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Book review

Anathem

by Neal Stephenson

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Not many authors can start off in the “mystery world” genre, tour through hard science fiction, and end up being about what it is to be a conscious being, all while keeping your attention. It’s a tribute to Neal Stephenson that he can steer this path with Anathem, and make it thoroughly entertaining with it.

We start off in a world occupied by “fraas” and “surs”, who we soon work out are the friars and nuns of some kind of secluded community. Once every few years – 10, 100, and 1000 years, it turns out – the gates of these communities are opened, and for ten days the inhabitants can go out and mix with the “extramuros”, that is, those who live in the secular society outside the walls. Turns out this has been going on for nearly four thousand years. Only this time, events start to happen which turn that regular, ordered, world almost literally inside out… We get to follow along, narrated by one of the fraas, through all sorts of adventures – which I won’t mention because, spoilers. And once I’d made it through the first 100 pages or so, and was beginning to get to grips with the odd vocabulary and all the new words, this was a great adventure, excellently told.

One thing I will say is that this isn’t a book about monks and nuns, so don’t let that first 100 pages put you off. It’s a book about many things, but perhaps most of all it’s about the human consciousness – what it might mean to have one, why and how we might have one in the first place, and what the outer limits of having one might be. It’s set on a world very similar to Earth in many ways, and contains all sorts of entertaining indirect references to science curiosities we might know on Earth – from Roger Penrose’s non-periodic tiles to Kurt Godel’s theory of time travel. All done with Mr Stephenson’s usual flair and wit.

In the end, this was almost a totally brilliant book for me, and just missed it by not quite exploring some of those possibilities far enough. So four stars, not five, but definitely worth a read.

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