Book #27: Anathem

The short version? Be prepared to work.

By now you should know what you're getting into when you begin a Neal Stephenson novel. Lengthy, byzantine stories that wend their way through tangents and lectures on any number of topics that happen to interest the characters or the author himself. In Cryptonomicon it wasn't enough to read a thrilling tale about finance "data havens" and WWII cryptology, Stephenson wants you to understand it from the inside out, going so far as to include lengthy passages about the construction and breaking of various codes. In the massive (in size and popularity) three-volume Baroque Cycle it went even further, showing what it was like to be in on the experimentation and discovery that went on during the times of Isaac Newton.

But in Anathem, Stephenson's new epic book, it's an entire society we need to contemplate and understand if we want to pierce the ideas the novel has to offer. Arbe is a planet similar, but distinctly different from Earth, where the avout (a kind of monk) cloister themselves in concents, dedicating their lives to the pursuit of logic (or praxis) in its many forms. Outside the concents, or extramuros as its known, lies the Saecular Power, where speelies, jeejahs, and other devices strictly forbidden in the concents rule people's lives. Fraa Esramus is a young tenner, an avout who is allowed to visit the extramuros every ten years (there are also hundreders and mysterious thousanders), and it is through his eyes that we witness an epic story about the discovery of a star that's not a star, contact with an alien species whose genesis and agenda are part of a larger mystery of why Arbe came to be the way it is.

Taken purely on its actual plot, Anathem feels like a very engaging fantasy/science fiction hybrid, very similar in its tone and execution to a lot of what's already out there. Most authors would be content to bring you into the world through their descriptions of the world and its inhabitants. But Stephenson, who with his earlier novels like Snow Crash already crossed that bridge, isn't content to have you understand the world; he wants you to understand how his characters think. And in this case we're talking about monks who spend their entire lives dedicated to theorical (as it's known on Arbe) dialogs. So after using the first 50 or so pages to throw the reader head first into the unique language of the world (there's a very handy glossary of terms in the back of the novel - I referred to it constantly in the first 150 pages), the actual story is folded back and forth between lengthy but always entertaining dialogs that are used to understand the heady philosophical and mathematical concepts Stephenson's tossing around, but also to see just how these characters arrive at the various decisions they do.

In the end you have massive alien attacks, commando raids in outer space, the ability to rewrite the past and jump through multiple universes. Stephenson never forgets to bring you back up to speed every hundred pages or so, so if you get lost (as I did a few times) it was nice to catch back up. In the end Anathem is a lot of hard work for what seems a simple "first contact" story, but his way of bringing you into the tale and making you work for every bit of information makes the eventual "getting" of the plot marvelous.

Don't be discouraged, and don't dismiss it because you don't want to have to "work" at a novel. In the end you'll feel great having finished it.

* For a brief taste of what you're in for, you can check out the Wikipedia entry on Anathem. Be warned, though, as most of the plot is given away.