Anathem: A Discussion
This is going to be as spoiler-free as possible. However, there. . . really isn’t that much to spoil. More on that later. First, a story!
Many moons ago, when grunge was popular, before the Golden Age, I attended kolledge. I majored in philosophy – a widely misunderstood discipline that many people (including my parents) consider to be useless.
In my school, philosophy majors had to choose a focus: Ancient Track (which meant studying mostly Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, and other old dead Greeks) or Modern Track (which is mostly about post-Rennaissance philosophers, like Descartes, Kant, or even such modern marvels as Wittgenstein). I chose to read about Dead Greeks.
(You still had to take a ton of classes about the other track, mind you; this choice really only defined how the bulk of your 400-level classes were going to go.)
This was a fun time for me! For several hours a day I and my fellow students would sit around a table in a forgotten, musty room in one of the older buildings on campus and systematically destroy each other’s brains. We were surrounded by books, most of which had suffered water damage. Someone had scratched into the surface of the table the following:
I think, therefore I am. I think not. . . and POOF! I vanish!
That joke has made me laugh for over ten years now. Remember it as you read the book. It carries extra weight.
Anyways. I read a lot of Plato.
Now, you may be asking yourself something right about now. “Self,” you might be saying, “why does a book review begin with a bunch of crap about about majoring in philosophy?”
That’s a very good question! The answer is because it supplies to you, the reader, a small but important context about me and my mindset as a I read a book that is, essentially, a dialog about metaphysics.
I very specifically chose the Theaetetus (a somewhat obscure dialog) rather than something like, say, The Republic (which everyone has read some of) because of a couple reasons which will become clear.
Anathem is an alternate-world story told from the perspective of Fraa Erasmas. Erasmas is a theor, and theors are ascetic mathemetician philosophers. They live in these huge, stone monestaries and are divided into three groups: tenners, hundreders, and thousanders. The groups do not co-mingle (and are forbidden to do so) except for specific times.
Every ten years, the tenners can leave the monestary for ten days. Every hundred years, the hundreders can do so (and at that time their maths [the crap they work on] are published). Likewise, every thousand years the maths of the thousanders are published (note that thousanders do not live for thousands of years; they just get published, mostly).
Fully the first hundred or so pages is without meaningful plot. It serves to set the tone for the story, to introduce and immerse the reader into the history of this alternate world, and to allow Stephenson to circle-jerk about how much he has been reading Plato.
And I mean that, because, seriously, nearly every philosophic discussion is pretty much cribbed from Plato, and many of them are taken from the Theaetetus (which concerns itself with the nature of knowledge, fundamental truth, and the nature of perception). The theors even use the Socratic method to educate one another (though they don’t call it that).
Like all of Stephenson’s books in the past decade, Anathem feels like he (Stephenson) got excited about something and then spent a ridiculous amount of time researching it and was further compelled to splatter it out onto pages just to show us how much research he did do. Unlike the previous books in the decade (Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle), we are spared a lot of tedium.
(Well, that may not strictly be true. Again: I majored in philosophy, so it wasn’t tedious to me; it may be for others.)
Even though the novel is a “sci-fi” book, it is remarkably thin on the “sci” part. There is some, but the primary plot point is almost lifted directly from an earlier work by a different author. However, where Heinlein’s story was a fanciful whiz-bang actioner, Anathem is devotes itself more to the intellectual discussion of “alternate dimensions”.
This brings us back to Platonic dialogs again.
For thousands of years, much philosophy was told through stories. That is, explained through the use of story and metaphor to enable the student to better grasp what was being discussed by relating it to something they already understood. Plato did it (obviously), but my library is filled with other examples (such as Candide or Reveries of a Solitary Walker). In more modern times, Ayn Rand used the method to explain Objectivism. Zen koans are often small anecdotes and analogies.
Anathem is a dialog that contains many smaller dialogs. It has a lot of lessons which are delivered in a story format and serves as a modern parable about the schism between science and religion. It is deliberately constructed that way. I do not know if Stephenson actually believes some of the ideas that are espoused or not but that is irrelevant to the lesson being discussed: it is more about teaching people to think in new ways.
Anathem is a very typical Stephenson novel. If you’ve read his other stuff, you know what you’re in for. If you haven’t, I would not suggest Anathem as your introduction: pick up The Diamond Age instead, and from there move to Cryptonomicon.
I think it could have been trimmed by a couple hundred pages – especially in the middle, where Erasmas goes on a little adventure that doesn’t really advance the plot (I’m thinking of his time on the ice).
[A minor lesson in history, which shall reveal unto you one of the more clever jokes contained within Anathem:
Theaetetus was a greek geometer, which means “mathematician” for you unedumacated folk. His primary contributions to math involved proofs about Platonic Solids – most importantly, the icosahedron, which all nerds know as the d20 and also just happens to be the shape of the spaceship that the alien Geometers orbit the planet with in Anathem.
I was extremely pleased to discover that he had acknowledged Plato in the afterword. I would have been irritated had he not.