Susan and I are both fans of Neal Stephenson and his books are favorites when it comes to reading aloud. We read Cryptonomicon and the entire Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) aloud. Nearly everything Stephenson writes has the quality of being so intensely interesting that you feel compelled to keep reading. When reading one of his books to myself, I usually want to read the entire book at one siting, staying up all night in the process. That’s one of the reasons we now read them aloud, it forces us to stop because my voice usually gives out after a few chapters. And the result is that we can enjoy the book over a several weeks, with lots of interim discussion and speculation about where we think the story is going.
One of the things that make Stephenson books so fascinating is that he combines interests in a wide range of topics from history to philosophy to the latest trends in technology. Anathem is no exception and is perhaps his best book to date. The book originated in sketches made by Stephenson when collaborators on the Millennium Clock project were trying to imagine what a clock designed to last 10,000 years would look like. Stephenson thought about the sketches a few years later and they became the basis for the clock and Concent scheme described in Anathem.
The story takes place on an Earth-like planet where society is organized a bit differently than our own. Scientists and philosophers live apart from the rest of society in closed convents called Concents. The separation is due to the alleged troubles that such people caused in the distant past by constantly introducing dangerous ideas and technologies to the “saecular” world. Technology, the physical manifestation of science and philosophy, is forbidden within the Concents. The fraas and suurs within the Concent can contemplate their ideas and think all they want but they are not allowed to build or use any technology more advanced than woodworking or stone masonry. As part of this grand experiment of dividing the thinkers from the rest of society, Concents are further subdivided into a series of concentric walls. Each successive inner circle stays closed to the outside world for a longer amount of time. Fraas and suurs from one circle may choose to move further inward over time. At the outermost level, the Concent opens its doors to the saecular world once every year. The next level opens once ever 10 years, the next every 100, and the last every 1,000. These openings of the Concent to the saecular world are called Aperts. Fraas and suurs in the innermost circle may have lived their entire life in the Concent. In the saecular world outside, cities come and go, governments change, entire civilizations rise and fall. Within the wall of the Concent, life continues on unchanged except for constant learning.
The story opens in the Concent of Saunt Edhar as the young Fraa Erasmas, known as Razz to his friends, is preparing for his first Apert in a decade. He and his friends are looking forward to seeing how the world has changed in the ten years since they were presented to the Concent as children to be trained in the ways of math and science.
It becomes evident rather quickly that this will be no ordinary Apert. The saecular governments are stirred up about some incredible event, so strange and dangerous that they may have to put aside the rules separating those who live within the Concent and draw upon their vast, theoretical knowledge to save the world from destruction.
Erasmus and friends are launched upon an unexpected journey into the saecular world and must shoulder responsibilities and face threats beyond any they’ve been prepared to deal with. They are joined by higher level Mathics including a Thousander who has spent so much time in the ethereal world of theoretical physics, it’s unclear whether he’s still entirely human or if he may have learned the secrets of feared and possibly mythical early Mathics known as The Incantors.
Along the way, the story delves into the many worlds interpretation of quantuum mechanics, the metaphysics of Platonism, Penrose tiling, the relationship of religion and science, and many other fascinating and esoteric topics. All this is couched in a story-line of almost constant action that includes martial arts, political intrigue, space combat, and some old fashioned romance.
Describing much more of the plot would likely give away something you’d enjoy discovering for yourself. Unlike some Stephenson books, like those of the Baroque Cycle where things slow down from time to time and Stephenson spends half a chapter describing the skyline of historic England, Anathem kicks into high gear in chapter one and never lets up. It’s action, crazy ideas, romance, surprises, and humor all the way through. To learn a little more, you can read some further plot descriptions, check out a glossary of terms, and even listen to some music composed based on the book’s description of Mathic arts over at the official Anathem website.