Nineteen year old Fraa Erasmas is a junior avout of the centenarian math at the concent of Saunt Edhar, about to celebrate his first Apert. Translation: Erasmas's planet, Arbre, has a history very similar to that of Earth's--an Ancient Greece analogue gives way to a Rome analogue, which adopts a Christianity analogue before its collapse ushers in a dark age which ends with a scientific and rationalist enlightenment, leading to a technological age--with one major deviation. On Arbre, the enlightenment was accompanied by the development of a semi-monastic way of life for those interested in scientific enquiry. This discipline was codified at the end of Arbre's technological age--a point roughly equivalent to our present day--when unspecified horrors were unleashed on the population, rendering much of the planet uninhabitable. A division was imposed between scientists and the rest of the population, with the former sequestering themselves for a period--a year, a decade, a century or a millennium (orphaned or unwanted babies delivered to concents replace the population of the latter)--and devoting themselves to pure science while renouncing most forms of technology and material possessions. At the end of their sequestration period, the scientists--the avout--celebrate Apert, a period of ten days during which they may venture out into what they term the Sæcular world, to learn of the work being done in other concents, reunite with the families they left behind, taste the world's pleasures, and decide whether they wish to recommit themselves to their math.
Erasmas, therefore, is in the classic starting position for the hero of a fantastic bildungsroman--the smallest possible cog in a machine of gargantuan complexity and power. As the novel opens, he has the standard complement of early adulthood problems such protagonists suffer from--an unrequited crush, friendly and not-so-friendly competition with his fellow novices, and a general uncertainty about his place in the concent. Anathem's early chapters introduce us to these problems as well as the people in Erasmas's life and the workings of the concent (by which I mean either passages which concentrate on the architecture and mechanics of the concent's millennium clock, which are tedious, or ones which describe the concent's rituals and social strata, which are very well done), but events surrounding Apert quickly force Erasmas to look beyond his personal concerns. Political tensions between various orders in the concent are on the rise, with Erasmas's mentor, Fraa Orolo, at the heart of the storm. The Inquisition, the body charged with ensuring that avout maintain their separation from the Sæcular world, come calling. The concent's telescope is suddenly declared off-limits. When Orolo is dismissed from the concent for using forbidden technology, Erasmas and his friends dedicate themselves to recreating his research, and soon discover that Arbre is being visited by an alien spaceship. Before long, they have all been sent out into the world, as avout and Sæcular join forces to puzzle out and possibly defend against these visitors.
Anathem's plot follows the standard progression of the fantastic coming of age novel. Erasmas learns, grows, deepens and complicates his relationships with his friends, family, and superiors, and finds his place in the world by becoming a mover and shaker in a new world order. This aspect of the novel is affecting and well done, but the characters themselves are nearly nonexistent. Erasmas is an affable Harry Potter-ish blank, the better for other characters to explain his world to him. His only distinguishing characteristics are loyalty--to his mentor and to his friends--and strength of will, which breeds in him the determination to carry out the tasks they set him or the ones he sets himself on their behalf. His closest friends over the course of the novel are the three young men with whom he forms the concent's bell-ringing team, Lio, Jesry, and Arsibalt. Lio, a wannabe ninja, is quite fun, but even at the very end of the novel I had trouble telling the other two apart--we're told, for example, that Jesry is the golden boy of the group, brilliant, handsome, and charismatic, but never get to see him outshine his fellows as Erasmas keeps telling us he does.
Erasmas's two love interests, Tulia and Ala, are an even worse story. Except for frequent mentions of the latter's exceptional organizational skills, we never get a sense of the difference between them, which makes Erasmas's decision to transfer his affections from Tulia to Ala completely inexplicable. The novel's most interesting characters are the ones who are more distinct types, and whose idiosyncrasies are allowed to stand in place of personalities--Fraa Jad, a crotchety millenarian avout who speaks only in riddles; Yul, a wilderness guide with a DIY obsession who helps Erasmas get across the north pole and falls in love with his sister; Barb, a novice avout who is borderline autistic; Fraa Lodoghir, who stands in opposition to everything Orolo believes in and has no qualms about using underhand rhetorical tactics to prove that his point of view is the right one.
Far more successful is Stephenson's worldbuilding. In Anathem's early chapters in particular, but throughout the novel, he focuses on describing the avout community, which in his hands becomes an intriguing mixture of monastic order and university. Like monks, Erasmas's and his friends' lives are governed by the observance of rituals, called 'auts,' which also give the novel's chapters their titles, and like the inhabitants of monasteries, a substantial portion of their time is spent doing chores to help with the concent's upkeep and keep it self-sustaining. But despite these overt parallels, the avout are not a religion. The purpose of their life in the concent is the acquisition and proliferation of knowledge, and the terms in which the pursuit of this goal are couched are reminiscent less of religious belief than of the workings of an academic institution or scientific community. The one-year maths, we learn, are the equivalent of undergraduate faculties. People from the Sæcular world often spend several years there, sometimes just to give themselves a little polish, and other times to learn and gain skills that will further their careers out in the world. Those who wish to dedicate their lives to knowledge join the ten, hundred, or thousand year maths, which are institutes of higher learning. The politics within these maths--tensions between different orders with opposing philosophies or tenets, or between individuals whose theories conflict--feel very much like tensions between rival departments or researchers in a university.
When Erasmas, who is about to come of age, is faced with choosing an order, he's courted by the New Circle, who take an administrative and political role in the concent, but has his heart set on the order of Saunt Edhar, where he can dedicate himself to intellectual pursuits (while fearing that his intellectual prowess isn't quite up to snuff)--mirroring the division between pure research and administration in many universities. When Erasmas and his friends step out of line, the concent's Warden Regulant hands out penance, but instead of twenty Hail Marys, they get to learn and memorize The Book--"crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless ... The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison infiltrate your brain". Outside the concent, society is far from feral or technologically backwards--Erasmas encounters the equivalents of cellphones, movies, GPS, and the internet during Apert--but most of the Sæculars Erasmas meets are technology users or, like his sister Cord, technicians and engineers. It is mainly within the concents that the science underlying technology is fully understood, and it is only there that the more ephemeral questions about the nature of matter, the universe, and existence itself are being pondered.
At the same time as he describes the avout community, Stephenson charts Arbre's history in the 3,700 years since the separation between avout and Sæcular was imposed, and fills in the gaps in the Earth-adjacent history preceding it. Quite shockingly for a Stephenson novel, he achieves much of Anathem's affect, and creates a sense of the weight and presence of that history, through language and wordplay. As xkcd would have it, Anathem's invented vocabulary is nothing more than an exmaple of the standard epic fantasy tendency towards same, and given that the book is so clearly being written within the boundaries of the epic fantasy form, there is some truth to this accusation, but it is also a tool Stephenson uses to both equate and differentiate Arbre from Earth. Anathem's is peppered with extracts from the Dictionary, an official avout document reedited every thousand years when the millenarian maths have their Apert, the better to acquaint their inhabitants with the changes in language and word usage. Many of these are along the same lines as the definition of 'anathem,' which serves as the novel's epigraph:
Anathem: (1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, which since the time of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy (hence the Fluccish word Anthem meaning a song of great emotional resonance, esp. one that inspires listeners to sing along). Note: this sense is archaic, and used only in ritual context where it is unlikely to be confused with the much more commonly used sense 2. (2) In New Orth, an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas).These kinds of word games abound in the novel. 'Concent' obviously recalls 'convent,' but also has its roots in 'concentration,' as in the concentration of scientifically-minded people in a single place where they can be out of the way and easily controlled. 'Apert' is a mixture of 'apart' and 'aperture.' 'Saunt' immediately puts us in mind of 'saint,' but as we learn from a handy Dictionary reference the word is actually a corruption of 'savant.' Perhaps most entertaining is 'bulshytt,' which in Fluccish, the language of the Sæcular, means exactly what you think it means, but which in the avout language means marketing speech, the use of words and rhetoric to say nothing at all, for example when a Sæcular tries to explain to Orolo that two forms of A/V technology, speely and farspark, mean completely different things. This device, like the coupling of the monastic trappings of the avout lifestyle with its secular, intellectual purpose, helps to create a combination of familiarity and strangeness that is Anathem's most dominant emotional tone. One of the chief pleasures of the novel is the way it reveals a completely foreign history while encouraging us to find its parallels with our own. This intensifies our engagement with the novel and livens up Stephenson's frequent infodumps. Instead of being spoon-fed a history and culture, readers are encouraged to actively explore them, piecing together a massive historical-cultural puzzle.
Everything I've written so far about Anathem is accurate, but it doesn't create anything approaching a true reflection of what the book is like because it leaves out what is probably its most important feature. In between Erasmas's adventures, Anathem is a primer on the history, growth, and some of the major conflicts in Western philosophy. Erasmas has few conversations as we define the term. Most of his interactions take the form of a formal philosophical dialogue. In some cases, Erasmas is being taught or led to a conclusion. In others he's explaining to an outsider some facet of avout life or thought, and sometimes he engages in or witnesses genuine philosophical battles, in which two sides dispute over the very nature of existence (so central are these dialogues or lessons to the novel that a few of them have even been lopped off where apparently even Stephenson was persuaded that they might halt the novel's action and made into appendices).
The central philosophical dispute in Anathem is between the Halikaarnians and the Procians, who correspond to Platonic Realism, which argues that concepts and ideas have an existence independent of the people or culture grasping them, and Nominalism, which argues that abstracts are nothing but the construct of the mind, and that nothing exists outside of physical matter or human perception. In other words, is there such a thing as the number 3, or is 3 merely a social construct? Obviously, this is the kind of question that is simultaneously huge and meaningless, and its discussion in Anathem is most frequently broken down into smaller, more comprehensible issues: whether, as the Procians would have it, the Halikaarnian belief in what is essentially Plato's world of perfect forms amounts to a belief in God; whether, as some of the Sæculars Erasmas meets would have it, there is an inherent contradiction between the avout pursuit of knowledge and belief in God; most importantly, what role science and rationalism have had in the development of Erasmas's society, and what role they should have.
Anathem quickly (by which I mean a couple hundred pages in) settles into a format. Erasmas arrives at a new location or meets a new acquaintance. A philosophical discourse, often building on conclusions reached or terms established in previous conversations, is launched. Repeat. This sounds like a recipe for tedium and abstruseness, but to my surprise Anathem is the most effortlessly readable of Stephenson's novels, and an exciting, thoroughly enjoyable adventure story to boot. Though not as pyrotechnically fun as Cryptonomicon, it has an earnestness that is endearing and very hard to resist. Stephenson takes care to weave the didactic portions of the novel with adventure scenes--Erasmas and his friends defying the Inquisition to discover Orolo's secret; his journey over the north pole, following in Orolo's footsteps; a mission to space. In fact, while reading Anathem I was repeatedly struck by amazement at the fact that I had forced myself to endure 2,700 pages of The Baroque Cycle, putting up with Stephenson's convoluted plotting and endless proliferation of personality-free characters, when all I had to do was wait for Anathem to make much the same point (like Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, Anathem is about the point When It Changed. It's just that Stephenson keeps pushing that point back--from the dawn of the computer age to the Enlightenment to the discovery of the Pythagorean Theorem) so much more elegantly and enjoyably.
One possible reason for Anathem succeeding where it shouldn't and where The Baroque Cycle failed is that, unlike The Baroque Cycle, its plot takes us somewhere we hadn't been and weren't expecting to go. Every philosophical concept Erasmas learns is a building block, a puzzle piece with which he comes closer to understanding the truth about the alien ship. The Baroque Cycle, which described the past, had a clearly understood endpoint--its appeal was, or was intended to be, in its presentation of a novel interpretation of the path leading to that endpoint. The path Anathem sets us on, however, leads to a McGuffin that is a genuine delight, a piece of SFnal invention that is, if not plausible, then at least so neatly perched above the scientific and philosophical foundations established by the preceding hundreds of pages that it feels satisfyingly so, and the process of discovering it along with Erasmas similarly satisfying. Once again, by encouraging his readers to actively engage with with the novel, to conduct their own investigation parallel to Erasmas's, Stephenson transforms what might have been a dry lecture into an intellectual adventure.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing I can say about Anathem's success as a didactic work of fiction is that it has finally persuaded me to read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. I've been resistant to this extraordinarily well-received YA novel since I first read about it in Farah Mendlesohn's review for Strange Horizons. It's a good review, both in the sense that it is positive and in the sense that it clearly conveys the reviewer's reasons for liking the book. It's just that everything Mendlesohn lists as a point in Little Brother's favor, and mainly its naked didacticism, is everything that I hate most in fiction. Subsequent positive reviews only further persuaded me that Little Brother was almost calculated to arouse my hatred. Anathem's structure, however, and its blatant didacticism, are very similar to the impression I've formed of Little Brother, to the extent that I'm wondering whether, like Little Brother and several other books tipped as hot Hugo favorites this year, Anathem might not be most profitably discussed as a YA novel (its plot is certainly a staple of many books for young readers). I'm suddenly curious to see whether my enjoyment of Anathem means that I'll also enjoy Little Brother, or whether there are crucial difference between the two books that overwhelm their similar structures and goals.
I've said that strangeness dominates as Anathem's emotional tone, created by Arbre's simultaneous familiarity and foreignness, but in its first half at least this strangeness has an almost surreal quality, and contributes to the sense that Stephenson has written the novel with tongue very firmly set in cheek. The direct parallels to Earth seem almost to be daring the reader to break their suspension of disbelief, as do the frequent meta-references sprinkled throughout the novel. The introduction, with its pronunciation guide and timeline, is very nearly a parody of the ubiquity of these elements in epic fantasy (one suspects that the only reason Anathem isn't an actual book-with-map is that the map would give the game away too soon). Erasmas's friend Lio is a enthusiast of vale-lore, a fighting form invented by the monks at the concent of the Ringing Vale, who are clearly a riff on every ninja monk ever to grace a martial arts movie. After they've arrived on the alien ship, Erasmas and his friends complain that the end to their adventure isn't anything like "a spec-fic speely, where something amazingly cool-to-look-at happens", and as he's narrating his story's happy ending, Erasmas tells us that we "might find it odd that a story like this one ends with a kiss, as if it were a popular speely, or a comedy acted out on a stage" (though perhaps this is simply Stephenson poking fun at his reputation as an author who can't write a proper ending). Most prominently, the avout about to venture on their first Apert are warned to be on the lookout for Iconographies, narratives constructed about the avout which affect their perception by the Sæcular, and which parallel depictions of scientists and intellectuals in our popular culture.
The Muncostran Iconography: eccentric, lovable, disheveled theorician, absent-minded, means well. The Pendarthan: fraas as high-strung, nervous, meddling know-it-alls who simply don't understand the realities; lacking physical courage, they always lose out to more masculine Sæculars. The Klevan Iconography: theor as an awesomely wise elder statesman who can solve all the problems of the Sæcular world. The Baudan Iconography: we are grossly cynical frauds living in luxury at the expense of common man. The Penthabrian: we are guardians of ancient mystical secrets of the universe handed down to us by Cnoüs himself, and all our talk about theorics is just a smoke-screen to hide our true power from the unwashed multitude.Anathem appears to be aware of its genre(s) and none-too-subtly mocking them while telling a story within them. About halfway into the novel, however, these meta-references are suddenly flattened by the revelation of the nature of the alien visitors, who have arrived from parallel Earths, including our own. Suddenly what seemed like a quirky and endearingly over the top parody of genre conventions has an internally consistent reason within the plot. Instead of poking fun at the linguistic obsession of fat fantasy authors, Anathem's introduction has a reason for existing that is internal to the plot. The whole book is a translation of Erasmas's narrative for readers on Earth, hence the pronunciation guide, or his odd insistence that when he uses the word 'carrot,' he doesn't mean an actual carrot but an Arbran root vegetable similar to a carrot. What seems at first like a subtle jab at secondary world fantasy is actually our earliest clue to what is actually going on. When Erasmas says that Arbre is Earth but not Earth, we assume that he's speaking poetically, but he is actually telling the stone cold truth. Similarly, the many references to genre and narratives resonate with the many-worlds revelation when it's revealed that Arbre is the platonic ideal for other worlds, and that those worlds act as platonic ideals to others.
On one level, this is very, very neat, and the revelation is very cleverly pulled off, but however smart this McGuffin is, it's hard to escape the impression that Stephenson's build-up, those early portions of the novel in which we're half befuddled and half convinced that he's having us on, are more than his literal-minded payoff could support. It's one thing to argue that every world must arrive at certain scientific and cultural milestones if its society is to make it to space, but to suggest nearly identical parallel histories and a culture that so closely resembles our own, 21st century culture--cellphones, sports jerseys, evangelicals--strains credulity. A metaphor or a gag can support these improbabilities. An earnest reading can't.
On one level these similarities are part of the main thrust of Anathem's McGuffin, that Arbre's culture has informed Earth's (though none of the characters who suggest that this influence exists ever go so far as to speculate that Arbre and Earth's cultures might be as similar as we know them to be, because none of them ever find out much about Earth itself). This, however, leaves us bumping up against the very real problem that when Stephenson writes about human civilization, what he's really talking about is Western civilization. There is no mention of any culture not descended down the Greece-Rome-Christian Europe line in Anathem, no analogues to India, China, Arabia or Persia. At best, these cultures and their contributions to science, philosophy, and the store of human knowledge exist on Arbre but are never mentioned by Erasmas, who may not even be aware of their existence. At worst, the platonic ideal of human civilization, per Stephenson, doesn't include non-white cultures.
At what should be the novel's triumphant climax, it subtly undermines itself by insisting on a rational, thought out explanation for what had seemed like over the top weirdness. In other words, at the moment when Stephenson takes what had seemed to be a generic (if distinctive in its style and topic) secondary world YA fantasy and reveals it to be good old fashioned science fiction, there's a creak of the gears that I found impossible to ignore. It isn't enough to scuttle the book, but it does leave it feeling less than whole. In spite of this, Anathem, and the moment of revelation that gave me so much pause, are both exhilarating. This isn't yet as good as Stephenson can be, but it's a welcome return to form, and a reminder of how much pleasure and enjoyment he's capable of giving his readers.