Chris Brookmyre takes on Neal Stephenson’s classic Anathem. Quick, read it!
Whenever Neal Stephenson is the subject of discussion, chances are that Anathem will not be the first book to come up. Indeed, it may not even be the third or fourth, behind Snow Crash, Cyptonomicon and the sprawling trilogy comprising the Baroque Cycle. Though for me it is his masterwork, I have long since accepted that it is a novel destined never to be his most widely read or influential, ironically because of the very things that commend it.
Anathem is, in every particular, one of the biggest books you will ever read. SF as a genre is replete with lengthy and epic stories, with the expanse necessary to depict true vastness in space and of time. But few books have the intellectual scope and audacity of Anathem in taking on the very nature of knowledge and human understanding. It is a book which explores the relationships between language, thought and meaning, and specifically whether the last can exist outside of the direct dominions of the first two.
Anathem takes place on a world called Arbre, where the protagonist, Erasmas, has recently entered a “concent”: a monasterial institution where science, philosophy and mathematics are studied, as opposed to theology. The word concent suggests an encircling structure to these sanctuaries in which the “avout” are denominated according to how often their constituent group opens its gates to the world beyond: from unarians (once a year) to the remotely cloistered millenarians.
Arbre’s is a civilisation several thousand years more mature than our own, where there is a deep sense of technological ages largely forgotten, buried under cataclysm. The hidden history of this world, and in particular the relationship between the avout and the “saecular”, emerges in glimpses only once a threat of unprecedented scale sees Erasmus sent on a mission that will take him not merely into the saecular world, but to points beyond.
It could be argued that all SF is an exercise in exploring the borderland between philosophy and “natural philosophy” (as physics used to be known), and in this regard, Anathem excels. The history of Arbre is punctuated by breakthrough ideas replicating theories familiar to us here on Earth through Plato, Euclid, Leibniz, Newton and so on. Edmund Husserl’s copper ashtray becomes Atamant’s Bowl; Occam’s razor becomes Gardan’s Steelyard. This is more than mere facsimile: the most powerful and controversial idea among the avout concerns the question of whether the same ideas will occur independently to thinkers on different planets because there are certain transcendental truths – prime numbers, the value of pi, the laws of geometry – that exist on some higher plane.
Taking his cue from the likes of Hugh Everett and Max Tegmark, Stephenson postulates that, while certain conditions are necessary for the cosmos to have taken shape (various laws of physics, such as the speed of light, having to be set at very precise values), there is still room for tiny variations in those values to create parallel cosmoses in which the make-up of matter is minutely distinct. While parallel dimensions are often chucked into SF novels rather cheaply, Anathem is for me the book that most elegantly earns its right to invoke the Many Worlds theory.
Stephenson is likely to remain best known for Snow Crash, and perhaps rightly so: as well as being truly visionary, it had break-neck pace, videogame visuals, mischievous humour and an irresistible sense of fun. By contrast, to read Anathem is like entering the concent of the story: it is a place where things unfold slowly, but where study and contemplation are ultimately rewarded with bounteous gifts of wisdom, beauty and “upsight”.
Chris Brookmyre’s new novel Places In The Darkness is out 9 November from Orbit.