Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Review: Anathem

If you're looking for a short verdict on Anathem, you've come to the wrong place I thought it was excellent, and if you're the sort of person who reads this blog, you're highly likely to enjoy it, too. For reference, I enjoyed it significantly more than Snow Crash, the only other Stephenson I've read, which I would peg at "good, but not excellent". (Edit: I also enjoyed Anathem more than Cryptonomicon (excellent) and Seveneves (very good). Of these four, I enjoyed Snow Crash least.)

Proper review follows.


It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that at one stage in my life, my favorite book was Ender's Game. This is, as I understand it, downright conventional for intellectually gifted children of a particular age, if not actually a rite of passage. As Orson Scott Card writes in the foreword to the 1991 edition of Game:

[A] woman who worked as a guidance counselor for gifted children reported that she had only picked up Ender’s Game to read it because her son had kept telling her it was a wonderful book. She read it and loathed it... [T]he criticism that left me most flabbergasted was her assertion that my depiction of gifted children was hopelessly unrealistic. They just don’t talk like that, she said. They don’t think like that.


The nasty side of myself wanted to answer that guidance counselor by saying, "The only reason you don’t think gifted children talk this way is because they know better than to talk this way in front of you"... Because the book does ring true with the children who read it. (...)

And just so, if you're a kid who feels alienated from both adults (who treat you as a child) and most other children (who you can't seem to connect with) and you stumble across the story of a bright young kid who has the same problems... it hits you hard:

Dear Mr. Card,

I am writing to you on behalf of myself and my twelve friends and fellow students who joined me at a two-week residential program for gifted and talented students at Purdue University this summer...

We are all in about the same position; we are very intellectually oriented and have found few people at home who share this trait. Hence, most of us are very lonely, and have been since kindergarten. When teachers continually compliment you, your chances of “fitting in” are about nil.

All our lives we’ve unconsciously been living by the philosophy, “The only way to gain respect is doing so well you can’t be ignored.” And... “beating the system” at school is how we’ve chosen to do this... [W]e’re all bright and at the top of our class. However, in choosing these paths, most of us have wound up satisfied in ourselves, but very lonely.

This is why Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead really hit home for us... we are the Enders of today. Almost everything written in Ender’s Game and Speaker applied to each one of us on a very, very personal level. No, the situation isn’t as drastic today, but all the feelings are there. (...)

But I've grown out of that loneliness, and while Game remains a book that was formative for me in my childhood, it's an escape hatch I no longer need.


Scott Aaronson, in reviewing The Man Who Knew Infinity (the movie), writes of Robert Kanigel's biography of the same name:

Reading Kanigel’s [The Man Who Knew Infinity], I was also entranced by the culture of early-twentieth-century Cambridge mathematics: the Tripos, Wranglers, High Table. I asked, why was I here and not there?

It's no great secret that I'm enamored of the remaining trappings of the old academic world, reminders of a (mythologized) time when the academy could operate in a world apart, with its own rules. I love academic regalia; I loved the pomp and circumstance of Harvard Commencement, and I'm incredibly jealous of the more-intricate and better-observed regalic traditions at Oxford and Cambridge. I admit that I'm more than a little disappointed that it is no longer traditional for Harvard graduands to wear academic dress for the entire month of May.

Most people -- even those in the academy -- seem distinctly less fond of tradition than am I. Amused, perhaps, but not enthralled by it. Anathem speaks to that deep fondness of mine, builds it into a rich world, and elicits from me a "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself [cared...]" that's the same sort of comfort to my tradition-loving self that Ender's Game was to my lonely nerdy younger self. It feels a bit like finding a home you didn't know you were missing.


A year or so ago, when touring a cathedral in Erfurt, Germany, I began idly sketching an idea for a story about a student at a monastery-like academy devoted not to worship, but to science. But the saints venerated in the cathedral's alcoves, I thought, would be Maxwell and Newton and Darwin and Einstein and...

To avoid having technology obtrude upon the cleaned-up-medieval scenery of the academy I wanted to imagine, I imagined that technology would only be permitted in the form of certain half-understood artifacts. And, like Erfurt, a town would cling to the base of the academy's steps, but most townspeople would look up at the walls with distaste -- and some with outright hatred. And those above, how might they look down, when they bothered to look beyond their walls at all?

It's a rather good thing that I didn't end up trying to write this story, because the world of Anathem is a dead ringer for the setting I was dreaming up that day, except in a few ways that left it clearly improved.


alert: worldbuilding spoilers; no explicit plot spoilers. (next section)

The protagonists of Anathem are monks who have dedicated their lives to the study of math and science, in near-isolation from the outside world. Their order keeps its gates closed except for one week every ten years; others sequester themselves for a hundred or even a thousand years at a time. In "ordinal time" (between gate-openings), they eschew most modern forms of technology -- as one character explains to an outsider: "Living as we do under the Cartasian Discipline, our only media are chalk, ink, and stone."

The walls were built, we learn, after an apocalypse almost four thousand years previous, which prompted the construction of great cloistered centers of knowledge, which would stand as 'sæcular' civilizations outside rose and fell. They have largely succeeded in this charge, guarding the knowledge of millenia for the rare day when extramural catastrophe calls one of the 'avout' to the outside world.

But most of the story takes place inside, where the avout are largely concerned with scientific, mathematical, and philosophical research. (Nuclear physics was declared verboten after the first time it caused an extramural apocalypse, as are genetic engineering and computers after their apocalypse...) That is, they are concerned with research when they're not engaged in the routine rhythm of monastic life, whose beating heart is the gargantuan clock (wound daily with great ceremony) which marks the hours, days, and years until Apert, and the opening of the gates.

Stephenson paints the Concent of Saunt Edhar (as this particular 'monastery' is called) so vividly, it makes my heart ache that I can't just step into the world and live within its walls. As the story's narrator puts it:

So I looked with fascination at those people in their [automobiles], and tried to fathom what it would be like... [T]he work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy.

But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who'd made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them.

People who couldn't live without story had been driven into the concents... All others had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were a part of a story, which I guessed was why Sæculars were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end... We avout had it ready-made because we were a part of this project of learning new things... You could tell where you were and what you were doing in that story...

And I get it. I so want to step into the world (or a cloistered commune secluded from the world) where story is fundamental, intrinsic to life, and 'productive economy' is secondary at best. That's the life I often find myself longing for, and Anathem speaks very clearly to that part of my heart. That alone made the read an incredible experience, especially as I'm grappling with my current status 'extramuros'. Stephenson clearly gets it, and goes beyond the simple luddism/elitism that it's easy to round academism off to:

"I spent almost all of Apert [outside the walls]," Orolo said with a sigh, as if he had finally been run to ground. "I was expecting that it would be a wasteland. A cultural and intellectual charnel house. But that's not exactly what I found. I went to [movies]. I enjoyed them!

"I went to bars and got into some reasonably interesting conversations with people. [Baselines.] I liked them. Some were quite interesting. And I don't mean that in a bug-under-the-microscope way. They have stuck in my mind -- characters I'll always remember.

"For a while I was quite seduced by it. Then one evening I had an especially lively discussion with a [baseline] who was as bright as anyone within this concent. And somehow, toward the end, it came out that he believed that the sun revolved around [Earth]. I was flabbergasted, you know. I tried to disabuse him of this. He scoffed at my arguments.

"It made me remember just how much careful observation and [mathematical] work is necessary to prove something as basic as that [Earth] goes around the sun. How indebted we are to those who went before us. And this got me to thinking that I'd been living on the right side of the gate after all."


alert: more worldbuilding spoilers; no real plot spoilers. (next section)

But besides the specific and attractive-to-me aesthetic that Anathem embraces wholeheartedly, Stephenson's world is just incredibly rich. Consider:

Every object I passed -- the carven bookcase-ends, the stones locked together to make the floor, the frames of the windows, the forged hinges of the doors and the hand-made nails that fastened them to the wood, the capitals of the columns that surrounded the Cloister, the paths and beds of the garden itself -- every one had been made in a particular form by a clever person a long time ago.

Some of them, such as the doors of the Old Library, had consumed the whole lifetimes of those who had wrought them. Others looked as though they'd been tossed off in an idle afternoon, but with such upsight that they had been cherished for hundreds or thousands of years. Some were founded on pure simple geometry. Others reveled in complication and it was a sort of riddle whether there was any rule governing their forms. Still others were depictions of actual people who had lived and thought interesting thigns at one time or another -- or, barring that, of general types: the [Deist], the Physiologer, the [Politician], and the [Baseline].

If someone had asked, I might have been able to explain a quarter of them. One day I'd be able to explain them all.


The library grape had been sequenced by the avout of the Concent of the Lower Vrone in the days before the Second Sack. Every cell carried in its nucleus the genetic sequences, not just of a single species, but of every naturally occurring species of grape that the Vrone avout had ever heard of -- and if those people hadn't heard of a grape, it wasn't worth knowing about...

A given vine could not express all of those genes at once -- it could not be a hundred different species of grape at the same time -- so it "decided" which of those genes to express -- what grape to be, and what flavors to borrow -- based on some impossibly murky and ambiguous data-gathering and decision-making process that the Vrone avout had hand-coded into its proteins. No nuance of sun, soil, weather, or wind was too subtle for the library grape to take into account. Nothing that the cultivator did, or failed to do, went undetected or failed to have its consequences in the flavor of the juice.

The library grape was legendary for its skill in penetrating the subterfuges of winemakers who were so arrogant as to believe they could trick it into being the same grape two seasons in a row. The only people who had ever really understood it had been lined up against a wall and shot during the Second Sack.

Many modern winemakers chose to play it safe and use old-fashioned grapes. Developing a fuitful relationship with the library grape was left to fanatics like Orolo, who had made it his avocation. Of course, library grapes hated the conditions at Saunt Edhar, and were still reacting to an incident fifty years ago when Orolo's predecessor had pruned the vines incorrectly, poisoning the soil with bad memories encoded in pheromones. The grapes chose to grow up small, pale, and bitter. The resulting wine was an acquired taste, and we didn't even try to sell it.


alert: character spoilers; few other worldbuilding spoilers; no explicit plot spoilers. (next section)

The other piece of Anathem that speaks to me on a deep level is the characters -- or rather, the way the characters interact with each other. In the same way that Ender's Game is remarkable for having smart kids talk the way that smart kids talk when they're free of the wrong kinds of adults, Anathem is remarkable for capturing the cadence, rhythm, and character of philosophical conversations between mathematicians in a way that I have never before seen in literature.

It's like the smart-people-talking thing that I love about The West Wing, except that the characters talk like the friends I'm used to, and their [pages-]long digressions wander through theories of Platonism and metaphysics, rather than civics and government. Some critics deride these as dry and dull, though I never found them such. In another writer's hands, they might congeal into an unpleasant swamp of "Crichton-speak", but (in my opinion) Stephenson's lecture-dialogues are as good a substitute for the real thing as you can find in a book.


alert: medium-to-major plot spoilers (next section)

Usually, books that begins strong on worldbuilding eventually pivot into a more action-heavy mode, as if the author were to say "well, now that we've got that out of the way..." Couple this with the fact that science fiction authors seem to feel an irresistable desire to tear their intricately-woven worlds apart in order to show The Action Happening, and I usually find myself drinking in the first third of a novel and then growing increasingly disappointed until the point where the protagonists set out to make a brave new (and less interesting) world.

Anathem doesn't do this. After the action kicks off, we get an enormous amount of intra-concent intrigue, even as details about the outside world trickle in slowly. If you fell in love with the worldbuilding, you actually get time to savor that world, and go deeper into it, seeing the characters living in it. And then, eventually, our protagonists set off into the outside world...and Stephenson keeps the worldbuilding on full blast. We see new religions and new cultures and new landscapes and we finally meet avout from other faraway concents and we finally get to see another, even older concent and Stephenson just keeps pulling things out of his hat to embellish the world. It basically keeps going until the last scene.

And, thankfully, the characters don't end the novel on a pile of rubble, ruggedly determined to build a New World Of The Human Spirit Now With Real Freedom. So that's a win in my book.


This is the part, I suppose, where I get to the things I didn't like about (or had mixed feelings about in) Anathem.

  • The central conceit of the plot relies on a 'suspension of scientific disbelief', sort of like a Greg Egan novel, but with one or two levels less scientific rigor. I didn't have any problem swallowing it, but if you do, it may well get in the way of you enjoying the story.
  • The one thing that I did have difficulty suspending my scientific disbelief on was a Penrosian quantum-brain thing that I just mentally replaced with "magic" because otherwise I was going to get too angry to keep reading. So if you have read enough Scott Aaronson to know what I mean by "Penrosian quantum-brain thing" why I think it's silly, you may have to do the same thing.
  • Anathem is (900 pages) long and full of quests. The former will probably be obvious to you if you pick up the book in dead-tree form, but I read it on Kindle, so I had no real sense of how much of it there was. The quests didn't feel to me like side-quests, so much as necessary next-steps, but if you like your fiction in hyperdirect format, Anathem is not for you.
  • After a first read, I can't tell if (1) the characters are just thin, or if (2) their character development is just subtle rather than in-your-face. I suspect the latter, but I haven't done a re-read specifically looking for it, and if you really want dramatic characters with Well Defined Character Traits, you may come away disappointed.
  • I won't spoil it, but the final twist wraps up really cute. Like, so unbelievably cute that I missed it until I started reading reviews, and then I went and hit my head into a pillow a few times. It's like... It's like a bad-excellent pun, except with metaphysics instead of wordplay. It's really quite fun, but also just a bit groan-worthy. (Here's the spoil if you really must, but you are probably happier reading the book first.)

Anyway. Here's a 19,000-word essay on "Why Anathem Sucks", if you want that sort of thing. Basically, the reviewer is unwilling to suspend his scientific disbelief even a little bit, thinks Stephenson's character-building is shallow, thinks Stephenson's earnestness in world-building is silly, insists on reading every parallel and allegory literally, thinks the monastic-academic life is stupid, thinks academics and academic dialogue is no fun and elitist ("...they know better than to talk that way in front of you"), insists on picking political, economic, scientific, academic, and philosophical nits that no one really asked for, and is enraged by made-up words.

Oh, there are a lot of made-up words. I'm of the opinion that Anathem is way out in the long tail of this graph:

I'm also of the opinion that they are introduced incredibly well, with just the right balance between explicit definition (occasional epigraphs from the The Dictionary, 4th edition, A. R. 3000), effortless definition-by-context, and slow-rolled, sly confirmation that your first guess was mostly right. But if made-up words annoy you on principle, you're not going to have much fun in Anathem.


All that aside, I liked the book a lot (and much more than Snow Crash, the only other Stephenson I've read). I don't like the question "What's your favorite book?", because there are so many things that I want out of books at different times, but I think that in any case, Anathem has displaced Ender's Game as my 'favorite novel to read because I want to escape into its world and live there instead of here'. And that's some big praise.

By the way:

Anathem: (1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, which since the time of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy (hence the Fluccish word Anthem meaning a song of great emotional resonance, esp. one that inspires listeners to sing along). Note: this sense is archaic, and used only in a ritual context where it is unlikely to be confused with the much more commonly used sense 2. (2) In New Orth, an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas).

---The Dictionary, 4th edition, A. R. 3000