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Anathem
Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 960 pages

Anathem
Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's background shows clearly in his writing. He was born in Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency (NSA), and grew up in a family that included biochemistry, physics, and electrical engineering professors. His own studies included physics and geography.

Stephenson is the author of Zodiac, Snow Crash, and the Hugo award-winning The Diamond Age. He also writes with his uncle J. Frederick George under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. Stephenson currently lives in the Seattle area with his family.

Cryptonomicon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Anathem
SF Site Review: Snow Crash
SF Site Review: Quicksilver
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Review: In the Beginning... Was the Command Line
SF Site Interview: Neal Stephenson
SF Site Review: Cryptonomicon
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Cobweb by Stephen Bury
SF Site Review: The Diamond Age

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Let's take a trip through time, space, and the history of human thought. The journey starts with the observations and suppositions of ancient philosophers, gains both credence and clarity through the development of the rules of logic, and eventually leads all the way to modern theories of everything, including the possible existence of not one but multiple universes and realities. That's the goal of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, and it succeeds better than any work of fiction with such ambitions has a right to. But without the elements of story and character, a history of human thought is a textbook, not a novel. The good news is that, as readers of Stephenson's earlier work from Snowcrash to The Baroque Cycle have come to expect, Anathem has plenty of both.

The setting for this journey is an Earth-like planet known as Arbre. Arbre has a long history going back thousands of years, which, like our own, contains the fall and rise of many civilizations. One notable difference is the long-ago establishment of monastery-like establishments which function as both repositories of knowledge and research institutes. The monasteries are, for the most part, completely self-sufficient and cut-off from the societies that surround them. "Saecular" governments may come and go, societies may develop and collapse around them, but the monasteries carry on, safe havens for those who live and work there.

Our viewpoint character is a young man named Erasmus, "Raz" to his friends. As the story begins, the monasteries are about to engage in a once in a decade celebration where the gates are opened, outsider are let in to view what life is like inside, and insiders are allowed out into the rest of the world. For Raz, it's also a coming of age ceremony. Even as he travels outside to re-connect with the family he left behind as a child, his attention is focused on just how his life as an adult is going to fit into the monastery he now calls home.

Life in the monastery in many ways is an ideal one. Raz and his friends engage in dialogues where they attempt to top each other in displays of logic and knowledge. With their world's entire sum of knowledge at their disposal, these dialogues can venture far across many disciplines of thought. It quickly becomes apparent that Arbre's history contains analogues of many of our own concepts, including versions of everything from Plato's allegory of the shadows in a cave to Occam's Razor and even Godel's theorem that any formal system of logic cannot contain its own proof. Raz delights in these encounters, and looks forward to a life spent learning and extending the knowledge of his world.

This being a work of fiction, however, story and strife end up getting in the way. The appearance of an alien spacecraft in Arbre's solar system touches off a crisis, and almost before they realize what's happening, Raz and his friends and lover find themselves out of the safety of the monastery, working with outsiders who include his sister and eventually engaging in James Bond styled adventures in space. Anathem may start out as a discussion of the intersections of philosophy and physics, but by the end it has turned into an adventure story, and it all works because the adventure itself is thoroughly grounded in the philosophy and physics.

In the wrong hands, this kind of story could easily have turned into a complicated, mushy mess. Stephenson avoids that trap by keeping his prose amazingly straight-forward and simple, even as his characters are tackling problems and concepts that are among the most subtle and sophisticated in human thought. One thing's for certain, there's almost no way that Anathem could have been written as anything other than a science fiction novel. If presented as a work of philosophical history, it's appeal would be to a small audience that was already familiar with many of its core ideas. But by combining his science and philosophy with the kind of story found in tales of adventure and intrigue, Stephenson can present his ideas to a much larger audience, one that is quite used to having grand ideas thrown at them at the same time the characters are struggling to save the world. That approach makes not only for one of the better SF novels of recent years, but also presents us with a prime example of what science fiction itself can be at its very best.

Copyright © 2009 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson can't help but wonder if our Earth, as is implied in Anathem, is a shadow of Arbre's more ideal Platonic reality, just what kind of reality forms the shadow that is Arbre. Meanwhile, the shadows of his own ideal reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.


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