A Daring Feat Of Speculative Fiction – Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM


“Welcome to a world that only Neal Stephenson could create: math as religion! Amidst a tumult of squabbling, consumerist societies stand a handful of monastic enclaves where logic and science are sacred. When the entire planet is threatened, order and chaos make very strange bedfellows. Anathem is a cerebral romp!”

Hap Houlihan, The Morris Book Shop, Lexington, KY

Neal Stephenson is an American author, known for his speculative fiction works, which have been diversely categorised; as science fiction, historical fiction, maximalism, cyberpunk, and post-cyberpunk. Some of his world-famous books can be mentioned as ReamdeAnathemThe System of the WorldThe ConfusionQuicksilverCryptonomiconThe Diamond AgeSnow Crash, and Zodiac. Neal in his novels mostly explores areas such as mathematics, cryptography, philosophy, currency, and the history of science. He has also engaged in non-fiction article writings on technology in publications such as Wired Magazine.

A number-one New York Times Bestseller, Anathem, published in 2008 is perhaps the most brilliant literary invention of Neal’s fiction works. The Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel has been won by Anathem  and the reviews for having been dazzling: “Brilliant” (South Florida Sun-Sentinel), “Daring” (Boston Globe), “Immensely entertaining” (New York Times Book Review), “A tour de force” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), while Time magazine proclaims, “The great novel of ideas…has morphed into science fiction, and Neal Stephenson is its foremost practitioner.”

What if monasteries were occupied by scientists instead of members of religious orders? Initially, that seems to be the premise of this thoroughly remarkable novel, narrated by a young resident of such a monastery, and covering several eventful months. Over the course of 900 pages, Stephenson focuses on, among other things: Plato’s cave; Millenium clocks; structuralism vs. formalism; ontology; epistemology; government vs. academia; the worth of education; quantum mechanics; and pretend news on social media.  

Set on the planet Arbre, which is not the far-future Earth but similar to Earth in many ways, Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel, Anathem, follows the exploits of the novel’s narrator; Erasmus (Raz), after an alien spaceship is discovered in orbit around the planet. One of the substantial differences between Earth and Arbre is the division of the “mathic” and the “Sæcular” world. 3,689 years before the novel begins, the “Terrible Events” happened; these were a worldwide catastrophe that led to the Reconstitution, in which nearly “all educated and literate individuals were concentrated together in maths and consents.” These “avout” of the “mathic” world are segregated from the “Sæcular” population of Arbre. However, this has not perpetually been peaceful, and therefore the consents have been raided, or “sacked,” three different times. The novel begins roughly seventy years after the “Third Sack,” which was particularly brutal and violent.

Intersecting Science, Philosophy and Mathematics…

Major themes of the novel embrace the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the philosophical debate between Platonic realism and nominalism. A fabulously realized blending of Neo-Platonism, metaphysics, and quantum mechanics/physics.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson not only includes an exciting space travel sequence, but themes tied in with quantum mechanics, parallel universes and a heaping dose of philosophy.

Patrick [Amazon]

The author imagines an alternate universe where scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians live in seclusion behind ancient monastery walls until they are called back into the world to deal with a crisis of astronomical proportions.

In the course of the novel, Stephenson proposes a remarkable relationship between platonic truths, the multiverse, and human rationality/consciousness. The main idea is that the platonic realm is not a single transcendent world out there, however, the source of platonic ideas is to be found in the multiverse (called the “polycosm” in the book; the overall theory is called “complex protism” where protism=Platonism and “simple protism” would be the positing of a single platonic realm).

The type of multiverse being proposed within the book is inspired by the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics (QM). Hence, the answer is to own the mind and exploit the quantum realm. There’s a dialogue between the characters Orolo and Erasmus (pp. 543-548) where they discuss how the presence of the same person’s brain in multiple conterminous and interfering worlds provides the brain access to possibilities. Stephenson’s characters later build the point that it isn’t that the human brain is the sole factor that is in contact with possibilities; one ought to assume everything within the world experiences some contact, but it is in our own brains that we are able to best see the evidence manifested (pp. 690-92).

Besides the enticing order of a monastic closed atmosphere, one appeal of Stephenson’s construct is the almost detective enquiry of the “mathematical monks” who end up solving fundamental quantum theory questions about parallel universes. Positing contacts between parallel worlds is extremely supportive for creating exciting elements of the novel which involve characters and spaceships moving between worlds. Toying with all those theories is apparently another appeal of Anathem, as is fishing for well-known principles like Occams razor, the travelling salesman problem, cord theory, Einsteinian causality cone, Schrodinger’s cat, Platonic realism, and so on.

What I notice most appealing about this amazing novel is the reference to mathematical thinking and the many ways mathematicians share characteristics with monks. The universe fanciful by Stephenson segregates scientists and philosophers into convents, under strict rules that prevent any theoretical discovery to be turned into a technological application. This appears to have been imposed by the secular powers after scientific experiments on anti-matter, nuclear fusion or genetic engineering ran out of control. The final twist in the story is how the scientists manage to escape this prohibition while apparently sticking to it.

While the story is universal enough to appeal to all readers, it would undoubtedly appeal to scientific minds for its wealth of considerations on mathematics, physics, and philosophy.

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