Anathem

One colleague of mine in Dauphine gave me Anathem to read a few weeks ago. I had seen it in a bookstore once and planned to read it, so this was a perfect opportunity. I read through it slowly at first and then with more and more eagerness as the story built on, spending a fair chunk of the past evenings (and Metro rides) into finishing it. Anathem is a wonderful book, especially for mathematicians, and while it could still qualify as a science-fiction book, it blurs the frontiers between the genres of science-fiction, speculative fiction, documentary writings and epistemology… Just imagine any other sci’fi’ book being reviewed in Nature! Still, the book was awarded the 2009 Locus SF Award. So it has true sci’fi’ characteristics, including Clarke-ian bouts of space opera with a Rama-like vessel popping out of nowhere. But this is not the main feature that makes Anathem so unique and fascinating.

“The Adrakhonic theorem, which stated that the square of a right triangle hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides…” (p. 128)

Indeed, while the story is universal enough to appeal to all readers, witness the above-mentioned award, what I find most endearing about the book is the connection with mathematical thinking and the many ways mathematicians share characteristics with monks. The universe imagined by Neal Stephenson segregates scientists and philosophers into convents, under strict rules that prevent any theoretical discovery to be turned into a technological application. This appears to have been imposed by the secular  powers after scientific experiments on anti-matter, nuclear fusion or genetic engineering ran out of control. The final twist in the story is how the scientists manage to escape this prohibition while apparently adhering to it (and save the planet on the side).

Do you think it is the case that for every proof you and the other Edharians work out on a slate, the aliens have a proof in their own system that corresponds to it? That says the same thing—expresses the same truth?” (p.314)

Beside the attractive order of a monastic closed environment (and the appeal of being shut from the outside world!), one appeal of Stephenson’s construct is the almost detective enquiry of the “mathematical monks” who end up solving fundamental quantum theory questions about parallel universes. Toying with all those theories is obviously another appeal of Anathem, as is fishing for well-known principles like Occam’s razor, the travelling salesman problem, cord theory, Einsteinian causality cone, Schrödinger’s cat, Platonic realism, and so on. (There are so many quotes I could have include here!) Some may find the deliberate hiding of standard theory behind a novlangue a nuisance but this is rather light and one quickly gets used to it. (Until the aliens start detailing their parallel universes, at least.) Maybe the title should have been Amathem rather than Anathem, given that the monastic communities are called math, but this is a minor quibble. (It took me a while to realise that anathem was not an English world, as I had extrapolated the French anathème to its English-sounding counterpart!)

“I was playing the Teglon. The objective of the game was to build the pattern outward from one vertex and pave the entire Decagon in such a way that the groove formed a continuous, unbroken curve from the first vertex to the last.” (p.552)

Compared with earlier works of Stephenson, Anathem is closer to The Baroque Cycle and to the excellent Cryptonomicon than to the wonderful cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. Anathem (and The Baroque Cycle) reflects on how deep is pondering on the nature of Science and the philosophy of scientific discovery. That Stephenson manages to turn those reflections into a lively and fascinating story—much more than in The Baroque Cycle—shows how impressive an author he is. If a comparison with William Gibson was making any sense, I would say Stephenson has gone beyond. While Gibson ponders on the increasing impact of technology in/on our lives, Stephenson looks at much deeper (epistemological and philosophical) issues. I thus rank this book amongst the best books I read in the past months!

3 Responses to “Anathem”

  1. […] Stephenson’s Anathem, reviewed in a post of Nov. 20, 2010. […]

  2. […] is the one before last of my vacation reads! As obvious from several earlier posts, I am a big fan of Stephenson. Snow Crash is one of my preferred cyberpunk books (along with […]

  3. […] In Anathem, the question raised by Moix is answered by a deep belief in realism: the Pythagorean theorem is […]

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