BOOK CLUB

Chris Brook­myre takes on Neal Stephen­son’s clas­sic Anathem. Quick, read it!

SFX - - Contents - By Neal Stephen­son, 2008

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.

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