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Anathem by Neal Stephenson

January 27, 2011

Anathem is one of those books.  A tome.  A doorstopper.  An epic.  It clocks in at a couple of pounds and nearly 1,000 pages, complete with notes on the pronunciation at the beginning and a glossary and three mathematical proofs at the end.

But this is Neal Stephenson.  What were you expecting?  The premise is simple: math monks.  In a universe eerily similar to ours, society decided it would be a good idea to cloister its scientists and mathematicians in “concents” where they live ascetically and get to see the outside world every 1, 10, 100, or 1000 years, depending on their order.  Erasmas, a young fraa of the decennial order, is about to celebrate his first open house since he joined the concent ten years ago.  But as the day of the opening approaches, strange things begin to happen.  He and his scientist monk buddies have to sneak around the Wardens Regulant and the Inquisition to investigate the deepening mystery.  Many gratuitous Platonic dialogs ensue.  The reveal is just too cool to spoil here.

The characterization is decent, but in true Stephenson form, where the story really shines is in all the extra goodies he manages to pack into the text.  Like the title.  In our world, the words “anthem” and “anathema” are not etymologically related.  But what if they were?  What if they both stemmed from the same root, some ancient word still in use by monks who don’t get out much?  When one of the scientists is excommunicated from their concent, the bells ring anathem.

Puns abound.  A smattering of Latin will help you to get the most out of this book.  A good grounding in ancient history, philosophy, geometry, and physics wouldn’t hurt, either.  And don’t miss the reference to Star Trek.

If you’re up for some mental exercise and you don’t mind a rambling “plot”, check this book out.  Stephenson’s little bonuses are well worth it.


The equivalent of Jews in this world is the IT department.  I … can’t explain.  You’d just have to read it for yourself.

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