Anathem – Neal Stephenson

I have a confession to make – I occasionally suffer from the delusion that I’ll make it as a writer some day. People will tell me that they enjoy reading my blog, or that I have a way with words, and before you know it, I’ll be imagining my book being a bestseller somewhere. Once or twice, I’ve even had a half-decent idea for a book, and have twice got as far as a chapter or two. But I always realise that it’s November two weeks in, and I just know that I haven’t got what it takes to finish anything substantial at a consistent level of quality.

My best attempt thus far has been the concept of an orphanage, where the kids are divided into four separate areas – independent dorms. The main overriding plot will be a murder mystery, but the subtext is that the four dorms will each be a case study in various political ideologies. There’s also a character who tells a story to the group each night. But in the text of the story is a coded message giving instructions, or providing information, to those who understand him. All very complicated, but the way I had it worked out in my head, it felt like I was finally getting somewhere.

Cover of "Anathem"

Cover of Anathem

But then I read Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. It was the third book of his I’d read, but it was significantly better than the other two (being Reamde and Snow Crash). I recognised elements of my ideas in the book, but it took them so much further, with such depth of meaning and richness of metaphor, that I couldn’t help but feel like the Valiant Little Tailor coming up against a giant. I’d been swatting flies, but this was the real thing.

The concept of taking religious monasticism, and converting it to a scientific (or at least philosophic) basis was particularly well done. Having four sections to the monastery (or concent), which are allowed contact with the outside world once every year, decade, century and millenium respectively, allowed for a deep insight into the sort of things that are really important. Forcing those in the concents to focus only on Theory (theorics), with no contact allowed with any sort of technology (praxis) made it possible to debate the merits of technological advance purely for its own sake.

As is often the case with Stephenson, the storyline is less important than the setting. It’s gripping for about three-quarters of the book, and then fizzles out a bit towards the end. Indeed, if you don’t concentrate, you’ll completely miss the point of the ending, as it’s hidden in some of the more philosophical debates earlier on in the book. But the setting in this case is so vast, and engrossing, that I’d read it again even if there was no plot at all. The inclusion of music, agriculture, emotion, ritual and scientific narrative provide a large number of opportunities for digression from the main thrust of the book, much like an illuminated manuscript is about so much more than just the text.

Some of those digressions are fascinating – the section on how to design an interstellar spacecraft was useful, not to mention the lesson on how to conduct war from orbit (who needs a Death Star anyway?) The creation of the Orth language is one of the better uses of a manufactured language in fiction that I’ve come across.

But some are less so – the need to find alternative terms for everything is mostly a success (a little knowledge of Latin is useful), but after what is obviously a cellphone is referred to as a jeejah for the fifth time, it gets a little tired. The treatment of religion is a little thin and one dimensional, especially when compared with the metaphorical treatment of science as religion.

But all in all, it’s a fantastic read. It gets you thinking about all sorts of ideas and issues that you normally would never need to come to terms with. All in well-written, high-quality prose and an intelligent vocabulary. Highly recommended.

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