Shadows on the Wall
Neal Stephenson’s new brainburner
by Molly Templeton
ANATHEM, fiction by Neal Stephenson. HarperCollins, 2008. Hardcover, $29.95.
Neal Stephenson has always packed ideas into his books as thickly as he does characters, adventures and plot. His last few books have doubled the density of earlier fare like Zodiac and the singularly entertaining Snow Crash, a frequent point of entry to his writing; his last hefty novel wasn’t called The System of the World for nothing. In the framework of a long and elaborate love story, Stephenson explored the modern world’s roots in the technology, science and commerce of several hundred years ago (a miserably short explanation for a 2,700-page series, to be sure). System brought his Baroque Cycle to an end; turning its last pages, I wanted to start over again.
I feel the same way about Stephenson’s newest doorstop novel, Anathem: Until I’ve read it again, I won’t begin to completely grasp all the philosophical issues and implications raised within. The story takes place on Arbre, a world very much like Earth, except when it’s not. Millenia ago, at the fall of a major empire, literate folk tucked themselves behind the walls of “maths,” choosing to emerge only at set points in the calendar (years, decades, centuries or millenia, depending). Maths are rather like convents, except the men and women (here called “avout”) who live within them study not religion but physics, philosophy, cosmography, math and the like (the avout are such a logical, intellectual group that punishment is being forced to memorize chapters of a book that doesn’t make sense). Two key strains of thought divide the avout into those who believe “that symbols could bear actual semantic content” and those who believe “that language, theorics, etc., were essentially games played with symbols devoid of semantic content.” (These definitions are from the book’s very helpful glossary. If you immediately see the philosophical Earth parallels to these theories, you’re one step ahead of some of us.) Dialogues between young avout and their elders explore these ideas, but they’re also essential parts of the story, which is as much about what the world is as it is about what happens when an extremely organized and delineated society is faced with sudden and unavoidable change.
The world Stephenson creates here is thousands of years old and all-encompassing. Its history is dense, its ordinary people familiar in a depressing way, distracted by casinos, mood-altering drugs, “jeejahs” (Blackberry-like gizmos) and religion. Anathem begins at Apert, the annual celebration in which the maths’ gates are opened and the avout and the “extras” can mingle. It’s the first time Fraa Erasmus and his friends have been outside since they were children. The world is different; the world is the same. But Erasmus’ teacher, Orolo, has discovered something drastically different — something that appears to get him kicked out of the mathic world for good (the title of the book refers to the act by which an avout is expelled). What this new thing is, and how it affects everyone on Arbre, is the story’s physical mystery, but Stephenson drapes that science-fiction nugget in the theoretical and philosophical meanings of the object’s appearance and in the culture-shock adventure had by Erasmus and his friends when they’re summoned beyond the mathic walls — evoked, in the book’s vocabulary — to work with the Saecular Power (roughly, the political structure of Arbre).
You could, I suppose, read Anathem just for the obviously exciting parts, for Erasmus’ trip in a sledge-train over the North Pole and his later journey even farther from home. But then you’re just along for the ride, not playing the game that Stephenson has set for you: Like a mystery, the book lures you into trying to figure things out first, even though the characters have centuries of philosophical history and you just have a fat novel that’s making your wrists tired. For some readers — notably Michael Dirda in The Washington Post, who rightfully referred to the book as “humbling,” but with a sneer and a sigh as he did so — Stephenson’s tendency to take every notion, every idea, and unpack it as thoroughly as possible will be tiresome (for me, the only tiresome thing in the book is the way female characters are largely undeveloped and too often seen in tired gender roles). But Anathem is a challenge: Make yourself one of the avout. Make yourself a scholar, and try to understand the world a little differently. Even though just when you get comfortable in it, it’ll probably be time for everything to change.
Neal Stephenson reads from Anathem at 7 pm Tuesday, Sept. 16, at the Bagdad Theater, Portland. $5.
Mid-Valley Willamette Writers speakers series presents mystery writer John Reed, 7 pm 9/11, Tsunami Books. $10, $5 students, members free. Poets Toni Van Deusen and Gary Lark read, 7 pm 9/16, Downtown Library. Thom Hartmann discusses Cracking the Code, 7:30 pm 9/16, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland. Richard Russo speaks, 7:30 pm 9/18, Schnizter Concert Hall, Portland. $10 upper balcony; other seats sold out.