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Review of Anathem by


by Neal Stephenson

In writing this review, I'm faced with the fact that this is the 991st review of Anathem on Goodreads. It isn't the 991st detailed review, nor is it the 991st long review, but somewhere in those 990 other reviews, I'm sure other people have said anything I'm going to say, and probably better. (How Lorite of me.) Yes, the book is long, and yes, it's a dense philosophical exploration of our universe disguised as a philosophical exploration of an alternate universe. But how did it affect me?

It just worked out that I read Anathem while beginning two philosophy courses: Philosophy of Science Fiction and Philosophy of Science & Technology. The serendipity of this will be apparent to anyone who has read Anathem, for the book is very much a philosophy text, and much of its philosophy has to deal with science and how people should go about doing science. As a mathematician myself, I have to admit I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we had "mainstream" monasteries consisting of nothing but academics. On that level, Anathem is an interesting thought experiment.

Also, Anathem reminded me of the importance of keeping the notions of "science" and "technology" separate. There is an intriguing scene between Erasmas and Cord while they are travelling toward an Arctic sledge post in pursuit of Orolo:

"I guess because I live in a place with almost zero praxis, it never occurs to me to think about such things," I said. "But at times like this, the absurdity hits me between the eyes. There's no reason to put up with junk like this. A stove with dangerous, unreliable chemical fuel. With orifices that clog. In four thousand years we could have made a better stove."

"Would I be able to take that stove apart and fix it?"

"You wouldn't have to, because it would never break."

"But I want to know if I could understand such a stove."

"You're the kind of person who could probably understand just about anything if you set your mind to it."

"Nice flattery, Raz, but you keep dodging the question."

"All right, I take your point. You're really asking if the average person could understand the workings of such a thing . . ."

There are two points here. The first is very relevant to our current society: many of us walk around with computers in our pocket that are more powerful than those that took us to the moon (looking at it from that perspective, the moon-landing becomes an even more impressive achievement, but I digress). Nevertheless, how many of us can take apart an electronic device and say, "Aha, this is so simple! I understand how this works!" I couldn't, and I'm a pretty smart guy. I'm not saying that such technology is bad, but as Erasmas and Cord discover, it leads to a dependence on the type of people who do understand it. And we, as a society, need to understand this dependence lest it lead to the sort of problems that Arbre experienced in its past.

The second point is relevant to all times: technology advances regardless of science. The scientists on Arbre are all sequestered in maths, but the extras keep developing new technology and new formats (the speelycaptor is a good example of this trend). The science remains nearly static, four thousand years stale . . . but the technology changes. While it's true that scientific and technological innovations can go hand in hand, that isn't always the case.

I went through three "stages" with regards to how I felt about the world of Arbre. In the first stage, I was fascinated but bored. I was interested in learning how the avout/Saecular dichotomy worked and figuring out more of the rules of Arbran society. Yet much of the description and exposition is tedious at times. In the second stage, which arrived much later in the book, I became disenchanted with Arbre because of the blatancy of the parallels between it and Earth, especially in the development of theorems in the mathic world. Finally, by the end of the book, I reached the third stage: acceptance. The parallel nature of Arbre is probably the cleverest way that Stephenson could have accomplished what he set out to do. It has flaws, but no narrative approach is perfect.

The world of Arbre is well-defined, but it was not immersive. The sheer amount of terminology Stephenson introduces is dazzling to the point of blinding. Part of the trouble is that I'm in that unhappy middle portion of the population of readers, where I recognize most of the concept's he is duplicating in Arbre, but I can't readily put an Earth philosopher/scientist name to the Arbran one. Anathem makes it evident that there is a point at which, if you introduce more terminology, you will start getting diminishing returns.

I'm not so certain Anathem is really a "philosophical primer" or even a "philosophical text" so much as it is an exercise in thinking philosophically. As the story opens, Fraa Erasmas is already a philosopher, but his way of thinking matures throughout the book. Each digression into a Dialog about some form of philosophy isn't as much a way to teach us the philosophy as it is an opportunity for the reader to stop and just think differently. Most books, even if they have moving, poignant themes, simply don't do this.

Although impressed by the deftness of Stephenson's world-building, I can't manage to feel very enthusiastic about the result. My feeling about Anathem, which is one reason this review took so long to write, is a distinctly apathetic, "So what?" Yes, it's philosophical. Yes, it's challenging at times. In the end, however, I don't feel like Anathem changed the way I think about anything, and I don't feel like the story itself moved me.

So this is where I talk about Anathem's length—or rather, its complexity. There's no question that the sheer physical presence of the book will scare away some people. Even I questioned my desire to read it now, at the beginning of a new school term, as my third book of a new year. Now I feel dreadfully behind! And at times, it is slow going. Yet I can only think of two alternatives: make the book shorter or turn it into a series, and neither seems appropriate in this case. Oh, I do think some parts could have been edited out, but removing some of Anathem's complexity runs the risk of destroying the fragile truce it has achieved with the amount of philosophy and physics Stephenson has packed into the text. On the other hand, I can only see Anathem as a standalone book. It is a self-contained narrative.

Hence, Anathem's complexity is inherent in the story Stephenson wants to tell. There is no way the book could work like it does without this complexity. Yet the same complexity that enables the book also seems to make it fall short of its goal. Anathem never captured my imagination so much as it held my imagination at gunpoint while it read a lengthy list of demands.


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