Monday, June 08, 2009

Neal Stephenson: Anathem

Neal Stephensonhas written another fascinating, grand, opus, Anathem. He's back to writing actual science fiction, and it's pretty impressive. It's somewhat of a surprise that the book wasn't broken up into a few smaller books, since it consists of a sequence of mostly separate adventures by a single hero, each explored in depth. (Actually, now that I look, it breaks easily into three segments of about 300 pages each.) The story starts with Erasmus as a young avout at a sanctuary for intellectuals. The first third of the story takes place as Erasmus is learning the avout way of thinking, and figuring out his place in his world. Stephenson does a good job of introducing in a concrete format several deep philosophical concepts that the reader will want to understand in the final section of the story. The second part of the story takes Erasmus and some of his fellows on a journey around Arbre, their world, after they are expelled from the sanctuary as a result of an emergency in the outside world. I'm not going to talk much about the final section, since it would spoil the story to know what the conflict is about, but lets just say it's a continuation of the journey to further and stranger places.

Erasmus' community is part of a system of monastaries spread around the world that serves to bleed off some of the presure for relentless progress from their society. The outside world still has an irregular cycle of boom and bust, but the mathic communities are isolated and serve to preserve the learning through the tough times. They have a very long view of the changing times--in fact Stephenson developed the ideas while working on some projects for the Long Now Foundation. The communities only have contact with the outside world once a year, and internally, the concents are further divided into subcommunities that only have external contact every decade or century. The more isolated each group, the more deeply they delve into various abstract and theoretical ideas. The less isolated groups treat learning almost as a competitive sport, and their different colleges emphasize different approaches to learning.

Erasmus and his cohort explore the nature of our universe, and some interesting philosophical issues that turn out to be relevant for the finale of the story. The characters explore higher math, philosophical issues such as personal identity, and quantum physics. I found the story very engaging, but I'd expect the depth and detail to turn off many readers. Stephenson is well in his element, exploring many issues in the back story while keeping an interesting story going in the foreground. The foreground story has love and loss, battles and chase scenes, extraterrestrials and high tech, and plenty of fun.

Anathem was nominated for this year's Prometheus award, but isn't a finalist. Libertarians will find it interesting for its exploration of some of the issues of governance of separated societies, and self determination. But it doesn't have the immediate political connection of some of this year's other nominees. I found it to be a fun read, and enjoyed the characters and situations as well as the exporations of philosophy and math.

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