Anathem

By NEAL STEPHENSON

Anathem:…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).


Any writer who wants to create a sense of verisimilitude about an imaginary setting must wrestle with how to convey both the similarities and differences between the created milieu and the real world. In his previous novels, Neal Stephenson has faced this test while attempting to convey an amazingly deep array of ideas and situations. From the hip nearish future of Snow Crash to the nanotech-encrusted The Diamond Age, and even in such “historical” novels as Cryptonomicon and the three volumes of the Baroque Cycle, Stephenson’s challenge has been making the alien real enough so that he can then explore the implications of various philosophical or technological issues, providing entertainment to the reader at the same time as he engages in a complex dialog about our present and our future. In Stephenson’s new book, Anathem, a stunning sprawl of a novel set on the planet Arbre, clever new solutions to the problem spring up in every paragraph, on every page — without which not a single line of dialogue, a single character study, would convince the reader one iota.

Among the most impressive of Stephenson’s accomplishments in this area is how quickly the reader adjusts to terms like aut and fraa and suur from the quote above. An aut is a ritual. A fraa is a male “avout,” a suur a female avout, and avout roughly means “monk.” For example, Anathem‘s narrator is the 19-year-old fraa avout Erasmas, and he lives in a “math” that is thousands of years old. The maths are more or less monasteries for scientists and philosophers, protecting accumulated knowledge from the rise and fall of civilizations outside their walls. A Saunt, or saint, is not a religious martyr but rather a “great thinker,” a lovely inversion. In another brilliant tactical move by Stephenson, the S?cular world outside of Erasmus’ math during the events related in Anathem is as sophisticated as our own today. This creates important opportunities for contrast between the two cultures.

The mystery that emerges from Stephenson’s meticulous world building involves nothing less than a threat to the planet. It’s a truth that slowly comes into focus as Erasmas shares seemingly surface details about his life, his surroundings, and his mentor, Fraa Orolo. These early sections of Anathem are mesmerizing, the discussions among the avout both mind-blowing and hilarious. Some of the finest scenes in the novel occur as Stephenson expertly takes the reader through the rituals of Erasmas’ math. (It is difficult to think of another writer who could make a long description of a clock-winding ceremony so fascinating.)

Soon, though, Stephenson expands the scope of Anathem to include the rest of Arbre — indeed, the rest of the cosmos. Erasmas, Fraa Orolo, and others notice disturbing deviations during routine observations of the night sky. Their subsequent investigation puts them in grave danger as they acquire forbidden knowledge. As a result, Fraa Orolo and Erasmas in turn are expelled into the S?cular World; however, while Orolo’s departure is the result of an anathem, Erasmas’ expulsion may well be part of a plan to aim a weapon at the heart of a mysterious enemy.

Ita: (1) In late Praxic Orth, an acronym…whose precise etymology is a casualty of the loss of shoddily preserved information that will forever enshroud the time of the Harbingers and the Terrible Events. Almost all scholars agree that the first two letters come from the words Information Technology, which is late Praxic Age commercial bulshytt for syntactic devices. The third letter is disputed; hypotheses include Authority, Associate, Arm, Archive, Aggregator, Amalgamated, Analyst, Agency, and Assistant.


Stephenson’s ability to create and deploy convincing terminology makes Erasmus’ story possible. But it’s his playful sense of invention in fleshing out his world, bringing to mind his youthful exuberance in Snow Crash, that gives Anathem most of its energy and makes it largely a joy to read. Calling a truck a “fetch” is merely clever, but elements like an extended discussion between students and instructor about S?cular perceptions or the avout — “iconographies” — is in a different class altogether.

In the Muncostran Iconography, for example, a scientist is thought of as “eccentric, lovable, disheveled theorician, absent-minded, means well.” The Pendarthaan Iconography, by contrast, portrays scientists 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 S?culars.” The undeniable satirical quality of these iconographies is wedded to a practical purpose: avout who come into contact with the outside world need to understand which stereotypes, which belief systems, represent a threat to them or their maths. This initial discussion of perception and belief recurs repeatedly, a continual probing of the nature of reality and the power of the mind to construct its own version of it.

Throughout Anathem, Stephenson displays a genius for creating details that multi-task by being clever and funny and functional. This is particularly important during the middle of the novel, in which Erasmas travels across a continent to reach a rendezvous point for an expedition that may lead to answers about the threat from the heavens. The pacing that worked so well in the math seems somewhat slower during Erasmas’ journey, the theoretical conversations more ponderous. The insertion of oddly absurd yet believable elements, like “Everything Killer” weapon systems and an internet that runs on “bulshytt” and “bulshytt elimination,” helps make this slower pace more palatable.

Bulshytt: (1) In Fluccish of the late Praxic Age and early Reconstitution, a derogatory term for false speech in general, esp. knowing and deliberate falsehood or obfuscation…


The overall level of bulshytt in Anathem is relatively low. In one sense, of course, the entire novel is bulshytt of the kind expected from professional liars: game playing at a level so high that in some places the author’s imagination alone keeps the whole audacious contraption spinning in the air long after it should have cracked to pieces against the floor.

But what negative bulshytt does exist occurs because Erasmas is a deliberate, detail-oriented narrator with a somewhat understated approach. The reader is given the sense that this is part of his training, and in the context of his math this restraint works well. However, when Erasmas is out in the wider world this quality lends Stephenson’s prose an “and-then-this-happened-and-then-that-happened” quality. Erasmas maintains the same tone, whether he is describing being buried in the snow while traveling over the north pole of Arbre or narrating his narrow escape from an angry mob with the help of some truly butt-kicking “ninja” monks.

The liveliness of the ideas surrounding Erasmas’ adventures often masks this defect but cannot, for example, disguise the increasingly superficial nature of his romantic relationship with Ala, a suur avout with a pivotal role in the plans being made against the enemy. His reactions to their separation, and to the dangerous prospect she faces, become flatter and flatter, even as Ala’s own initial complexity dissipates, perhaps losing out to Stephenson’s fascination with ideas. Further, Ala’s habit of becoming emotional not only undermines the idea that Erasmas’ restraint is culture based but also makes her stereotypically “female.”

Still, these flaws seem minor in the context of the triumphs on display here. As Stephenson writes in his introduction, Anathem “is best read in somewhat of the same spirit as John L. Casti’s ‘The Cambridge Quintet,’ which is to say that it is a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth’s past and present.” In this sense, then, Anathem is a worthy successor to the ambitious Baroque Cycle. Such a reading of Anathem doesn’t excuse some of the baggy-ness of the 900-page novel, or the impassive qualities of Erasmas; but the ideas are so attractively presented, the context so perfect for their exploration, that it’s hard to find too much fault.

In the last act, Anathem also provides some unbelievably intricate space adventure — some of it attaining the audaciousness of a Roger Moore–era James Bond movie — wedded to spectacular scientific extrapolation and speculation about alternate universes. This action-oriented reprise in-the-flesh of the abstract hypotheticals discussed during the novel’s first half has the satisfying feel of watching blueprints turn into aesthetically pleasing real-world objects.

Perhaps, then, what Stephenson has accomplished with Anathem is the ultimate synthesis of techno-fascination/Geek-SF sense-of-wonder with the far more ancient general quest for knowledge about the world, and what lies beyond our grasp of it. ation, and to the dangerous prospect she faces, become flatter and flatter, even as Ala’s own initial complexity dissipates, perhaps losing out to Stephenson’s fascination with ideas. Further, Ala’s habit of becoming emotional not only undermines the idea that Erasmas’ restraint is culture based but also makes her stereotypically “female.”

Still, these flaws seem minor in the context of the triumphs on display here. As Stephenson writes in his introduction, Anathem “is best read in somewhat of the same spirit as John L. Casti’s ‘The Cambridge Quintet,’ which is to say that it is a fictional framework for exploring ideas that have sprung from the minds of great thinkers of Earth’s past and present.” In this sense, then, Anathem is a worthy successor to the ambitious Baroque Cycle. Such a reading of Anathem doesn’t excuse some of the baggy-ness of the 900-page novel, or the impassive qualities of Erasmas; but the ideas are so attractively presented, the context so perfect for their exploration, that it’s hard to find too much fault.

In the last act, Anathem also provides some unbelievably intricate space adventure — some of it attaining the audaciousness of a Roger Moore–era James Bond movie — wedded to spectacular scientific extrapolation and speculation about alternate universes. This action-oriented reprise in-the-flesh of the abstract hypotheticals discussed during the novel’s first half has the satisfying feel of watching blueprints turn into aesthetically pleasing real-world objects.

Perhaps, then, what Stephenson has accomplished with Anathem is the ultimate synthesis of techno-fascination/Geek-SF sense-of-wonder with the far more ancient general quest for knowledge about the world, and what lies beyond our grasp of it.

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