Anathem: Plato’s Parallel World

anathem About the best thing anyone can do for you is to suggest a good book. When I was in my teens my aunt pointed me at Tolkien: a shrewd call.  I was at the perfect age for a romp in Middle Earth.  In the 1990’s a consulting client introduced me to Neal Stephenson. I started with Snow Crash and Hiro Protagonist. How can you not love a character named Hiro Protagonist? I went on to The Diamond AgeCryptonomicon, (Stephenson’s best work), The Baroque Cycle and now Anathem.

All authors get in ruts. Since Cryptonomicon Stephenson has been in a books about very smart characters rut. Fictional intelligent characters, particularly software types, scientists, mathematicians and so forth are often cut from the same cloth. This is why The Big Bang Theory works!

This is not a literary flaw! Speaking as a bona fide software type I can assure you that smart tech types are alike. Logic drives capable minds down adjacent roads. The history of mathematics and science is littered with tales of brilliant individuals independently coming up with similar, if not identical, ideas. It’s almost as if mathematical ideas exist outside the minds that discover them. This is one of the major themes of Anathem.

The world of Anathem is Arbre. Arbre is eerily similar to Earth. Arbre is Goldilocking around a Sun like star. It has a moon, large oceans, a “nitrogen oxygen” atmosphere and even enjoys plate tectonics. Plate tectonics is probably not that common for Earth sized rocky worlds. The Earth lucked out because a large chunk of the Earth’s crust is orbiting us in the form of the Moon. Venus wasn’t so lucky, or unlucky, depending on how you feel about crust stripping planetary impacts. Arbre is also inhabited by “people” that could be our neighbors.

Arbre’s history seems a few thousand years longer than ours; they’ve repeatedly wreaked their planet with catastrophes like ethnic pogroms, global warming and nuclear war things we’re only working on. Stephenson works his magic building up Arbre in our imaginations. The result is a solid real world. I applaud the authors achievement. Arbre, like Dune and Middle Earth, will stick with you.

There are big cultural differences between Arbre and Earth. On Arbre society divides into the Secular and Mathic worlds. Arbre’s secular world is familiar. It has brain-dead TV, (just like MSNBC), highways, gas stations, suburbs, tacky tourists, wacko religious cults and even big box stores — they’re  not called Arbre-Marts. It’s the Mathic world that needs elaboration.

The Mathic world consists of a large number of walled, self isolated institutions called maths. The maths are populated by avout.  A math is a cross between an Earth monastery, university and scientific society. Each math voluntarily cuts itself off from the secular world on one, ten, hundred and thousand-year cycles. Our preening public intellectuals might see themselves as avout. They flatter themselves. The avout have all taken a vow of material poverty. They are allowed three possessions. There are no tenured Mercedes driving poseurs among the avout. Stephenson makes it clear that not all avout are intellectually gifted or suited for a life of the mind. Many of them become gardeners. If only our second raters did the same.

Stephenson devotes many pages to the details of mathic life. We learn about their rituals, clock winding is central, they’re distinct philosophical orders, avout fashion trends, (challenging with only two articles of clothing), their diet and sex lives. By the time Stephenson is ready to release the avout you feel like you’ve been holed up in a math. I won’t ruin Anathem by summarizing. Let’s just say that a young Frau Erasmas and many of his friends and mentors will suddenly find themselves outside the gates of their math to deal with a historic emergency. After the avout leave the maths it’s a great ride: very much in the mold of the Waterhouse’s adventures in Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle. Along the way Stephenson wows us with countless philosophical allusions and micro in-plot seminars. Remember, the at large avout are uniformly brilliant; they’re not going to chat about reality TV. Imagine Plato as a Kung Fu star. Between ass-kickings the characters calmly entertain ideas like Plato’s world of pure mathematical forms, (known as the Hylaen Theoric World on Arbre), is an actual parallel quantum cosmos that somehow leaks information into receptive minds in “neighboring” cosmii. Somehow Stephenson makes these lectures riveting.

Anathem is excellent on many levels but one flaw bars it from the pantheon of great books. The characters are insufficiently distinct. You can tell them apart when absorbed by the novel but they quickly merge into each other. Smart tech types share many correct ideas but they do not share the same character. Read Brighter than a Thousand Suns there is no mistaking Oppenheimer for Bohr, or Fermi, or Von Neumann, or Teller. In the real world brilliance exaggerates character. Stephenson exploited this in Cyptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle by casting the very real Turing,  Newton and Leibniz as characters. Anathem is not a Dickens novel. There are no Scrooge’s, Pip’s, or Miss Havisham’s, characters that live outside their novels, running around. I fear that it is not even an Ayn Rand novel. Altas Shrugged is a pondering pretentious beast of a book and Ayn Rand couldn’t sharpen Neal Stephenson’s pencils but here I am, almost thirty years after reading Atlas Shrugged, recalling Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden and John Galt right off the top of my head. Read Anathem for the world, the ideas and the great ride but if you’re looking for memorable characters stick with Hiro Protagonist.