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Originally published September 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 15, 2008 at 12:06 PM

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Book review

"Anathem": A new world of many wonders — and pages

Seattle author Neal Stephenson's futuristic saga "Anathem" is a 900-page doorstopper about monastery dwellers who negotiate with alien races over issues of philosophy and science. There's even a CD of monastic hymns — music for monks to think large thoughts by.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Neal Stephenson

The author will discuss "Anathem" at 5:30 p.m. today at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, free (206-366-3333, www.thirdplacebooks.com); and 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's University Temple United Methodist Church, $5 or free with purchase of the book at the University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

"Anathem"

by Neal Stephenson

Morrow, 928 pp., $29.95

Set on Arbre, a planet where scientists secluded in monkish cloisters stumble upon proof of alien visitors, Neal Stephenson's new novel "Anathem" could rightly be called science fiction. Yet it's also a philosophical investigation into human perception and the nature of what is knowable.

This doesn't mean it's a dull read; "Anathem" is an absorbing book and features plenty of action: a first kiss, a volcanic eruption, a spacewalk and several Hong Kong cinema-like fight scenes. Readers of the best-selling Baroque Cycle of historical novels are familiar with Stephenson's deadpan insider humor, and they'll find it here, too, as in the scene in which Raz, the novel's 19-year-old narrator, tapes a television interview under the auspices of an antagonistic host reminiscent of Bill O'Reilly.

When "Anathem" opens, Raz is a contented resident of Saunt Edhar, one of Arbre's communities of "avout" — male and female scientists-cum-philosophers. Raz is a "Tenner": his order of avout mingles with the mundane world once a decade (there are others who do this annually, once a century and once every 1,000 years). Owning only three basic possessions, fed a continual diet of contraceptives and avoiding contact with advanced technology, Raz and the other avout live lives that at first seem to parallel those of medieval monks, with their isolation and vows of poverty and chastity.

Raz spends most of the book's first third inside Saunt Edhar's walls, and gradually Stephenson shows how this novel's world differs from what we might assume it to be. A non-avout workman answers questions posed by Raz's mentor, Orolo, by describing the latest in video-camera features ("Eagle-Rez ... SteadiHand ... DynaZoom"), belying the pseudo-medieval atmosphere that surrounds 3,700-year-old Saunt Edhar. A reprise of Arbre's history makes it clear that far from being noble anti-materialists who chose to immure themselves in the life of the mind, the avout are victims of their world's fear of scientific thought (as distinct from technology).

Then Orolo is kicked out of Saunt Edhar for using the monastery's primitive optical equipment to photograph the advent of an alien spaceship. Soon after his mentor's exile, Raz loses his friends and his first love as they are summoned by non-avout political powers to come up with a way to greet the fast-approaching aliens. When Raz himself is summoned to the task, he embarks instead on a quest to find his missing mentor, tracking Orolo down at an anthropological dig where the aliens, not so coincidentally, soon land their first shuttle. Making contact with not one but four alien races, who have voyaged to Arbre not merely from other planets but from different universes, the avout gain hands-on expertise in navigating the multiple realities that their philosophies and scientific theories have argued must exist.

Stephenson sticks with Raz's first-person narration throughout "Anathem." That's a change from the virtuoso point-of-view switches he used in the Baroque cycle. But the effect is equally panoramic, since Raz journeys across half Arbre's globe and up out of its atmosphere in the course of the novel's 900-plus pages.

That's right: 900-plus pages. "Anathem" is longer than the average novel, though it almost never seems so. The effect is one of immersion, an effect aided by the book's glossary and the epigrams appearing throughout its chapters. One of the many pleasures afforded SF readers is exposure to newly created words, neologisms that capture imaginary lands, nonexistent customs and unfamiliar ideas. "Anathem" is rich in these pleasures.

A companion CD, titled "Iolet," offers seven ostensible hymns of the avout. These range from the hesitant, John Cage-like "Approximating Pi" and the digeridooish grumbling of "Quantum Spin Network" through the beautifully ordered near-dissonances of "Cellular Automata" and the dramatic harmonies of "Deriving the Quadratic Equation." The CD is available from the Long Now Foundation's Museum and Store (415-561-6582, extension 3); proceeds support the foundation's efforts to build the Millenium Clock.

"Anathem's" appended lectures and proofs round out this semblance of a world running sometimes in parallel to our own, but given to fascinating, logically derived, yet wholly unexpected departures.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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