[This review is brought to your by special guest contributor Chris Hsiang, who I like because he has the same first name as me. The review will appear in a slightly different form in Dispatches From the Border, the newsletter for Borderlands Books. <http://www.borderlands-books.com/about_newsletter.html> --ed]
The irreverent polymath Neal Stephenson is the author of such popular science fiction novels as Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. He has a devoted following of readers attracted to his exciting cerebral explorations of science and society with a witty rock-’n'-roll edge. His last two projects, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle trilogy, were seen by some to be historical fiction with only a few science fiction elements. His latest novel, Anathem, is more firmly planted in the science fiction genre as it is the first of his books set on another planet.
Human civilization on the alien world Arbre has a seven-thousand year history punctuated by cycles of collapse and rebuilding. At the novel’s beginning, technological development seems to be very near our own but with some remnants of much more sophisticated science millennia old. Our narrator Erasmas, or Raz to his friends, is a young member of a cloistered monastic order of men and women dedicated to understating the Universe through rational thought and scientific method. The brothers and sisters, or “fraas” and “suurs,” of his order have been chosen to stop a potential devastating threat to their world. At first glance one might suppose this book to be The Name of the Rose in space, but this would be an error. Anathem is not as fast-paced as Umberto Eco’s novel (!)–and very significantly–the members of Erasmas’ order are not religious. In fact they view any spirituality or mysticism with great distaste and suspicion.
The “Cartesian Discipline” developed from something very similar to Pythagoreanism which enjoyed a healthy following in our world until the Second Century CE. This reviewer has spent a few late-night bull sessions wondering what would have happened to Western civilization if instead of Christianity it was shaped by a bunch of people who were Really Into Triangles. Apparently, Neal Stephenson has had similar musings. Life within the walls of these scientific monasteries resembles a university with eager hip students engaged in constant dialog with their eccentric ivy-covered professors. Indeed, the first third of the book is mostly a steady stream of intense academic arguments. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know and admire Raz and his young friends while being immersed in the rich and meticulously developed cultural history of Arbre. It’s a bit like the Encyclopaedia Brittanica written as a coming-of-age story.
Like all Stephenson’s previous novels this book is packed with a wide variety of scientific and philosophical concepts. Some readers might be turned off by his long esoteric passages about Platonic mathematics or quantum physics. To correct this he has moved three of the longer lectures to the back of the book. These appendices—or “calca” as he has dubbed them—are quite entertaining and educational, but the story can be enjoyed without them. It’s still a very dense read, but those of us who already love Stephenson’s work know there will be plenty of action and humor. You will thrill to scenes of rotary-winged aircraft, mountaineering, bad cell phone manners, martial arts, spacecraft, huge earth-shattering kabooms, and the frustration that comes from three -thousand-year-old folding tables.
Another sticking point with Stephenson’s novels has been his endings. I have been a big fan of his ever since I read The Big U in ‘86 but have always been disappointed by his vague and frankly unsatisfying denouement in each of his books. It may be after all the detailed world-building he lavishes upon his writing he simply doesn’t want the story to end–I know I didn’t hurry to the last page. The ride along the way was too much fun. The end of Anathem works better than his previous books, so he is still learning and improving. We can certainly expect further excellence from this mad genius.
Neal Stephenson is like your very favorite teacher. You learn everything you’d ever need about a subject from his thoroughly engaging manner. Then he shows you concepts you never suspected and leaves you hungry to learn even more. At over 900 pages, Anathem can be intimidating. but I strongly recommend you immerse yourself in the world of Arbre. As you finish you’ll look around and realize the universe is much bigger than you realized—which is fine because your mind has expanded as well.