You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Neal Stephenson's Anathem is an ambitious science fiction novel. The story takes place on the world of Arbre, a world like Earth but thousands of years after the technological discoveries of our time. The title is a term that has the meanings of an anthem or song as well as the exclusion or anathema of a member.

Fraa Erasmas is a young member of concent, a sort of monastery where the members study science and philosophy instead of religion. The big idea of the concents is that they have several different chapters or maths. Erasmas is part of the Decenarian math, which only has communication with the outside world every ten years. Also part of the concent are the the Unarian and Centennial maths, which communicate every one or hundred years. Nearby is a Millenarian math, whose members only come out every thousand years.

Erasmas and his fellow avout are getting ready for the upcoming Apert, when the gates will open for the Unarian and Decenarian maths. His discussions with Fraa Orolo, and older fraa who has been his philosophy teacher, have been intriguing to him but also end up being potentially dangerous. Just before Apert, the gates to the roof where the observatory is are locked for everyone but the Ita, the people who maintain the technology while staying separate from the avout. Erasmas is dismayed to discover that two tourists who start a philosophical discussion with him during his stint as tour guide during Apert turn out to be Inquisitors. When he has another encounter with one of the inquisitors and then has cross words with the concent's leader, he is sentenced to memorize five chapters of the Book, a series of confusing writings that is nearly impossible to understand.

During his sentence, an aut, or ceremony, is called to evoke a member of the Decennial math. Erasmas doesn't go, then realizes he can take this opportunity to sneak up to the observatory and place a recording medium in one of the observatory devices. Later he is dismayed to realize that his friends are being assigned to orders in his absence, and his options may be limited when he completes his sentence.

After Erasmas finishes his confinement and is accepted into his new order, he gets a hint at another major aut and takes the opportunity to retrieve the recording device from the telescope. But Erasmas is distraught to learn that his teacher Orolo has been anathemized, kicked out of the concent. Soon he and his friends are busy trying to analyze the data on the device, and he finds himself involved with Ala, a young woman he had previously not thought much of. But before he can declare his relationship with Ala, she and many others are called out of the concent for a big meeting.

Things move quickly, and Erasmas is called out of the concent with many other friends, plus a Millenarian. Erasmas decides to try to find his old teacher Orolo, and proceeds on various adventures before catching up with him at an old concent on an island. They have all figured out there there is a spacecraft orbiting the planet that did not come from the surface. There is a surprise when a small craft lands in the middle of the concent carrying a single dying passenger, and then the concent is attacked by the orbiting craft and Orolo saves the alien's body and dies.

Erasmas and others gather at the big meeting. There are many discussions about the aliens and their origins. Just when the narrative seems to get stuck in theory and talk, Erasmas makes an amazing revelation and the story takes a whole new turn. To summarize the ending, the people of Arbre realize that the alien visitors are not united, and they force them to come to a sort of detente.

The idea of people locked away from the secular (or Saecular) world to study advanced concepts away from the influences of media and government is a fascinating one. Stephenson does a good job of developing it and using it to form the basis of the story. The plot is largely driven by events happening to the characters, but Erasmas and others make choices that influence the outcome of the story and illustrate their nature. The whole world is well thought out, including the relationship between the avout and the Ita, the technological experts who maintain the concents' machinery.

Many mathematical and philosophical concepts are discussed that shape the story. The idea of using ordered sets of numbers to describe a physical scenario, such as x,y coordinates to define points on a plane, is elaborated to describe orbital equations and then the principal values in physics that define out the universe works, such as the speed of light. The concept of the world of forms that we can perceive but that can receive no information from out world is expanded to include multiple such worlds, including our own which might in turn transmit information to another world. This is all tied to where the aliens come from.

The story pulls together pretty well. There is a good mix of philosophical discussion and action. Altogether it provides some stimulating thought. A-