By Neal Stephenson

Anathem is a science-fiction fantasy set in a cosmos parallel to our own where they manage things just a bit differently. For starters, the intellectual classes have hived themselves away from the “saecular” world and live together in “concents” or co-ed monasteries where the chemically neutered “avouts” contemplate all fashion of physics and metaphysics. The slight variation in the language reflects the fact that Arbre isn’t a world apart from ours as much as it is the same place, kind of, occupying a different causal domain or “Hemn space” (what those on Earth who follow such matters know as “configuration space”). These spaces are not hermetically distinct. Indeed the novel’s central premise or “upsight,” as expressed by one of the avout, is that “the Hylaean Flow brings about convergent development of consciousness-bearing systems across worldtracks!”

Still here? Good.

Fresh of the exhausting triumph of his massive Baroque Trilogy, bestselling author Neal Stephenson delves even deeper into religion, physics, philosophy and theories of the mind with Anathem. But at heart it is still a conventional space opera based on that hoariest of SF plots, “first contact.” Are the aliens aboard that orbiting mothership friend or foe? Or both? Or neither? This time only the philosophers know for sure.

In other words, all you Stephenson fans out there still waiting for the next Snow Crash, this is not an action novel. There is an erupting volcano, a planet-destoying death ray called the “World Burner,” and even an elite team of space ninjas fighting in zero gravity, but most of the book is spent in “dialog,” a Socratic back-and-forth among the monks. It is a testament to Stephenson’s prodigious talent as a storyteller that this is not as dull as it sounds, though at least one reader will admit to some confusion as to what it all means. Apparently something like Plato’s world of pure forms (here called the Hylaean Theoric World or HTW) is acting as a kind of directing intelligence over the slipstreaming narratives of the multiverse, which we navigate among not through wormholes but by way of arcane mental disciplines. And so: Enter the Geometers.

Still here? You are a persistent fid, aren’t you?

Anathem will test that persistence. Even given the expansiveness of the genre this is not a light read in any sense of the word. When you add in the appendixes of lecture-style “calcas” and an invaluable glossary for those less obvious Orthicisms like “hypotrochian transquaestiation,” you’re talking over 900 pages of world-building. And while the young narrator Fraa Erasmas and his friends give it all a bit of an air of Hogwarts, most of it is pretty dry theorizing in what not only seems like but is another language.

Nobody but Stephenson could make it work. But even genius has its limitations.

Review first published online June 29, 2009.

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