[Review] Anathem by Neal Stephenson

There’s a phrase that gets used very often: “to stop and think.”

But ask yourself, when was the last time that you really did that? When was the last time you really stopped and focused all of mental efforts on one thing?

Anathem by Neal Stephenson, is about just that. What happens when you take the thinkers of the world and allow them to seclude themselves from all other worldly distractions and really focus on thinking?

The Blurb from the Back

Fraa Erasmus is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathemeticians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside “saecular” world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent’s walls. Three times during history’s darkest epochs violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet the avout have always managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity even more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. And Erasmus has no fear of the outside – the Extramuros – for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.

Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs perpare to venture beyond the concent’s gates – at the same time opening them wide to the welcome the curious “extras” in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmus eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn’t seen since he was “collected.” But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.

Powerful unforeseen forces jeopardize the peaceful stability of mathic life and the established ennui of the Extramuros – a threat that only an unsteady alliance of saecular and avout can oppose – as, one by one, Erasmus and his colleagues, teachers, and friends are summoned forth from the safety of the concent in hopes of warding off global disaster. Suddenly burdened with a staggering responsibility, Erasmus finds himself a major player in drama that will determine the future of his world – as he sets out on an extraordinary odyssey that will carry him to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of the planet … and beyond.

One adventure story, with some philosophy and physics on the side

At it’s core, Anathem is an adventure story. The main character, Erasmus, must essentially take on a quest to save the world and his friends, and in order to do so, he must make a monumental journey. Along the way, he encounters challenges and risks, meets new friends and makes new enemies.

However, what makes Anathem different from your run of the mill adventure story, is the conversations, thoughts, and debates that take place along the way.

Erasmus is essentially a monk. Instead of studying religion, though, he is in a concent that studies thought itself and everything that is created from thinking and science; philosophy, math, physics, and so on. While the “monks” do not create anything practical, they are consumed with thinking about debating about everything.

Whole sections of the book are debates between the monks in areas of philosophy, math and physics. I was reminded in a few places of the dialogues that take place in Plato’s Republic. In fact, I would say that the reader would do well to know Plato as well as basic physics and mathematics to really follow the book. Stephenson does a good job keeping the pacing of the conversations going, but he does not necessarily “hold the hands” of the reader.

For me, the conversations and debates were the most interesting parts of the book. They really get you thinking about thinking, and you can tell that Stephenson has an incredible grasp on some very complex subjects.

Speaking of hand holding

One of the more surprising aspects of the book is that it doesn’t take place in the past. In fact, it doesn’t take place on Earth, but on a planet called Arbre. Arbre, from a technological standpoint, is probably just a few decades ahead of where Earth is today.

These are all things you find out in the introduction, so don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away. In fact, the introduction is almost a kind of “crib notes” for the story, and give you some good background.

Even with the introduction, though, there are many aspects of the book that the reader will have to puzzle through on their own. For example, since everything takes place on a different planet, all the theories and authors of theories are different. Plato’s theory of forms becomes the Hylaen Theoric World. The Pythagorean Theorem becomes the Adrakhonic Theorem. Even things as simple as cell phones have different names (jeejahs). I think I was about halfway through the book before I really had a good strong handhold on things.

A brain trip

Overall, Anathem was an enjoyable read. The characters are interesting and unique. The storyline, for the most part, draws you along, and even the puzzling out of concepts within the book is enjoyable.

That said, the book could probably have been a couple hundred pages shorter without losing much. There are some repetitive scenes within the book where Stephenson is really trying to drill in a concept. During some of these I was thinking, “Okay, I get it. Can we move on now?”

The greatest thing about this book is that it does make you think about thinking, and by the end it had my brain thinking in different ways.


Grade: B-
Who would like this book: People who like to think, and people comfortable with concepts of philosophy, physics and math
Who would not like this book: People who don’t like science fiction. It’s heavy enough in the genre, that it won’t be pulling over any converts.

Note: While reading and looking into this book, I discovered the Long Now Foundation. The goal of this foundation and the way it thinks about the world is fascinating, even more so because it’s not science fiction.

3 thoughts on “[Review] Anathem by Neal Stephenson

  1. Carrie and Robin — Thanks for the comments. It’s definitely a book worth checking out. My one recommendation would be that you have some time set aside just for reading it. The more you can focus on it, the better the read will be.

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