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Anathem audio book by Neal Stephenson

01/02/2009. Contributed by Rod MacDonald

Buy Anathem in the USA - or Buy Anathem in the UK

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pub: Macmillan Audio. Price: $69.95 (US). 34 hours 28 CDs. ISBN: 978-1-4272-0590-2). read by: William Dufris, Oliver Wyman, Tavia Gilbert and Neal Stephenson.

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At first sight, this audio book is daunting. 34 hours and 28 CDs requires a big chunk of your time and almost 70 US dollars is a considerable chunk of money in these days of recession. However, that's not the reason it's daunting! This is a book to stimulate the intellect but like any exercise you have to be in the right frame of mind to make the effort. With undivided attention required at all times, it's not an easy book to listen to and I would hazard a guess that if you are tempted to digest it as a secondary occupation, from driving to domestic chore for example, you will very quickly fall by the wayside.

The book begins with a confusing timeline encompassing thousands of years of the history of the planet Arbre, strange events, some cataclysmic, the nature of which we can only guess at in anticipation of clarity emerging at some point in the proceedings. It's not long, perhaps 30,000 words or so which is nothing in this volume, before we discover the setting which dominates the thought processes and language of the characters. Ensconced within a type of monastery, brothers and sisters philosophise on the nature of the universe in the safe knowledge that they are uncontaminated by the transitory secular world beyond the walls.

This isn't a religious order. At first glance, it may seem like a monastic Christian organisation but it is actually scientific and mathematic in nature. Strangely, it does have much in common with Buddhist philosophy with the way the inmates behave in meditation adding to this supposition but in reality it's Stephenson's unique creation of a parallel universe both like and unlike our own. It's enigmatic!

After listening to this long book, the conclusion was reached that the story itself wasn't important. While a storyline had to exist as a vehicle for the book's momentum, the essence of Anathem is an exploration of its setting and an exposition of cryptic language delivery and it was the latter which posed many problems. While the printed book comes with a glossary, the audio book doesn't and trying to keep up with the idiosyncrasies of Stephenson's cryptic nomenclature isn't easy for someone like myself. Even then, referring to a glossary from an audio CD is a difficult exercise if you don't know the initial spelling and have to pause every time a reference as to be looked up. However, contrary to this argument, I believe the audio version is far more palatable than the book despite the shortcomings I've mentioned. The audio book actually sounds good and gives the text an extra dimension (if there are not enough dimensions in Anathem). For those wishing more information about the timeline and some of the cryptic language, a good starting point would be Stephenson's website at the following address:

Concerning the story, the main character Fraa Erasmas (brother to anyone else), selected from society 10 years previously because he was either a very gifted individual or a complete nerd/geek, has to venture out into the world's chaotic landscape of pot boiling people during a week long ceremony. The basic purpose of this ceremony is to let Erasmas and his contemporaries witness, albeit briefly, the fragility and idiocy of society at large so that they can hide away in the cloisters for another 10 years or so. Some of the inmates are secluded for up to 1000 years, isolated in cells away from Christmas TV advertisements and other such distractions so that they can philosophise and come to terms with the enigmatic existence of nature.

Stephenson has taken our planet's history and transposed it to another world in space and time. All of the philosophers are there but with changed names, likewise all the tools of our civilisation including mobile phones, television and transport. The planet Arbre doesn't really exist! It's civilisation and timeline do not really matter! After listening to Anathem, I've come to the conclusion that it is an allegorical tale of class differences in human society. What classes do I refer to? It's got nothing to do with being rich or poor or being connected to genetic hierarchies involving castes and aristocracy, Samurai and serfs. The stratification is simple and straightforward, much more straightforward than Huxley's 'Brave New World' because there are only two layers in this planet's society, two layers quite distinct from each other in number and aspiration. Those who are bright and those who are stupid! Essentially, when all the fancy cryptic discourse and narration expounded in 'Anathem' is distilled, these are the two levels of society.

The allegorical tale refers to academia and the rest of the world's population. Think of Oxford and Cambridge, Yale and Harvard! Perhaps this Concent in which all the brothers and sisters remain secluded from society is just like these institutions and their ivory towers where dons spent a lifetime studying Greek triremes without ever having been to sea or, indeed, postulate the fate of the distant universe without ever using a telescope. The old joke about Fred Hoyle, when presented with a telescope, asking which end he was supposed to look through is maybe not entirely inaccurate.

Yes, the world is divided between the intelligent and not so intelligent. The intelligent have one over on the rest of us unfortunate mortals who purportedly go about our daily lives with cell phones stuck to our ears but how does Stephenson classify intelligence? What about Australian aborigines? Isaac Asimov once talked about intelligence being okay but when his car broke down he had to call a mechanic to fix it. And where does Stephenson himself fit into this arrangement? I suspect he'd want to be in the perceived upper echelon but at the same time requires the masses to purchase his books.

Much of 'Anathem' is emperor's new clothes stuff. I believe the language is a gimmick and as such it actually works. It's a puzzle...a new form of language and a challenge to master but it's no more than that. The cover of the book has a diagram of an analemma, the figure of eight pattern that the sun makes in the sky over a year. Yet more smart beggar stuff! Perhaps 'Anathem' is designed to be somewhat like Stephen Hawking's 'A Brief History Of Time' which many people purchased, few actually read and fewer understood but which nevertheless took pride of place in the bookshelf as a display of intelligence.

In saying all that, I would be quite pleased if I could write a book a tenth as good as Stephenson's 'Anathem'. There are many delightful aspects to the dialogue, diversions and cameos, which keep the reader intrigued. Philosophical arguments are abundant and irrespective of the names of the philosophers, the arguments are still the same as those put forward by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Kant and Hume. It has a certain amount of Ludwig Wittgenstein in its approach to language comprehension but it is to quantum mechanics and the philosophical questions put forward by Heisenberg, Schrödinger and others which dominate the outcome of the book.

That's the first quarter of the book discussed...and now to the rest of it! Stephenson, it must be admitted, is a clever beggar because after establishing all this, he rather turns everything on its head when Erasmas and his colleagues go out into the real world. He is also a shifty beggar, not because he is duplicitous but because, not satisfied with one universe, he decides to invoke a multitude of parallel universes and parallel people with a lot of shifting between them all. Erasmas should have stayed in his cloister!

Remember the timeline mentioned earlier? It only becomes important when the world is turned upside down and the real reason for the existence of the Concent is revealed...well, eventually revealed. I must confess, I wasn't expecting an alien visitation and I wasn't expecting all the ramifications derived from this visit and the appearance of the other characters involved in the cataclysmic changes taking place to this world. I wish I could spoil the book for you by telling you what happens though I would find this difficult (nothing related to me being a nice person) because I don't fully understand what happens in 'Anathem'. Okay, I've got a good idea but I'm not sure. This is the good aspect about the book and its enigmatic nature which will endure long after many people have digested the contents. Arguments are sure to happen! Website discussions are already taking place!

Think perhaps of the ivory towers. At a relative modest cost to society it's a good way of keeping these people out of harms way while at the same time maintaining a reserve list for times of trouble. One only has to think of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park! Is this the real purpose behind the Concent?

One could speculate forever, including thoughts about the alien visitation and the parallel worlds. These lie in wait for the 'Anathem' reader and listener, ready to confuse the confused even further. My own speculation is that the alien is not an alien and all the parallel worlds of Schrödinger cat variety are only a bi-product of the Anthropic Principle, basically the future dragging or directing the past to meet itself. This isn't time in's something more complicated and if I delve into this subject further it's me who will be wearing the emperor's new clothes. As mentioned, the audio book is an improvement on the paper production but it comes at considerably more cost and at the expense of a helpful glossary.

'Anathem' itself, with many reservations, is a very worthwhile book. In a work of this nature, pleasing everyone is an impossible task but for those who actually take the time and trouble to digest the text the rewards will come. It is a book which, owing to its controversial nature, will not be put down. The only thing I can say about its future is that it will never be a movie or TV series.

Rod MacDonald

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This book has 169 votes in the sci-fi charts

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