Aug 14, 11
Read from July 16 to August 03, 2011
I have been a big Neal Stephenson fan since reading 'Snow Crash'. I was fully on board with 'The Diamond Age' and enjoyed 'Cryptonomicon'. However, I was disappointed with The Baroque Cycle novels. I respected the ambition but didn't feel the plot paid off that ambition fully. So, I was a bit leery when I read about 'Anathem'. A friend whose taste fairly closely mirrors my own spoke highly of it so I decided to read it.
I am glad I did. I can tell you what the book is about, in terms of the action, but it's about so much more than that. And, to be honest, I am not sure I can do it full justice. In fact, I am pretty sure I can't, but I will try anyway.
So, what is it about? It is about a planet called Arbre. On Arbre are two main groups of people: avout and extramuros (literally 'outside the wall') or 'extras'. Avout are philosopher/scientist monks who live in cloistered communities and have varying degrees of interaction with the extras. Some avout are permitted to mingle in the extras' society (called Saecular society) for ten days every year, others for ten days every ten years, others ten days every hundred years, and still others remain segregated for a thousand years.
After first introducing us to the avout world, Stephenson then introduces a crisis in the form of an alien ship that threatens Arbre. The rest of the novel then follows the efforts of several of the avout to figure out what the ship is, and then make contact with it and try to neutralize the threat.
In one sense, 'Anathem' is a first contact novel. However as I said, the book is about so much more than that. There are the philosophical debates between the avout factions, the Halikaarnians and the Procians, which must be resolved before the threat represented by the ship can be understood and a proper response devised. There is the tension between avout society and Saecular society that must also be factored into a response to the alien ship, since Saecular society has long seen the avout as a threat to Arbre as a whole and hence has confined them to the maths (gatherings of avout).
The book also draws heavily on the 'many worlds' branch of physics and the philosophical implications of there being more than one cosmos and how information gets transmitted between cosmos. To say anymore would probably give away too much (and expose my woeful inadequacy on this topic). Other themes prevalent in the book are Platonic idealism and mathematical formalism. (I had to look those up. I grasped the ideas in Arbre-speak but didn't know their Earth counterparts. Thanks Wikipedia!)
Another main feature of 'Anathem' is the language. In just reading this review, you've already got a taste of it. There are avout, fraas (males, derived from the Latin frater) and suurs (females, derived from the Latin soror), living in Concents, divided into their different Orders, and temporal separations (Unarians, Decenarians, Centenarians and Millenarians). One order are the Edharians named after Saunt (a contraction of Saint and Savant) Edhar. The act of opening the doors of the concent to the extramuros (another Latin-derived term) is called Apert (as in the Latin 'to open' as in aperture, for example).
Clearly a basis in Latin or one or more Romance languages will benefit any reader. Yet, the language, while a great world-building tool, also presents a barrier. The back of the book has a lengthy glossary which I found myself referring to often (this despite the fact that I speak three Romance languages well - there simply is no way to intuitively know what an Edharian or a Procian is). This is not a summer beach read.
Characters are not the book's strong suit. They exist to move the action along and convey the ideas that Stephenson wants to discuss. They don't have much depth at all. However, in this case I won't fully penalize Stephenson for this since the book is already so dense to introduce character conflicts and motivations would needlessly weigh the book down.
The world-building, always a Stephenson strength, is some of the best I have come across. The problem is that I could have done with a tad less detail and a little more concision. A fully-fleshed out world is a wonder but at 930 pages the book could have stood some editing. For example, our protagonist, Fraa Erasmas, embarks on a journey across Arbre and I felt that some of this material could have been pruned down a bit.
Another thing I found missing was humor. Normally the humor is a Stephenson strong suit but this book was sorely lacking in it. (Funniest line in the book? "'Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs,' I said. 'We have a protractor.'")
I enjoyed this book immensely however I felt that the length and the language barrier made it needlessly inaccessible. Perhaps Stephenson is testing his readers and only wants to bring along those willing to invest the time to fully understand what he is talking about. If so, I respect that decision while not fully agreeing with it. Hence the four stars instead of five.