by Neal Stephenson
HaperCollins, 960 pages, $31.95
Some novelists pander to their audience. Others challenge them. Neal Stephenson might be determined to make his audience feel stupid, in the nicest possible way.
The American novelist has long been considered one of the great madmen of science fiction, a towering intellect who synthesizes technical mumbo-jumbo and a Monty-Pythonesque capacity for silliness into daunting tomes as entertaining as they are impenetrable. Stephenson mashes up genres with the flair of Thomas Pynchon and the intellect of William Gibson, and the release of each new Stephenson epic is an event in sci-fi circles.
Now, after flirting with historical fiction in his Baroque Trilogy, Stephenson has returned to his roots with a vengeance. Not only is Anathem a sprawling exercise in world-building and philosophical ramblings, it is his fifth novel in a row to weigh in at nearly 1000 pages.
Set on the fictional yet oddly recognizable planet of Arbre, Anathem concerns itself with the goings-on of a ‘math’, a sort of monastery where, instead of concerning themselves with all things theological, the monks (or the ‘avout’) are more akin to scientists, clad in robes and seeking deep scientific and philosophical truths. The narrator, Fraa Erasmus, is a Decenarian, an avout who establishes contact with the world outside the math’s walls only once every ten years.
Once outside, events are set in motion through the observance of strange lights in the sky. Erasmus is sent beyond the walls (or “extramuros”) to find Fraa Orolo, a fellow avout who may hold a key to the purpose of the lights, but who had been subject to an anathem, an excommunication whereby the avout has been “ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered.”
Like Frank Herbert’s seminal work Dune, a large part of mastering Anathem’s dense narrative is coming to grips with its new set of words and definitions, aided through a handy glossary. Past that, the great challenge (and arguably the fun) of Anathem is wading through literally hundreds of pages of quantum mechanics, parallel universes, and enough philosophy to pummel the reader’s brain into tapioca.
One’s reaction to Anathem is likely going to correspond to one’s tolerance for sentences such as “Following the Reconstitution, he was made patron Saunt of the Syntactic Faculty of the Concent of Saunt Muncoster.” Many will find it gibberish; many others will appreciate Stephenson’s refusal to make things easy.
As intriguing and entertaining as Anathem can be, however, it may serve better as a primer for Philosophy 101 than it does a novel. Unlike his previous works such as the magnificently complex Cryptonomicon, Anathem never fully establishes a successful balance between the science and the narrative.
Too often, the plot becomes bogged down in Stephenson’s exploration of philosophical ideas at the expense of clarity. While the attempt to co-mingle theorems with popular entertainment is admirable, Anathem never manages to connect with the reader on an emotional level.
While hardly a disappointment, Anathem ultimately reveals itself as Stephenson’s weakest effort in some time. There is far too much exemplary work on display to consider Anathem a failure, but coming from Stephenson, the fact that it’s not a resounding success is a surprise indeed.
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, September 12, 2008.