Neal Stephenson, Anathem, Atlantic Books, 2008.
When faced with a book by one of their favourite authors, many readers would rush to read it as soon as possible. I did the opposite, delaying gratification, knowing that the pleasure of the first read would only happen once, and would only last a given time. First, I waited for the book to be out in paperback, which I prefer to hardcover books, due to the size and feel of the book in my hands, storage space, and price. Then, when the book arrived, I delayed reading it until I had completed a project, and then a bit longer, knowing that it would be best to read when I was not too busy and could devote more time to reading without feeling guilty. It was worth the wait. I then had to reread it, to appreciate the entire book with knowledge of how it ended.
Neal Stephenson's work is always intelligent, and draws on a wide range of knowledge in several areas. It is aimed at readers who enjoy an intellectual challenge, and find great satisfaction in the meeting of minds, rather than those readers who need to be spoon-fed.
This is the first of Stephenson's novels to be set on a different planet. Approaching the story without any foreknowledge, the reader has to wonder about the existence of humans on another planet - are they humans from earth, who settled the planet at some point in the past, or did they evolve there? In this case, it is made clear that humans evolved on the planet Arbre, which already raises some interesting questions to be answered later on. An author's note clarifies that the species of plants and animals mentioned are Arbre native, and are only given the names of Earth species to avoid saying something like "dog-equivalent" or inventing new names for everything. The reader is expected to assume that the planet and its evolution are similar to what we know.
A timeline in the author's note gives a history of about 7,000 years, which is somewhat longer than earth's human history recorded to date. It soon becomes clear that during this time, science and technology on Arbre have developed beyond our current level here on earth, but that there have been repeated efforts to slow down this development for social reasons.
Scholars have been separated from the rest of society, forced to live in monastic communities, and have had restrictions imposed on their research, to prevent the rapid development of advanced weapons, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and other sciences. They have been denied the use of computers and experimental devices, and as a result, they live a sort of medieval existence, writing by hand and developing the sort of sciences that result from abstract thought rather than experimental research.
The scholarly communities are known as "concents", and are inhabited by male scholars, "fraas", and female scholars, "suurs". In most places, sexual relationships are permitted, but the males are kept infertile, so there are no families. The concents adopt unwanted babies from the surrounding communities, and admit children and adults who wish to study. Each concent has several sections, each with a different period of total separation from the outside world. In one part of the concent, the gates open each year for ten days, and people who join commit themselves to staying inside and following the discipline for one year. This section is often used as a sort of college for members of the general community, who study for one or more year in this way, and then return to the outside world. Another section is closed for ten years at a time. Children who join this section grow up within the concent. Then there is a section that only opens its gates once a century, and another that only opens once in a thousand years. Scholars can move upwards if they wish, and the research that happens at the higher levels is considered more advanced and abstract than at the lower levels, since they have less access to current news.
The concents are also home to another class of people, the Ita, who operate the technology still permitted to the scholars, such as clocks and telescopes. They keep strictly apart from the scholars.
The story's protagonist, Fraa Erasmas, joined the concent at age 8, and is now 18. As the story starts, his section of the concent is preparing to open its gates for the first time in ten years. This great change in his life is just a prefiguring of the greater change that the whole society will experience later, when an alien star ship is detected. By the end of the book, the entire social order on the planet has undergone a dramatic change, and even our understanding of the way the world works can no longer be the same as before.
On one level, the story is a quest and an adventure story. Erasmas must leave the concent and travel, with a varied group of companions. On another level, the scholars must recognize the implications of the arrival of the star ship. This is a vast undertaking, both in practical terms and in the way people think. This is not just a simple case of first contact (not that first contact could ever really be simple), but something stranger and more challenging.
The characters are vividly drawn, and they develop as the plot progresses. In some cases, it seems frustrating that they never seem to say all that needs to be said in a particular situation, due to their habitual awareness that they might be under surveillance and subject to the discipline, or due to political considerations. However, this does advance the plot.
As with all Stephenson's work, the world building is impressive. Few novels provide such a comprehensive overview of a planet's history, geography, economics, and society. Some details are deliberately left vague, as the viewpoint character would not be an expert on everything, and so describes mainly what is relevant to the story. But I certainly feel that I have spent time in Arbre, and it is as real to me as the best fictional worlds I have visited. I would have appreciated a map. I know that some readers believe a map is redundant when the geographical descriptions are good enough, but I happen to like maps and do not consider a visual aid as detracting from the writing.
The language created for this book, often based on Greek and Latin roots, or on variations on English words, was a pleasure to experience. I particularly liked the concept of "upsight" (instead of insight), and the idea of an "avocation" (a sort of hobby or occupation the fraas and suurs adopted in addition to their field of studies). The terms are explained in a glossary, and there are several dictionary entries scattered throughout the book, but I am certain many readers will find it easy to understand all the new terms just from the context.
The book contains many detailed discussions and explanations of "big ideas" from the realms of philosophy, science, and mathematics. This should not deter readers who lack formal education in these areas, provided they are open-minded and patient in their reading. While these ideas are obviously related to some ideas proposed by thinkers here on our earth, there is not necessarily any one-on-one equivalence between the fictional theorists and any in our world, so no prior knowledge is required. I enjoyed these discussions, and found the climactic scenes involving quantum poly-cosmic consciousness impressively conceived and executed.
This is the second book I have read recently that discusses the idea of multiple universes, and here the theory is presented cohesively and given a somewhat far-fetched portrayal that was still very enjoyable. It does require suspension of disbelief, as do the best fictional ideas.
Not surprisingly, I consider this one of the best books I have read in a long time. It is probably not for everyone, but I strongly recommend it to readers willing to invest in a challenging and rewarding, intelligent, horizon-broadening read.