Of Ita and Theors: Anathem – my favorite read of 2008

Like many others, I gave myself a 50 book challenge for 2008.  (Actually my personal challenge went from 1 Dec 07 to 30 Nov 08, but that’s a minor detail.)  Unfortunately, I only got through 40 books in the past 12 months (though some were as long as several books); fortunately, most of those 40 were good, quality reads.  I also managed to meet my committment to read more fiction.  (If you are interested, you can see my complete list on Shelfari.com.)

Anathem by Neal StephensonThough I enjoyed reading all of these books, by far my favorite of the year was Neal Stephenson‘s newest book, Anathem.  In fact, it is probably safe to say that Anathem has replaced Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon as my favorite work of fiction.  The story is both broad and deep, as fans have become accustomed to getting from Stephenson.  Here’s the basic description of the book, taken from the jacket:

Fraa Erasmas is a young avout* living in the Concent of Saunt Edhar, a sanctuary for mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, protected from the corrupting influences of the outside “saecular” world by ancient stone, honored traditions, and complex rituals. Over the centuries, cities and governments have risen and fallen beyond the concent’s walls. Three times during history’s darkest epochs violence born of superstition and ignorance has invaded and devastated the cloistered mathic community. Yet the avout have always managed to adapt in the wake of catastrophe, becoming out of necessity even more austere and less dependent on technology and material things. And Erasmas has no fear of the outside—the Extramuros—for the last of the terrible times was long, long ago.

Now, in celebration of the week-long, once-in-a-decade rite of Apert, the fraas and suurs prepare to venture beyond the concent’s gates—at the same time opening them wide to welcome the curious “extras” in. During his first Apert as a fraa, Erasmas eagerly anticipates reconnecting with the landmarks and family he hasn’t seen since he was “collected.” But before the week is out, both the existence he abandoned and the one he embraced will stand poised on the brink of cataclysmic change.

Anathem is, in many ways, three books in one. If anyone were to make this into a movie, which I hope someone does, they should do it in three parts.  The breadth and depth of the stories would crumble with anything less.

The first act is an introduction to Fraa Erasmas and the mathic world.  Stephenson manages to keep you confused, curious, and frustrated – and thoroughly entertained – as we become comfortable with this strange yet familiar environment.  The world that Stephenson creates in Anathem is at once very Earth-like and very Earth-different.  There is familiarity in almost everything,  and yet everything is different.  For example, the concents are nothing more than monasteries, except that the inhabitants are theors, not enthusiasts (as it is here in our world).

Act 2 sees Fraa Erasmas and some of his new found Extramuros friends making their way across what is to Erasmas a strange, often frightening and dangerous world.  Like the middle of any trilogy, there is a lot of explanation of what has come before and setting up for what is to come.  Some reviewers have criticized this part of the book as slow and dragging down the plot, but to me it is an essential piece to understanding how Erasmas becomes able to face what is to come in Act 3.

Act 3 is the culmination of everything that Erasmas has learned, and has him questioning everything he knows and thought he knew.  It’s hard to say more without giving away anything/everything.  Suffice it to say, by the time you get to the end you’ll be ready to flip back to the first page and start all over again.

At its heart, Anathem is a reflection – a meditation almost – on the relationship between pure theory and the practical arts of engineering and technology, with a touch of skepticism and mysticism thrown in.  Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the book was also a contributing factor in the purpose and naming of this blog. It helped me realize – or, more accurately, remember – that what i really enjoy is figuring out where theory and practice come together in all the great achievements of the past and how I can use that intersection of theory and practice to achieve great things of my own in the future.

Not too bad for a work of fiction.

* For definitions of words or phrases from the world of Anathem, refer to the Dictionary 4th Edition, 3000 A.R.