The starting point of Neal Stephenson's new novel can be summarized easily:
We meet Erasmus (Raz), a decenarian fraa in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, in the run-up to Apert, and what will be his first visit to the Saecular world since he was Collected. At the same time, intramuros, a sequence of events is set in motion that will ultimately have radical implications not just for theorics, but for all Arbre.
An alert sf reader can figure out quite a lot from a description like this, or at least identify quite a lot of questions to ask. The nature of a "Concent" or a "Saunt," for instance, seems fairly clear—given their resemblance to "Convent" and "Saint," respectively, and the reference to a "Saecular world"—although you'll probably be on the look out for nuances of difference as you read on. Likewise, "Collected" is transparent, and implies a certain amount about how Concents relate to the wider world. On the other hand, it's not immediately obvious what "decenarian" means, or what "theorics" are (or is), or whether "Arbre" describes a place or a people. Admittedly, I've stacked the deck here slightly. My point is simply to foreground one of the things we often take for granted if we read a lot, and something which is particularly acute in the case of science fiction: starting a new novel is a form of first contact.
I think this is a way of thinking about reading that, in Anathem, Stephenson actively sets out to encourage. Certainly to approach the heart of the novel we'll have to do a bit more translation, starting with the novel's title. "Anathem," an epigraph taken from the fourth edition of The Dictionary (A.R. 3000) informs us, has two meanings: "In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylea, which since the time of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy"; and "In New Orth, an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the mathic world and his or her work sequestered." The former is archaic, and clearly derived (by Stephenson, if not in the world in which Anathem is set) from "anthem"; the latter is contemporary, and equally clearly derived from "anathema." Both meanings are suggestive of the story we're about to start reading (and will hopefully chime with the impression given by my earlier description). The citation implies a world with a certain depth of history, in which religion or quasi-religious ritual is probably common, and in which punishment by exclusion is important enough to warrant its own label; and a tale which enacts such a punishment on its protagonist.
The first two hundred and fifty pages of the novel—less than a third of its total length—are then dedicated primarily to unpacking this first contact moment. We are taught to recognise familiar symbols and situations in this new context, in loving (and largely fascinating) detail. We learn, for example, that in Anathem's world (Arbre), "fraa" and "suur" are the gendered words for members of a class of logician-philosopher-scientists ("theors"). Those who live their entire life in theoric communities ("maths"; "concents" are larger communities that contain two or more maths; both are half-university, half-monastery) are known as "avout." The dwellings and the doings of theors are constructed around Clocks of the Long Now, and different maths have contact with the society outside ("extramuros" or the "saecular world") only once a year (unarians), once a decade (decenarians), once a century (centenarians), or once a millenium (millenarians), thus preserving the purity of their thought. The logic is that such a system allows the avout to take the long view and think long thoughts. They can, in theory, stand back from Arbran society at large and recognize the repeating patterns of history, which they label "iconographies," rather than (as they would see the inhabitants of the saecular world doing) get bogged down in specifics.
So it turns out those words aren't exactly as clear as they appeared to be: Stephenson is having some fun with us. Concents are not in the least religious, and it shouldn't come as a huge surprise to learn that the etymology of "saunt"—dictionary entries continue throughout the book, dividing the text up into chunks the way the epigraphs in The Baroque Cycle did—explains that although it's a term of veneration it is not derived from "saint," but from a misspelling of "savant." More generally, it becomes apparent that religion and science have a significantly different relationship than they do in our history. Both are descended from the same root: a vision of a higher world revealed to one Cnous. He had twin daughters; one (Deat) argued that this vision revealed a heavenly spiritual kingdom, while the other (Hylea) insisted it was a glimpse of a more perfect world of pure geometric forms. Yet while inhabitants of the saecular world may be looked down on by their mathic counterparts for deolating (i.e. following Deat), they are much more likely to be disparaged for their indifference to knowledge (of which deolating is seen as only one symptom). If the words Stephenson is using are new, the iconography isn't. A world where every idea has already been thought (there is even an order of theors devoted to pointing out when someone is retreading familiar ground) is about as far from the everything-is-new territory of Stephenson's own Baroque Cycle (2003-4) as it is possible to get, but such a divide unavoidably recalls among others the later stages of A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), as well as elements of Foundation and its sequels (from 1942).
We can take such echoes as deliberate, because the difficulty of being original is something that stings for Stephenson's young and comfortingly innocent protagonist. But there are still some problems to be solved. One of them, which obsesses a good number of the theors on Arbre, is the nature of the Hylean World. Raz describes the nature of problem to a cousin in evocative terms: "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" (138-9). In our terms, what it is is a highly developed Platonic cosmology—and it's by no means the only idea familiar from our history that Stephenson has translated into Arbran terms. Indeed, the whole mathic world, with its many jostling theoric Orders, is devoted to a constellation of ideas drawn from (as the acknowledgements note) everyone from Plato to Godel, reframed as part of a different intellectual tradition.
While we're learning all of this, there is also the plot to deal with. As the book opens, it is 3689 A.R., and, as I mentioned, preparations are underway for the decennial Apert (definition: the aut in which a math opens its doors to the outside world). Unfortunately, for Raz and his friends—who, somewhat miraculously, don't get completely buried by the heavy foundations being laid in Anathem's early stages—the world outside isn't particularly interesting. In fact, it is throughly boring. It's the problem of originality again: seen through the eyes of a theor, there is nothing that hasn't been seen before, no iconography that hasn't developed before. One of Raz's friends, Jesry, is impatient with this state of affairs, and perhaps jealous of the simple contentment of those who live extramuros. What he wants, he says, is "something to happen [...] I almost don't care what" (73). Before long—just when we're starting to want more than worldbuilding and Raz being engagingly dorky, in fact—things do start to happen. Little mysteries accumulate: the arrival of two Inquisitors; the strange choices that Raz's friends make when choosing their adult specialisations; the unexpected expulsion of Raz's mentor, Orolo, from the Concent; the detection of a new object in orbit around Arbre. Inevitably, Raz himself leaves the concent, although not through Anathem but through another aut, Voco, whereby members of the saecular world can call specific theors from their seclusion, to draw on their expertise, at which point things slow down a bit. There's a journey across an arctic wasteland, which is interesting for a few reasons—for one thing, it gets Raz on his own and tests him; for another, it provides an opportunity for Stephenson to emphasise that the theoric kind of intelligence is not the only one that matters, something amplified later in the novel—but is not the story we signed up for, and feels like a sidetrack because we know what's waiting for Raz at the end of his journey: a grand gathering of avout from maths and concents across Arbre to deal with the book's central mystery.
Along the way, it becomes obvious that Stephenson is interested in this mystery as much for the ideas it allows him to discourse on as for its own sake. One repeated theme, for instance, is how much can be figured out from very limited knowledge by the systematic application of logic and reason: how accurate a picture is possible from a limited number of facts. But at this point, I run into a problem not dissimilar to that facing reviewers of Ian McDonald's Brasyl last year, which is to say that the specific nature of the story being told is a withheld revelation that it would be unfair to spoil. Suffice it to say that it's a familiar kind of sf narrative, and that although from one perspective it's a version of that narrative that takes an extraordinarily long time to get to the point, from another it's the most detailed working-out of the theory underlying that narrative for many years. This is, of course, what many people said of The Baroque Cycle. I am not one of them: in fact, my reaction to Quicksilver is handily summed up by Raz in this book, who is at one point sentenced to the standard punishment of his Order, to copy out a number of chapters from a tome whose contents are said to have "been crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless ... The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all of that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison infiltrate your brain" (157). But while on one level I'm ready to acknowledge that Anathem simply engages with a cluster of ideas that are more interesting to me, I think it is also a better book.
Crucially, I think that by setting his story this time around in a secondary world, Stephenson has come up with a more convincing framework for the discussion he wants to have. Anathem is a novel in which the fact that the characters frequently engage in long conversations about abstract theories (the platonic form of a Neal Stephenson novel would probably be two people talking, and figuring out the nature of the world they inhabit from first principles) is actually plausible. Socratic dialogue, in a broad definition that includes combat as well as literal talking, is a living art and teaching tool on Arbre, and something of a spectator sport, with the emotional involvement that can imply. At one point, Raz is engaged in a hostile and unfair dialogue in front of thousands of his fellows: it is a painful scene to read. So when the book settles in for a hundred-page session on metaphysics, structured around a series of dinner conversations, a reader's heart may sink, but in narrative terms the scene doesn't feel forced; and most of the time Stephenson manages to make pure theorics interesting to read.
Moreover, by abstracting his erudition—although he openly acknowledges his debts—Stephenson makes it less intimidating. This is a good thing, because the number of people who will get all of the references in Anathem to real-world theory is surely much lower than the number of people who will read the book. (Certainly I can't claim to have recognised everything.) And it focuses attention on the ideas themselves, removing the distraction of who came up with them. It's an escape, in fact, from the problem of originality. It doesn't matter that the ideas Stephenson is presenting are not new; what's important is the elegance and clarity and thoroughness of the discussion. By slicing up the pie of knowledge in slightly different ways than it was done in our world, Stephenson is able to highlight particular resonances between different theories—and most importantly the whole exercise reinforces the interest in platonic cosmology that underpins the novel's philosophy. That this alternate world exists in which people think about the same ideas as we do is an implicit argument in support of Hylean World theory.
So it's telling that in a number of ways Arbre is a better—more platonic—world than our own. It is, for instance, more socially equitable. The origins of science as described above, and the absence of any faith with a stranglehold on society, mean that it is accepted as quite natural that women and men study as equals within the maths. Indeed, it was a woman, Saunt Cartas, who founded the earliest math. (Although it has to be said that within the narrative, Stephenson is less even-handed than he is in his history; there are a number of active, significant female characters, but most of the principals are male, and having Raz note—as he does at one point—this "statistical anomaly" doesn't make it go away.) The maths themselves also embody a type of ascetic purity, having had various privileges stripped from them by saecular powers over the years, leaving a few remnants of advanced bio- and nano-technology, but ensuring that all the theors have to work with is their own minds. It's also possible to argue that, although the politics of the saecular world are as volatile as those of our own, the existence of the avout provides a bedrock of stability missing from our history. But perhaps most important is the simple fictiveness of Arbre: it is a purer world than ours in the sense of being more story-shaped. At one point, Raz muses on the history of the saecular world, and—imagining something very like early 21st-century capitalism—notes that it represented a situation where "all of the story had been bled out of [people's] lives" by the relentless mechanism of capitalist industry; by contrast, concents are full of "People who couldn't live without story" (414). That is literally true: Arbre exists to be the perfect vehicle for the argument Stephenson wants to put forward.
Because pure theorics is just pure theorics: what matters, as many characters insist at various points, is the practical relevance of any given theory. At one point, a political aide asks Raz and his friends to explain the significance of a particularly abstract line of thinking. What does it actually get them? One of the avout brightly explains that it proves time exists, to which the aide says, in slightly weary fashion, that's nice, but most people already believe that. (There's also a conspicuous nod to arch-technologist Jules Verne late in the book, which I think tells you something about the vein of sf Stephenson sees himself as working.) And the practical relevance of everything in Anathem—the extraordinary thoroughness, the multi-level translation of our world into another, the grand arc of the plot—is to demonstrate a particular way of looking at the world. Mid-way through the book, Orolo apologises for not being able to explain everything to Raz: "I am tormented," he says, "by the sense that I'm almost in view of something that is at the limit of my comprehension" (543). Anathem evokes this feeling in its readers with some intensity, particularly in its latter stages, which move from a head-spinningly intricate dialogue on metaphysics to an equally head-spinning practical demonstration of those metaphysics, couched as a rousing adventure featuring among other things a crack team of assault theors (the already-infamous ninja scientist monks). The most remarkable part of Anathem's achievement is that it does pull this synthesis off, that it translates its ideas into plot and into something we can grasp; and the joy of the book is that in the process it is sometimes funny, sometimes heart-rending, and almost always compelling.
Its weakness, perhaps, is that it flatters its readers. A section early on, in which Raz and his fellow apprentices recite the various iconographies by which theors are known in the saecular world—which is to say the stereotypes of geekdom—is a case in point, even as it puts us firmly on Raz's side. But that's a forgiveable flaw of a generous novel, one which manages to end with an embodiment of its title that stretches far beyond what we expected, to herald the dawn of a new age, with its implication of building a more perfect—more Platonic, more utopian—world. Those who have survived Stephenson's telling of them literally don't have the words to describe what they're building. Perhaps, though, that's to be expected. Perfection will always defeat translation.