Book Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Brilliant SF

Neal Stephenson
HarperCollins, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-06-147409-5
937 pages

I lacked the patience to get through even the first of Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle" books, and so it was with some trepidation that I picked up Anathem, which weighs in at at 970 pages and about 3 pounds. Beyond that, on the world that the book is set, people use word that are similar to, but not quite the same as English ones. In the book, people of a scientific, philosophical, or mathematical bent often voluntarily enter sort of scholar-monasteries for extended periods (no gods are worshipped in them but much chalk is consumed). The scholars ("fraas" and "suurs") are called "avout" and the monasteries are "concents" where the avout abjure most technology (called "praxis"). Theists are "deolaters", insights are "upsights", the government "extramuros" is the "Sæcular power", and so on. Such jargon could easily become distracting or even annoying.

But I needn't have been concerned. There is imagination in this book to match its heft. Indeed, even rather more than that. And the jargon has a wonderful sort of logic to it.

Our main character is Fraa Erasmas, a relatively young member of the avout of the Concent of Saunt Edhar. (Scholars who accomplish great things are referred to as "saunts", from savant, naturally.) As the book begins, he's a member of a group that's just coming to the end of a ten-year cycle of seclusion from the outside world. During those ten years, he participated in a lot of Socratic dialogs. The members who are on that cycle will have a few days to interact with the (currently rather tawdry) Sæcular world outside before voluntarily returning to their lives in the concent. Things have been working that way for the past 3700 years, so the avout tend to take a long view of Sæcular history.

As you've probably guessed, the plot of a book with a main character and a setting like those does not proceed in a rush. But we learn lots of interesting things about this very thoroughly-imagined world. And, of course, something big does happen.

There are some huge laughs in the book and Mr Stephenson expertly evokes emotions of every sort. There's a fight scene that would impress Jackie Chan. Plato's forms get a thorough workout and there's an interesting theory of consciousness. The plot is fascinating and intricate. Indeed, all that is only a hint at the scope of the things that the book deals with. Only a big book could hold it all.

In the book's scope and the thoroughness with which Mr Stephenson has imagined its world, the book invites comparison with Dune. Really, it's that impressive. I wish it had been longer.

Posted: Fri - November 7, 2008 at 05:40 PM   Main   Category: