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December 4, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | December 4, 2008 |

On a world known as Arbe, the study of science, mathematics and philosophy is limited to the avout, cloistered scholars who live in maths or concents (a concent is a large community often made up of more than one math) and who only interact with the Sæculum (secular world) on a limited basis during the Apert, a yearly period of ten days when the gates of the concent open and people from both the secular and mathic worlds can mingle. The concents are divided into groups: the Unarians (one-offs, whose members remain cloistered in the math for a year), the Decenarian (tenners, whose members are cloistered for ten years), Centenarians (hundreders, whose members are cloistered for one hundred years) and the Millenarians (thousanders, whose members are cloistered for one thousand years). Within the cloistered world are many different Orders who study different things and have many different philosophies, but all of them abide by the long-established rituals and rules of the Cartasian Discipline.

Sounds like the set up for a fantasy novel set in some medieval not-quite-Earth, right? Not so much, actually. The world outside the concents is modern and technological, with cars and cell-phone analogs (called jeejahs, which is a great word) and TV and so on, and the work done inside the concents is scientific and not religious. This is an old world with over 7,000 years of recorded history; there have been set backs and failures of the system more than once, including three great Sacks (when the outside world attacked the concents), and something called The Terrible Events, which sounds a lot like a nuclear war or some similar technological planetary disaster.

The story begins with our hero, Fraa Erasmus (known to his friends as Raz), facing his first Apert. He’s a tenner who’s been at the Concent of Saunt Edhar since he was a small child and is now at a point where he needs to decide what he’s going to do with his life. During the Apert, he meets his sister and we get a look at the difference between the thinky, mostly low-tech world of the concents, where everything is discussed to death and beyond, and the secular world, full of commerce, industry, somewhat mindless entertainment and flash in the pan religions.

After the Apert, Raz and his circle of friends realize that something is going on within the concent; the starhenge (observatory) has been closed off and the older fraas and suurs (the concents are co-ed) seem to be a little worried. Things come to a head when Raz’s mentor, Fraa Orolo, an astronomer who’s made a dangerous discovery, is tossed out of the concent in a rite known as anathem (a lovely portmanteau word made up of “anthem” and “anathema”). As Raz and his friends figure out why, they are called to leave the concent and travel to a world-wide convocation, where they will help advise the secular authorities on the crisis. Normally, the secular authorities would provide transportation for the avout, but with so many being called, the scholars are forced to make their way on their own.

And so, Raz, his sister Cord, Sammann (an ita—one of the concent’s technology experts), a thousander named Fraa Jad and several others set out on a journey across Arbe. Their quest includes adventures along the way, as well as several detours while Raz attempts to find his mentor, but finally, they reach the convocation, only to get caught up in plans to defend the whole planet from the threat from space discovered by Fraa Orolo.

If Anathem were nothing more than the story of Raz’s journey and subsequent mission to save his planet, it would be a fantastic addition to the quest genre of SF. The world-building is excellent and nuanced, the characters are engaging, the story is fascinating and the climax is exciting and enjoyably convoluted. Even the background romance between Raz and one of the suurs from his order is handled well.

But this is Neal Stephenson so the book is much much more than that; there are layers upon layers here. One of the layers is historical — for someone up on their history, it’s easy to see that Arbe is what our world would be like if the ancient Greek philosophers and scientists had retreated behind walls and all their knowledge had not been lost, but rather added to throughout the subsequent centuries. It’s a lot of fun to read about historical events on Arbe and say “Oh hey, I know where he got that from!”

Then there’s the philosophy of language and science layer, which is the stuff that probably loses Stephenson readers. The characters talk everything to freakin’ death; there’s a section that’s almost 100 pages long in which, during a series of dinners, senior fraas, suurs and a secular politician discuss the crisis from any number of philosophical angles. I kind of got lost in there because philosophy is not exactly my forté, although I really do like the position of the Lorite school of thought, which is that everything that can be thought of has been thought of already; the Lorites pretty much exist to say “so-and-so had that idea back in 2015” every time someone comes up with something, which might be annoying for the characters but amused me.

If you’re a long-time Stephenson reader, you’re probably either really really intelligent and educated and can follow his digressions, or you’re the kind of person who takes what he’s talking about on faith and reads his books for the sheer enjoyment factor and the possibility that you might learn something new. Either way, you’re used to books with huge amounts of information about various subjects woven into the narrative— language theory in Snow Crash, for example, or cryptography in Cyrptonomicron. In other writers this kind of thing is annoying and info-dumpy, but somehow, Stephenson makes it work.

One of the things you look for in computer/video games is the level of replayability—do you want to play GTA: San Andreas again when you finish, or are you just done with it? For me, that’s a concern with books as well — can I reread them and get something new out of the book? Anathem is going to be one of those books I will return to again and again, and each time, I’ll pick up something I missed the time before.

While Stephenson uses a number of made up words for this (including bullshytt, which only kind of means what you think it does), there are definitions scattered throughout the book and an glossary at the end of it. There’s also a historical timeline as well as several appendices that help illustrate some of the concepts Stephenson uses in the novel.

So yes, at 900+ pages, this is a massive undertaking, but seriously, if you have the time, read it. It’s easily Stephenson’s best novel since Snow Crash and as his first attempt at setting a story in a world other than Earth, it is truly brilliant and detailed world-building. The characters are engaging, and, for all the discussion that goes on, the action sequences are gripping.

Of the 22 books I’ve read so far, this is the one I want everyone to take the time to read. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Side note: someone actually made an amateur trailer for the book. It’s a bit cheesy in places, but it’s an interesting piece of transformative fan work.

The World of Anathem

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of Telesilla’s reviews.

Cannonball Read / Telesilla

Books | December 4, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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