On Arbre, scholars are segregated from the general population. Catastrophic disaster in the distant past set this pattern as sensible: lock away the dangerous minds, keep them away from technology they could use to cause further ruin to the human species. And so the 'real' world goes on outside the walls of the 'concents' or 'maths' - the conclaves of monk-like students of all things mathematical and theoretical and hypothetical.
It is in one such math that we find our story's narrator, Erasmus (or Raz), a relatively junior student. He joined the concent aged 8, and ten years later he's about to get his first glimpse of the outside world since. For, you see, Raz's concent is a Decenarian - one closed off for 10 years at a time. Unarians are more free, locking themselves away for only a year a time. Then there are strange Hundreders, and semi-mythic Millenarians - although as the system has been in place for less than a thousand years, how could anyone be sure the latter even exist? No wonder fanciful tales abound about their immortality and technological advances beyond reckoning!
As the time approaches for Raz's cloistered world to open once again to the outside - the 'Saecular' world - tensions and excitement build within the walls. How will the outside society have changed? And more, how will the concent be altered by the near-alien intrusion? As the time grows closer, strange behaviours are noticed among some of the more senior inhabitants of the math. Is it just the opening of the gates, or is something darker going on within the walls?
The first thing you're going to notice about Anathem is that it's huge; massively thick; the kind of book that drives even a bibliophile towards the idea of an electronic book reader! This does mean that it's somewhat daunting to pick up, with the better part of a thousand pages ahead of you. And indeed, many who start don't get very far, and I can clearly see why: Anathem is a very slow burner of a novel. In fact, the first two thirds of all those hundreds and hundreds of pages are, in effect, world building and scene setting for the more action-based bit of the plot at the end. A lot of people won't like that - but I did! I adore this kind of creation and immersion in a well-realised and totally foreign environment - it doesn't have to be sci-fi, but that does up the possibilities!
Stephenson has created his own language here, and the glossary at the back is very helpful. The concepts are strange enough to merit their own terminology, so it doesn't feel gratuitous at all. Overall, it's kept to a reasonable level in my opinion.
However, I can't claim that this is an easy read, for those very same reasons. There are a LOT of pages where nothing desperately exciting seems to happen. Instead we find out how the concent is run, what life is like there, and what kind of grandiose thoughts fill the minds of people with nothing to do bar learn and think. To say that these 'theoretics' are a bit of a challenge for the reader is putting it mildly! I'm not sure you have to entirely follow what's going on, nor that you have to be particularly intelligent, but there is a type of mind that will accept the kind of discussion going on. Me, with a maths degree behind me - fine - although quantum physics is a bit beyond me! Otherwise, however, the whole concept of academic proofs is quite likely to be well past annoying, I imagine - and there's a fair few of them here.
If you do get a bit 'meh' about reading these bits, I'd recommend skipping ahead to the appendices where Neal Stephenson has laid out a few lessons for junior 'fids' (young students) ;) Actually - have a quick look at these when you pick up the book. If you hate the little mathematical challenge of the first one, you should put the book straight back down! If you don't quite follow the third one - welcome to the club, and an ability to accept what you're being told here is going to stand you in good stead for most of the rest of the novel!
Back to the plotline, and I don't want you to think that long abstract speculations are all that this book has to offer. They form an important part of setting the scene to Erasmus' world, where thought challenges are rather his - and the whole concent's - raison d'être. However, there is life of a more physical kind to be gotten on with, and there's plenty of friendships and relationships and politics to add to the picture. In such a closed-off world, the latter is particularly important, especially as the closeted little world gears up to deal with meeting the outside society for the first time in a decade.
And of course, it wouldn't be much of a story if the doors didn't open upon... _interesting_ times!
The sweep of the story is absolutely huge, and it would be doing the whole piece a disservice to even tell you how wildly the direction is going to change. I'm sure the back of the book manages to spoil a few surprises, but I won't. Suffice to say, it might take a while but the story doesn't stay all theoretical throughout - and once we the readers are totally immersed in Erasmus' world, we're in a great position to understand the scale of the chaos that fills the last third or so of the novel.
In case you hadn't picked up on it already, I absolutely adored this book. However, it's not getting the full five stars from me for the simple fact that I think Neal Stephenson has written a book with a very limited audience - those among us willing to put up with all sorts of not just weird out-there sci-fi concepts, but also what could very easily be described as utterly tedious mathematical conjectures and high-level quantum physics. I wasn't bored in the slightest, but I think you have to know something about 'real' proofs to see that these are not just pure fiction but practically entertaining compared to some of the ones thrown at me at university!
Overall: give it a go. You'll know within pages if you're likely to love or loath this book - those appendices are a good starting place, as mentioned above. And if you're a bit 'meh' - well, it's totally unlike me, but if you don't find yourself sucked in fairly soon, you should probably give up. It's a shame, but I think sticking with this waiting for a more exciting bit will take too long if you're not enjoying it from the start, and life is just too short. But if you find yourself getting sucked in... be prepared for some wow! :)
Paperback: 928 pages (Atlantic Books October 2009)
First published in 2008