Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

The only thing I wanted for Christmas this year was Neal Stephenson's newest book, Anathem. I'm a HUGE fan of Stephenson's, have been since I read Snow Crash because of his dizzying blend of philosophy, history, mathematics, hacker-lore, cyberpunk, and geekophilia. Even when he's writing about the late 17th and early 18th centuries in The Baroque Cycle he still somehow manages to be inately cyberpunky - as if Newton and Leibniz were merely the forerunners of Hiro Protagonist. Anathem is somehow a culmination of Stephenson's studious creation of worlds that are just outside our reach, familiar and yet completely alien. Anathem is set on the planet Arbre, which has a history that is strikingly similar to our own. It would take a historian more learned than I (or at least a history geek) to recognize the correlation between our timeline and that of the people of Arbre, so I will skip boring you with the details. Needless to say, about the same times we had violent upheavals that resulted in new ages of science, religion, and government - So did they. The main character is one Fraa Erasmus, an avout (a monk, of sorts) who has dedicated himself to the Mathic community at the Cocent of Saunt Edhar. If what I just said is immediately clear to you then please go read the book and explain it to me. Erasmus (Raz, for short) is quite content to live out his life in relative peace while the Extramuros world goes through up-turns and down, upheavals and enlightments, because the Mathic communities keep themselves almost entirely seperated from those outside their walls. In fact, usually the only time they go outside those walls are during the festival of Apert which takes place once a year for Unarians, once every ten years for Decenarians, once every 100 years for Centenarians, and once ever thousand years for Millenarians. These four groups are further seperated from one another by more walls. However, this would be an awfully boring novel if the entire thing took place inside a Monastary. Don't worry - it doesn't. What you should know is that there are certain times when the Saecular world (you guessed it - government) calls upon the Mathic community for help. But that is about all I am going to tell you. Why? Because this novel is one big philosophic dialog. You have to engage entirely with it, learn along with the characters, puzzle out the problems, and arrive at your own conclusions. It is an absurdly simple plot line that is so immensely complicated that I can't even think of an example! However, if you find Plato's Dialogues impossible to read - don't bother. I'm sure that if I faltered at all in my 24 hour marathon reading session I probably wouldn't have understood a damn thing. Luckily, Stephenson is kind enough to include theoretical proofs and a glossary to help you along, but it will take you a few hundred pages to familiarize yourself with the terminology and discourse. I'm still trying to grapple with it! And though those first few hundred pages are difficult to slog through, I guarantee a rousing Sci-fi adventure that takes you from idyllic Monastaries, polar ice caps, and drab strip malls, to rocket ships and far earth orbit by the end.


SQT said...

I hate to admit it, but I've never read Stephenson. I picked up Anthem but just didn't know if it would appeal to me. Is this the best place to start with Stephenson? Or should I read "Snow Crash" first?

LoopdiLou said...

I would genuinely suggest reading Snow Crash first. Anathem is an incredibly dense book that really takes building up to. Snow Crash, Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon first - The Baroque Cycle if you can handle 20 bazillion pages of historical fiction with mathematical superheroes and THEN pick up Anathem. I think if I were to have read Anathem first I would have been grossly intimidated. As it is the man is too damn cool for words and intimidates the hell out of me.

LoopdiLou said...

And don't feel too bad, SMD hasn't read Stephenson either. Still trying to ram it down his throat, but he's choosing to blame me for his lack of time, so I guess he's got a point :)

At some point I'll have to review a Peter Watts book - another author who is grossly intimidating but all kinds of awesome. Best hard sci-fi I've read EVER. :)