"Okay, I'll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and a piece of string."
"That'd be great."
Although I've been an admirer of Stephenson's work in the past - I loved Cryptonomicon and thoroughly enjoyed (large parts of) Quicksilver - I have to say that I found his latest heavy-going. I'm aware that I'm in the minority on this; I'm aware that, on many levels, the book is not for me. But for several reasons, which I'll attempt to explain, I'm sorry to say that Anathem and I simply did not get on. I've avoided any major spoilers as much as possible.
I should probably start by noting that Anathem isn't a novel in any conventional sense; plot, character, setting, and prose all play a cursory fifth or sixth fiddle to the ideas. Stephenson's other books were prone to digressions, whether into early-modern economic theory or an equation to calculate wheel-turns on a journey taken by bicycle. Anathem is these digressions writ large; in Anathem, they're the point. It's an extended thought-experiment with speech marks and the odd fight scene*, a series of vaguely Socratic dialogues on points of philosophy, physics, maths, and the (primarily intellectual) history of Stephenson's invented world, Arbre.
[* and some ninja monks, who are completely ace.]
At the same time as being a thought experiment, Anathem is (as Martin Lewis and Abigail Nussbaum, who both liked the book rather more than I did, have also observed) a coming-of-age story, firmly in the Young Adult mode. The whole thing is engineered, carefully and cleverly and with admirable shamelessness, in such a way that everything revolves around our teenage narrator Fraa Erasmas, his male peers, and his big sister - the latter being cool and down-to-earth enough to be an honorary teenager (and indeed an honorary boy, about which more in a moment). Of course, said teenagers are, by virtue of their inherent awesomeness, uniquely qualified to save the world. All the adult characters are either mentors who recognise Our Heroes' special snowflake-hood and encourage them accordingly, or distant authority figures who Just Don't Get It. (Oh, and Erasmas is a bit of a twit about girls. So far, so traditional.)
To judge from the potted timeline at the start of the book and from references within the narrative, it seems that Arbre has developed much like our world. Or, rather, like our world would have developed, had it consisted entirely (historically, culturally, intellectually) of south-eastern Europe and (bits of) the Near East, with the power of both territorial states and the various Christian-analogue churches to redirect and relocate learning vastly reduced, if not wiped out completely ("'it does have the power to wreak changes on us'", one character observes of saecular authority, and so it proves). I'll complain more about this in a moment.
On Arbre, cloistered, ritualistic communities - 'maths' or 'concents' - stand apart from the vagaries of the 'Saecular' world, existing purely for the pursuit of scientific and philosophical knowledge, and for very involved, self-referential debates about same. Singing and dancing - of a rather singular variety - also feature:
Actually they weren't milling about; it just looked that way from where we sat. Each one of them represented an upper or lower index in a theorical equation involving certain tensors and a metric. As they moved to and fro, crossing over one another's paths and exchanging places while traversing in front of the high table, they were acting out a calculation on the curvature of a four-dimensional manifold, involving various steps of symmetrization, antisymmetrization, and raising and lowering of indices. Seen from above by someone who didn't know any theorics, it would have looked like a country dance.
Such recitals are a major part of a concent's ritual practice, and, as we discover when avouts of different maths meet each other, of the communal identity that distinguishes the concents from each other. Here is the narrator's account of a performance by the Matarrhites at the Convox, a great meeting of avouts that occupies a large section of the book:
The concents are amalgams of monastery, university, and - as described by the pen of Erasmas - boarding school, and these institutions form the setting for much of the book, as well its conceptual and perceptual framework. Even when Erasmas leaves his concent - primarily in order to travel to another for the Convox - he takes the mathic world with him, a bubble that cushions his awareness, and distorts his presentation, of life outside.
This isn't surprising; once they enter the concents, often as babies, foundlings left at the gates by desperate families, avouts have little contact with the outside world - referred to as 'extramuros', its inhabitants as 'extras' - except on certain festivals or under very restricted conditions. ("Guests from extramuros," he tells us, "like Artisan Flec, were allowed to come in the Day Gate and view auts from the north nave when they were not especially contagious and, by and large, behaving themselves. This had been more or less the case for the last century and a half.") The avouts' way of life, and the mathic world's long history, encourages them to take the long view, and see external events as little more than passing fads; all state structures, for example, are collectively termed 'the Saecular Power'. But Erasmas is selectively observant to a degree that borders on the absurd, utterly ignorant of anything that does not have a direct impact upon concent life, and of human interaction outside of philosophical dialogue or sparring with his male friends (a lot of which also takes the form of philosophical dialogue). Furthermore, and like his fellow avouts, he is frequently dismissive of what he does see, reducing extras to an undifferentiated mass of dim, materialistic non-entities. Here are Erasmas and Fraa Jesry, talking about the difference between life inside and outside the walls, on a foray extramuros during the ten-day festival of Apert:
"Those who remain [in the concent for life] seem happy, whatever that means."
"Certainly happier than the people out here."
"I disagree," Jesry said. "These people are as happy as, say, Fraa Orolo. They get what they want: naked ladies on their wheels. He gets what he wants: upsight to the mysteries of the universe."
"Let's get down to it, then: what do you want?"
"Something to happen," he said. "I almost don't care what."
This tunnel vision is undoubtedly deliberate: a reflection both of Stephenson's priorities and of the limiting, sterile nature of the view from Erasmas' ivory tower. As Jesry's final comment in the above exchange makes clear, the fact that the mathic world has become stagnant and self-satisfied is a significant current in the book. (It is also a sentiment I came to share, around a hundred pages into the book...) But Erasmas' social and cultural illiteracy is nonetheless deeply frustrating and, in combination with other problematic aspects of the way the book is constructed, makes Anathem an arid read, surprisingly limited in scope and richness for a 900-page novel about the nature of reality whose protagonist travels the world.
One of these problematic aspects was alluded to above: the fact that, wherever Erasmas travels and whenever he discusses Arbre's history, it's all rather overwhelmingly European. Now, this is explicable when you consider that the book essentially posits a world in which certain Platonic and Aristotelian ideas about the nature of reality are correct, and that Stephenson, manifestly, is interested in exploring this and only this. Erasmas again:
"You might say that the difference between us and you is that we have been infected by a vision of ... another world." [...]
"You mean like a different planet?"
"That's an interesting way of looking at it," I said. "Most of us don't think it's another planet in the sense of a speculative fiction speely. Maybe it's the future of this world. Maybe it's an alternate universe we can't get to. Maybe it's nothing but a fantasy. But at any rate it lives in our souls and we can't help striving towards it."
The problem is that the focus on a single narrator - an incredibly unperceptive one - and a single dialectic - broadly, whether reality exists independent of our perceptions, or not - has the effect of flattening and homogenizing the world. We see only a single intellectual tradition: that of the concents, the network of which appears to stretch worldwide, but with little apparent difference between individual communities on anything other than an organisational and (to an extent) ritual level, despite the fact that concents are all fed with new recruits drawn from the saecular society around them. The saecular settlements that Erasmas visits, likewise, look much the same, and all the religious traditions that he describes or comes into contact with are thinly-disguised flavours of Christianity; in addition, I remember only two languages, the elevated Orth of the concents and the inelegant Fluccish of outside (most avout can speak both). When the plot requires Erasmas and friends to come into contact with the Saecular Power, there appears to be a single world-government.
Where is the rest of this fascinating world? Where are the rival intellectual traditions, the other cultures, the different ways of living and thinking? (Where, for that matter, are the avout thinking about anything other than cosmology, maths and neoplatonism? There are a few brief references to genetics, but that's about it.) They are absent from the story's present and its (5000+ years of) history alike. Even if - as I suspect - Stephenson did not intend Arbre to be a fully-realised world, but more a vehicle for his thought experiment, it makes for an anaemic reading experience. At least for me.
My second big problem with Anathem is that, just as Arbre isn't really a world, so its characters aren't really characters at all, but philosophical positions with names attached. Erasmas ticks several of the YA protagonist boxes - loyal, earnest, gauche, easily-embarrassed, reasonably self-reliant, and amusingly self-deprecating ("Orolo had asked me along to serve as amanuensis. It was an impressive word, so I'd said yes") - without ever emerging as a fully-rounded individual whose interests extend beyond the plot and the obligatory adolescent love interest. His friends have a personality trait apiece: the smug one, the autistic one, the one who's into martial arts, the one who recreates a historical battle out of wild flowers (genius). But at least they get something to do.
For the very few named female characters with speaking roles, the outlook is gloomier. Stephenson gestures to sexual egalitarianism in the mathic world, but it feels cursory and tokenistic, and is barely reflected in the text. Despite (allegedly) growing up with girls as his peers and equals in the mathic community, and an equal split of male and female authority figures, Erasmas rather boringly retains a teenage-boy attitude straight out of broken modern Western society: girls aren't individuals with their own lives like he and his male friends, and they certainly aren't friends; no, they are crush objects and/or a vast female conspiracy. Whenever two girls speak together out of his earshot, they are - surely! - always talking about him. Often, his social ineptitude is endearing, at least early on in the book, but at times it is downright (and puzzlingly) obnoxious:
Tris was podgy and not especially good-looking, but she had the personality of a beautiful girl because she'd been raised in a math.
More broadly, most of the great thinkers we encounter, both in the present and the historical references, are male (the intellectual tradition goes back, symbolically at least, to a woman - but a woman speaking on the authority of her father, whose lessons she claimed to interpret). With a single exception, women in the concents are the organisers, the nurturers, and (in the case of Erasmas' circle) the love interests; virtually all the intellectual heavy-lifting that we see or hear of is left to the men.
So is the plot. The only female characters who appear in more than a few scenes are Erasmas' new love interest, old love interest, and sister. This becomes particularly glaring when - shortly after being summoned from their concent, as part of a delegation to the Convox - Erasmas and friends separate from most of the avouts to undertake a mission of their own, which of course turns out to be vital to the fate of everything:
I noticed a statistical oddity, which was that there was only one female, and that was my sib, who was pretty unconventional as females went. Intramuros, we didn't often see the numbers get so skewed. Extramuros, of course, it depended on what religions and social mores prevailed at a given time. Naturally, I wondered how this had come about, and spent a little while reviewing my memories of the hour-long scramble to get people into vehicles. [...] Perhaps there was something about this foray that smelled good to men and bad to women.
(The gender essentialism only gets more cringeworthy over the page, as he begins to witter on about Stone Age hunting parties. Make. It. Stop.) Gosh, perhaps it's just that men in the abstract really do like adventuring more! Or perhaps it's because this is the Plot Truck, and thus the girls don't get a look in - bar Cord, Erasmas' "sib" (sister) and the aforementioned honorary boy (she's a mechanic, and thus apparently not included in the female hivemind). Only one female character gets to make a decision that is at all significant to the plot, and she spends the rest of the book crying about it, leading Erasmas to make a typically tone-deaf judgement on her:
But it was a hurt she'd have to keep to herself, since most people she might share it with would not extend her much sympathy. "You sent your friends to do what!? While you sat on the ground, safe!?" So it was going to be a private thing between us.
Lucky girl, eh, to have such an understanding man? His stilted interaction with her is largely forgivable when they are teenagers in the concent together, but by this point in the story it makes for wince-inducing reading. This is part of a broader difficulty the narrative has with describing any non-intellectual contact: emotions and sensations alike - whether it's kissing his girlfriend or getting physically attacked - are almost universally reported, rather than directly expressed. ("Then awkwardness. It seemed appropriate to kiss her one more
time. This went over well.") I realise that some people really do talk like this; but in Arbre, it seems, everyone does. One assumes this is the flattening, homogenizing effect, again; Stephenson's books have never been exactly character-driven
There is, as I've said, 900 pages of this: discourses on metaphysics, interspersed with episodes of teen awkwardness and descriptions of the concent's hierarchy and architecture, some quite vivid chapters on Erasmas' travels that made me perk up, followed by yet more physics discussions between interchangeable Fraas. It can be ponderous in the extreme; hundreds of pages at a time are given over to (usually colourlessly polite) debate. Still, one thing Anathem does not lack is a sense of fun, and to an extent of its own ridiculousness. A particular gem is a passage about "the Book", the task of copying and memorising which is "an especially dreaded form of penance" within the mathic (read: monastic) world. Alas, it's too long to quote in its entirety, but here is a taste:
Beyond about [Chapter] Six, the punishment could span years. Many chose to leave the concent rather than endure it. Those who stuck it out were changed when they emerged: subdued, and notably diminished. Which might sound crazy, because there was nothing to it other than copying out the required chapters, memorizing them, and then answering questions about them before a panel of hierarchs. But the contents of the Book had been crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless: flagrantly at first, more subtly as the chapters progressed. It was a maze without an exit, an equation that after weeks of toil reduced to 2 = 3. [...] The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all of that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison infiltrate your brain to its very roots.
Stephenson, clearly, knows his strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and is unafraid to lampoon them, as in this, one of numerous (often quite pointless) extracts from 'The Dictionary' that pepper the text:
Calca: (1) In Proto- and Old Orth, chalk or any other such substance used to make marks on hard surfaces. (2) In Middle and later Orth, a calculation, esp. one that consumes a large amount of chalk because of its tedious and detailed nature. (3) In Praxic and later Orth, an explanation, definition, or lesson that is instrumental in developing some larger theme, but that, because of its overly technical, long-winded, or recondite nature, has been moved aside from the main body of the dialog and encapsulated in a footnote or appendix so as not to divert attention from the main line of the argument.
(Thus, indeed, does Anathem contain not only these Dictionary footnotes, but also a glossary and three Calca appendices that go into more detail about tangential geometrical problems raised in the main texts.)
There is a lot to like here: the central ideas are very intriguing, the writing is often engaging and funny, and when Stephenson actually lets rip with the practice rather than theory - I owe this phrasing to Niall Harrison's review - there is a very neat synergy between themes and form. But (for me at least) there was an awful lot more that seemed simply repetition and sterility. The pay off, while impressive, never convinced me that all those previous six or seven hundred pages had really needed to be filled with so many minor variations on the same few notes; moreover, while I've never seen a better metaphysical excuse for contrived plotting and a deus ex machina than here, it still does not a satisfying novel make. And by then, in any case, my senses had been dulled, in a way that Erasmas himself captures very well:
Arsibalt was horrified. "But how can you not be fascinated by--"
[Beware: brief potential spoilers follow.]
There was one exchange that reminded me, though, of what is so appealing to me about science fiction, done well:
"But there is a side-effect that Orolo never warned us of," he continued, "which is that we've gone adrift. We don't exist in one state or another. Anything's possible, any history might have happened, until the gates swing open and we go into Apert."
"Either that," I said, "or we're just sleepy and worried."
"That is another possibility that might be real," Arsibalt said.
Of course, this being sf, the answer is: both are. If only the rest of the book had managed (or, indeed, sought) to achieve a closer meld of the speculative and the human.