Sunday, June 07, 2009

An Anthem for Anathem

In the age of digital books, this one deserves a hard copy ...

As a long time fan of novelist Neal Stephenson and a new fan of the Long Now Foundation, when I heard that the latest novel of the former was inspired by the 10,000 Year Clock project of the latter, I hurried to order a copy. And while it might seem that science fiction -- or speculative fiction, to use a newer term -- would be perfect to read in digital form, something compelled me to acquire Anathem not only printed on paper but hard bound as well.

Of course, this would not suit the denizens of the novel itself. To the "avout" who live in the hermetic society of the "math," mechanically printed books are too transient to be considered of value. All of their books are copied by hand onto leaves grown in orchards of "page trees," genetically engineered to produce a ready made paper with great longevity. Unstated is the corollary that only books considered important enough to warrant the effort will be copied by hand, which effectively culls the libraries of chaff and leaves only those works of enduring value.

[A similar idea appears in Robert Graves' utopian novel, Watch the North Wind Rise, in which poems are written in chalk and only when they have survived long enough are finally engraved in gold to be kept for all time. Not sure if this is a writer's dream or nightmare.]
Anathem is one of those books that comes with a glossary for the various unfamiliar terms of its internal language, though many of them become apparent from their usage. The most important concepts are also introduced by extracts from the Dictionary that appear as chapter preambles. Some of the words are English, but with modified meanings. A "math," for example, is a place where a certain mental discipline is followed. Other terms have been invented to fit the needs of the narrative. "Avout" is used the way we use "devout" when we say "one of the devout," except that the avout scrupulously avoid the concept of divinity in their pursuit of pure logic and knowledge. Thus the prefix "a-" to mean without belief. Those who do believe in God are called "deolaters" (not idolaters, which would imply false gods) and are found only in the world outside the maths.

One thing that becomes plain late in the story and which you might as well know at the beginning (because Stephenson tells us in his foreward), is that the planet called Arbre is not Earth. Letting go of this at the outset helps to explain how Arbre can have such a long history without any of it sounding familiar -- though there are, intentionally, many parallels to human history, especially the history of religion, philosophy, and science.

Beyond that, the less you know going in, the more you will enjoy the unfolding of this tale as it grows in scale and complexity. At first a sense of timelessness is created as we are introduced to a social order that thinks in terms of centuries and millenia, isolated by physical walls and social conventions from the surrounding civilization. But soon one of the characters expresses a wish that someday something would ... happen. And of course it does, as it must in any good novel. In a very satisfying way, something momentous works its way up from the depths until it bursts to the surface like a whale, shattering the quiet lives of the contemplatives and threatening global survival.

Should we compare it to Moby Dick? Probably not, but the quest for the explanation and resolution is as compelling as Ahab's obsession. And Anathem is a rare thing in contemporary literature of any kind: a novel of ideas. Though it owes something to Umberto Ecco's The Name of the Rose in its depiction of a monastic life, it also invites comparison to The Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann or The Glass Bead Game of Herman Hesse. Where else would we find the characters (and the author) indulging in lengthy Socratic dialogs about logic and a priori truth? This is not your father's sci fi.

There is such a wealth of this type of material that several sections have been stripped out (perhaps at the suggestion of an editor) and appear in the back of the book as "Calcas," or logical exercises. The cuts were made judiciously, because while they are interesting reading by themselves they are not as relevant to the plot as the ones that remain in the body of the novel.

But by all means, don't let this imposing array of features deter you from reading. Anathem is a ripping good yarn that even manages to encompass a love story. And it is one of the most richly depicted worlds in all of literature. Dive in and feast.


  1. I just finished this book tonight, after reading "The Glass Bead Game" last week. Talk about serendipity.
    Brilliant review. Awesome book. I almost fell out of my chair when I heard the "basket" described, then correctly named (spoiler...).

  2. I confess I missed that connection to The Glass Bead Game. Thanks for the heads up. That book is in my stack of things to re-read along with a bio of Hesse. FYI if you Google the glass bead game you will find people actually trying to play it.