By Neal Stephenson
The divide between science and society is extrapolated to the extreme in Neal Stephenson's novel Anathem. The author, who is well regarded for his vision of science in contemporary and historical settings, creates in his latest work the fictional planet Arbre, which parallels Earth in the very far future.
Following a series of past technological catastrophes for which they were blamed, the planet's scientists, scholars and philosophers — known as the avout — have been forced to live apart from the 'Sæcular world' of society at large. The avout inhabit cloistered compounds, the distinctive clock towers of which are familiar features in most large towns and cities on Arbre. Most high technology is withheld from the avout in case they repeat past disasters. Instead, they spend their robed, austere days engaged in theoretical research and low-tech experimentation using permitted objects, such as telescopes. The avout are not allowed to breed, lest their offspring harbour dangerous levels of intelligence. Rather, they repopulate their numbers with unwanted orphans and those with abilities.
As the avout go about their rituals, the Sæcular world might as well be another planet: its inhabitants chatter on 'jeejahs' (mobile phones) and surf the 'Reticulum' (Internet) when not cheering on sports teams and growing obese on sugary drinks. The two worlds mingle only in strictly controlled circumstances, such as at an annual goodwill festival and in avout-run universities where smarter Sæculars can get a sanitized education. Sæcular artisans may refine existing technology but lack the advanced scientific education to be innovative, so the avout are not dispensable. But it takes an extreme global problem for the Sæcular government to summon the avout to contribute their brain power.
So begins the novel. Anathem centres on a young avout, Fraa Erasmas, who comes of age during a pivotal time in Arbre's history. A starship is orbiting the planet, and its crew, although familiar, do not seem to be friendly. Erasmas and his colleagues are called on to help understand the extraterrestrial threat and fend it off.
The pleasure of reading Anathem derives in part from viewing our own world through the distorted fairground mirror that Stephenson establishes. The language is English with a twist: the word devout morphs to avout, friar to fraa, sister to suur. Euphemistic management speak is bullshyte and a caste of scathing computer technicians is known as the Ita. The distortions are reflected in scientific concepts as well: Occam's razor becomes Gardan's Steelyard. And the great scientific figures of Earth get their Arbre avatars: Plato appears as Protas, Socrates as Thelenes and Archimedes as Carta. As with any decent distortion, the author leaves unexplained many areas of Arbrean society and history that the reader can enjoy filling in.
The story of Erasmas and his friends is an epic adventure that is well paced and exciting. Yet the action is underpinned by serious, carefully researched scientific and philosophical concepts — notably quantum mechanics, parallel universes and the nature of consciousness. Some of the scholarly dialogues take work to follow, but the effort is rewarded. Stephenson credits a number of philosophical and mathematical thinkers in helping him flesh out these fictionalized ideas, including Gottfried Leibniz, Kurt Gödel, Edmund Husserl and Edward Zalta. As the people of Arbre struggle to understand the alien invaders, the author seems most indebted to Roger Penrose's controversial ideas about how the quantum world might impinge on the neurobiology of consciousness.
As a thought experiment in examining the relationship between science and society, and as a cautionary tale about the consequences of its breakdown, Anathem provides much to ponder. In one scene, a scholar quizzes her students about the various stereotypes of the avout that society has harboured. The images are familiar: scientists as loveable, dishevelled Einsteinian boffins; as mystics hoarding the Universe's secrets; as criminally insane desperadoes in white smocks with schemes to take over the world; as highly strung, meddling know-it-alls who simply don't understand the realities of modern life. Although details of the catastrophes that caused the avout to be sequestered are not made clear, it is hinted that tinkering with genetic information, with the structures of atoms and with space-time itself were all factors. Anathem is a shrewd exploration of what might happen if the fear of scientists meddling with things they were never meant to know becomes entirely justified.