I know I’m late to the party: I finally got hold of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Still, the book is worth a quick review, and a whole-hearted “go read it.”
The first quarter or so is a fun, but somewhat slow read: Some ideas and the academic world of Arbre that serves as the backdrop for so much of the story are gently introduced. Those of us who deal with computer science in any shape or form get to chuckle at the phrase “syntactic devices” for Turing machines, and at discussions whether human thought knows meaning beyond what an AI can comprehend. We learn that Arbre was devastated by the Terrible Events (whose details the world has forgotten in the mist of time) that led the worldly society to seclude its all too resourceful and perhaps irresponsible academics in space and time, and itself on a stage of technical development that feels roughly contemporary to the reader, but must look like a plunge into the dark ages to those on Arbre who might remember what had been known and put to both good and terrible use before — and now seems almost forgotten.
But then, the story’s hero (a young academic, only ten years removed from the sæcular world) begins to encounter the unexpected, and the carefully structured world of Arbre comes apart on a scale that few would even think of, and that requires the best brains on the planet to address.
That’s when Anathem’s story picks up its pattern, and when it becomes virtually impossible to put the book down: Stephenson has wrought a first-rate thriller out of an improbable set of ingredients all across philosophy, cosmology, physics — and Socratic dialogue. On another level, Anathem can be read as asking some inconvenient questions about the responsibility of those who develop and build technology that is deployed on a global scale, and their relationship to traditional social and governance systems.
If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out!