The thing about Anathem (post) is that it’s a big novel about the history of philosophy and science, set in a different world where that history has been different but parallel, and yet Stephenson manages to make it a ton of fun.
He makes you think, and he makes you work at thinking, and he makes you love the experience. If instead you hate it, you’re going to hate Anathem (a second post), and some people certainly do.
Anathem is all written in the endearingly geeky first person of Erasmas, or Raz, who lives in a Concent, a monastery that is a giant clock, where people retreat to study science and logic and philosophy rather than worship God. The Concent of Saunt Edhar has Unarian, Decentarian, Centarian, and Millennial chapters, which have gates that open once a year, once a decade, once a century and once every thousand years. Erasmas is in the Decentarian Math. The people inside interest themselves abstruse geeky cool things, and only go out for ten days during the festival of Apert when their gates open. Many ordinary people spend a year, or two or three years, in the Unarian math, but the really geeky ones go further in and stay and develop long term thinking.
It’s full of made up words and names, like mathic, praxic and speelycaptor, many of which are defined in the text and all of which are defined in the glossary. It’s full of cool things like the library grape, which has all the genes of all the grapes ever, but which expresses them according to the local conditions, and the leaf trees that produce rectangular quarto leaves that are harvested every year and stored for a century before use.
It has the history of science and philosophy, plus four thousand years more history of science and philosophy and the concents, and it has a strong sense of history and things ongoing. It also has aliens, first contact, other worlds, chases, adventure and some fairly dodgy physics. It’s beautifully written, good enough to read aloud, but it’s somewhat lacking in female characters.
It’s a huge ambitious book of the kind that only science fiction can produce. It’s a whole world of funny words and nifty ideas to sink into. It is also unquestionably one of the most important books of the last ten years, one of the things that in twenty or thirty years we’ll look back on and say, “Yes, that’s what science fiction was up to in that non-decade that began the new millennium.” We won’t be saying this from our retreats in giant clock monasteries, but then nobody ever suggested we would.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.