Anathem, Neal Stephenson (2008)

November 25th, 2009

Last year, my friend John and I exchanged long emails comparing history to a conflict between the Aristotelian viewpoint and the Platonist viewpoint. Thinking in terms of these two approaches to reality helps contrast the world of the Scientific with the world of Faith.

I am no philosophy student, but I have read a little. I took a few philosophy survey courses in. I read Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine one summer. In college I read some of the German Idealists and I enjoyed Teilhard. I read Kierkegaard, and the existentialists in high school.

I did not study philosophy in any organized way and there are huge holes in my philosophical readings. (I’ve never tried to read Schopenhauer.)

Reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem required every bit of philosophic knowledge that I could scrape out of my skull and I still think that I missed a lot.

Anathem is a Science Fiction novel that is framed on the Aristotle vs. Plato approaches to reality with a little bit of the Copenhagen School of Quantum Mechanics thrown in to create a world, not far removed from our own. In this world there are philosophic convents that are quasi-religious in their approach to philosophy and science.

The protagonist is a 19 year old who lives in one of the philosophic communities and spends his time "in dialog" or else goofing around with his friends. Stephenson lingers on interesting discussions about the nature of reality and what is the basis of human communication. I think many of the reviewers did not enjoy these the way I did. Some reviewers used words like ponderous, which means to me that they did not have the background to appreciate the long dialogs.

The protagonist is suddenly thrown into the center of world events when a visitor from another quantum universe arrives. He alone seems to have to key to stopping the inevitable war with these intruders from outside our universe.

In spite of the heavy philosophy and quantum theory, there is a good old fashioned Science Fiction plot here with action, adventures and a band of fighting Ninjas. It is very good stuff, but not for the faint of heart. I loved it, but your mileage may vary.

Note: I mostly listened to this on my iPod. For the first quarter of the book I used a different cheapo MP3 player that did not let me back up and replay sections that I missed or wanted to hear again. This forced me through in spite of having missed a few short sections. Skipping small sections did not really interfere with my appreciation of the book, but it makes me want to read Anathem again someday when I can take my time and really savor each word.

3 responses to “Anathem, Neal Stephenson (2008)”

  1. Ryan says:

    Sounds good, I read Snow Crash a long time ago, but haven’t read Cryptominicon.

    Has there been any talk of a sequel to Anathem?

  2. Keith says:

    Snow Crash, Cryptominicon. Keep reading Stephenson.

    I am also a fan of Vinge. Tru Fire Upon The Deep.


  3. Ryan says:

    I just finished this book and I loved it, although I know there is a lot of negative criticism for it out there after reading reviews online. Personally, it was one of those books that I got like a minor depression after reading because I was so immersed in the world and I liked the characters.

    Do you have any suggestions for books that are similar in style to this one? This book has renewed my love for reading science fiction and I can’t get enough now. I tend to like books that follow this archetypal coming of age/hero on a journey story line. I also really enjoyed the depth of philosophy, although I have no real background in the field. I just enjoy challenging myself and I like books that make me think along those lines. If you have any suggestions on books I may enjoy that are similar in nature to this that would be greatly appreciated, I wish there was a sequel.