A World of Speculation

Anathem, Neal StephensonIn Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, young members of a mathematical community (that looks a lot like a monastic community on earth) simply want to live out their bookish lives in the quiet, calm seclusion of the community.

But when the once-a-decade Apert celebration comes around, they find themselves pulled into the hubbub and confusion of the outside world. They, along with other members of their communities, as well as the separated “extras” must respond to a threat that endangers not only their way of life, but also their entire planet.

This is a long book that asks the reader to compile a view of this world from inside the minds of the characters who live and breathe it. Stephenson helps the process with an introduction and glossaries, but his world building puts the reader into the midst of the world, so that it’s possible to really understand what’s at stake for the characters.

Not everyone will enjoy this book. Some will find the book as a whole too long and too slow. Some will say the story takes too long to get started. I was aware of these possible complaints even while I was reading it, but I didn’t share them. I loved the world he created, with its contrasts between the cerebral mathic communities with their long view of time and technology and the upheaval of the civilizations rising and falling outside the walls.

Too many authors forget that part of what we read for is the experience of being in a different life — as well as the transformative story that takes place there. Stephenson never omits that experience. And he doesn’t — as some authors do — seem to feel obliged to make the experience as unpleasant as possible.

The twists and turns of the plot, once the danger becomes apparent, develop a momentum that kept me turning pages more urgently than most plot-driven potboilers.

In the end, the abstract philosophical speculations demand a reevaluation of the presuppositions of the societies both inside and outside the walls.

That is where the world-building pays off. It gives context to look at the questions he raises and the answers the characters develop. The world-building grounds the abstractions in everyday life and help us understand why the characters make the choices they do.

The result is a book that carries forward what I loved about Stephenson’s earlier Snow Crash, with its visceral exploration of the deep questions of language, meaning, and mind.

In Anathem, the questions have to do with thought and action, technology and pure math, and what it takes to live the life of the mind. This book will give you some new paradigms to think through.