Anathem is a Big Novel. By that I mean both in physical length – at 960 pages, this is a good long read – and in subject matter. Anathem is a type of book I haven’t read in quite a while. Reading Anathem was like reading Dune for the first time, or Lord of the Rings, or The Foundation Trilogy.
It’s an epic, yes – but there are lots of epics out there. Anathem is one of those rare books that builds an entire world all its own, from the ground up, complete with its own detailed history, unique language, culture, and attitude. Anathem surrounds you and immerses you, so much so that I am still thinking in terms from the book, days after finishing it.
I knew Anathem was going to be very detailed right from the beginning. Before the novel even starts, there’s a 5 page “Note to the Reader” that introduces the language spoken on the planet Arbe, and gives a historical timeline of the previous 7,000 years of the planet’s history. The author advises the reader that while all relevant parts of the planet’s history will be covered in their own due time during the plot of the novel, the reader may find it “convenient” to refer back to the timeline “on occasion”. For me, that turned out to be about once every 10 pages or so.
In addition, the novel has its own language, much like may other fantasy and science fiction epics have done. The book has a glossary in the back, and in the first several chapters, dictionary definitions of terms unique to Arbe are sprinkled throughout the text. Some of the words are almost English, with just a slight difference in spelling or pronunciation. Some examples: On Earth we have “convents” of the religiious; on Arbe they have “concents” of mathematic and scientific scholars. On Earth “secular” means non-religious; on Arbe “saecular” means non-scientific – the world outside of the concent walls.
Anathem is a world-spanning novel set on the very Earth-like planet of Arbe. On Arbe, scientific and learned people live in walled, secluded communities, in the same way that some religious orders live on Earth. These communities are called “concents”, and the individual orders within them are called “maths”. Individual members of these walled academies are called “avout”. Structurally, it’s sort of similar to an old British university of colleges, like Oxford. Culturally, however, it’s much more like a religion on Earth. The concents follow strict rules of study, dress, and conduct, and interact with the outside world only on rare and highly regulated occasions.
On Arbe, civilizations rise and fall, but the maths have stayed constant. Oh, the concents have been sacked a few times during their 4,000 year existence, but they always reform after each pillage, stronger than they ever were. Within the walls of the concents, history is maintained. All scientific theories, research, and knowledge that has ever been developed by anyone, anywhere in the world are recorded, studied, and researched behind their walls. The avout are the keepers of all of Arbe’s collective knowledge.
Anathem opens in the year 3689 A.R. (“After Reconstruction”), in the Concent of Saunt Edhar. The novel is a first-person narrative, written by a 19-year-old “fraa” (a male avout) named Erasmus, or Ras, as he is called by his friends. The story begins as Ras describes the ceremonies the day before the gates of his concent are to be opened for the first time in ten years to the outside world, a 10-day festival called “Apert”. As we follow Ras throughout his day, we learn how the world of Arbe is very similar to – and yet very different from – our own Earth. Is Arbe a lost colony of Earth? Is this a parallel universe of some sort? Or is Anathem just an alternate history, an “Earth that might have been” kind of story? I won’t tell.
Mysteries unfold. Fraa Orolo, Ras’s mentor and a renowned member of the concent, is expelled for violating one of the basic rules of the order: using technology from outside the concent walls (a portable computer and video recorder, as it turns out). Political struggles between the members of the avout and the outside, saecular world. Mysterious revelations that some members of the avout have been tinkering with advanced genetic engineering, something that has been forbidden for over 3,500 years.
And then a massive spaceship settles into orbit around Arbe, a ship constructed with designs that seem familiar, but using technology that is not. And yet the ship is engraved with geometric symbols that are strangely familiar to the members of the avout, who have maintained their planet’s history throughout the rise and fall of many civilizations. Who are the extraterrestrial visitors? What do they want? And why do they seem to only want to communicate with members of the avout, ignoring the political entities of the saecular world?
We discover all of this through Ras, as he writes his first-person description of all that happens. I’m not going to give away any more of the plot, but I will tease and say that by the end, Arbe will never the same – and you will fully understand how the worlds of Earth and Arbe are intimately connected.
Anathem is a terrific read, engrossing and exciting – and enlightening as well. Although it is an epic science fiction novel, it’s also a keen study of the cloistered world of academia. On Arbe, academics are literally shut away from the rest of the world, and much of their conversations are in the form of “dialogs”, classic structures of education between a fid (student) and a mentor. These are clearly modeled after our own Greek dialogs of Plato, Socrates, etc., and they have formal rules of engagement. There are sections of the book where the characters may engage in this formal sort of dialog for 10 or 20 pages at a stretch, and yet I never found it boring.
Anathem is a different sort of novel for Neal Stephenson. His previous works have been two classics of the cyberpunk genre (Snow Crash and The Diamond Age), and a set of linked historical novels (Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World). This new work is his first try at a “whole world” epic, and it is a fantastic, marvelous success.
Although Anathem ends cleanly and completely (no loose ends, no “still to come” nonsense), most of the major characters are still alive at the end, and the book cover less than a single year. Could Stephenson be planning a sequel, or at least some sort of related novel? His previous four novels were all linked together in a common history, so I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.
If you like epics – if you like massive works of realistic science fiction with great characters – if you like to immerse yourself into a world other than your own – then go and buy Anathem, and settle down for a long read. Anathem is an investment that pays off with joyful dividends. You will be in for a great and rare pleasure.