Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, is the kind of book that makes me glad to have had a college education. If I hadn’t taken all those philosophy and history classes, I think I would have been a lot more at sea than I was. It seems like every chapter in this book references some major idea or event in astronomy, physics, Platonic philosophy, or world history. The physics was particularly challenging, because it seemed to run the entire course of history, from Aristotle to Plato to Planck and beyond.
I’m actually kind of impressed that I managed to read this book in a week.
The plot revolves around a young monastic type named Erasmus and his friends as they figure out how to deal with invaders from other dimensions. In Erasmus’ world, there are a series of monasteries (concents) where people choose to live their lives contemplating, not God, but science. They spend decades, centuries, and millenia solving seriously advanced problems in mathematics, astronomy, physics, communication, biology, and so on. After Erasmus’ mentor, Orolo, discovers what appears to be an alien ship orbiting their planet, the monastery system gets thrown into chaos when the outside world starts calling on experts from all different disciplines to solve the problem.
While the plot of this story is fascinating (I liked it even though I don’t like stories with aliens), the history of this world is even more interesting and, at times, more richly described than the plot or the characters. Some details are missing, but you learn just about the entire history of this Earth-like world. And it’s clear that Stephenson must have spent years conjuring it all up. Not only are there wars and religions, but there are important scientists, military leaders, books, cults, and scientific concepts and models.
Because of the way Stephenson chose to tell his story, it’s not too hard to absorb all the information he’s trying to convey. The plot enfolds slowly, and the characters spend a lot of their time “in Dialog.” Just like Socrates and his students, the characters ask big questions and talk their way through thought experiments, referencing prior authorities on the matter just like scholars in our world do. Sometimes when they’re nattering on about some detail about polar orbits or semantics, you get really tempted to skip ahead a few pages. Bit of it read like something you’d read in one of Plato’s works. But once the characters make their way out of the monastery (or concent), the plot really picks up the pace.
One of the things that make this book hard to read (apart from all the science), is the invented language. Some readers, myself included, can find invented langauges (especially when you’re meant to recognize the English origin of the word) very irritating, and a barrier to not only enjoyment, but comprehension. At first, I was afraid that this was going to be another Stephenson book that would kick my ass before page 100. I actually had to make the conscious decision to just let stuff like the invented vocabulary go, and not try to puzzle everything out before I could really get into the book. After that, I could speed through 150 pages at a go.
I did like this book, and I can totally see myself reading it again. But for others who want to get through it, you might want to read it near a computer, so that you can Google the science and read up on certain scientists and philosophers in Wikipedia. While you read it, you can just feel yourself dredging up things you learned as an undergraduate.