Ever since Hanna read Neal Stephenson’s latest tome, Anathem, over the Christmas holidays, she’s been telling me to kick it to the top of my reading list. Which I promised to do — as soon as I had enough brain cells available at the end of the academic year. Turned out “enough brain cells” required a few weeks post-semester to become available, and even then there was no way Anathem would be a quick read for me. I’ve previously encountered Stephenson in his mammoth Baroque Cycle, and know that — for me, anyway — pacing is key for both absorbing the story and being able to stick with it to the very end. Things definitely happen in Stephenson novels — usually brain-shattering, temporal-defying, chaos-inducing things — but in order to discern their true import, you usually have to experience them filtered through the exposition of the highly cerebral main characters.
Anathem is set in a world both familiar and utterly alien to us: is it Earth in the future? An alternate Earth of the past, present, or future? An entirely unconnected universe? Anathem‘s world is socially organized around the Saecular world and the “mathic” world, similar to a system of religious monestaries, in which particularly gifted individuals devote their lives to intellectual endeavors. Fraa Erasmus, a young member of one of the mathic communities, relates his experience of certain world-shaking events that take him out of his secluded community and into the Saecular world — and beyond.
I was sad, in reading Anathem to discover no character who would have matched wits with Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, or Eliza of Qwghlm. But I realize they are a difficult duo to compete with. Erasmas, the narrator of Anathem, shares many characteristics of Daniel Waterhouse (of the Baroque Cycle) and Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, Daniel’s descendent, in the companion novel Cryptonomicon: He filters everything he experiences through his highly logical, straightforward way of thinking that only distantly registers his own (and others’) emotions or relational interactions. I grew fond of Erasmas, but I was never as heavily invested in his future well-being as I was in the welfare of Jack and Eliza and their cohort. Still: imbibed slowly and surely, like a really strong gin & tonic, it was an ultimately satisfying and thought-provoking summer read.