Anathem by Neal Stephenson


Trivial Details 
With the aathemaar-u* being away for couple of weeks, I suddenly found myself with lot of free time to spare after work everyday, which was inadvertently spent watching reaction videos on YouTube and staring at ceiling contemplating about Life and universe.

After slacking away couple of days in such a manner, marinating in my own mediocrity, it became apparent to me, while watching a Hindi dubbed Telugu film ‘Daring Gundaraj’, that how pathetic last few days have been. I needed to refresh myself. Lord Tyrion’s words reverberated in my head “a mind need books like a sword needs a whetstone if it’s too keep it’s edge”. I decided to give my brain some much needed exercise by indulging in some heavy work of fiction.
Trivial Details Ends

Anathem by Neal Stephenson was zeroed in for this absurd task, solely because it was huge and it’s blob contained words like Extramuros. Few chapters into the book, it dawned on me that I have bitten more than I could chew. The alacrity quickly turned into regret as I tried to make sense of an Alien world with its own vernacular that author plunged into starting from the midday Provenor. I was like a Sline who’d been to no Suvins, getting lecture on Hylaen Theoric World, which even after being translated from ancient Orth to fluccish, was incomprehensible much like how the praxis of kineograms would have been to a Millenarial. I reckoned I’d rather have watched some spec-fic Speelies accessed from reticulum on my jeejah.

That’s exactly how it was for the first few chapters. But, once I got hang of the made-up dialect after trudging through first hundred pages, it quickly became compelling.

Anathem is set on a different planet Arbre which is much like our own except for its own 5000 years of history. Book introduces us to a society where the scientists, mathematicians, philosophers or as they are called in Arbre, the Theors, have isolated themselves up in concents (a building which is a working clock in itself. Awesome!) dedicating themselves to a life of Theoric pursuit, uncorrupted from influences of ‘Saecular’ culture. Such a congregation of thinkers is called a Math and they abide by a strict code of discipline. A person who takes the vow to lead such a monastic life inside the stone walls is called an avout. The Math is basically cut out from the outside world except for a ten day long ‘Apert’ when gates of Math are opened to the ‘Saecular World’ and the avouts inside, are allowed to roam and interact with the outside world. The Avouts usually are ‘collected’ from outside during such Aperts. The discipline is maintained by a management team known as Heirarchs who are the only ones avouts of each Math interact with apart from their own fellow Mathers. Heirarchs also interact with the Saecular Powers outside as total isolation of the math is impractical. The Saecular society is a semi literate class of people obsessed with Praxis or technology. Saeculars are often Deolators, or believers in God.

Such a society was enforced upon after the “Terrible Events” during the course of their planets’ history which took place due to uncontrolled use of technology, developed by the government in complicity with some of the finest Theors, that almost destroyed their planet (think Einstein and Nuclear Bombs). The then thinkers reckoned that isolation of the greatest minds from technology or praxis is only way to ensure that scientific knowledge is constantly developed and praxis is kept in check. Meanwhile outside the walls of the concent, as Stephenson puts it, the society continues in ‘endless series of booms and busts and Renaissances and dark ages and world wars’. Thus, the knowledge is preserved inside the walls of the concent unaffected by the turbulence in world outside.

Title Anathem refers to the procedure of ‘throwing back’ or ostracising an avout who has violated the discipline from the Mathic society.

(*Minor Spoiler Alert*) The story is about Fraa Erasmus, an avout of Decenarian Math at a concent, who breaks the discipline and goes AWOL in order to find his Anathemized mentor, whom he believes was onto a dark secret, and unwittingly finds himself in midst of an adventure when the whole world as they know it is turned upside down at the prospect of an Alien contact. Erasmus travels through harshest places on planet, visits oldest temple ruins of the world, thwart conspiracies,  come in terms with the darkest secrets of the Mathic world before inevitably, being launched into space. The plot ends in one confusing climax involving different narratives (or timelines we say in Earth) which left me a bit disoriented. (*Minor Spoiler Alert Ends*)

Book indulges in some very heavy philosophies like Platonic Realism which asserts that mathematical and geometric figurines are universal and exist outside of our brains as opposed to Nominalism which states that cosmos have no inherent meaning outside of our brains (Philosophies, I wouldn’t have read normally). Book also introduces quantum mechanics, plunges and soaks itself in the physics of Many World Theory, challenges us through many befuddling thought experiments and delineates, through several and several pages of micro seminars, the idea of consciousness and how information flows between different parallel universes (that part is purely ingenious). And all of these in the fictional Arbrean terminology.

Neal Stephenson in his interviews acknowledges that the contents are actual works of science, philosophies and metaphysics. He had fought his way through many books on these subjects to create such a massive and a credible world. And in-fact it is a well built, real and a clever world.

Anathem isn’t a light read. It’s huge work of speculative fiction. First two hundred pages are world building only. By the time you come out at other end, it does feel like your brain had been stroked on a whetstone. But rather than being razorsharp, mine is hazier and is finding difficulty following the present narrative and am increasingly staring at the ceiling, more than before, contemplating reality of my own existence. Let me watch some Telugu dubbed movies to switch back to the narrative before I risk, utensils being hurled at me, once the woman comes back home and I, unconsciously, end up questioning reality of her existence.

*aathemaar-u – (noun) Old Malayalam term for a married woman considered in relation to her spouse, a paan spewing namboori. Also: pathni, ardhaangini, bharya, wife.


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