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Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

Let me start by saying right out of the gate how much I did appreciate this book: greatly. So much so that I consider it one of my all-times favourites.

Reading Anathem took me months—I mean, look at the thickness of that thing: nine hundred plus pages (937). Okay, plus I am kind of a slow reader. But this is what I crave: a book so good and so thick I can rely on its magic to last for a long time. Whenever I get lucky enough to encounter that, I don’t want it ever to end. And when it inevitably does, I know I’ll get to cherish the experience for a long time. And hopefully, to share it.

As a token of how much I appreciated Anathem, it is the first book I turn to as I embark on this budding blog. I know I might not do it justice, but I’ll try, and at some point in the future, I might do it again. Because I’ll grow as a writer, and because, Heck, why not.

Genre: bookstores will put it in the science-fiction section, and rightfully so, but as the author so aptly puts it, it is better described as speculative fiction.

Here's a squash of summaries from Wikipedia and Goodreads:

Fraa Erasmas is a young avout living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside "saecular" world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. His teacher, Fraa Orolo, discovers that an alien spacecraft is orbiting Arbre – a fact that the world government (Sæcular Power) attempts to cover up. Erasmas becomes aware of Orolo's discovery after Orolo is banished (in a rite called Anathem) from the concent for using a video camera (a forbidden technology) to observe the ship. The presence of the alien ship soon becomes an open secret among many of the avout at Saunt Edhar. The alien ship eventually declares its presence by shining a laser upon several Millenarian Maths (the bastions of those avout who have taken a thousand-year vow of isolation). A major theme of the novel is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics based on a directed acyclic graph, which accounts for the various "worldtracks" and "narratives" explored by Fraa Orolo and manipulated by Fraa Jad. Another major theme is the recurring philosophical debate between characters espousing mathematical Platonic realism (called "Halikaarnians" in the novel and associated with Incanters) and characters espousing nominalism (called "Procians" in the novel and who are the Rhetors).


Anathem was intended for courageous nerds, I’d say—and I like to pretend I’m part of the crowd. The book can be a tough read in the beginning, but you reap the rewards as you move along and get acquainted with the vocabulary and history. Especially if you don’t shy away from the provided fat index and extensive historical timelines, the rewards do compound. And let me assure you, the settings, characters and plot are compelling, so you soon forget about this unusual kind of reading.

Of course, in the beginning, the invented vocabulary is a challenge. But I took it in stride and jumped that hurdle, because I suspected the other side was going to be exquisite—and it was. So I kept referring to the lexicon and to the historical timelines, wondering and revelling in asking myself when I was going to experience each part of them in the story. After a few pages, these acts of referring became part of the pleasure. The same happened with the essays the author appended at the end of the book—very cool, extremely nerdy, I loved them. This is all part of this multi-pleasured experience.

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem accompanied me for months, during which it served as a parallel life. I had my life in the book, and then the other one. Both interesting of course, but the one in the book kept sucking me in, slowly kneading my brain.

I read Anathem about ten years ago, shortly after it was released back in 2008. At the time, I had barely started on my quest to find a way to think about beginning my writing journey… but no, let me backpedal here: this isn’t quite true. I’d been seriously yearning to write since 1998, and finding ways to squeeze in some bits here and there. All this to say, I was already trying to look at fiction with an eye on how it was done...

But this book made me forget pretty much all about it.

I’m generally aware, as much as my limited human brain can be, of the infinity of possibilities in the universe of fiction. But reading Anathem gave me a hint of the infinity itself, of the number of these infinities. It was a bit like having my brain squared, then squared again to the nth dimension, unfolded, so to speak. It made me scratch my head and massage it, wondering whether the jelly inside my skull was about to unwrap like a chocolate candy bar, or fold upon itself and disappear into some kind of mental black hole.

Okay, this was too much fun. Let’s be serious now.

Besides teaching me a lot about orbits and such, about society, physics and philosophy, Anathem opened my eyes on how far an author can go with extensive historical timelines and thick lexicons without alienating the reader—and quite to the contrary. How much they can imbue a fictional world with a ton of detail, and on so many levels, so much so that after a while, it was like I knew this fictional world better than my own, real-life world. As if I’d spent my whole life evolving in it.

A decade after having read Anathem, I remain impressed and imbued with its sheer breadth. I'm still ravished by the epicness of following Fraa Erasmas on his journey over half his planet aboard a polar sleigh train, and then up to space, to deal with oh, so realistic orbital physics—orbital physics done the right way are still a rare thing in modern science-fiction. And then, getting to visit the incoming alien ship… which turns out to be something else entirely. I am still astonished at the philosophical twist that crowns the story towards the end. It is profoundly surprising and satisfying.

The read challenged my beliefs about what I thought was possible in written fiction. I knew for a fact that writing had no limits, but here I got to experience it first hand. Anathem mixed many, many things I love and am passionate about. The book is teeming with detailed discussions of mathematics, physics, and philosophy that thoroughly immersed me, and I never felt like they ever slowed the story down, nor diverged from it.

I mean, come on. Combining the many-worlds interpretation of modern quantum mechanics with Plato’s theory of deas in a mind-bogglingly compelling way… who could ever think of that, and who could ever pull it off?

Well, it appears Neal Stephenson can, and masterfully so. Hats off to him.

On the negative side, whenever I try to picture myself as a writer, I can’t afford to think about this book, or any other book by Neal Stephenson for that matter. Because me, I can’t go that high, because obviously, it is utterly unachievable. Because I can never measure up. I can’t even dream of getting to that level of mastery. I’m such a loser. I should stop right away. Forget about it. Please go away. Don’t waste your time, don’t read my shit. Etc.

Stop that, please. You’re just young, you've just started, you’re a beginner. Take it one step, one bite at a time. Keep’ em swallowable. Don’t look too far, focus on the process… Don’t compare your beginner’s work with the masterpieces of your idols. They must have had to start somewhere too. They must.

This is perfectionism at its most pathological. But there are cures for it—many. And yes, I think perfectionism is a disease. (Expect more on this in the future.) This is resistance at its most nasty. (More on that in the future as well.)

(And okay, I know, I'll be turning fifty-five this year... but let's try and view it as still young, shall we?)

Let’s just say I will have to talk about the books that have helped me so much along the way, books that keep helping me to this day on a regular basis. Like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, for instance. Like Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Or like Elizabeth Sims’s You’ve Got a Book in You, or K.M. Weiland's Structuring Your Novel. Not to mention, Shawn Coyne's The Story Grid. And many, many others.

Now, before you go, beware! Reading Anathem might compel you to do some research:

(amazon affiliate links)

Neal Stephenson is the author of Fall or Dodge in Hell, Seveneves, Reamde, Anathem, and the three-volume historical epic The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World), as well as Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Zodiac.


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02 févr. 2021

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