Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sci-Fi Review - Anathem

In Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson spun tales of operatic immensity, balanced by hyper-modern sensibilities and an uncanny knack for not simply telling, but creating the future. In Anathem, Stephenson simultaneously lampoons and pays homage to the philosophical tradition, and its relationship with the rest of the world. Like all of his works (with the possible exception of Snow Crash), this book is a tome. At 935 densely packed pages, it's pretty heavy reading, but if you have the patience to unravel the story, it's very much worth the effort.

The protagonist of the story, Fra Erasmus, is a part of the "Concent of Saunt Edhar", a monastic sanctuary for philosophers and theoreticians who have withdrawn from the "saecular" world of religion and applied sciences. The avout who dwell in the concent are isolated by degrees between "tenners", "hundreders" and "thousanders" - the number of years between periods of contact with the Extramuros for each Order. If this paragraph confuses you, you may want to go with something a little lighter. If it intrigues you, I promise, the story will go on to titillate and satisfy your baser intellectual urges.

Anathem is a deeply allegorical story, taking place in a world which is the intellectual mirror of our own. Half the fun in reading it is in deciphering the subtle references, in unlocking the code in which the book is written. Conversations often take the form of codified dialectic, in the western philosophical tradition, and a good number of the "historical figures" from the book are directly derived from that tradition. Philosophy buffs will get a kick out of some of Stephenson's more oblique references and quirky references to recognizable schools of thought.

Complimenting the intellectual grandiosity of the book is the adventure story at its heart. Like most of Stephenson's books, there is a love story at the center of this tale, which manages to transcend the details and put them into perspective. In every one of Neal Stephenson's books, there is a core of (more or less) fixed characters. The most vital of these is the hero's girl - the one who gives him an anchor, keeping him from being set adrift by his own story. She is pragmatic, emotionally conscious, occasionally mysterious and always challenging, but most important, she brings out the best in him.

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