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Friday, September 5, 2008

"Anathem" by Neal Stephenson (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

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INTRODUCTION: Neal Stephenson needs no introduction. Possibly the most acclaimed US speculative fiction writer today, Mr. Stephenson has written masterpieces like “Diamond Age”, “Cryptonomicon”, and the extraordinary Baroque Trilogy about the beginning of the scientific and technological era that we are currently living in.

In “Anathem”, Mr. Stephenson offers another triumphant combination of grand ideas and large-scale action, this time tackling deep questions about the nature of reality, God, consciousness which is at the forefront of the most advanced current thinking in physics, and natural philosophy. In short, “Anathem” will grab you from the very first page and keep you keep fully entranced until its superb ending over 900 pages later. In this review I will try to avoid major spoilers and provide a rough guide to the setting of “Anathem” so readers can delve in and fully enjoy this masterpiece…

SETTING: On the world of Arbre, there is a human-like civilization that 7000 years ago—since the master stonemason Cnoous had a vision of a higher plane of reality—started developing in ways similar to Earth from our classical age of the Hellenes. Cnoous had two daughters, Hylaea and Deat, who interpreted their father's vision in two different ways that fundamentally shaped the course of Arbre society forever. Deat saw God and Heaven, and her followers—which are called deolaters and are divided into various churches called arks—were quite influential in society at that point and represent the majority of today’s population. Hylaea however, saw a perfect triangle and an ideal but natural world that could be investigated through its reflections in our world, including geometry, number theory, physics and the shadows of clouds. Hylaea's followers—called Theors—eventually developed the equivalent of our modern science and technology (theorics and praxis), creating a society somewhat similar to though a bit more advanced than ours, up to what is known as Year 0, or the year of Reconstitution. But that society almost self-destructed itself in the Terrible Events and since the theors were largely blamed for the invention of the horrors of those times—including neutron bombs, gas chambers and engineered lethal viruses—society decided that it should slow down its technological advancements to a manageable level and segregate the theors in “maths” and “concents” where their interaction with society at large could be controlled. The system has been working now for 3689 years, but there have been some hiccups including three great Sacks of the concents, the last one—from 2787-2856—being the lengthiest and most terrible.

The theors—now called avout—live under strict Discipline, with very little modern tech. They are allowed to possess three items made of new matter which were created by avout in the 200s: a bolt with which they dress; a cord with which they hold their bolt in place; and a sphere that expands, contracts, makes artificial light and is used for various tasks. Other than that, all the modern tech is prohibited—just books, chalk, pencils, paper and brains of course—with the necessary IT for the functioning of the concent handled by the Ita who are the sysadmins of the world Internet called the Ret, while discipline is enforced by hierarchs, wardens and inquisitors through penance and occasionally expulsion. When the Saecular leaders need avout expertise to solve a problem, they Evoke some from their concents. And when large-scale expertise is needed—like in 1115 when an asteroid was on course to hit Arbre and a starship was needed to deflect it—there is a large-scale avout gathering called a Convox.

The essential thing about the avout—who are called fraas and suurs and cannot have kids as long as they stay avout—is their division into Unarians, Tenners, Hundreders and Thousanders, all segregated inside their own self-contained math in a given concent which only allows interaction with the rest of the world at the prescribed intervals in their names, ten days once every year, decade, century, millennium respectively, with that period being known as Apert.

Unarians, or one-offs, are mostly educated saeculars getting a free university education for several years to further their careers, get a spouse and so on. Of course their teachers are the only unarians that stay for many years. It’s kind of like a modern college, except that you can get out only once a year and inside you do not have cell phones, computers, internet or TV—though you can drink and have sex—so you can concentrate better on your studies. Not a bad system actually, and many modern Arbre leaders are drawn from such, except of course for the ones who get their education in the religious colleges.

So the “real” avout are the Tenners, Hundreders and the legendary Thousanders who live in the most isolated part of the concent and are either drawn from abandoned newborns with their umbilical cord still attached—“uncontaminated” by the saecular world—or from the wisest hundreders, and are regarded and sometimes feared by many in the Saecular world as wizards that can change reality with their “spells”. Of course an avout can always leave or be Thrown Back for misconduct in the ritual known as Anathem, as well as be summoned—Evoked—to service in the outside world—extramuros—by the Saecular Powers in the ritual known as Voco.

FORMAT/INFO: The arc edition of “Anathem” I have stands at 890 pages of text divided over thirteen parts, each having a significant name, so I strongly recommend reading only the name of part you are in and the next at most, not to spoil the many wonderful surprises of this novel. There is also a Note to the Reader about Arbre, a Chronology at the beginning, and a Glossary at the end. Since the novel is packing so much stuff, I strongly recommend that the first hundred pages or so you just go back and forth to the Glossary/Chronology to fully understand what's going on. There are also three Calcas/technical appendices at the end, each containing an elaboration with equations and diagrams of several important points in the novel. At various parts inside the novel there are inserted full definitions of most Glossary terms as entries in a modern Arbre encyclopedia, so you can wait for those rather than reading the short definitions in the Glossary when you encounter the term first, but personally I'd rather understand the nuances of the novel than forming possibly wrong mental images. There is also CD included containing “avout” music.

The narration is first-person present tense via Fraa Erasmas—known as Raz to his friends—an 18-19 year old Tenner. The most notable characters that I can talk about without major spoilers, are Raz's mentor and surrogate father, Fraa Orolo, an astronomer, philosopher and disciple of famous avouts; Raz' older sister and all around cool/tough girl Cord; and Raz's “crop mates”: Jesry, the smart, good looking, rich kid; Arsibalt the nerdy kid; Lio the tough kid; Tulia, the smart, beautiful girl that our hero has a crush on; and Ala, the bossy, strong girl and bosom friend of Tulia. There are several more important characters, including some that will make your jaw drop, but you will get to them in time. The ending is absolutely wonderful, tying together most of the novel’s different strands, but at the same time the conclusion also marks a new beginning and I would love another book set in the “wild” so to speak, since “Anathem” stays at the edge of our current understanding of the Universe.

September 9, 2008 marks the US Hardcover Publication of "Anathem" via William Morrow. HarperCollins Canada is releasing the book August 29, 2008 while the UK version (see inset) is scheduled for publication September 1, 2008 via Atlantic Books.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: The main storytelling device of the novel is our narrator Raz who—through a combination of being in the right place at the right time and always trying to seize the opportunity, if only to one-up his friend and rival Jesry—gets noticed by important people, so he always finds himself in the thick of the action. Sometimes touchingly naive, Raz has the right instincts though and he is one of the most endearing narrators in modern novels. And we get several larger-than-life characters, though with doubts and quirks as befits true theors...

In the seemingly innocuous and strange beginning of the novel, Fraa Orolo prepares for the Decennial Apert and uses Raz as an amanuensis to interview a Saecular architect/builder—“Artisan”—that came to fix something dangerous that the avout could not fix on their own. The novel starts with weird looking questions that Orolo uses to judge the current Saecular attitude towards the avout. But the bored Artisan tells Orolo to watch TV/Internet—which of course is forbidden inside the concents, though both Orolo and Raz have seen their share of films—and gets his answers there and sends for a junior partner the next day who proves more cooperative and sympathetic overall. Unknown to Raz or us, momentous happenings are slowly building outside, and some of the seeds of further events are sown in the interview.

After a somewhat eventful Apert in which he reunites with Cord, visits with Jesry's family, plays concent guide to school kids, and generally has a good time in the ten days in and out of the concent, Raz finds himself in a punishment cell for reasons he does not quite understand. Raz does his penance and prepares for assuming full avout duties as a member of one of the orders that live at his concent. Raz wants to be a pure theor like Orolo, a member of the Edharian order, but he is afraid he is not smart enough and that the other Edharians know that and will not take him. So he resigns himself to become a New Circle “humanist/political” avout from which the hierarchs and inquisitors are drawn, or a Reformed Faanian—think of today’s diplomats, negotiators, or lawyers—from whom the avout dealing with the saeculars are drawn. But Orolo is the leader of the local Decenarian Edharians and when he wants Raz on his team, he gets him. Of course Raz pays for that with intellectual hazing at the hands of other Edharians who hint he may not be able to keep up and will be forced to Fall Back—become a sort of menial avout who does gardening, wood working, or basic teaching, but is not a true theor.

From here, events start to precipitate, the pace of the novel accelerates, and we follow Raz and his friends on an extraordinary odyssey—emotional, physical, and thought-provoking—filled with action, romance, danger, heroic and heartbreaking acts, engrossing mysteries, and stunning revelations. Plus, the dialogue is sharp and funny, the characters memorable, and the book has so many cool concepts like the library grape that Mr. Stephenson could probably fill out ten more novels on their own. A large part of enjoying “Anathem” though is discovering step-by-step all of the various wonders, both new and old, of the world and the universe and I hope anyone reading this review will embark on this amazing journey which only comes around once in a decade…

In conclusion, Neal Stephenson’sAnathem” is sheer genius.


Peta said...

"In short, “Anathem” will grab you from the very first page and keep you keep fully entranced until its superb ending over 900 pages later." That sentence alone is enough for me to add this to the list!

Reanimated said...

Great review Liviu!
I have been curious about this book but wasn't sure if it would be over my head, so to speak.

I think, though, i will give'r a go.

Keep up the awesome work!

Hey Robert! How's it going, dude?

Robert said...

Glad you both liked the review :) I've only browsed through the novel, but "Anathem" is the kind of book you want to get lost in...

Reanimated, things are better now that football has finally started :D

Anonymous said...

Really, gotta warn that the first few hundred pages of this book are a serious trial in patience. I think a good measure is the Baroque Cycle series: if you liked that series, you'll probably like Anathem. If you found Baroque tedious, stay away from this one.

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