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Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 960 pages

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: 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 Jakob Schmidt

Neal Stephenson's new novel brings him back to the fold of science fiction authors. It is about a lot of things, first and foremost the nature of reality. We would have expected nothing less from Stephenson. However, those who have been put off by Stephenson's occasionally confusing Baroque Cycle, take heart: Anathem is much more straightforward, narrated from the perspective of only one character, and has a relatively tight and linear plot structure. It is also quite funny, and a comedy at its heart, meaning that it will probably make you feel happy -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Arbre, the setting of Anathem, is an Earth-like world with a few thousand more years of written history under its belly. It seems to have spent most of this time in a prolonged condition of post-modern now: there's no significant social or technological progress, but instead an ongoing profusion of technological gimmicks. In the first chapters of the novel, we see little of this world, since its narrator, Fraa Erasmas, is a so-called avout, living in one of many large convents of ascetic scientists and philosophers who isolate themselves from the outside world. Erasmas is a young scholar with a passion for knowledge, who hasn't seen the outside world for ten years and doesn't miss it, since he has found many good friends among the avout. However, on the eve of Apert, the opening of the gates to the outside world that occurs only once every ten, hundred or even thousand years, things start to change. The venerable and eccentric Fraa Orolo has seen something in the sky, and, consequently, is suddenly whisked away from his brethren. Erasmas and his friends form a secret circle to investigate his disappearance, a course of action that will lead them far beyond the safe walls of their convent, into a world that has become alien to them, and even into space. On their way, they keep up the avout tradition of rational debate, systematically unravelling the mystery that confronts them...

...which is a quite elegant way for Stephenson to fill Anathem with a wealth of theoretical discourse, reaching from quantum physics to epistemological debates between linguistically inclined post-structuralists and advocates of a more rigorous phenomenological world-view. Of course, Stephenson tweaks Arbre's equivalents of these traditions slightly. He also invents new names for them in a quasi-Latin idiom, as he does for many other vaguely familiar concepts. This is something that really only Stephenson can pull off: filling whole chapters with theoretical debates between characters, without even once digressing from his story. It's all essential to the plot. It all feels real. The characters are mostly (and most authentically) defined by their discussion style, and you couldn't wish for a more loveable narrator than Fraa Erasmas, a curious, intelligent and slightly insecure young man with an acute sense of humour.

To read Anathem is by no means easy -- the first few chapters especially require a lot of focus, and the concepts at the heart of the novel are challenging. The process of exploring these concepts actually becomes the story. Among other things, Anathem is a dramatisation of the process of understanding, and Stephenson repeatedly captures the enormous thrill of the eureka moment, as well as the nearly unbearable tension of not-quite-having-it-figured-out-yet. However, not all the adventure is intellectual: Erasmas crosses a freezing polar landscape, escapes a bloodthirsty mob, witnesses the eruption of a volcano up close and makes the most extraordinary, amazing and believable journey into space I've ever encountered in any science fiction novel.

There are a few minor gripes I have with Anathem. It is a tad implausible that Erasmas keeps meeting the same people again and again on his adventures (an implausibility that is mitigated by the fact that it is part of why the book works so well as a comedy). Also, the quantum-theoretical concept falls a little flat in the end. It is slightly reminiscent of Greg Egan's Quarantine, and less impressive in terms of its realisation within the narrative. But all of this is far outweighed by how engaging, intelligent, funny and optimistic Anathem is.

There, I said it: optimistic. Not everything is alright in this novel. In fact, the historically stalled Arbre is a quite depressing place in many ways. Nevertheless, there's a strong sense that humankind can figure out ways to move forward, provided that at least some of its members stay rational, keep an open mind and try hard and sincerely to understand the world around them. Stephenson doesn't just postulate fundamental human goodness. Instead, he works his way towards the precious and precarious feeling that there is a definite chance of human goodness. Anathem convincingly sells something far more outrageous than all its quantum-mechanical epistemology: the notion that things might turn out quite alright in the end.

Copyright © 2009 by Jakob Schmidt

Jakob is part of the editorial team of the German magazine Pandora. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.

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