Anathem - Neal Stephenson

Unfortunately, Anathem is yet another of those critically-acclaimed award-winners that just didn’t work for me. The story takes place in an alternate world with striking similarities to our own. It follows the life of Erasmas, an unsubtly-named member of the Discipline, a secular order that basically combines monastic stereotypes with ivory-tower academia. Far back in time, the Discipline set aside worldly things such as actual application of technology to pursue the higher world of utterly impractical thought. They live cloistered lives, their only possessions the bolt, chord, and sphere. (The bolt is a bolt of cloth, apparently worn in the fashion of a Buddhist monk; the chord is used to tie it; the sphere is a “newmatter” orb that can be made to grow, shrink, provide light, and more.) When the story starts, the ten-year Evocation is about to begin, allowing Erasmus and his fellow brothers and sisters to mix with the non-”avout.” But when Erasmus’ mentor Orolo begins to see peculiar signs, the peaceful world of the avout will be turned on its head.


As might be plain by now, while the names might not be familiar, the concepts certainly are. In fact, that was one of my major issues with Anathem: while most speculative fiction tends to use commonplace words to describe their imaginative creations, Stephenson uses “new” (but still Latin-derived) words to describe concepts from our world. Members of the “avout” (avocation, strikingly similar to devout) are referred to as “fraas” (frater) or “suur” (think “sorority”). The technology (called “praxis”) of the world is strikingly similar to our own; the non-avout (“extramuros”) carry about cell phones (called “jeejahs”) which can record video and audio (“speely captors”). Instead of using the term “web” or “internet,” it’s called a “reticulum,” but it has precisely the same function. Sure, there’s something called “newmatter” that provides various convenient magical effects, but otherwise, the basis of the world is essentially that of our own. And since that is the case, why the tortuous Latin? And that’s even before we get to the historical figures. Pythagoras’s life and works are copied directly: even if he’s called “Adrakhones” here, his best-known proof is copied in its entirety. So is Plato (Protas), Descart (Lesper), Turing (Taunger), Ockham (Gardan), and far too many others to list. And then there are the concepts. Even the pop culture is a carbon copy of our own, even if he did rename “Spock” to “Dox.” Does Stephenson really get creativity points for presenting the Traveling Salesman Problem under the name of the “lazy peregrine?” What is the point of all this renaming, other than some smug, pretentious game to prove how well-versed in history and Latin the author (or the reader) might be?


Somehow, the book just never really captured my interest. I found the protagonist rather boring, and I never really was able to swallow the idea of a science-based monastic order that spent most of their time doing impractical things like winding clocks. The book also combined dull meandering and portentous allusion with rather impressive overtness. Maybe I was missing the subtle hints, because it felt to me like all of the interesting terms were diminished by Stephenson’s tendency to go back and directly state the meanings. “Anathem” is a perfect example. Just in case you don’t get the double usage, Stephenson will tell you. Several times.


Much of the book deals with speculations about the many-worlds theory. It’s not a topic I know much about, but I found Stephenson’s representation extremely problematic. He portrays parallel worlds as a limited set of branches that, even after the branch points, continue to follow very similar flows. There is even potential to jump from one future to another. Granted, I know about as much about physics as I do about skydiving, but I thought that many-worlds implied that every possible future in fact occurred. Granted, Stephenson's vision isn't quite as ridiculous as the Evil Twin-style alternate universes where there was a dramatic change thousands of years before but the same characters end up being born under the same names in both worlds, but it's getting there. Plus, the idea of “jumping” between futures is utterly nonsensical because it implies that there is a single “you” rather than one in each outcome. Perhaps my problem is deeper than that. I find the idea of many-worlds abhorrent because if every possible future in fact occurs, then it seems as though actions and choices no longer have consequences. And while it is the emotional rather than the scientific part of me that recoils from this idea, I felt that Stephenson didn’t really think the idea of many worlds through to its logical conclusion.

I really wish that I had been able to enjoy Anathem. It has a reputation as an erudite, creative, and thought-provoking read. Since I found it grating, dry, frustrating, and rather dull, I think I’ll just head back to my pulp fiction and "praxis" and leave Anathem to the elevated thinkers and "theorical"-minded readers.