Set on the planet Arbre, Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel, Anathem, follows the exploits of Erasmus (Raz), the novel’s narrator, after an alien spaceship is discovered in orbit around the planet. In his “Note to the Reader,” Stephenson explains that readers should “know that the scene in which this book is set is not Earth, but a planet called Arbre that is similar to Earth in many ways.”
One of the key differences between Earth and Arbre is the division of the “mathic” and the “Sæcular” world. 3,689 years before the novel begins, the “Terrible Events” happened; these were a worldwide catastrophe that led to the Reconstitution, in which nearly “all learned and literate persons were concentrated together in maths and concents.” These "avout" of the "mathic" world are segregated from the “Sæcular” population of Arbre. Unfortunately, this arrangement has not always been peaceful, and the concents have been raided, or "sacked," three different times. The novel begins roughly seventy years after the “Third Sack,” which was especially brutal and violent.
The avout’s food prevents them from procreating and they take in promising children from the Sæcular world to maintain their population. Raz was one of these children when he entered the mathic world, and though he is nearing adulthood when the novel opens, he is still a “fid,” or a student. Raz’s concent is named after Saunt (short for "savant") Edhar. The Edharians are an unusual chapter of the mathic world because of their belief in the “Hylaean Theoric World,” or the “HTW.” The HTW dates back thousands of years to the story of Cnoüs and his two daughters Hylaea and Deät. Cnoüs had a vision of “another, higher world.” Deät believed that this world was a spiritual heaven “populated by angelic beings and a supreme creator," whereas Hylaea believed that this world was “the pure, eternal, changeless entities, such as geometric shapes, theorems, numbers, etc., that belong to another plane of existence.” Edharians believe that these “Cnoöns” or pure ideas travel from the HTW into the minds, or nerve tissue, of those who study those subjects. However, other avout argue that Edharian belief in the HTW is akin to a religion.
Though few avout are Deolaters, life for avout is a monastic life in many ways. For example, they are allowed few possessions, such as their bolt, chord, and sphere. These objects are made of “newmatter,” which means that they can be manipulated to do things that regular matter cannot. The bolt, for example, is a versatile form of clothing that can be manipulated to keep one warm or to keep one cool. The sphere’s size, shape, and density can also be manipulated. The avout also live in varying degrees of isolation from the Sæcular world. Unarians, for example, open the gates of the concent to the outside world (an “aut,” or ritual, that is known as “Apert”) and meet with outsiders once every year. Other orders of avout meet with outsiders once every ten years, one hundred years, or one thousand years. Male avout are referred to as “fraa” and their female counterparts as “suur.” Raz and his friends are Decenarians, and they can explore and interact with the Sæcular world during Apert once every ten years. The novel begins during a decennial Apert, which means that Raz can meet and mingle with his sister Cord.
Inside the concent, Raz has many peers, but his closest friends are his team of fellow fids with whom he winds the concent’s clock. In addition to Raz, the team of four consists of Arsibalt, Lio, and Jesry. While Jesry is well known for his intelligence and Lio is known for his skill in martial arts, Erasmus has developed a reputation for breaking the rules, and he is often characterized as a “hardened criminal” amongst his friends. In this respect, Raz is like his mentor, Orolo, who has recently been forbidden from using his telescope to gaze at the stars. By the end of Apert, Raz is punished. The “Book” is “thrown at” Raz, and he is forced to spend time studying and memorizing “subtly incoherent material.”
During his confinement, another avout leaves the concent in an aut known as “Voco.” While everyone else is otherwise occupied with the aut, Raz leaves his room and races off to the telescope to see what Orolo has been forbidden from studying. His actions are bold, particularly since there is strong suspicion that Orolo has discovered something that directly affects the Sæcular world, which the avout are forbidden from studying according to the “Cartasian Discipline.” Though Raz does not look into the telescope, he inserts a disc that will record its observations. When he is released, Raz graduates and learns that Orolo has asked that he be allowed to join the Edharian chapter of the concent, even though everyone knows that his mathematics are not as strong as those of his peers.
Unfortunately, this is not Erasmus’ last surprise. Before long, the concent’s avout are called together again. This time, it is Anathem, an aut “by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered.” Orolo’s name is called and he quickly removes his bolt, chord, and sphere before leaving. Afterward, Raz and his friends begin investigating Orolo’s actions and work, and they eventually conclude that Orolo was studying an alien spaceship. When Raz starts a relationship with his fellow Avout, Ala, they soon find evidence of the spaceship. However, before they have time to reflect on their discovery, Ala, Jesry, and several others are “evoked,” an aut by which the Sæcular Power calls upon Avout to leave the concent so that they can contribute their expertise to solving problems in the Sæcular world. Soon after, Erasmus is called upon as well. He leaves with several of his friends and Fraa Jad, a “Thousander.” Though Fraa Jad looks old, he is surprisingly energetic and flexible.
Outside the concent’s walls, Raz and the others are told that they need to make their way to Tredegarh as quickly and as covertly as possible because a “Convox” is being held there. At the Convox, the avout will meet and plan how to respond to the alien spaceship. Raz turns out to be the best equipped to help his peers travel outside of the concent. He makes contact with his sister, Cord, though it causes her to lose her job. She joins the avout and helps Raz organize the avout’s transportation. Though Fraa Jad does not socialize with the others very much, he does admit to Raz that he is well over a century old, meaning that the Thousanders have access to forbidden Praxis, or technology, in this case: sequencing.
Before the journey has much time to get underway, Erasmus discovers evidence of where Orolo went. When Jad sees the evidence, he tells Erasmus to disobey his orders and follow after Orolo. Erasmus agrees, though it means that he has gone “feral.” Cord joins him. They soon realize that Orolo went to Orithena, which is on the far side of the planet, and begin traveling north over the frozen pole in his footsteps. Along the way, they meet Yul, an outdoorsman and guide, who helps on their journey. Along the way, Yul and Cord start a relationship. During the adventure across the pole, Raz learns that many people in the Sæcular world are violently suspicious of the avout. He nearly loses his life to a mob of Deolaters, but is saved by a group of “Valers,” avout that study “Vale-Lore,” or martial arts. They too have been summoned to the Convox, but Raz continues on his quest in search of Orolo rather than traveling with the Valers.
While Raz travels, he learns that Jesry has been sent into space to treat with the alien spaceship. More has been learned of the ship since Raz was evoked. The aliens are referred to as “cousins” in the Sæcular world. The spaceship exhibits a proof of Pythagorean’s Theorem, which on Arbre is known as the Adrakhonic Theorem, so the avout have begun to refer to them as "Geometers." The ship also has pictures of four planets on it. Are each of these worlds that have been destroyed by the alien ship? Regardless, the attempt to treat with the ship ultimately fails. The Warden of Heaven, a religious leader in the Sæcular world that claims to “personify the wisdom of the mathic world,” is sent to the ship, but he dies while inside the spaceship and his body is ejected into space.
In spite of his adventures crossing the frozen pole, Raz is jealous of Jesry’s journey into space. When Raz and his friends arrive at Orithena, a volcanic island, they find avout mingling with the Sæcular world. When Erasmus approaches the concent, he is at first denied entry until he realizes that the concent traces its “lineage” to a point preceding the Cartasian Discipline. Though he wonders what in the Sæcular world could arrange such a thing, Raz’ thoughts are interrupted when he is reunited with Orolo. They discuss the alien spaceship, and Raz informs Orolo that it exhibits a proof of the Adrakhonic Theorem. Though Orolo was the first to discover the spaceship, he had not seen the proof before he was...
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