by Neal Stephenson
Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford
Anathem is a rollicking ride through thousands of years of math, religion, politics, science, and culture -- though none of it takes place on Earth. This is Neal Stephenson, after all.
Instead, Fraa Erasmas of the Concent of St. Edhar provides any necessary background on the world of Arbre, and it is through his eyes that this massive story unfolds. He is but one brother in a mathic tradition that spans millennia (indeed, some of the other brothers and sisters in his concent are rumored to even live for millennia). Erasmas is the perfect narrator for such an epic tale -- young, relatively inexperienced, and immediately likable both for his analytical perceptions and his emotional naiveté. Stephenson never lets him talk down to anyone, least of all the reader. His explanations of such complex phenomena as quantum theory and many-worlds hypotheses are phrased exquisitely and never threaten to make one's eyelids start drooping.
This isn't to say that Anathem is merely a series of mathematical proofs set in another cosmos in order to manufacture interest. On the contrary, the plot that Stephenson has taken obvious pains to architect manages to both hinge on philosophic and scientific theories and simultaneously transcend them to become a deeply involving narrative. As the tale progresses, the science at the root of Erasmas's worldview comes into contact (and conflict) with religious authorities, violent aggressors, and otherworldly beings -- sometimes all at once. Consequently, Erasmas is constantly reevaluating his own assumptions of the world around him, as well as the people around him, and it's these shifting perceptions that keep the reader spellbound. The first-person narrative is crucial to Anathem's success, since the reader is also forced to accommodate, rationalize, and internalize radically new ideas and settings -- to say nothing of the characters.
From the quietly powerful martial artists of the Ringing Vale to the insatiable Lorites who deny the existence of new theories (claiming that all ideas have already been thought in one way or another, somewhere), each faction within the various concents is fully fleshed out with its own particular philosophy, which informs every action and thought of its adherents. Erasmas meets all of them and, by the end of the book, seems an amalgamate of the myriad perspectives he's encountered.
Reading Anathem once might not be enough to fully appreciate Stephenson's cleverness, but I can safely say that, despite its size (900+ pages), its a story that encourages rereading. The ending is both unexpected and perfect -- an appropriate finale to a novel which relishes its mathematical proofs and its rhetorical prowess in equal measure.