Anathem

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Anathem is a novel by Neal Stephenson about a world with a monastic organization which, instead of studying God, studies science, mathematics, and philosophy. Members of a mathic order, or "avout", take vows to spend either 1, 10, 100, or 1000 years in complete isolation from the outside world in monasteries called "maths". The only exceptions to this isolation come when they are called out of the maths to help the sæcular world solve some crisis, and during the "sacks", when the sæcular world assaults the mathic orders for being too powerful. Like many of Neal Stephenson's other books he Shows His Work with several appendices of Socratic dialogues and at least a cursory understanding of geometry and platonic philosophy being helpful. Like Cryptonomicon, the book isn't really about the plot; just as Cryptonomicon was really about cryptology and The Baroque Cycle was really about modern economics, Anathem is really about Platonic epistemology. Applied and weaponized Platonic epistemology.


Tropes used in Anathem include:
  • Aerith and Bob: Erasmas, Orolo, Arsibalt, and Jules Verne, who is descended from our Earth.
    • Erasmas is named after Desiderius Erasmus, a (non-fictional) Catholic scholar of the Renaissance who compiled the first modern Greek New Testament.
  • After the End: The calendar sets the year 0 as the "Terrible Events," a near-extinction level nuclear/nanotechnological war. This was more than 3500 years ago. See also Scavenger World.
  • All the Myriad Ways: Choose your own adventure!
  • All There in the Manual: The glossary and the appendices.
  • Author Filibuster: And how.
  • Badass Grandpa: Fraa Jad.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The aliens can marginally breathe Arbran air and cannot digest the food, because they are from other universes where the atoms are shaped a little differently, making them all chemically incompatible with one another.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Fraa Erasmas and Suur Ala.
  • Call a Rabbit a Smeerp:
    • Many technologies and cultural references have been renamed - for instance, cell phones are "jeejahs", Arbre's version of the net is called the "ret" (starting from "reticule" instead of "network"), scientists are called "theors" and martial arts are called "vale-lore" or "vlor". Quite thoroughly justified, seeing as Arbre is within a chain of Hylaean Theoric Worlds. These are similar to one another by definition, and one of them contains Earth, with rabbits and Socrates and Occam's Razor, as opposed to smeerps and Thelenes and Gardan's Steelyard.
    • Call a Smeerp a Rabbit: With living creatures, as Stephenson says in the introduction that he has, for instance, chosen to refer to Arbran vegetables which are similar but not identical to carrots simply as "carrots."
  • Chekhov's Gun: More accurately, Chekhov's sextant, sphere, bolt, chord, Forgotten Superweapon, oxygen, and soup.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Barb/Fraa Tavener.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: "The Book" is composed of twelve chapters, each subtly wrong in its internal logic (nursery rhymes that don't quite rhyme correctly, for example), and each more challenging than the last. An avout assigned to penance via the Book must memorize, and answer questions about, his or her assigned chapters before returning to mathic life. Legend says only three people ever completed the twelfth chapter, and they all ended up completely insane.
    • Of course, those who have "had the Book thrown at them" do their penance in an open cell; it is implied that they could simply walk out the Day Gate, leaving the mathic life never to return, if they so wished.
  • Cut Himself Shaving
  • Defictionalization - Due to Translation Convention, the characters are actually speaking a fictional language called Orth rather than English. A friend of the author's developed the language as a full-fledged Con Lang at the author's request.
  • Doorstopper: It used to be the picture on that page for a reason.
  • Dying Dream
  • Death From Above: Rodding. Very simple. Drop a large dense rod from orbit. Works really good if you aim at a dormant volcano. Boom. Repeat.
  • Doomsday Device: Everything Killers are pill-sized neutron bombs that kill everything within a mile and can be placed just about anywhere. The World Burner is also Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Feelies: the advanced review copy came with a CD of mathematical chants that the characters sing throughout the book.
  • Five-Man Band: Raz's group in the early part of the novel forms a perfect Five-Man Band.
  • Funetik Aksent: Jules' Gratuitous French, justified as Erasmas has never heard French before and is just taking wild guesses as to the spelling.
  • Genius Bruiser: Fraa Lio and all the avout of the Ringing Vale. In fact, all of Erasmas' group are big, muscular guys who were selected for the heavy labor of winding the clock.
  • Gratuitous French: Jules speaks some, and the others don't understand him, going as far as calling rockets "monyafeeks" after misunderstanding his outburst upon seeing one.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Early on, after he gets jumped, Cord stops Arsibalt's nosebleed with what are clearly tampons. She calls them "blood soaker-uppers"
  • Hanlon's Razor, and its corollary, continually apply to Sæcular society over thousands of years.
  • Info Dump: Like all Neal Stephenson novels, Anathem contains many of them.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: In-universe, Anathem is written down by its main character and narrator, Fraa Erasmas. Overlaps with Recursive Canon, as described below.
  • A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away: at first; it later turns out to be The Multiverse, with one of the other dimensions very clearly specified to be near-future Earth.
  • Lost Superweapon: World Burner and Everything Killers, oh and the ability to manipulate the multiverse with nothing more a little chanting.
  • Mind Screw: Plotwise, the book is fairly straightforward, until Erasmas and Fraa Jad board the alien spaceship, at which point multiple timelines/universes get involved and it's anyone's guess what the hell is going on. It gets better by the conclusion, though.
  • The Multiverse, thoroughly deconstructed.
  • Morph Weapon
  • Mountain Man: Yul, as a near-future-tech incarnation of this trope.
  • My Nayme Is: Erasmas, Lio, and Tulia are bastardized from the real-world names Erasmus, Leo, and Talia.
  • Nanomachines, or rather, the femtotechnology of Newmatter.
  • Noodle Implements: Averted. Quite detailed about the use of that protractor.
  • No Periods, Period, Partially averted: it was danced around when Cord used her "blood soaker-uppers" (the appearance of which were described in detail as what could only be tampons) to stop Fraa Arsibalt's nosebleed.
  • The Obi-Wan: Fraa Orolo
  • Orion Drive: a spacecraft that travels between different dimensions and uses an Orion-style propulsion system. This ship, the Daban Urnud, is discovered by observing the nuclear explosions used to modify its orbit.
  • Really Seven Hundred Years Old: Fraa Jad and, it is hinted, at least some of the Thousanders of the Three Inviolate maths, due to a praxis (read: technology) that allows them to be able to live around their stores of nuclear waste. Involves quantum immortality.
  • Recursive Canon: In addition to the Literary Agent Hypothesis being in use, earlier chapters of the book are discovered by concent officials at one point in the story, and they directly quote parts of the story as evidence in a hearing, which, of course, is written down in the book...
  • Red Shirt: The Valers avert this pretty hard in Mahsht.
  • Rock Beats Laser: (see page quote). Works until both sides break out the femtotechnology, planet burners, and everything killers.
  • Rubber Forehead Aliens: The people on the ship look human, but slightly different in a way that Erasmas can't quite describe. Justified, in that they're humans from the universe next door).
  • Schizo-Tech: Justified.
  • Scavenger World: Played with and justified. Arbre has been at a relatively high level of technological development (on and off) for at least four thousand years. Background events suggest that the natural resources of the planet are almost completely depleted. The cars are powered by a processed fuel that originates in genetically engineered trees, and strip-mining abandoned cities for raw materials is a major industry. Several key pieces of high technology are built from designs that are hundreds or thousands of years old. This includes the space suits.
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!
  • Shout-Out: One of the Iconographies the sæcular world somtimes associates with the avouts invokes Star Trek.
  • Show Within a Show
  • Shown Their Work: a given for Neal Stephenson novels. Three appendices provide intricately-constructed mathematical underpinnings for plot events or, occasionally, just some exposition. The credits for the book are voluminous and kept online for ease of update.
  • Someday This Will Come in Handy
  • Space Jews: The Ita are a caste of people who deal with tasks that the Avout are sworn not to, and thus must be segregated from the Avout. Some attitudes towards them seem to parallel medieval Catholic attitudes towards Jews. It's possibly lampshaded by their skullcap hats.
  • Strawman Political: Poor Fraa Lodoghir, who exists for the sole purpose of asking stupid questions on behalf of the Procian school of thought. Perhaps the first recorded instance of a Strawman Quantum Theorist.
    • Although his final conversation with Erasmas suggests this was Obfuscating Stupidity and he knew precisely what Fraa Jad was capable of and did.
  • Take My Hand
  • Tomato Surprise: Jules Verne Durand.
  • Translation Convention: The book is written by its protagonist/narrator in Orth; it's just presented to us in English for our benefit. Nearly all dialogue is actually in Orth, with some small parts in Fluccish, though both languages are presented to us in English. The only actual Orth we get to see consists of character/place names. Also, when one character who speaks French shows up, his French is written in a Funetik Aksent, as the narrator has no idea how French is supposed to be spelled.
  • Uncanny Village: Orithena appears to be a Concent but is subtly different.
  • Unreliable Narrator: It's not that he's lying, it's just that the records on hand prove him wrong...
  • Warrior Monk: Lio and the avout of the Ringing Vale, though they're monks of logic and science rather than religion.
  • Wrench Wench: Cord