“Do your neighbors burn one another alive?” So begins Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem. If the quote seems strange, that’s because it’s spoken by a man who has been cloistered behind monastery-like walls for a decade. The kicker: this man is a scientist-philosopher – not a religious devout. In the world of Arbre, where the novel is set, history has led to the “Avout” – the scientist-philosophers – being cloistered inside communes while the outside world (called the Saeculum) waxes and wanes. This has lasted for thousands of years, despite several “Sacks” (or infiltrations) of the communes. I don’t want to give too much away here, since discovering the world for yourself is one of the most rewarding things about this book, but the novel centers around and is told by one such Avout who happens to be living at a very important time. The novel’s synopsis calls the time one of “cataclysmic change,” and the story certainly fulfills on that promise.
As has been my habit, I will list the problems I have with this novel first.
Okay, now I’ll list the things I like.
In all seriousness, though, Stephenson’s novel is, to me, incredible. I have read it twice, and after this review I really want to read it again. Elsewhere, I have noted that Stephenson has a tendency to be really long-winded. His descriptions can sometimes tax the reader, and I have listened to several people list this as a problem with Anathem. I won’t deny it. Stephenson sometimes spends entire pages or even several pages listing the dimensions and functions of architecture. But for me, this wasn’t that big of a deal. First off, the novel is on another world – so it stands to reason that I need to know exactly how certain things function to be able to fully appreciate the author’s vision. For example, the cloistered communes are all centered around a gigantic clock. This clock, which is based off of the real-life Millennium Clocks being envisioned by the Long Now Foundation, serves both as a way of keeping time and as a mechanism for opening the Concent’s doors at the appropriate times. This is both important to the novel and really cool, so I both need and want to understand how it works. However, I understand that some people can get so bogged down by Stephenson’s descriptions that they lose interest. It happened to me with Reamde. I just thought that this story was intriguing and unique enough to warrant that much depth.
And trust me, there is depth here. Stephenson has created the history of an entire world, dating back thousands of years. Not only does this apply to the Avouts’ history, but also to the histories and theologies and technologies of the Saeculum. Several religions are also thrown into the mix. And, since the story is told through the eyes of one of these Avout, Stephenson also creates little lessons in science and philosophy called “calcas” that explain the way that the Avout understand the world. I have heard this novel hailed as an ode to science, philosophy, math, and technology, and I think that’s perhaps the best description that can be given for it. But be assured that Stephenson is really adept at handling all of this depth. Always, the story moves along. Always, the characters are developing and learning new things about themselves and the world around them. So for me, it works.
I will say as a sort of caveat that there is a significant section in which the characters are traveling that I personally thought went on a little too long. But other than that, I think this novel is as close to perfect that one can get when reading a work of speculative fiction.
The closest thing that I can compare Anathem to is Frank Herbert’s Dune (Stephenson even had to include a Dune-style glossary in the back to list certain words). I haven’t yet read all the Dune books, but the first one has a lot of the same feel that Anathem has. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Boston Globe has called Anathem “a daring feat of speculative fiction.” I would not disagree.