Anathem by Neal Stephenson – Book

Although I have enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s books in the past I had a little trouble finding the best way to read Anathem. First of all, it uses the word “maths” a lot, and math is not my strong suit, although in the end no deep knowledge of math was required. Since Stephenson is building a world, the planet Arbre, the learning curve is a bit steep in the beginning. The characters have names that are almost familiar, but just a bit off. Main characters are Erasmus, Lio, Arsibalt, Jesry, Tulia, Ala, Orolo, (and many, many others).

So first I tried Audible, but I learned that listening to books puts me to sleep, which tends to destroy the continuity. I bought the paperback so I could read along but the print was just too small. Finally I reserved a hardcover copy from the library and that had another disadvantage. Once I started reading the hardcover edition I could not put this book down.

The book’s title, Anathem– a mash-up of anthem and anathema –  is a perfect example of the way Stephenson plays with our reality to make his invented world seem close enough to what we know in our own world that we can catch on to life in the Concent of Saunt Edhar fairly quickly. By the time we get to sample what is going outside the walls of the concent we are easily able to adjust.

Our characters are on the same clock-winding team. Since the Third Sack praxis (technology) is outlawed in the concent so mechanics are handled in old school ways. This giant clock at the center of concent life is connected to the observatory on the roof and must be wound with ceremony every day. Bells and weights all play important roles in the clock ceremony and in the community. The similarity to a combined monastery and convent helps us realize that our minds already have a schema for this world.

We spend a long time getting acquainted with the world of the concent and the maths that are scattered around the planet. We learn that these communities are not about religion though; they are about philosophy, geometry, history, astronomy, and physics. We also learn that the concents are surrounded by secular cultures lead by the Sæculua and that the concents open their gates at intervals and these separate populations visit each other. Erasmus, first among main characters has a cousin, Cord, who lives in town.

Just as we get familiar with these two adjacent cultures we learn through Raz’s “Fraa” (concent brother) – Orolo that something is going on with the Sun, something the members of the maths are not supposed to know about. But Erasmus is young and worried when Orolo is expelled from the Concent and he takes an enormous risk to find out what’s going on.

Worlds within worlds is a theme in Anathem. The concents share a design and ceremonies and titles. They all wear the bolt and chord and carry the sphere. Outside the concents where the people known as slines live differences vary by geography.

Eramus and his clock-winder group, in response to the emergency connected to what is going on with the Sun, get sent out of their concent to another, much larger concent for a Convox (a working conference). This does not go smoothly for Eramus who gets sent on a side mission by a Thousander prior to arriving at the Convox.

Eventually we see that Stephenson is headed to sucking us into a theory that says that there is more than one cosmos – there are cosmi. We also see that he is a unifier rather than a divider. Tag along with our heroes and see where this takes you and learn a whole new vocabulary along the way. (If you know your Latin roots you’ll have few difficulties.)

Neal Stephenson can transport me into one of his elaborate creations anytime and Anathem was no exception. The only problem is that landing back in my own reality required an airlock (metaphorically of course).

The Baroque Cycle, A Trilogy by Neal Stephenson – Book

I chose the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson because I wanted a long book to read and because this author has written other books that I enjoyed. Perhaps if I knew this trilogy of books ran to 2700+ pages I might have had second thoughts but my Kindle doesn’t deal with page numbers. I like to think that I would have read these novels anyway. It certainly was not a sprint: it was a journey – a journey in time, a mental journey, and involving lots of journeying by the books’ characters. Stephenson takes us to the 17th and early 18th century. This time period represents a transitional age in that the way men lived upon the earth was changing, in much the same ways that we are in a transitional age now.

Quicksilver introduces us to the Alchemists, who wished to find a way to turn base metal into gold. Quicksilver is mercury, which fascinated Alchemists with its unusual behaviors as a metal that is liquid at room temperature and a metal that beads and rolls around as if it were solid. It was felt that quicksilver, so often found near gold deposits, was somehow transformed into gold by some kind of mysterious natural process. The Alchemists were almost done with their investigations, having failed so often in their endeavors. But the experimentations they had conducted gave them a great scientific curiosity about everything in the world around them, both nonliving and living. Out of the Alchemists came a group known as Natural Philosophers and we had the very beginning of Physics.

These were the days of Isaac Newton in England and Hooke in England and Huygens, a Dutchman, and Gottfried Leibnitz, a German. These men explored the insides of living things, they looked at everything under lenses that improved in quality as the trilogy progressed. They created “the algebra” and they began to see that all things were made of smaller things (atoms to Newton, monads to Leibnitz). Newton and Leibnitz both claimed to have come up with “the algebra” which made these two great men opponents and caused educated folks to divide into two camps depending on which great man they backed.

Stephenson gives us a fictional character to serve as a go-between for these great gentlemen who did not always agree with each other. Daniel Waterhouse is the character who speaks to all of the principals. He also avoids much of the Catholic – Protestant divide of the times by coming from a family that is neither. His father is persecuted for his beliefs, but Daniel is not. Daniel serves as our man in London and in Massachusetts where he is trying to set up the Massachusetts’ Institute of Technological Arts. (He is not the founder of MIT.)

The other two books in this trilogy – which jumps around in time and place – although not quite as neatly and tidily organized as I am making them sound, are called The Confusion and The System of the World. They take us out of London with a vagabond. On the “Continent”, we follow two very unusual fictional characters. We follow Eliza, the stunning and extremely intelligent ex-Turkish slave, captured by a French aristocrat with her mom and sold into slavery in Turkey. And we have Jack Shaftoe, a poor Englishman, also extremely intelligent, who becomes the King of the Vagabonds. Eliza and Jack fall in love when he rescues her from the Turks but their paths diverge. Eliza becomes wealthy by learning to invest in the Dutch “stock market” of the day. Dutch economics are superior to other nations earlier due to the trade of the Dutch East India Company. Eliza becomes a member of the court of Louis XIV and becomes a familiar figure at Versailles. Jack gets captured and becomes a slave rower on a ship bound for Africa. But he is too brilliant to stay down for long. Jack makes a plan, makes some friends and ends up taking us to visit all the world that was known at that time.

Jack’s plan involves stealing gold as part of a plan of retribution against the Frenchman who enslaved Eliza. He does not realize that this is known as the Solomonic Gold because it is bound to mercury. The nature of this particular gold had everyone chasing Jack and his men all over Christendom and beyond and puts his life in mortal jeopardy more times than you will want to count. The Alchemists and the Natural Philosophers are thrown into a total tizzy over this gold and several of our favorite characters barely escape with their lives and only manage it through the rather extreme machinations of Daniel Waterhouse and those he ropes into assisting him. Thus ends the age of Alchemy.

What follows are the beginnings of the Industrial Age. Here as magical science wraps up and practical science begins, just here when someone invents the “Engine that Uses Fire to Pump Water” and a contest offers a prize to anyone who can come up with a way to determine “the longitude” when on a sea voyage, things are as chaotic as they are here at the end of the Industrial Age in our real world.

The Baroque Cycle is a tale that will either entertain you over many a rainy and sunny day or will cause you to completely lose your patience and perhaps throw it at a wall. (Don’t throw your Kindle). Although I sometimes felt a bit crazed when I read for half a day and only progressed through 2% of the book, I never really wanted to stop reading it and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it’s not an experience I can recommend to anyone. You know if you are a reader who will love this or yawn over this. As for me I will eventually download another Stephenson tome and while away some more idle hours by allowing my mind to be taken somewhere/time else. (It is also a love story of sorts.)

“At some point, says Neal Stephenson by way of Daniel Waterhouse, the whole System will fail, because of the flaws that have been wrought into it…Perhaps new sorts of Wizards will be required then. But – and perhaps this is only because of his age, and that there’s a longboat waiting to take him away – he has to admit that having some kind of System, even a flawed and doomed one, is better than to live forever in the poisonous storm-tide of quicksilver that gave birth to all of this.