Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review of "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson

Producing a book that is for once undoubtedly science fiction, Anathem finds Stephenson indirectly picking up where he left off in the Baroque Cycle.  Vast amounts of scientific knowledge are combined with theoretical speculation into a brilliant storyline.  But this one leaves the atmosphere.  

Perhaps his best yet, the events of Anathem begin on the planet of Arbe, a planet roughly analogous to earth in cultural terms, though larger in physical proportion.  Similar to Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, the scholars of Arbe are secluded in technology-free monasteries where scientific theory is studied in lieu of religion.  Accordingly, the book is rife with dialogue concerning the fundamental nature of reality, the possibility of parallel universes, as well as Stephenson’s own terminology and mythos of scientific discovery within the world of Arbe.  It’s difficult to write about the plot without giving away the major event of the book.  However, it can be revealed that the protagonist, Raz, along with others monks, are released into the secular world to resolve an ambiguity that has had the whole planet talking.  Secularites clash with theoreticians who are in turn having internal problems of their own.  How this situation resolves itself is breathtaking in scope, realistic in detail and certainly not of this earth - literally and figuratively.

Like his other books, Anathem is not a book with a moral or message.  Instead, it is an examination of theories and concepts the nerd that is Stephenson finds interesting - the 'what if?'.  That we too are interested in cosmography, camera obscura, chronography, classicism, Cartesian thought, alternate realities, parallel universes, and the like makes us as much nerds as he.  Therefore, if you enjoyed the Baroque Cycle, undoubtedly this book will be worth your while.  Be forewarned, however, Stephenson intentionally set out to include Socratic-style dialogue in Anathem.  If lengthy discussion on mathematics and science is not to your taste, you may want to pass.  I found it indispensable toward backing the turns of plot and speculation, enriching the overall experience. 

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