Review of 'Anathem'

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

anathem.jpg Erasmus (Raz) is a young “avout” living in a “Concent”, a massive complex of ancient buildings housing mathematicians, scientists and philosophers who follow various ceremonies. The Concent is divided into four “maths”: Millenarian, Centenarian, Decenarians and Unarians whose members have sworn to emerge only at “Apert” every 1,000, 100, 10 or 1 years (respectively) where their respective doors are opened for interaction with the external world. The Concent has survived millennium of upheaval in it's society and in the “extarmuros” world containing “Seculars” that surrounds it. Erasmus discovers evidence of an alien visitor to the planet that is being covered up as various members of the Concent are evicted in “aut” (ceremony or act) of “Anathem” in order to silence their thoughts. As he falls victim to Anathem himself he discovers the Seculars have called for a gathering of avouts from the Concents around the planet, a “Convox” thousands of miles away, in order to discuss the threat the aliens pose. As he makes his way to the Convox events unfold that will shake the entire society to its core…and change life forever.

With the inordinate number of odd, quoted words in the summary you can gather this is not a simple read with a large and often complicated vocabulary you need to get to grips with in order to understand what exactly is going on coupled with an even more complex societal structure. Thankfully Stephenson has provided a timeline in his introduction along with a “Glossary” that I found myself continually flipping to as I read along (there are also excerpts from “the dictionary” helpfully sprinkled through the text also). There is also the rather complex philosophical and mathematical concepts that are discussed throughout as the characters strive to make sense of things with frequent digressions into “dialogue” where there is a conversational discussion between avouts regarding these topics (some of the more involved conversations appear as “Calcas” at the back of the book). It is certainly a challenging read that demands your continued attention throughout the rather massive 960+ pages in this doorstop of a book. Though long it seems that this story does need the space to be told with readers finding the first half of the novel really just (necessarily) setting the scene before the story starts to pick up and the action begins…

Beyond all this technical stuff, is “Anathem” any good? Well, yes, actually, it is. This is a story of the awakening of a young man not only to his own potential but also into an understanding of how is world works and how it can work in the future. The narrative takes us beyond Raz's home Concent to explore the entire world and it's different ideas along with lots of action and excitement along the way. This is a fully realized society that must have taken years for the author to figure out with incredible attention to detail reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings” it's scope and breadth but here in a single volume. I do have to say that Anathem does occasionally denigrate into simple, visceral action at points which clashes with the general flow of the story but to many may provide a bit of relief from the frequent, often extremely heavy philosophical topics explored here. Pleasantly we are never entirely sure where the story is going and we are kept guessing up until the very end which has it's own dramatic surprises.

A huge, massive story in more than just literal physical size, “Anathem” is a dizzying tour-de-force from cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson. Put aside a month or so to spend the attention this book demands to descend into a complicated, philosophical world much removed from our own. The demands it puts on the reader means that it is probably not suitable for all readers, only those willing to put the time and effort into it, time and effort that is much rewarded.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2021-01-16

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Atlantic Books

Publication Date: 2008

ISBN: 9781843549178

Other reviewed books by Neal Stephenson:

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