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Literature / Anathem

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"Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs. We have a protractor."
Fraa Erasmas

Anathem is a novel by Neal Stephenson about a world where monastic orders called "maths" isolate themselves from the rest of the world to study science, mathematics, and philosophy. When members of one of these maths make a surprising discovery, it's up to them to re-enter the "sæcular world" and use their skills to investigate and deal with the potentially global ramifications.note 

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:

  • Aerith and Bob: Erasmas, Orolo, Arsibalt, and Jules Verne, who is descended from our Earth.
  • After the End: The calendar sets the year 0 at the Reconstitution, which occurred shortly after the Terrible Events, a near-extinction level nuclear/nanotechnological war. This was more than 3500 years ago. See also Scavenger World.
  • All There in the Manual: The glossary and the appendices.
  • Batman Gambit: Fraa Lodoghir suggests that all the events of the book occurred because the Thousanders wanted to end the subjugation of the mathic world by the sæcular, and so, right before the Third Sack, they used their Incanting praxis to call alien beings from various parallel universes to come to Arbre and create the existential crisis that enabled this to happen. However, given the way the Thousanders are able to observe and manipulate different Narratives, for them it might have been a Xanatos Gambit.
  • 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.
  • Book Ends: We are introduced to Erasmas as he is serving as "amanuensis" (recorder, or maybe witness) for a conversation between Fraa Orolo and an artisan from outside. The end has him acting as amanuensis again, in a very different context.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Many technologies and cultural references are 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."
  • Character Narrator: Anathem is written down by its main character and narrator, Fraa Erasmas.
  • Coming of Age Story: For Erasmas, who transitions from Fraa Orolo's fid (student) to his successor, learning important lessons about the sæcular world and about the formerly untouchable Ita caste along the way.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: A common punishment is to have avout memorize chapters in "The Book." Each chapter is more challenging than the last. While one chapter is simply memorizing the numbers in Pi, others are subtly wrong in their internal logic (nursery rhymes that don't quite rhyme correctly, for example), making them difficult and taxing to memorize. Legend says only three people ever completed the twelfth chapter, and they all ended up completely insane. The punishment is purely optional, however. Avout can choose to simply leave the mathic world instead of submit to punishment.
  • Doorstopper: At 937 pages, it used to be the picture on that page for a reason.
  • Dying Dream: Weaponized by Fraa Jad to deliver a warning/threat to the Geometers.
  • Death from Above: Rodding. Very simple. Drop a large dense rod from orbit. Works really well 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.
  • Engaging Conversation: More like an Engaging Email. Fraa Erasmas proposes to spend the rest of his life with Suur Ala, though their romantic relationship up to that point had been to make out once.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The ancient city-states Baz and Ethras are clearly counterparts to ancient Rome and Athens, although they are mostly relevant to the narrative as the source of the Bazian Orthodox (Roman Catholic) church and as the home of Thelenes (Socrates) and Protas (Plato). Due to the metaphysics of the setting, a Justified Trope.
  • 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.
  • Kangaroo Court: Erasmas is forced to partake in a public interview much like a trial to explain and defend his actions. His interlocutor is heavily against him and poses all of his questions to in an effort to make Erasmas look foolish. Erasmas immediately realizes that he'll have to draw on all his powers of argumentation to get out of the interview unscathed.
  • 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 than a little chanting.
  • Magic from Technology: Many legends developed around the Incanters, who were supposedly able to alter reality by chanting. However, many clues imply that their power is actually a praxis the Millenarians developed. Fraa Erasmas saw (sort of...) Fraa Jad using what was probably the actual device, which looked like a fancy jeejah. It does appear that chanting is how Fraa Jad controlled it, which explains how the legend of the Incanters arose.
  • 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.
  • My Nayme Is: Erasmas, Lio, and Tulia are bastardized from the real-world names Erasmus, Leo, and Talia.
  • Oblivious to Love: Fraa Erasmas has no idea that Suur Ala is into him until she grows visibly despondent at his obliviousness. However, knowing Ala, she might very well have manipulated that whole situation just to sidestep his Belligerent Sexual Tension.
  • 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.
  • Our Humans Are Different: While it's not clear exactly what physical features distinguish the "humans" of Arbre from the "humans" of Earth — there's a mention of cheekbones — it's enough that both can tell the difference at a glance.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Discussed, deconstructed, and averted. The Arbran religions stem from the same legendary event that also inspired the avout. Information from farther up the Wick connecting all of the Hylaean Theoric Worlds was interpreted in two seemingly incompatible ways — a religious experience and the inspiration behind mathematics. Most of the antipathy between the avout and the Deolators (conventionally religious people) derives from the lack of contact the two worlds have with one another, but some avout (such as Erasmas, Arsibalt, and the mathic order Zh'vaern is pretending to represent at the convox) think the whole thing is overplayed even before the events of the story and Erasmas goes out of his way to treat the Deolators he deals with with courtesy and respect. As the events of the story play out the two sides interact with each other more; Deolators from several different factions assist Erasmas and his party more than once and after dealing with the existential crisis threatening all of them the two sides appear to be on much better terms by the end of the story.
  • Persecuted Intellectuals: Mathematicians (called "Avout") are confined to monasteries (called "Maths"), and only allowed contact with the outside world once per year, decade, century or millennium. On three occasions the Maths were invaded because the Avout invented technologies considered too dangerous ("new matter", genetic engineering, and magic).
  • Quantum Mechanics Can Do Anything: Orolo's exposition on "Saunt Grod's Machines" suggests that Saunt Grod found a way to use quantum effects to realize a nondeterministic TMnote ; Jad's farewell message to Erasmas all but confirms that millenarians have access to this application.
  • Really 700 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: 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 in Mahsht. Bonus points for doing it while actually wearing red shirts.
  • Rejection Ritual: The eponymous anathem ritual is performed when avout leave their order.
  • Relationship Upgrade: Justified and Averted. Avouts are required to publicly register their liasons, so as to avoid gossip in the maths. However, before Fraa Erasmas and Suur Ala could register their liason, Ala was evoked.
  • 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. This is because they're humans from the universe next door
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: One of the Iconographies the sæcular world sometimes associates with the avouts invokes Star Trek. Another Iconography involves Superman.
  • 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.
  • Space Marine: What Erasmas and his companions in Cell 317 become. Although their boarding action of the alien ship is extremely improvised, the sæcular authorities are very impressed that 'the guys with the bolts and chords' were the ones to come through where the actual military forces of Arbre could not. As a result the mathic world is fully integrated into the political power structure of Arbre, losing its isolation but at the same time gaining greater acceptance.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Unreliable Narrator: It's not that he's lying, it's just that the records on hand prove him wrong...
  • Warrior Monk: The avout of the Ringing Vale study athletics and martial arts, which is consequently called "vale lore" or "vlor." They study it with a scientific bent rather than a religious one. Avout outside of the vale, such as Lio, also study vlor.
  • Wham Line: "'In my world,' said Zh’vaern, 'we call it a Faraday cage.'"
  • Wrench Wench: Cord is a mechanic.
  • You Killed My Father: Early in the book, fraa Orolo is anathemitized and kicked out of The Concent. Erasmas takes this as would a son whose father has been murdered before his very eyes, and vows to avenge Orolo's memory (even though he is still alive) by solving the mystery of the alien ship. Later, Erasmas is reunited with Orolo, only to have him killed off for real by massive rod of dense metal dropped from orbit by the alien ship.