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Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Review by John Berlyne
Atlantic Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781843549154
Date: 01 September 2008 List Price £18.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Neal Stephenson's huge new novel Anathem hits book stores on both sides of the Atlantic this month. It's a meganovel, a huge publishing event and a cause for much celebration amongst the SF and literature communities.

You can see a fascinating video clip of Stephenson talking about the novel by following this link to Amazon.com. The UK edition is published in hard cover by Atlantic Books.

There was a time when Neal Stephenson wrote normal sized books, but no longer – something very much to our advantage as it happens. This increased wordage corresponds with an explosion of ideas in Stephenson's head that is quite mind-boggling, at times literally so. In the wake of his 1999 novel Cryptonomicon and the staggeringly huge and ambitious Baroque Cycle, (the first title of which, Quicksilver, I reviewed here back in our October 2003 issue) comes Stephenson's brand new novel Anathem.

True to form, Anathem is a massive book and one that makes equally massive demands on its readers. This size is not merely confined to its physical dimensions or its word count, but is also reflected in terms of its scope and depth. Stephenson's work is explorative in the extreme -- he is positively trailblazing in the manner in which he uses his fiction to explore the universe in which we live –- which, it is often argued, should be the genre's Raison d'être. Stephenson's currency deals only in large denomination notes -- grand theories, underlying principles, themes that span eons of time and light years of distance, the universals of the universe itself -– and he is able to fuse these elements together into a plot that generates as much excitement, fun, wit and ingenuity as it does profundity.

Anathem is a much more overtly science fictional work than Stephenson's recent output. It takes place on an alien world -- albeit one clearly similar to our own. The chief protagonist is Erasmus, a "Fraa" (think monk) in an order made up of thinkers who cover every area of academic study. There are historians, philosophers, mathematicians, theologians. They are free to worship a deity of their choice while others argue different systems of belief. Science itself is the religion. Whatever faction each "avout" (think devotee of the order) chooses to follow, all are part of the general enclave and each enclave is part of a larger order that has essentially cut itself off from the "extramuros" (think outside world) at large. Within each "Math" (think monastery) the initiates have signed up to a life that only allows them contact with the outside world at prescribed times. There are those who step beyond the gates after a year, or ten years or a hundred years, and then there are the far more mysterious "Thousanders". During these intervals, the avout step out and the community at large is allowed into the Math where information and news is exchanged.

Naturally, this societal set up takes a little time for reader to attune to –- complexity is woven into the fabric of this novel, part of its very essence. However, patient and intrepid readers will find that after wading through the apparent incomprehensibility of the first hundred pages or so, things soon coalesce. It's a matter of trusting the author to deliver -– and he does, in spades. With so many new words coined to present this world, the glossary included in the rear of the book is a vital addition for the reader –- ignore it at your peril! And once this set-up out is of the way, Stephenson allows his plot -- fittingly just as complex and solidly imagined as the world in which it takes place - to take over.

We meet Erasmus just as his order of Decenarians is stepping back out into the world for the first time in ten years and he marvels at how the life around him has changed even in that time. However events around this soon begin to pull focus. Rites are invoked in the Math in which members of the order are expelled. This is not unprecedented, but it has certainly not occurred within living memory. Tradition has it that in times of extreme need, the "Saecular Power" (think world leaders) can call forth experts from the order to help them with circumstances that might be endangering society at large. Such expulsions from the Math are super rare, but Raz's routine-ridden life is turned upside down as the ritual is invoked again and again –- with his teachers, his friends and finally himself all having their names called. What situation could possibly have arisen that required such dramatic action be taken? Well, that's your homework, folks!

Anathem is a commitment for sure –- the kind of weighty reading experience that goes beyond what we're used to in much of our genre reading. If you're brave enough to take up the challenge, you'll need patience and tenacity for Stephenson is not averse to indulging his own preoccupations –- but at the same time it is his sheer exuberance and passionate enthusiasm that shines through, and though it will take you a little while to get through it, Anathem is an infectious and rewarding read.

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