Anathem by Neal Stephenson
AnathemFraa Erasmus, Raz, lives in a mathic monastery. He has been studying under Fraa Orolo, an older Fraa who leads the Edharian order. Fraa Orolo has a special interest in the stars and heavens. Raz’s friends include Fraa Arsibalt, Suur Ala, Suur Tulia, Fraa Lio, and Fraa Jesry,all younger acolytes like himself. The gates of the Cloister open every ten years for the residents to go out and visit the world they left behind when they were Collected. Fraa Erasmus uses his visit to visit his sister, Cord. Then he and his friends return to begin their life studies.
But something strange is going on in their world of Arbre. Over the thousands of years there had been three major revolutions, called sacks, that had torn down the mathic cloisters or reestablished them. It has been over a thousand years since the last sack. Things are once again unsettled on Arbre. Occasionally respected Fraas and Suurs had been called out to work in the Saecular world or to transfer to another cloister. But since the last closing of the gates and Raz’s assignment under Fraa Orolo, numerous people were getting sent away, including Suur Ala and Fraa Jesry.
Meanwhile Raz has been punished for an infraction and during the punishment time started an illicit experiment. After his punishment is complete he and his friends start studying his results. What they discover shocks them. Soon, they too will find themselves transferred to another cloister for work on a secret project. They believe it has something to do with Fraa Erasmus’ discovery. If he is right, will they really be able to help?
There is no brief description that can do justice to Anathem. It is around 900 pages of dense philosophical and mathematical thoughts, theories, conjectures, and surprises. You need a number of hats to read this book.
First you need a speculative fiction (science fiction) hat. Arbre is a different planet that is similar to Earth with a vastly different history. The encounters made as the book progresses fall completely into the realm of interesting speculative fiction. Be ready for some speculative fiction twists that make the story more surprising and stronger. (Especially watch the elder, Fraa Jad at the end of the book.)
Next, you need your philosophical hat. Neal Stephenson brings in almost every great thought put together by man back to Aristotle, Plato, and before. He even covers the theory that no thought is new, but a repeat of something discovered earlier in man’s history.
Third, grab your math theory hat. This was my weakest area and often the part I skimmed. As the characters brought forth and discussed the different theories and events they made sense in an overall sense but I couldn’t have broken them down and proven most of them. The narrator, Fraa Erasmus, even leaves some of the discussions out of the main narrative and adds them as appendices. I didn’t try.
Now find your hat that lets you appreciate human interactions. There are friendships, romances, arguments, acts of heroism, heretics, skirmishes, and much more as Anathem unfolds. Stephenson uses his characters to keep the story moving. The characters are complex humans caught up in an unbelievable situation.
Finally, put on your hat that appreciates good story telling. Keep it close when you get bogged down, as you probably will. I read Anathem off and on for about four months. Each time I picked it up I again enjoyed the tale. But when the philosophy, the discussions, or the math got to be too much, I put it down for up to a month at a time.
Anathem isn’t an easy read and certainly isn’t for everyone. That is true of Stephenson’s last few books. But Neal Stephenson is an excellent writer and is able to pull this book together. I wouldn’t have minded fewer of the esoteric discussions. It would have been easier to read. But I have now gotten a good philosophical study in. I have had a chance to see how mathematics and philosophy and people work together. If you’re willing to dig in and stick with this, you’ll be like me. I found it helpful to flip back to the Glossary when I would come across a term I had seen earlier in the novel and now had to tie back in. I am glad I read it.
I also have to admire Stephenson for taking on this project. Anathem couldn’t have been easy to write, either. I wonder how many editors he needed to bring it all together???