Anathem: what does it gain from not being our world?

Tom Shippey, who isn’t an idiot, called Neal Stephenson’s Anathem “high fantasy” in the Times. So in my second reading of Anathem in the two months since it came out, I was trying to figure out what he meant when he used that term about a book that includes spaceships and the scientific method.

Shippey defines high fantasy as:

a story set entirely in a secondary world, the creation of which is a major part of the author’s appeal and intention.

Certainly, the world of Anathem is deeply appealing. It’s not just that geeks live in giant clock-monasteries, cool as that is. It’s not the way different parts of those monasteries are enclosed for different amounts of time. It’s the angle on time that encourages. Our narrator Erasmas is only nineteen, yet it’s second nature to him to say:

When there’s an economy extramuros, we can sell the honey outside the Day Gate and use the money to buy things it’s difficult to make in the concent. When conditions are post-apocalyptic, we can eat it.


For three thousand years it had been the concent’s policy to accept any or all folding chairs and collapsible tables made available to it, and never throw any away. … We had folding chairs made of aluminum, bamboo, aerospace composites, injection-molded poly, salvaged rebar, handcarved wood, bent twigs, advanced newmatter, tree stumps, lashed sticks, brazed scrap metal and plaited grass.

This is a large part of why I love it, and why I missed it after I finished it and wanted to read it again soon. However, this isn’t a fantasy thing. SF has worlds with funny words and customs and interestingly anthropological ways of looking at things.

Shippey also says that Stephenson intended the book to proselytise for the ideas, for potential fraas and suurs, which, if it were the case, would hardly have led him to end it the way he does.

I started thinking about why Stephenson had chosen to set the story in a different world, rather than set it four thousand years or so in our own future. There’s a good plot reason, of course, which is having people from our world show up later. But he could just as well have set it four thousand years in the future and had aliens, rather than people from our world and other cosmoses. Since the first time I read Anathem I’ve been assured by people I trust who know about science (Marissa Lingen, and Chad Orzel on his blog) that essentially the many-worlds alternate physics stuff is all wrong. While the French is cute and all that, it could have been aliens and been fine. The bit I like least about Anathem is the bit in space, the probabilistic Millenarian ex Machina stuff. So he could have lost that and not annoyed Mris and other physics people and still kept everything I adore about the book.

My general feeling is that SF is better if it’s connected to our world. I have an emotional preference for futures we could get to from here.

Nevertheless, I think it’s better for Anathem to be in its own world. There’s a way of writing fantasy where you use history but put it into a subcreated world so that you can talk about the essence of the history and not the details. Guy Gavriel Kay does this a lot, and I have done it myself.

Anathem is doing that same thing only with the history of science and natural philosophy.

That rocks.


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