Sunday, July 5, 2009

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

This is my first review for the Book Book, and may I say that I'm delighted to join this community of geeks (Moonrat, is there really no non-pejorative way to describe people who log their reading habits?) I really enjoy reading your reviews, and have added many of the books you've chosen to my own reading list. Strangely enough, the book I had just started when I joined this blog also has a lot to say about community, and said it at such length that I'm now getting threatening emails from the library.
Anathem is a large book, both in terms of its physical size (900+ pages) and in terms of its scope of imagination and ideas. Set on a planet called Arbre, it describes a civilization already many thousands of years old, where the rational thinkers (scientists, mathematicians, philosophers and the like) live separated from the rest of society in closed compounds called concents. These bear some resemblance to medieval monasteries, except that their inhabitants, on the whole, don't worship anything. They're not anti-religion exactly; at one point the narrator states that if one of them were to prove the existence of God, the rest would say "nice proof" and begin believing in God. Yep, they're that rational. These people, called avouts, live to think and learn, and are bound by oath to avoid secular (or Saecular, as they would say) distractions such as possessions, technology, and family life (the avout are rendered sterile by their diet.)
The rest of Arbran society is similarly divided: the religious tend to cluster into Arks, roughly equivalent to churches but with a slightly more Branch Davidian flavor, while the rest of the population lives what we'd recognize as ordinary lives, generally in cities near a concent (at the time of the narration, the population is in severe decline so there's plenty of uninhabited space.) At regular intervals there is an Apert, where the concent gates open and the avouts get to mingle with the local populations; this is a chance for brainy children to be recruited into the concent and for avouts to change their minds and go back to ordinary life, although that rarely happens. Hilariously, the Information Technology people have evolved into a race (the Ita) separate from any of those described above; I explained this to my husband, who is an IT guy, and it was slightly worrying that this made perfect sense to him.
Devoid of thinkers, the world outside the concents is, not surprisingly, one of slow technological development and near illiteracy, with the exceptions of the Arks, the Ita, and the Saecular Powers who are a somewhat shadowy bunch of military/political leaders. But then an unprecedented event occurs (I won't say what it is as that would spoil the first part of the novel for you) and these different groups are forced to leave their comfort zones and begin working together, a dynamic that drives the last two-thirds of the book. The engaging young avout who narrates the story, Erasmas, and his friends are caught up in the center of the sweeping changes that result.
I suppose it's inevitable that reading this book reminded me of Dune and the Gormenghast trilogy. The similarity lies in the skillful building up of details so that you find yourself thinking in terms of the world that you're temporarily immersed in. I think Anathem has more to offer in the way of ideas, though; reading it is like paging through the contents of a very well-stocked mind, and in fact I suspect that the book could easily have been twice as long. I'm not crazy about where the plotline ended up (although I can't explain why without introducing some spoilers) but this novel got me thinking about a good many things. Such as, for example, the historical events that got the avout confined to the concents in the first place, and why further attempts were made to limit their power every couple thousand years. The short version is that people who are very good at thinking inevitably come up with ideas that pose a threat to all or part of civilization, and need to be confined and managed. Our own civilization seems to be taking the subtler route of dumbing down everything that can be dumbed down, and mysteriously somehow failing to eliminate recreational drugs.
And I could go on and on, particularly with a 60,000 word limit. This is one of those books that I might actually read again one day, which is a fairly high accolade for me (I'll have to buy it next time.) Character and dialog are both well above average for a book of this genre (I'm assuming that it fits somewhere within fantasy, although to class it alongside the half-naked sword-wielding spell-throwing sort of fantasy is a bit unfair) which is a good thing, as a lot of the dialog deals with difficult concepts. Stephenson avoids the pomposity which dogs both Dune and Gormenghast, so if you threw up your hands in horror when I mentioned those novels please rest assured that you can still read this one. It's my first Neal Stephenson novel, and I am definitely going to give this author another try - suggestions welcome.


stacy said...

This is on my unofficial reading list. Really want to read it.

thew said...

You should read "Cryptonomicon". Probably still the best Stephenson book, although I absolutely loved Anathem as well.