Review: Anathem by Neal StephensonNeal Stephenson’s speculations on language and philosophy impress Christopher Brookmyre. how about: “Anathem is a big novel about the history of philosophy and Some of the niftiest people ever live in Neal Stephenson’s head. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, is one of my favorite books of all time—a thousand-page journey to another world that feels just a step removed.

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I think this novel is wonderful. So I don’t want to put you off.

Review: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

But let’s be clear: There is a strong case for thinking this book utterly tiresome. You’ll miss quite a lot if you do. Reading it will, however, involve developing an interest in the history and content of all of geometry, physics, mathematics, philosophy and quantum mechanics, each of them expressed in a new language, and set in an imagined society: There is the added deterrent that Neal Stephenson writes very big books.

You can’t read Anathem in bed unless you lie on your front. It’s the size of a breeze block, nearly as long and nearly as difficult as Roger Penrose’s Road to Reality: But if you have read that, you’ll have a head start.

The last straw is that it’s science fiction. Which everyone who doesn’t read science fiction hates, or thinks he hates. All that is the least of your worries. After all, Stephenson’s Snow Crash and The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon were all science fiction, and all long, but were none the less magnificent analyses of, respectively, cyberpunk linguistics, steampunk nanotech and historical cryptography.

Much more besides, of course, because Stephenson is the most relentlessly discursive writer. If he mentions breakfast cereal, he’ll not only tell you how it’s made, but how it’s packaged, distributed, retailed and consumed, and the history of the geology, agricultural development, economics, politics and the sociology of advertising involved in its consumption.

If you find that too tiresome, you’ll give up by page of this. If not, you’ll find that Anathem is set on Arbre, a world not unlike Earth, but one on which the pure scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and other geeks who might have played with Neal at school are segregated from the Saecular sic world.


The avout fraas and suurs live in concents convents where one concentrates or “maths”, and are more or less indistinguishable from our medieval monks and nuns, except that science is neao religion. Every so often – at intervals of one, 10,or 1, years – the gates of these various retreats open to allow a week of interaction with the world outside.

Anathem – Wikipedia

At Apert, slines chavs play about with speelycaptors video cameras and jeejahs mobile phonesslouch about in leisurewear, immune from the joys of discussing Platonic Ideals, Occam’s Razor or Euclidean proofs though Stephenson has renamed all these.

There is a glossary, stephebson reading on is the only way to get past it. You may have guessed that Stephenson’s heroes are all drawn from the confines of the maths; you may also have realised that there would be precious little story if they don’t get out into the outside world.

But for the first couple of hundred pages, we are given the brilliantly worked-out, but – for anathm reader – hard-going, account of life in the concent, including pages of how to wind a millennial clock by hand. Young Erasmus Raz and some of his colleagues are, though, at last expelled, after one of the avout has identified an alien spaceship hovering above the planet. The remainder of the book consists of their efforts to deduce, from Platonic principles, what it might be and how to interact with it.

This becomes a chase story as did Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle: Even as Raz struggles out of a fall into the polar ice, we have a long explanation of how he does it, how ice forms, and so on.

As the avout Swat team approaches the aliens, we have the same explanation of the gravitational pull of every tube within the alien craft. Only the aliens turn out not to be so alien, but rather to demand that you turn your attention back to quantum dynamics wake up at the back, there!


Pythagoras’s Theorem holds good. There may be infinite worlds, but the ones which don’t accord with reason don’t hold up. The chase sequences at the end, alas, don’t reward the effort the reader has put in to staying with the characters. Even so, there is a real ending as many readers thought there wasn’t for the Baroque Cyclealthough it seems a sentimental one.

In the realm of the avout

The great achievement of Anathem is that one realises that to be human, to understand what it is to be conscious, one needs to begin to engage with everything Stephenson wants to throw at you: To shy away from it is to refuse to be what you are capable of being. Anathem is a call to move into the world. For Neal Stephenson, that means the world of thought. Any other worlds are purely contingent: Get the best at Telegraph Puzzles. A collection of the best contributions and reports from the Telegraph focussing on the key events, decisions and moments in Churchill’s life.

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Andrew McKie commends the challenge presented by a vast and ambitious novel.

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