Neal Stephenson has long been a favourite author of mine, from Zodiac and Snow Crash through Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, but this time he has truly out-done himself. With Anathem, he has created a reading experience that demands the suspension of your disbelief by its very logic – yes, it’s that twisted!
The story is set on an Earth-equivalent planet called Arbre, and is narrated in the first person by a young man named Erasmus. Our hero is a member of a mathic concent (read: monastery, but practicing science as opposed to worshiping religion) who discovers an anomaly in the skies. He is summoned, along with many of his fellow Avout (members of the concent), to study and ultimately board what turns out to be an alien spaceship. In doing so, he learns that reality is not what it seems – and if you devote enough time to it, you can shape reality…
Thematically, this masterpiece resonates with me – I am an empirical scientist, and if you cannot prove it with valid and reproducible data, I’m not having any of it. Having said that, I’m also bent towards theoretical physics – which is kind of like making it up as you go along! Purity of thought and openness to debate are two attitudes that, combined, lead to great discoveries – and discoveries that are untainted by personal desires or biases. In Anathem, Stephenson balances these two ethics to provide a framework for an almost-perfect world (much like our own!)
I could go into reams of detail, and post a blog entry as long as the book itself, but I shall refrain – if you come across it, pick it up and have a read. April is two-thirds of the way through it, and is reading it avidly at every available opportunity – if nothing else, it is an engaging read… and you might feel better about yourself having read it