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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 2008, $29.95.

The Bell at Sealey Head, by Patricia McKillip, Ace, 2008, $24.95.

Nation, by Terry Pratchett, Doubleday, 2008, $7.99.

ANATHEM, the latest novel by Neal Stephenson, is, as far as I can tell, an entirely stand-alone volume that takes place in a world that seems remarkably similar to a strangely tilted version of our own—if you ignore the Concents, in which our narrator has spent most of his life.

The book starts with the first-person viewpoint of Erasmus, a young man who lives and works in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, which is on the butt-end of nowhere. The outer trappings of the Concents make them feel very much like religious orders, with the usual factionalism present within them. They're not. They're places in which people study, learn, and question. The avout, the people who live within the Concents, aren't governed by the laws that exist outside of the Concents' bounds; they don't have the usual citizenship cards and paperwork (which becomes an issue later in the book, but I digress).

But in order to be avout, they're not allowed to mingle with normal people, the people who live outside, except in almost ceremonial ways. They can choose to walk away, and they can be Anathemized, which is a form of excommunication; they can also be pulled out of life in the Concent at the request of the Secular Powers. If this last happens, they are no longer considered avout, but they are not disgraced; they cannot return to the Concent, however. The third possibility is a Convox, which means a large number of the avout are pulled out at the same time to attend to matters in the world outside. When this happens, the avout are expected to live and work together, and they are allowed to return at the end of their labor.

All three of these occur in Anathem.

The Concents are divided into maths—which is what they call the areas in which different avout live and work. There are also rules governing who lives in which math; Erasmas is a Tenner. There are also Unarians, Hundreders and Millenarians. The naming of these groups, and their maths, is connected to the timing of their window to visit and interact with the world outside. The Unarians have ten days each year. The Tenners have ten days once every decade. Yes, the Hundreders and the Millenarians follow about as you'd expect; ten days in a century and ten days in a millennium.

Erasmus and his cohort are facing two things. The first: their first Apert, the ten days in which they are allowed return to the outside world. The second: their choice of which school or faction in their math they will study in for the rest of their lives. They came to the Concent at the last Apert ten years ago (except for one orphan). The children who join them at this one will become their successors in their duties upon the Millennial clock and the bells that are sounded daily and for special occasions.

All of this information unfolds slowly in Anathem, and interspersed with it are the details of daily life in the Concent, the rules that govern it, and the rules that are broken in such a way that someone can be thrown out. But it's a glorious, detailed type of slow, in which the studies, the struggles, and the philosophical thoughts of the students themselves are brought into play, much in the way that discussions about rock bands, movie stars, and sports would come into play for most readers now.

Stephenson has created a milieu in which the characters care, and care deeply, and their philosophical arguments, rather than making them appear like talking heads, add to our understanding of the way they think, and of why they think as they do. Erasmus has friends when the book opens: the brilliant and envied Jesry, the stuffy and exact Arsibalt, and the martially minded Lio. They're the clockwinders for this decade. He also has Tulia and Ala, two of the girls who are on the bells, and Orolo, the master of whom he is most fond, and by whom he's most frustrated. Erasmus also adopts one of the newest members of his math: Barb, a young boy who shows classic signs of Asperger syndrome, although that term is never used in the book.

They experience their first Apert, and during that Apert, they experience the start of what will be an avalanche, for Orolo is removed in disgrace from the Concent, and sent out into the world.

There are many rules that govern the Concent; the Concent being what it is, however, means there is no way to tell its various students not to question. Erasmus and his friends are going to figure out what exactly caused Orolo's ejection. They cannot act in the open; they are, however, like any good high school students, perfectly capable of avoiding unwanted attention from the various authorities who watch over them. But as they are piecing together the bits of the puzzle, their numbers are lessened by two: Ala and Jesry are called out by the Secular Powers.

They have no way of communicating; it's a type of death, a permanent good-bye. Erasmus and his friends continue their attempts to figure out what happened to Orolo, or why, and in the midst of this, they, too, are summoned. With them go a few of the Hundreders, and, to Erasmus's shock, one of the Millennials, a man named Jad. The Millennials are, to the Concents, like little cloistered demigods; they are revered. Jad, however, doesn't have much truck with that.

But he does tell Erasmus to find Orolo. And since it's pretty much what Erasmus wants to do anyway, he sets off on a quest, while the rest of his friends go to meet the Seculars and discover what exactly they fear so much. It's a quest that will open up Erasmus's world and change it entirely by the time it's over.

I can't do justice to the book in so few words. What I can say about it is this: there's an enormous amount of thought and detail that's scattered almost carelessly across its many pages; there are very strong SFnal elements buried and unearthed. There's the obviously political world outside of the Concent doors—and this is a world that is never fully understood because Erasmus and the other avout have so very little interest in it. But what they have interest in—their theories, their sciences, their philosophies? These glow.

The book won't be for everybody. I know some readers will feel it suffers from an authorial need to convey all research directly to them. I didn't have this reaction because if Stephenson clearly cares about all of his research—and he does—he just as clearly cares about the characters themselves, and those characters care passionately enough to make their long and theoretical conversations real and immediate to me. They ask questions constantly. They never stop thinking. They never stop questioning. At one point in the book, when they're told they have to stop and just make a decision, it's almost a shock because by that point, every long and involved conversation felt entirely natural.

I adored this book. I wish it had been three times longer. I highly recommend it.

*     *     *

After I surfaced from Anathem, I experienced that reader ennui that a much-loved book produces. I picked up and put down a dozen books, all of which might well have been good, but none of which could pick me up and grab me.

Until, of course, Patricia McKillip's new novel, in part because I love her effortless and seamless use of language, and in part because there's a very human grace in anything McKillip wraps her words around, because her characters—so different from Stephenson's—are no less real, no less compelling in their small details. The Bell at Sealey Head is no exception to that rule.

Where the Stephenson is the first-person viewpoint of Erasmas spread over nine hundred pages, the McKillip is multiple viewpoints, compacted into a few hundred. Sealey Head is an out-of-the-way port town, and the people who live in it are therefore not immediately remarkable. There's Gwyneth Blair, an imaginative young woman who longs to be an author; Judd Cauley, the innkeeper of an inn that has seen many better days, and his good-hearted but famously bad cook; and Emma, who is both a maid at the faded Aislinn House and also the daughter of the local hedge witch, a woman who lives—literally—in a tree, and dispenses herbal cures to villagers who come to seek her out.

Emma, who has lived in Aislinn House all her life, can sometimes open doors and find, not the manor, but a glimpse into an entirely different Aislinn. On the other side of that door, she sees a girl she thinks of as the princess—Ysabo. They speak sometimes, but neither one has ever been foolish enough to attempt to cross thresholds.

All three of them hear the bell at Sealey Head. It's not a real bell. It's a sound that's been heard at sunset for as long as the town has existed. It speaks to them in different ways—but it also speaks to Ridely Dow, a well-heeled and bookish stranger who comes to Sealey Head to investigate.

But Aislinn House's frail and elderly owner, Lady Eglantyne, lies abed; she is dying. In the wake of her passing, many strangers will arrive in Sealey Head, and the story of the bell, and its tolling, will at last be told.

This is a lovely book, quiet in the way McKillip's work is often quiet, but beautiful and subtle for all that.

*     *     *

And last, but never least, we have the latest novel by Terry Pratchett.

First things first: Nation is not a Discworld novel. There is no Ankh-Morpork, there are no wizards, there is no Watch. Nor is it, like the Johnny books, a novel set in the here-and-now. Is it still a Pratchett novel? Yes, of course.

I would go out on a limb and say it's the least humorous of the Pratchett novels I've ever read. This doesn't mean it was not laugh-out-loud funny in places, because it was certainly that. But it starts at a very dark point for Mau, the protagonist of the novel, and it doesn't shy away from that point. Pratchett often covers the grim in his books, but he slides over it, leaving shadows but giving us the humor that might, one day, arise from the events.

He doesn't do that here.

Mau is a boy who is about to become a young man of The Nation, which is what his tribe is called. The Nation exists on a small tropical Island, and all of the males of the Nation live in the boys' huts until they're taken to the boys' Island. There, they're left entirely on their own, and they must make their way back to the tribe; when they do, they are considered men. It's a moment of great joy for the whole tribe.

Mau has spent his night on the boys' Island, and he is paddling his way home when he's hit by a huge and inexplicable wave that almost kills him. There's no almost about his village. The welcome and the comfort he expected before the wave is gone; he's the last of his tribe. The gods—for Mau's life has always been informed by the gods—are nowhere in sight.

On the Island as well, in a similar situation, is…Daphne. Well, technically, that's not her name, but as she's also the only survivor of the shipwrecked Sweet Judy, no one is likely to rat her out. She's about the same age as Mau, she is also alone, and she is terrified.

The two meet, and between them, with their own half-understandings of the rules that governed the lives they used to know and lead, they try to build—or rebuild—home.

In the wake of any disaster, there will always be other survivors, and home grows, person by person. But how it grows, and what it means for Mau, a boy who is either furious at the betrayal of the gods, or certain they don't exist, depending on the time of day, is pure Pratchett. The only god Mau is certain of is Locaha, who is death, and who is waiting. Mau balances his growing certainty that there are no gods and therefore no answers with the needs of the strangers who are only barely alive, and who are wrapped in grief and rage that is both like and unlike his own.

And what Mau builds, in the end, with the help of Daphne and the other stragglers, is a new world, and an old one; it's a version of paradise, in its way, that's entirely human, and to be yearned for and earned in an entirely human way.

I think this is—just possibly—the best book Pratchett has ever written.

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