I’d previously heard great things about Neal Stephenson, and the first of his books I tried was Anathem.

After reading this book I can say with confidence that Neal Stephenson has earned his place amongst the ranks of my favourite science fiction authors!


Anathem plays out on the world of Arbre, where thousands of years prior to the events in the novel mathematicians, scientists and philosophers (collectively knows as “avout”) were cloistered away in monastic concents, stripped of all possessions except the Bolt and the Sphere, and tasked with the role of nurturing all knowledge whilst safeguarding it from the vagaries of the irrational saecular world.

Once every 10, 100, or 1000 years the Concents’ decade-, centennial-, or millennial gates open during the ceremony of Apert, allowing the avout to receive visitors and see how the world outside their walls has changed.

During one of these decenarian celebrations Erasmas, a young fraa (male avout) from the Concent of Saunt Edhar, finds himself a major player in a drama that will determine the future of his world. Evoked (summoned) from his concent during an aut (ritual act) of voco, he and his friends set out on an odyssey that will take them to the most dangerous, inhospitable corners of the planet… and beyond.

Large portions of the book involve detailed discussions of mathematics, physics, and philosophy, most of which use fictional Arbran terminology but treat ideas from actual science and philosophy. One major theme is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, another is the recurring philosophical debate between characters espousing Platonic realism (“Halikaarnians”) and characters espousing mathematical formalism (“Procians”).

Some reviewers have criticized that the sudden and in-depth discussions that occur often throughout the book make the plot seem dry, but to me they breathed life into these characters that spent their whole lives with nothing else to do but think about how their world works.

Memorable quotes

“They knew many things but had no idea why. And strangely this made them more, rather than less, certain that they were right.”

“Nothing is more important than that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.”

“‘I hadn’t known that,’ I said. ‘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.'”

“So I looked with fascination at those people in their mobes, and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them.”

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