Anathem, by Neal Stephenson (Part 2)

Let me start by telling you a joke:

The Order of GeekReads wished to know the purpose for which Gallus Gallus – a member of the kingdom of Animalia, from the Phylum Chordata, and belonging to the family of Phasianidae – traversed a piece of paved land usually reserved for wheeled vehicles.

An inquisition found that “Gallus” desired to relocated its body mass to the area diametrically opposite to that in which it originally stood.

Hilarious, no? Those of you whose eyes hadn’t glazed over after reading the first few words might have recognised the timeless classic. It might come as a surprise that there are people out there, like me, who find the longer version interesting. We are also likely to be the market that Neal Stephenson is targeting with his recent works such as Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle; i.e. books that read like education disguised as novels. It could also be why the cover designer felt the need to put “A novel” beneath the title on the cover of Anathem.

The first edition hardback cover
The first edition hardback cover

Not everybody is going to have the patience to endure multi-page diversions to the main plot, but it can be quite rewarding for those who persevere. The story centres around Erasmas, or Raz, a junior monk of sorts (“fraa” in the book’s vernacular) who recounts his involvement in a major epoch on his home world, Arbre. During the various phases of his journey, he tries to unravel the mystery around the circumstances that he finds himself in, through intellectual discourse with whomever he happens to be travelling with at the time: his “avout” friends, recruits from the Saecular world, other avout whom he meets on the way, etc. Not exactly action packed for the most part.

What this format does do is allow Stephenson to wax lyrical about whatever science or philosophy takes his fancy, without too much disruption to the narrative flow. Mostly it’s physics and astronomy, but  occasionally he’ll launch into something resembling social commentary, which communicates a certain contempt towards the laity for being too stupid to support the ideals of the intelligentsia. Take this exchange for example:

“I always tend to assume there’s an infinite amount of money out there.”
“There might as well be,” Arsibalt said, “but most of it gets spent on pornography, sugar water, and bombs. There is only so much that can be scraped together for particle accelerators.”

Emotions are presented in a ham-fisted, cartoony fashion and treated with disdain. No sooner does Raz find love, than it is wrested from his clutches by the narrative, so that his pursuit of knowledge is not distracted by silly things like feelings. All it really says though, is that Neal Stephenson is a geek – of a higher order than most, but still firmly a member of the geekdom.

Hence one of the recurring themes in the book is the tension between science and religion. While Stephenson remains largely respectful of both sides, he still manages to take a few swipes at religion’s anti-intellectualism near the end of the book:

“The rule of thumb we’ve been using is that Deolators [religious believers] are welcome as long as they’re not certain they’re right,” I said. “As soon as you’re sure you’re right, there’s no point in your being here.”
“Flec’s not sure of anything now,” Quin assured me. Then, after a minute: “Can you even have an Ark [church], if you’re not sure you’re right? Isn’t it just a social club, in that case?”

All that aside, there’s a compelling story within the book’s 900-odd pages. Once the lengthy expository parts are well and truly done with, the story takes over and really starts coming into its own in the third act. The world of Arbre is truly fascinating, as are many of the characters within it. I just wish it didn’t end – ironically, given its stance with regard to science and religion – with what amounts to a deus ex scientia.

I leave you with a widget from the official Anathem Web site, which features Neal Stephenson talking about his creation and reading excerpts, and which also contains a hilariously crap “trailer” (why a book needs a trailer I can’t being to imagine):

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Get your copy of Anathem, by Neal Stephenson from The Book Depository.

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