Although I have enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s books in the past I had a little trouble finding the best way to read Anathem. First of all, it uses the word “maths” a lot, and math is not my strong suit, although in the end no deep knowledge of math was required. Since Stephenson is building a world, the planet Arbre, the learning curve is a bit steep in the beginning. The characters have names that are almost familiar, but just a bit off. Main characters are Erasmus, Lio, Arsibalt, Jesry, Tulia, Ala, Orolo, (and many, many others).
So first I tried Audible, but I learned that listening to books puts me to sleep, which tends to destroy the continuity. I bought the paperback so I could read along but the print was just too small. Finally I reserved a hardcover copy from the library and that had another disadvantage. Once I started reading the hardcover edition I could not put this book down.
The book’s title, Anathem– a mash-up of anthem and anathema – is a perfect example of the way Stephenson plays with our reality to make his invented world seem close enough to what we know in our own world that we can catch on to life in the Concent of Saunt Edhar fairly quickly. By the time we get to sample what is going outside the walls of the concent we are easily able to adjust.
Our characters are on the same clock-winding team. Since the Third Sack praxis (technology) is outlawed in the concent so mechanics are handled in old school ways. This giant clock at the center of concent life is connected to the observatory on the roof and must be wound with ceremony every day. Bells and weights all play important roles in the clock ceremony and in the community. The similarity to a combined monastery and convent helps us realize that our minds already have a schema for this world.
We spend a long time getting acquainted with the world of the concent and the maths that are scattered around the planet. We learn that these communities are not about religion though; they are about philosophy, geometry, history, astronomy, and physics. We also learn that the concents are surrounded by secular cultures lead by the Sæculua and that the concents open their gates at intervals and these separate populations visit each other. Erasmus, first among main characters has a cousin, Cord, who lives in town.
Just as we get familiar with these two adjacent cultures we learn through Raz’s “Fraa” (concent brother) – Orolo that something is going on with the Sun, something the members of the maths are not supposed to know about. But Erasmus is young and worried when Orolo is expelled from the Concent and he takes an enormous risk to find out what’s going on.
Worlds within worlds is a theme in Anathem. The concents share a design and ceremonies and titles. They all wear the bolt and chord and carry the sphere. Outside the concents where the people known as slines live differences vary by geography.
Eramus and his clock-winder group, in response to the emergency connected to what is going on with the Sun, get sent out of their concent to another, much larger concent for a Convox (a working conference). This does not go smoothly for Eramus who gets sent on a side mission by a Thousander prior to arriving at the Convox.
Eventually we see that Stephenson is headed to sucking us into a theory that says that there is more than one cosmos – there are cosmi. We also see that he is a unifier rather than a divider. Tag along with our heroes and see where this takes you and learn a whole new vocabulary along the way. (If you know your Latin roots you’ll have few difficulties.)
Neal Stephenson can transport me into one of his elaborate creations anytime and Anathem was no exception. The only problem is that landing back in my own reality requires an airlock (metaphorically of course).