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Cover of the hardcover first edition, featuring an analemma behind the author's name
Author Neal Stephenson
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction
Publisher William Morrow and Company
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback)
Pages 928 pp
ISBN ISBN 978-0-06-147409-5 (first edition, hardback), ISBN 0-06-147410-X (mass market paperback)
OCLC 191930336
813/.54 22
LC Class PS3569.T3868 A53 2008

Anathem is a speculative fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, published in 2008. Major themes include the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the philosophical debate between Platonic realism and nominalism.


  • Plot summary 1
  • The "Discipline" 2
  • Philosophical and scientific content and influences 3
  • Characters 4
  • Production 5
  • Reception 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Plot summary

Anathem is set on and around the planet Arbre. Thousands of years prior to the events in the novel, society was on the verge of collapse. Intellectuals entered concents, much like monastic communities but focused on intellectual endeavors rather than religious practice. Here, the avout – intellectuals living under vows and separated from Sæcular society, fraa (derived from Latin frater) for male avout and suur (derived from Latin soror) for female avout – retain extremely limited access to tools and are banned from possessing or operating most advanced technology (at a level beyond paper and pen) and are watched over by the Inquisition, which answers to the outside world (known as the Sæcular Power). The avout are forbidden to communicate with people outside the walls of the concent except during Apert, a 10-day observance held only once every year, decade, century, or millennium, depending on the frequency with which a given group of avout is allowed to interact with the Sæcular world. Concents are therefore slow to change – unlike the rest of Arbre, which goes through many cycles of booms and busts.

Interaction between the avout and the Sæcular world is not, however, limited to Apert. The secular power may "Evoke", or remove from the concent, members of the avout, when needed to address pressing scientific ("theorical") issues facing Sæculars. Such removal is one of many "Auts" (ritual acts) performed on certain occasions – much like rituals or sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. The act of removing an avout from a concent at the request of the Sæcular Power is called "Voco" (a Latin word meaning "I call": most of the technical words used in Anathem are derivations or puns on Latin words, cf. Lucub – a late-night study session – from the Latin lucubratio), or "evocation", the avout called being "evoked".

The narrator and protagonist, Erasmas, is a fraa at the Concent of Saunt Edhar (Saunt, abbreviated St., is a corruption of the ancient word savant and is a title bestowed on influential intellectuals of the past). His primary teacher, Orolo, discovers that an alien spacecraft is orbiting Arbre – a fact that the Sæcular Power attempts to cover up. Orolo secretly observes the alien ship with a video camera which is prohibited by Cartasian Discipline. Erasmas is unaware of the content of Orolo's research until he deciphers it after Orolo is banished in a rite called Anathem (cf. the Christian rite of bell, book, and candle anathematization) as the result of his possession and use of proscribed technology within the concent.

The law of the Second New Revised Book of Discipline that governs the lives of the avout at the time of the narration – which bans the avout from owning anything but two pieces of clothing and a sphere with multiple uses, and bans them from using or even knowing how to use any technology but paper and pen – was developed in response to the third large-scale plundering of concents by the Sæcular world, which itself was initiated due to the Sæcular belief that certain avout, especially of the Millenarian Maths, had developed a praxis (technology) that required nothing more than the mind, and was (depending on a specific avout's inclination or area of study) able to effectively change the past ("the Rhetors") or the future ("the Incantors") through an unknown method, making it much more powerful and dangerous than any "real" technology. It was later recognized as some sort of many-worlds interpretation "narrative shifting", in being able to shift consciousness – which is hypothesized as the driving force behind reality, as something is not measurable until it is observed in quantum theory, thus a phenomenon called wave function collapse occurs from many cosmos very similar to the "real" one. This is made possible because the mind is found to inhabit many slightly different cosmos, and moments of thought where everything "falls into place" are recognized as the mind's reaction to waveform collapse.

There is much discussion of a methodology by which narrative shifting occurs. In general it is centered on the idea that information may flow between different worldtracks (known in the books as "Narratives") via a method modeled using directed acyclic graphs, in which information may only flow in one direction. This premise, which is discussed in an appendix (a "Calca"), is key to understanding later events in the book.

Several months pass, and Erasmas falls in love with Suur Ala, another avout at Saunt Edhar. Immediately after this, the Sæcular Power removes (Evokes) her along with several other avout, and Erasmas expects never to see her again. Erasmas, still upset about Orolo's banishment, throws himself into his work. The presence of the alien ship soon becomes an open secret among many of the avout at St. Edhar. Several weeks later, a laser shines down from the ship and illuminates the Millenarian Math of Saunt Edhar. Now that the aliens have shown themselves openly, the Sæcular Power evokes many avout from Saunt Edhar, this time including Erasmas himself, along with one Millenarian – Fraa Jad.

Erasmas and the rest of the avout are told to travel to the concent of Saunt Tredegarh, two thousand miles away. But Erasmas and some like-minded avout also desire to find Orolo first, and subsequently enlist a few extramuros (non-avout) volunteers (including Erasmas' sister Cord) on an unauthorized journey to Bly's Butte, where they think Orolo has traveled to continue his astronomical observations. Upon arriving there they discover that Orolo had already left for a destination unknown. Fraa Jad urges Erasmas to continue his search for Orolo towards the North (over the frozen pole of Arbre), suggesting that Orolo has valuable information about the aliens. Erasmas agrees and sets off with just three companions to pursue Orolo, while the others turn back and head to Tredegarh. Along the way, they determine that Orolo's destination is likely to be the isolated former concent of Orithena, far in the opposite hemisphere of Arbre. They also acquire another companion named Yulassetar Crade, a tough wilderness guide with skills important for their trek. By this time, the aliens have come to be known as the Geometers because of a graphical proof of Pythagoras' Theorem (which in the world of the book is referred to as Adrakhones' Theorem) seen inscribed on the hull of their ship.

After a dangerous journey over the planet's frozen pole, Erasmas and his comrades eventually arrive at a concent-like establishment called Orithena, and reunite with Fraa Orolo. Orolo holds discussions with Erasmas about the nature of the cosmos and consciousness, and how he believes that the Geometers are not simply from another planet, but from another cosmos which is influenced by Arbre. During the discussions between Orolo and Erasmas, a small spacecraft lands on Orithena. A female Geometer is on board, but dead of a recent gunshot wound. She brings with her four vials of blood – presumably that of the Geometers – and much evidence about their technology. Shortly thereafter, the Geometers propel a massive metal rod at a nearby volcano, triggering an eruption which destroys Orithena. Orolo sacrifices his life to ensure the safety of the dead Geometer's remains, an event that leads to his canonization as Saunt (Savant) Orolo.

Erasmas soon arrives at Saunt Tredegarh, which is home to a joint conference (convox; from "convocation", meaning "speaking together") of the avout and the Sæcular Power dedicated to dealing with the military, political, and technical issues raised by the existence of the alien ship in Arbre's orbit. Tredegarh is where the Sæcular Power had brought many of the evoked avout of Saunt Edhar (including suur Ala) to work on methods of collecting and interpreting the limited information regarding the alien spacecraft, as well as researching possible military options. Much research is done on the Geometers, who are found to come from four planets in four distinct parallel worlds (cf. Many-worlds interpretation): Urnud, Tro, Fthos and Laterre ("The Earth" in French: "La Terre"). Through observation and experiment, Erasmas and his companions determine that the conference is infiltrated by the aliens, and unmask a Laterran linguistJules Verne Durand, known to them as Zh'vaern. He explains that the Geometers are experiencing internal conflict between two factions. The currently ruling faction intends to attack and raid Arbre for its resources in order to repair their spaceship, while the opposing faction favors open negotiation. Jules Durand offers to assist the avout of Arbre in resisting the ruling faction of the Geometers, believing that they can bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion.

Under fear of a Geometer attack due to the uncovering of the infiltration, the avout flee Saunt Tredegarh and the other concents on Arbre, dispersing into the Anti-Swarm (an organized dispersal of the avout throughout the planet, amongst regular society). Erasmas and several of his old and new avout friends are taken to a distant sanctuary, where they receive training for a mission to board the Geometers' ship – the Daban Urnud – and disable its weaponry. They are launched into space, unknowingly bringing with them "Everything Killers" (miniaturized Neutron Bombs), which the Sæcular Power intends to use as a last resort should the explicit goal of the avouts' mission fail. Three people – including Fraa Jad – are issued detonators.

The avout team boards the ship and the narrative of the novel splits several ways, in keeping with the book's theory of multiple parallel universes. Several avout trained in martial arts destroy the ship's main weapon, perishing in the attack. In one Narrative, Fraa Jad leads Erasmas into the command center of the Daban Urnud, where it emerges that the Millenarian avout of one thousand years in the past may have used their "incanting" powers to summon the ship to their cosmos from another parallel (or higher?) one. In yet another Narrative, Jad opens a door into a protected area and, upon being attacked, triggers the Everything Killers; Erasmas dies and the population of a section of the Daban Urnud starship are killed.

In the final Narrative (the one that continues ahead) Erasmas awakens in a hospital on the starship to the perplexing news that Fraa Jad had died soon after their launch, contradicting his obvious presence and memories up to that point. It remains unclear which (or how many) of these contradictory narratives is real, and what may have happened in different worldtracks that have crossed and overlapped. However, Fraa Jad had hinted that the Incanters (and possibly Rhetors) were capable of operating simultaneously in parallel universes, so Jad is likely to have survived in other world lines.

Erasmas discovers that the Geometers have brought up a high-powered delegation from Arbre, including Ala and his sister Cord. A funeral ceremony for those lost on both sides of the attack forms part of the signing of a peace treaty between the "aliens" and the Arbrans. On Arbre itself, the Sæcular Powers and the avout have agreed to cooperate as equal powers. The people of Arbre inaugurate a second historical "Reconstitution", revising many of the rules that had restricted the work and lifestyle of the avout (which included drug-induced sterility). Erasmas and friends set about the task of building a new concent, though they do not call it such, as a temple dedicated to Saunt Orolo. The closing scene is a rousing double wedding, with Erasmas marrying Ala, and his sister Cord marrying Yulassetar Crade.

The "Discipline"

In the novel, avout follow a life path called the Discipline, sometimes referred to as Cartasian Discipline, after Saunt Cartas, the founder of the mathic world. It is a set of rules governing what is (and is not) allowed for avout to know and/or do, and was codified centuries before the time of the story in the Second New Revised Book of Discipline.

Chief among these is that the avout are separated, both mentally and literally, from the Sæculum, or outside world. There are different levels of separation. For example, within a concent, there are different terms of residency. There are 1-, 10-, 100-, and 1,000-year orders. Each of these celebrates "Apert", a festival opening the concent to the outside world and allowing the flow of information between them, on an interval determined by that number. For example, a 10-year order would celebrate Apert once every ten years, remaining isolated otherwise. Likewise, a 100-year order would only celebrate Apert every hundred years, and a 1,000-year order once every 1,000 years. It is an essential part of this that at any time an order celebrates Apert, all orders below it also celebrate Apert. For example, a Millenarian (1,000-year) order would celebrate in the year 3000. Because 3000 is also a multiple of 100, 10, and 1, Centenarian, Decenarian, and Unarian orders would also celebrate. Exceptions to this rule include "hierarchs" (those who administer the concent) who are required to confer with the Sæcular Power on decisions of weight.

The main secondary aspect of the Discipline is that the avout are allowed to own only their "bolt, chord, and sphere". These objects are made with "newmatter" (matter made with a modified atomic structure to be more versatile), and can be made to alter their shape, texture and other physical properties without the use of tools or other outside technologies. The bolt is a length of newmatter fabric and is used as clothing; the chord is a newmatter rope used to secure the bolt; and the sphere is a newmatter balloon of adjustable size, shape and hardness, and serves as a multipurpose tool.

There are several restrictions governing, for example, the use of "sequencing" (genetic engineering), "syntactic devices" (computers), or other "praxis" (technology). Due to the restrictions, avout can only work on an entirely theoretical basis de jure.

Philosophical and scientific content and influences

Roger Penrose inspired the novel's "Teglon tiles", based on the aperiodic Penrose tiles, and the discussion of the brain as a quantum computer, based on Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind.

Large portions of the book involve detailed discussions of mathematics, physics, and philosophy. Most of these discussions use fictional Arbran terminology, but treat ideas from actual science and philosophy. Stephenson acknowledges the work of author Julian Barbour as the source for much of this material.[1]

A major theme of the novel is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics based on a directed acyclic graph, which accounts for the various "worldtracks" and "narratives" explored by Fraa Orolo and manipulated by Fraa Jad.[1] Another major theme is the recurring philosophical debate between characters espousing mathematical Platonic realism (called "Halikaarnians" in the novel) and characters espousing nominalism (called "Procians" in the novel).

Stephenson cites the work of Roger Penrose as a major influence on the novel. Specific ideas from Penrose's work include: the idea that the human mind operates in certain fundamental ways as a quantum computer, espoused in Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind; Platonic realism as a philosophical basis for works of fiction, as in stories from Penrose's The Road to Reality; and the theory of aperiodic tilings, which appear in the Teglon puzzle in the novel.[1] Stephenson also cites as an influence the work of Kurt Gödel, whom the character Durand mentions by name in the novel.[1]

Much of the Geometers' technology seen in the novel reflects existing scientific concepts. The alien ship moves by means of nuclear pulse propulsion.

As an appendix to the novel, Stephenson includes three "Calca", discussions among the avout of purely philosophical or mathematical content. The first is a discussion of a cake-cutting procedure corresponding to the geometric problem of "doubling the square" presented in Plato's Meno. The second presents configuration spaces (called "Hemn spaces" in the novel) as a way of representing three-dimensional motion. The third discusses a "complex" Platonic realism, in which several realms of Platonic ideal forms (called the "Hylaean Theoric Worlds" in the novel) exist independently of the physical world (called the "Arbran Causal Domain" in the novel). The mathematical structure of a directed acyclic graph is used to describe the way in which the various realms can influence one other, and even the physical world can function as part of the realm of ideal forms for some worlds "downstream" in the graph.


  • Erasmas (nickname "Raz"): The protagonist of Anathem; a Decenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar. The neglected son of slines, he was collected by the concent at the age of eight.
  • Orolo: A Decenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar. He is an eminent cosmographer and Erasmas's mentor at the concent, but he's later Thrown Back for using forbidden technology to observe the Geometers in violation of the Discipline's isolation requirements.
  • Arsibalt: A Decenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar and one of Erasmas's friends. The estranged son of a Bazian prelate, he seeks to reconcile religion with theorics.
  • Lio: A Decenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar and one of Erasmas's friends. He's known as an absent-minded eccentric and is interested in military history, Vale-lore(martial arts), and unusual gardening techniques.
  • Jesry: A Decenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar and one of Erasmas's friends. Unlike Erasmas, Jesry comes from a prosperous burger family, and is bored with the routine of mathic life preceding the arrival of the Geometers. He becomes famous for going into space with the Warden of Heaven (a religious leader of the Sæcular Power) to investigate the Geometers' ship.
  • Ala: A Decenarian suur from the Concent of Saunt Edhar and later a major organizer of the Convox. Although they disliked each other as children, she and Erasmas become romantically involved in the course of the story.
  • Jad: A Millenarian fraa from the Concent of Saunt Edhar. Jad is evoked in the same aut as Erasmas and accompanies him to Bly's Butte in search of Orolo. He later reappears at the Convox.
  • Cord: Erasmas's sister and a machinesmith who lives extramuros near the Concent of Saunt Edhar. She accompanies Erasmas on his search for Orolo.
  • Sammann: An Ita (computer expert) from the Concent of Saunt Edhar who accompanies Erasmas on his search for Orolo.
  • Yulassetar Crade (nickname "Yul"): An extramuros wilderness guide, member of the expedition to find Orolo.
  • Jules Verne Durand: An alien, descendant from the planet "Laterre", who infiltrates the convox to gather information for the Geometers.


The novel was partly inspired by Stephenson's involvement with the Clock of the Long Now project, to which he contributed three pages of sketches and notes.[2][3] A separate compact disc, entitled IOLET: Music from the World of Anathem, containing eight experimental vocal compositions by David Stutz, will be sold separately through CD Baby and the Long Now Foundation, with profits going to The Clock of the Long Now project.[4][5]

To create the world of Arbre, Stephenson constructs new vocabulary. In order to familiarize the reader with the new words, many of which are analogous to English, Latin or Greek words and ideas, he put a glossary at the end of the book. Each chapter begins with a definition of one of these words, which usually relates to the chapter in some way. In addition, the Orth language spoken by the characters was created by Jeremy Bornstein at the author's request,[1] and has been documented.[6] The word anathem was invented by Stephenson, based on the word anthem and the Greek word anathema. In the book, an anathem is a mathic ritual by which one is expelled from the mathic world.


Anathem received mostly positive reviews. Paul Boutin wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "the lasting satisfaction of Anathem derives … from Mr. Stephenson's wry contempt for today's just-Google-it mindset. His prose is dense, but his worldview contagious."[7] On, Andrew Leonard described the book as "a page turner and a philosophical argument, an adventure novel and an extended existential meditation, a physics lesson, sermon and ripping good yarn."[8]

Michael Dirda of The Washington Post disagreed, remarking that "Anathem will certainly be admired for its intelligence, ambition, control and ingenuity", but describing it as "fundamentally unoriginal", "grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull."[9] The novel entered The New York Times Best Seller list for Hardcover Fiction at number one [10] and achieved the rare distinction for a novel of being reviewed in Nature.[11]

Anathem won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2009 [12] and collected nominations for the Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards the same year.[12] In 2008, the novel received a nomination for the British Science Fiction Award.[13]


  1. ^ a b c d e Neal Stephenson, Clocks, Orreries, etc., acknowledgements for Anathem
  2. ^ Anathem, By Neal Stephenson – The Long Now
  3. ^ Long Now: Projects: Clock
  4. ^ Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and Music
  5. ^ Iolet: The Music of Anathem
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Book review in nature
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^
  • "But enough about you – Neal Stephenson" – initial blog entry which broke the story
  • "Plot of New Neal Stephenson Novel Revealed", io9, March 31, 2008

External links

  • on Stephenson's website.Anathem
  • Anathem at Worlds Without End
  • Stephenson discusses Anathem at Google, September 2008
  • on Lit ReactAnathemAnalysis of
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