Anathem

Pronounced AN-uh-thum or uh-NATH-um, either way's okay by Stephenson.Author Neal Stephenson was kind enough to write this 937 page novel just for me. Or, rather, if he had decided to write a novel for me and me alone, Stephenson could hardly have come up with something more perfect than Anathem.

Anathem was my pal as I lugged the mighty volume with me on my epic 3-cat car-trip from Chicago to L.A.. As we plowed our sleep-deprived way across the plains, over the Great Divide, and through the desert, and as we stretched out in a Calabasas motel room awaiting our furniture, the planet Arbre, spinning in its parallel universe, became my private decompression chamber. Too much of this world sometimes calls for a little bit of another.

I enjoyed it so much, I reread it less than six months after the first reading. Liked it even more.

The story: Imagine a world in which people whom we’d call mathematicians and physicists had retreated to cloisters as did the religious of Europe (I mean Earth’s Europe) during the middle ages. They are called “avouts” or “mathics” — intellectuals living in monklike austerity in dedication to purely theoretical scientific research. The applied sort — technology — is rigorously restricted to a “Praxic” class of the outside world, the “Saecular” world.

Imagine these avouts abiding as best they can by the severe restrictions on their lives and studies — on even the plants they’re allowed to cultivate! — that have been imposed on them by the suspicious extramural world of the Saeculars (in the majority by far). The avouts are motivated to cooperate: Numerous “sacks” of the mathic “Concents” by fearful Saeculars have recurred over the millennia. At the time of Anathem‘s events, the Mathic and Saecular worlds are living in a fairly stable, centuries-old relationship of mutual mistrust.

Now imagine that world impinged upon by an extra-universal phenomenon that urgently requires their close alliance.

Our protagonist is a youngish avaut named Erasmas — “Raz.” After his beloved mentor is booted from their walled community — anathematized, hence the title — Erasmas and a group of friends risk their own ouster by continuing to pursue the mentor’s proscribed investigations. Forbidden to use astronomical tools, they improvise, turning an unused empty room into a camera obscura — Newton-like, they poke a hole in the wall to let a thin beam of light project onto a black wall — and thereby discover something out in space made visible only by its brief orbit-changing bursts of rocket-fire.

Analemma is your Word for the Day.At that point — page 283 — the story has just begun. I’ll say no more. Only this: If you liked Name of the Rose and can imagine a young Web Age Umberto Eco writing something like a mashup of Cryptonomicon and Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy, then don’t wait for the paperback edition — get yourself an enormous copy of Anathem immediately and forget about your terrestrial woes.

Anathem
by Neal Stephenson
(William Morrow & Company, Hardcover, 937 pages)

UPDATE!

Anathem is now out in mass market paperback. So, if price held you back from purchasing this great novel, let that no longer be an obstruction. Here below is the link to the frugal person’s version:

Anathem
by Neal Stephenson
(Harper, Mass Market Paperback, 1008 pp.)

From last September 12

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