An epic journey in which science and reason rule
Yes, "Anathem," Neal Stephenson's new novel, is very long, coming in at more than 900 pages. Yes, it tackles philosophy, physics, religion, and mathematics. Yes, it's a daring feat of speculative fiction, playing with all the classic science-fiction tropes: futurism, first contact, high tech versus low tech, and speculations on the nature of the cosmos. And yes, it's pretty good, almost great, despite the work involved in reading it.
But unlike Stephenson's earlier works - such as the cyberpunk classic "Snow Crash"; his mainstream breakthrough novel, "Cryptonomicon"; and the daunting three-book "Baroque Cycle," which people pretended to have read but didn't - "Anathem" is an anachronism. It's a novel of world-building in the spirit of "Dune," the "Foundation" books, and even "The Lord of the Rings," with an inexperienced protagonist at the center of an epic adventure that could change the world.
Nineteen-year-old Erasmas is an avout (monk) living in a concent (monastery) that holds science and reason as the pinnacle of thought, yet rejects all the technology its discoveries make possible. This mathic world, which Stephenson models after the ancient Pythagorean order of Greece, is made up of four groups: unarians, tenners, hundreders, and thousanders, who leave the concent once during their respective cycles: a few years, 10 years, 100 years, 1,000 years. The doors of the concent are controlled by a millennial clock, a massive machine that acts as a focal point for ritual and liturgy.
Outside the concent live the saeculars, a society that's a mix of religious fundamentalism, consumerism, and an obsession with gadgets, such as jeejahs (cellphones) and speelycaptors (video cameras). Threaded through the novel are history lessons on the complex relationship between the avout and the saeculars, a history marked by antagonism and violence.
The main thrust of the plot involves Erasmas and his friends having to navigate the world outside their concent to help uncover the truth behind a visitation by a huge starship. To keep the plot moving, Stephenson employs daring last-minute escapes, all-out martial arts rumbles, and the appearance of too many characters. But all of this sometimes feels like a ruse. What he really wants is a vehicle to explore the science and philosophy that fuel the narrative. Often the characters feel like nothing more than echo chambers for his ideas, although Stephenson establishes early on that in the mathic world this is how people talk to one another.
Unlike his other novels, "Anathem" takes place on another planet, named Arbre, which is similar to ours. And like the best science fiction, it makes some insightful and often hilarious critiques of our own society.
But the author's more important critique comes by way of a religious argument. The early history of Arbre involves a mystic who had a vision of a perfect triangle. Witnessed by the mystic's two daughters, the vision was interpreted by one of them to mean that knowledge is simply a reflection of a perfect Platonic reality. The other saw it as proof of an all-knowing deity. The avout hold to the first principle, and the saecular world to the second. But Stephenson has a very sophisticated grasp of the history of ideas. While there seems to be a typical reason/faith division on Arbre, he recognizes that inherent in pure scientific thought is a kind of mystical certainty.
There are certainly a number of compelling figures in "Anathem," but because the story is told in the first person, Erasmas is responsible for too much of the telling of the plot. His interesting struggles are lost within the midst of the history and ideas. But as a piece of science fiction that speculates about the world and itself, "Anathem" offers the reader a luscious arrangement of words, jokes, and speculations.
Peter Bebergal is a frequent contributor to the Globe. He has a blog at mysterytheater.blogspot.com.