Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3745
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...
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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 forbidden from using the telescope. Now, however, he only declares that he finds it “cheeky” rather than surprising. When questioned, Orolo goes on to explain that although he never saw the Geometers’ spaceship very closely, he decided that he was able to make observations based on certain “givens.”
Orolo goes on to lead Raz through a thought experiment in which the latter might attempt to explain what "Orolo" is to the Geometers. He concludes that consciousness would require Raz to
see only one side of me, but you are all the time drawing inferences about my other side—that my bolt continues round in back, that I have skin—inferences that reflect and innate understanding of theorical laws. You can’t seem to make these inferences without performing little thought experiments in your head: ‘if the bolt didn’t continue round in back it would hang differently,’ ‘if Orolo had no skin his guts would fall out.’ In each of those cases you are using your understanding of the laws of dynamics to explore a little counterfactual universe inside of your head, a universe where the bolt or the skin isn’t there, and you are then running that universe in fast-forward … to see what would happen. And that is not the only such activity that is going on in your mind when you describe me to the Geometers … because you are forever making allowances for the fact that you and the Geometers are in different places, seeing me from different points of view, taking in different givens.
At this point, Raz suggests that it seems “fanciful to think we are all the time erecting and tearing down counterfactual universes in our minds,” but Orolo maintains that it seems fanciful to think otherwise. In their next day of “Dialog,” they discuss an elementary particle that will either spin up or spin down. Orolo considers that there are two cosmi that exist for each state the particle could be in and "it’s better to say that those two cosmi exist before the measurement is made, and that they interfere with each other—that there is a little bit of crosstalk between them—until the measurement is made. And then they go their separate ways.” Raz begins to put this together and concludes that there is
just a lot of different copies of me—of my brain—each really existing in a different cosmos … and they interfere with one another … My brain doesn’t have to support this hugely detailed, accurate, configurable, quantum-superposition-supporting model of the cosmos any more! All it needs to do is perceive—to reflect—the cosmos that it’s really in, as it really is. … You’re saying that my consciousness extends across multiple comsi.
Further, Raz points out Orolo, the brain engages in “crosstalk” across the different cosmi.
Unfortunately, before they are able to conclude their discussions, the Geometers send a spaceship to Orithena. When the Avout open the hatch, they discover a dead geometer inside. She has been shot, suggesting that the Geometers are divided. The Geometers go on to “rod” Orithena and although Raz and his sister escape, Orolo is killed while saving the Geometer’s body from destruction. By studying the body, the avout discover matter from several different cosmi.
Alone and mourning, Raz’s journey continues in Tredegarh at the Convox. Though some disapprove of Raz for traveling to Orithena, he is ultimately welcomed back into the mathic world by the aut “Inbrase.” Life at Tredegarh is different from life at Raz’s previous concent, particularly in the way people dine at “Messal.” Though Raz is no longer a fid, he will now act as “servitor” to his new “doyn,” Fraa Lodoghir. Fraa Lodoghir mocks the Edharians for their belief in the HTW and humiliates Raz in an interview before the Convox after the latter's Inbrase. For this, Raz spends his time dreaming of punching Lodoghir in the face rather than acting as his servitor. However, though he does not like Fraa Lodighir, his new position allows him to take part in the “Plurality of Worlds Messal,” which Ignetha Foral, who should be addressed as “Madame Secretary,” will attend.
They are also joined by other avout, including Fraa Jad. The strangest person at the table might well be the Matarrhite Zh’vaern. The Matarrhites are unusual because they wear their bolt so that it covers their entire body, not to mention their very strange food. During their first Messal, they soon discuss the plurality of worlds and Fraa Jad, who rarely speaks, suddenly declares that
there is only 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.
At one point, Zh-vaern tells the story of an avout that was able to look at a copper bowl with a scratch at the bottom and change it so that the scratch disappears. One servitor declares that only an Incanter or a Rhetor could have done such a thing. (The novel’s glossary defines an “Incanter” as someone “said to be able to alter physical reality by the incantation of certain coded words or phrases,” whereas Rhetors can change the past by altering people's memories.) That night, Raz eats some of Zh’vaern’s food and discovers the next day that the enzymes in his body were unable to digest it. He concludes that Zh’vaern is from another cosmos.
Raz and his friends plan a trap and confront the Matarrhite, revealing that Zh’vaern is actually a Laterran Geometer named Jules Verne Durand. Jules explains that he is the most accomplished linguist on the Geometers’ spaceship and that he has been sent down by a rival faction aboard the ship to discover whether Incanters and Rhetors exist on Arbre. Having revealed their awareness of Jules’ presence, the avout quickly depart Tredegarh in an “Antiswarm” planned by Ala before the Geometers can destroy them.
Raz finds himself in a cell led by Lio. His friends, Jesry and Arsibalt, are with him, as is Fraa Jad and several Valers that saved Raz’ life during his trip over the frozen pole. After a brief journey by air, they are trained and launched into space, each of them in their own spacesuit and rocket. There is a great deal of debris launched into space along with the Avout. Most of the debris is a diversion, but some of it is meant to help them reach the Geometers’ ship, which Jules explains is called Daban Urnud. Other bits of debris are meant to destroy the Daban Urnud. Erasmus realizes that he has been asked to swallow an “everything killer” pill. If he carries it onto the ship, the Sæcular power may well trigger it, killing him and everyone else on the Daban Urnud. The launch does not entirely go as planned. Fraa Jad appears to die in orbit around Arbre. Erasmus goes off in pursuit of a nuclear device. When he wakes up again he, his friends, and Fraa Jad are reunited.
The avout make it to the Daban Urnud, where they discover a massive nuclear device known as a “World Burner.” The Valers act quickly to disable it while the Edharians enter the ship. Raz struggles to breathe aboard the Daban Urnud, but when he wakes up again he and Fraa Jad are disguising themselves so that they can penetrate deeper into the ship. It is at this point that Fraa Jad reveals that he is acting in several narratives at once. He is an Incanter.
Fraa Jad and Erasmus meet with Gan Odru, a representative of the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum are Geometers who pursue the Daban Urnud original agenda; they can be likened to the avout. Years ago the ancestors of the Geometers received a vision of a different world, which they interpreted as a summons. Raz recognizes the vision as a depiction of the “Third Sack.” The Fulcrum are opposed by the Pedestal, who are more militaristic and are led by Prag Eshwar. They can be likened to the Sæcular Power, and they tend to doubt the Daban Urnud's original purpose. However, now both factions are inclined to make peace with Arbre. Fraa Jad has manipulated the "Narratives" to make Prag Eshwar doubt whether military success will work with Arbre. But why does Raz need to witness all of this? Fraa Jad explains that Raz is to act as an "amanuensis," which is "a consciousness-bearing system, and so what it observes in its cosmos has effects on the others." When Raz suggests that Jad could serve this purpose alone, Jad explains that "much pruning has taken place in recent weeks. I am now absent in many versions of the cosmos where you are present." He goes on to explain that "absent" and "present" express the situation better than "dead" and "alive." When Erasmus next wakes up, he is reunited with Ala, who informs him that Fraa Jad died in orbit around Arbre.
In fact, though everyone claims that Jad died in orbit around Arbre, it is suggested that the Thousander may still somehow be "present." It is revealed that Lodoghir is a Rhetor and that he has been working alongside the Incanters. Lodoghir explains that Orolo cannot be brought back to life if the peace is to be maintained. Now, everyone must be careful to reveal what they know if they want their memories to remain intact. Ala goes on to inform Raz that the avout will no longer be kept apart from the Sæcular world. Instead, Arbre is now run by two “Magisteria.” It is explained that the avout “were herded into maths because of fear of their ability to change the world through praxis.” The concents were supposed to slow down that change so that it could be controlled. However, the Sæcular Power now feels that they have just been losing the arms race with other cosmi. There will now be two magisterial, but much remains uncertain. Raz reflects that
thirty-seven hundred years ago they rounded us up, yeah. But they didn’t take away our ability to mess with newmatter. In consequence of which, we had the First Sack. Fine. No more newmatter, except for a few exemptions that got grandfathered in … Time passes. We’re still allowed to do sequnce manipulation. Things get a little spooky. There’s a Second Sack. No more sequence work … except for a few exemptions that get grandfathered in … Fine. Things are under control now … until two and half millennia later, when it turns out that sufficiently smart people locked up in crags with nothing to do but think can actually come up with forms of praxis that require no tools are all the more terrifying for that. So we have a Third Sack—the worst of all, much more savage than the others. Seventy years later, the mathic world gets reëstablished. But, you have to ask yourself the obvious question…
Regardless of what has been grandfathered now, the avout go on to prepare for the future in this Narrative. In a conversation with Magneth Foral, Madame Secretary Ignetha Foral’s brother and the apparent representative of the “Old Lineage” that organized Orithena, Erasmus asks whether the Old Lineage summoned the geometers to Arbre. Magneth replies that
the avout have escaped from their prisons. Ita mingle and work by their sides. If all of these things have occurred as the result of a summoning such as you suppose, would it not be a great thing for the Lineage to have brought about?
While Magneth ultimately cannot say what his ancestors might have done, he, however, says that the Hylaean Flow clearly does pass between different cosmos, and the Daban Urnud will continue its journey.
When the novel ends, Erasmus and his friends are starting a new community and have begun construction of a new building. When asked whether it will become the “concent” of Saunt Orolo, Raz explains that it will not be a “concent” because the words to describe the homes of the avout under the Reconstitution have not been constructed yet. The avout, who have long been kept sterile have begun to breed again. The final scene of the novel is the union of Erasmus and Ala, and Raz explains that although his readers might “find it odd that a story like this one ends with a kiss,” he feels it is appropriate because “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 an end.”