Neal Stephenson
Anathem Cover



After reading great reviews/stories about Neal Stephenson’s latest book, Anathem, I really wanted to read it. On a recent trip to London I picked the 950 page book up for a reasonable price, and I saved it for when I would have my wrist surgery, because I would have plenty of time to get lost in the story.

The story takes place on a planet called Arbe, where society is roughly split up into two factions, one is a non-technical monastic culture that is based on science (math and physics mostly), the other is a ‘modern’, ‘regular’ culture with technology and faith in (a) god. The monactic culture (living in concents, whose monks are called avout) is split up into unarians, decenarians, hundreders and thousanders. For the unarians the door to the outside world opens for 10 days each year. For the decenarians, 10 days every ten years, hundreders every 100 years and thousanders every millenium. They take great care to not let any outside news in when the doors are not open, meaning the thousanders have no idea what happened outside of the concent since the last time they went out.

The story is from the view point of a decenarian avout, Fraa Erasmas, and starts right before the door to his part of the concent is opened for the first time in ten years. Soon it becomes clear that strange things are happening, but because of their limited contact with the outside world, and their non-access to technology it is hard to figure out. This doesn’t stop Fraa Erasmas of course, and it all becomes the start of a great adventure featuring math, physics and a bit of philosophy too.

I found this book a lot like Sophie’s world by Jostein Gaarder, wherein the reader is introduced to basic philosophy through a fictional story. In this book a lot is learned about math and physics. The avout learn and study through dialoging and teaching and the reader gets to follow all discussions. Some of it was a bit over my head, but all in all I really enjoyed it. None of the ideas are too difficult, and because our Fraa Erasmas isn’t that good of a learner, all gets explained.

In another level of the story, the great adventure part, Fraa Erasmas is as much in the dark as we are, so when he figures things out as he goes along, so do we. This makes things confusing in some parts of the story, but all gets explained eventually. The adventure itself is true science fiction, and the world that is spun around it is vast, and beautiful.

I really enjoyed this book. After reading reviews online it becomes clear that it is a “hate it or love it” kind of book, and for me it is clearly love. Some negative comments were that the story was too slow, to pretentious and that the science part played too big a role. Yes there was a lot of science, but it helped explain the mind and culture of Fraa Erasmas. Yes, new words for familiar concepts were perhaps unnecessary, but that really helped in establishing that while this planet is a lot like earth, it truly is not. And yes, the story might be slow due to all the science, but for me that was part of the culture of the avout, no need for speed.

If you love science fiction, with a big backstory, I recommend this book. It might take time to read, but for me, it was really worth it!