SF/F Saturday: Anathem

I found out this week that my books have been getting ratings and reviews on Goodreads, without any prompting or even knowledge on my part, which is pretty cool. So, I now have an author page on Goodreads, which you can use to shower accolades upon my literary endeavors. (Or just add me as a friend. Either way.)

This is a good chance to kick off a new post series on Daylight Atheism, SF/F Saturdays. Since I’m going to be publishing more fiction in the future, I’ve been wanting to talk more about my favorite sci-fi and fantasy authors and review some of the books that influenced my style or made the biggest impression on me. For the first week, I’m reviewing Neil Stephenson’s 2008 novel Anathem.

Anathem is set on Arbre, an Earthlike world that’s most sharply distinguished from Earth by the existence of the “avout”, men and women who take a vow of poverty and live in walled communities cloistered away from the secular world. They’re like monks and nuns, but instead of prayer or theology, they devote their lives to studying math and science. (There are also conventionally religious people, but they’re a much smaller faction than they are in our world, and the avout think they’re a little ridiculous.)

The avout are divided into four main orders, the Unarians, Decenarians, Centenarians, and Millennarians, who only open their doors to the outside world once every one, ten, hundred or thousand years respectively. The relationship between the avout and the secular power is wary but peaceful, although there’s been war between them in the distant past, culminating in two “Great Sacks” when fear of powerful new technologies developed by the avout spurred the secular power to destroy their communities and scatter them across the world.

The main character is a young avout named Fraa Erasmas, a member of the Decenarian order, who lives in the Concent of Saunt Edhar. He leads a peaceful life of research with his fellow avout, until their existence is interrupted when something astonishing appears in the sky, something that calls their entire view of reality into question, and sends Erasmas and his friends on a pilgrimage across the world and ultimately beyond it.

Because this major plot development happens midway through, it’s hard to discuss the second half of the book without huge spoilers. But it suffices to say that the overarching Big Idea of Anathem is a musing on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory and Stephenson’s hypothesis about how it factors into human consciousness. He melds this with a philosophical exploration of Platonic epistemology, the idea that there’s a universe of pure forms of which our world is only an imperfect reflection, like shadows cast on a cave wall. Stephenson’s insight is to ask why there should be only two Platonic levels – and, more speculatively, what would happen if it were possible to travel from one level of reality to another?

Like most of Stephenson’s books, Anathem is a doorstopper. My hardcover copy is 890 pages, not including the appendices – yes, there are appendices, containing dense philosophical dialogues and step-by-step derivations of some of the mathematical theorems that play into the book. Not to give too much away, but there are also whole chapters devoted to arcane philosophical debate in dialogue form, as well as extremely detailed accounts of orbital dynamics and how you maneuver in space. Personally I don’t mind big books, but even so, sometimes it felt like the author was trying to show a little too much of his work.

Stephenson also loves to invent new words, which are sprinkled liberally throughout the text: instead of computers, for example, the Arbrans use “syndevs”, for “syntactic devices”; instead of scientists, they have “theors”. I’m sure he’d defend this as the expected result of language and technology developing along different paths on a parallel world (although if we’re going to follow Translation Convention and present dialogue in English when the characters are speaking the language of their own world, why not just use the English equivalents?), but it makes the first hundred pages or so very confusing, until you figure out what it all means.

But if you’re a fan of big, complex books that aren’t afraid to grapple with profound philosophical questions, you may well enjoy Anathem. Whether or not you agree with the physical theory that Stephenson puts forth, it’s still worth the trip to watch him play with ideas.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    I haven’t read it, but heard of the book. It seems interesting, though at that length I’d have to be very compelled by the story. On another note, I’m reading your own Dark Heart, and thoroughly enjoying it. Will further works in the series be coming any time soon? Here’s one reader hoping :)

  • Errant Endeavour

    Nice review. Maths is not my strongpoint, and I’m only partially acquainted with quantum physics, so I’m on the fence with this one.

    Have you read The Icarus Hunt by Tim Zahn? It’s Sci-Fi, rather than fantasy. It’s really very good, and you’ll probably want to reread it straight after.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Thank you! Yes, there are going to be sequels. Look for the second book early next year.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I’ve not read it, but it’s on my reading list now. :)

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Is the similarity of the title to Anthem (by Ayn Rand) deliberate?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I don’t believe so. The Anathem is something from the world of the book, one of the choral songs the avout sing to mark special events. It would be a small spoiler to say what it means.

  • Daggerstab

    I don’t think it even counts as a spoiler: my paperback has a monk-like figure on the cover right above “Anathem”, making the connection to the religious concept of anathema quite obvious. Of course, it helps that English is not my native language (no “anthem”) and the local culture is influenced by Eastern Orthodox Christianity, so the word is familiar. :)

  • Daggerstab

    But if you’re a fan of big, complex books that aren’t afraid to grapple
    with profound philosophical questions, you may well enjoy Anathem.
    Whether or not you agree with the physical theory that Stephenson puts
    forth, it’s still worth the trip to watch him play with ideas.

    It’s still enjoyable if you ignore the (meta)physics and just go for the story, the characters and the worldbuilding. If you are the kind of person who likes exploring constructed worlds and figuring things out on your own, the first hundred pages are fun. (And the rest eight hundred, too. :)) Also recommended for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction, for the avout’s unusual awareness of the cyclical fate of civilizations. Space explorations geeks will be tickled by the descriptions of at least three technologies that were proposed, but never implemented in our world.

    (And a few minor corrections to your review – there were three Sacks-General, not two; there are proper Orders in addition to the four types of oaths; while most of the avout are irreligious, the popularity of religion “outside the walls” mirrors our world, perhaps in the near-future, with analogs of Catholics and Protestants and unrelated religions, and even proper monks.)

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    You’re welcome. I’m glad to hear that.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    Good review! I’ve never read any of Stephenson’s books, but this sounds fascinating. I love complex, doorstopper books, and the topics discussed just make it even more intriguing.

    Just added you as a friend on Goodreads. I’m about halfway through “Dark Heart”, currently toward the end of chapter seventeen. :)

  • 8DX

    One thing worth mentioning is how the book culminates – a huge buildup, a twist, and then a slowly deflating let-down of an ending. Setting it up for perhaps some later sequel (can’t remember if there is one).

    That was really what got me down – as well as the way it completely gives up on trying to explain how the most mysterious stuff that happens, happens. Bah humbug (Kudos for the friend’s kick-ass mechanic sister, though)!

  • http://essaressellwye.tumblr.com/ Hershele Ostropoler

    My parents gave me a Kindle for my birthday, and my girlfriend wanted to give me a book for it, so I went through my list and picked out the heaviest one. That was at the end of September. I’ve been reading it on and off and doing NaNo, and I’m about halfway through already.


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