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.