Book review: Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Anathem. By Neal Stephenson. Atlantic Books, €19

Published in The Sunday Business Post on November 9th, 2008, reviewed by Alex Meehan

As an exponent of the more cerebral variety of science fiction, Neal Stephenson’s books are not for the fainthearted. Readers of his work are more likely to find themselves dealing with complex mathematical and philosophical issues than with the standard cliches associated with the genre.

In Anathem, his latest (and, frankly, huge) book, he takes this approach to an interesting new extreme, delving in depth into the significance of mathematics, architecture, philosophy and reason on the human condition.

Set on the Earth-like planet Arbre, Anathem tells its complex story from the perspective of a young monk, Fraa Erasmus. A resident of the Concent of Saunt Edhar, an ancient monastery-like sanctuary in which science and philosophy take the place of religion – Erasmus is just one of thousands of the ‘‘avout’’ who spend their days cossetted and kept away from the corrupting influence of the outside ‘‘saecular’’ world.

In the concent, the ‘‘fraas’’ and ‘‘suurs’’of the avout concern themselves with ideas and books, rejecting the worldly concerns of the ‘‘extramuros’’, or outside world. Only three times in the history of the concent have violence and war intruded on the community, but each time it has recovered and been reborn. In this way, this subculture has existed on Arbre for 3,700 years, ignoring the rise and fall of governments, the waging of wars and other saecular concerns. As a reaction to the outside world, the avout have become more and more austere, rejecting materialism and technology and cloistering themselves in a world of thought and ritual.

Community members obey strict rules and are not permitted access to the outside world. Against this backdrop, Erasmus takes part in the celebration of the weeklong ‘‘apert’’ festival, an event which happens once every ten years and which sees the fraas and suurs venture outside the stone walls of the community. At the same time, curious members of the saecular world are allowed in to explore.

Erasmus looks forward to his first visit to the world he grew up in but hasn’t seen since becoming an avout. However, hi s plans are thrown into disarray when an alien spacecraft is spotted in the skies above Arbre. The saecular world is unprepared for such an occurrence and, in its pursuit of material gratification, has lost any means of coming to terms with this event. To avert disaster, the saecular and avout worlds need to come to an accommodation, and Erasmus and a contingent of colleagues are sent out into the world to attempt to discover what the mysterious craft is and what its inhabitants want.

From this point on, the plot advances quickly and the story becomes more fast-paced but, in general, Anathemis not an easy read. Stephenson has gone down the route of giving his imagined world and culture a complex vocabulary and structure, making the story obtuse at the outset. There is a point to this approach, as a key part of the story concerns the effect living a secluded life in the concent has upon Erasmus and how his worldview has been effected.

He must go out into the world and explore it from a sheltered and, in many ways, ignorant point of view. It’s through those eyes that the reader also must learn many things about this world.

Anathemis an intense and well-realised story – and, at 937 pages, it’s not a short book – and hardened science fiction fans will probably love it. For those with only a passing interest in the genre, though, be warned – this is no Star Wars-style work of cliche.

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