Author: Neal Stephenson
“They knew many things but had no idea why. And strangely this made them more, rather than less, certain that they were right.”
Neal Stephenson is a prolific writer, known for his SF and speculative fiction novels (for some reason lack of dragons or other mythological creatures seems to exclude one from the fantasy genre 😉), all of them full of alternatively mind-bending or awe-inspiring ideas, and all incredibly long, even considering the current market conditions. I have reviewed on this blog his 2015 SF novel Seveneves, which dealt with the consequences of an improbable but possible event – the shattering of Earth’s Moon and the subsequent fallout of the debris on the Earth’s surface. I admired the sheer scientific drive of this novel and enjoyed its far-reaching plot – to a point 😉. Seveneves is a brilliant example of the opportunities and pitfalls inherent in literary imbalance – namely, the dominance of ideas over plot and character development, not to mention certain scientific facts, like the pace of evolution; and yet, it remains a flawed but intellectually highly rewarding, thought-provoking read. Looking for something similarly intellectually stimulating, I was encouraged by Bart at Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It to try another of Stephenson’s critically acclaimed bricks and Bart’s favorite – Anathem.
Forewarned in foreword by the author, I jumped straight in, eager to immerse myself in the highly conceptualized and yet absolutely addictive world of Arbre – and this is the course of action I would advise any potential readers to take. The process of figuring out what’s going on in Anathem and how it relates to our own reality, constitutes at least half of the fun the novel offers. And a lot of fun it is indeed, especially for those philosophically minded, who enjoy nothing more than a riveting peregrination through the philosophical origins of the Western culture now and then.
Bound as I am by the uniqueness of Anathem’s premise and the aforementioned need to keep it all under covers (or bolts, to be more precise) in order not to betray any details about the wondrous discoveries of Stephenson’s opus magnum, I can only describe in broadest strokes the premise and worldbuilding of this book. Imagine a world… and there we go. Such an innocuous beginning to a simple sentence, and so many opportunities for spoilers 😉. Okay, let’s try a different approach.
Anathem is superficially a coming-of-age story set in a technologically advanced world in the middle of its first encounter of the third kind. There are plenty of adventures and dramas; all flavours of love and death; a journey that is as much outward as it is inward; amazing scientific concepts rooted in our current knowledge; ingeniously crazy conjectures that work amazingly well and are certified to make your brain stretch in unanticipated directions. Everything’s there! But Anathem is also – or maybe even predominantly – a love letter to Western philosophy, from its very beginnings to its multitude of 20th century continuations: the ideas of Pythagoras, Archimedes, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Einstein, Newton, Leibniz, Kant, Gödel, Verne, and many other thinkers and scientists merge seamlessly into a delightful paean to the power of human thought.
Our guide through this strange, wondrous world is called Erasmas. (Yes, there you have it. Prepare for thousands of references, some of which will be easy to find and grasp, and some of which will turn out to be much more esoteric. Stephenson let rip with his own philosophical and scientifical faves here :D.) And much like Dante’s Virgil, Erasmas takes us on a journey of renaissance and enlightenment which leads us to unexpected places and which, hopefully, lets us see the endeavours, enterprises and discoveries of human mind in different light. And he proceeds in a consummately thrilling, riveting style: starting out in a deceptively mild manner and lulling the readers into a comforting feeling of security, Erasmas takes us by utter surprise on a truly wild ride when we finally figure out what’s going on. To be fair, we learn along with him – and while I was always partial to this particular writing technique, learning along the protagonists about the world we found ourselves in – in case of this book I can say the application of this technique was a masterstroke.
As befits a magnificent work of art, Anathem works on many levels. It can be experienced only on the plot level, as a great story. And though I could level some small criticism toward the resolution of certain plot points – Fraa Jad, where are you??? I need you back! – the faults remain negligible, and do not detract from the overall reading experience. Stephenson created wonderfully believable characters, strong, inquisitive women and men, humane and vulnerable and perfectly imperfect. Anathem is a fantastic romp through a fully realized world, designed and executed in tiniest details, and I could easily geek out here on the ideas such as sphere and tangle and the division between scientific thought and religion, as well as the idea of maths. But I will remain strong and let you all discover these for yourselves 😊.
Moreover, Anathem is, as I wrote before, an honest-to-God love letter to Western philosophy and science rooted in logical thought processes: induction and deduction. But this novel can also serve as a crash course through some of the elaborate contemporary ideas in physics – such as quantum mechanics, wave function (and that applies to music too), the nature of cognition, the existence of parallel universes and the Platonic world of ideas. And yet, among all this unmitigated lovefest for science and philosophy, Anathem manages a cutting social commentary, directed mainly toward the uneasy relations between science and politics, and science and society, but also regarding the general state of social awareness – as well as an earnest meditation on the place and status of science in modern world.
I absolutely, unconditionally loved this novel. I entered Arbre’s world and was almost instantly swept off my feet. Honestly, I didn’t even notice that it was nearly 1000 pages long. Part of its allure stems from the fact that I have not encountered a similarly inherently and subtly educational, entertaining and satisfying novel – and yes, if you’re thinking of Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, it can at most clean Anathem’s shoes, as far as I’m concerned (which would be difficult in itself, since the protagonists go barefoot most of the time :P). Part of it is rooted in my own abiding love for Western philosophy and science (though not Plato; however you sell it to me, Neal Stephenson, I will always hold Plato accountable for his autocratic ideas!). Another part is simply the pure pleasure of finding the clues and references, inspirations and influences. When I discovered the sly, heartfelt tribute to one of my favorite books, A Canticle for Leibowitz; when Verne made an appearance; when Orolo created analemma on the floor of an ancient temple – I was over the moon, every freaking time. In short, Anathem turned out to be the perfect book for me. It has been not only the best book I’ve read this year so far, but also one of the best SF books I’ve ever read, period. What else is there to say? I can only encourage you to read it, be humbled by it, and rediscover the joys of philosophy and science, of curiosity and intellectual bravery in the process. The avout need you! 😀