Anathem

science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is a science fiction novel by American writer Neal Stephenson, published in 2008. The story is set on a fictional planet called Arbe. Major themes include the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the philosophical debate between Platonic realism and nominalism. The novel is written in first person, the narrator is named Erasmas or "Raz."

But Fraa Orolo’s words came back to me: they deciphered my analemma! As if he had somehow sent them a signal.

Part 1, ProvenerEdit

  • “Do your neighbors burn one another alive?” was how Fraa Orolo began his conversation with Artisan Flec.
    “Do your shamans walk around on stilts?” Fraa Orolo asked, reading from a leaf that, judging by its brownness, was at least five centuries old. Then he looked up and added helpfully, “You might call them pastors or witch doctors.”
    “When a child gets sick, do you pray? Sacrifice to a painted stick? Or blame it on an old lady?”
    “Do you fancy you will see your dead dogs and cats in some sort of afterlife?”
    • The questionnaire is used once every ten years to determine if civilization outside the monastic compound is beginning to regress.
  • In a sense the clock was the entire Mynster, and its basement. When most people spoke of “the clock,” though, they meant its four dials, which were mounted high on the walls of the Præsidium—the Mynster’s central tower. The dials had been crafted in different ages, and each showed the time in a different way. But all four were connected to the same internal works. Each proclaimed the time; the day of the week; the month; the phase of the moon; the year; and (for those who knew how to read them) a lot of other cosmographical arcana.

Part 2, ApertEdit

  • “Nothing is more important than that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.”
    • Orolo to Raz
 
Cloister: In Late Middle Orth, a garden or court surrounded by buildings, thought of as the heart or center of the math.
  • "They knew many things but had no idea why. And strangely this made them more, rather than less, certain that they were right."

Part 4, AnathemEdit

  • "Ylma is having you work it out in the most gruesome way possible...so that when she teaches you how it's really done, it'll seem that much easier....Like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer—it feels so good when you stop." This was the oldest joke in the world, but Barb hadn't heard it before, and he became so amused that he got physically excited and had to run back and forth across the kitchen several times to flame off energy. A few weeks ago, I would have been alarmed by this and would have tried to calm him down, but now I was used to it, and knew that if I approached him physically things would get much worse.
  • I went to Saunt Grod’s chalk hall and took a seat in the large empty space that, as usual, surrounded Barb. There was a lot he didn’t know, but nothing he was afraid to ask about, and ask about, and ask about, until he understood it perfectly. I had learned more theorics in six weeks, simply by being willing to sit next to Barb, than I had in six months before Apert.
  • Barb wanted only to understand this one problem or equation chalked on the slate before him now, today, whether or not it was convenient for the others around him. And he was willing to stand there asking questions about it through supper and past curfew. Barb’s willingness to do things the hard way in the near term was making his advancement toward the long goal — even though he didn’t have one — swifter and surer. And now I was advancing in step with him.
 
In a sense the clock was the entire Mynster, and its basement.
  • "Describe worrying," he went on.
    "What!?"
    "Pretend I'm someone who has never worried. I'm mystified. It don't get it. Tell me how to worry."
    "Well...I guess the first step is to envision a sequence of events as they might play out in the future."
    "But I do that all the time. And yet I don't worry."
    "It is a sequence of events with a bad end."
    "So, you're worried that a pink dragon will fly over the concent and fart nerve gas on us?"
    • Orolo and Erasmas
  • There’s no way to get from the point in Hemn space where we are now, to one that includes pink nerve-gas-farting dragons, following any plausible action principle. Which is really just a technical term for there being a coherent story joining one moment to the next. If you simply throw action principles out the window, you’re granting the world the freedom to wander anywhere in Hemn space, to any outcome, without constraint. It becomes pretty meaningless. The mind...knows that there is an action principle that governs how the world evolves from one moment to the next—that restricts our world’s path to points that tell an internally consistent story. So it focuses its worrying on outcomes that are more plausible...
    • Orolo and Erasmas
  • "I guess that people like to think they are not only living but propagating their way of life."
    "That's right. People have a need to feel that they are part of some sustainable project. Something that will go on without them. It creates a feeling of stability. I believe that the need for that kind of stability is as basic and as desperate as some of the other, more obvious needs. But there's more than one way to get it."
    • Orolo and Erasmas

Part 5, VocoEdit

 
Following the Third Sack…the Thousanders had holed up on their crag…the rest of the concent had been uninhabited for seven decades.
  • “Long ago it was learned that recruits — no matter how much training they had received — tended to forget everything they knew the first time they got punched in the face.”
    “The first time in their lives, you mean?”
    “Yeah. In peaceful, affluent societies where brawling is frowned on, this is a common problem.”
    “Not being punched in the face a lot is a problem?”
    “It is,” Lio said, “if you join the military and find yourself in hand-to-hand combat with someone who is actually trying to kill you.”
    • Part 5, "Voco"
  • “I almost feel a little let down that we are no longer breaking any rules.”
    “I know it must be an odd sensation for you, Fraa Erasmas, but you may get used to it after a while.”
    Barb didn’t get the joke. We had to explain it. He still didn’t get it.
    • Part 5, "Voco"

Part 6, PeregrinEdit

  • “Give me an adventure. I’m not talking about some massive adventure. Just something that would make getting fired seem small. Something that I might remember when I’m old.”
    “I can’t predict the future,” I said, “but based on what little I know so far, I’m afraid it has to be a massive adventure or nothing.”
    “Great!”
    “Probably the kind of adventure that ends in a mass burial.”
    • Cord and Erasmas
 
“Not being punched in the face a lot is a problem?”
“It is, if you join the military and find yourself in hand-to-hand combat with someone who is actually trying to kill you.”
  • “Do you need transportation? Tools? Stuff?”
    "Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs. We have a protractor."
    “Okay, I’ll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and a piece of string.”
    “That’d be great.”
    • Cord and Erasmas, Part 6, "Peregrin"

Part 7, FeralEdit

  • The work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how you got a productive economy. The people who'd made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power, but of story. If their employees came home with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories…made up to motivate them. People had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Sæculars were so concerned with sports, and with religion.
    How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure?
    • Erasmas speculating why others are joining his journey
  • "He told us that a lone avout was being pursued by a mob. We saw it as an emergence."
    • Vale leader explains to Erasmas how they came to rescue him
  • The suur with the needle kept running that string through my flesh and I gritted my teeth so hard I could hear them creaking. Finally she tied it off and walked away without a word — without even a look. I had an upsight: I might have warm feelings for these people because they had helped me and because I had seen way too many speelies about them before I’d been Collected. The Valers, however, had not been Evoked because they were nice guys.

Part 8, OrithenaEdit

  • "Quantum interference—the crosstalk among similar quantum states—knits the different versions of your brain together."
    "You're saying that my consciousness extends across multiple cosmi," I said. "That's a pretty wild statement."
    "I'm saying all things do," Orolo said. "That comes with the polycosmic interpretation. The only thing exceptional about the brain is that it has found a way to use this."
  • Neither of us said a word as we picked our way down the path for the next quarter of an hour, and the sky receded to a deep violet. I had the illusion that, as it got darker, it moved away from us, expanding like a bubble, rushing away at a million light-years an hour, and as it whooshed past stars, we began to see them.
 
I had the illusion that, as it got darker, [the sky] moved away from us, expanding like a bubble, rushing away at a million light-years an hour, and as it whooshed past stars, we began to see them.

Part 9, InbraseEdit

  • Jesry hadn’t mentioned Orolo until now. Certain nuances in his posture and voice told me he was grieving — but only because I’d known him my whole life. He was going to grieve in a funny, hidden way, over a long period of time.

Part 10, MessalEdit

  • Tris was pudgy and not especially good looking, but she had the personality of a beautiful girl because she'd been raised in a math.
    • A "math" is a co-ed academic/research monastery.
  • "I can hardly believe we are talking about a possibility so inconceivable as that other universes exist—and that the Geometers originate there!"
    In this, Zh'vaern seemed to speak for the entire table.
    Except for Jad. "The words fail. There is one universe, by the definition of universe. It is not the cosmos we see through our eyes and our telescopes—that is but a single Narrative, a thread winding through a Hemn space shared by many other Narratives besides ours. Each Narrative looks like a cosmos alone, to any consciousness that partakes of it. The Geometers came from other Narratives—until they came here, and joined ours."
    Having dropped this bomb, Fraa Jad excused himself, and went to the toilet.
    "What on earth is he going on about?" Fraa Lodoghir demanded. "It sounded like literary criticism!"
  • “These matters are important whether or not you take the trouble to understand them.”
    • Fraa Jad
  • Fraa Jad nodded, but it was hard to tell whether he was accepting the challenge, or really enjoying the cake.

Part 11, AdventEdit

 
"Conservation of momentum…It's not just a good idea — it's the law!"
  • Those who think through possible outcomes with discipline, forge connections, in so doing, to other cosmi in which those outcomes are more than mere possibilities. Such a consciousness is measurably, quantitatively different from one that has not undertaken the same work and so, yes, is able to make correct decisions in an Emergence where an untrained mind would be of little use.
    • Fraa Jad, on his polycosmic approach to problem-solving.
  • Much pruning had taken place in recent weeks. I am now absent in many versions of the cosmos where you are present.
    • Fraa Jad to Erasmas

Part 12, RequiemEdit

  • Yul had simply launched himself at the guy from some distance away, and body-checked him at full speed, stopping on a dime in midair as he transferred all of his energy into the target.
    "Conservation of momentum," he announced, "it's not just a good idea — it's the law!"
    • Yulassetar Crade removes a TV reporter in zero gravity

Part 13, ReconstitutionEdit

 
…when the gates of several Hundreder maths opened to reveal startling outcomes, e.g.…At Saunt Lesper's, no humans, but a previously undiscovered species of tree-dwelling higher primates.
  • But in that we started so many things in that moment, we brought to their ends many others that have been the subject matter of this account, and so here is where I draw a line across the leaf and call it the end.
    • Final sentence of the novel, possibly addressing criticism of the author’s previous endings

The DictionaryEdit

Fourth edition, A.R. 3000 (Anathem's glossary)

  • bulshytt: Technical and clinical term denoting speech (typically but not necessarily commercial or political) that employs euphemism, convenient vagueness, numbing repetition, and other such rhetorical subterfuges to create the impression that something has been said. …
    It is inherent in the mentality of extramuros bulshytt-talkers that they are more prone than anyone else to taking offense (or pretending to) when their bulshytt is pointed out to them. … One is forced either to use this “offensive” word and be deemed a disagreeable person and as such excluded from polite discourse, or to say the same thing in a different way, which means becoming a purveyor of bulshytt oneself.... The latter quality probably explains the uncanny stability and resiliency of bulshytt.
  • to go Hundred: The expression can be traced to the Third Centennial Apert, when the gates of several Hundreder maths opened to reveal startling outcomes, e.g.: at Saunt Rambalf's, a mass suicide that had taken place only moments earlier. At Saunt Terramore's, nothing at all — not even human remains. At Saunt Byadin's, a previously unheard-of religious sect calling themselves the Matarrhites (still in existence). At Saunt Lesper's, no humans, but a previously undiscovered species of tree-dwelling higher primates.

Stephenson on AnathemEdit

  • So I’m well aware that there are certain people frustrated with the endings of my books…Once you write a book or two with controversial endings — and that meme gets going, of “Stephenson can’t write endings” — then that gets slapped on everything that you do no matter how elaborate the ending is. I think Anathem does OK on that score. I’m sure that I’ll be hearing from some of the “Stephenson can’t write endings” people, but I think that it has a decent enough ending.
    • Response to audience question at a Authors@google appearance, Google headquarters, Mountain View, CA., September 12, 2008
  • As far as culture and politics are concerned, the important theme is long-attention-span vs. short-attention-span thinking. I'm sure that your readers can think of any number of ways in which having a longer attention span can be useful. But I'll name one. Bankers with long attention spans don't lend money to people who can't pay it back. If we had more bankers who adopted a long-term view of their responsibilities, we might not be in the middle of a financial crisis that is blowing away 150-year-old investment banks.
    • In response to whether Anathem "reflects today's culture or politics," from an interview published Sept. 22, 2008 by MIT News

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