Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, is that most odd of things: philosophical science fiction. By which I mean that in order to enjoy it fully, you really need to have at least a passing acquaintance with the history of Western philosophy from Thales on down; and the more you know, the more you’ll enjoy watching it play out. Not that this is a book of philosophy, or that you have to be a philosopher to read it. There’s plenty of action, interesting characters, and the like.
It is also a difficult book to describe without giving the game away. Heck, it’s a difficult book to describe even if you dogive the game away. But Stephenson has too much fun doling out the information for me to want to spoil it.
The book takes place in a world that is, we are assured, not our own, though there are many points of similarity. Our protagonist is one Fraa Erasmus (“Raz” to his friends) who lives an ascetic sort of life in something that seems very like a monastery, but isn’t, the Concent of Saunt Edhar.
No, I didn’t mispell that. “Saunt”, in Erasmus’ world, is a corruption of “savant”. Edhar was a great and noted thinker in his day, and the Concent, a stronghold of the “mathic world”, was founded to be a place where thinkers could do their work in seclusion, safe from the turmoils and upheavals of the Saecular World outside. Erasmus is a young fraa when we first meet him, winding (with three partners) the great clock that occupies the central tower of the Concent; he is still learning, and has yet to choose his mathic order, the path that he will follow for the rest of his life. He, like all other fraas and suurs, is free to think, to create, and to learn, but he is limited to the most basic technology (called praxic in his world): his bolt, a length of cloth that can become longer and shorter, thicker and thinner at need, that he wears as a garment; his chord, a rope-like object that can also change size, used to keep his bolt from coming off (among other things); and his ball, a soft round object that can be as small as a tennis ball or as large as a truck, but which is mostly used for sitting on. The ball can also glow to provide light.
The fraas and suurs live in almost complete isolation from the Saecular World, coming into contact with the extramurals, or “extras”, those from outside the walls, only during the time of Apert, a week-long festival that occurs once a year…or once every ten years…or once every hundred years…or once every thousand years…depending on who you are. Fraa Erasmus lives in the Decenarian Math, meaning that for him Apert will come every ten years. And as the book begins, Apert is coming; and what will it bring? Therein lies the tale.
I don’t want to say too much more, but I will say this. First, Stephenson’s world-building is phenomenal. I am literally in awe. Second, though there were one or two slow parts I enjoyed the book considerably; it’s the kind of book I’d like to read again for the first time. Third, the intellectual climax of the book is so audacious I can hardly prevent myself from giving it away. Fourth, although Erasmus and his friends have definite, strongly held points of view, with which I sometimes disagree, it never feels like Stephenson has an axe to grind. That impresses me as much as anything.
The only other book by Stephenson that I’ve read is Snow Crash, which had its moments but which I’ve never felt any need to re-read. Anathem is much, much better.
If anyone is interested, I’d gladly discuss my further thoughts about the book down in the comments.