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Extended Summary

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 entire section is 3,745 words.)