an appropriate payoff and hint at something greater in the book’s world, something exceeds the scope of the story. (Which is a trick that I love.)

The usual Stephenson strengths are present here: the protagonists are eminently likable, the antagonists irritating and irksome. The man has a knack with characters I’m envious of.  For that matter, he has a knack for prose I’m envious of; I don’t know of anyone else who can make an infodump so entertaining to read. (The aformentioned Cryptonomicon is a 900 page infodump on cryptography, after all.) All in all, while I’m close to a decade late on this, I’m glad I picked it up.

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  • I may have to give this one a shot. My experience with Stephenson has been a bit hit and miss. I *LOVE* “Snow Crash,” but objectively I have to admit that the novel is a hot mess. It’s awesome and crazy and over the top and wonderful, but it’s also kind of a big jumbled mish-mash. On some level it’s a, “how is it that this level actually works?” On another level it’s, “how could this NOT work?” But in the end it does.

    “Diamond Age” never worked for me. I got two thirds of the way in before it became one of the rare novels that I never actually finished. Twice. It’s just not my thing.

    I read the first entry in “The Baroque Cycle” and greatly enjoyed it. His characterization of Ben Franklin was fantastic (as you say, he’s great at characters). Then I picked up the second book and just couldn’t get into it at all. It also became one of the rare novels that I couldn’t finish.

    For a very long time, I left Stephenson untouched. But last year one of the authors on the Castalia House blog recommended “Reamde” VERY strongly. So I picked it up… and simply couldn’t put it down. I LOVED that one. It may be about time to give some of his other works a chance. “Anathem” sounds quite interesting from your description. On the other hand, I still have “Seveneves” from my Hugo packet, so I should probably finish that one before I spend money on another book.

    • I really enjoyed Seveneves. It’s also preposterously long– which was a good thing since I was looking for bang for my audible credit– but it’s got some wonderful moments, including a strange, quiet little moment towards the last quarter or so that should’ve been terribly depressing but was instead sort of… strangely peaceful. In hindsight, it reminds me of a passage in Last and First Men where the Ninth Men fail to colonize Neptune. Not in content, maybe. But they were both moments that should have been grim but strangely weren’t.