Reviewed by Alice Dodge
Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, one of the most influential Cyberpunk novels, combined a breakneck pace with cool tech, the theory that language acts as a virus, and a main character called, unforgettably, Hiro Protagonist. It was the book that coined the term 'avatar' in its electronic sense, bringing us a sexy, cybernetic, dystopian future that was fantastically enjoyable to read about. Stephenson has resisted the urge to let us live in that world in the five novels he's published since. His recent Baroque Cycle (2003-04), a three-tome series that acts as a prequel to Cryptonomicon (1999), is a historical fiction set in the 18th century that explores the birth of the enlightenment and the end of alchemy, the beginnings of science, the stock market, and the emancipation movement, and, of course, pirates.
Given that range, it's hard to know what to expect from Anathem, Stephenson's latest novel. Readers hoping to find his 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. Anathem takes place in a world that is not ours, but seems to be ours in an alternate reality or perhaps the extremely distant future. There are recognizable features right away, sometimes renamed using words that somehow ring true: cars and pickups are "mobes" and "fetches"; cell phones are, perfectly, called "jeejahs." But this isn't the turbocharged landscape of Snow Crash, or the swashbuckling high seas adventure of The Confusion; instead, the story starts out in a simple monastery.
As you might expect, monasteries are not the most exciting places in alternate realities, either, and so things are a little slow to get moving. But Anathem -- which runs about 900 pages -- does indeed eventually get exciting, complete with martial-arts battles, an arctic journey, and a trip to space. While we're waiting, Stephenson delivers a beautifully articulated world that lies somewhere between a medieval book of hours and a classic anime film. The place and characters are vivid, from the "tangles" where they grow food that hasn't been genetically modified to make people chemically happy, to the elaborate chants and rituals the monks use to celebrate specific times of day and celestial moments.
The monastery is called a "math" and, indeed, math is one of the major subjects of the novel: the language of proofs and geometry runs through the text. Stephenson's conceit is that, in this world, scholars are separated from the rest of society; they live in their own "concents," where they study math, philosophy, astronomy, quantum physics, etc. The reason for this unfolds with the story; it goes back and forth as to whether the Avout are sequestered because they want to escape society, or because society wants them contained. The question of how theory affects the world -- and of what the world would do without it—becomes central to the novel, and more intriguing as the book progresses.
If all of this sounds a little on the nerdy side, it is -- in a way, it celebrates how nerdiness can flower. Fraa Erasmus, the main character, is only nineteen and we watch him grow up. He falls in love, breaks rules, follows his heart, and questions his choices in an endearing way. The characters are dimensional and intriguing, from the old badass Fraa Jad to the young and awkward Barb, whose social ineptitude balances his facility with numbers. The story requires people who think in numbers, who revel in scholastic debate, and who embrace slow ritual to deal with a world that rejects them -- and in that, it strikes closer to home than its monastic-space-opera trappings at first suggest.
If a long novel with three-dimensional geometric proofs as part of its appendices still doesn't sound immediately enjoyable, consider Anathem on the basis that Stephenson meets the challenge of making his potentially dry source material truly interesting. His skill with language hooks the reader at every turn; he deconstructs and reconstructs words out of multiple languages to give new meaning and resonance to ordinary concepts. In a "Note to the Reader," the author explains that the title is a play on both "anthem" (as in music) and "anathema" (an abomination). Stephenson's inventiveness with language actually adds to the clarity of his prose: before you know it, you will not only understand the science in the story, but will find it both beautiful and funny. This kind of play is everywhere in Anathem, and not limited to making up words; his language is lush but surprising and simple, like a perfectly fresh tomato. ("The embarrassment had turned runny. It was horrifying my scalp along a spreading frontier.")
The genre of science fiction, at its best, explores the world as it is by expanding it into the world as it could be, if things were just a step sideways from how they are. Anathem does just this; it plays out as a thought experiment where, given certain constants and some variables, you can see the consequences of a particular situation. The book thus unfolds like a geometric proof, but not one out of the textbook -- it's solved only through scrawling notes, wrong turns, music, and language. Stephenson leaves the reader with a love of the world, questions about the universe, and most of all with a wholly satisfying story.
Alice Dodge is a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi.
Books mentioned in this post