Anathem is probably the best piece of fiction I read last year (2009). I like Neal Stephenson 's work. Read the classics Snow Crash , and Cryptonomicon some years ago, and the lack of time is the reason I have not gotten through Baroque cycle yet. I was really glad when I found the time for the shorter Anathem recently. My expectations were high. I was not disappointed.
The book is set on a planet not unlike earth, but clearly not earth. History has taken a different course, and for a few thousand years on Arbre (the name of the planet) gifted people live in a cloistered environment called a concent. The facilities are gated and almost completely sealed from the outside world. Concents are only open to the outside world at certain times, every single, tenth, hundredth, or every thousand years. The scholars staying there live a simple life.
The arrangement is historical in order to separate technology and science. As a protection after some very horrible events in wars long ago. Theory is developed within the walls and technology on the outside. The cosed gates limit the pace theoretical knowledge reach the world outside. Thus the outside world has technology and engineering, but no basic science, while on the inside are not allowed to know the implementation of anything but the simplest tools. The life style is maintained by rules and rituals.
The story is told by Erasmas, a young man just about to finish his first 10 year term within the walls, and preparing for a week in the out side world before the gates will be shut anew. At first Stephenson let us follow cloistered life work for Erasmas and his fellow scholars. Soon the story changes however. Something is happening in the outside world, and inside the walls some people know something. It develops to an exciting adventure story with many philosophical elements. This is not classic science fiction, neither an adventure story. It is something more. Perhaps one could coin it metaphysical fiction, or science adventure.
In a way the themes in Anathem is a natural continuation of Neal Stephenson's earlier work (even though I am not sure they were written in publication order). From the cyberpunk in Snow Crash, providing insights into virtual worlds and the information theory themes of Cryptonomicon, one can trace Stephenson's interest to scientific history. Enter the Baroque cycle. Next it is natural to look at some philosophical implications. Like the Leibniz metaphysics and for that matter Plato's world of ideal forms; touching the discussion of conciousness and the multiverse. It may seem strange that it is possible to tie this in to a fiction book as Anathem, but the result is good.
I still have to figure out many of the references to philosophy and mathematics that appear in the text. Though Stephenson provides a list of sources which will come in handy. One source of inspiration throughout the book that I did recognize is the thoughts of Roger Penrose, especially his book the Emperor's new Mind. Stephenson acknowledges him directly in the appendix appendix, but there there are by references to tiling problems in the story as a hint to Penrose.
Another impressive thing with Anathem is the language. While still writing in English, Stephenson manages to introduce new words, or rather new forms and spelling in a way so to convey a feeling exotic languages while still making perfect sense in English. So the book reads like the languages of Arbre in a way. This technique is very different from how alien languages is treated in some other fantasy/sci-fi books I have read; where it seems that the only purpose of a language is to sound strange and exist outside English. Instead Stephenson has mastered the art of extending English. The result is superb!
If I need to point out something negative with the book it is that ending just sneak up on you without any actual narrative climax in a way. The story is fascinating, and the plot develops. Then you realize the book is over. It somehow give the feeling of a series of events. However, the journey is more important than the destination, and there is nothing wrong with the ending. Just the sudden appearance.
Whether you are interested in physics, math, philosophy of reality, or adventures, Anathem is food for thought. Now, if you are interested in all of the above then it is great literature.