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Neal Stephensons "Anathem" Reviewed

anathem I finished Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Anathem, this evening. This is scheduled to hit the stores on September 9, 2008.

Like most of Stephenson’s novels (outside of his first few), it is a mighty tome. It is 890 pages long plus a glossary and several supplements where he unloads some of the math and theory. As I recall, he either started adding these in the Cryptonomicon or the Baroque Cycle. I assume that the theory loads down the narrative a bit too much and he is wisely moving these bits out (while not having the strength of will necessary to remove them, as some might wish).

This points out the main weakness of this book, which is its density, which approaches that of a black hole at times. (Fortunately, it isn’t a “dry” density…) This is something that was evident in the other works mentioned above as well and, really, it is one of those things that you either accept with Stephenson’s work or you find irritating. If the latter is true, I recommend that you simply quit reading him as it seems quite unlikely to change given the last five works that he has written. I do find it somewhat amusing that the man who wrote Snow Crash, a second generation cyberpunk action novel, has, at the other end of the arc of his writing career, written what amounts to, in many ways, a Neoplatonic Space Opera of Mighty Weight. While I did find Anathem to be quite lengthy, I have wisely made peace with this aspect of Stephenson’s work and managed to enjoy the depth that it allows him to provide. (At this point, anyone who is a fan of the Wheel of Time series who is bitching about Stephenson needs to shut it.)

Unlike my criticisms of some of his previous work, I do not feel like he ran out of steam two-thirds of the way through writing Anathem, causing him to rush his ending. In fact, I found the ending to be quite strong and that it reached the kind of conclusion, both for plots and for our protagonist, that made sense to me.

I am going to avoid spoilers for this work but I do want to discuss it a bit since this is a review. Anathem is set on the world of Arbre and opens in the year 3,689. The dating is especially relevant (and a timeline is provided) because the main character, Erasmas, is a member of an order of cloistered monastics that counts its founding in current form from the year zero. This order (and its sister orders in the system in which it participates) are not religious per se. They ultimately derive from a Pythagorus-like founder roughly seven thousand of years before the present. It is clear throughout the book that the history and content of these orders have clear borrowings from the Ancient Greek philosophers (in spirit if not in the fictional history of Arbre). If one files off the serial numbers of much of the philosophy within Anathem (and there is quite a bit discussed), one can recognize various strains of Platonism, Neopythorean, and other Greek philosophical thought. One primary difference is that the orders (the “mathic world”) have managed, with varying degrees of success, to survive from ancient times while the rest of the world goes through periods of civilization, barbarism, and even nuclear conflicts. Over the course of the book, the reasons for the structures of the cloisters, their 10,000 year clocks, and their isolation from the world (voluntary or otherwise) becomes clear. In many ways, they act as the repositories of knowledge for the rest of world (with not always pleasant implications).

The book description states in part:

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.

The first third of the book sets the stage for Erasmas, who is roughly 18, as a novitiate in the order and the world within the cloister. Of course, dramatic events cause the scope of the book to expand dramatically but this first section, as long as many novels, does set the tone for our narrator and his life. While Stephenson does occasionally insert definitions of terms in chapter beginnings or otherwise explains a bit of history through exposition, things really only become clear in bits in pieces that last right up to the end of the text.

Since I am a Classics geek by background and a former Neoplatonist of sorts, I found the Classical philosophy, discussions related to it, and their sidetracks, to be engaging and interesting. I am also decidedly pro-monastic (though normally in a Buddhist mode). I am of a mixed mind as to whether others would feel the same level of engagements and interest. You’ll probably have to wait for a reviewer with a different sort of background in order to find out if this setting and the philosophizing is as engaging to others or is, perhaps, distracting and confusing. I could easily see it both ways. Overall, I found the work to be a lot more cohesive and immediate than much of the Baroque Cycle. I think that this is primarily because there is a single narrator, Erasmas, who draws it all together rather than the multiple viewpoint characters of the Baroque Cycle, which amplified some of the chaos in that trilogy with their shifting of viewpoints between sections of the same book, only to draw the narratives together in an entirely different volume of the series.

I also appreciated the vision of stability and sustainability provided by the mathic world, which I know was partially inspired by some of the visions of the Long Now Foundation and its own planned 10,000 year clock. Stephenson will be speaking there on September 9 as part of his book launch in San Francisco, so the inspiration is quite overt on his part. (I am a charter member of the foundation so I may have a bias towards its ideals to add to all of my other biases.) There were issues around the practicality of this vision here and there (for example, How do the Ita maintain their stability over centuries when they aren’t monastics?) but I think they were minor given the scope of the work.

Overall, I found Anathem to be an engaging read. It was engrossing enough to keep me up until 2:00 AM on a number of nights, just wanting to finish the next chapter. There are not many novels that can do that to me. I think that if people are looking for a “light” or simply “fun” read, that they may not find it enjoyable to the same degree. It is a heavy book with lots of philosophical debates within it, as well as exposition on various philosophical principles at some length, and it has very little action to grease the plot. There are no Shaftoe pirate battles or tomfoolery in this one though Stephenson’s humor is very much present. I expect that those who enjoyed the Baroque Cycle will enjoy Anathem as well (and the reverse is true also).

One additional note in regard to the CD that came with the book. As I had mentioned when I received the book, this CD contains music, all done with only human voices, from the world of Anathem (with songs like “Sixteen Color Prime Generating Automation”). These are songs sung by the monastics and contain a mix of chant and song that sound Western as well as some that are clearly derived from the throat singing present in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The reasons for some of this variation actually become a little clearer in the text and I found the CD to be an interesting accompaniment to the reading experience. David Stutz, who composed the music for the CD, which is named “IOLET: Music from the World of Anathem”, wrote to me about the status of the CD. He states that an extended version of the CD will be released when Anathem comes out. The version of the CD that came with the advanced reader’s copy of the book was a shorter, preliminary version. Proceeds from the sale of the CD will go to the Long Now Foundation mentioned above. You can find more information on Stutz’s page for the music. He also had an rss feed which contains sheet music for the CD. An example of this</a> for the song, “Proof Using Finite Projective Geometry”, is here

Additionally, there is a preliminary page on the language, Orth, which is language used by the mathic world, filling the role of Latin as the language of monastics and ancient knowledge in our world.

Update: Boing Boing has provided an excerpt from the glossary of Anathem in PDF format. I have also updated the post with more information on the musical CD that came with the book.