I finished Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Anathem, a few weeks back. Overall, I enjoyed it heartily. I don’t think it’s his best work (a distinction that still belongs to Cryptonomicon or maybe Snow Crash), but it’s way above anything I’ve read recently. It’s a dense novel filled with interesting and complex ideas, but I had no problem keeping up once I got started. This is no small feat in a book that is around 900 pages long.
On the other hand, my somewhat recent discussion with Alex regarding the ills of Cryptonomicon has lead me to believe that perhaps the reason I like Neal Stephenson’s novels so much is that he tunes into the same geeky frequencies I do. I think Shamus hit the nail on the head with this statement:
In fact, I have yet to introduce anyone to the book and have them like it. I’m slowly coming to the realization that Cryptonomicon is not a book for normal people. Flaws aside, there are wonderful parts to this book. The problem is, you have to really love math, history, and programming to derive enjoyment from them. You have to be odd in just the right way to love the book. Otherwise the thing is a bunch of wanking.
Similarly, Anathem is not a book for normal people. If you have any interest in Philosophy and/or Quantum Physics, this is the book for you. Otherwise, you might find it a bit dry… but you don’t need to be in love with those subjects to enjoy the book. You just need to find it interesting. I, for one, don’t know much about Quantum Physics at all, and I haven’t read any (real) Philosophy since college, and I didn’t have any problems. In fact, I was pretty much glued to the book the whole time. One of the reasons I could tell I loved this book was that I wasn’t really aware of what page I was on until I neared the end (at which point dealing with the physicality of the book itself make it pretty obvious how much was left).
Minor spoilers ahead, though I try to keep this to a minimum.
The story takes place on another planet named Arbre and is told in first person by a young man named Erasmus. Right away, this yields the interesting effect of negating the multi-threaded stories of most of Stephenson’s other novels and providing a somewhat more linear progression of the story (at least, until you get towards the end of the novel, when the linearity becomes dubious… but I digress). Erasmus, who is called Raz by his friends, is an Avout – someone who has taken certain vows to concentrate on studies of science, history and philosophy. The Avout are cloistered in areas called Concents, which is kind of like a monastary except the focus of the Avout is centered around scholarship and not religion. Concents are isolated from the rest of the world (the area beyond a Concent’s walls is referred to as Extramuros or the Saecular World), but there are certain periods in which the gates open and the Avout mix with the Saecular world (these periods are called Apert). Each concent is split up into smaller Maths, which are categorized by the number of years which lapse between each Apert.
Each type of Math has interesting characteristics. Unarian maths have Apert every year, and are apparently a common way to achieve higher education before getting a job in the Saecular world (kinda like college or maybe grad-school). Decenarian maths have Apert once every ten years. Raz and most of the characters in the story are “tenners.” Centenarian maths have Apert once every century (and are referred to as hundreders) and Millenarian maths have Apert once every thousand years (and are called thousanders).
I suppose after reading the last two paragraphs, you’ll notice that Stephenson has spent a fair amount of time devising new words and concepts for his alien planet. At first, this seems a bit odd and it might take some getting used to, but after the first 50-100 pages, it’s pretty easy to keep up with all the new history and terminology. There’s a glossary in the back of the book for reference, but I honestly didn’t find that I needed it very often (at least, not the way I did while reading Dune, for instance). Much has been made of Stephenson’s choice in this matter, as well as his choice to set the story on an alien planet that has a history that is roughly analogous to Earth’s history. Indeed, it seems like there is a one-to-one relationship between many historical figures and concepts on Arbre and Earth. Take, for instance, Protas:
Protas, the greatest fid of Thelenes, had climbed to the top of a mountain near Ethras and looked down upon the plain that nourished the city-state and observed the shadows of the clouds, and compared their shapes. He had had his famous upsight that while the shapes of the shadows undeniably answered to those of the clouds, the latter were infinitely more complex and more perfectly realized than the former, which were distorted not only by the loss of a spatial dimension but also by being projected onto terrain that was of irregular shape. Hiking back down, he had extended that upsight by noting that the mountain seemed to have a different shape every time he turned round to look back at it, even though he knew it had one absolute form and that these seeming changes were mere figments of his shifting point of view. From there, he had moved on to his greatest upsight of all, which was that these two observations – the one concerning the clouds, the other concerning the mountain – were themselves both shadows cast into his mind by the same greater, unifying idea. (page 84)
Protas is clearly an analog to Plato (and thus, Thelenes is similar to Socrates) and the concepts described above run parallel to Plato’s concept of the Ideal (even going so far as to talk about shadows and the like, calling to mind Plato’s metaphor of the cave). There are literally dozens of these types of relationships in the book. Adrakhones is analogous to Pythagoras, Gardan’s Steelyard is similar to Occam’s Razor, and so on. Personally, I rather enjoyed picking up on these similarities, but the referential nature of the setting might seem rather indulgent on Stephenson’s part (at least, it might seem so to someone who hasn’t read the book). I even speculated as much while I was reading the book, but as a reader noted in the comments to my post, that’s not all there is to it. It turns out that Stephenson’s choice to set the story on Arbre, a planet that has a history suspiciously similar to Earth, was not an indulgence at all. Indeed, it becomes clear later in the book that these similarities are actually vital to the story being told.
This sort of thing represents a sorta meta-theme of the book. Where Cryptonomicon is filled with little anecdotes and tangents that are somewhat related to the story, Anathem is tighter. Concepts that are seemingly tangential and irrelevant wind up playing an important role later in the book. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly a few tangents or anecdotes that are just that, but despite the 900+ page length of the book, Stephenson does a reasonably good job juggling ideas, most of which end up being important later in the book.
The first couple hundred pages of the novel take place within a Concent, and thus you get a pretty good idea of what life is like for the Avout. It’s always been clear that Stephenson appreciates the opportunity to concentrate on something without having any interruptions. His old website quoted former Microsoft employee Linda Stone’s concept of “continuous partial attention,” which is something most people are familiar with these days. Cell phones, emails, Blackberries/iPhones, TV, and even the internet are all pieces of technology which allow us to split our attention and multi-task, but at the same time, such technology also serves to make it difficult to find a few uninterrupted hours with which to delve into something. Well, in a Concent, the Avout have no such distractions. They lead a somewhat regimented, simple life with few belongings and spend most of their time thinking, talking, building and writing. Much of their time is spent in Socratic dialogue with one another. At first, this seems rather odd, but it’s clear that these people are first rate thinkers. And while philosophical discussions can sometimes be a bit dry, Stephenson does his best to liven up the proceedings. Take, for example, this dialogue between Raz and his mentor, Orolo:
“Describe worrying,” he went on.
“Pretend I’m someone who has never worried. I’m mystified. I don’t get it. Tell me how to worry.”
“Well… I guess the first step is to envision a sequence of events as they might play out in the future.”
“But I do that all the time. And yet I don’t worry.”
“It is a sequence of events with a bad end.”
“So, you’re worried that a pink dragon will fly over the concent and fart nerve gas on us?”
“No,” I said with a nervous chuckle.
“I don’t get it,” Orolo claimed, deadpan. “That is a sequence of events with a bad end.”
“But it’s nonsensical. There are no nerve-gas-farting pink dragons.”
“Fine,” he said, “a blue one, then.” (page 198)
And this goes on for a few pages as well. Incidentally, this is also an example of one of those things that seems like it’s an irrelevant tangent, but returns later in the story.
So the Avout are a patient bunch, willing to put in hundreds of years of study to figure out something you or I might find trivial. I was reminded of the great unglamourous march of technology, only amplified. Take, for instance, these guys:
Bunjo was a Millenarian math built around an empty salt mine two miles underground. Its fraas and suurs worked in shifts, sitting in total darkness waiting to see flashes of light from a vast array of crystalline particle detectors. Every thousand years they published their results. During the First Millenium they were pretty sure they had seen flashes on three separate occasions, but since then they had come up empty. (page 262)
As you might imagine, there is some tension between the Saecular world and the Avout. Indeed, there have been several “sacks” of the various Concents. This happens when the Saecular world gets freaked out by something the Avout are working on and attacks them. However, at the time of the novel, things are relatively calm. Total isolation is not possible, so there are Hierarchs from the Avout who keep in touch with the Saecular world, and thus when the Saecular world comes across a particularly daunting problem or crisis, they can call on the Avout to provide some experts for guidance. Anathem tells the story of one such problem (let’s say they are faced with an external threat), and it leads to an unprecedented gathering of Avout outside of their concents.
I realize that I’ve spent almost 2000 words without describing the story in anything but a vague way, but I’m hesitant to give away too much of the story. However, I will mention that the book is not all philosophical dithering and epic worldbuilding. There are martial artists (who are Avout from a Concent known as the Ringing Vale, which just sounds right), cross-continental survival treks, and even some space travel. All of this is mixed together well, and I while I wouldn’t characterise the novel as an action story, there’s more than enough there to keep things moving. In fact, I don’t want to give the impression that the story takes a back seat at any point during the novel. Most of the world building I’ve mentioned is something that comes through incidentally in the telling of the story. There are certainly “info-dumps” from time to time, but even those are generally told within the framework of the story.
There are quite a few characters in the novel (as you might expect, when you consider its length), but the main ones are reasonably well defined and interesting. Erasmus turns out to be a typical Stephensonian character – a very smart man who is constantly thrust into feuds between geniuses (i.e. a Randy/Daniel Waterhouse type). As such, he is a likeable fellow who is easy to relate to and empathize with. He has several Avout friends, each of whom plays an important role in the story, despite being separated from time to time. There’s even a bit of a romance between Raz and one of the other Avout, though this does proceed somewhat unconventionally. During the course of the story, Raz even makes some Extramuros friends. One being his sister Cord, who seems to be rather bright, especially when it comes to mechanics. Another is Sammann, who is an Ita (basically a tecno-nerd who is always connected to networks, etc…). Raz’s mentor Orolo has been in the Concent for much longer than Raz, and is thus always ten steps ahead of Raz (he’s the one who brought up the nerve-gas-farting pink dragons above).
Another character who doesn’t make an appearance until later on in the story is Fraa Jad. He’s a Millenarian, so if Orolo is always ten steps ahead, Jad is probably a thousand steps ahead. He has a habit of biding his time and dropping a philosophical bomb into a conversation, like this:
Fraa Jad threw his napkin on the table and said: “Consciousness amplifies the weak signals that, like cobwebs spun between trees, web Narratives together. Moreover, it amplifies them selectively and in that way creates feedback loops that steer the Narratives.” (page 701)
If that doesn’t make a lot of sense, that’s because it doesn’t. In the book, the characters surrounding Jad spend a few pages trying to unpack what was said there. That might seem a bit tedious, but it’s actually kinda funny when he does stuff like that, and his ideas actually are driving the plot forward, in a way. One thing Stephenson doesn’t spend much time discussing is the details of how the Millenarians continue to exist. He doesn’t explicitely come out and say it, but the people on Arbre seem to have life spans similar to humans (perhaps a little longer), so it’s a little unclear how things like Millenarian Maths can exist. He does mention that thousanders have managed to survive longer than others, but it’s not clear how or why. If one were so inclined, they could perhaps draw a parallel between the Thousanders in Anathem and the Eruditorium in Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. Indeed, Enoch Root would probably fit right in at a Millenarian Math… but I’m pretty sure I’m just reading way too much into this and that Stephenson wasn’t intentionally trying to draw such a parallel. It’s still an interesting thought though.
Overall, Stephenson has created and sustained a detailed world, and he has done so primarily through telling the story. Indeed, I’m only really touching the surface of what he’s created here, and honestly, so is he. It’s clear that Stephenson could easily have made this into another 3000 page Baroque Cycle style trilogy, delving into the details of the history and culture of Arbre, but despite the long length of the novel, he does keep things relatively tight. The ending of the novel probably won’t do much to convince those who don’t like his endings that he’s turned a new leaf, but I enjoyed it and thought it ranked well within his previous books. There are some who will consider the quasi-loose-ends in the story to be frustrating, but I thought it actually worked out well and was internally consistent with the rest of the story (it’s hard to describe this without going into too much detail). In the end, this is Stephenson’s best work since Cryptonomicon and the best book I’ve read in years. It will probably be enjoyed by anyone who is already a Stephenson fan. Otherwise, I’m positive that there are people out there who are just the right kind of weird that would really enjoy this book. I expect that anyone who is deeply interested in Philosophy or Quantum Physics would have a ball. Personally, I’m not too experienced in either realm, but I still enjoyed the book immensely. Here’s to hoping we don’t have to wait another 4 years for a new Stephenson novel…