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Anathemby Neal Stephenson
As a novelist of ideas, Neal Stephenson is known for writing books that are thematically dense. Anathem is no exception. In a world where mathematical philosophers live isolated like monks, the appearance of an orbiting alien spaceship which has a geometric proof displayed on its side prompts a convocation wherein differing groups of math monks search their philosophies for explanations. Add in quantum mechanics, particularly explorations of the many-worlds interpretation, and you have the formula (or should I say algorithm?) for a rich brew of ideas.
"Readers hoping to find [Stephenson's] particular flavor of exhaustive research into heady and hard-to-grasp topics (like Sumerian mythology or Newtonian physics), his lightfooted prose, and his obvious love of language will not be disappointed." Alice Dodge, Rain Taxi (read the entire Rain Taxi review)
Synopses & Reviews
Anathem, the latest invention by the New York Times bestselling author of Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, is a magnificent creation: a work of great scope, intelligence, and imagination that ushers readers into a recognizable — yet strangely inverted — world.
Fraa Erasmas is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside saecular world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent's walls. Three times during history's darkest epochs violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet the avout have always managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity even more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. And Erasmas has no fear of the outside — the Extramuros — for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.
Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs prepare to venture beyond the concent's gates — at the same time opening them wide to welcome the curious extras in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmas eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn't seen since he was collected. But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.
Powerful unforeseen forces jeopardize the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramuros — a threat that only an unsteady alliance of saecular and avout can oppose — as, one by one, Erasmas and his colleagues, teachers, and friends are summoned forth from the safety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster. Suddenly burdened with a staggering responsibility, Erasmas finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of his world — as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of the planet...and beyond.
"In this follow-up to his historical Baroque Cycle trilogy, which fictionalized the early-18th century scientific revolution, Stephenson (Cryptonomicon) conjures a far-future Earth-like planet, Arbre, where scientists, philosophers and mathematicians — a religious order unto themselves — have been cloistered behind 'concent' (convent) walls. Their role is to nurture all knowledge while safeguarding it from the vagaries of the irrational 'saecular' outside world. Among the monastic scholars is 19-year-old Raz, 'collected' into the concent at age eight and now a decenarian, or 'tenner' (someone allowed contact with the world beyond the stronghold walls only once a decade). But millennia-old rules are cataclysmically shattered when extraterrestrial catastrophe looms, and Raz and his teenage companions — engaging in intense intellectual debate one moment, wrestling like rambunctious adolescents the next — are summoned to save the world. Stephenson's expansive storytelling echoes Walter Miller's classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, the space operas of Larry Niven and the cultural meditations Douglas Hofstadter — a heady mix of antecedents that makes for long stretches of dazzling entertainment occasionally interrupted by pages of numbing colloquy. An accompanying CD of music composed by David Stutz is suitably ethereal. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
While thinking about Neal Stephenson's "Anathem," I found myself imagining that I was one of those cartoon heroes suddenly confronted by a moral quandary. On one shoulder sits a little red devil, with a tiny pitchfork; on the other, a cherubic angel in white robes. Each whispers in my ear, and I am tugged first this way and then that. My heart is roiled, I am perplexed and unhappy, caught in a dilemma.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) For the past 30 years I've been a zealous advocate for literary science fiction and fantasy, arguing that writers such as Gene Wolfe, Thomas M. Disch, John Crowley, Ursula K. Le Guin, Howard Waldrop and a handful of others are significant American authors, as well as artists of the first rank. More recently, I've been gratified to see old genre prejudices breaking down as younger writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem and Kelly Link garner mainstream honors without rejecting their fantasy and sf roots. This is as it should be: Good books are good books, period. Everything else is just marketing. Which brings me to my quandary. Neal Stephenson has established himself as one of these genre-transcending gods, read passionately by geeks and fans, but also admired as a novelist of ideas, a 21st-century Thomas Pynchon. In the best-selling "Cryptonomicon" he juxtaposes code-breaking during World War II with data encryption in the era of the Internet. A three-volume "Baroque Cycle" — half Umberto Eco mystery, half Dorothy Dunnett swashbuckler — examines science in the 17th century. All these novels are immensely long, yet it doesn't matter to the growing band of Stephensonians. Excess is clearly the name of the game. This new novel, "Anathem," arrives with a major publicity campaign that includes podcasts, e-cards, YouTube appearances, guest blogs and the relaunch of the Neal Stephenson Web site. Everyone has gone all out for "Anathem." I fully expected to join the stampede. Alas, I can't even lope slowly alongside the herd. Oh, "Anathem" will certainly be admired for its intelligence, ambition, control and ingenuity. But loved? Enjoyed? The book reminds me of Harold Brodkey's "The Runaway Soul" from 17 years ago — much anticipated, in places quite brilliant, but ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull. That's an awful thing to say about a novel as formidable as "Anathem," but there's no getting around it. The made-up language is rebarbative (though often clever), the plot moves with elephantine slowness, and much is confusing (the process of decipherment actually drives the book, as characters and the reader Try to Figure Things Out), and every so often we just stop for a long info-dump or debate about cosmology, philosophy, semantics or similar glitzy arcana. For the most part, Stephenson's prose lacks any particular grace or beauty (at least to my ear), and while he can be mildly satirical at times, these precious moments are few. On the other hand, the descriptions — of buildings, machines, events — seem to go on for millennia. Sex is referred to, but never actually seen. Alas, there's worse. I also find the book to be fundamentally unoriginal. If you've read Russell Hoban's brilliant "Riddley Walker," you've seen punning word coinages done better and more poetically. If you've read Walter M. Miller Jr.'s sf classic "A Canticle for Leibowitz," you know that monasteries are havens of civilization and science (in "Anathem's" case, of high-level mathematics and theoretical physics). Most of all, if you've read Gene Wolfe's four-part "Book of the New Sun," you can appreciate how this kind of grand encyclopedic vision, with mysteries at its core, can be brought off with far more elegance, wit and artistry. All these, by the way, are masterpieces — and not just of "their genre." The plot of "Anathem" is basically this: It's the far future of an Earth-like planet called Orth. We know it's the far future because we're given a long timeline of the planet's past, and the characters repeatedly refer to major figures from their history. Now Orth's past often recalls Earth's and includes figures who resemble Plato and Descartes, movements like the Reformation, and genocidal wars. Currently, though, civilization has bifurcated: Monasteries preserve theoretical knowledge of science and mathematics, and within their walls the brothers (fraas) and sisters (suurs) live simple, highly regulated lives, winding clocks, singing religious services, tending gardens. Only occasionally do they mingle with the outside world, that "extramuros" realm of "praxis," which possesses heavy machinery, cell phones, motorized vehicles and video recorders, and yet somehow seems rather rural and 19th-century in its basic character. After a long build-up, the established routines of the cloister of Saunt Edhar — note the word play: "saunt" blending "savant" and "saint" — are strangely disrupted. A revered teacher is sent into exile, and our hero, a young fraa named Erasmas, is determined to find out why. With the help of his multi-talented monastery friends, he discovers that his mentor Orolo had been studying some strange lights in the night sky. But what are they? Along the way to solving this mystery, Stephenson treats us to numerous interruptions, discourses, explanations, apologia, mathematical proofs and arguments. All these fraas and suurs are super smart: "'It's a typical Procian versus Halikaarnian dispute,' I said. 'Avout who follow in the way of Halikaarn, Evenedric, and Edhar seek truth in pure theorics. On the Procian/Faanian side, there is a suspicion of the whole idea of absolute truth and more of a tendency to classify the story of Cnous as a fairy tale. They pay lip service to Hylaea just because of what she symbolizes and because she wasn't as bad as her sister. But I don't think that they believe that the HTW is real any more than they believe that there is a Heaven." Attentive readers will actually be able to understand most of this passage. No kidding. More surprisingly, Stephenson sometimes breaks his tone by writing plainly about what sounds like today's world: "An old market had stood there until I'd been about six years old, when the authorities had renamed it the Olde Market, destroyed it, and built a new market devoted to selling T-shirts and other objects with pictures of the old market." Eventually, Erasmas and his ragtag team all end up leaving Saunt Edhar's, called upon by the secular government to help during some undisclosed state of emergency. In the outside world, these socially naive monks undergo a variety of adventures — at one point Erasmas is rescued from a mob by an order of kickboxing warrior priests — and we are, in due course, treated to death rays, multiple universes and, yes, a climax in which the very fate of Orth hangs in the balance. And that's all anyone should say about the plot. Except that the end is really hokey. What forward action the novel possesses is largely generated by the exceedingly gradual unraveling of the various mysteries associated with an alien spacecraft and the past history of Orth. To sum up: Reading "Anathem" is a humbling experience. Wow, you say to yourself, this guy Stephenson really knows a lot of stuff about philosophy and physics. And he's really ingenious, too, neatly counterpointing Earth/Orth history, creating a series of elaborate puzzles that can only be solved by Encyclopedia Brown and his monastic buddies, and transcribing intellectual conversations that sound like really nerdy Caltech grad students schmoozing at 3 a.m. or Cambridge dons pontificating at high table while they wait for the Stilton to come round. The sad thing is this: None of these more than 900 pages can have been easy to write, or even to outline. Stephenson truly is gifted in the range of material he can draw on and play with. But he is also the sort of ambitious writer who tends to go too far, which is certainly preferable to playing it safe. Still, this novel is at heart artistically simplistic, despite its techno-razzle dazzle. Sigh. The word "Anathem" — which here refers to either a piece of religious music or an act of excommunication — is a portmanteau of "anthem" and "anathema" — in other words, it suggests a song of rejection. I just hate to be singing it. Michael Dirda's email address is mdirda(at symbol)gmail.com Reviewed by Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Stephenson has quickly established himself as an A-list writer of epic-length fantasy....The novel is beautifully written...and, even though it runs to nearly 1,000 pages, it feels somehow too short....A magnificent achievement." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Light on adventure, but a logophilic treat for those who like their alternate worlds big, parodic and ironic." Kirkus Reviews
"Anathem pulls off what most writers would never dare attempt — it is simultaneously a page turner and a philosophical argument, an adventure novel and an extended existential meditation, a physics lesson, sermon and ripping good yarn." Salon.com
"Anathem is chock-full of great ideas, and the details matter....Because of the internal strength of Stephenson's storytelling, Anathem achieves transcendence of traditional commercial boundaries..." Chicago Sun-Times
"[A] rigorous but rewarding epic fantasy....
"[A]n absorbing book [that] features plenty of action....Anathem's appended lectures and proofs round out this semblance of a world running sometimes in parallel to our own, but given to fascinating, logically derived, yet wholly unexpected departures." Seattle Times
"Stephenson has done something remarkable in this novel, which is to make the resolution of a venerable philosophical debate essential to the unfolding of his story." Los Angeles Times
"[Stephenson's] prose is dense, but his worldview contagious. Three hundred pages in, I fervently resolved to shut down my blog and spend the next millennium reading books." The Wall Street Journal
"Awesome. Despite its length at 960 pages, the fast pacing of the book is reminiscent of Stephenson's earlier, shorter, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age....Stephenson deserves credit for his trademark skill of putting ideas as big as this one into a book that's also a rattling good read." Discover Magazine
"Anathem is a unique, impressive but fairly mad novel: one part hubris to one part taking the piss to one part gnarly geek awesomeness." Strange Horizons
Since childhood, Raz has lived behind the walls of a 3,400-year-old monastery, a sanctuary for scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians. There, he and his cohorts are sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, and unpredictable saecular world, until the day that a higher power decides it is only these cloistered scholars who have the abilities to avert an impending catastrophe. One by one, Raz and his friends, mentors, and teachers are sent forth without warning into the unknown.
About the Author
Neal Stephenson is the author of seven previous novels. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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