In his “Note to the Reader” at the start of Anathem, Neal Stephenson writes “if you are accustomed to reading works of speculative fiction and enjoy puzzling things out on your own, skip this Note.” My advice is this: Don’t skip the Note. In spite of years of speculative fiction reading, I found myself constantly referring to the novel’s chronology and glossary, not to mention online summaries and Stephenson’s acknowledgements page.
Here’s why. Our narrator, Fraa Erasmus, is an avout, a fid, and an Edharian. He is a Hylaean, a Protan, and a Decenarian. He lives in the mathic world, not extramuros. Nor does he live in the Sæcular world, though he was born there. It is worth noting that Erasmus is also not a Procian, an Ita, nor a Hierarch. He is also not a member of the Inquisition, the Millenarians, or even the Old Lineage.
He’s not even an Earthling.
Anathem takes place on Arbre, which Stephenson suggests we pronounce like “‘Arb’ with a little something on the end.” Arbre is similar enough to Earth that words like “carrot” remain useful, but there are many differences. Perhaps the most important difference between our world and Arbre is the isolation of the learned and the literate in the mathic world’s concents. We learn that roughly thirty-seven hundred years before Anathem begins, the “Terrible Events” nearly destroyed the world. The survivors turned on the literate and the learned, or “avout,” and forced them to live in isolation from the rest of the population and from technology. In spite of this handicap, the avout have nevertheless developed technology at three different times that led to three different attacks on the mathic world. Now, the avout live in accordance with the “Cartasian Discipline,” meaning that they are forbidden from procreating, from using all but a few pieces of technology, and from making contact with the outside world.
There are exceptions to these rules. For example, the avout are allowed to make contact with the outside world during “Apert.” Decenarians like Erasmus are allowed to glimpse the outside world for ten days, once every ten years. Meanwhile, the doors on the Thousanders’ concent only open once every thousand years.
The discipline dividing the affairs of the avout from the Sæcular world runs into trouble when an alien spaceship is discovered orbiting Arbre. It’s a threat so daunting that all of Arbre will be forced to respond as one, and Erasmus and his friends are asked to leave the safety of their walls to help fight alien spaceships. Or as Erasmus sums up the plot: “Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs … We have a protractor.”
Anathem offers readers a very steep learning curve during the first two hundred pages. However, once Erasmus’ world is established, it is easy to enjoy this adventurous, funny, and intelligent science fiction novel. (In other words, it’s a Neal Stephenson novel.) Yes, those first two hundred pages can be difficult, but remember: soon you’ll be reading about mathematicians and philosophers defending their planet against alien invaders. It’s also worth taking the time to do your homework on the history of philosophy and quantum mechanics. Both of these subjects will be discussed in detail, though Stephenson’s taken the liberty of changing most of the words.
Consequently, there’s a need for several lectures over the course of the novel, and Stephenson has devised several means by which the avout can meet, discuss, and debate their ideas so as not to become repetitive. My favorite might well be the “messal,” in which several senior avout dine and discuss ideas while more junior avout serve them. The junior avout can express their boredom with the dinner by leaving the room, at which point we’re treated to a somewhat gossipy, academic discussion in the servitors’ area about the dinner’s discussion. At other times, Stephenson’s characters simply walk along while engaged in conversations that recall Socratic questioning.
Add to this Stephenson’s tendency to engage in lengthy digressions, and we have a novel that is perfectly suited for Stephenson’s fans. However, Anathem might not be the best novel for newcomers, and it is certainly not for Stephenson’s skeptics. It took me several tries to get past Arbre’s jargon and engage with Erasmus’ story.
Having said that, once I did get into the story, I did not resent the effort. I was hooked — and quite sad to see the story end. Anathem is notable for many reasons, particularly the detailed rules and history of the mathic world, but perhaps the best thing about this book is that readers who finish it will find themselves wanting to start over.