Anathem reviewed by Elizabeth Sourbut
NEAL STEPHENSON’s latest novel is a smorgasbord of high adventure, quantum physics and musings on the nature of consciousness.
On the planet Arbre, young Fraa Erasmas is a member of one of the many enclosed communities of intellectuals who are only allowed contact with the rest of the world once every decade or century. This arrangement was set up thousands of years before after a series of unspecified Terrible Events. Back then, theoreticians, computer scientists and practical engineers worked together to produce the fearsome Everything Killers, and now the three groups are kept strictly apart. The theoreticians, or “avout”, live in walled “concents” and pursue theoretical research and astronomical observation, while the outer world ebbs and flows around them in waves of civilisation and decadence.
Erasmas’s settled life is shattered when access to the concent’s observatory is barred and his mentor, Orolo, is banished to the “saecular” world outside the concent walls. Afterwards, a number of avout, including Erasmas, are summoned to an unprecedented gathering by the saecular powers. There seems to be a global crisis. Erasmas is sure it is connected with something Orolo saw through his telescope, so he defies the authorities to search for his mentor and find answers to the mystery.
What follows is a fascinating combination of adventure-quest and scholarly dialogue. Even in adversity, the avout have a habit of pausing to dispute the finer points of philosophy. Over millennia, many different sects of avout have arisen, and the adherents of mutually contradictory philosophies love nothing more than to argue with one another. The events that have catapulted Erasmas and his friends out into the world are about to prove that these age-old disputes are anything but academic.
This is a thoughtful, challenging and extremely well-written work that uses science fiction to explore complex philosophical and scientific ideas. It is well worth persevering through the opening section, with its unfamiliar vocabulary, and there is a glossary to help with all the witty neologisms scattered through the text. The highly readable prose carries the weight of ideas and, above all, it is a lot of fun to read.
To view an exclusive interview with Stephenson about this book, visit our sci-fi webpage: www.newscientist. com/article/dn14757