Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

Anathem — Neal Stephenson

I am not ready to write a review of Anathem. I am still absorbing all that has transpired in a novel of epic proportions. This is an ambitious sweeping tale of…math…and physics. Not really.

Here we have a story of a young man who has been raised in the shelter of a scientific cloister (not unlike many educational institutions that focus on the hard sciences). He’s somewhat immature and socially awkward. When his mentor is expelled from the convent, and then he and his friends are called out by the world government to face a threat from space. He learns quickly what it means to fight for everything that he never knew mattered.

I believe that if you want to know what a story is about you can always read the synopsis from one of many websites. To me the object of a review is to compel you to read the story, not to have you want to know how it ends. A ship appears suddenly in orbit over the planet. Finding a way to save the world from obliteration, and understanding who and what is threatening their survival falls to our hero and his unlikely group of companions. That’s what this novel is about, in the most simplistic sense.

It is also about parallel universes or realities, and whether there can be more than one reality at any time. The author presents a specific set of concepts that supports the premise that at each moment the future can become any one of an infinite number of realities, and that at a given moment in the past, the present has become an infinite number of threads. Some of these threads are closer together than others. In the end, Stephenson leaves the choice to you how that actually works and whether you can be in two places at one time, or if there is a true divergence of timelines.

Stephenson has also created a complete social culture in a way that distinguishes it from our own popular culture  He incorporates elements of social commentary that reflect our attitudes toward science and a critique of how our culture is organized. The similarities of class system and other common elements are viewed through the eyes of an outsider, and thus are remarked on as a generic statement of fact rather than as an encoded statement of culture. (Do you “have a Big Gulp” or “drink a bucket sized container of sugar water through a straw”?) His observations allow us to see ourselves without these cultural adornments.

The detail and complexity of this tale makes it impossible to give you even a glimmer of the larger story. This is a fantastic, overwhelming, engrossing story I think everyone should read. But it is not a book for everyone. As I said in my initial review, the beginning is hard to get through. There is a lot of detail involving math and science that is necessary to the telling. If the reader is open to understanding, the concepts are presented mostly through dialogue in a very informal manner.

I want you to read this book. I know it’s dense in its prose, but it’s worth the effort.  It’s a brilliant tale filled with a range of complex ideas, and a deeply textured narrative rarely seen in science fiction. This book is definitely worth the effort.

If you read it or have already read it, please let me know what you think.