Anathem – A Review

A while back while browsing through some sites I came across the name Neal Stephenson again and again and this piqued my curiousity. It led me to look up more on him, finally resulting in my buying Anathem, his latest novel.

Finally done with this behemoth of a novel I can say with confidence that in a word Anathem is an intellectual feast (ok that’s two words but you get my drift)! It’s also – to repeat myself – a behemoth of a novel. At 932 pages, it’s not a book which one can breeze through. The topics the book grapples with along with the dense prose requires one to be alert and actively engage with the story; anything less, and one will be left feeling dazed and lost!

The book follows the adventures of Erasmas, a young “avout” who is trying to save his planet from an attack from another civilization while also trying to find his mentor who was “anathemized” from the “concent” where they used to live. Yes, the book is peppered with words from language that Stephenson made up for the planet of Arbre where the story is set. While it took me almost half the book to become comfortable with the Arbran language, I can’t help professing a deep admiration for the clever way Stephenson transforms words from English into Arbran – so much so that at times I had the feeling that the words we use on Earth might perhaps have been derived from Arbran! <grin> Suffice it to say that this word-play is one of the aspects I loved about the book.

Here’s the second aspect which caught my attention: the whole concept of “concents”. Concents would correspond to what we call monasteries on Earth. These monasteries though weren’t peopled by monks of religions; they were peopled by monks of logic and reason. Communities of “avouts” or scholars of science, maths, and philosophy live a completely monk like existence in these concents. Entirely isolated from the outside Arbran society, the avouts spend their entire lives thinking about ideas and problems in maths and science and about thinking itself. There is no “contamination” so to say of the thought processes of these monks by the distractions of day to day life. Neither are they exposed to any kind of outside cultural influences. The avouts pretty much live in a bubble comprising only of themselves.

I find this way of living fascinating and scary. I can’t help thinking that such ways of living which exist in a veritable vacuum are dangerous. In my opinion the book didn’t address this point satisfactorily with Stephenson tending to paint this particular feature of the story in black and white. The people inside the concent are the wise ones while the ones outside are mostly caricatures of some form or the other who in the end realize the wisdom of the avouts and their way of thinking. Those who do not come around to this point of view are portrayed more or less as one dimensional characters. To be fair to Stephenson, the characters of Cord (Erasmas’ cousin sister) and Yul (Cord’s boyfriend) do straddle the extremes of the Avouts & the Saecular world (as the world outside the concents is known in Arbre) but overall the book does not really delve into the affects and effects of such “vaccumized” living deeply enough.

Next on the list of things which absorbed my attention is the Hylaean Theory. Here’s what it says: the objects and ideas that humans perceive and think about are imperfect manifestations of pure, ideal forms that exist in another plane of existence. Or another way of looking at it would be to say that everything there is —  already exists. Its existence is not dependent on our ability to perceive it. Thinking about it just makes it manifest for the perceiver – that’s all. To quote an example from the book, the number 3 was a prime number long before any human being realized this fact and will continue to be a prime number long after people cease thinking about this concept.

From references on the author’s website, I found out that the Hylaean Theory is actually a variation/derivation of Plato’s Theory of Forms. In fact, if you still haven’t made up your mind whether this book is for you, I’d suggest going to Neal Stephenson’s acknowledgment page to get a flavour of the things the book touches on: Don’t let this page intimidate you though! I certainly didn’t grasp fully all the different ideas that Stephenson examines but that didn’t subtract from my enjoyment of the book.

One last thing I want to mention is the concept of multiple narratives that is used as a major plot device towards the end. The whole Multiuniverse, Multiple Narrative Tracks angle absolutely fascinated me. According to Stephenson, he based it on the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Here’s my Cliff Notes version of it: anytime you make a choice the world literally splits into multiverses with each universe playing out the results of each of the choices.

Through the course of the story one comes across many such ideas which are frankly intriguing. Anathem is a book which touches on philosophy, maths and physics with whole sections of the book devoted to discussions on these topics. I have to admit that I’m a little awed by Stephenson’s ability to weave all these ideas into one fascinating story. The fact that he strings together thoughts from a wide range of topics into one coherent and exciting story is what thrilled me the most about Anathem and I would love to read more such stuff!

A small note of caution if you’re thinking of reading the book: If like me 200 pages into the book you’re still not sure what the story is about don’t let that deter you! The main plot doesn’t start till almost that point but the story that follows is worth sticking with the book.

That’s what I’m thinking. I’d love to know *your* thoughts!

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