Review: Anathem by Neal StephensonNeal Stephenson’s speculations on language and philosophy impress Christopher Brookmyre. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, is one of my favorite books of all time—a thousand-page journey to another world that feels just a step removed. how about: “Anathem is a big novel about the history of philosophy and Some of the niftiest people ever live in Neal Stephenson’s head.
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I t feels appropriate that cosmology should form the underlying basis of Neal Stephenson’s vertiginous new novel. Both hold, for me, a boundlessly engaging fascination that comes at the price of being made to feel infinitesimally small: The scale of his works since Cryptonomicon in has been such as to require a greater commitment than some marriages.
Even with Snow Crasha breakneck satirical geek-fest that still reads as though it’s years ahead of the cyber-curve, he was demonstrating an aptitude for wrangling big ideas without sacrificing pace or lightness of touch.
Anathem – Wikipedia
That early novel has its faraway echoes in Anathem, as Stephenson again explores the relationships between language, thought and meaning: Anathem takes place on a world called Arbre, where our narrator, Erasmas or “Raz”, is an avout Decenarian fraa in the concent of Saunt Edhar.
I will elaborate upon this last sentence. The concents are like monasteries, but where science, philosophy and mathematics are studied, rather than theology. sstephenson
The word concent suggests an encircling structure to these sanctuaries – metaphorical rather than necessarily physical – in which the fraas and suurs are denominated according to how often their constituent group opens its gates to the world beyond: In these realms of the avout, the word saunt a punning contraction of “savant” is defined as “a term of veneration applied to great thinkers, almost always posthumously”.
However, this does not imply that the people of Arbre revere academe above religion or even “saecular” ambition. When their gates are closed, these concents are stephenon off almost entirely from the saecular world: Their Discipline dictates not only that they receive no news from outside the concent, but also that the ten- hundred- and thousand-year constituents have no inter-communication either.
This is ostensibly so that their “theoric” study is uncontaminated by transitory ideas, but more historically it is because the saecular world mistrusts them with a suspicion that has spilled over into catastrophic violence at various points throughout the planet’s history.
The obvious early point of reference is Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, as Stephenson immerses the reader in a world of ritual and order, the reasons for which are not entirely understood by their adherents.
Review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson
These are people who think as a vocation, deconstructing the reasoning behind every statement; yet even in such a culture, ritual can take hold and impose an order whole centuries after the reasons for it have been forgotten. Arbre’s is a civilisation several thousand years more mature than our own; I say mature rather than advanced, as there is a deep sense of technological ages largely forgotten, buried under cataclysm.
World wars and genocide are recorded as mere harbingers of “the Terrible Events”.
The hidden history of this world, and in particular the relationship between the avout and the saecular, emerges in glimpses only once a threat of unprecedented scale sees Raz and some of his fellow avout “evoked”: Stephenson insisted that his historical trilogy The Baroque Cycle be described as SF because it was “fiction about science”.
He tags Anathem as “speculative fiction”, but in keeping with anathen previous work, this novel is as much about language, and it provides a whole new playground for his fascination with etymology.
Take the term “speelycaptor”, for example, which denotes any kind of visual recording device. It is a word that does not merely imply a plausible coinage, but suggests a history of usage that has transcended and even abandoned the technology that first gave rise to it. Laden with dozens of such words, Anathem is as much a code-breaking experience as Cryptonomicon, due to the teasing way Stephenson’s neologisms gradually unlock themselves.
However, the beating heart of this novel is philosophy, and if I may borrow an analogy from Professor Stephen Law, at times Anathem is not so much a work-out in the philosophy gym as philosophy extreme sports.
The history of the avout is punctuated by the breakthrough ideas of saunts, all of them replicating concepts familiar to us here on Earth through Plato, Euclid, Leibniz, Newton and so on. This is more than mere facsimile: Taking his cue from the likes of Hugh Everett and Max Tegmark, Stephenson postulates that, while certain conditions are necessary for the cosmos to have taken shape various laws of physics, such as the speed of light, having to be set at very precise valuesthere is still room for tiny variations in those values to create parallel cosmoses in which the make-up of matter is minutely distinct.
It is the many worlds theory evoked with a greater elegance than I have read in any previous work of “speculative fiction”.
For that let us hail him Saunt Neal of Seattle. Weighing in at head-stretching pages, Anathem demands a near-avout level of commitment, but rewards those who enter its concent with bounteous gifts of wisdom, beauty and “upsight”. The only catch to reading a novel as imposingly magnificent as this is that for the next few months, everything else seems small and obvious by comparison. Indeed, Stephenson’s own predicament in the midst of such a towering project is succinctly encapsulated in one character’s fraught observation: Linguistics got me into this excellent mess – only physics can get me out.