Neal Stephenson's Tale of Two PlanetsS

Neal Stephenson's new novel Anathem comes out next week, and there's something very timely about his tale of aliens on a parallel Earth whose inhabitants are locked into an occasionally-catastrophic conflict between scientific and religious institutions. The planet Arbre, which is very much like Earth in some ways, differs from our world one major respect. Its religious and scientific institutions are essentially reversed. Monks called the avout live ascetic lives studying science in gracious, ancient "maths," while the so called "saecular" world is populated with Deolators (god-worshipers) who are obsessed with religion and technology. Stephenson's world-building skills, honed by the exacting work he did on his recent Baroque Cycle trilogy, are at their best here. Anathem is that rarest of things: A stately novel of ideas packed with cool tech, terrific fight scenes, aliens, and even a little ESP.

As you can see in this recently-released trailer for the novel (below), there is plenty of room for mayhem and weird martial arts in a book that is also about abstract topics like the limits of consciousness and science. Main character Raz is a very young monk (called a "fraa" in Stephenson's invented language for Arbre) who discovers something peculiar in the night skies over the math where he lives. Turns out his mentor, Orolo, has seen it too — and as the plot thickens, Raz and his friends must defy the authorities both within and beyond their math to figure out what it is.

Without giving too much away, I can say that what they find is definitely in orbit and definitely not from their world. Most of the novel is consumed with questions about how the political and religious leaders of Arbre will deal with this discovery. More interestingly, however, it's also about how the avout and their applied-science counterparts in the saecular world will use evidence to determine what the object is and who is in control of it.

You could call Anathem a kind of meta-mystery, because it's not just about finding clues. It's about how you know something is a good clue, and how you come to gather evidence in the first place. One of the fascinating things about the culture of the avout is that they are ruthless questioners, trained from a young age to take nothing at face value and to think of intellectual debate almost as a kind of martial art. At many points in the novel, you'll find yourself getting viscerally involved in a long conversation between two avout — perhaps more involved than you are during an awesome battle scene when a huge pile of science monk fighters take on a huge pile of gangsters in a remote arctic city.

These conversations are where Anathem delves deeply into questions of science versus religion. While some of these questions remain unresolved, the novel is firmly on the side of rational inquiry — not just as a good way to resolve debates, but as a form of survival. At the same time, Stephenson suggests a new way of looking at science: Not as a bunch of guys hawking operating systems, but as a group of holy people whose work is profound enough to transcend time. It's impossible to convey how gorgeous and bewildering this view is for those of us who've been trained to view laboratories as the opposite of monasteries. And yet it works, and is a beautiful way of exploring what can only be called the spiritual aspects of rationality.

One element of Anathem that reviewers have commented on quite a bit is its length: At 900 pages (not including several appendices where Stephenson explains various math problems), it's not something you can read on a plane ride. In part, this is Stephenson's deliberate effort to bring readers into the same mindset as his avout, who spend years working quietly on very large problems and limit their contact with the outside world sometimes for a thousand years. A particularly intriguing group of avout called "thousanders" live in "concents" that exchange information with the outside world only once every thousand years. They replenish their populations only with babies they adopt from saecular families, so nobody in the group has ever been exposed to the outside world since infancy.

Spending many days or weeks focused on a very complicated novel, filled with mathematical formulae and discussions about consciousness, affects the reader's own mind. It fills you with an odd sense of detachment and tranquility, forces you to imagine what it would be like to spend your whole life in quiet contemplation.

But the novel's length is also necessary to roll out Anathem's epic tale of a world whose entire social structure must change fundamentally in order for it to adapt to a new reality where they are not alone in the universe. Anathem's length is no greater than that of most science fiction trilogies and epics. It only strikes us as impossibly huge because we are used to the idea that publishers will cut a long narrative up into three or four pieces and sell each one. As someone who would far prefer a sustained tale, rather than something artificially cut down into more easily-digested (or sold) chunks, I found Anathem's size pleasing rather than daunting.

Anathem's epic stretch also underscores something about the novel that will intrigue anyone who reads a lot of contemporary science fiction. There is no singularity, no dramatic break with history where everything becomes incomprehensible to those who have lived before. Instead, there is gradual change over time punctuated by moments of intense activity that don't always shift the culture very dramatically.

Neal Stephenson's Tale of Two PlanetsS

In Arbre's many thousands of years of recorded history, there certainly have been upheavals and transformations. But despite developing both nanotechnology and sophisticated genetic engineering, the people of the planet have not turned into a hyper-conscious ball of nanites or half-monster gynoids. In fact, one premise of Anathem is that the thousanders are able to leave their concents every thousand years and interact with the world they find there. Sure, the thousanders are confused by what they find and can't speak the language — but they are also able to figure out the world they find, take it in, and understand the changes well enough to learn from them.

Reading Anathem is worth it just to have a story that convincingly shows us a sweep of history that develops realistically without a singularity.

There are some problems with Anathem, especially when Stephenson wades a bit too far into X-Files territory with his "power of the mind" stuff. Let's just say that certain avout have discovered that consciousness might be affecting the physical world. It's jarring to find weird puddles of this new-agey nonsense in what is generally a scientifically rigorous novel. But it's easy to put this stuff aside, or think of it as a scientific discovery that defies our current understanding of what's scientifically possible.

Ultimately, Anathem is a mind-bending look at the collisions — and collusions — between what we believe and what actually exists in physical reality. And it's definitely one of Stephenson's finest novels, perfectly showing off both his talent for explaining complicated ideas simply, and his seductive ability to complicate even the simplest observation to show you a whole new way of looking at the world. For in the end, Anathem is really about two planets: Arbre, and it's mirror-world, Earth. To understand Raz's planet is, in some basic way, to understand our own.

Anathem [via Amazon]

Anathem has been nominated for a 2009 Hugo and a 2009 Clarke award. Read about all the 2009 book award nominees here.

Image of the Millennium Clock via Long Now Foundation.